Travel to Iran is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. The country will blow you away with its natural beauty, millenary historical heritage, and especially the friendliness of its locals. The Persian people will lavish you with smiles and warm welcomes from the moment you step off the plane in Tehran.
However, life in Iran is quite different from what we’re used to in the West; it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the local customs before you travel to Iran, in order to make sure you’ll have everything you need and won’t get into awkward situations.
Here is a handy list of nine things you need to know before you travel to Iran, ranging from travel documents and what to pack to info on food, drinks, and cultural traditions.
Documents & Visas
Citizens from 180 countries are able to get 30-day visas on arrival in major Iranian airports, which are renewable for a further 30 days. American, British, and Canadian citizens are not eligible for visas on arrival. Israeli passport holders (or anyone with evidence of Israel travel on their passport) are not eligible to enter Iran at all.
American, British, and Canadian citizens are required to get a visa in advance and travel with a tour group led by an accredited tour operator. If you’re joining Zegrahm’s Iran By Rail or Wonders of Persia expeditions, we’ll provide you with assistance in obtaining an Iranian visa. Just make sure your passport is valid for at least six months after the trip ends and has a minimum of two blank pages.
It’s important to be aware of Islamic dress code if you decide to travel to Iran, especially if you’re a woman. The most important item to pack is a headscarf. You must wear one the entire time you’re in the country, with the exception of your hotel room or any other private space. Your headscarf doesn’t have to be tight-fitting, and it’s fine to show your fringe or your brow. If you have long hair, tie it back in a ponytail or bun, rest your scarf on top of it, and wrap the two ends around your neck. If it falls, quickly put it back.
Women should always dress as conservatively as possible. This means no visible cleavage, no shorts or skirts, and no t-shirts or tank tops. Long, loose-fitting shirts and trousers should be worn. Leggings and 3/4 sleeves are acceptable in major cities, but are frowned upon in conservative areas like Mashhad and Esfahan. Ladies may be asked to wear a chador (large piece of cloth wrapped around the head and upper body) when entering certain mosques, but these are usually provided and locals will show you how to wear it.
For men, the dress code is less strict. However, shorts, t-shirts, and tight-fitting clothes should generally be avoided.
Money & Currency
Iran’s currency is the rial: 1 USD is equivalent to approximately 33,000 rial. Before you start wrapping your head around all those zeros, let’s complicate matters a little further.
Prices in Iran are hardly ever mentioned in rial, but in toman: One toman equals 10 rial. So if you’re quoted 40,000 for an item, chances are the actual price will be 400,000 rial. It’s safe to assume that all prices are in toman unless otherwise specified. When in doubt, just ask the vendor.
Also, bear in mind that international credit cards do not work in Iran. So make sure you bring enough cash to last for the duration of your stay in either euro or USD, and change it at the foreign exchange offices you’ll find around the cities.
Picture this: You’ve just had a delicious meal at a local restaurant and ask the waiter/owner for the bill. He waves his hands no and smiles. Does this mean that your dinner is on him?
No, this is an example of taarof, a traditional Iranian custom. When it’s time to pay for something, the seller refuses payment. The client is supposed to insist, and the seller will keep refusing at least three times. Finally, payment will be accepted.
As a foreigner, you may never encounter taarof. But if you do, just keep offering your money. After the customary three refusals, your payment will be accepted, and the seller will appreciate that you took the time to learn about Iranian customs!
Alcohol is completely banned in Iran. You won’t find beer, wine, or spirits anywhere… not even in large hotels that cater to foreigners. If you see “beer” on a menu, it will be non-alcoholic, fruit-flavored beer.
Locals may approach you offering to get you a drink. Naturally there’s a lot of contraband, and some Iranians even make their own wine or brandy at home. We recommend refusing these invitations out of respect for the laws of the country you’re visiting. And also because you might get yourself and your “friend” in trouble with the local authorities.
Food & Restaurants
Iranian cuisine is truly delicious. Sampling specialties like ghormeh sabzi (an herb stew served over rice, often with meat added to it) or dizi (a lamb stew with the broth cooked separately and mashed together when it’s served) is a must. But they may be hard to find.
You’ll find lots of fast food, kebabs, and pizzas on offer around Iranian cities. But you’ll rarely see traditional, home-cooked Persian food. I asked locals why and their answer was, “Because that’s what we eat at home.” There are a few restaurants that serve traditional dishes, but they’re usually hard to find; they’re often located in the basement or first floor of buildings, with no English signs available. But fear not, as your travel to Iran should offer plenty of opportunities to sample traditional cuisine.
Vegetarians may have a hard time here, and for vegans it will be even more difficult, since most traditional dishes contain meat and dairy products. Just make sure you inform your waiter of your dietary restrictions. Don’t assume that a dish won’t contain meat just because it’s not mentioned on the menu.
Internet & Social Media
Internet connectivity is seriously slow all across Iran, and all social media channels are blocked with the exception of Instagram and WhatsApp. The same goes for many Western news sites: As you try to connect, the Persian censorship page comes up instead.
Some visitors use a VPN (Virtual Private Network) in order to circumvent censorship. But chances are good that the connection will be too slow anyway.
Instead, inform your friends and family that you may not be able to send regular updates while you’re in the country, and take the chance to enjoy a digital detox!
The only kind of sexual relations that are allowed in Iran are those that occur within a heterosexual marriage.
In theory, unmarried couples cannot even share a hotel room, but you’re unlikely to be asked to prove your marriage as a foreigner. Still, you may want to consider wearing a faux wedding ring if you’re traveling with your boyfriend or girlfriend. Any public display of affection beyond holding hands is frowned upon, even among married people.
Homosexuality is regarded as a crime in Iran, and it is punishable with lashings, imprisonment, and even death.
Attitudes Towards Westerners
If you’ve seen the movie Argo or pictures of the vandalized American Embassy in Tehran (which is covered in anti-US graffiti), you might think that Iranians have a contemptuous attitude towards Americans. Nothing is further from the truth!
Iranians are the kindest and most welcoming people I’ve had the privilege to encounter in my travels. Thanks to government censorship, news coming from abroad is likely to be limited and biased. So locals genuinely love meeting foreigners, and offer unparalleled hospitality.
In truth, visitors receive so many invitations for dinner and tea that you’d have to spend at least a month in the country to accept them all. While you may travel to Iran as a guest, you’ll most likely leave having made lifelong friends. –Margherita Ragg
Margherita Ragg is a freelance writer from Milan, Italy. She is passionate about wildlife, ecotourism, and outdoor adventure activities. She runs the popular nature and adventure travel blog The Crowded Planet with her husband Nick Burns, an Australian travel and wildlife photographer.