Iran is becoming one of the top tourist destinations for people from all around the world who are seeking somewhere different to the norm. But before you embark on your journey to the country of colour, there are some things you should be mindful of. But don’t worry, contrary to how mainstream media portrays them, local Iranian people are, in fact, very nice and friendly. Here is your one-stop guide to everything you need to know and do in order to have a pleasant trip to Iran:
1. Apply for the Iran Authorization Code
Before you apply for your visa you have to apply for an Authorisation Code. Everyone has to have one of these and it will determine if you are granted an application for a visa or not. For those who are travelling in a group, this code will normally be processed by your tour company. If you are travelling on your own, you might have to source an Iranian travel agency local to you or seek direction from the relevant embassy you wish to get your visa from.
When applying for the Authorisation Code, you will need to specify which embassy you will be processing your visa at. Once the code is granted you cannot change the embassy choice. It’s wise to choose an embassy in a city you are likely to fly to Iran from, or one close to your home town. Authorisation Codes (if not booking with a tour) come with an administration cost of around 35 EUR (38.50 USD), which is dependent on the agency you are working with.
2. Get your visa way in advance
Here is the tricky part. Your Authorisation Code will take weeks to process, and will most likely arrive days before your planned arrival in Iran or tour start date. This means that before any trip to Iran, especially when travelling in a tour, you will be dashing to the embassy in the hope of them processing your visa quickly and then booking your flights at the very last minute. Naturally, it would not be advisable to book your flights or confirm any travel arrangements until you know your visa will definitely be processed.
Most airlines will not allow you on a flight unless you show you have the visa, but you can get a visa on arrival. However, this may only be for 15 days and with this option you also run the risk of being refused entry. Past travellers have found that people who were granted a visa on arrival as part of a tour were given a special letter from the company that they could present to both the airline and passport control on arrival in Iran.
There is no set price for a visa since it is determined by nationality and where you process your visa. Be sure to give yourself plenty of time to apply for the visa before your preferred travel date. The amount of time required differs from country to country, but on average it takes about 2 - 4 weeks.
For Americans, it takes more time to get a visa approved, so it might be advisable to book a tour instead, so the tour company will take care of the paperwork for you.
3. Change your currency
This is extremely important. Iran doesn’t take any international credit cards or debit cards. Before arriving, you have to change currency to either US dollars, euros, or Iranian rials. There are close to no ATMs there as well. You have to bring all you need in cash.
Repeat: you have to bring all you need in cash!
While you're there
The weather in Iran varies drastically throughout the year. The ideal season to visit Iran falls between March and May. The weather is comfortable enough to really explore. However, be mindful that since this is the peak period, the prices of accommodations tend to increase.
From June, the weather tends to be significantly warmer and much drier, with temperatures starting from around 34 degrees Celsius (81 degrees Fahrenheit). This hot and dry season goes on until September, and sometimes October. Hotels are slightly cheaper during this period, and everything is fine as long as you can brave that heat.
From November all the way to February, Iran experiences extremely cold conditions. It’s not advisable for tourists to visit during this period, because the cold is almost unbearable and most things will be closed. However, if you still feel you’re up for the challenge, hotel prices are generally slashed by up to 50%, so be sure to take full advantage of that.
5. Getting around
The two best ways to travel around Iran are either by metro or taxi. The metro in the capital of Tehran is fairly new, and services connect the popular spots of the city. Above all, the metro is a great way to escape the traffic and is considerably cheaper than taxis.
There are a few different types of taxi service in Iran. The most common and value for money service is the shared, or shuttle, taxis. These taxis take five passengers. They are very flexible in their distances, and they even drive you to other towns or districts. This way of transportation is slightly more expensive than the metro, but arguably more convenient, especially for long distances. Before paying, take a look around to see how much the other passengers are paying, and be sure you are being charged the government-regulated fare. Pay during the trip or when you get out. It’s universally known that the drivers appreciate the exact change.
Farsi is the official language in Iran, and it is used extensively in schools, the mass media, and even in official government documents. However, there is no need to worry because Iran is quite diverse in terms of linguistics. In the east and west areas, Farsi is less common and most people are well-versed in English. Other common languages in Iran are Azeri Turkic, Arabic, and Kurdish.
7. Dress code
It is true that Iran is a country with a dress code, but it really is not as strict as the stereotypes portrayed by the media make it out to be. In fact, local people are quite lenient with foreigners and tourists. Ladies do have to cover their head with a scarf, but it can, however, be as loose or tight as they want to fashion it. It is also recommended that they wear loose fitting clothing. Many Iranian women wear jeans with a loose fitting long-sleeved top that covers them down to the mid-thigh area. For men, no shorts and no short sleeved, tight shirts.
In Iran, tipping is not that big of a deal. Only in upmarket restaurants is a 10% gratuity expected on top of the 10% service charge that’s often built into the bill. But in most other places, any money you leave will be a pleasant surprise. However, here it is important to note that it is normal to offer a small tip to anyone who guides you or opens a building that is normally closed.
If your monetary offer is initially refused, be sure to persist. It’s part of the Iranian culture to refuse at first, it’s a common back-and-forth thing that locals do. But be sure to insist on it, because it is only polite to do so.
9. Local idiosyncrasies
There are some character traits that Iranians adopt, local idiosyncrasies that can be overlooked by tourists. Just be sure to be a bit mindful of your body language and what you say. For example, be sure to keep your hands to yourself in public. No PDA is allowed. Additionally, don’t use the “thumbs up” hand gesture as a means to overcome the language barrier. The thumbs up sign is taken as a somewhat rude and offensive sign in Iran, so be sure to stay clear of using that.
Apart from these, if you do unwittingly offend people, Iranians are quite nice about it and take into consideration the fact that you are a tourist. For slightly more serious offensive behaviour, they would perhaps give you a spoken warning first. Either way, just be respectful.
10. Food and drink
The Iranian food culture is rich in flavour, spice, and colour. Be sure to enjoy their specialities, including goat meat kebabs and baklava. However, during a meal, be sure to keep in mind some dining etiquettes. Here are a few very basic tips on mealtime etiquette:
- If visiting a home, check to see if the person answering the door is wearing shoes, if they arent, then you should remove yours too.
- Don't sit down until told where to sit by your host, and don't sit next to anyone of the opposite sex.
- You will constantly be offered food and drink. Always refuse at least once before accepting.
- Try a bit of all of the dishes available.
- Eat only with the right hand if there are not utensils provided.
- Leave a little food at on your plate when you finish eating. The host will consider it his duty to provide more food than you can eat.
The month of Ramadan is celebrated all over Iran. Since it follows the lunar calendar, the start date varies every year. Each year, Ramadan is usually around 11 days earlier than in the year before, thus Ramadan can fall in any month of the year.
During Ramadan, Muslims are only allowed to eat after sunset. As a result, stores and restaurants won’t be open until sunset, when it’s time to break the fast. Regardless of personal religious beliefs, all visitors should not smoke, eat, or drink in public from sunrise to sunset. But fear not, you won’t go hungry. Hotels and malls offer food for non-Muslims. Be sure to not eat in a very open public place, as a sign of respect for those who are fasting. Additionally, if you are traveling with children, don’t worry. Kids are exempted from this religious practice, and are allowed to eat during the day.
Make Iran your next travel destination
If you are looking for surprises while travelling, a visit to Iran will be the most rewarding. There are so many untainted places of worship, numerous new places to explore, and the locals are some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Iran is a tapestry of colour and culture, so be sure to follow this guide, and your trip will be one to remember for years to come.
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