BUDGET Travel Guide To Iran
2020 EDITION

This page about Iran was written after two 5 week trips in 2017 and 2019, and is regularly updated with the help of our local friends. It is part of a budget slow travel guide collection

Rather than giving you a list of popular sights and itineraries, we focus on practical information to help you prepare your own authentic and independent adventure. Endless adventures for 10-20$ a day!

Why Iran?

Iran mosque
Amir Chakhmaq complex, Yazd

Iran gets a lot of bad press. Crowds fanatically shouting “down with America”. Angry ayatollas. Missiles. Bearded militiamen. But for those who are willing to disregard the constant bashing by the media, one of the most hospitable and fascinating countries awaits.

The ancient Persian homeland has it all. Lush forests, snow-capped peaks, dreamy deserts and empty beaches. But also countless mosques, monuments and ruins left by thousands of years of history. Nevertheless, the real treasure is the people. In perhaps no other country is the traveler so often invited with open arms into families and friend circles. Rarely will you get a better chance to explore so naturally the heart and soul of an ancient and proud culture.

Visa On Arrival

The new electronic visa system introduced in 2017 is now working relatively smoothly for visitors flying to Iran. If you are from an eligible country, you can simply apply online for free. It is not a real eVisa, but you will instead get an approval code within a few days. Alternatively, authorized Iranian travel agencies can still issue the code for a fee.

At the airport, you simply pay the visa fee in Euros or USD and get a sheet of paper acting as a visa on arrival. Stamps in the passport are a thing of the past with the VOA since late 2018. If you didn’t get any approval code you can still apply for a VOA directly at the airport, but be prepared to wait longer.

Proof of medical insurance is required for the length of your stay. Alternatively, this can be purchased for a small sum at the airport before paying for your VOA.

The tourist visa is valid for 1 month, and can be extended by 2 to 4 weeks twice. Extensions are made by the relevant police department of major cities 2 to 3 days before the visa runs out. This can be stressful, especially around holidays. It pays off looking for the latest reports on Caravanistan, some immigration officers are much more relaxed than others.

Regular Visas

If you are not eligible for the visa on arrival or want to enter overland, or use one of the Gulf ferries, you will need a standard tourist visa in advance. You will still have to apply through the official online visa system or an agency, and then (hopefully) pick up your visa at one of several Iranian embassies and consulates around the world. In reality, some representations enjoy a much better reputation than others when it comes to issuing visas. For the latest up-to-date information and embassy reports, head to the Caravanistan forums.

If you are a citizen of the USA, Canada or Great-Britain there is more red tape. You must be part of an organized and approved tour group. Some people managed to bypass this by only booking a tour for a few days and then continuing on their own. However some got caught, and it’s definitely not a wise idea in the current context. Instead, if you can somehow claim a second passport, this might be a much better alternative. Or if you have the time and motivation, registering for a course at a university could land you a student visa with a 3 to 6 month validity.

It is worth mentioning that if you are traveling to the USA after a trip to Iran and you were previously eligible for the Visa Waiver Program (ESTA),  you now have to get a visa.

Entering Iran

Iran wood carving
Mosque door, Esfahan

With a large diaspora, many airlines fly to Tehran’s Imam Khomeini international airport, as well as other regional capitals. Turkish low-cost carrier Pegasus has usually the lowest fares to Tehran. Because of the visa on arrival this remains the most convenient option if you are eligible.

Overland travel is possible from neighboring Turkey, Iraq (including Iraqi Kurdistan), Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The land borders are generally relatively easily crossed with a valid visa. For the lastest info click here.

Valfarj operates car and passenger ferries between Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates and Bandar Abbas. A fast passenger-only boat sails between Dubai and Bandar Lengeh. Khorramshahr can also be reached from Kuweit. Here too a visa is required in advance.

Inter-City Public Transportation In Iran

Iran fishermen
Hitching a ride with some youngsters gone fishing in the Gulf

General considerations. Iran’s infrastructure has suffered from years of sanctions and is antiquated, but generally efficient. With fuel cheaper than water, transportation also remains very affordable.

Flying Iran’s vintage but well-maintained domestic fleet is a cheap and good option if you are in a hurry and don’t mind booking in advance. Tickets can be bought through travel agencies and helpful Iranians with a local bank card on Ali Baba.

Train. Chinese carriages pulled by German engines form the backbone of Iran’s extensive rail network. The comfort is hard to beat, especially for overnight journeys. And fares are very cheap. The drawback is that rail is also very popular, and tickets are usually sold out a week or two in advance, especially around holidays. You can make a reservation at the station, through a travel agency, or online with Ali Baba with local accomplices.

Bus and shared taxi. Numerous bus companies ply the routes between major cities. The more luxurious ones have seats similar to business class on airplanes. Generally no reservations are needed, but if you want to be sure you can go to the bus station in advance. Or as usual recruit a helper.

Between smaller towns and villages, shared taxis are often the only option. Ask for taxi nahdarbast, and confirm the price before getting in. Locals will be happy to show you where the shared taxi stand is.

Local Public Transportation In Iran

Metro & City Buses. The modern Tehran metro is a great alternative to the busy streets above, although it also gets very crowded during rush hour. There is now even a brand new line going to the international airport, saving you a pricey taxi ride. City buses go everywhere, but get stuck in the traffic jams like everyone else.
 

Taxi. When you do have to hail a cab Tehran, and to a lesser extend in other big cities, Iranians use a lot Snapp, an Uber clone. The app is available for Android and iOS, but requires a local phone number. The driver often calls the client because of GPS inaccuracies, so be prepared to speak a few words in Farsi.

Alternatively, you can use any of the yellow and green cabs. If you stick your arm out normal cars might also offer their services. You can still use Snapp to give you an idea of the fare. Expect to pay slightly more. Agree on a price before getting in, and be prepared to bargain hard, especially around bus stations and touristic sights.

Motor. By far the most exciting alternative is the motorcycle taxi. Just hold your arm out when a motorcycle drives by and say motor. When a driver stops, negotiate a fare, and hold on to dear life. This is by far the fastest option in Tehran during rush hour, with motors apparently exempt from any traffic rule.

Hitchhiking And Self-Drive In Iran

Hitchhiking is easy and a fun way to discover the country. It is also often the only way to reach remote destinations if you don’t have your own vehicle. Holding your thumb up can be considered obscene, it’s best to simply hold your arm out. In rural areas few people are used to the concept of hitchhiking, although it is getting more popular among the youth.

You will rarely have to wait more than a few cars. The main problem is the communication barrier. State your destination : man be… miram. To check where your potential ride is going : koja shoma mirid? And to verify that she/he is going to the right place : shoma be… mirid?

Some drivers assume that you are lost and will drop you off at the nearest bus stop. You can try aatobus nemikham (I don’t want the bus). Sometimes drivers expect payment. If you don’t want to pay for a taxi, it’s best to avoid subsequent confusion by stating majanee (for free).

Private car or motorbike. Official car rentals for tourists are ridiculously overpriced. Driving your own vehicle from Europe via Turkey is the preferred option. You might still be able to get a more reasonable deal or even borrow a vehicle from a local friend. Ask around. And this is your only hope for a local motorbike. Be warned that road casualties are extremely high in Iran.

Accommodation

Iran Hormuz camping
Paradise on Hormuz Island, Persian Gulf

Tehran has a few backpacker hostels. Elsewhere there are few budget options for foreigners. Some low-key hotels just can’t be bothered with the paperwork that comes with tourists. You might have to walk around and bargain a lot.

The Couchsurfing website is blocked, but that doesn’t stop many hosts who simply use a VPN. Airbnb and booking.com don’t work because of the sanctions. But fear not, you can always rely on the mighty Persian hospitality if in trouble. You will get many offers to stay a night or two. Obviously always trust your instincts, but this is often the highlight of your trip!

If you carry your own tent, you can camp for free in the mountains, deserts, forests and on isolated beaches. If in doubt, just ask the locals. Camping and picnics are extremely popular and firmly rooted in the popular culture. In fact, you can even camp for free in certain city parks, particularly during Nowruz, the Persian New Year. It’s absolutely normal to pitch your tent in the seafront parks of Bandar Abbas. Often public toilets and water are available. Urban camping at its best.

Food In Iran

Iran food hospitality
"It's diiilicious!"

Typical dishes. More than one traveler has complained about the food. Always polow (rice) kebab. Granted, if you stick to restaurants your choices are limited. Fortunately, once more Persian hospitality comes to the rescue.

If you stay with an Iranian family, you will get fed ridiculous quantities of delicious, home-cooked food. And even if you don’t, you will most probably get invited for dinner sooner or later. Do yourself a favour and accept! Saffron, pomegranate and walnuts are heavily featured. Stews served with rice are very popular. Qorma sabzi is made with lots of green herbs, fesenjun with a walnut and pomegranate sauce.

In the fish markets of the ports of the Gulf, you can find the daily catch of fresh fish and sea food at bargain prices. For a small extra sum, they can often be prepared and cooked in nearby stalls.

Vegetarians In Iran

Vegetarians and vegans are slowly becoming more common among younger people in the educated middle and upper classes. But options remain limited besides salads and the ubiquitous falafel. Which by the way can be very tasty. Try the falafel baa paneer o gharch, with mushroom and cheese. Bademjun, eggplant, is served as a stew in a tomato and saffron sauce. Sup, soups, can be made from lentils, barley, pomegrenate or yogurt.

To confirm the absence of meat, ask for bedune gusht. The countless small fruit and veg shops are a great opportunity to try some local produce. Because of the high degree of self-sufficiency of the country, almost nothing is imported. And thanks to the climatic diversity it is perfectly normal to have apples, pomegranate and bananas in season at the same time.

In the bazaars, look for nuts, and particularly piste, pistachios. Irani qorma, dates, are arguably the best money can buy, moist and sweet. And don’t forget to try the fresh tanur naan, leavened bread baked in a tandoor oven.

Non-Alcoholic And Alcoholic Drinks In Iran

Tea. Iran is a big chai producer and consumer. It is traditionally drunk with a sugar cube in your mouth, or with saffron-flavored rock candy. It’s a cornerstone of social life and hospitality. Get ready to drink many cups every day.

Dugh is a yogurty drink similar to Turkish ayran. It is worth mentioning as a relatively healthy alternative to the ubiquitous sugary soda beverages.

Alcohol is illegal for Muslims, and the law is strictly enforced in public. Behind closed doors, it’s a different story. Even in conservative circles you might find family members who make their own wine, beer or spirits. Wine is smuggled from Armenia, and liquor across the Gulf from the UAE.

Off The Beaten Track

Iran Hormuz
A parallel universe somewhere in the Persian Gulf

Most tourists stick to Tehran, Esfahan, Yazd, Shiraz and Persepolis. Getting off the beaten track is not exactly hard. A fascinating aspect of Iranian society are the parallel worlds. Many things happen behind closed doors. I’ll remain somewhat cryptic here, but if you want to socialize with the youth and artists, hang out around Lamiz Café just North of Teatr e Shahr on Valiasr in Tehran. In summer, head to the woods of Shomal, the North. In winter, go to the remote beaches of Hormuz Island in the Gulf.

Stay Healthy

Food hygiene standards are generally good. The experienced traveler shouldn’t have any problems, although usual precautions apply. The tap water is safe to drink in many cities and towns, but the taste is not always great. In the Gulf area, tap water may come from inefficient desalinization plants. Ask the locals.

Climate. Iran is a country of climatic extremes. Winters in the North and in the mountains are bitterly cold. A few hours South are some of the hottest deserts on Earth. Bring adapted clothing and stay hydrated.

Stay Safe In Iran

Road safety. Iran is one of the safest countries of the Middle-East, with very low crime rates. The reckless driving is easily the greatest danger to your life. Combined with the somewhat suicidal tendencies of Iranian pedestrians this is a potentially dangerous mix. Be extra cautious when crossing streets, don’t blindly follow locals to an early grave! While cars vaguely respect traffic rules, motorbikes seem to be exempt, especially in Tehran. Look both ways, even while crossing a one way street!

Dealing With the Authorities. Generally authorities are very forgiving when dealing with tourists. Most policemen will actually enjoy chatting with you, out of sheer curiosity. Be however very aware when getting the camera out. And don’t even think about flying a drone without an authorization. Intelligence services are actively looking for foreign spies. Avoid taking pictures of official buildings, infrastructure and anything remotely military. If you ever get in trouble, whatever the reason, be very polite, apologetic, patient and play the ignorant tourist card.

Keeping Your Friends Safe. A more important and often overlooked aspect is the safety of your local hosts and friends. The authorities are not as tolerant with them. Circumventing the law is akin to a national sport in Iran. But freedom sometimes comes at a heavy price. No need to be paranoid, but a bit of common sense is important. Don’t mention the address of a local host when entering the country, just stay at a hotel or hostel for one night. Don’t load anything controversial if using a private internet connection. Follow the advice of your friends. There are many invisible red lines, and they know what is safe and what isn’t more than you do.

Cultural Condiderations: Taarof & Fuzul

Iran bazaar
To taarof or not to taarof?

Taarof is an ancient Persian custom which is still quite common particularly among more traditional circles. When you are offered something, it is considered good manners to refuse several (often three) times before finally accepting. If the person is just making the offer out of politeness it presents a convenient way out by simply not insisting.

Conversely, if you are giving something then taarof etiquette dictates that your present will first be declined. Be prepared to insist. There are many subtleties that are even at times confusing for Iranians themselves. It’s like an indirect process to discover the true intentions of both parties without ever mentioning anything directly.

For example, a Taxi driver wishing to be nice and polite to you, esteemed visitor, will say that the ride was for free. But he also needs to make a living. By insisting, the driver can keep his face. And you get to be the generous traveler. As a tourist you will often spared the whole game. But if in doubt, just be honest and ask in taarof hast? (is this taarof?). You can also use the statement taarof nist (this is not taarof) if you are offering something. If you get it wrong, don’t worry, you won’t be first one.

Fuzul is a Persian slang word describing someone who is a little too curious. Or nosy if you prefer. You will meet many fuzuli people. Where are you going? Why are you not married? Why don’t you have any children? If it gets too overwhelming, just mention the word fuzul kindly, with a big smile. That usually does the trick.

Cultural Condiderations: Persian Hospitality

Hospitality is central to Persian culture. You will get countless invitations for tea, dinner, a tour of the city or even to stay the night in the family home. A small fraction might be taarof, but most are genuine. Iranians are truly exceptional hosts. It can easily get tiring, but remember that people are terribly aware of their bad image abroad. As a (respectful) guest, you also give them back some dignity.

There is also some etiquette for the guest to remember. Bring a gift, flowers or chocolates are fine. Insist on how poor your gift is. Yes, that’s another form of taarof! Greet the elders first. If you are a man only shake hands with women if offered to do so. Refuse everything that is offered to you first. Yes, more taarof. Eat with your right hand. Always use the provided slippers when going to the bathroom.

Dress Code

The dress code in public is dictated by law and theoretically quite strict. Arms and legs should be covered for both men and women. Body curves should not be revealed. Women should always have their heads covered with a hijab, a headscarf.

In reality things are a lot more relaxed. And in private homes anything goes.  Having said that, it varies a lot between the liberal parts of North Tehran and more conservative cities and neighborhoods. If in doubt just look what people are wearing around you.

For women, the hijab only needs to cover some of the hair and at least theoretically the neck. That leaves room to interpretation. Bare forearms are ok, but always keep shoulders covered. Sandals, colored hair and painted nails too. Even tattoos, although you will raise a few eyebrows in more conservative areas. The popular manteau, a loose button-up tunic, is a good way to blend in. In religious buildings a chador, a full-body black gown, is required and can usually be borrowed by the entrance.

For men, t-shirts are acceptable, but shorts are not. Flip-flops are used to go to the toilet and are best avoided in public. Loose pants are great for the sun and heat.

Couples & Dating

Unmarried Couples. Traveling as an unmarried couple is not a problem, as long as both partners are foreign. Dorms outside the few Tehran hostels are for men only, so be prepared to get a room. If asked, pretend that you are married, nobody cares about any hard evidence. In contrast, it will be very difficult (but not impossible) to travel with an Iranian of the opposite sex without a marriage certificate. It is also worth mentioning that an Iranian with dual citizenship is still considered Iranian in the eyes of the law.

Solo Women. It is not uncommon for women to travel unaccompanied, unlike countries like Saudi Arabia. Solo female travelers will have no problem booking transportation and hotel rooms.

Dating In Iran. You might get a fair amount of attention from the opposite sex, particularly if you look North European. There is a discrete but active dating scene in Tehran. Tinder is surprisingly popular and works with a VPN. A funny exchange ritual of phone numbers happens most nights between interested car passengers on Bou Ali Road. And then there are the many underground parties. But as a foreigner things can quickly get confusing. And taarof can even apply to relationships!

Language

Persian, also known as Farsi, is the lingua franca of Iran. Several other regional languages are spoken, including Kurdish, Arabic, Azerbaijani, Lori and Balochi. The population of Iran, including women, is highly educated, and you will find that many speak excellent English. Other foreign languages such as German are also surprising popular.

Having said that, learning some Farsi is an extremely rewarding experience. And unlike Arabic, it’s an Indo-European language, and at least in its modern spoken form the grammar is remarkably simple. The script can be learned in a few hours and will be of great help to navigate bus stations, bazaars and cities. The main problem you will encounter is the lack of good online resources dedicated to colloquial Persian.

Internet

Public wifi is often terribly slow, if at all available. Irancell, the main mobile provider, sells SIM cards with 1 month validity to foreign tourists downstairs at the international arrivals of Imam Khomeini Airport.  While the exact offer varies over time, it’s cheap and very helpful to stay in touch with your new Iranian friends.

Alternatively, the main Irancell office in Tehran is rumored to also issue SIM cards to tourists, but otherwise it is nearly impossible to get one. If you have a sympathetic soul armed with an Iranian ID and bank card you can get your hands on a regular SIM card, but remember that it will be registered under your friend’s name. Behave!

An ever-growing number of sites are blocked by state censorship, including WhatsApp and Facebook. It’s a good idea to install a VPN beforehand.

Money & Typical Budget

Cash The Iranian Rial has a lot of zeros. Too many zeros. The government announced plans to drop 4 zeros in 2020. Currently people use the Toman for day to day transactions, dropping a zero in the process. 100000 Rials = 10000 Tomans which sometimes is simply referred to as 10 Tomans. Supermarkets and many transport companies display prices in Rials, otherwise the Toman is king. If in doubt, ask. The general rule of thumb is that if it seems too cheap then the price is probably in Tomans.

ATMs are still cut off the international payment systems, and work with domestic accounts only. You will have to bring all your money in cash. The US dollar has the status of a parallel currency, and is easily exchanged across the country. The Euro is less popular but still adequate. You may also be able to exchange other currencies in Tehran, particularly notes from neighboring countries such as the Turkish Lira and the UAE dirham.

Budget So how much do you need in total? With the fluctuating exchange rates it’s hard to tell at the moment. But Iran remains very affordable. With local transportation, some camping and accepting some invitations 10-20$ per month should be plenty for budget travelers and backpackers.

Exchanging Money Tips

The official government rates are poor, don’t exchange your money in banks. Iranians use the black market instead, which is more or less tolerated by the government depending on the ever-changing mood of politicians. Rates can be very volatile, but easily 3 times better than in banks.

In Tehran, go to Ferdowsi square and walk South on Ferdowsi Avenue. You will see countless small currency exchange offices. Confirm the displayed rates inside before exchanging any money. You will also get a lot of offers from shady looking guys. These street money changers are actually very useful outside of business hours, but speak little to no English. They are generally honest, but carefully looking for fakes never hurts.

Iranians only have very limited access to foreign currency through the black market. Don’t be surprised if your host and friends or their family asks you if you have any US dollars to exchange. This is a great way to cut out the middle man or to replenish your Rial stash outside of Tehran.