“Can Americans even travel to Iran?” is the second most commonly asked question after whether Iran is safe to travel to at all. The answer is yes, it is safe. And yes, Americans can legally travel to Iran though it takes a longer Visa process than most. It will also cost more because you’ll have to book a tour. Budget at least 3-4 months to get a visa approval so that you also have ample time to book your flight at a reasonable cost. As an American Tourist in Iran who just returned, I share everything you need to know to prepare for your trip to this majestic, historical, hospitable country that is so often misunderstood.
An American Tourist in Iran
Here are the steps and information for Americans traveling to Iran (click on the link if you want to skip to the section):
- Is it Safe to Travel to Iran? Shattering misconceptions
- Planning your trip
- Where to travel to in Iran? What type of trip do you want?
- Seasons: Deciding what time of the year to go
- American tourists are required by law to travel with a Tour Company
- Visa Process for Americans
- Arriving at the airport and immigration process
- Can you travel to Iran if you’ve been to Israel?
- Are Jews allowed in Iran?
- Booking your flight to Iran
- What to pack
- Clothing for women
- General necessities
- How much money to do you need?
- Debit and Credit Cards
- Iranian Rial, Toman and using US Dollars
- Once you’re in Iran
- Accessing the Internet, Sim Card, and VPN
- Food, Water & Sanitation
- Iranian People, Culture & Customs
- Other Practical Information
Is it Safe to Travel to Iran as an American Tourist?
Despite the incessant negative media from the west, traveling to Iran is very safe. I can’t speak for people living there, but this is from my experience as well as dozens of other travelers (Americans and Iranians) that have been in the past decade. I have spoken to families of friends that live there as well. The country is suffering financially. Younger generations are having a tough time finding jobs (even more so because of sanctions). But safety is not a big concern for them. Traveling in Iran will be safe, given that you follow the law. Some people equate strict laws and extreme punishments to danger. Nothing is 100%, but if you follow the rules in Iran as a tourist, you will be safer than most countries in the world today. This means:
- Covering up as a woman from head to ankle
- Not speaking publicly against the government which includes political protests
- Not drinking alcohol in public (alcohol consumption is illegal)
- Many people drink at home. There are black markets that sell it, and some people even make it at home. Authorities are not out to crack down on alcohol consumption in the privacy of one’s home unless it becomes a nuisance to neighbors and society.
I know these laws sound ludicrous to most Westerners. But because I am a traveler, a guest in their country, I will respectfully abide by those laws. I have no power or voice to change laws in Iran as I do in the US by voting, by becoming active in the local community.
News of Kidnapping and Imprisonment
There have been news of kidnapping and imprisonment of travelers and foreigners living there. Those imprisoned have accusations against them from the Iranian government. Western media has automatically assumed their innocence. But most people do not know internally what is actually going on. Given that these events happened a few times in the past decade, I decided to weigh my risks. With mass shootings happening every day in America, I weighed that I would more likely get murdered in my own neighborhood than imprisoned on potentially “false” charges. That is, if all those imprisoned are in fact innocent.
When we have these conversations on “how safe is it to travel to ____”, the most effective way is to weigh statistics. Of course, we do not know the exact figures for every country in the world. Or the number of people wrongfully imprisoned for espionage or kidnapped. But you know that it would make the news if it happened to an European or American Tourist in Iran.
This goes the same with people who freak out about visiting France because some crazy person drove a truck into a restaurant killing a few people, years ago. Yet, they overlook the frequent mass shootings in the US. It’s called ‘Selective Retention’. On another note, saying that “bad things” happen everywhere is also not a wise way to measure risk. Statistically, Japan is one of the safest places to travel and live in the world. The data shows it. But it doesn’t mean that bad things can’t happen. If it does though, it is a very low probability. This is simple math that people need to take into account when discussing safety.
These are the thoughts I had on whether or not I was going to travel to Iran in July 2019, in the midst of all the political threats between our two countries. I speculated that I had a lower risk of danger in Iran than staying home in the US. And so I embarked on an unforgettable journey of my life to Iran.
Because of strict laws and the calm nature of Iranian people, violence against people, especially against tourists are very rare. The government in Iran, as well as much of the middle-east, take crimes against tourists very seriously. The only thing you really need to look out for, as with anywhere else, is potential pickpocketers. But it is very rare, especially compared to Italy, Spain or parts of South America.
Security, Cops and Soldiers
You will see policemen, security, and soldiers though not an incessant amount. They keep to themselves and it’s best you do not take photos of them unless you ask. They are not corrupt towards tourists as some other places. You don’t have to worry about extortion or harassment. During my 12 day trip, we only had 1 encounter. We were pulled over because the highway patrol noticed our car’s permit sticker was not to date. My tour guide went into the patrol booth and explained that he hadn’t received the new sticker decal. They looked it up in the system and was able to pull the effective date of his permit and was let go right away. This all took 5 minutes. This is a small glimpse into the organization of traffic, security and information systems in place.
The only other encounter you could potentially have with police is if you violate the dress code as a woman. This means if you aren’t wearing a scarf or not fully covered up. You will likely just be let off with a warning.
Planning Your Trip to Iran
Which cities do you want to travel to in Iran? What type of trip do you want? There are so many things that stand out. You can make a whole trip out of just visiting UNESCO World Heritage sites for example. Or a culinary, textile, adventure or historical tour. Browsing through itineraries on the Visit Our Iran website can give you ideas.
Seasons: Deciding What Time of the Year to Go
Iran enjoys all 4 seasons and there is something for every traveler. Spring and Autumn would be the best, weather-wise, due to its fair climate: March-May and September-November. I went in July and it was too hot at 100-105 degrees Fahrenheit (especially when you have to be fully covered up). And if you visit in the winter, you can go skiing in the mountain!
Should you travel during:
- Ramadan? Something to consider while traveling in the Middle-East is whether you should go during Ramadan, the month of fasting for Muslims. Why this matters to travelers is that because they do not eat from sunrise to sundown, most stay home with their families to rest. This means that many shops and restaurants are closed until 8 pm or so. Once the sun sets, the streets get very crowded as families go outside to picnic or to restaurants. This can be a culturally enriching time to visit or it can be too chaotic for some.
- In the case of Iran, especially if you are an American tourist, you won’t have to worry as your tour guide will know all the places open during Ramadan.
- Nowruz? It is the most exciting time of the year for Iranians as it’s the New Year! It will be a crowded week to visit so it depends if you want to partake in the celebrations or skip this time.
An American Tourist in Iran is Required to Hire a Tour Company
American, Canadian and UK citizens are required by Iranian law to hire a licensed Tour Company for the whole duration of their trip. I recommend booking your tour through Visit Our Iran, the first Iranian Tour Marketplace. Through their web platform, you can find a large variety of private and group tours from dozens of trusted tour operators. Use my discount code Bohemianvagabond2019VOI for 10% off all tours!
Visa Process for American Tourists
The most strenuous part of the process is applying and waiting for your Visa to Iran. It can take 2-3 months for Visa approval. The rest of the process is as painless as traveling to any other country. Since American tourists will need to hire a licensed Tour Company, they will also help in the visa process. They will send you a Visa form which will ask for some general information:
- Name, address, contact information
- Name of your parents
- Copy of your passport
- A passport photo
There is no official Iran Embassy in the US so the Pakistan Embassy in Washington DC serves as a liaison. This department is called “The Interests Section of the Islamic Republic of Iran“. You would mail your passport into their embassy once approved to process the Visa. Give yourself 2 weeks for this in case you need your passport. Or if you are traveling to countries with an Iran Embassy, you can also pick your visa up there in person. Because I was in Lebanon in June, I arranged to pick my Visa up from the Iran Embassy in Beirut. It was a half-day process; I should have called prior to going to know the logistics and cost. The cost is 90 euros for same-day processing or 60 euros for 24-hour processing.
How long is a Visa valid for? The visas are valid for 3 months and can be used for 30 days from the day of entry.
Arriving at the Airport & Immigration Process
The only thing I was concerned about was the process of arriving at the airport and going through immigration. I thought that if there would be one place I could potentially be interrogated, it would be there. It ended up being the fastest process of any country I’ve been to. The immigration officer took one look at me, flipped through my passport to check that I had a valid Iranian visa. He did not speak a word to me and stamped my passport within 2 minutes. This was the same when departing.
Can you Travel to Iran if you’ve been to Israel?
Several middle-eastern countries are notoriously known to deny you a visa if they know that you have been to Israel. But Iran is a bit looser than Lebanon on this rule. Most of the time, Israel does not stamp your passport. You can also ask to make sure they don’t stamp it. Instead, they provide you with a small slip. But be aware of the small, colored barcode sticker they stick outside of your passport. This is an internal code for them in the airport security which estimates your ‘threat level’ to the country. It is easily removable though most travelers will not even notice this on their passport. Make sure to take this off, especially when traveling to Iran and Arab countries in general to avoid entry rejection or extra questions.
It is possible for the Visa office to google you to get a background check. If you have a travel blog or open social media like myself, they can easily find if you have been. But if they see that you are not a threat, and simply traveling to Iran just as you traveled to Israel for tourism purposes, they may actually issue you a visa. This is typically the case if you have traveled there more than 4 years prior to entering Iran.
Tip: Prior to applying for your visa, scour your Social Media posts. It would be easier if you hid proof you’ve been to Israel to get issued a Visa.
Are Jews allowed in Iran?
Yes, Jews are allowed in Iran. There are actually 10-15,000 Jews living in peace in Iran today. There are also Synagogues throughout the country. The Iranian government and people are not against the Jewish people and Judaism as a religion. They are against Zionism and recognizing Israel as a country due to their views on Palestine. Just as Iranians aren’t against Amerian people as they are against the history of the American government, their involvement in the Middle-East in the past century and the politics today.
Booking your Flight to Iran
Tehran is the capital city and major international airport. Iran is a large country so consider that when booking your flight. I flew into Shiraz International Airport in the southwest as my arrival and departure out of Tehran. It was the same cost. Not all major American airlines, credit card portals, and third party websites display flights to Iran (due to sanctions). For example, I tried to book through the Chase portal and no flights showed up. As usual, I started my search on Skyscanner and then booked directly with the airline. Qatar Airways typically has the most affordable flights to Iran and is one of my top 3 favorite airlines. It’s classy, comfortable and on time with great onboard services.
Note: Remember to add your frequent flier miles to your flight booking. For example, I add my American Airlines program for my Qatar flight miles.
What to Pack for Iran
Packing for women is going to be more of an effort than for men. For men, simply don’t wear tank tops or shorts (it’s also against Islamic law).
Clothing for Women
Women living and traveling to Iran are required to cover their hair with a scarf as well as their whole body. While it is illegal not to wear a headscarf, modern women have made it into a fashion statement. Some with slight rebellion by only covering 2/3 of their hair. Long, loose tunics that cover the definition of a woman’s buttocks and curves are most recommended. As well as loose cardigans and Indian kurtas. I wore tight cotton leggings every day under my long tops that worked fine. Sandals are perfectly ok to wear.
When you visit someone’s home, women may invite you to take off your headscarf and get comfortable in whatever clothing. It is safe to do so if they invite you to.
- Iran’s electric outlet is the same as the European kind, so just bring your international converter.
- Pack tampons as they are going to be harder to find.
- Medicine is inexpensive and of high quality. Though to be safe, you can also pack your own.
How Much Money to Do you Need to Travel in Iran?
It obviously depends on what level of luxury you prefer. With a tour, it can be anywhere from $50-150 a day depending on how many are in your group, fully inclusive. Despite Iran being a developed country, it is an inexpensive country in general. You can get meals for $2 or a quality meal in a nice restaurant for less than $10. To hire a taxi/driver for the day can cost anywhere from $40-60. Especially because of sanctions today, the Iranian rial is incredibly devalued. What used to be 9000 rials to $1 USD is now 110,000 (10 times less). I stayed at 5-star hotels (our version of a 3-4 star) for only $30 USD per night. I would comfortably budget $40 a day outside of your hotel and transportation.
Is Iran backpacker-friendly? Yes! Backpackers from Europe and around the world travel regularly through Iran on a budget. Public transportation systems in Iran are very organized, safe and inexpensive. Though metros and trains are not connected throughout the whole country, you can take them through and to major cities such as Tehran, Rasht or Shiraz. It is also common for locals to invite you into their homes and have you stay for free (with no catch at all). Couchsurfing, a website that connects travelers with locals to stay for free in their home (either literally on a couch or even extra bedroom) in an effort to meet people and for cultural exchange. It is technically illegal in Iran though very commonly used in the past decade.
Can You use American Debit and Credit Cards in Iran? American Debit and Credit Cards will not work in Iran, so you need to bring enough cash. And bring crisp newer cash.
Iranian Rial, Unofficial ‘Toman’ and using US Dollars
As of August 2019, the estimate for currency exchange is 110,000 Iranian Rials to $1 USD. Mostly everyone, from taxi drivers, small restaurants to larger establishments will take US Dollars equally as they will with Rials. But it’s better to just carry Rials so there is no extra confusion over which currency rate to use.
“Toman” is an old currency that Iranians use which just refers to knocking off a 0 from the Rial. Most people will be quoting you in official Iranian Rials but sometimes restaurants and stores will mark prices at the Toman pricing. If something costs 100,000 rials, it will be marked as 10,000 T.
Accessing the Internet, Sim Card and VPN
Wifi is available in most hotels, guesthouses and people’s homes. And they work pretty well. Facebook, Twitter, and certain websites are blocked.
Sim Card: You can purchase a 5gb for 150,000 rials ($1.50). This lasted me comfortably for 3 days of emails, instagram and facebook.
What is a VPN? Prior to traveling to Iran, I did not know what a VPN was. A Virtual Private Network “VPN” gives you the ability to log in to an IP address from a different country. The VPN app will detect which countries are best to connect to. And it will take a few seconds to minutes to connect to this other network. I was mainly connecting to VPNs in Europe. This is as if you are actually in that country trying to access the internet. The purpose of this is to access blocked sites in Iran. There are VPN apps you can use for free or purchase for a better quality connection. I used Express VPN which I would highly recommend. Cost is $8.32 – $12.95 per month depending on if you subscribe monthly, per 6 months or annually.
Food, Water & Sanitation
Food poisoning is not common: Restaurants and Iranian people value sanitation and water is clean.
Water: You can drink tap water virtually throughout Iran unless otherwise specified. Though bottled water is incredibly cheap if you want to go the safer route. About 30 cents for a gallon of water which should last you a day.
Toilets: Most establishments will have modern toilets though many places still use squat toilets as you find in India and parts of Southeast Asia. Healthwise, it is actually better for your digestive system to use it. It’s also cleaner that way instead of trying to hover over regular toilets.
- Pack toilet paper as many public places will not have it.
- It is rare to charge for bathroom use though if there is an attendant, then give them some small change.
Healthcare & hospitals: Iran is known to have a really good Healthcare system. If you get sick or need any medicine or supplies, it is easily accessible.
Iranian People, Culture and Customs
Iranians are not Arabs: The “Arab Region” consists of 22 countries. Though Iran had been conquered by Arab rulers in the 7th century and was forced to convert into Islam, they have kept their own Persian culture and language which is “Farsi”. And they are not considered “Arabs” and would actually get offended if you ever label them that. Their culture remains strong in their Persian identity and is more similar to the culture of Central Asia.
Dynamics between men & women: With Iran being a conservative culture today, there are things to note prior to going so that you don’t come off disrespectful. Men and women typically do not shake hands when meeting, let alone hug. So it’s best that you do not initiate this contact unless they do as your host. This is the case in many Middle-Eastern countries and throughout Asia. I experience this even in the states with my friend’s parents who have been in America for over 30 years. Seating for men and women is also separate in Mosques and in public transportations (with the exception of families).
Take off your shoes before entering a house and some shops: As with any Asian household, take off your shoes prior to entering. The Persian carpet is a sign of welcoming you to their home, which also means to please keep the house clean.
“Taarof”: This is an important cultural concept to learn in Iranian and Asian culture in general. It is their gesture of being polite by offering services for free or declining a gift given to them. Knowing this, you should insist at least 1-3 times before they will accept. Because it is not a common gesture in the west, many American tourists in Iran may miss this gesture. This could be the case with taxis or store owners offering you something for free. Or families and friends that fight over the bill.
Other Practical Information
- Iran is the cleanest country I have ever seen in my life. Not only does the government have organized street cleaning early every morning, but citizens also make an effort to keep the public incredibly clean.
- Once you’re in Iran, you will see how developed the country is. All the major highways and city roads are incredibly paved with a well-organized toll and security system.
- Working days throughout the Middle East are typically Sunday to Thursday. The weekend is Friday and Saturday.
- Hotels will typically keep your passport from check-in to check out. Don’t worry, it’s very safe to do so, but you can also request to keep it after they make a copy.
- Can unmarried couples share a hotel room? Non-Iranians, unmarried couples traveling in Iran can share hotel rooms without a problem. But Iranians cannot with the opposite sex if they are not related.
Iranian People Welcome American Tourists
As mentioned before, I really felt safe while traveling in Iran, more than most places in the world. While I got stares from both men and women which can become annoying, they were more curious about where I came from since it’s rare to see a single female Asian traveler outside of large Chinese tour groups. Some even came up to me or my tour guide to ask where I was from. Since it is rare to meet an American tourist in Iran, they were fascinated as much as they were honored. Once you meet locals, they are engaging, genuine and hospitable. For women travelers, men are not at all physically or verbally aggressive in Iran as in surrounding countries (the case in Morocco or Turkey). This made me feel safe and at ease.
A common debate today amidst all the mass shootings, corruption, greed and mental illness in the US is whether we are still the ‘greatest country in the world’. Many hold on to the strong belief that it is. I had conversations occur daily in Iran where they felt the incessant shootings and stresses of American living were not worth it. They preferred to live in Iran. But yes there are also Iranians who dream of immigrating to the US or Canada for better economic opportunities. This is the common opinion of people I’ve met in various places across the world. Being the ‘greatest nation’ in the world for some people mean having the highest military power, freedom of speech/religion and access to an exuberant amount of money. For others, it means to live a comfortable, safe life with quality healthcare, education and food.
Despite your political beliefs, I welcome and even challenge you to visit Iran. So many who have visited come back and say nothing but great things about Iran and it’s people. The history, the culture, the food, the stories, the landscapes among so many endless aspects are reasons to visit, especially as an American Tourist.
For More on Traveling to Iran:
- Cooking Class in Rasht + Recipes
- Greatest Persian Poets of all Time
- Can Americans travel to Iran?
- Join Travel around Persia “TAP Persia”, a Facebook Group (with over 5000 members) to get all the tips you need. Meet Iranian locals and other travelers interested in visiting Iran. The organizers are focused on sustainable tourism.