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.