5 Things to Know Before Going to Iran

Iran's conservative politics may make visitors wonder if it’s a safe country to visit. Yet those who make the trip will be rewarded with a bounty of attractions combined with some of the world’s warmest hospitality. Here are some things to be aware of before you go.

Shares

A male backpacker stands in front of the ornate Shah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran. Photo © Getty Images/Mekdet

I’d been fascinated by Iran since flicking through my Dad's 1970s travel snaps as a child. And while I knew there was more to the former heart of ancient Persia than the headlines suggested, I was bowled over by the surprises it held for me once I visited, from Iran’s variety of landscapes to its hip urban coffee scenes.

While some surprises are nice, it's important to be as prepared as possible for a visit to Iran. Here are five things to consider when planning a trip.

Basics: Visas, money, and getting around

Iran's visa system can be confusing and time-consuming, so be sure to allow plenty of time. As an Australian, I was elibible for a visa-on-arrival, but all visa applicants are currently advised to apply for a visa authorization code from Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in advance. If you’re from the US, the UK or Canada, not only will you need to secure a visa in advance, but you're also restricted to visiting on an organized tour. Dual passport holders should also be aware that Iran does not recognize dual citizenship; it considers dual citizens of Iran as Iranian citizens.

My visa allowed independent travel, but I opted to hire a certified private local driver/guide. This was surprisingly affordable and allowed me to see more of Iran than would have been possible via public transport or on an organized tour, while benefiting from my guide Sufi's extensive knowledge. For advice on safe solo female travel in Iran, check out these tips.

Foreign credit and bank cards aren't accepted in Iran, so I brought all the cash I'd need in euros. Euros are widely accepted, but I exchanged some for Iranian rials for a fair rate at Tehran's airport, where I also purchased a local SIM.

Vegetarian? You won't go hungry in Iran, but menu options can be limited; in larger cities you’ll find a decent selection of plant-based restaurants and takeaway falafel shops. Mobility-restricted visitors may find Iran more challenging to navigate, with a reported 30% of public buildings accessible to people with a disability.

Etiquette in Iran

Known as taarof, the Persian art of etiquette can take a while to get your head around. This complex system of politeness calls for the initial refusal of things you want (such as an additional helping of food) before accepting. Similarly, if an Iranian refuses to take your money for a service, it's polite to insist until payment is accepted.

Social faux pas to avoid includes using the 'thumbs up' hand gesture to indicate 'good' or 'okay', which is the equivalent of the middle finger, or "up yours" in Iran. Public displays of affection should also be avoided, particularly by LGBTQ+ travelers, as punishments can be severe. Photographing government buildings also carries harsh penalties.

Dress code in Iran

There are certain rules that women are required to follow in Iran, but the dress code wasn't as rigid as I expected. All women are legally required to wear a hijab in public (any plain or colored scarf will do). But your headscarf doesn’t need to be tightly fitted; it’s not an issue if some of your hair is showing.

A woman traveler in a headscarf takes photos at the ancient ruins of Persepolis, Iran.
A traveler takes photos at the ancient ruins of Persepolis. Image credit: Getty Images / CasaraGuru

Women's clothing should ideally be loose-fitting. Tops should cover the elbows, and tight pants such as leggings and jeans should be paired with a long shirt or cardigan that covers your butt at a minimum. Open-toed sandals are fine. When visiting mosques, women are typically required to wear a chador (cloak). Don't worry if you don’t have one as chadors can usually be borrowed at the entrance.

There are fewer rules for men, but in general you should avoid wearing shorts, sleeveless vests, and flip-flops. T-shirts are fine, though most Iranian men wear collared shirts.

Iranian hospitality

Iranians have been accustomed to hosting visitors since the days of the Silk Road (which dates from the 2nd century BC), and hospitality remains ingrained in local culture – I lost count of how many locals approached me in the street to say hello, offered to show me around, and even invited me home for a meal. I quickly became accustomed to greeting men with a warm "salaam alaykum" (may peace be upon you) or simply "salaam" (peace) instead of a handshake, as physical contact with non-family members of the opposite sex is forbidden.

During my visit I was honored to be invited to my guide's parents' house for dinner. If you accept invitations such as these, it’s polite to be on time, and bring a small gift. Remove your shoes at the door, unless instructed otherwise, and always wait to be told where to sit. A delicious traditional spread was served to me at a table, but meals are often served on the floor and eaten without utensils; in these cases, use your right hand to eat. It's customary to leave some food on your plate to indicate when you've finished.

There’s more to Iran than its cities

Visiting the culture-rich cities of Tehran, Esfahan, and Shiraz – not to mention the sprawling ruins of ancient Persepolis – are all Iran highlights. But there are plenty of other fabulous things to see and do in this vast and varied country. As a keen skier, I was delighted to discover that two of Iran’s largest ski resorts (Dizin and Darbandsar) lie within 50mi (80km) of Tehran. Smaller Tochal is even closer – reached by a gondola from the northern fringe of the city. I've also now added snorkeling and scuba diving sites at Qeshm Island to my wish list.

Iran's bevy of underrated natural attractions also include the rust-coloured travertine terraces of Badab Soort northeast of Tehran and the otherworldly rock formations of Dasht-e-Lut (the Lut Desert) in Iran's southeast. It wasn't the right time of year for me to visit the dazzling pink Maharloo Lake near Shiraz – which takes on its highly photogenic magenta hue in the summertime – so I chalked it up as yet another excellent reason to make a return trip.

Related articles

Travel Insurance

Simple and flexible travel insurance

You can buy at home or while traveling, and claim online from anywhere in the world. With 150+ adventure activities covered and 24/7 emergency assistance.

Get a quote

12 Comments

  • Saba said

    Dear All
    I'm already happy to know people are coming to visit my beautiful country I'm a freelance tour guide and I enjoy answering your questions , and I work in a an office called Pintapin , we offer all the hotels and accomodation with good discount rate and you can also use your credit cards to book, (visa and master) .I'd be glad to help u out .
    en.pintapin.com

    Reply

  • Samaneh Ghaedi said

    thanks for your tips. its good to add this Do not be afraid to ask any Iranian anything. If they speak English, they will endeavor to help you to the best way they can. They will not stray you or make up stories. If asking for directions, as in any other country make sure to ask a few people as you go along until you reach your destination.

    Reply

  • reza said

    You are lying a lot. I am Iranian and I have never heard of this.
    That was 30 or 40 years ago, not now.

    Reply

  • Amir said

    That's totally right

    Reply

  • mobin said

    I love Iran
    The best country in any thing special social security

    Reply

  • arman said

    non of dose matters when you aren"t in public place like street or airport and markets and only things is impotent is do not make aye contact with someone you don"t know and always take someone how can speech english no! one!!! dont know your language dont pay anything (because iranian
    Sales Expensive) without Consulting! your tour guy or someone you know speech English and can trust

    Reply

  • erga said

    Allah Akbar in Iran

    Reply

  • James said

    Hi. Bear in mind your not losing your wallet.Mobile. or any device at Khomainie Airport or city...Don't comment on Khamenie and shi'it otherwise you will ended up in Evin prison...If you are Academic make sure you don't mention it otherwise like Dr kylie moore gilbert they detaine you for 804 days and swipe you with any Iranian detainee in abroad

    Reply

    • Saeed said

      Thanks to the author. I add. We are a Muslim people and our country is made up entirely of Muslims. So if you want to make fun of religious punishments, please pay attention first ,Can anyone in the European Union insult Christian shrines or the Queen of England walk freely in the cityBefore Islam, logic dictates that if you have any thought that violates society, keep it in your home and in your territory, if you force people to follow your thoughts, your fate is death.Unless you can prove it.Islam is also a proven religion in the world. And even that it is more complete than Christianity has been proven, but the same religion, It requires us to respect others. . We are not Baha'is, murderers, patriarchs, hungry, miserable, ISIL. We have a severe economic problem But this problem can be everywhere, even in the land of blondes and blue eyes. Even Europe can be destroyed. We are like the rest of humanity and we have a country with a rich culture that makes Islam real.And this Islam is different from the Islam of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iraq and the war-torn countries. Iran is a very beautiful country. And if it were not for the oppression of the blue eyes, Iran would have been twice as large, ten times more populousSo please do not pay attention to the slanders of others about our country. Problems are everywhere. But they have been magnified in Iran. Why? Because we want to be ourselves and defend ourselves and use our oil, ourselves And destroy the killer of our brothers (Israel's self-proclaimed regime). What the world does not want, but we will achieve.

      Reply

  • Brian said

    Do you need to declare your religion for the Visa application? Are Bahá’ís welcome?

    Reply

  • Hossein said

    Thanks for sharing your experiences. Firstly Iran has a diverse geography and has pretty exciting places and cities to visit. I have not traveled to lots of cities yet.
    I have to say that i have never heard a western tourist to share bad experiences in iran which is very interesting to me . We are basically more interested in foreigners than in ourselves, this is a basic iranian trait. When i read tourist stories about iran and how Iran is a nice country i get jealous. But if you are a tourist you can enjoy lots of places with little expense. But you gotta be quick because poor management of natural resources is destroying iran's nature.

    Reply

  • AMIR said

    Hello. You may think we Iranians are the enemy of the American people, but this is not the case because if our government has a problem with the US government, it does not concern us Iranians. Of course, we Iranians hate people like Joe Biden or Trump because they always put a lot of pressure on us. But we have no problem with the American people and we think that all the people of the world are brothers. Some time ago, an American insulted me a lot. I did not tell him anything because the American media describes the Iranians as if we are the devil! But it is not. Our government is run by bad people like Hassan Rouhani and Mr. Raisi, etc. I hope that the sanctions against us will be reduced and that there will never be enmity and discomfort between us and you. If you have a letter, answer, etc., email me: [email protected]

    Reply

Add a Comment