The list to end all lists of things to know before traveling to Iran. Grab a drink, get comfortable, and prepare to learn!
Iran has long been closed-off from the rest of the world, but times, they are a-changin’. Visa policies are relaxing, sanctions are ending, and Iran is gaining a reputation as the next hot destination.
The problem? The information available about travel in Iran has yet to catch up with the times. Guidebooks are outdated, and Iran doesn’t get the internet attention that regions like South America or Southeast Asia do. But don’t let that stop you! (I assume it hasn’t, since you’re reading this post.)
To make your trip to Iran a bit easier, here’s a master list of everything we learned through two months of backpacking in Iran.
60 things you need to know before traveling to Iran
- Visas on arrival are only available at airports, and they’re now valid for 30 days. Overlanders, you’ll have to get a visa at a consulate ahead of time.
- If you can’t get a visa on arrival, you need to get a visa at a consulate. Citizens of the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Bangladesh, Jordan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan need to get consular visas, and need to get an authorization number before applying for the visa.
- If there is proof of entry to Israel in your passport, you cannot enter Iran. This also applies if you have land border entry/exit stamps from countries neighboring Israel. Want to get around this? See if your country allows applications for a second passport for special circumstances.
- UK and Canadian citizens can travel in Iran without a guide. The rules have been loosened, though you won’t find any official statements. Some tour agencies acknowledge this, some don’t. For obvious reasons.
Check out our Iran travel guide for more information on visas.
- International cards don’t work in Iran. Forget ATMs–thanks to the sanctions, you have to bring all the money you’ll need in cash, and change money once in Iran. Dollars are best, but euros work, too.
- Exchange money at currency exchanges, not banks. Exchanges give better rates than the government-controlled banks. If not labeled “Exchange”, look for small shops similar to jewelry stores that have foreign bank notes in the window.
- Iranian rials are the official currency.
- Prices are given in toman, not rials. 1 toman = 10 rials. People will also abbreviate: for example, if someone tells you something is “5”, they mean 5,000 toman/50,000 rials. It’s confusing in the beginning, but you’ll get the hang of it! Just add an extra “0” to the price to figure out the price in rials. Luckily, people in Iran are very honest, and will let you know when you’re making a mistake. Tourist establishments are the exception to this–they usually list prices in rials.
- Keep your dollars close at hand, and don’t let people see how much money you have. Though theft isn’t very common, you don’t want to be trapped because something happened to your only supply of cash for the trip. Not all guesthouses and hotels have safes or lockers, so for god’s sake, please get a money belt. We can’t recommend them enough.
- If you do lose your money or run out of cash, carpet sellers in tourist areas can occasionally charge credit cards for a fee. The fee is around 10-20% of the transaction, so only use this as a last resort.
Don’t forget insurance: This one is so important that we have to tell you separately. Never leave home without proper health insurance! We use and recommend World Nomads.
- Iran is extremely safe for foreigners. You won’t have to worry about violent crime, and petty theft is very rare. Let’s Go Iran’s safety page sums things up quite nicely. As for worries about ISIS? Um, ISIS has never occupied any space in Iran. You’ll be fine.
- Be careful when talking politics, and don’t insult the Supreme Leader. Speaking badly of the government is punishable by law, so be careful who you talk to. It’s best to pretend to be ambivalent, despite many Iranians being very open about their discontent.
- It’s okay to go to strangers’ homes. They just want to show you the famous Iranian hospitality! If someone invites you, do accept. Girls, take note: if a man invites you, it’s not proper to accept unless his wife or other women are present, or you’re traveling with a boy.
- Don’t take photos of power plants, factories, transportation hubs, or anything military or police. You don’t want to look like a spy. The government does not like spies.
- Hotels will keep your passports while you stay. However, you’re required by law to always have your passport on you. Either carry around copies of your passport while outside, or give the hotel copies and ask for your passport back. Make sure you have a copy of the information page and the page with your Iranian visa, including your entry stamp. You can do this once in the country–there are cheap copy shops everywhere in cities.
- Buses are the cheapest and most common form of transportation between cities. There are also domestic airlines, for those that want to save time and don’t mind paying a bit extra.
- Taxis have no meters, so you’ll have to decide on a price yourself. It’s difficult, especially when you’re not sure where your destination is. We wrote a guide on how to take taxis without getting ripped off, but a good rule of thumb is to haggle for 60-80% of the quoted price, unless it seems abnormally high. Taxis within cities should never be more than 50,000 rials or so.
- Want a comfortable bus ride? Get a VIP ticket. VIP buses have bigger seats that recline further, and you usually get a snack box for the road. They’re usually twice the price of mahmoolys, regular tour buses.
- Don’t sit next to people of the opposite sex unless you know them. It’s an unspoken rule, and people will often shuffle around on buses and in cars to get the order right. If there’s no other option, just sit–it’s not the end of the world.
- Any car can be a taxi. Enterprising locals will often act as unofficial taxi drivers. It’s fine to use their cars, and they’re a bit more flexible with their pricing than official taxis.
- Many city buses require transportation cards. The cards are sold at little huts next to bus stops. The price of a ride with the card is several hundred rials cheaper than without.
- Iranian drivers are insane. You’re going to see a lot of speeding, swerving, and sparse seatbelt usage. Prepare yourself.
- If the driving makes you nervous, stick to official taxis/savaris when traveling between cities. Official taxi drivers and bus drivers have to adhere to speed restrictions, which limits the stunts to a minimum. If that’s not possible… just close your eyes and pray to Allah.
- Don’t expect buses to stop for food. Roadside snack stalls are usually your only option, so make sure to stock up on food and drinks along for long bus journeys. However, most buses have a supply of water somewhere, and VIP buses usually give out snack boxes.
- You can ask a bus driver to take a toilet stop. They’ll occasionally stop for guys to take a roadside leak, but ladies have to be more vocal about nature’s call.
- Iranians love treating foreigners. People you meet are going to want to take you out and pay for everything. Do offer to pay yourself, but if they refuse you 3 or more times (see the explanation of tarof below), just give in and go with the flow.
- Watch out for tarof. In short, tarof is when someone offers something to be polite, not because they want to. It usually occurs in the form of someone offering to you something for free, but can also apply to invitations. To determine if it’s tarof, offer to pay three times. If the person still resists, the offer is legit.
- You don’t need to tip. Tipping isn’t common unless you’re at a really nice restaurant, or you were very, very satisfied with a service you received.
- Take advantage of Couchsurfing. It’s extremely popular in Iran, and an excellent way to meet locals/arrange homestays. Just be warned that many hosts will expect to be with you all the time. And we mean all the time.
For more on the famous Iranian hospitality, check out one of our favorite posts: Tales of Iranian hospitality.
Food and drinks
- Tap water is safe to drink, unless stated otherwise. There are also plenty of water fountains all throughout the cities, so bring a reusable water bottle!
- Forget coffee, it’s all about tea. Tea is the drink of choice, though you’ll occasionally encounter tiny coffee shops, and coffee is more common in touristy areas. Coffee addicts, savor the black stuff when you can!
- When drinking tea, put a sugar cube in your mouth, then take a sip. This is the Iranian way of drinking tea. Yes, this means you’ll end up consuming a metric sh*t ton of sugar cubes with each cup of tea… also the Iranian way. Spoons for tea are only found in tourist areas.
- You can often peek in the kitchen to see your options if there isn’t an English menu. Just stare blankly at the Farsi for a bit, shrug, and point to the kitchen. It’ll help you find things other than kebab.
- Don’t feel pressured to eat kebab when out with Iranians. They’ll often order kebab for you because they assume that’s what you want, and it’s common choice when eating out, since not everyone has the luxury of a charcoal grill in the home.
- Don’t be surprised if you encounter alcohol. Just because it’s banned doesn’t mean you can’t find it, as prohibition has taught us. You’ll be fine drinking in private homes, but be wary about consumption in public places.
Don’t forget: Never leave home without proper health insurance! We use and recommend World Nomads. Lucky you, they cover Iran!
- Persian (Farsi) uses the Arabic alphabet, and is written right to left. Numbers will also be different, but confusingly enough, they are written left to right. Try to learn the numbers so you can understand prices and times. You can use bus rides to learn the numbers from road signs along the way.
- Persians are not Arabs. Iranians are very firm on this, and are offended if you mix the two.
- Everything closes between 13:00 and 16:30-ish. During this time people go home to lunch with the family, nap, and avoid the heat. Sights, restaurants, and ice cream places (most important!) will still be open, though.
- Everything also closes on Fridays. Friday is the holy day of the week, and many stores are closed for the whole day. Friday mosques close to non-Muslims as well.
- Lunch and dinner are late. People eat lunch around 14:00, and dinner can be anywhere between 21:00 and midnight!
- No public displays of affection. It’s illegal to kiss or hold hands in public, though people bend the rules for the latter in big cities. Of course, this doesn’t meant that all things sexual are off limits—dating is common, and there’s even an active Tinder scene in Iran!
- Don’t wear shoes on carpets. Pack shoes that you can easily take on and off!
- The portraits on billboards and sides of buildings are of martyrs. It’s a “great honor” to die as a martyr for Iran, and the government plays this up by putting their faces on billboards and having martyr murals painted throughout cities.
- The Lonely Planet (2012) is definitely outdated. Prices have skyrocketed since it was last published, but it’s at least still useful for transportation information. There should be a new version published in 2017.
- Foreigner price for sights is usually 6-8 times the local price. And according to locals, foreigner ticket prices are still on the rise. For the budget travelers, the ticket people sometimes bend the rules and give you the Iranian price if you charm them a bit (and it’s not busy). Otherwise, try going in with a local, and have them buy your tickets while you hide.
- Tour agencies often give out free city maps. Check them out–there’s usually interesting things on the maps that you won’t find in guidebooks.
- Visit sights at night when possible. Many religious sites are open in the evening, and are much more pleasant: less tourists, more locals, cooler weather, and beautiful lighting. Sounds good, right?
For more suggestions and stories about our favorite sights in Iran, head to our Iran archives.
- Carry toilet paper/tissues everywhere. Cheap accommodations won’t always have toilet paper, and public toilets definitely don’t. Alternatively, get used to using a bum gun! Remember, you wipe with your left hand, and shake hands with your right.
- If looking for a toilet, ask for a “WC”. In English, that is. It’s more commonly used than “toilet”. If you do want to ask for a toilet, try using the French pronunciation, “toilette”.
- Most toilets are squat toilets. Hotels will sometimes have western toilets, but you’ll be doing a lot of squatting away from home. Start building up those leg muscles!
Internet & mobile
- The internet is censored. Many common social media networks (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest), Google services (except Gmail), app stores (for paid apps), and western news outlets (BBC, CNN) are blocked, so you’ll need a VPN if you plan on maintaining your internet existence while in Iran.
- Internet is slow, and can be hard to find. The government throttles internet speeds, and many cheap guesthouses and hotels outside of the main tourist track in the center of the country don’t have wifi.
- Consider getting an Iranian SIM card if you need regular internet. Mobile connections are often much faster than wifi and SIM cards are cheap. An Irancell SIM card is 200,000 rials (about $6-7), and 1GB of data is 100,000 rials. Less popular carriers are even cheaper–we got TCI SIM cards with one month of calling and 2.5GB of data for 120,000 rials in total (less than $4). Irancell’s coverage is faster and better, though more effective at disconnecting VPNs.
- Download Telegram. It’s the most popular messenger app in Iran, and you’ll want to use it to stay in touch with the billion and one Iranians that will give you their phone number.
- Iran uses European outlets. If your chargers don’t have the two rounded prongs, you’ll need an adapter.
- Women have a strict dress code. Your head has to be covered, your shirt needs to cover your bum, and you can’t wear short sleeves–3/4 length max. Yay freedom! Tight pants are okay, though.
- Sit in the back of the bus on city buses. Always enter from the middle of the bus, and if you need to pay the driver, do so at the end of the ride by leaning in through the front door after getting out.
- Wear whatever you want at the beach when in the women-only area. Beaches are separated into separate sections for men and women, and a mixed gender area for families. Alas, you’ll have to cover up if you’re lounging in the mixed area. Don’t forget sunscreen to prevent strange tan lines!
- It’s often okay to take off your hijab in people’s homes or when hiking. Follow other women’s examples in homes. As for the great outdoors, if there’s no one around, who will get you in trouble? You’ll see many Iranian ladies doing the same.
- If a man harasses you, make a scene or firmly turn him away. Punishment for crimes against women is severe, and men are too afraid of being caught to let things progress. The tourist police are also very willing to help, providing you have information or photos they can use to track down offenders.
For more tips on traveling Iran as a woman, check out my female travel guide.
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