Before we headed out to Iran in May 2016 (read the full story here), we tried to research quite a bit and were happy about every bit of more or less up-to-date information about backpacking, or individual travel in general. Hence, we wanted to contribute to this and provide some updates about getting around in Iran. (This list is more or less random and not a complete guide 🙂 )
- We flew to Tehran via Istanbul with Turkish Airlines but there are also various direct flights from Europe – and plenty of new routes are about to open right now. Even real low cost carriers.
- The airport (IKA) is about 50 minutes out of the city – at night time without any traffic! They are extending the metro all the way to the airport but by looking at the construction sites I would not expect this to be finished before 2018 or so… However, the taxi fares from the airport to the city are fixed at 600,000 Rials. So you should make sure not to pay more before entering a cab. Though I am not sure if there might be a premium at night time.
Probably the topic that we tried to research the most before leaving. I called the consulate here in Germany a while back and they just told me to get the visa-on-arrival. However, we were still quite unsure since we didn’t find many current reports on the internet if this would be a good idea.
Anyway, we decided we’d take the risk and try our luck at the airport – and save the effort to get a visa upfront. And what should I say? It was easier to get into Iran than to enter the US 🙂
- So here is what you need:
- A hotel reservation (printed email confirmation). We had booked a hotel for only one night in Tehran since we wanted to go couch surfing after that. It wasn’t really easy to find a hotel that we could book online – maybe also because we just booked one week before leaving 😉 We ended up in the Hotel Khayyam and it was really perfect for the one night. We didn’t see much when we arrived about 1 AM but turns out it was really in the middle of the city. And the taxi driver had to trouble finding it. Just to note: Maybe this also works without a hotel reservation and just some invitation from a friend of yours (or even a couch surfing host) but we didn’t want to risk it.
- Confirmation letter (in English) of your travel insurance that covers you abroad. In Germany this costs about 12 Euro per year and if you are traveling you should have this anyway. I just emailed my insurance company and they sent me a written letter.
- Cash. We paid the visa in Euro. I assume that local Rial or US dollar would also work. But since we didn’t exchange any money upfront, this was fine for us. Regarding costs: We paid 75 Euro per person (German citizens). We also heard of a girl from Venezuela, she paid 50 Euro. I guess this is somewhat random…
- So this is how it works:
- Go to a small counter and hand over your insurance confirmation. The guy just looked at ours briefly and stamped it. If you don’t have proper insurance this is also where you can buy one. Not sure about the costs, though.
- Second, go the the actual visa counter. Hand over your passport, stamped insurance letter and your hotel confirmation. Then we waited about 30 minutes. There were maybe 5-8 people in front of us.
- Third, we were called back to the counter. The guy just wrote “75” on a blue piece of paper and pointed us to the next counter.
- On the “Bank” counter you pay the amount of money written on the paper and you get a receipt for it. Then we waited for another 15 minutes or so.
- Last, we were called again and were handed back our passports with a really shiny visa in it 🙂 Single entry visa, valid for 30 days! No questions asked (really, no question whatsoever!).
After that you just go to the immigration control. This took another 15 seconds and we were in Iran.
So to sum up our experience: If your country is eligible for the visa on arrival, save yourself the hassle of getting you visa upfront!
The only topic of real annoyance during our whole trip was probably around money:
- First, there is still no practical way yet to get any cash for foreigners in Iran. Hence, you have to bring all the cash you might need with you. We each carried about 550 Euro for our 11-day trip.
- While the UN sanctions are already lifted, the banking system is still not really connected to the rest of the world as of May 2016. This is partly because the US have a another set of sanctions in place and many banks are afraid to violate those if they would start to cooperate again with Iranian banks. Keep your fingers crossed that this is going to be resolved some time soon!
- Money exchange: We exchanged the first 50 Euro at the exchange bank at the airport to have at least some cash. But the exchange rate there is really bad! So only exchange as much as you really need before getting into Tehran (or any other bigger city). In the cities, never go to the banks, instead look out for the private exchange offices (“sarafi”). They offer way better rates. When we’ve been there the official rate was about 1:35000 (Euro:Rial). In the exchange offices, however, we got rates as good as 1:39000! We always exchanged in batches of 100-200 Euro or so since we were never really sure how much money we would need.
- In the end we each spent about 400 Euro or so in 11 days. However, since we were couch surfing quite a lot this of course saved a good deal of money.
- Be aware that the exchange offices are mostly closed on the weekends (Thursday and Friday!)
- Once you got your Rials, the real challenge begins! Believe me, you will get confused! It took us about 3-4 days until we started to get the hang of it… First of all, for 100 Euro we got about 3,9 Million Rial. Since the largest bill is 500,000 Rial and the next is 100,000 Rial, you will have a stockpile of bills! Bills get as small as 1000 Rial (I think) and if you get really lucky(…) once in a while you will even be handed some coins – which are basically worthless.
- Since also Iranians realized that the numbers are just too big to handle (because of inflation), they introduced “Toman”. It is kind of an official currency but without any money. So it is officially Rial divided by 10 – or just remove the last 0. Thus, 100,000 Rial are 10,000 Toman. However, just as often they will divide by 10,000. Which makes 100,000 Rial 10 Toman. While this might not be official, it’s just common practice. You still follow? 🙂
- Good, because the real tricky part is that most of the time you don’t know in which currency somebody is currently talking to you. The taxi driver might indicate: “Twenty”. So which of your countless bills does he want?? Remember, you bills are all in Rial. So 20,000 Rial or 200,000 Rial or 20 Toman or 20,000 Toman? 😀
- In essence, it will just take you some time to get used to it and most of the time we just showed a bill we thought might be the correct one. So you might just show him a 20,000 Rial bill. If we actually wants 200,000 Rials, he will make you understand 😉 (and then you can and should still bargain)
- By the way, one thing that will make your life much easier: Learn the 10 digits in Persian!
Getting around in Iran, never mind if it is within a city or the entire county, is super easy! That’s one of the reasons why Iran is just perfect for backpackers. Especially because it is not only easy, it is also really cheap 🙂
- The most important mode of transport in the cities are for sure taxis. But you can also use them for a whole day trip into the countryside or to the next city without being too hard on your (limited) stack of cash. Especially if you are a couple of people to share the costs, it often feels like a great deal. Plus: Taking part in the Iranian traffic is an adventure in its own right (without driving yourself, of course!). Especially in the cities probably every second car is a taxi, so finding one will be no problem at any time. Basically there seem to be three different ways to travel by taxi:
- Take a private taxi. Flag one down or call for one (though we never tried to phone a taxi company ourselves). They will take you wherever you like. Since most of the drivers don’t really speak any English at all, either have your destination written down in Farsi or have a map to show him (paper or on your phone). For a private taxi we mostly paid something between 100,000 and 200,000 Rial though this really depends or your bargaining skills.
- Take a shared taxi. Near all the major squares or landmarks in the cities you will find large rows of taxis waiting for customers. Instead of getting a private one, you can (and should!) try to find one that will get you to a similar square closer to your actual destination. So look one up on your map, let’s say “Azadi square” in Tehran, and go to the waiting taxi drivers. Of course, they will try to give you a private taxi, so make them understand that you want to share. They will somehow decide between themselves which driver is next in line (I often would have loved to listen in on those discussions 🙂 ). They will point you to a empty or half-full car. Mostly you don’t have to wait for even 5 minutes until more people are joining and you are good to go. You can always get out before the final destination if that’s better for your route. Beside that fact that the Iranian way of ride sharing is a really great experience, it’s also super cheap. The rates are fixed and are something between 20,000 and 40,000 Rial (or so…)
- Flag down a shared taxi. Even if you are not at one of the squares with taxis waiting, you can just wait on any major street in the rough direction you are trying to go to flag down a taxi. Most of them are not empty so you just join in – for the price of a shared taxi. Try to understand where they are going and you are good to go 🙂 Even this way we never waited for more than a few minutes until we found a ride.
- At least in Tehran (and some others cities, though we did not try it there), the Metro (subway) provides perfect means to quickly get around without getting stuck in traffic. Plus it is very cheap as well. Just don’t be afraid of the (not-)queuing system at the ticket counters…
- For any inter-city travel buses are the probably your easiest choice. The cities mostly have one or more bus terminals. In Tehran, for instance, there is one in the east, west and south (and maybe more…). So if you want to go to Isfahan, your best bet is to go to the southern one. Buses seem to leave at least every hour, for shorter distances even more often. If you want to be sure, you can try to book ahead but if you don’t care if you are traveling an hour later, don’t worry and just go there when you want to leave.
- There are ordinary buses (very old and without air conditioning), VIP buses and apparently something in between. Since also the VIP buses are not expensive at all, they should be your normal choice. But beware, as we found out, there seem to be VIP buses and VIP buses… The best company we found – and which is also often recommended – is Royall Safar. The buses are fairly new, the seats super spacey, the air con working and you even get some fruits. Only one important thing: None of the buses in Iran seem to have toilets on board! And the buses only stop every 3 hours or so for a toilet break. For a 6.5-hour ride from Isfahan to Shiraz we paid about 300,000 Rial and even the 12-hour night bus from Shiraz back to Tehran only set us back by about 600,000 Rial!
- Especially the night bus ride was – quite surprisingly – a really pleasant experience. The seats were close to flat beds and we both slept for about 8 hours 🙂 Just make sure to bring ear plugs and a sleeping mask (and sleeping pills if you want to make sure…).
- The bus ride from Tehran to Qazvin was something between one of the old buses and a VIP bus – it was only 2 hours, though. We just went to the western bus terminal in Tehran and easily found the bus to Qazvin. Quite happy that we seemed to be right on time and the bus would be only 70,000 Rial. The bus left after 5 minutes and only afterwards we found out that apparently the always leave when a bus is full (which doesn’t take more than half an hour so) 😀
- Be aware that once you arrive at the terminals, immediately there will be people trying to guide you to the “best bus”. Your best idea is just to tell them that you already have a ticket 😉 Then go to the counters by yourself and save a lot of money for any commission etc.
- There are also flights between the major cities and some train connections. Apparently flights are still quite cheap but we didn’t want to risk our budget so we didn’t try it. The (night) train from Shiraz to Tehran would have probably been a great experience but we would have needed to book that one in advance.
To find a bed to sleep in was a bit more difficult and on the same time easier then we expected. How so?
- Since foreign tourism is booming for the last two years, there is a real shortage of hotels or hostels which are a) acceptable by western standards and (even more important) b) bookable by foreigners. The typical travel guides (Lonely Plant, wikivoyage,etc.) only list a few places per city – and as it turns out they were mostly all fully booked during the high season! Also searching online is no real help since you simply won’t find many hotels with English websites.
- But if you find some local who can help you to find and book something (as our couch surfing host in Isfahan did for our stay in Shiraz), there suddenly will be many more options. In our case, the hotel (Golha Hotel) in Shiraz neither did have any website whatsoever, nor did they speak a single word of English. But: The room we had was totally fine – especially for the price of about 600,000 Rial for the double room per night 🙂
- In contrast to finding a hotel, find couch surfing hosts turned out to be so much easier then we expected! In the end we surfed in Tehran, Isfahan (though we paid a small amount of money there) and Qazvin. While couch surfing is officially only tolerated, there are thousands of people in Iran offering a place to stay. While I wrote sometimes dozens of request in other countries, in Iran I got sometimes the first positive response within an hour! I don’t have to explain why I love couch surfing but I think in a closed country such as Iran your experience to stay with locals is even deeper than anywhere else – at least it definitely was for us!
Quite frankly, we actually didn’t find many really good restaurants in Iran. We also have been told that Iranians prefer to cook and eat at home. And, oh dear, try to get a glimpse of that! The times we have been invited for traditional Iranian food were just mind blowing!
In terms of restaurants, you mostly find Iranian kebab in all sorts (which is also quite good) with rice or fast food type outfits which offer burgers etc. One thing you should for sure not miss is the traditional Iranian bread fresh out of a bakery! While we looked at this a bit skeptical in the beginning, we soon came to love that stuff! If with jam, yogurt or just plain – it’s delicious.
As you probably know, the internet in Iran is censored and some sites are blocked. Among those are for example Facebook or Twitter. Other services, such as Instagram or WhatsApp are working, though. You should try to get yourself some proxy or VPN service at home before leaving. Also quite important: You should never try to connect to your online banking without a VPN service (one from back home)! We heard stories from several travelers whose account got blocked because “somebody tried to access your account from an insecure country…”.
To get in touch with the locals WhatsApp or Telegram are your best options. Many people are also active on Facebook, though. Let’s say that everybody who wants to use the free internet seems to find ways to do so 🙂
Public WiFi is not a really common thing in Iran. And even if we found a hot spot, the registration page was – more then once – only in Farsi 😀 However, to just get a connection for a few minutes, we just walked into any shop (preferably a tech outfit…) and kindly asked for their password.
It is also possible to purchase a local SIM card. We didn’t do that but in the end it probably would have made sense. Especially for directions Google Maps goes a long way – also in Iran!
Some more random thing we thought be be worth to share 🙂
- Always carry toilet paper! It will – literally – save your ass! Western toilets are still not widely spread in Iran and even if you find one, it does not necessarily has toilet paper.
- The current going rate for any admission fee seems to be 200,000 Rials. Never mind if it is some garden or a big palace. For some this feels quite expensive, for others, such as Persepolis, it is a real bargain. You will often still pay about 10 times as much as the locals but there is no way around this – and honestly, for foreigners the prices are really reasonable.
- You ca get drinking water for free more or less everywhere. However, we tried to stick to bottled water… The rate for 1.5 liter is 10,000 Rial.
- Guys, you can leave your shorts at home 😉 Even at 40 degree Celsius nobody is wearing short pants and while it is not forbidden, you probably do not want to stick out.
- Even if you are not into football (soccer): Learn the names of a one or two Iranian players that play in your country. People will love you! 🙂 Football is a really big deal for Iranians and every time we told somebody on the street we are German, they would respond with the name of either some German player (“Kahn”, “Muller”, “Neuer”) or some Iranian playing in Germany (“Hashemian”)
- Apparently there are not many up-to-date travel guide books. We used the German-only book from Peter Kerber which was updated in 2015 (some information is still outdated, though). The Lonely Planet is really not up-to-date anymore and is only supposed to get updated only in 2017. Wikivoyage is always worth to check out, too.
- Remember that weekend in Iran is Thursday and Friday. Especially on Thursday many locals will go out for some sightseeing so some sights might be quite crowded. On Friday, many shops are closed. Just think of them as of our Saturday and Sunday.
I hope that this guide might be able to help you in traveling Iran. We had an amazing time there and I wish you the same! If politics continue on the currently moderate path, I am quite convinced that tourism will explode in the next couple of years. So take the chance to go there as soon as you can! 🙂
PS: If you got any question left, just leave a comment and I will try to answer as best as I can.