Traveling to Iran means getting to know a whole new culture. This is not a destination to book a spontaneous last-minute flight ticket to. A trip to Iran is in many ways a completely different experience than you’re probably used to in other trips. Arranging your accommodation is different, handling your money is different, and also what to pack is most likely different than your regular travel outfits. In this practical travel guide Iran I am sharing a bunch of things you need to know before visiting this destination.
Changing money or pay with Mah Card
Due to the international sanctions withdrawing money with your international credit or debit card is not possible in Iran. There are ATMs, but these are only for Iranian bank cards. So how to deal with money for your trip? There are two options:
- Bring euros or dollars in cash and change it to rial in Iran. Iran has two exchange rates: the official one and the market rate. Going with the market rate means getting more money for your euros/dollars. Always exchange your money at official money exchange shops and not at a state bank. And never exchange money on the street.
- Use the Iranian prepaid debit card Mah Card: top up this card with your cash money and the company will exchange it to rial at the market rate. Additionally, you can also top it up online with your international credit or debit card. Our experience with Mah Card was ten out of ten. We didn’t have to walk around with a lot of money in our pockets and the card was accepted everywhere. Plus, at the end of the trip, they transfer the remaining amount back to your international card. Unfortunately, Mah Card has been paused due to covid-19. Hopefully, in the future it can continue.
Iranian currency has two names
The official currency is rial (=IR) but in daily life locals talk about toman. Toman is the same as rial, but it has one less zero. This means that 200,000 rial is 20,000 toman. On restaurant menus, the zeros are often entirely omitted, so it just says 20. Pretty confusing, right? My advice: always ask for the amount in rial.
Sharing your PIN? Completely normal in Iran
When you want to pay with your Iranian debit card (like the Mah Card), it is not strange when the salesman asks for your card and PIN to take care of the payment. In Iran, it is very normal to give someone your pin code to let them handle the payment. I have always been taught to never ever share my PIN with anyone. However, in Iran, they obviously handle this differently. I did read that this habit is changing and more and more people are entering their PINs themselves.
Hostelworld is the easiest way to book accommodations in Iran
Quickly booking your accommodation on the go with Booking.com or Airbnb is not an option in Iran. These websites have no listings for this country. So how to book your stays? We did this through Hostelworld.com. This is the only international booking website that offers accommodations in Iran (mostly in cities on the classic tourist route). Another option would be to e-mail the hotel or hostel that you would like to book. Some hostels have their own websites with a booking tool (Tehran Heritage Hostel and See You In Iran Hostel). Lastly, you could also book accommodations through Iranian travel agencies, like 1stQuest.
Sim card for Snapp taxi
Love using Grab or Uber during your travel? Then I recommend getting an Iranian sim card on one of your first days in Iran. Not to get yourself internet access, but to use the Snapp taxi app. This app will only work with an Iranian phone number. Snapp is the Uber/Grab version of Iran and it is quite convenient to get to the sights that you want to visit or to get to your hostel. In addition to Snapp, there is also a second taxi app that you can use: Tap30 (pronounced as Tapsi). I used both because sometimes the Snapp taxis were booked. Good to know: it is not possible to connect your international credit card to the app, so you always have to pay cash.
Using VPN to get around the Iranian firewall
In Iran, many websites and social media are blocked. For instance, you cannot access Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. To bypass the Iranian firewall during your trip, I recommend installing a VPN (Virtual Private Network) app on your devices. Download at least three of these apps on your phone and make sure to download them before the trip, because you cannot do this in Iran. There are various VPN apps available, free and paid ones. The free apps do the basics. However, the internet is mostly very slow and there is often a limit. I chose a paid VPN app: ExpressVPN. A popular choice amongst travelers. The number one advantage of this app is the 30-day-money-back-guarantee. This means you pay for one month, you use the app for 30 days (in most cases long enough for an Iran trip) and then you ask for your money back.
Clothing in Iran: loose and long
When packing for Iran, stick to this golden rule: pack long and loose items. For the ladies: long pants and tunics are the way to go as they cover your buttocks and arms. For the men: T-shirts are fine, but do bring long pants. Leave the shorts, flip-flops, and tank tops at home.
In Iran, it is obligatory for all women (also tourists) to wear a hijab. This is a scarf to cover hair and neck. Bring a few breezy, long, not transparent scarves. Bright colors are accepted, it doesn’t have to be all black. You will see women in the larger cities wearing their hijab at the back of their heads. To me, it is still a miracle how it stays there without the wind blowing it off. Speaking about the wind, this is your friend ánd your enemy. It offers coolness in the summer heat but it makes it hard to keep your scarf on. Bring some hair pins to pin it down.
Avoid visiting Iran in summer
We visited Iran during the summer months and it was incredibly hot. Unfortunately, we could not plan around this, but it is definitely something I would not recommend. The best season to visit Iran is spring (March-May), but avoid Nowruz (Persian New Year, 21 March). This is a major holiday in Iran and everyone will travel home. I also read that fall (September and October) is also a good time to visit Iran.
Safety and the awful Iranian traffic
Is Iran a safe travel destination? Yes, at least that is how I experienced it. Sadly, Iran has a negative image created by the news, politics, and its history. And yes, of course, we should not forget that Iran is ruled by a strict authoritarian government. But a country is more than its leaders. The people here are one of the most hospitable people I have ever met. Open, warm and friendly. I never felt unsafe, because Iranians never gave me an unsafe feeling. On the contrary, Iranians are always ready to help wherever they can. The most unsafe aspect in Iran probably is the traffic. Iranian drivers drive fast and recklessly. Crossing the street in Iran is scary, as no one will stop or even slow down. The worst drivers are the motorcyclists. They ignore red lights and view the sidewalk as their territory.
Stick to the social code in Iran
Iran is a conservative country, which means there are a couple of unwritten rules that you have to take into account.
- Love is private: as a traveling couple, you better forget about kissing or hugging in public in Iran. In the bigger cities, you will see young couples holding hands, but this is not something most people do in Iran. Love is private, so to not offend anyone we stuck to this rule.
- Are you married: a question that traveling couples will hear a lot. We often said yes, even though we aren’t married. It is just to avoid any awkward silences. Getting married is still the norm in Iran and it is easier to meet this standard.
- Don’t start shaking hands: this one is for female travelers. When meeting new people in Iran (in this case men), don’t be the first to shake hands. According to Iran’s Islamic law, shaking hands with an unrelated person of the opposite gender is illegal. In reality, I noticed that it depends on the guy. Some do shake hands, others don’t and will greet you with a hand on the heart. The best thing to do here is to wait and see what happens. Another thing, in Iran it is very normal for men to talk to men and for women to talk to women.
Men talk to men, women talk to women
Learn how to deal with taarof
A taxi driver that doesn’t want to accept your money or a bazaar seller who refuses your money. This is something you will undoubtedly experience in Iran. Is this stuff really free then? No, often not. It is all part of a traditional politeness game called taarof, a courtesy ritual. What will happen is that the other party refuses your money and you need to play the role in insisting to pay. Refuse, insist, refuse, insist. This will go on for three or four rounds and then they will either accept the payment or really offer it for free. Personally, I found this game quite exhausting and I never knew for sure when I had to stop insisting to pay.
Vegetarians have it quite easy in Iran (vegans not so much)
The Iranian cuisine is heavily meat-based. However, there are quite a few standard vegetarian dishes. The go-to dish for any vegetarian traveling in Iran is Kashk-e-bademjan (eggplant yogurt dip). This is often put on the menu as a starter but can easily be ordered as a main. You eat this dish with pita bread. Another well-known vegetarian dish is Mirza-Ghasemi (stew with smoked eggplant and garlic). For vegan travelers, life is a bit more difficult in Iran. There is yogurt or egg in everything, which makes eating 100% vegan a challenge. Look for the following vegan dishes on the menus: Ash-e-reshteh (a thick soup, ask for the version without Kashk), Adasi (lentil soup), and Loobia Chiti (pint bean stew). In short, if you eat vegan in Iran, prepare to eat a lot of beans. And as a snack on the go, there’s always a falafel stand around.
- Tip: use the app Happy Cow to find vegetarian or vegan restaurants.
Alcohol is prohibited but you can order a beer
Alcohol is banned in Iran, but you can still order a beer in a restaurant. Non-alcoholic beers are popular in Iran and the country even has a number of brewers. Popular local beer brands are Argo and Shams.
No visa sticker or stamp in your passport
Good to know: Iran doesn’t stamp your passport or put your tourist visa in your passport. Instead, visas are given on a separate paper (don’t lose this!). The reason for this is the travel ban of the US. Having an Iranian stamp in your passport will eliminate the option of getting an ESTA visa for the US in the future. So that’s why Iran introduced this policy in 2018. Also, you cannot get a Visum On Arrival (VOA) when you enter Iran over land, for instance from Armenia (which is what we did) or from Turkey.
And lastly, interesting things to know
- Iran lives in a different year: this blog post is written in 2021, in Iran this is the year 1400. It follows a different calendar, or to put it better: it has three calendars. The most important one is the Persian sun calendar. This calendar has 12 months just like the western calendar, but the first six have 31 days, the next five have 30 days and the last month has 29 days. Also, the Persian calendar always starts on the 21st day of the month and the 21st of March is New Years’day (Nowruz).
- The workweek in Iran looks different: Iran doesn’t do a Monday to Friday workweek. The Iranian workweek starts on Saturday and ends on Thursday. Friday is their 1-day weekend.
- Iran doesn’t use the western number (1, 2, 3, etc.), but Persian numbers. For a tourist, this can be quite tricky. Try recognizing the license plate of the car of your Snapp driver. Also, when you want to pay with your Mah Card and punch in your pincode, the dials show Persian numbers. So I would recommend memorizing the Persian numbers.
This practical travel guide Iran is based on my own travel experience in the summer of 2019. Things in Iran change fast, so please keep in mind that tips and recommendations in this blog post might get outdated.
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