Iran used to be very mysterious country, since very few foreigners visited there. When Bush Junior came to power, she was regarded as “axis of evil.” Remember that phrase? Well, I have been there twice and never ever felt that way. My first visit to Iran was in 2004, I visited my close friend from university. Back in 2004, getting a visa was a tedious process, which took around two to three weeks. Besides, I only saw 15 tourists during my entire 16-day stay. They were definitely not Chinese (so many of them traveling now) and most of them were from Austria and Japan. How strange is that?
Nowadays, Iran gives out visa on arrival, as tourism grows, relationships with the West developing (despite sanctions from certain countries) and the infrastructure improving. 12 years later, I went to Iran again. I decided to make a quick checklist for those that plan on visiting there, assuming you got your visa.
Checklist 1: Arrival at Esfahan Airport
Like most people, you will fly into Tehran or Esfahan Airport. I flew into Tehran in 2004, but my most recent trip in October 2016, I flew into Esfahan Airport. Esfahan Airport is very small and you will most likely be walking from the plane to the immigration building. Upon entering the immigration building, there is a visa on arrival (VOA) window on the right hand side. The gentlemen there speak English and will assist you in filling out the visa application form and will ask if you have travel insurance.
Let me summarize the step by step process:
Fill the form and give it to the officer. If you have proof of travel insurance for Iran, show that information to him. As proof, show a printout or email or a card that actually states Iran is included. The document needs your name and birthdate and Iran as one of the country.
If you don’t have travel insurance, you will be required to purchase it at a different window for 15 Euros. You actually go to a different window that sells insurance, but the person handling it will be the same person as the VOA guy. I never understood why they have a separate window. They should combine this into one.
FYI, don’t be in a hurry at this point, since the entire process took one hour for 12 foreigners. The reason why It takes so long is because they seem to collect all the foreigner’s passports first, then confirm payment of the visa, then the insurance, and then you get your sticker in the passport.
Pay your visa fee In case you need travel insurance, you proceed to a window next to the bank. They will give you a piece of paper with your name, pay them 15 Euros and then proceed to the original window
The visa fees were all in Euros. Of course, you can pay in US Dollars or other currency of choice.
Pay your travel insurance fee
In case you need travel insurance, you proceed to a window next to the bank. They will give you a piece of paper with your name, pay them 15 Euros and then proceed to the original window.
Get your passport back
You go back to the original window with the payment slip and insurance paper. You will get your passport and proceed to the immigration area.
There is only one line at immigration and by the time you get there, you will be the only one. All the Iranians have gone through already.
There is only one belt at Esfahan Airport so you won’t miss your bag. By the time you get there, your bags will be off the belt.
Proceed to custom check
There is the usual x-ray scanner. Put both your luggage and hand item into the belt. Once you pick up your bag, you are out the door at the arrivals hall.
*Note: Make sure to exchange money at the bank. The rates are pretty much the same in the city center or at the airport. You might as well change a good amount there.
There are very few taxis at Esfahan Airport. If you are stuck, ask one of the airport attendants to help you. If you are lucky, they might drive you into town or call one for you. The price is roughly 150,000 Riyal.
Checklist 2: Take cash (hard currency)
It is unlikely that your ATM or credit card will work in Iran. If you plan on buying carpets or items that are expensive, there is a high chance that the vendor will have some kind of connection outside of Iran and your card will work. Otherwise, you will have to pay cash for everything. I recommend bringing enough cash for your entire trip. The best currencies to take are USD and Euro. The best places to exchange money are at the official exchange places. On holidays, the exchange places are closed, so you can change money on the streets. These guys may look dodgy and give you a lower rate, but if you ask for the correct one, they will give it to you. Otherwise, walk away and ask someone else. Just make sure you count your money. I changed money on the streets twice and it was fine.
Checklist 3: Dual currency
When changing money, you will get a lot of Rials. The exchange rate was 40,000 Rial for 1 Euro in September 2016. By changing 100 Euros, you get 4,000,000 Rial. Now, the tricky part is that whenever you buy anything or spend money, the people will be using Toman. Toman is one tenth of the Rial. For example, 10,000 Toman means 100,000 Riyal. You will get used to it in a couple of days, but 90% of the time, prices are reflected in Toman. If you are uncertain, then ask the vendor to clear any confusion.
At hostels and hotels, there is a high likelihood that the prices are priced in US Dollars or Euro. When making the payment, they will convert the price in Rial. Why? The Rial is unstable and inflation is high. Therefore, they prefer to price in hard currency.
Checklist 4: Mobile connection & Wifi
If you don’t want to be roaming in Iran, you can purchase a prepaid SIM card at the airport. The SIM card comes with both call credits and data and can be replenished at the small kiosks in the city. The packages offered are reasonable and not expensive.
Wifi is abundant in most hotels, hostels, guesthouses that you will be staying, along with tourist restaurants. You won’t have a problem connecting to the Internet. Now, social media except Whatsapp and Instagram are blocked. If you plan on using Facebook, make sure to download VPN on your phone prior to entering the country.
Checklist 5: Alcohol is illegal and drugs, don’t even think about it
There is no alcohol in public establishments, which means… no bars, no clubs, but you will find lots of tea houses and coffee shops. If you are an alcoholic, this may be the place to visit. Although, if you know the right crowd, you may have access to alcohol. It’s better not to take a chance though.
Checklist 6: Strict dress code
Women – you are required by law to cover your head and body. Make sure to pack a headscarf or if you feel comfortable, go get a burka (very few foreigners wear that). The moment you get off the plane, you have to be covering your head and covering your body. Don’t even plan on bringing skirts, shirts, dresses or tight clothes. These are not allowed! The only time you don’t have to wear a scarf or expose your body is within private quarters (in the hotel room, friend’s house, etc). FYI, the young and affluent Iranian women are stylish and you will see colorful coordination of their gear except during religious periods.
Men – can wear everything except for shorts and tank tops. The only time shorts is allowed is when you are exercising. Otherwise, the Islamic police may make life difficult for you.
Checklist 7: A very safe country
This is not even a checklist, but I want to let you kow that Iran still has the “axis of evil” label, due to the government’s stance versus the Americans/Israeli/Saudis and of course, holding nuclear and chemical weapons. You must observe the Islamic law while there, but once you are there, it is one of the safest countries. The worst that can happen to you is being shortchanged or they quote a higher price at the markets.
By the way, Iranians are soooo hospitable and I think they are the most hospitable people in the world. My next story will be on that.
Checklist 8: Food is great, but low on vegetarian options
Iranian food is delicious, but it will be best to go to a local or tourist restaurant. You can try many different kinds of traditional food. I won’t write them down here, since you can try it for yourself! Other than the restaurants, there are lots of fast food joints. You won’t find any Western establishments like McDonald, KFC, Dunkin Donuts, etc, but Iranian style kebabs, pizzas and sandwich places. Make note that restaurants close around 10pm and if you do go hungry, you can buy some simple snacks at the convenience stores (they are not seven elevens, but little Iranian mom & pop stores).
You will see a lot of juice stands offering freshly squeezed fruit and they are absolutely lovely. My personal favorite is pomenegrate juice, but it is one of the most expensive drinks.
If you are a vegetarian, I think you are screwed. The options are very limited, since most Iranian food involves meat. You will most likely be eating salad, lentil soup, yoghurt and aubergine dishes. For breakfast, they rarely eat meat, which comprises of tea or coffee, bread, jam/butter/honey, salad, eggs and dates
Checklist 9: Are there backpackers?
On my recent trip, there were lots of backpackers from all over the world. Most notable were people from Western Europe (Spain, France, Germany, Netherlands, Scandinavia), Russia, China – lots!, Japan and a few from New Zealand and Eastern Europe. When traveling, you will meet a lot of other travelers at the hostels and guesthouses, so solo travel will not be a problem. You will find people to travel and share costs for transportation to sites. There are only a handful of budget hotels in each city other than Tehran.
Otherwise, you will see the usual tour groups, most of them are French or German or Japanese elderlies.
So that comprises my 9 checklist points for Iran. If you have any questions, please let me know in the comments section.