Guide to getting your Iran visa and independent travel to Iran
You’ve surely heard just how amazing Iran can be as a travel destination (honestly, we cannot recommend it enough), although you might still be slightly confused about getting your Iran visa and how to plan your independent travel to Iran. We will try to answer your queries and clear any confusion about planning independent travel to Iran, or backpacking Iran through this post.
During the research we did before we set out on our 30-day trip around Iran, we found a lot of conflicting information about obtaining an Iran visa as independent travelers, about the availability of public transport in Iran, and about travel insurance to Iran. We wrote this practical guide to help other travelers plan out their independent travel to Iran and to show you how easy it is.
This is not a destinations post, so we will only write about the practical aspects of independent travel to Iran. Check out all our other posts and Iran itineraries, if you want to discover the wonders of Iran!
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Independent travel to Iran
First of all, you should know that independent travel to Iran is not possible for citizens of US, UK and Canada. If you are American, from the UK or Canadian, then you need to book a tour with one of the many Iran travel agencies, and only then will you be eligible for an Iran visa. The Iran travel agency will guide you accordingly.
We will include some advice about choosing your Iran travel agency later in this post. If you are not eligible for traveling to Iran without a tour or a guide, we really encourage you to visit Iran anyway (always keeping in mind the safety advice issued by your country), even if you do not normally consider traveling with a guide, but really, Iran is worth seeing!
Citizens of other nationalities may go about planning independent travel to Iran and obtaining their Iran visa. Independent travel to Iran is really much easier than you might imagine it to be, and whilst some travelers choose to go backpacking in Iran using only the surprisingly very efficient public transport in Iran, others may choose to travel in a slightly more comfortable manner, seeing just how affordable the destination is.
It is good to note that in Iran, Friday is the official weekend, but most commercial entities are also closed on Thursdays, either for the full day or for a half day.
We traveled using mainly public transport, but we also booked a few private transfers, when it made sense to combine transits with other stops at the many attractions in Iran. We figured that by seeing many of the attractions in clusters, whilst traveling from one area of Iran to the next, we would be making the most of our 30 days in Iran!
Our practical guide to independent travel in Iran will show you how easy it is to travel across the country.
Do be aware that once you have traveled to Iran, you may lose some visa privileges (such as ESTA for the US) due to particularly sour relations between Iran and other countries.
How to get your Iran Visa
Getting your Iran visa if you’re traveling as a tourist is simple, in theory, but can be a little complicated in practice. As mentioned before, independent travel to Iran is not possible for citizens of the US, UK and Canada, and their trip needs to be organised via an Iran travel agency. Citizens of Israel are not allowed into Iran.
On the other hand, citizens of some 16 countries can enter Iran visa-free.
It should be noted that as of 2019, visas are no longer affixed to passports, nor is the passport stamped or marked in any way.
This information is valid at the time of our visit in Iran. Since visa policies are subject to changes, the latest information from Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs should be sought at the time of your independent travel to Iran.
Visa on Arrival for independent travel to Iran
Citizens of all countries except for those of Canada, US, UK, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Colombia can obtain as Visa on Arrival at several of the airports in Iran, valid for a 30 days’ stay, which is however extendable. A visa on arrival is not available at any of Iran’s land borders.
You need to show evidence of your hotel booking for at least the first night in Iran, and you should be aware this information is very often checked/confirmed before a visa is granted. Proof of travel insurance for Iran is also required. Specific cover to Iran needs to be clearly stated before this is accepted. The term ‘worldwide cover’ is not sufficient, and Iran needs to be mentioned specifically. For guidance on how to book a hotel in Iran, refer to the dedicated section further down within this post.
You can buy travel insurance to Iran at the airport itself (definitely available at Tehran’s IKIA airport), or it can be obtained beforehand from an Iran travel agency such as 1st Quest. Insurance cover is very affordable and costs around €14. Luckily, we never actually needed to use it…. more about travel insurance to Iran below.
The Iran visa fee will need to be paid at the airport. Fees vary depending on nationality, but our Iran visa fee for Maltese (EU) citizens was €75 each at the time of travel.
Despite the Visa on Arrival process seeming pretty painless, and knowing that some of our friends had obtained it successfully in previous years, at the time that we were planning our independent travel to Iran, there were an increasing number of reports of foreigners who seemed to be perfectly eligible for the Visa on Arrival (on paper), being turned away once they landed in Iran.
They were told that they had to apply for the e-Visa approval (and hold a valid reference number) prior to arriving in Iran, even though we know several people who did get their Visa on Arrival without having and prior approval documents.
In fact, Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, encourages all tourists to apply for the e-Visa reference number beforehand. Not wanting to risk not getting in, this is what we did as explained below.
The Iran e-Visa is not an actual visa, but a pre-approval for the visa, which can then be subsequently obtained at one of the named airports, or sometimes at the Iranian embassy in your country (if one is present). This is the most convenient way of getting an Iran visa in our opinion.
However, there is a still a slight catch, since at the time we were planning our independent travel to Iran, there seemed to be a very high rejection rate of e-Visa applications by independent travelers to Iran.
Independent e-Visa application for independent travel to Iran
Independent travelers to Iran are free to apply for the e-Visa by filling in an application form on the Ministry’s website, however it seems that many applications are randomly rejected with the notification “apply through host”. For this reason, we believe that the safest way of obtaining the e-Visa is by applying through an Iran travel agency (at an additional cost besides the Iran visa fee).
e-Visa via Iran travel agency application, also for independent travel to Iran
Applying for an Iran e-Visa via an Iran travel agency is by far the easiest way of obtaining your Iran visa in our opinion. After evaluating different options, we settled on doing this, since we wanted to ensure that there would be no problems to enter Iran.
The process was one of the smoothest and easiest visa applications. We used TAP Persia to handle our Iran visa application because they came highly recommended, but we have also used other Iran travel agencies for other services, who we recommend just as much (more on the dedicated section about Iran travel agency below).
We got in touch with TAP Persia via their online chat on their website, where a customer representative was immediately in touch to let me know that we should fill in the online visa application form on their website.
I wanted to know whether passport photos should be taken wearing a headscarf (which is compulsory for women in Iran) since there seemed to be conflicting information about this issue, online. I was informed via their chat service that it is not necessary to take passport photos wearing headscarf though, and I can confirm that my application went through with photos without a headscarf.
After our applications were received, we were asked for our Whatsapp number for ease of further communication. We were a little hesitant at first to continue all communication via Whatsapp, but we soon discovered that Whatsapp is used extensively in Iran, both for business and social communication.
We received our approval within three working days from application (remember that Friday is the weekend in Iran, with most commercial entities also being closed on Thursdays), as promised by the Iran travel agency.
Kish Island – visa-free
Iran’s Kish Island on the southern coast of Iran, is a free trade zone, and no visa is required for you to visit Kish, as long as you stay on the island, for a maximum of 14 days.
Kish island is a resort destination, and is popular with residents of surrounding countries, many of whom head over to spend their holidays in one of the resorts on Kish. International flights from Dubai and Abu Dhabi Kish are available.Find it on a map! – Kish Island
Travel insurance to Iran
Be aware that not many travel insurance agencies outside of Iran cover Iran. Even if they do, in case you end up needing assistance, we are not sure how funds would actually be transferred to you in Iran, given the restrictions posed by international sanctions to Iran.
Your travel insurance document will be checked upon your arrival in Iran and unless it specifically makes reference to Iran (worldwide cover is not sufficient), it will likely be rejected and you will be asked to buy internal travel insurance.
Our regular travel insurance actually did cover Iran, and the insurance agency issued documents for us specifically stating so, but given the sanctions situation, we were not sure that money could be transferred to Iran in case it was needed due to potential medical emergencies.
We decided to purchase Iran’s internal travel insurance from the airport anyway, to be on the safe side, seeing that it was so affordable (€14 each). We have (luckily) very rarely needed medical attention on our travels, but we are committed to being insured for it, if the need ever arises.
Here’s a snippet from the travel insurance policy:
As we said, we never needed to use it, nor do we know anyone who did, so we have absolutely no experience with regards to claiming via this insurance.
You can also purchase travel insurance to Iran from an Iranian company before actually arriving in Iran via an Iran travel agency like 1st Quest.
Arriving at Imam Khomeini International Airport
We were wondering what to expect when arriving at IKIA airport in Tehran at 2.45am. Would we manage to find transport to our hostel and would we be able to exchange money (foreigners cannot use the ATMs in Iran due to international sanctions) and buy a phone card?
The entire process was actually pretty straightforward. We were very surprised to note that even at the start of the journey, way back during our check-in process at Malta International Airport, an official asked whether I was carrying a head scarf in my hand luggage since I would need to put it on before landing in Tehran. Indeed, anyone that was not wearing a head scarf during the flight, was asked to wear it just as we approached IKIA.
After collecting our luggage, we followed the sign saying ‘Visa” and because we already had the e-Visa approval, we were only required to buy the Iran travel insurance as explained above, and pay the Iran visa fee (€75 each for Maltese citizens). We paid everything in euro and received our change back in rial, Iran’s national currency.
Insurance and visa were handled in the same building, so it was all very easy, and the process lasted around 15 minutes, after which, it was on to immigration.
Although we were aware that we would not be receiving a visa sticker, we thought that we would be handed some form of documentation, but we were actually not handed anything besides a receipt for the Iran visa fee. Immigration checked our passports and let us in, so we can only conclude that the visa approval and issue was handled electronically, and showed up at the immigration officer’s terminal.
We kept the receipt for the Iran visa fee in a secure place throughout our stay, as a sort of proof of our visa for our independent travel to Iran, for the off-chance that someone would want to check out our visas, but we were never required to provide proof, even when taking internal flights.
After getting through immigration we headed straight for the sim card booth in the Arrivals terminal. which was open even at the early hours (at around 3.30am), and indeed was very busy, although there was only one super-efficient lady manning it.
Sim cards had to be paid for in local currency, so it was time to change some euro to rial from another booth on the first floor (departure lounge). We had been warned that the exchange rate at the airport was not great, so we just exchanged enough to purchase sim cards, grab a snack, pay a taxi and manage a few other things.
The only sim card booth that was open was that for Irancell, which was in fact the sim card we were planning on purchasing in the first place, after having done some research. We each bought a sim card with 5GB data plus a 12 GB top up, which cost 1,200,000 rial (120,000 toman / €5.90) each – more on Iranian currency (rial/toman) below. The Sim card was not activated immediately, but only after about two hours.
A full meal at the airport cost 860,000 rial (86,000 toman / about €4.25) for the both of us. We had not yet started using the Snapp app for city transport (see more below in the transport in Iran section), so we got a regular yellow taxi to our hostel, about one hour’s drive away. This cost 1,250,000 rial (125,000 toman / €6.15*). More on currency conversion below which will be very helpful on your independent travel to Iran!
*This value reflects the conversion rate (free market rate) at the time of writing. We actually paid about a little less than double the stated price in Euro at the time of travel (Oct – Nov 2019), when compared to these conversions. So, although 1,250,000 rial is equal to €6.15 at the time of writing, it was equal to €9.98 at the time of travel!
Independent travel to Iran – for how long should you stay?
Honestly as long as you can! We can tell you with confidence that you will not get enough of Iran! Our trip around Iran was 30 days long, during which, we managed to see an overwhelming number of sites and attractions and experience so much, but we felt that we wanted more, and had already started planning our second independent trip to Iran during our first trip there!
If you would like to do a quick tour of the major sites and main cities in Iran, most people manage that in around two weeks, and follow a very similar itinerary. We will expand on this on a future post about Iran covering attractions and itineraries.
Money concerns in Iran
Up until now in 2020, the official currency of Iran was the rial, however the toman has long been used in everyday life. The toman is actually equivalent to 10 rial, but colloquially, it is equivalent to 10,000 rial. Complicated enough? ok hang on a while there whilst we explain this!
If a meal costs 860,000 rial, it is officially equivalent to 86,000 toman, but you will be asked for 86 toman. That way you know you need to pay 860,000 rial in Iranian rial bank notes (x10,000). It takes some getting used to, but eventually you will get the hang of it – I did, even if I’m usually rubbish with foreign currency!
Iranian parliament has, in 2020, agreed to a proposal to officially replace the rial with the toman, however this at the rate of 1 toman = 10,000 rial. The change is expected to take place in the coming years. We are quoting prices in both rial and toman in this post.
ATMs exist and are found everywhere in Iran, but international ATM cards (like Visa and Mastercard) will not work. Iranians are quite unused to handling cash though. They use their local cards to pay for practically everything (even minor sales), so it is not uncommon for shops to be out of change.
We made do by taking a load of cash in euro and changing some every few days during our independent travel to Iran, however you can purchase a local travel debit card for Iran and add funds to your card, to use it whenever you need, as an alternative to carrying cash. Honestly, we felt so safe in Iran, even when carrying large amounts of cash, that we felt that this was unnecessary.
Just because money was not complicated enough already in Iran, the exchange rate is also a little difficult to interpret. There seems to be a very large difference in the official government rate to the actual free market rate. Forget checking online for conversion of rial in other currencies. You will not get the true value – you will get the official value, which is NOT what you will actually be dealing with Iran.
We used the app Bonbast throughout our stay in Iran, which gave the most accurate representation of the free market value. We used this app continuously during our independent travel to Iran! You should be aware that the exchange rate is incredibly volatile and the stated prices in these blogs will only give you a vague idea of your potential expenses in Iran. To counter this volatility, most tourist-oriented services such as hotel reservations are quoted for in Euro.
For example, as we’re writing this post, we’ve realised that the exchange rate has weakened to almost two times compared to that at the time of travel. If we had to travel to Iran right now (hypothetically, given current restrictions due to the Covid-19 situation), we would get almost twice as much rial for our Euro as when we traveled there a few months ago. Check the latest rates on Bonbast just before going on your trip to hopefully get a better idea of what your expected expenses (in your home currency) could be.
Now comes the question of where to exchange money in Iran. Banks will exchange at the official government rate which is not what you want. However, there are government-certified exchange shops which will change your cash at the free market rate, which is way better than the official rate. You will get more money at these exchange places than you will at the bank.
Every large city usually has a road dedicated to such exchange booths. You can ask the locals where this is located – usually all the exchange shops offer the same free market rate. We realised that for some reason, not all of them were willing to exchange our euro though.
Outside the official exchange shops, you will find black market dealers who will be VERY willing to exchange your money for you, possibly even at a better rate than the official shops. If you are tempted to use such dealers, be careful since you might get short-changed. Also, many hotels will offer to exchange your money at the free market rate. We used their services often enough, and they were always extremely honest (as most Iranians are).
You will notice that many Iranians are happy to accept foreign currency (and actually prefer it). We suggest that you ask your service provider whether they would prefer to be paid in local currency or euro/dollar.
Phone and Internet in Iran for independent travel to Iran
If you intend using phone data, we totally recommend that you have a dual sim phone to use during your independent travel to Iran, mostly because you will be using Whatsapp a lot, and this is probably associated to your home sim, whilst you will be using data on your Iranian sim.
We initially bought two Irancell sim cards which worked great, until mine inexplicably got blocked by the provider for a while on our second day in Iran. A little frustrated, I bought another one of a different brand (MCI) directly from our hostel in Tehran.
This time the MCI sim card was pre-activated and cost 1,000,000 rial (100,000 toman / about €5) including 4GB of data, and worked just as well as my previous sim card Irancell, in Tehran, Qazvin and Tabriz. Eventually, after a few days, I check my Irancell sim to discover that it had been activated once again, so I switched back over to that. Irancell has good service pretty much everywhere, but MCI also worked well, anywhere I tried it out.
Hostel/hotel internet was available at most places we stayed at. Since we had a good amount of data on our phones, we rarely used it. We used Whatsapp to communicate with every local, guide, hostel and basically any other service provider in Iran.
We should point out that we were in Iran during the 2019 Internet Blackout. Without going into all the details, Iran’s internet was totally shut down by the government due to ongoing fuel protests in the country. We had just spent a few nights in the Kalouts desert which was anyway out of range, when on our way back from the desert, we had some data for a couple of hours, after which we were offline.
We were not yet aware of the tension and protests in the country during our independent travel to Iran, so it was only later that we realised that an internet blackout was falling into place, a few cities at a time. Luckily, we manage to communicate with our family to tell them that we were safe, before we lost all online contact for the rest of our stay.
Also, thankfully, our Malta sim cards were both able to roam in Iran, so they could be used for calls, and SMS, although of course this was rather expensive! We suggest that you top up your home sim with some credit before you leave home, for unexpected situations such as this one.
Many sim cards from other countries reportedly do not work in Iran, whilst our friends’ sim cards from the same country and provider as ours did not work during their travels in Iran either! We didn’t quite figure out whether there was a logical trait to which international sim cards worked and which didn’t, but don’t rely on yours working!
Also keep in mind that you can’t have two different sims from the same provider registered to the same phone, as these are blocked, and the procedure to unlock it is not really tourist-friendly!
Using a VPN
Several social media sites such as facebook and twitter are blocked in Iran, an issue which is easily circumvented by using a VPN. We used Express VPN with success during our time there, but be aware that things can change quite rapidly.
We fully advise you to download and install the VPN on your phones and laptop, before you enter Iran as it might be difficult to download VPN whilst in the country.
Safety in Iran
We will start off by saying that Iran is probably one of the safest countries we have every traveled in. Iranians are easily some of the kindest people we have every met on our travels – not just a few of them, but all of the people we encountered. They are honest, friendly and immensely respectful up to the point that coming from a pretty hospitable country ourselves, we were completely overwhelmed just by how genuine and honest Iranians are.
During our independent travel to Iran, at no point did we every feel unsafe, not even a little bit. We traveled by day and by night, and walked along some dodgy-looking areas at different times of the day without incidents. We should however point out, that safety is a very personal issue and we really recommend trusting your instinct on this one. If something feels unsafe, get away.
Also, you should totally familiarise yourself with any of the laws that might affect you during your independent travel to Iran. There have been incidents reported in international media about arrest of tourists who were found to be breaking the law, even if it was not intentional. Currently, Iran does not have great relations with many countries.
There are political issues in the country which may affect your independent travel to Iran, such as the internet blackout during our time there, which affected almost everything. Not only was there no internet, but many cities were put on lockdown, and transport halted.
The country’s political history is as rich and complex as its cultural one, so do not expect to fully understand the ramifications by merely reading an article or two on your favourite ‘western’ journal. We advise you to not criticise the country’s laws, religion or government, since these are sensitive matters which one might not be fully aware of.
It is wise to be aware of any political tensions in the country and try to get a ‘feel’ of any situations. Do not be surprised if locals are unwilling to talk about issues. During the fuel protests and internet blackout, nobody would tell us what was going on, whether we could travel, or which cities were on lockdown. This was partly due to themselves not being sure either, and partly because of an unwillingness to discuss the situation with foreigners.
State media on TV portrayed very little of the protests, whilst we had no access to any other form of international media or communication. The local people did seem very worried, but there was little they could or would tell us. We are aware that certain statements would put them at risk, and after a while we just stopped asking and relied on instinct.
We feel that the western media portrays Iran very unfairly, especially as being more dangerous than it really is, but disrespecting your host country will only get you into trouble. Also, be sure to read your country’s foreign travel advice for Iran to take note of any particular issues you should be aware of.
Dress Code in Iran
You may have read about the strict dress code in Iran, and would expect the country to be covered in chador or burqa-clad women. This is very far from the truth, and whilst both chadors and burqas are indeed worn in Iran, especially in the more rural areas, many of Tehran’s women manage to be both fashionable and sophisticated whilst adhering to their country’s dress code.
For women, it is very important to wear a headscarf at all times, including the common areas of your hostel (there are very often notices in hostels to this effect). Do put at least one on your packing list when planning your independent travel to Iran, since you will need to wear it just before you enter Iran, but then you can just enjoy shopping for more once you’re in the country.
Many of the women in Tehran often do not cover ALL of their hair right down to their foreheads (they leave a little bit showing), but the women in more rural areas are a lot more conservative, often wearing chadors which cover their whole bodies.
Alternatively, the women in cities often wear trousers with long beautiful cardigans, jackets or a manteau (a long tunic), and high heeled shoes. Woman seem to love wearing make-up. Curiously, we spent quite a while wondering why so many young people seemed to have had facial accidents, until we later realised that the bandages covering their faces were from cosmetic surgeries, which it seems, are all the rage in Iran.
I felt very comfortable wearing long trousers and trekking shoes as well as t-shirts with sleeves up to my elbows and a headscarf in Iran. In more conservative areas, I also carried another scarf to wrap around me and cover my arms if I felt it was necessary to do so. In cities like Tehran, I felt totally underdressed in my sporty clothes compared to what the local women were wearing!
You would do well to observe the local women when trying to understand what you should be wearing in different areas. I believe that ideally all the arms should be covered up to the wrist but it seemed acceptable to cover only up to the elbow in some places. Very tight clothes should definitely not be worn and anything which is see-through such a tights or stockings should not either.
You will need to wear a chador before entering some of the mosques or other religious buildings, which is usually provided to you free of charge at the entrance. I got very confused about how I should be wearing it the first time, to the delight of many of the kids who stopped to watch me struggle, until a local lady came to help me wear it the right way.
Subsequently, I mostly managed alone, but I often caught amused glances from the locals so I probably wasn’t wearing it quite right anyway. All of the locals we met fully understood that we were not trying to be disrespectful with our dress and often pointed out our mistakes with a grin – often these were related to the many times my headscarf fell off without me realising. After 30 days of independent travel to Iran, I didn’t manage to get the hang of keeping it on either!
Men have less restrictions when it comes to dress code, but they should not wear shorts or sleeveless shirts. Ideally, shirts should cover the elbows, but Nikki’s regular t-shirts seemed ok.
Transport in Iran for independent travel to Iran
We thought that the transport in Iran was just fantastic and really easy to navigate. Let us give you a brief outlook about how the transport system in Iran works.
Traveling within cities – independent travel to Iran
This is easy. You can walk, take the bus, use the regular taxis, or use Snapp!. Most destinations in the cities are pretty walkable, and unless you want to get from one side of a large city to another, walking is a good option, and we did lots of it.
We also used Snapp! (the local car sharing app, very much like Uber). The Snapp! fees obviously depend on distance but a typical fifteen-minute ride in the city would be in the region of around 120,000 rial (12,000 toman / € 0.50) and drivers are plentiful, and also enjoy driving foreigners whilst complaining a little bit about their lives.
Few speak English, so having some knowledge of Farsi would be great, but not essential. We highly recommend that you learn to recognise the Persian numbers so that you can recognise the number plate on the car picking you up. They are very easy to learn (coming from someone who has difficulty learning new scripts and languages).
Sometimes your assigned Snapp driver will call you or message you via the app. Google translate works great at translating messages from Farsi to English and vice versa. Of course, you need an Iranian sim card and number to access the app.
Since Snapp! was so convenient, we didn’t bother with inter-city buses within the cities, however they definitely exist.
Traveling between cities – independent travel to Iran
Local buses are a great way of traveling from one city to another and interacting with the local people, who honestly will make your trip to Iran even more worthwhile than the amazing attractions, no matter how beautiful.
You will be offered ALL sorts of snacks by the local people on buses. Very often, you won’t only be offered one or two items but whole packets of biscuits, nuts etc. It can be a little overwhelming if you’re not accustomed to Iranian hospitality and we suggest that you also pack some stuff to share back! They will politely decline at first, and then happily accept your offer and thank you for it.
There are different kinds of buses too. Aside from the fact that there are day buses and night buses, those covering shorter distances seemed to be more casual and could be stopped on the road. For example, during our time in Qazvin (where we stopped to trek in the Alamut Valley), the only way of getting to our next destination, Tabriz, was to stop a Tehran to Tabriz bus en-route on the highway.
Our hotel receptionist called up a taxi driver who took us to the specific point on the highway where the particular bus usually stops. The driver was amazingly kind, and stayed with us throughout our time of waiting, looking out for the right bus himself. Such is the beauty of the people of Iran.
Other buses can be caught from bus stations and are direct, stopping on the way only for toilet breaks. It is wise to pre-book bus tickets beforehand where possible, especially during peak season, since the popular routes might fill up very easily. You can do this at the bus station itself, or ask the staff at your accommodation to help you. Alternatively, you can even book them online via an Iran travel agency such as 1st Quest.
For many routes, you can choose between VIP buses and ordinary buses. VIP buses have reclining seats and great for night journeys. They are pretty comfortable with a snack being usually provided, but I quickly found that they can get very hot, especially during cold weather, when the ac system is turned off. We advise you to wear loose comfortable clothing to allow for some sweating, seeing that you will not be able to strip off and lighten your clothing. On the other hand, carry a jacket for when the AC is turned on.
As a woman, I found that wearing a light tank top and covering myself with a cotton scarf worked best on the ‘hot’ buses. No one will be able to see you anyway in the dark on a night bus, so you can ease the wrapover scarf just a little and remove the headscarf until the lights go back on or you stop for a toilet break. Be sure to cover yourself up properly at that point though.
Shared taxis (Savari) – independent travel to Iran
Using shared taxis is an efficient way of traveling between close cities in Iran. Shared taxis are just that – a group of people going to the same destination. They can usually be found outside bus terminals and specific landmarks within cities. Every time we tried to get a shared taxi, the driver offered us such an affordable price for darbast (private ride) for the two of us, that it made more sense to us than waiting for the shared taxi to fill up.
We didn’t use any trains because the buses covered all the routes we needed. Trains are considerably slower than buses (at least for the journeys we checked), and probably make for a very pleasant journey during the day. We’ve been told that train tickets are very often sold out, so it would again be wise to book beforehand.
Internal flights in Iran are a great way of getting from one destination to another if you are short on time, especially since they are very affordable. Our flight from Shiraz to Bandar Abbas (for Qeshm and Hormuz) cost €38 each via an Iran travel agency – TAP Persia. It was all handled via Whatapp and the air tickets sent to us by email.
The flight was via Air Iran and included a 20kg bag and a snack. You should probably do your own research about the safety standards of airlines in Iran, however we felt comfortable taking flights.
Most Iran travel agencies such as 1st Quest and TAP Persia offer flight booking services. It is not possible to book flight tickets independently online, although it is probably possible to buy them at the airport.
Hiring a private driver – independent travel to Iran
Hiring a private driver in Iran is not the most affordable way of getting around in Iran, BUT traveling some routes with a private driver, who will stop you at different attractions, certainly makes up for a lot of time!
We went on four separate journeys with a private driver so that we could stop at notable places on the way which were too remote, or too time-consuming to cover by public transport. We are listing the journeys and the places visited here, but we will definitely be writing all about our experiences in our upcoming specific destination posts:
- Isfahan to Shiraz, including stops at Pasargadae, Naghshe Rostam and Persepolis
- Kerman to Yazd Including stops at Meymand, Saryazd, Caravanserai Zein-o-din and Fahraj
- Yazd to Kashan Including stops at Kharanq village, Chak Chak, Maybod and Naien
- Kashan to IKIA, Tehran Including stops at Abyaneh and Qom
We booked the trips prior to our arrival in Iran with a company called Shirdal Airya, who were gracious and efficient from the moment we contacted up to our very last day in Iran. The reason we contacted this company was because of the information on their website which included the routes and stops we were looking at.
Prices of the above transfers cost between €70 – €100 for each transfer, which in Iran is quite pricey. In fact, some drivers we met once we were in Iran, confirmed that they would have done the route at a third of the price, so on our next trip in Iran, now being familiar with the country, we would probably look for cheaper deals once we are in the country.
Having said that, the service provided by Shirdal Airya was excellent, hassle free and very professional, up to the point that when we were in Yazd, we popped by their office, just to thank them for their fantastic service. Having booked beforehand gave us the flexibility to organise the rest of our trip around the transfers, and build up our plan for our independent travel to Iran.
We were also glad to book with a reputable Iran travel agency, since we were not sure what we would ‘find’ once we were in the country, or how safe we would feel in general, although we soon found out that safety was never an issue at all.
Each of the above-mentioned transfers with stops at attractions, lasted a full day.
If you would like to go to the islands off Iran’s southern coast, ferries will be your best bet, although both Qeshm and Kish are home to international airports.
We used ferries to get from Bandar Abbas to Qeshm, from Qeshm to Hormuz and from Hormuz back to Bandar Abbas. The ferries were incredibly affordable, with each trip costing 300,000 rial (30,000 toman / about €1.50) per person. The short ferry trips were comfortable enough, with the ferries having indoor and outdoor seating.
You can get ferry tickets directly at the terminals, however during peak season, we advise you to pre-book the tickets (directly at the terminal) if possible. In fact, once we got to Hormuz, we immediately bought our tickets back to Bandar Abbas before starting our tour around Hormuz.
We also recommend that you are at the terminal/on the ferry with sufficient advance time to the supposed departure time. Our ferry from Qeshm to Hormuz left before the intended departure time of 7am, since it filled up very quickly.
Iranian Customs and Social Etiquette in Iran
There are a number of things to keep in mind on your independent travel to Iran. Iranian customs and social etiquette in Iran may be a little different to what you’re used to. Besides the dress code in Iran, which we’ve already explained, you would do well to take heed of the following:
- It would be best to refrain from any kind of physical contact with members of the opposite gender, even a handshake could be awkward. Most of the time, many of the local men we got to know during our independent travel to Iran were perfectly fine with shaking hands with me indoors, however we noticed that they avoided doing that in public, especially in places were public officials were present.
- If you’re using buses, do carry a whole load of snacks with you because you will probably be bombarded by locals offering you and giving you their own snacks as per the very friendly Iranian customs, so it’s always nice to have something to give back, although you are not really expected to.
- It is very likely that during your time in Iran, you will be invited to dinner at some locals’ houses. Iranians are some of the friendliest and most hospitable people that we’ve ever met on our travels, and they seem to love hosting and getting to know visitors to their country. If you’re invited to someone’s house, it would be nice to take a small gift with you. Also be sure to be punctual.
- One of the most peculiar instances of social etiquette in Iran in the practice of Ta’arof. As first-time visitors to Iran, this was one of the Iranian customs which took the most getting accustomed to. Ta’arof is actually a complex practice emphasising friendship and politeness, and in our case, it mostly confused us.
From the perspective of a guest, Ta’arof means that you are required to refuse anything you are offered for three times before finally accepting it, as a demonstration of politeness. Because Iranians are so hospitable and polite, it was really difficult to determine exactly whether a refusal was genuine of a demonstration of Ta’arof whenever they refused anything.
Additionally, we often forgot to refuse offerings three times before finally accepting them ourselves. Locals do understand that foreigners are rarely accustomed to Iranian customs and social etiquette in Iran, so it is very unlikely that they will get offended if you forget to practice Ta’arof. Some instances are obvious though – if a taxi driver is refusing their fee, you know that it is Ta’arof and you need to keep offering it, until they finally take it.
- Most Iranians are Muslims and pray five times a day. Whenever we were with a guide, and we were close to a mosque, they would politely ask us if they could have a few minutes to themselves to pray at the mosque. Even if you’re on a tight schedule, be sure to respect his beliefs, and give your guide enough time to fulfil their religious duties, whether you are a believer or not. You would come across as being very rude if you don’t. After all, a short break on a long drive is also welcome!
- Non-muslims are allowed to enter many of the mosques, although females must often wear a chador. If you are confused about the social etiquette inside a mosque, try see what the locals are doing. For example, in some shrines we noticed that locals were walking backwards to exit, never giving their back to the shrine. If you are in any way confused, most of the locals will try to guide you to follow the correct Iranian customs, if you ask.
Language Issues in Iran – independent travel to Iran
Iranians speak the Persian language or Farsi, although Turkik, Semitic and other languages are spoken in some parts of the country, mostly amongst some ethnic groups.
Farsi is NOT Arabic, as is commonly perceived, however the alphabet is very similar. Despite this, the two languages sound totally different. Coming from a country with some exposure to Arabic (since our own language, Maltese, is considered to be Semitic although it is written in the Latin script), and being able to understand some Arabic, we could not make heads or tails of Farsi, except for some standard greetings.
Once we moved further south to the islands, we quickly realised that the locals there were fluent in Arabic and were even capable of understanding some Maltese.
We do recommend that you learn some basic words in Farsi, not out of any obligation, but it will make your life easier, and it shows respect towards the local culture. Also, if you want to use the Snapp! app for transport, you will need to identify the vehicle by reading the car’s number plate. Honestly the numbers are really easy to learn.
Hotels in Iran for independent travel to Iran
Hotels, hostels and other accommodation options in Iran, are not on any of the commonly used international booking sites for accommodation, this probably due to the international sanction situation.
One site we use for pre-booking accommodation was Hostels in Iran, which includes a number of hostels in many of the more popular destinations in Iran. Prices are included for every hostel, as are facilities, whilst the booking form is very easy to use.
Payment needs to be made in cash upon arrival, so no deposit is needed, but we urge you to only book once you are sure of staying there, and inform your host of any cancellations if you can’t make it to your stay. Due to international sanctions it is difficult for Iranians to collect deposits or make transactions with foreigners, which is probably why no deposit is collected. It would be unfair on local businesses to make, and then cancel a bunch of reservations.
A reservation confirmation is sent to your email address upon booking, which is very useful to show as part of the documentation for your visa on arrival/ e-visa – be aware that you will be obliged to show a hotel reservation for at least the first night for a visa to Iran.
You can also make reservations via 1st Quest, an Iran travel agency with online services. We also read online reviews about accommodation options, found booking phone numbers and sent a Whatsapp message to our hostel of choice, a couple of days before arriving there and subsequently received a confirmation via Whatsapp.
Of course, you can just show up, however if you’re traveling in peak season, many hostels and hotels may be booked out.
We will include all the hostels and hotels with prices we stayed at during our independent travel to Iran in the respective destination blog posts, however we usually spent about €15/night for a room with private bathroom. Payment in euro was very often accepted (and preferred).
Choosing an Iran travel agency for services, transfers and tours in Iran
There are several travel agencies operating in Iran, offering a wide range of services for tourists.
We used the services of two agencies – TAP Persia for our e-visa application (explained in detail above in the visa section) and flight booking, and Shirdal Airya for four land transfers (also explained in detail above in the transport section).
We have only positive feedback about both these Iran travel agencies and would not recommend one over the other. All communication was prompt, services were super-efficient and transfers were timely. The personnel at both of the agencies took time to ask about how we were enjoying Iran, whether we needed any help from their end and whether their service was to our liking, during and even after our time in Iran.
The reason we chose the agencies was due to their great reviews online, for the fact that TAP Persia offered a chat facility on their website when I needed to ask some questions about the e-visa, and the fact that Shirdal Airya gave examples of private transfers which were very similar to what we wanted, on theirs.
Although we are all for independent travel in Iran, we decided to use an Iran travel agency service in these cases due to logistical and practical reasons, and we couldn’t have been happier with any of the services.
1st Quest seems to be a useful service resource in Iran too, although this is not an agency we used ourselves.
Independent guides in Iran for independent travel to Iran
We hired two independent guides in Iran during our time in the country, since we wanted to explore and trek through a couple of areas which might have been challenging to discover on our own.
We will write more about the individual guides and how they helped us in the respective destination posts, but once again we were impressed by the level of service and hospitality.
Youssef who introduced the Alamut Valley and the Castle of the Assassins to us, is a lovely man with a vast insight into the Alamut Valley, whilst Afshar, his wife Sara and their dog Nana who hosted us in Ghalat, were incredibly welcoming and helpful.
Just to give you an idea of prices for private guides, Youssef charged us €25 each for a very full day tour of the Alamut Valley by car (which also included some trekking despite the very poor weather we encountered), whilst Afshar charged us €35 (for both of us) for a trek in the valleys near Ghalat. Accommodation was priced separately and we will include details in the respective destination blog posts.
Although some areas can be trekked independently, we felt that having a local guide would help us understand the scenery and region more, whilst being fantastic value for money compared to hiring private guides in other destinations outside of Iran. During our independent travel in Iran, we both felt that we wanted to absorb as much information about the country and insight into its culture, an aspect which the above-mentioned guides helped with a lot.
Expenses in Iran during our independent travel to Iran
As we mentioned earlier, Iran is a very affordable destination, and we quickly realised that our budget would allow us to see much of the country in relative ease, mostly by using public transport, but it also allowed for a few private transfers which made a huge difference to our Iran itinerary.
Our total expenses including all transport and transfers, a flight, all accommodation, food, entrance fees, guide fees and tips, sim cards, amounted to €36/ per person/ per day.
We ate mostly in mid-range restaurants with a few high-range exceptions, which were still incredibly affordable. We stayed in hostels and hotels with private bathrooms, which were always incredibly clean and we never got anything for ‘free’, in the sense that we always tried to repay our hosts with something of equal value.
As we explained before, we used VIP buses during the night and regular buses for shorter distances, Snapp! for many intra-city journeys and had four rather pricey private transfers. We also had a private driver in many other instances, on trips organised by our hostel, which many a time proved to be just as affordable as using public transport. We also included the cost of ferries, as well as the flight from Shiraz to Bandar Abbas.
Understanding Bazaars and Caravanserai
You will be hearing the words bazaar and caravanserai very often in Iran and we’d like to explain a little bit about them. If you’ve traveled in Central Asia or the Caucasus before, you might already be familiar with them.
As with most countries in the Middle East, bazaars (often called souks) are an integral part of the culture in Iran. Bazaars are a central marketplace in a city or a village, bustling with activity – they are usually roofed or tented and can be several kilometres long.
Bazaars are the beating heart of any village or town. This is where people from all over town congregate to shop, chat and exchange goods. But bazaars are not limited only to economic activities. In Iran, a bazaar may also be home to mosques, bathhouses and little eateries and provide some amazing photographic opportunities for visitors!
Bazaars are often housed in caravanserais, or rather a bazaar complex may contain one or more caravanserais. Some bazaars such as the Grand Bazaar in Tehran are massive and getting lost within their many passageways was one of our favourite activities in Iran!
Caravanserais are ancient inns for travelers making their way across the silk road. Caravanserais usually consist of a central courtyard leading to several chambers, some of which were used for merchants and travelers to sleep in. Not only did they provide shelter, but they were often important for storing water, especially in the desert.
Caravanserais, can be found in several countries, not only in the Middle East, but also in North Africa and India. In Iran, there are reportedly 999 caravanserais, each located a distance of 30 km or so from the other, a measure which coincides with the distance a camel train would be able to move in one day.
Some caravanserais are nowadays being used as bazaars and others as boutique hotels, whilst some others lie abandoned to the elements. We thought that every one of the many caravanserais we came across was historically and culturally fascinating. Given the surrounding scenery, it was easy to imagine tired merchants and animals sheltering within their walls.
We have so much more to write and share about Iran, but we do hope that this initial post will help you plan your independent travel to Iran and give you a general introduction to the country!Read more about Iran!