Getting a visa to visit Iran can be slow and uncertain, but most applicants do get one within two or three weeks and, once they've been to Iran, think the hassle was worth it. This article will guide you through the options, though it’s worth checking with the relevant consulate as rules do change with unnerving regularity.
Who needs an Iranian visa?
Passport-holders from half-a-dozen countries (Bosnia & Hercegovina, Macedonia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Slovenia and Turkey) get a three-month tourist visa on arrival. Everyone else needs to arrange a visa in advance or take a risk on getting a 15-day visa on arrival at an airport.
US citizens are welcome, but need to pre-arrange a tour or private guide, or be sponsored by a friend or relative in Iran who will take legal responsibility for them. Israeli passport holders, and anyone with an Israeli stamp in their passport, will not get a visa.
Which Iranian visa type do I need?
Iran has all the usual visa types – business, student, journalist, etc – but for travellers there are three:
- Tourist visa: issued for up to 30 days and extendable. Must be obtained before coming to Iran and valid to enter for 90 days from the issue date. This is the safest option.
- Tourist visa on arrival (VOA): issued for 15 days on arrival at any international airport. Convenient but relatively risky as you might be denied entry.
- Transit visa: issued for five to seven days. You must enter and exit via different countries, and have a visa or a ticket to an onward country. Can be obtained in one or two days and, critically, no authorisation number is required. Not available to US passport holders.
What is the process for getting an Iranian visa?
Other than transit visas, all visa applicants must be 'approved' by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tehran. This includes those seeking a visa on arrival, who can be approved either in advance or, with a longer wait, on arrival.
If you're approved, the MFA sends an authorisation number to the consulate or airport, which takes your application form, passport photos and fee and issues the visa. Fees vary depending on your country of origin; see the relevant embassy website or check the visa agencies listed below.
Avoid the No Ruz (Iranian New Year) holiday period – March 20 to April 3 – when all bureaucracy shuts down. Submit before 8 March to be safe.
How do I do it?
Basically, you need to decide which visa type you want and whether you’ll try to get the visa yourself, or pay an agency to smooth the process.
DIY: going directly through a consulate saves an agency fee but often takes longer and has a much greater chance of rejection (many consulates won’t even accept an application without an authorisation number). In theory, you download the application form from the consulate in your home country; take or send it with your passport, photos, money and proof of your travel insurance to the embassy, which then sends your details to Tehran for approval. If you’re lucky, several weeks later your passport (hopefully with a visa) will come back. Otherwise you’ll need to contact them, which can be hard given Iranian embassies have for years been like black holes to email and telephone calls.
Exceptions abound. In rare cases this method can take just a few days. However there have been many cases where weeks after submission the consul has directed applicants to a visa agency to get the authorisation number; ie start again. Given the uncertainty, if you DIY give yourself at least six weeks.
Agency: visa agencies charge between EUR35 and GBP120 to get you an authorisation number. In most cases you fill out an electronic form with details of your itinerary and where you’d like to collect your visa, attach digital copies of photo and passport, and the agency submits it to the MFA in Tehran. The MFA claims it takes between five and 10 working days to assess the application (unless you’re British or American, when its slower, more costly and more arduous). But plenty of applications take longer or require some clarification. Some agencies are slow to respond to follow-up emails, though in fairness the agency usually does not know what is slowing the process. There is no refund if your application fails, but take comfort that only about 2% are rejected.
Once the authorisation number is received, the agency will forward it to you and your nominated Iranian embassy/consulate. You then need to go through the DIY process described above as a formality, and in most consulates the visa is issued on the spot – in Canberra it took us 25 minutes.
If you’re organising your trip through an Iran-based travel agency you’ll find the agency will probably organise the authorisation number as part of their service. In theory, any Iranian individual can do this.
Visa agencies and private sponsors
Any Iranian can sponsor your application, so if you know an Iranian in Iran and they are prepared to go through the bureaucratic process for you, you can save yourself a few euros. Most travellers use the travel agency that is arranging their trip or a specialist visa agency that has a working relationship with the MFA.
Remember that using, and paying, an agency is not a guarantee of getting a visa, and you won't get your money back if your visa is not issued for any reason. To avoid most problems, start the process early. We recommend that you seek up-to-date advice from other travellers about which agency to use, as quality of service varies enormously. Thorn Tree's dedicated thread is a great place to start.
Iranian tourist visa on arrival (airport visa)
Iran issues 15-day tourist visas on arrival to people from about 65 countries, including most European, ASEAN, Gulf Arab and Central Asian countries, several South American countries, Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. Notable absentees are Britain and the US.
Applicants must have an onward air ticket.
In theory VOAs are available at all international airports to visitors with an Iranian sponsor, such as a travel agency, visa agency or hotel manager (budget hotels don’t seem to count). And some people report getting one with only the name of a hotel in Tehran.
In practice, however, this service is risky. We’ve heard from numerous people who have been sent back when their expected visa did not materialise, even though they seemed to meet all the requirements. Extensions to these visas are also harder, with another 15 days usually the maximum if any is given.
Get the paperwork right
While we don't advocate lying on your application form, try to avoid unnecessary complications.
- Email: if asked for an email address (usually when using an agency), go generic and avoid .gov accounts.
- Itinerary: if you want a 30-day visa, write a 30-day itinerary. Don’t mention controversial places like Bushehr, Natanz and border regions. Once in Iran you can go almost anywhere.
- Occupation: teachers, nurses and data entry clerks are more welcome than unloved journalists, military personnel or, according to one reader, anything to do with fashion (very dangerous!). The MFA does Google applicants so keep it plausible.
- Purpose of your visit: tourism. We heard of one young guy who, in applying for a visa on arrival, wrote ‘to see girlfriend’ in reference to an Iranian girl he’d met in Europe. He was deported.
- Photographs: women often need to cover their hair (any scarf will do) in the application photo. Check embassy websites.
Extending your visa in Iran
- That you can get a visa directly through the Iranian Foreign Ministry website. You can’t. The relevant page on the ministry’s website has been ‘under construction’ for several years.
- That if your application is rejected once, you will never be able to get a visa. It probably will stop you getting a visa on arrival, but trying another embassy or using an agency can work.
- That visa agencies will always be able to get you an approval number in 7-10 days. They are subject to the mysteries of the ministry too.
- Equally, don’t believe you’ve been conned if your visa doesn’t turn up in time or is rejected. There’s nothing to be gained for agencies by slowing the process or just taking your money without performing the service.
Over the past few years, Lonely Planet authors have tried all these methods with varying degrees of success (one application was so late we needed to drive to Canberra to pick up the passport on the day of departure from Sydney) . However, in recent times, we and most people we know have found using an agency to be the safest option.
Remember that things change. Check on Thorn Tree, the relevant embassy website or the visa agency websites for the latest news.
Good luck! Iran is totally worth the effort.