Iran is an absolutely incredible country that begs to be visited, but can be a hassle for UK and Canadian citizens that want to travel without a guide or group. Luckily, there are ways around the restrictions! Here’s how to travel independently in Iran as a UK citizen.
Update May 2018: It has become increasingly difficult for citizens of the US, UK, and Canada to travel to Iran unaccompanied, due to the recent MFA crackdown on tour agencies facilitation fake tours. Updates regarding this can be found on the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree forum. For tours and help with visas we recommend using 1StQuest (use the code LWP-QST to get a 5% discount).
If you’re reading this, you’re probably pondering a trip to Iran right now. You’ve heard about its mesmerizing architecture and its superbly hospitable people… but you’ve also heard about its frustrating visa travel restrictions for tourists from the UK, US, and Canada.
Word on the street is that citizens from these countries, among others, are required to travel as part of a tour or be accompanied by a guide for the entirety of their time in Iran. But I’m assuming that you, O Intrepid Explorer, are interested in no such thing. So let’s find an answer to your burning question: can I travel independently in Iran as a UK (or Canadian or US) citizen?
The short answer: Yes, if you’re willing to operate in a bit of a grey area.
My experience traveling independently in Iran for 2 months as a UK citizen
I entered Iran on a British passport, crossing overland from Armenia. There were no mentions of guides at the border—in fact, they had a hard time even figuring out what country my passport was from:
The customs official takes a moment to look at the passport cover, which says ‘The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’. I admit, it’s a bit confusing.
“… so… Ireland?”
The scene repeated for several minutes, after which I gave in and decided to be Irish for the day. I was passed through, without a mention of tours or guides.
For the rest of our two months in Iran, I was never once asked about a guide or tour by an official, not even when I went to extend my visa, when I was accompanied by police and military to the border of Pakistan, nor when I crossed the border. I was asked about it by three different Iranians working in hospitality, but they were all simply curious as to how I managed to evade the restriction.
I did have a phone number of an agency and some backup BS stories about guides giving me free time and tours being separated for the day, but luckily, I never needed them.
But I want to fly in! The airport people are probably more rigorous about this, right?
How would a customs official know if you have a guide or tour group waiting for you outside the airport? It’s not like they can leave their booth and check. Just make sure to arrange your visa ahead of time—UK citizens aren’t yet able to acquire visas on arrival.
Is this normal?
No, I am not the only one that managed to evade the restriction. I have read other accounts of Canadians and UK citizens doing as I did. One Canadian girl also successfully extended her visa without any questions asked.
As for the official rules, it’s hard to say. You’ll be hard-pressed to find any official statements about tours or guides on any of the government websites for the countries involved. I have received messages from people saying that tour agencies declared that the restrictions were lifted for British citizens, but I have also seen posts saying that people have called the Iranian MFA (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and were told that the restrictions stand. I’ve even seen one post saying that guides are only required for tourists’ first night in each new city (not even sure how anyone would check this).
In short, if you decide to try your luck, you won’t be the only one.
Precautions for independent travelers from the UK heading to Iran
So you’ve decided to go for it, and head on over to Iran without a pesky guide in tow. Great! You’ll still want to be cautious, though—it’s best to keep a low profile while you do so. Some tips for before and during your travels:
- Don’t advertise the fact that you’re playing the system. Don’t brag too loudly in person, and don’t post too obviously about it on well known travel forums. The Iranian government does peruse the Internet, and has been known to check out forums like Lonely Planet’s Thorntree forums.
- Be wary of what you say to tour guides in the country. They’re government officials, and though most of them are friendly, you never know who might be a stickler for rules.
- When in doubt, if people ask, just say you have a second passport from some other country that you used to enter Iran.
- Don’t, for the love of God, do anything that might make you look like a spy. This means no photos of military, transportation, or power plants, and no snooping into government matters or discussing politics too much. There was one UK man who was arrested and thrown in jail while traveling independently several years ago, and this was because he had “suspicious” photos on his camera that caused officials to think he was spying.
- Keep a phone number of a tour agency on hand, just in case. Just use the agency that helped you to get your authorization code for your visa.
How to get an Iranian visa as a UK citizen without getting a guide
In short, you’ll need to find a tour agency that is willing to give you an authorization code without forcing you to buy a tour as well. You can contact several tour agencies to see who bites. When I did so in 2016, I paid for a guide for one day in exchange for my authorization code help.
Update January 2017: Iran’s MFA is strongly cracking down on agencies participating in schemes like these. The tour agency I used no longer issues authorization codes to anyone, so unfortunately I cannot connect you with them. You can try emailing around with agencies to try your luck—some agencies are willing to give authorization codes as long as you have a guide for one day in each city. I’m afraid times are looking tough for UK/CA citizens wanting to travel independently in Iran.
I will update this post again if I find more information about the situation.
So… what about Americans that want to travel independently in Iran?
Update January 2017: Thanks to the charmingly petulant President of the United States, no Americans are allowed to travel to Iran. You can read about why here. We hope with all of our hearts that this will change in the near future, but we’re not hopeful. Stay tuned, Americans.
Ah, my fellow Americans, I don’t know what to tell you. I would be much more wary about trying to pull this off on an American passport, seeing as the rule was initially introduced for Americans, and officials are probably going to be much more attentive about Americans walking around. You’ll also stand out more, as American tourists are a rare breed in Iran. Conversely, I have read that American tourists have been allowed to walk around sans-guide at times while in Iran. If you want to be bold, you’re welcome to try. All of the officials we ran into were rather clueless, so you just might be lucky. If you do succeed, let us know! It would be great to know for future travelers.