Iran: Things You Need To Know Before Going

Without a doubt, Iran is one of the most fascinating, friendly and exotic countries you will ever visit. In this guide, I will share with you everything I had experienced which hopefully able to help you to explore the country like a breeze~~~

Visa

Starting February 2016, visas-on-arrival will be issued at airports for citizens of 180 countries.  As such, travellers are able to obtain a 30-days VOA easily without having a Letter-of-Invitation like before. For ladies, your passport sized photo need to follow Iran’s official Islamic dress code and wear a head scarf.

Main airports to get your visa:

  1. Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport (IKA)
  2. Tehran Mehrabad Airport (THR)
  3. Mashhad Airport (MHD)
  4. Shiraz Airport (SYZ)
  5. Tabriz Airport (TBZ)

If you are travelling by land, you can only get your visa from certain borders. (This, I had not done it)

However, be prepared to have a list of phone numbers of the hotels/hostels where you’ll be staying for your entire visit in Iran. (I randomly picked a budget hotel and told the officer I am going to stay in Tehran throughout) Also, it’s mandatory for you to have travel insurance when travelling to Iran. If you do not have, you will have to buy one on the spot in the airport. (Just get a cheap one from your flight package will do!)

Malaysian passport got free 14-days visa. Additional 10 Euros to extend to 20-days. (I learnt about this the expensive way)

If you are wondering why my visa doesn’t have a photo…that was because I didn’t wear a headscarf in the picture! However, the officer was kind enough to give me a pass. Do take note that only US Dollars and Euros are accepted to pay for your VOA.

Unfortunately, citizens of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Canada, Colombia, India, Iraq, Jordan, Pakistan, Somalia, the United Kingdom, and the United States need to get consular visa, and need to get an authorization number before applying for a visa.

If there is proof of entry to Israel in your passport, you cannot enter Iran. This also applies if you have land border entry/exit stamps from countries neighboring Israel. 

Internet & Mobile

In Iran, most of the major social media networks and many websites have been blocked. Therefore, you must get a VPN before going into the country as getting a VPN may become more difficult since VPN websites as well as app stores are blocked. (Whatsapp is banned, so you may need to download Telegram to communicate with the locals.)

An Irancell SIM card is 200,000 rials (about USD6-7), and 1GB of data is 100,000 rials. Wifi is not common in Iran. Even if you stay in hostels where wifi is provided, the speed is intolerable slow. So, do consider getting a SIM card if you need regular internet for Instagram, Snapchats or Facebook, etc.

Currency

Foreign credit/debit card are not accepted in Iran, so forget about ATMs or even paying for hotels. Remember to bring more than enough money for your stay in Iran. Money changers are easy to find (Just look for small shop which sells jewelry or has foreign currency pasted on the window). US Dollar, Euros and British Pounds are the most widely accepted currencies. And never ever change your money in banks! 

Prices stated for goods are given in toman, not rials. 1 toman = 10 rials. The locals will also use abbreviate: for example, if someone tells you something is “5”, they mean 5,000 toman/50,000 rials. It’s confusing at first, but you will soon get the hang of it! Just add an extra “0” to figure out the price in rials. Luckily, people in Iran are very honest, and will let you know when you’re making a mistake. 

Foreigner price for attractions is usually 6-8 times the local price. You know, it’s pretty easy to disguise yourself as local if you are an Asian, especially for ladies! Of course, I usually went in with my CS hosts which make things easier. Otherwise, you may try going in with a local, and have them buy your tickets while you hide.

Dress Code

Guys: No tank-tops and shorts. If you want to visit an active mosque as a non-Muslim, ask first if it is okay to look around.

Ladies: Dress modestly in public is mandatory. Ladies travelling in Iran need to dress according to the rules of hijab:

  • A headscarf to cover your head. Big cities like Tehran and Esfahan can show your hair, whereas places like Kerman and Hamadan it’s better to cover your head completely. 
  • Long-sleeved loose fitting top that covers the butt. Cardigan and 3/4 length sleeved shirts are fine. Colorful clothing is definitely allowed!
  • Pants or dress that go down to your ankle. Skinny jeans are fine!
  • Sandals are allowed!

It is perfectly fine to take off Hijab at people’s house. You can always follow the women in the house if unsure. 

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Culture

Persians are not Arabs. Iranians are very firm on this, and are offended if you mix the two. Apart from curious on where you come from, Iranians like to know about your religious too. Most of them I had talked to are open-minded towards other religious. However, you still need to be sensitive about your views on Islamic beliefs. One thing I believe for sure: Iran is definitely not a country in war like what others think.

Everywhere closes on Fridays! Fridays are considered the holy day of the week. Mosques are closed on Fridays for non-Muslims to visit as well. For officials, working days are Sundays to Thursdays instead of Mondays to Fridays. For restaurants and tourists attractions, they will only be opened after 4pm on Fridays.

Like Singapore, tap water is safe to drink unless stated otherwise! There are plenty of water fountains on the streets in cities, so you can actually save money from buying bottled drinks. Iranians also prefer drinking tea over coffee. Instead of putting sugar into the tea and stir, try the Iranian way by putting a cube of sugar into your mouth and sip the tea! I enjoyed having a cube for every 2 sips, imagine the amount of sugar intake I had in Iran!!

Being an Islamic country, it is a common knowledge that man and woman do not touch, not even a handshake. So, for a lady to greet the man, just place your right hand over left chest and do a small bow. For lady to lady, you can do handshake, or even hug and give pecks on both cheeks!

Hospitality

Iranians are among the friendliest and most hospitable people in the world! You will be welcomed on every corner, people will want to take pictures with you, and it is very common you will be invited to a total stranger’s house. I think I’ve visited more homes in Iran than I did in my home country!

Iranians love treating foreigners. As a budget traveller, doing Couchsurfing in Iran is a real advantage because most of the times my hosts pay for everything! The best part about Couchsurfing in Iran is that once you stay with a host, you not only get to know their external families but even their friends! During my 3-weeks stay, I had not eaten a meal with the same group of people even though I may stay with a host for 4-days. Can you imagine the number of people waiting to meet you when you are in a foreign country?

As much as Iranians are generous people, however you do need to watch out of  tarof. It is when someone offers something out of courtesy, not because they want to. As a golden rule of thumb, always offer to pay three times. If the person still resists, the offer is legit. So far most of the locals I’ve met are truly sincere with their offers!

Nevertheless, do not take Iranian’s hospitality for granted. Do prepare some small gifts from your country if you are planning to meet some people there. Simple things like postcards or small denomination bills of your home country are good enough. For me, I had brought over a Polaroid camera and gave them the films of us to keep for memories.

Couchsurfing in Rafsanjan – Hosts and their friends

Couchsurfers in Kerman

Couchsurfers in Shiraz

Guide from Couchsurfing in Shiraz

dinner with family from Esfahan

lunch and a day-trip with family from Esfahan

Transportation

The taxi system in Iran can be incredibly confusing. There are private taxis and shared taxis, open doors and closed doors. The worst part? None of the taxis have meters. So, be sure to settle for a price before getting onto a cab. Most of the drivers only know simple English or no English at all. To make communication easier, you can either: 1) screenshot the photo of the attraction you would like to go, 2) have your hosts/hotel receptionist to write the destination/ address in Farsi (Persians) on paper and you just show to the driver. 

Almost every city and town in Iran is connected by bus. Long-distance buses are cheap and relatively convenient to get you around the country. I had taken mahmoomly (normal) buses from city to city. For me, the leg space is spacious enough to put my 45l backpack and my legs comfortably with reclining seats. It only costs 250,000 IRR (USD 8) for a 10-hours journey compared to the VIP bus which is about 500,000 IRR (USD 15). The best part is, snacks and drinks are provided!! (even better than flying budget airlines!) 

Bus stations are known as terminals to Iranians. Big cities usually have several terminals so you may ask your hosts/receptionists which terminal you have to go for your next destination (usually CS hosts are kind enough to help you get tickets beforehand and drive you to the terminal). When you are at the terminal, just follow the sound of hawkers shouting the name of the city you want to go and you can just purchase your tickets on the spot. Tickets are all written in Farsi, but not to worry too much! You can just ask any locals around and they are willing to show you which berth to wait for your bus. 

Bus ticket

Berth to wait for the bus

Mahmoomly bus

Spacious leg space (maybe ’cause i got short legs)

Cheap bus and still come with snacks and drinks!

 

I hope you will find this guide useful for planning a trip to this exotic country. Feel free to comment and ask any questions if you have any doubt. (=

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