I usually make the “mistake” of not informing myself about the country when I travel to a new country. It costs a lot of time to research everything and in the end you will make your own experiences in the new place anyway. Of course I have read some blog posts concerning safety issues for solo women in Iran, or looked at some places I could visit (like my Pinterest gallery abou Iran), but once in a blue moon or so.
For Iran however, this could have almost screwed up my whole vacation. ‘Why?’, you would ask? Because I did not carry any cash with me – relying on my credit card that had been my best friend for the previous 4 months of travelling through Asia. But international credits card just do not work in Iran. So the only way to be solvent, is to carry lots of precious banknotes with you. That would have been a new
fun experience in a totally unpredictable country: travelling through Iran with no money 😉
At this point, I compiled a quick list for you, that might help you while planning your trip and also might give you some more understanding of the Iranian culture in order for your Iran visit to run smoothly.
1. Visa issues
I wrote an article about visa-on-arrival for German citizens (in German), which can usually be obtained without any problems (but some preparations). A visa is needed for almost every country, so inform yourself about your country’s requirements before you go.
Be aware that if you travelled to Iran, you will only be allowed to enter the US on a visa. This means you cannot longer enter via ESTA!
The U.S. Bureau of Consular Affair states:
“Under the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015, travelers in the following categories are no longer eligible to travel or be admitted to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP):
– Nationals of VWP countries who have traveled to or been present in Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, or Yemen on or after March 1, 2011. […]
These individuals will still be able to apply for a visa using the regular appointment process at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate.”
It is a big hassle for Iranians to leave the country (visas for abroad are really difficult to get). It is for that reason that they are very eager to meet travellers from other countries within their own country’s borders!
2. Dress code
As soon as you land on Iranian territory, women have to wear scarves to cover hair and neck. The front part of the hair can be visible without any problem.
Place the middle of your scarf on your head and just throw the ends over your shoulders.
In general, the law is very loose towards Western tourists and you don’t have to worry if the scarf keeps sleeping down.
To make the (head-)scarf stay in place, wear your hair in a high bun.
Arms (to the ellbows) and legs have to be covered. Tight trousers or leggings and sandals are allowed. Ankles can be visible. The top part has to cover the butt, so wear blouses or little jackets that are a bit longer. They can be slim-fit but not skin-tight. Don’t show your cleavage.
Men should not wear short trousers or tank tops.
3. Population size
Iran has a population of 80 millions. Most of them live concentrated around the capital Tehran (20m).
That means it has the same number of inhabitants as Germany, yet its area is 5 times bigger. If you like offbeat places, Iran is your country. Two-thirds of the country is either desert or mountains.
4. Weekdays / Time
Most Iranians work 6 days per week. Different to most other countries, the Friday is off. Sunday is just a regular working day. (This can be important if you plan on doing couchsurfing and you want to do things together with your host.)
Thursday = our Saturday
Friday = our Sunday
Apart from that, Iran uses a different calendar. According to the Iranian calender, we have the year 1396 (It is not based on the birth of Jesus Christ but on the migration of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina.) The New Year (‘nowruz‘) is celebrated on the 21st of March (you will hear Iranians talk about it a lot).
Be aware that the language spoken in Iran is Persian (or Farsi), which uses the Arabic script. To our regret this means that we cannot understand anything written on stores, restaurants or even busses (unless you know how to read the script).
restaurant is written: رستوران
bus station is written: ترمینال
6. Cash flow
This is the most important point when planning a trip to Iran.
You cannot use any foreign credit card inside Iran.
That means every Tom, Dick and Harry (or Ali, Reza and Mehdi, to take more Iranian names) will know you are carrying lots of precious banknotes in your baggage… At this point I can assure you that nothing has happened to my valuable objects and that Iran can be considered a safe country.
If you wonder if to bring dollars or euros, bring euros. Iranians love euros and even local friends are interested to exchange your money (it’s somehow different for dollars…).
In January 2017, the exchange rate was around 1 €/$ = 40.000 Rial. I obtained the best exchange rates in a bureau de change. You can also find private people lingering around in front of exchange offices, but their rate is way lower. Banks do not give a good conversion rate.
Prices are usually expressed in Toman, which means either one zero less than the price in Rial – which, honestly, doesn’t make their large numbers any better… – or four zeroes less, depending on the context.
For a better understanding:
10 Rial = 1 Toman
or else 10,000 Rial = 1 Toman
One other example.
Let’s suppose we are shopping in a market and we find the following beautiful red evening gown for 300. How much does that make in euros?
Rule no. 1: Assume it is the highest price (with that you are usually right).
300 Rial ≈ 0,0082€
300 Toman * 10 = 3,000 Rial ≈ 0,082€
300 Toman * 10,000 = 3,000,000 Rial ≈ 82€
7. Blocked websites
Facebook, YouTube as well as particular blogging services (such as WordPress) are inaccessible in Iran. The funny thing though is that even senior politicans have their own fan page on Facebook 😋
Regarding messengers, WhatsApp and Telegram (see point 12) are working just fine, while WeChat is blocked.
No need to look on AirBnB or Hostelworld for suiting accomodation. As many other pages, those ones are blocked. Even if accessed from abroad, a simple search for “Tehran” gives 0 results.
Now how to book a hotel? Many hotels or hostels have a website and bookings can be made via email. A search on Google Maps might reveal their condition and rating.
Personally, I only stayed with friends, their relatives or Couchsurfing. Especially in Iran, Couchsurfing is THE best way to get to know the local culture. People are very open to talk, very hospitable and hosts are easy to find. A public trip typically ended with about 50 offers per city from people willing to host me.
(Of course, dear female readers, always stay aware of men with bad intentions. I always read the references of my potential hosts and checked for phrases like “his mum prepares the best food” to know I will stay under the protected wings of a family…)
For some reason it is publicly believed that Couchsurfing is illegal in Iran. BUT it is not.
What is illegal indeed, is not to register any non-related visitor staying at your home (which, to be honest, is a big hassle for every time someone comes to visit you…).
Couchsurfing luckily also is not blocked in Iran. You can read here how to write a successful couchsurf request.
9. Drinking water
It is totally okay to drink tap water. 💧 Plus, it is easy to get your (sustainable) bottle refilled once it’s empty. For the love of nature, please do not buy bottled water… 💓
10. A visit to the lavatory 🚾
This is the most unpleasant, but most important point. Have I met visitors with their eyes closed… Really, it’s ridiculous. After the toilet already had been blocked two times, other fellow couchsurfers were whispering about problems with the toilet again. – Well, you kept ignoring all the signs and kept flushing the toilet paper..!
🚽 Rule #1:
DO NOT FLUSH TOILETPAPER DOWN THE TOILET.
It is so simple. There is a bin next to every toilet in which you can just throw all the toilet paper. (Most probably you can already see some paper inside.) Please please please use it. It is emptied on a daily basis so there is no ackward smell. The pipes are just too thin to cart the paper away.
What is worse, in the case of my couchsurfing host (who got really upset with cleaning the toilet a third time in just one day) he used a kind of toilet paper that was made out of plastic and swells up once it comes in contact with water.
*Weird side note: At some points you will notice a white plastic stopper in the toilet (to avoid animals entering through the pipes I suppose). YOU DO NOT NEED TO REMOVE IT (really… it happened… to me… 🤐). It has a flap that will open automatically once liquid or something else hits it.
11. Means of transportation
Bus tickets can be bought directly at the station or in advance on the internet. Prices might be cheaper over the internet, but here are the bad news: a) the websites are only in Persian and b) it can only be bought with an Iranian bank card. (➙ One more plus point of getting a Couchsurfing host.)
Domestic flights are available and not too expensive. Again the same downside: You need to have an Iranian bank card. (Side note: The flights are cheaper on the Persian site than the English one.)
The following apps have helped me a lot during my travels to Iran:
- Telegram (the most popular messenger in Iran – probably because of its data protection.)
- WhatsApp (most people have it)
For sure the most asked question.
- Apps: Turbo VPN or Lantern
- Laptop: I used the VPN-program of my university to access its network (and use all the sites as if I am in Darmstadt, Germany)
You will reach at bus stations in unknown places and need to find the way. My favourite offline map is MAPS.ME. You can download individual regions beforehand and delete them from your storage once you have left the region.
Finally I want to inform you about a really helpful and active Facebook group, which helps with all the questions that come to your mind before and during your travels in Iran: See you in Iran. (Note that, as previously stated, Facebook is blocked in Iran, so if you want to use the group during your travels, you will have to install a VPN before entering the country.)
This is what I believe to be everything you need to know before visiting Iran. I wish you good luck with your travels to Iran and many wonderful experiences. Let me know how it went, if you like 💌
Curious how my first 72 hours in Iran were like? Read my post here: The first days in Iran. What I saw and felt.
… because sharing is caring! ♥