Iran isn’t quite one of those countries you can turn up to and hope for the best – it does need a little pre-planning – and there’s also a few things you should know before you go.
Lucky for you – I’ve done the hard work for you and can tell you what you need to know about Iran.
1. Bring in all your cash
Foreign bank cards don’t work in Iran due to sanctions, so you need to bring in all your cash.
Both US Dollars and Euros can be exchanged at the official black market exchange offices on Ferdowsi Street in Tehran.
Euros are better however, as the black market rate fluctuates and Euros can sometimes be used for payment at guesthouses and for tours.
You can also order a Mah Card. The Mah Card is a prepaid cash card that works in Iran only, and it’s simple to set up. At least three days before you arrive in Iran, fill out the application form online and provide a copy of a passport. You will get an email when your Mah Card has been set up and asked when and where you would like it delivered. On delivery, you can pay in US Dollars or Euros and they will be loaded into Rials on your card at a rate slightly lower than the official black market rate.
If you have money left on your card when you leave, apply for a refund on their site and you will be given the refund in Euros at the current black market exchange rate.
I got the MAH card and I highly recommend it. As you can only withdraw a maximum of 2,000,000 from ATMs per day (only about €13), you can pay with card almost everywhere – supermarkets, convenience stores, tourist attractions, bus stations and guesthouses.
I usually only used my cash for Snapp taxi trips and if I was buying street food and the Mah Card for everything else.
2. You need to set up a VPN before you arrive
Some websites and apps are blocked in Iran such as Facebook, AirBnB and Couchsurfing.
To access any blocked sites or apps, you need to have a VPN app on your phone and logged in prior to your arrival. I recommend you have at least two VPN apps on your phone/laptop – I had a paid one and a free one. Often my paid one (paid ones offer more security) would log itself out and I would need the other VPN to be able to log back in. I used a combination of VPN Unlimited and Turbo VPN (free version).
3. Think about the time of year you plan to visit
Iran is not an all year round destination – in the summer, it can experience scorching temperatures – the Kalut Desert is often described as the hottest place on Earth.
The best time to visit Iran is from February to April and September to November.
Also think about national holidays. Nowruz is the Persian New Year. Officially it runs from 21-24 March but many Iranians will travel domestically up until the first weekend in April.
I travelled during Persian New Year – arriving on 24 March and it was very busy! It was still fine to get bus tickets on the day of departure but tourist sights were incredibly busy. It is a good time to travel weather wise though with mostly clear, sunny days and you can even ski – but be prepared to get up early to see sights – by 10am, most key sights started getting very busy.
Also think about if you want to ski or snowboard during your time in Iran – typically the ski season runs from mid-November to March.
4. You might be able to get a visa on arrival
If you’re American, Canadian or British, you’re out of luck, you’ll have to do a tour to see Iran – but many European nationalities, together with Australians and New Zealanders, can enter Iran by getting a visa on arrival and see the country independently.
It is important you check that your nationality is eligible for visa on arrival before you land in Iran.
You have to arrive by air to get a visa on arrival. Visa on arrival is not available at land borders. Airports offering visa on arrival include Tehran and Shiraz.
When you arrive, you will need to asked to show proof of at least your first night’s accommodation and travel insurance that specifically covers the Islamic Republic of Iran. “Worldwide” coverage wording on your policy or similar will not be sufficient and you need a letter from your travel insurance company that says you are covered in the Islamic Republic of Iran, otherwise you will be asked to buy insurance at the airport.
Once you have filled out the visa application form and showed the above documentation, you will be asked to pay the fee relevant to your nationality. For Australians, it’s €145, but for most European countries, the fee is between €60-80. The fee is payable in cash only. Both Euros and US Dollars are accepted. Iran no longer stamps passports, so if you are allowed to enter Iran, your passport will be returned to you and you’ll be pointed towards the Immigration counter.
5. English is not widely spoken
You’ll come across English in many guesthouses on the main tourist route (Tehran, Shiraz, Yazd, Kashan and Isfahan) but outside of that, English is not widely spoken. A few key words in Farsi won’t help much, but it will be appreciated. Merci is widely used to say thank you, salaam is hello, and goodbye is khudahafez. But you will get by with limited Farsi – Iranians are incredibly friendly and will always try to help, even if it’s difficult to communicate.
6. You’ll need to learn the Persian numbers
Before you go to Iran, screenshot a photo of the Persian numbers 1-10 and start to learn them. Latin numbers are rarely used in Iran so prices for food, souvenirs and so on is usually written in Persian numbers. They are quite easy to learn especially as you’ll need to read them multiple times a day.
7. Ladies have to wear a headscarf
If you’re female and you’re thinking about visiting Iran, you probably already know about this fact but I’ll explain in greater detail what you have to wear and when.
When you arrive into Iran, most likely by air, you will need to wear a headscarf so make sure you have one handy.
You also needs to wear long pants, a long sleeved or 3/4 sleeved shirt (at least covered to the elbow) and clothing that covers your figure like a tunic or long shirt.
I ended up buying some tunics in H&M before I got there and then bought a manteau in Iran to match what the locals wear.
In many mosques, you will be required to wear a chador but these are available for free at the entrance.
8. Prices will be quoted in Tomans – but you pay in Rials
Money can be confusing in Iran when you first arrive but I promise you will get used to it.
Bring a separate pouch for your money as you will often have a large wad!
Denominations are large, for example 1,000,000 Rials is about €7.
Prices however will most often be quoted in Tomans. Tomans is not an official currency anymore, but it continues to be used.
1,000 Tomans equals 10,000 Rials – so it is simple, just add a zero to any Toman price.
For example, if the price is quoted as 10,000 Tomans, hand over a 100,000 Rials note.
9. Buses are a cheap and efficient way to get between cities
Independent travellers will be happy to know that Iran has a great network of modern buses to get you in between cities.
All the buses I took were very clean, modern and had reclining seats. The bus driver’s assistant even gives you a little snack of cookies and a fruit juice.
Most buses cost less than €3. Buses leave regularly for Tehran from all major cities, and the main tourist cities of Kashan, Isfahan, Shiraz, Yazd and Kerman are well connected. There is also a train network servicing some cities.
Buses run on a schedule in Iran, although plan for them to leave at least 15 minutes late. There are no toilets on board but stops will be made at least every 4 hours.
You can get your guesthouse to book your bus online and you pay them in cash or card, or you can buy tickets in person at the bus station. If you buy your bus ticket online, you will need to exchange it for an official ticket at the bus station. Make sure you know what bus company you are travelling with as you need to go to that counter.
The buses are very safe, and usually stop before and after passing through major cities at police checkpoints for speed checks.
Single foreign women will be seated next to other women on public buses.
10. The Snapp taxi app is the best way to get around cities
The Snapp taxi app is the Iranian version of Uber. You need an Iranian number to use it, but Iranian SIM Cards are cheap and easy to obtain on your arrival, and then you can download the app to your phone.
The Snapp app is available in English – and you can pay in cash to the driver at the end of your trip.
You’re likely to use the Snapp app a lot (I did and I hardly ever take taxis) as all the bus stations are located a few kilometres outside the city centres.
In areas where Snapp doesn’t work such as outside the city centres, it may be possible to bargain on the taxi price. I did this in Rasht to get to a castle and to get up to Dizin Ski Resort.
11. Female solo travellers should be alert, not alarmed
Many female travellers I met experienced some harassment in Iran – most commonly in Kashan or Yazd. I was followed and sexually harassed in Kashan, and while it was a frightening experience, I still think Iran is quite a safe country – however female travellers should take some precautions. Be alert, not alarmed.
My biggest tips are of course, dress appropriately; avoid walking down empty streets by yourself, even during the day, especially narrow alleyways where only motorbikes and pedestrians can go; and sit in the backseat of taxis.
12. Iran is incredibly diverse
If there’s time in your itinerary, make sure you see more than the cities on the tourist route. Iran also has some incredible natural and historical attractions off the tourist route.
For example, the Alamut Valley is exceptional and is definitely worth a look. Not only does the Alamut Valley feature the ruins of the infamous Castles of the Assassins, but you can also get incredible mountain views from these ruins. There’s also an impressive canyon in the Alamut Valley that once was under the Caspian Sea.
Other spectacular natural attractions in Iran include the Colourful Mountains near Tabriz, and the unique landscapes of the Golestan province.
You can see desert, ski fields and forests all on the same trip in Iran. One day I was wandering across sand dunes and a salt lake in the desert, the next day I was in lush green forest amongst waterfalls, and three days later I was skiing at the Dizin Ski Resort only 400km away.
13. Be wary of carpet sellers
I won’t go as far as calling it a scam but the carpet sellers in Iran have a bit of a system, especially in Isfahan.
Their most charming, English speaking salesman will hover around the tourist attractions in the main square, strike up a conversation, and then invite you for tea before proceeding to show you dozens of carpets. I admit I got caught by this one as lots of Iranians simply wanted to stay hi to you as there are not so many independent tourists coming through. At first I thought they just were being friendly and wanted to practice their English and then I end up in a carpet shop. The next five times it happened I was a bit wiser! They do take no for an answer though – so you can extract yourself – but admittedly it was quite interesting learning about the different type of carpets and how they are made so it wasn’t all bad. Did you know one handmade carpet can take at least one year to be made?
14. Iran’s mosques are incredible – make sure you see as many as you can
Not all Persian mosques are built the same – in fact every one I went into was unique – and so beautiful with their colourful tiles. You will get mosque fatigue but it is worth seeing at least one mosque in every city and find out about the history.
Most mosques in Iran will charge a small entry fee to enter. But don’t worry, the cost is little more than a euro.
15. Make sure you experience the incredible hospitality of Iranians
During my time in Iran, I was regularly met with a chorus of “Welcome to Iran” when I walking down the street.
You won’t have to look far before you experience the great Iranian hospitality – Iran has to be one of the most friendliest places on Earth.
16. Budget travellers can book hostels on Hostelworld
Booking.com doesn’t have listings for Iran, but Hostelworld does offer a handful of listings for the major tourist cities in Iran – Tehran, Shiraz, Yazd, Kashan, Kerman, Tabriz and Isfahan. If you’re looking for budget accommodation in other locations, you’ll need to consult a Lonely Planet guidebook, blogs or ask locals.
17. You’ll need to bring your own toilet paper
Most public toilets don’t supply toilet paper (even some hotels don’t in less visited areas of Iran) as toilets are all fitted with bidet hoses so it’s best to have a roll handy in your daypack.
Be aware that many public toilets will be Asian style squat toilets but often you could find one Western style toilet that is the disabled access toilet.
18. The weekend is Thursday and Friday
The weekend is on Thursday and Friday in Iran and this may affect opening hours and transport timetables, as well as how busy tourist attractions are. Also lift passes at Dizin Ski Resort are more expensive on the weekend.