As a general rule the prices of groceries, food, sights, transport (except private taxis) and most things with a price tag attached are fixed. But virtually all prices in the bazaar are negotiable, particularly for souvenir-type products and always for carpets. In touristed areas, such as Imam Sq in Esfahan or the Bazar-e Vakil in Shiraz, bargaining is essential.
Bargaining can be tough if you’re not used to it, so here are a couple of pointers. First, when you find something you like be sure not to show too much interest. Vendors can smell desperation a mile away. Second, don’t buy the first one you see; subtly check out a few alternatives to get an idea of price and quality. With this knowledge, casually enquire as to the price and then make a counter-offer, thus beginning the bargaining process. The vendor will often beseech you to make a better offer: ‘But I have nine children to feed’. However, having looked at the competition you know what is a fair price so only edge up slowly. If you can’t agree on a price you could try walking out of the store, but if the shopkeeper calls your bluff you’ll struggle to knock the price down any further than you already have.
Remember that bargaining is not a life and death battle. A good bargain is when both parties are happy and doesn’t necessarily require you to screw every last toman out of the vendor. If you paid more than your travelling companion, don’t worry. As long as you’re happy, it was a good deal.
Dangers & Annoyances
Iran is generally a very safe place to travel, so much so that many travellers describe it as the ‘safest country I’ve ever been to’, or ‘much safer than travelling in Europe’. Violent crime against foreigners is extremely rare and, indeed, if you do your best to fit in with local customs, you are unlikely to be treated with anything but courtesy and friendliness – that applies to Americans, too. We have hitchhiked across deserts, stayed in the homes of strangers and left bags in restaurants and cafes without any problem.
Western embassies advise their nationals to register on arrival, especially if you will be in Iran for 10 or more days, or plan to visit remote places.
For women travellers, like anywhere, it pays to be cautious and avoid situations where you are alone with a man you don’t know. Foreign women will attract unwanted suggestions and, in crowded bazaars and Metro carriages, the odd grope.
Some official paranoia does exist, and there have been instances of travellers being arrested and held until it became apparent they weren’t spies. The biggest dangers are actually driving and crossing the street. For an idea of how fellow travellers found Iran, see the Thorn Tree (www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree).
While there are few stories of assaults and thefts in Iran, it pays to take the usual precautions. It makes sense, too, that if the economic situation worsens crime will rise. Basic things to be aware of:
- On transport keep valuables, including your passport, money and camera, with you at all times.
- Hotels are quite safe but locking your bags prevents hotel staff going through them and, perhaps, ‘sampling’ your toiletries.
- There is a black market in stolen foreign passports so, unless it’s with your hotel reception, keep yours strapped to your body.
- If you are to encounter a pickpocket, it will be in a crowded bazaar.
Kidnapping & Terror
Kidnapping and terror-related crime is extremely rare in most of Iran. That said, at the time of writing, most government travel advisory services were advising against travelling to:
- within 100km of the Iran–Afghanistan border
- within 10km of the Iran–Iraq border
- the province of Sistan va Baluchestan
- the area east of the line running from Bam to Jask, including Bam and Zahedan
Police & Security Forces
Uniformed police and military are ubiquitous but have no interest in hassling foreigners. In cities such as Esfahan, Shiraz and Mashhad you’ll find helpful Tourist Police – usually including an English-speaker – in conveniently located booths.
Photographing the wrong thing is the action most likely to spark police interest. If you have unwittingly aroused the attention of police for photographing the wrong thing (eg at the border, Tehran train station etc), emphasise you are a tourist and delete the pictures. Do not argue in these situations.
Foreigners are expected to carry their passport at all times, but this can be tricky as hotels are also supposed to keep guests’ passports for police inspection. Always carry several photocopies of both your passport’s face page and your Iranian visa, and if you go out of town leave a photocopy at reception and take the passport. If you are stopped, show your photocopies unless you are sure the police are genuine.
On roads near borders your transport is likely to be stopped by police searching for drugs and other smuggled goods.
Iranian driving is unpredictable and it’s on the road – or crossing it – that you’re most likely to be in danger. There’s little you can do to control this beyond asking your driver to slow down ('yavash tar boro!') or take a train.
Iranians will tell you with a perverse mix of horror and glee that Iran competes for the highest per-capita number of road deaths on earth – in 2014 that was more than 17,000 people, with another 300,000-plus injured.
No one pays any notice of road rules and the willingness of a car to stop at a busy intersection is directly proportional to the size of the vehicles in its path. Playing on this, some cunning motorists have fitted deafening air horns, usually found on trucks and buses, to their Paykans and Prides. A quick blast sees other traffic screech to a halt, fearing they’ve been outsized. Meanwhile, the modest little Paykan/Pride sails through the intersection. Size (or at least the perception that you’re big) matters.
Be aware of contraflow bus lanes (along which buses hurtle in the opposite direction to the rest of the traffic), and motorbikes speeding through red lights, along footpaths and through crowded bazaars.
Vehicles never stop at pedestrian crossings so don’t underestimate the possibility of dying a horrible death while crossing the road. It may be little consolation, but the law says that if a pedestrian is hit the driver is always at fault and is liable to pay blood money to the family of the victim. Until you’ve got your head around the traffic, perhaps the best advice comes from one pragmatic reader: ‘Cross a busy street with an Iranian person, but make sure the Iranian is closest to the approaching traffic.’
Earthquakes happen every day in Iran, but most travellers will never feel one. If you get unlucky, the following precautions might help.
It’s most important to protect yourself from falling debris. If you’re indoors, stay inside and take cover under a sturdy desk or table. Hold on to it and be prepared to move with it. Hold the position until the shaking stops and you can move outside. Stay clear of windows, appliances and freestanding furniture (such as wardrobes) that might fall over. Use a pillow to protect your head.
In a mud-brick building it’s vital to create space (under a bed, perhaps) that won’t be filled with dirt and dust, which could lead to suffocation.
If you’re outside, stay away from buildings and power lines.
Government Travel Advice
The following government websites offer travel advisories and information for travellers:
- Australian Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade (www.smartraveller.gov.au)
- Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs & International Trade (www.voyage.gc.ca)
- French Ministère des Affaires Étrangères et Européennes (www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/fr/conseils-aux-voyageurs)
- Italian Ministero degli Affari Esteri (www.viaggiaresicuri.mae.aci.it)
- New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade (www.safetravel.govt.nz)
- UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office (www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice)
- US Department of State (www.travel.state.gov)
Current is 220V AC, 50Hz. Wall sockets are mainly the European, two round-pin type.
Embassies & Consulates
It’s important to realise what your own embassy – the embassy of the country of which you are a citizen – can and can’t do if you get into trouble. Generally speaking, it won’t help if the trouble is remotely your own fault. Remember that you are bound by the laws of the country you are in and your embassy won’t be sympathetic if you end up in jail after committing a crime locally, even if such actions would be legal in your own country. Don’t expect support for feminist or political statements you make in Iran, for example. In genuine emergencies you might get some assistance after other channels have been exhausted. If you have your money and documents stolen it will assist with a new passport, but forget a loan for onward travel.
For a list of Iranian embassies around the world, see the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (www.mfa.ir).
Embassies & Consulates in Iran
Many embassies ask travellers to register their presence by phoning in and asking for the consul. If you do, let them know when you leave, too. In a genuine emergency call the number here, wait until the message gives you the emergency number, and call that. The following have representation in Tehran:
Armenian Embassy Tourist visas also available on the border or at Yerevan airport.
Iraqi Embassy Visas depend on the prevailing situation in Iraq.
Pakistani Embassy Embassy not issuing visas to nonresidents; consulates have not issued visas for several years.
Swiss Embassy Handles US affairs.
Tajikistani Embassy North of Niyavaran Palace; issues tourist visas for one/two/four weeks for US$30/40/50. Takes a week; bring a letter of introduction from your embassy.
Turkmen Embassy; Mashhad branch A five-day transit visa or a tourist visa are issued either the same day or after a week (yes, inconsistent) with a letter of introduction (eg from www.stantours.com), photos and copies. Once approval has been given, speed of stamping depends on the price paid.
Uzbek Embassy See website for details of what is needed to secure a visa and associated fees. It’s near the Sadaf Shopping Centre.
Emergency & Important Numbers
Drop the 0 when dialling an area code from abroad.
|Iran country code||98|
|International access code||00|
Entry & Exit Formalities
Assuming you have a visa, most immigration and border officials are efficient and tourists rarely get too much hassle. Land borders can take longer if you’re on a bus or train. Women need to be adequately covered from the moment they get off the plane or arrive at the border.
Arriving without a visa is risky, as the visa-on-arrival process sees a lot of people turned away.
Contrary to popular belief, Iranian officialdom is fairly relaxed about what foreigners take into and out of the country; at airports, your bags probably won’t be searched at all. However, don’t take this to mean you can load your luggage with vodka, bacon and porn. You are allowed to import, duty-free, 200 cigarettes and 50 cigars, and a ‘reasonable quantity’ of perfume. And of course zero alcohol, which remains strictly illegal.
You’ll probably get away with any book, no matter how critical of the government, as long as it doesn’t have too much female skin or hair visible on the cover.
You should have no trouble bringing in your laptop, smartphone, shortwave radio, iPad and video equipment if it doesn’t look professional. Visitors are supposed to declare cash worth more than US$1000. In practice few do and the authorities aren’t really interested.
Officially, you can take out anything you legally imported into Iran, and anything you bought, including handicrafts other than rugs up to the value of US$160 (hang on to your receipts), as long as they are not for ‘the purpose of trade’. Many traders will undervalue goods on receipts issued to foreigners. A ‘reasonable number’ of rugs can be exported with no limit on value.
You can also take out 150g of gold and 3kg of silver, without gemstones. If you want to exceed these limits, you will need an export permit from a customs office. Officially you need permission to export anything ‘antique’ (ie more than 50 years old), including handicrafts, gemstones and coins. No more than IR200,000 in Iranian cash is allowed to be taken out of Iran.
Sanctions mean that in theory you can’t take more than US$100 worth of goods purchased in Iran into the USA.
Iran will not issue visas to Israeli passport holders, and people with an Israeli passport will be turned away at the border (you won’t get on a flight to Iran with an Israeli passport). Similarly, having an Israeli stamp in any other passport will see you turned away or put on the next flight out. And it's not just Israeli stamps – they check carefully for exit stamps out of Jordan or Egypt at border points that imply that you must have entered Israel.
Valid Iranian visa required. To be safe, start the process at least two months before you plan to arrive. Some nationalities can get a visa on arrival if arriving by air.
One reason so few people visit Iran is that getting a visa can be difficult. The process is slow, somewhat unpredictable and rules seem to change without warning. But some nationalities are eligible for a visa on arrival at any international airport and for those who don't, the vast majority of people do get a visa within two or three weeks. But start the process early.
Note that all applications stall over the No Ruz holiday period; submit before 8 March to be sure.
US citizens should be aware that Iran has periodically barred US citizens from obtaining visas, most recently after President Trump issued an executive order barring immigrants from Iran and six other Muslim countries from entering the country.
Which Visa? Pros & Cons
First, it’s important to understand the process. Except with transit visas, all visa applicants must be ‘approved’ by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) 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, which takes your application form, passport photos and fee and issues the visa. Fees vary depending on your country of origin; see the Iran embassy website.
Transit visas are only fractionally cheaper than tourist visas and, while they don’t require authorisation from Tehran, only give you up to seven days. The choice, then, is whether to get a tourist visa in advance or on arrival.
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 surest option.
Tourist visa on arrival (VOA) Issued for 30 days on arrival at any Iranian international airport. Convenient but relatively risky, as you may be denied entry.
Transit visa Issued for five to seven days, this is the last resort. You must enter and exit via different countries, and have a visa or a ticket to an onward country. Transit visas are not available to US passport holders. To most other nationalities, the visas can be obtained in one or two days and no authorisation number is required.
Tourist Visa on Arrival
Iran usually issues 30-day tourist visas on arrival (Airport Visa) 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, Canada and the USA.
Tourist visas are available at all international airports, but it is recommend to fly into Tehran's Emam Khomeini International Airport to avoid problems. At the time of writing, to obtain the visa on arrival the following were required:
- a printout of your travel insurance. Note that if the printout doesn't specifically mention Iran, you may be required to purchase insurance at the airport;
- insurance can be purchased (US$16) at the counter opposite the visa desk; it is strongly recommended that you purchase your insurance before starting the visa process;
- the name and telephone of a sponsor. In practice this can be a hotel; it is strongly recommend you have a night booked at the hotel you name and that you carry a printout of an email from the hotel confirming your reservation, although this latter requirement is also asked for;
- the requisite fee. For most Western nationalities, the fee is €75 ( Australians pay €145) or the US dollar equivalent. Visa fees can be paid in euros or US dollars.
There are two ways to get a tourist visa.
- Do It Yourself You can go directly through a consulate, which saves an agency fee but takes at least three weeks and often longer. In theory, you download and fill out the application form from the Iran consulate in your home country; you then take or send the forms and your passport, photos, money and proof of your travel insurance to the embassy and they will send your details to Tehran for approval. Several weeks later you might, if you’re lucky, be contacted with the result. Otherwise you’ll need to contact them, which is not always easy. If all goes to plan, you will eventually either pick up the visa in person (some embassies require women to cover their hair), or have your passport returned in a registered-mail envelope. Exceptions abound. In rare cases this method can take just a few days. However, we’ve also heard of cases where weeks after submission the consul has directed applicants to a visa agency to get the visa authorisation number. With so much uncertainty, if you choose this option, give yourself six weeks or longer to be sure.
- Use an Agency Visa agencies charge from €30 to UK£120 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 sends this to Tehran. The MFA claims that for most nationalities it takes between five and 10 working days to assess the application. When it does take longer, the visa agency often won’t know why, which might explain (if not excuse) the agency being slow to reply to your follow-up emails. There is no refund if your application fails, but few 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 application process as a formality, and in most consulates the visa is issued on the spot.
If you’re British, Canadian or American, expect both methods to be slower, more costly and more arduous. When it’s open, the Iranian Embassy in London will often request an interview and requires fingerprints from British applicants. For US citizens, allow three months to be safe.
Entry Visa (Business Visa)
To get a 30-day (extendable) business visa you must obtain an invitation letter from the company or organisation you plan to visit. The process is otherwise the same as getting a tourist visa (DIY or using an agency). People coming for a conference or to play in a sporting event need an ‘entry visa’.
Sponsors & Visa Agencies
Any Iranian can sponsor your application, which in effect means they submit the paperwork for an authorisation code. But in most cases it’s easier to use a travel agency or a specialist visa agency. Keep in mind, though, that even with an agency there are no guarantees, and the visa agent will still take their fee regardless of whether a visa is issued or not. Seek up-to-date recommendations from other travellers before you choose one – Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree forum (www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree) is a good place to start.
Two recommended visa agencies include:
- Persian Voyages
- Iran Visa Authorization Code (www.iranvisacode.com)
Getting the Paperwork Right
While we don’t advocate lying on your application form, try to avoid unnecessary complications. Tricky questions:
- Email If asked for one, opt for something generic and avoid .gov accounts.
- Itinerary If you want a 30-day visa, write a 30-day itinerary. Keep controversial places such as Bushehr, Natanz and border regions off your agenda. Once in Iran you can go where you want.
- 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!). Be aware that the MFA might Google your name.
- Purpose of your visit Tourism. One guy, applying for a visa on arrival, wrote ‘to see Iranian girlfriend’. He was deported. What was he thinking?
- Photographs Women will probably need to have their hair covered (any scarf will do) in their visa-application photo. Check embassy websites.
Who Needs a Visa?
Passport-holders from Bosnia-Herzegovina, 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 seek a 30-day visa on arrival at an airport. Contrary to popular misconception, 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 (or exit stamps at the relevant Jordanian or Egyptian border crossings into Israel), will not get a visa.
First the good news: there is usually little difficulty in extending a 30-day tourist visa to 60 days. It’s possible, but harder, to extend again, up to a maximum of 90 days. The following summary of how the extension process works is notoriously prone to change. Check the Thorn Tree (lonelyplanet.com/thorntree) or a specialist visa agency for the latest.
Choose Your City
If you want a long extension it’s worth planning your itinerary to be somewhere friendly when the extension is needed. In general, cities familiar with tourists are best: Shiraz has for years been the city of choice, with Esfahan also getting positive reports. Second-string options include Kerman, Yazd and Tabriz, but these don’t always issue the full 30-day extension. Tehran, Mashhad and other cities are less reliable. Check the Thorn Tree (www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree) for recent reports.
Head for the Police Department of Aliens Affairs (edareh gozannameh). Note that the office might have changed name to the Passport & Immigration Police by the time you arrive. You’ll need:
- your passport and two or three mug shots;
- two photocopies of the picture page of your passport, your current visa, entry stamp and any other extensions you’ve had (most offices have a photocopy service);
- fee for the extension (check the current fee with the office in question, but IR500,000 at the time of research), plus small notes for forms.
Pay for two copies of the appropriate forms. You’ll then be directed to a Bank Melli branch to deposit the cash – just say ‘visa’ and the bank staff will fill in the forms for you. Return with your bank receipt and the visa extension will be issued within an hour or two, though in some cases (hello Tehran) it can take several days.
Timing & Overstaying
In theory, you can only apply for an extension two or three days before your existing visa is due to expire, and your extension starts on the day it’s issued, not the end of your original visa. Cross-check the Persian calendar dates so you know exactly when your visa expires.
If things go awry, a doctor’s note on official stationery stating you were unwell might act as a quasi-extension at the border, or be used for a short extension in the nearest Aliens Bureau. But don’t rely on this.
If you do overstay, even by a few hours, expect to be detained.
Before You Go
One of the main considerations when planning a trip to Iran is whether to travel independently, take a tour or do a bit of both.
To Tour or Not to Tour
Travelling independently in Iran has more ups than downs. It’s easier as a man or as part of a couple than as a woman, but is eminently doable regardless of your sex. Air, rail and bus transport is efficient and safe, sights are cheap and enough people speak English, or are willing to help, that it’s hard to get into too much trouble. To top it all, as a visitor most Iranians consider you a ‘gift from God’ and you will be bowled over by the kindness of strangers.
Private Guides & Drivers
Freelance drivers and guides are a cheaper, more flexible alternative to group tours and plenty of readers have written to recommend this way of travelling – some for a month or more.
Most organised tours start and finish in Tehran, with a quick look around the capital before concentrating on the must-sees: Shiraz and Persepolis, Esfahan and Yazd, with a couple of short diversions thrown in. There are plenty of other itineraries, and agencies will happily build a trip to suit your interests. Costs depend on length, mode of transport, type of accommodation and the exchange rate. Expect to pay in dollars or euros.
Iranian tour guides are generally very good so you can expect comprehensive explanations of sights and cultural happenings, and answers to all your questions. And best, they act as a translator when you meet locals. However, you are less likely to meet locals on a tour, which is a big downside in a country where interactions are so rewarding.
Iranian tour operators also act as local handlers for foreign-based agencies selling tours to Iran, so booking direct should give you the same tour (without the foreign tour leader) for less money.
Iranians are generally quite forgiving of Westerners for any minor cultural transgressions – they don't expect you to know all of the rules. Some useful things to remember, however:
- Dress modestly. This applies to both men and women.
- Learn some Farsi before you go – a sure way to win local friends.
- Take some small gifts from home to repay the many small acts of kindness and hospitality you're likely to receive while in Iran.
- When invited to dinner take a tin of the local sweets (eg gaz in Esfahan).
- Take the time greet people you meet – greetings are important to Iranians and launching into conversation without a greeting is considered rude.
- Never use the thumbs up sign, which is the equivalent of the middle finger ‘up yours’.
- Men should not offer to shake a woman’s hand unless she offers first.
- Take off your shoes when entering a home or a mosque.
Gay & Lesbian Travellers
Despite what President Ahmadinejad might like to say, Iranian gays and lesbians do exist. Unlike most other places, however, in Iran homosexual acts are not only illegal but punishable by hundreds of lashes and even death. In recent years several men have been hanged for the ‘crime’ of having consensual homosexual sex. Barbaric laws aside, there is no reason why gay and lesbian travellers shouldn’t visit Iran. There are no questions of sexuality on visa application forms. Do, however, refrain from overt acts of affection.
Arranging meetings with Iranian gays and lesbians will be tough, although dating aps such as Grinder and Scruff are not censored and in Tehran there are some known cruising spots. The nearest thing to a gay ‘scene’ is a few nervous-looking men sitting alone in Daneshgu and Laleh parks in Tehran. For lesbians it’s even tougher. The best way to make contact is online (but it’s unwise to say where here).
It makes sense not to advertise that you’re part of a same-sex couple. Most hoteliers won’t ask, though you might find in some places discretion is the better part of valour when seeking a double bed.
In 2011 it became compulsory to have travel insurance to get a visa to Iran. When looking for a policy, make sure Iran is actually covered (ie specifically mentioned). If it's not, or if you're unsure, buy the official insurance for US$16 at the airport; the insurance desk is opposite the visa desk (you should visit the insurance desk first). Some insurers, particularly in the USA, consider the region a ‘danger zone’ and either exclude it altogether or insist on exorbitant premiums. Travel in areas such as Kordistan and Sistan va Baluchestan might not be covered if your country’s foreign office warns against travelling there.
Checking insurance quotes…
In Iran, internet cafes are known as cafenets (previously called coffeenets), although there are fewer such places with each passing year as everyone has mobile internet and wi-fi is increasingly common. In Tehran, for example, there are virtually no cafenets left as pretty much all cafes, teahouses and hotels have wi-fi. Speeds are variable, but most cities have ADSL connections.
Viruses, worms, Trojans and key-loggers (if not Stuxnet) are widespread, so be wary of sticking your USB stick into any local machines.
Wi-fi is increasingly available in hotels and cafes, and it's usually (but not always) free. Upmarket coffee shops invariably have wi-fi, and whether you pay for it or not seems to depend a little on how much you pay for your coffee – the more expensive your espresso, the less likely you are to have to pay to get connected.
Access to thousands of websites is blocked by the government. At the time of writing, these included the following:
- BBC and most Western news services
At the time of writing, Skype, Yahoo! Messenger and Instagram were accessible, but most Iranians use telegram.me or whatsapp to communicate with each other. Many, perhaps even most, Iranian businesses in the tourist sector have an Instagram page.
To get around blocked websites, most Iranians use a VPN client – set one up on your device before you leave home, although it can slow things down considerably, which can be particularly frustrating where the wi-fi is already slow. If you don’t, you’ll find access to many websites to be difficult; cafenets can sometimes get you around the wall. For news, try Al Jazeera’s English service www.aljazeera.com.
And it's not just Iran's government that does the blocking. Try not to use internet banking or even PayPal while you're in Iran, as international banking sites routinely block any IPs coming from Iran. The same also happens sometimes with Gmail.
Like most things in Iran, the legal system is based on Islamic principles. The system, however, is not the strictest interpretation of Sharia law. Most of the same activities that are illegal in your country are illegal in Iran, but the penalties can be much harsher. For most minor crimes foreigners will probably be deported, though this is not an absolute. A few years ago a German businessman was sentenced to death for having sex with an unmarried Muslim woman, though he was eventually released after serving about two years in jail. The penalties for drug or alcohol use and smuggling are harsh. Carrying the smallest amount of hashish can result in a minimum six-month jail sentence; don’t expect assistance from your embassy or a comfortable cell. Trafficking heroin or opium carries the death penalty.
There are two ‘crimes’ that foreigners may not be aware of. Homosexual activity is illegal and has resulted in the death penalty for some Iranians. Deliberate refusal to wear correct hejab (the Islamic dress code for women) can also result in a public flogging (although a foreigner will probably be deported).
If You Are Arrested
In most cases, the primary motives for arresting a foreigner are usually curiosity, mild suspicion and the desire to appear powerful. In the unlikely event you are arrested:
- Keep cool, you are a tourist (jahangardi) and this is just a misunderstanding.
- It’s best not to reply to, or appear to understand, any questions in Farsi.
- When you can understand the questions, they will likely be very detailed and you will be expected to answer. Do so politely, patiently, openly and diplomatically. Be complimentary about Iran and Iranians.
- Answer your interrogators so that their curiosity is satisfied, their suspicion allayed and their sense of their own self-importance flattered.
- Take special care not to incriminate yourself or anyone else, especially anyone Iranian, with a careless statement. Do not volunteer to show your photos if they include images of Iranians, who could be unwittingly dragged into something. Equally, don’t actively try to hide them as this will raise suspicions.
- If things get heavy, ask to contact your embassy in Tehran.
Gita Shenasi in Tehran publishes maps of all major towns and cities, country maps and some mountain ranges. Some are in English, while others list streets and suburbs in English and everything else in Farsi. Maps are harder to find outside Tehran.
Gita Shenasi’s Iran Road Map (1:2,250,000) is updated annually and is highly detailed. Outside Iran, look for the excellent, if dated, Reise Know-How Iran (1:1,500,000).
If you're carrying a smartphone, the maps.me app (www.maps.me) is excellent for most places in Iran, although it's not always perfect.
Iran’s English-language daily newspapers are the Tehran Times (www.tehrantimes.com) and Iran News, both of which cleave to the government line with exceptions from the wires. They are available only in Tehran and some other large cities. Both offer decent, if sometimes eccentric, international coverage.
Frequencies for the BBC World Service (www.bbc.co.uk/worldserviceradio) include 11760Hz, 15575Hz and 1413kHz; and for VOA (www.voanews.com) 11740Hz and 15195kHz.
All Iranian broadcasters are state-controlled. However, many Iranians get Farsi-language satellite TV from North America. On Iranian TV, channels 1 to 4 are national, 5 and 6 province-based. Most hotels have the 24-hour IRINN news channel, which has a news-ticker in English.
Bring cash in enough US dollars or euro for the duration of your trip – cash is king. You cannot use credit or debit cards, travellers cheques or ATMs. Repeat, bring all you’ll need in cash.
The official unit of currency is the Iranian rial, but Iranians almost always talk in terms of tomans, a unit equal to 10 rials. With inflation soaring, we sometimes convert all prices into US dollars, although fewer Iranian businesses are doing this with each passing year.
For all intents and purposes, Iran for the visitor is a purely cash economy. No credit cards. No travellers cheques. Just bring cold, hard cash – preferably in high-denomination euros or US dollars printed since 1996. Apart from some hotels, carpet shops and tour agencies where you can pay in dollars or euros, all transactions are in rials. Where prices are quoted in euros we will do the same. Other major currencies, such as British pounds, Australian or Canadian dollars, Swiss francs and UAE dirhams, can be changed in Tehran and other big cities, if not smaller towns. However, Turkish lira are treated with scorn everywhere except close to the Turkish border; ditto for the Afghan, Azerbaijani, Turkmen and Pakistani currencies.
Whichever currency you choose, the most important thing to remember is to bring as much cash as you’re likely to need, then a bit more. Getting your hands on money once you’re inside Iran is a nightmare.
Although Iran has a functioning network of ATMs (cashpoint machines), they can only be used with locally issued bank cards, so are useless to travellers unless you open a local account.
There are coins for IR1, IR2, IR5, IR10, IR20, IR50, IR100, IR250, IR500, IR1000 and ITR5000. So rare are IR1 coins (no longer minted) that they are considered lucky, despite being utterly worthless. Coins are marked only in Farsi numerals, while notes come in Persian and European numerals. There are notes for IR100 (rare), IR200 (rare), IR500, IR1000 (two varieties), IR2000 (two varieties), IR5000 (two varieties), IR10,000, IR20,000, IR50,000, IR100,000 and IR500,000.
Usually no-one cares what state rial notes are in, then out of the blue someone will reject one because it has a tiny tear or is too grubby. On the other hand, foreign currencies will be rejected if they are not clean and without any tears whatsoever.
Changing money on the street is illegal and as long as exchange shops are allowed to trade money at market rates it makes little sense to do this. That said, the volatile state of the rial means there will be plenty of people prepared to buy your foreign exchange on the black market.
If you do change money on the street, expect to be treated like a total moron with no idea of current rates. You should demand at least the same rate as you’d get in the exchange shop and expect the changer to take a ‘service fee’. Count the rials carefully (there are often notes missing or folded over), and don’t hand over your bills until you’re sure the count is correct.
Um, no. Sanctions mean your (Western-issued) credit card will be useless in Iran. The only exceptions are a handful of carpet shops with foreign accounts, but if they can help at all (it’s far from guaranteed) you’ll pay a hefty 10% plus service charge for the privilege. Bring enough cash.
This can, at times, be rather annoying because locals now pay for just about everything, even very small purchases, using their local debit cards. The practice is so widespread that some places are even surprised when you try to pay in cash (and seem flummoxed by the whole concept of giving change). Some ticket machines (eg to use the Metro in Mashhad) don't even accept cash and will only accept locally issued cards for payment.
The easiest way to change money is at an official money-exchange office, in your hotel, with a taxi driver or in the jewellery section of the bazaar where the whole deal is done in seconds. In most banks it can take considerably longer. There's an exchange office offering correct (ie non-bank) rates on the departure level of Tehran's Imam Khomeini International Airport.
At the time of writing banks had been limited to changing money at a fixed rate, called the First Market, which was far lower than the floating market rate to be had at exchange shops. How long these mandated rates last is anybody’s guess.
Although it sometimes seems as if every fourth building is a bank, only a few banks will actually change your money and then usually only US dollars, euros or, less often, British pounds in cash (and only after the day’s rates arrive from Tehran between 9am and 10am). The best bet will always be your town’s central branch (markazi) of Bank Melli (BMI), or the central branches of the other major banks: Bank Mellat, Bank Tejarat, Bank Sepah and Bank Saderat. You need your passport; bank staff will help with the Farsi paperwork.
Exchange shops are reliable and can be found in most cities, usually signed in English and with rate boards in the window. When we went to press their rates were decided on the floating market, officially called the Second Market, which at that time bought you considerably more rials than changing at the bank (First Market) rate. The process is completely paperwork free.
Sanctions have made it practically impossible to transfer money into or out of Iran without the assistance of a worldwide network of shady money dealers.
Tipping is not a big deal in Iran. In upmarket restaurants (mainly in Tehran) a 10% gratuity might be expected – on top of the 10% service charge that’s often built into the bill. But in most other places any money you leave will be a pleasant surprise. It’s normal to offer a small tip to anyone who guides you or opens a building that is normally closed. If your offer is initially refused, persist. There is no culture of baksheesh (alms or tips) in Iran.
American Express. Leave home without it! Like credit cards, travellers cheques are useless in Iran.
For official exchange rates, see Central Bank of Iran (www.cbi.ir). For exchange office rates (given here), check www.rialconverter.com.
Rials or Tomans?
No sooner have you arrived in Iran than you will come up against the idiosyncratic local practice of talking about prices in tomans, even though the currency is denominated in rials. One toman is worth 10 rials, so it’s a bit like shopkeepers in Europe asking for ‘10’ whenever they wanted €1.
To make matters worse, taxi drivers and shopkeepers will often say ‘one’ as shorthand for IR10,000. However, before you consider cancelling your trip on the grounds of commercial confusion, rest assured that after a few days you’ll understand that the five fingers the taxi driver just showed you means IR50,000. And as you start to get a feel for what things cost, you’ll understand that if something sounds too good to be true – or too bad – it probably is.
In the interim, you can always have the price written down, and then to double-check ask whether it’s in rials or tomans – using a calculator is handy, too, as the numbers show in Western rather than Arabic numerals.
And just when you've mastered the rial, remember that there are plans to replace it with the toman as Iran's official currency over the coming years.
Opening and closing times can be erratic, but you can rely on most businesses closing Thursday afternoons and Friday (the Iranian weekend). Sights, especially government-operated museums and landmarks, open for longer during the warmer months.
The opening hours of many sights and business change between No Ruz (21 March) and 21 September, when many closing times are pushed back by an hour. In hotter areas many businesses close their doors from about noon until 4pm – along the blistering Persian Gulf coast doors stay shut until about 5pm – but businesses then operate in the relative cool of evening until about 8pm or 9pm.
Hours will generally accord (more or less) with the following:
Banks & Government Offices 8am to 2pm Saturday to Wednesday, 8am to noon Thursday
Museums 9am to 6pm summer, until 4pm or 5pm winter, closed on Monday
Post Offices 7.30am to 3pm Saturday to Thursday; some main offices open later
Private Businesses 8am or 9am to 5pm or 6pm Saturday to Wednesday, until noon Thursday; often closed over lunch
Restaurants Lunch noon to 3pm, dinner 6pm or 7pm to 10pm, or whenever the last diner leaves
Shops 9am to 8pm Saturday to Thursday, but likely to have a siesta between 1pm and 3.30pm and possibly close Thursday afternoon
Telephone Offices 8am to 8pm or 9pm; close earlier in small towns
Travel Agencies 9am to 5pm or 6pm Saturday to Wednesday, 7.30am to noon Thursday
Memory cards are widely available, especially in larger towns.
Most Iranians are happy to have their picture taken provided you ask first. However, where lone women are concerned it doesn’t matter how nicely you ask, the answer will usually be no. Exceptions might be made for women photographers.
Offering to take pictures of your Iranian friends and post or email to them later is greatly appreciated – as long as you remember to post or email them. If you're not going to do it, don't promise to do so.
Avoid photographing airports, naval dockyards, nuclear reactors, roadblocks, military installations, embassies or consulates, prisons, telephone offices or police stations – basically, any government building at all. A group of Polish travellers were detained for hours in Bandar Abbas for taking a picture of the port, other travellers were arrested in Howraman-at-Takht for unknowingly taking a photo of a hill that happened to be the Iraqi border. If you get caught, don’t try to be anything except a dumb tourist.
Postage is less reliable and much more expensive than it once was and can take quite a while. Postcards can reach Europe in four or five days, but as some readers have reported they might also take two months. Post boxes are rare except outside post offices. Poste restante is unreliable. If you’re sending mail to an Iranian address that’s complicated or remote, try to get the address in Farsi.
Sending a parcel from Iran can involve much form shuffling, but your package will usually arrive. Take your passport and unwrapped goods to the parcel post counter (daftar-e amanat-e posti) at the main post office (postkhuneh-ye markazi) in a provincial capital before 2pm. They will be checked, packaged and signed for in triplicate. There are three parcel services – pishtaz (express), havayi (airmail) and surface. Rates can vary, but a 5kg parcel to anywhere by surface mail will cost less than US$100; air mail is more expensive. The customs officer on duty generally has discretion over what can be posted abroad, so be nice.
Public holidays commemorate either religious or secular events. It’s worth staying aware of the dates, especially if you are planning to extend your visa. Government offices and just about everything else will close for the morning, at least, on a holiday, but many small businesses open after lunch. Transport functions fairly normally and hotels remain open, but many restaurants will close. Holidays are sometimes extended for a day if they fall near the Iranian weekend. In Tehran, public holidays are sometimes announced at short notice when air pollution reaches dangerous levels. In recent years that has been in mid-July and late November/early December. These holidays affect government offices, schools, universities, sporting arenas and can (but not always) include museums.
Islamic events are based on the lunar calendar and dates move forward 10 or 11 days each year.
Three calendars are in common use in Iran: the Persian solar calendar is the one in official and everyday use; the Muslim lunar calendar is used for Islamic religious matters; and the Western (Gregorian) calendar is used in dealing with foreigners and in some history books. Newspapers carry all three dates. When entering Iran the stamp in your passport will be in Farsi and refer to the Persian calendar. Be sure to confirm the Western date so you don’t overstay your visa; check www.payvand.com/calendar.
The modern Persian solar calendar, a direct descendant of the ancient Zoroastrian calendar, is calculated from the first day of spring in the year of the Hejira, the flight of the Prophet Mohammed from Mecca to Medina in AD 622. It has 365 days (366 every leap year), with its New Year (No Ruz) falling on 21 March according to the Western calendar. The names of the Persian months are as follows:
21 Mar-20 Apr
23 Sep-22 Oct
21 Apr-21 May
23 Oct-21 Nov
22 May-21 Jun
22 Nov-21 Dec
22 Jun-22 Jul
22 Dec-20 Jan
23 Jul-22 Aug
21 Jan-19 Feb
23 Aug-22 Sep
20 Feb-20 Mar
The Muslim calendar starts from the month before the Hejira and is based on the lunar year of 354 or 355 days, so it is out of step with the Persian solar calendar by some 40 years.
The Zoroastrian calendar works to a solar year of 12 months of 30 days each, with five additional days. The week has no place in this system, and each of the 30 days of the month is named after and presided over by its own angel or archangel. The 1st, 8th, 15th and 23rd of each month are holy days. As in the Persian calendar, the Zoroastrian year begins in March at the vernal equinox and except for Andarmaz, which replaces Esfand, the months are the same.
Approximate Dates for Ramazan
- 27 May to 25 June 2017
- 16 May to 14 June 2018
- 6 May to 4 June 2019
- 24 April to 23 May 2020
- 13 April to 12 May 2021
Religious holidays follow the Muslim lunar calendar, which means the corresponding dates in the Western calendar move forward by 10 or 11 days every year.
Tasua (9 Moharram, 19 September 2018)
Ashura (10 Moharram, 20 September 2018) The anniversary of the martyrdom of Hossein, the third Shiite imam, in battle at Karbala in October AD 680. This is celebrated with religious theatre and sombre parades.
Arbaeen (20 Safar, 10 November 2018) The 40th day after Ashura.
Martyrdom of the Prophet Mohammed (28 Safar, 19 November 2018)
Martyrdom of Imam Reza (30 Safar, 9 November 2018)
Birth of the Prophet Mohammed (17 Rabi’-ol-Avval, 20 November 2018)
Martyrdom of Fatima (3 Jamadi-l-Okhra, 19 February 2018) Fatima was the daughter of Prophet Mohammed.
Birth of Imam Ali (13 Rajab, 30 March 2018)
Ascension of Holy Prophet (27 Rajab, 13 April 2018) Maabath.
Birthday of Imam Mahdi (15 Shaban, 1 May 2018)
Martyrdom of Imam Ali (21 Ramazan, 5 June 2018)
Eid al-Fitr (1 Shavval, 15 June 2018) The Festival of the Breaking of the Fast that marks the end of Ramazan. After sunset on the last day of Ramazan large meals are consumed across the country.
Martyrdom of Imam Jafar Sadegh (25 Shavval, 9 July 2018)
Eid-e Ghorban (10 Zu-l-Hejjeh, 22 August 2018) Marks the day when Abraham offered to sacrifice his son. Expect to see plenty of sheep being butchered.
Qadir-e Khom (Eid-al-Ghadir; 18 Zu-l-Hejjeh, 30 August 2018) The day Prophet Mohammed appointed Imam Ali as his successor while returning to Mecca.
During the month known in Iran as Ramazan, Muslims are expected to perform a dawn-to-dusk fast that includes abstaining from all drinks (including water) and from smoking. This is seen less as an unpleasant ordeal than a chance to perform a ritual cleansing of body and mind. Some people, especially in cities, don’t fully observe the fast, but most do for at least part of the month. Some Muslims are exempted from the fast (eg pregnant and menstruating women, travellers, the elderly and the sick), as are non-Muslims, but they mustn’t eat or drink in front of others who are fasting.
Ramazan can be a trying period, particularly if it falls in summer when the days are that much longer and the heat and hunger tend to shorten tempers. Businesses and shops keep odd hours. However, public transport continues to function and travellers are exempt from the fast so you don’t need to worry about finding food on flights, trains or bus trips, and many hotels keep their restaurants open. Other restaurants either close altogether or open only after dark. Many shops selling food remain open throughout Ramazan, so you can buy food to eat in your room.
Although you shouldn’t have many problems in larger cities, in rural areas finding any food might be difficult during daylight hours.
Secular holidays follow the Persian solar calendar, and usually fall on the same day each year according to the Western calendar.
Magnificent Victory of the Islamic Revolution of Iran (11 February, 22 Bahman) The anniversary of Khomeini’s coming to power in 1979.
Oil Nationalisation Day (20 March, 29 Esfand) Commemorates the 1951 nationalisation of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.
No Ruz (21–24 March, 1–4 Farvardin) Iranian New Year.
Islamic Republic Day (1 April, 12 Farvardin) The anniversary of the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979.
Sizdah be Dar (2 April, 13 Farvardin) ‘Nature Day’ is the 13th day of the Iranian New Year, when Iranians traditionally leave their houses for the day.
Heart-Rending Departure of the Great Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran (4 June, 14 Khordad) Commemorates the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. About 500,000 Iranians flock to Tehran, Qom (where he trained and lived) and the village of Khomein (where he was born).
Anniversary of the Arrest of Ayatollah Khomeini (5 June, 15 Khordad) In 1963 Khomeini was arrested after urging Muslims of the world to rise up against the superpowers.
No Ruz, the Iranian New Year, is a huge family celebration on a par with Christmas in the West. From a practical point of view, Iran virtually shuts down between 21 March (the beginning of new year) and Sizdah be Dar (2 April). Finding hotel accommodation (especially midrange and top end) is very tough from about 17 March until 2 April and all forms of long-distance public transport are heavily booked, though savaris run more frequently making some shorter trips relatively easy. Government offices and most businesses, including many restaurants, close from 21 to 25 March inclusive, and many stay shut the full two weeks. It’s not impossible to travel during No Ruz, but think twice before heading to popular tourist destinations such as Esfahan, Mashhad, Yazd, Shiraz and anywhere on the Persian Gulf or Caspian coasts. Mountain areas such as rural Kordistan and primarily business cities such as Tehran and Kermanshah remain relatively uncrowded. On the positive side, museums and tourist sites stay open longer hours while some normally closed attractions will open.
Smoking is banned in all public places and has been since 2007. It's also banned in cars, although enforcement on this is somewhat lax. The ban also extends to smoking qalyans (water pipes), which has hit teahouses and coffee shops hard, with many now empty and devoid of atmosphere. Enforcement is more lax in rural teahouses.
Taxes & Refunds
In Iran, quoted prices and tariffs usually include all local taxes, but always ask if you're unsure.
There is no system of sales-tax refunds for tourists who purchase items in Iran.
You will need a local SIM card for cheap local and pricey international calls. Your home SIM will not work.
Iran’s country code is 98. To dial out of Iran call 00; if calling from outside Iran, drop the initial 0 from all area codes. Phone numbers and area codes change with disconcerting regularity, but in general numbers include a three-digit area code and a seven-digit number. The exception is Tehran, where 021 is followed by an eight-digit number.
More than 90% of Iranians have mobile-phone access and most travellers buy a SIM card on arrival. If you need a payphone, cards are available in newsstands, though most are for domestic calls only. In our experience, every second card phone is broken. Local calls are so cheap that most midrange and better hotels, bus and airport terminals have at least one public telephone permitting free local calls.
International calls are also relatively cheap (US$0.20) per minute to most countries. These rates can be had at small, private telephone offices (usually open from about 7.30am until 9pm), where you give the number to the front desk and wait for a booth to become available. You’ll normally be charged a minimum of three minutes. In many cities international calling cards are available from newsstands, grocery stores and cafenets (internet cafes).
You can’t make reverse-charge (collect) calls to or from Iran.
Iran has several mobile-phone networks but only two – government-owned MCI and MTN Irancell (www.irancell.ir), which is owned by the Iranian government, and South African group MTN – enjoy wide coverage.
Irancell has a one-month tourist SIM card sold at a booth upstairs in Tehran's Imam Khomeini International Airport for IR500,000. The SIM gives IR200,000 worth of calls and texts (which should cover most eventualities over the course of a month) plus 5GB of data. Top up your credit at vendors displaying yellow and blue MTN signs; vendors will usually charge about 10% more than the card’s face value. Full pricing is available in English on Irancell’s website.
Irancell SIMs allow GPRS data transfer after a free registration process, and WiMAX has been rolled out in several cities. In our experience the GPRS service was unreliable and download speeds slow. As a general rule, 4G is available in big cities and 3G in mid-sized ones, while there's very basic pedal power in rural places, if at all.
Time throughout Iran is 3½ hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), so noon in Tehran is 3.30am in New York; 8.30am in London; 10.30am in Turkey; 11.30am in Azerbaijan; noon in Afghanistan; 1.30pm in Pakistan and Turkmenistan (note this when preparing to cross borders); and 6.30pm in Sydney.
Daylight saving is observed between No Ruz (usually 21 March) and 22 September.
Most Iranians have squat toilets at home, but the majority of better hotels have thrones or a choice of loos. Almost all public toilets are squats and while some are regularly cleaned, others are very definitely not. Still, there are usually enough options that you won’t have to enter anywhere too stinky. Mosques, petrol stations, bus and train stations and airport terminals always have toilets, sans toilet paper.
Fortunately, most of the ubiquitous small grocery stores stock toilet paper or tissues. All but the cheapest guesthouses now supply toilet paper too, though sometimes you’ll need to ask. That said, it’s worth remembering that the wise traveller carries an emergency stash of TP. Whatever you use, most plumbing is not designed for paper so put your used sheets in the bin not the bowl.
The ominous-sounding Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance is responsible for ‘cultural affairs, propaganda, literature and arts, audiovisual production, archaeology, preservation of the cultural heritage, tourism, press and libraries’. As the list suggests, tourism is not its top priority.
Cultural Heritage offices, universally known as Miras Faranghi in Farsi and often housed in restored historic buildings in provincial capitals, dispense information. They don’t see too many walk-in tourists but will usually try to find someone who speaks English and search around in filing cabinet drawers until you have a showbag full of brochures, maps, postcards and other promotional paraphernalia. Some cities also have more proactive private or semi-private tourist offices, where basic information is available in English and guides and tours can be arranged.
There are small information booths in train stations and bus terminals, where staff are usually good on timetable information, and international airports, where they might speak English and have a map, but little else.
Travel with Children
Foreign children will be the source of much amusement and curiosity, which is both a great cultural ice-breaker and, after a while, annoying. Nappies (diapers), powders, baby formula and most medications are widely available, though not necessarily in familiar brands. The hardest thing will be trying to keep children entertained in a country where journeys are long and attractions often rather ‘adult’. Parents should explain fairly clearly to their daughters aged nine or older that they’ll have to wear hejab.
Eating with the family is the norm in Iran, and taking your kids into a restaurant will not only be welcome but can bring you more-attentive service. While few menus include special meals for children, staff often tailor the size of the meal to the size of the child. Most food is not spicy.
If you have small children and plan on using taxis, you’ll probably have to bring your own baby seat. Few vehicles have seatbelts in the back, so it’s worth asking for them when you book. High chairs are rare and childcare agencies and nappy-changing facilities almost non-existent. Breastfeeding in public is not a great idea.
Travellers with Disabilities
Facilities aimed at travellers with disabilities are rare, and while Iranians are always willing to help, visiting here can be something of an obstacle course. Wheelchair ramps are starting to appear, although they remain exceptional. Only the more upmarket hotels are guaranteed to have elevators big enough for wheelchairs; disabled accessible toilets are very rare indeed. Bring your own medications and prescriptions.
For more information on travelling with disabilities, check out the Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality (www.sath.org). Based in the US, it offers assistance and advice.
There are very few opportunities for volunteering in Iran, and opportunities through international volunteering organisations are virtually non-existent. Some local community organisations may be happy for you to help out for a day or two, but you'll need to arrange this on the ground and opportunities are very few.
Weights & Measures
Iran uses the metric system.
Females planning a trip to Iran should consider four questions: What should I wear? How should I behave? Will I be safe? What should I take? This information aims to give practical advice, dispel preconceptions and reassure.
What Should I Wear?
Since the revolution of 1979 all women in Iran, including foreigners, have been required by law to wear loose-fitting clothes to disguise their figures. They must also cover their hair. This form of dressing is known as hejab, a term that refers in general to ‘modest’ dress, and is also used to refer specifically to the hair-covering.
Signs in public places show officially acceptable versions of hejab: the chador (literally ‘tent’ in Farsi), an all-encompassing, head-to-toe black garment held closed with hand or teeth; or a manteau (shapeless coat or coat dress) and a rusari (scarf) covering the hair, neck and décolletage. Girls must start to wear hejab when they reach puberty, but many start from a much earlier age (we’ve seen plenty of babies and toddlers sporting Islamic head coverings).
In reality the dress code is more relaxed and open to interpretation. It’s not unusual to see young women in the larger cities wearing figure-hugging manteaus (often tightly belted trench-coats), skinny jeans, high heels and colourful rusaris that have been arranged to offer plentiful glimpses of hair and neck. But in the smaller cities, towns and villages this rarely happens – the chador is common and those who don’t wear it are clad in an ensemble of shapeless coat, black pants, sensible shoes and a maqna’e (nun-like head scarf, or wimple). Colour schemes are uniformly dull.
Iranian women who flout hejab can find themselves in serious trouble. Their infringements have included wearing sunglasses above the headscarf, failing to wear a coat that fully covered their bottom, wearing bright colours, wearing nail polish, wearing sandals that show the feet or ankles, and not fully covering their hair.
Fortunately, foreign women are not usually judged as harshly as Iranian women when it comes to hejab, and few Iranians will bat an eyelid if you have your fringe or a bit of neck or hair showing. It pays to look at what women around you are wearing; for example, you’ll want to dress more conservatively in Qom than you would in Tehran.
The biggest challenge that you’ll encounter is keeping your scarf on. Silk scarves aren’t much use, as they tend to slip off; the only way to make them work is to tie them under the chin babushka-style. Wool can work, but not if it’s too fine and slippery. Your best bet is textured cotton, which tends to adhere to hair more effectively and slips less. Make sure that your scarf is wide enough to cover all of your hair, and long enough to be able to throw over your shoulders as an anchoring device. Practice before you leave home.
Some travellers wear a thick elasticised headband and fasten their scarves to it with safety or bobby pins, ensuring that their scarf doesn’t slip – this can work well with silk and fine cotton, so is worth considering if you are travelling here over summer and want to wear something light. Bring the band with you.
At the time of writing, local fashionistas in Tehran were wearing their scarves as high and as far back on their heads as possible. This is relatively easy to do if you have long hair (the scarf is draped over a high ponytail or bun, which anchors it), but it’s impossible for those with shorter hairstyles.
The majority of manteaus are made from polyester (ghastly in summer) or cheap cotton. The trench-coat style is the most popular version for fashion-conscious Iranian women, but it can be hot and uncomfortable – remember that your manteau will need to stay on in restaurants, cinemas, shops and other interior public spaces.
Loose-fitting cardigans going down to the mid-thigh are a comfortable, alternative form of outerwear. These can be worn over T-shirts or jumpers (sweaters) but bring them from home – they’re hard to source in Iran. In summer, you’ll need to wear something light – long peasant blouses and tunics made with natural fibres work well, as do shalwar kameez, a long shirt or tunic worn over baggy pants. If you’re coming overland from India you’ll have plenty of opportunities to purchase these along your journey.
All manteaus are worn over trousers; jeans are perfectly acceptable. Do not wear skirts.
The only times when foreign women must wear a chador are when visiting important shrines. In these instances, the chadors can almost always be borrowed on-site.
How Should I Behave?
Half-truths and stereotypes about women exist on both sides of the cultural divide: some Westerners assume that all Iranian women are black-cloaked, repressed victims, while some Iranians, influenced by foreign movies and media, see Western women as ‘easy’ and immoral. When in Iran, be aware that sex before marriage is uncommon (well, that’s the official line) and that there may be some males who – influenced by the aforementioned stereotype – will try it on with you, particularly if you are travelling solo. The best way to prevent this happening is to be polite but not overly friendly in your dealings with local males. If you need advice or directions, approach women first. Younger ones are more likely to speak English.
Most Iranian women only travel with their fathers, brothers and husbands, so Western women travelling by themselves or with male friends may be considered as being of dubious moral standing. Be aware of this and be careful not to break the following local conventions:
- In restaurants and teahouses, head to the separate areas set aside for women and families where these exist.
- If you are by yourself it’s best not to enter teahouses, as men will either harass you or treat you like a leper (the only local women who would do such a thing are of very dubious moral standing).
- On city buses, use the women’s entrance in the middle of the bus and sit at the back with the other women.
- On intercity buses you can sit in any part of the bus, but you should always try to sit next to a woman (it’s OK to sit next to a Western male you are travelling with).
- Don’t shake hands with Iranian men unless they initiate this. Instead, place your hand over your heart as a greeting.
- If you are by yourself or even with another female, don’t accept an invitation into a man’s house unless at least one of his female relatives will also be present.
Will I be Safe?
Violence against foreign women is almost unheard of in Iran, even if the odd grope in a savari isn’t (consider yourself warned). You rarely hear about instances of sexual assault, although this has happened – if travelling solo it may be safer to use female guides, steer clear of teahouses and avoid budget hotels where Iranian or migrant workers stay (eg mosaferkhanehs). Some cities – Yazd is one example – have 'Women Taxis', with female drivers and for female customers only.
What Should I Bring?
If you use tampons, take enough to last your whole trip. They’re expensive and very hard to find. Sanitary pads are widely available. It’s also handy to take some plastic bags for carrying out your toilet paper, tampons and pads from toilets that don’t have rubbish bins.
Finding work in Iran is next to impossible. Quite apart from the problems you'd encounter with the authorities if you sought to work while in the country as a tourist, opportunities are extremely rare.