It’s possible to arrive by land from seven countries. Crossing from Turkey is easy and from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan is do-able with varying degrees of hassle. The borders to Afghanistan and Pakistan are straightforward, but check security before you head to these – both were off-limits at the time of writing. Foreigners cannot cross into Iraq proper, though the border to Iraqi Kurdistan is open intermittently.
To bring your own vehicle into Iran, you must be more than 18 years old and have an international driving permit. For the vehicle, you’ll need a carnet de passage (temporary importation document).
Assuming your papers are in order, crossing into and out of Turkey is usually pretty straightforward. Third-party insurance is compulsory, and if you don’t already have it, it can be bought in Maku, near the border. If you already have insurance check that it’s valid for Iran (this is increasingly unlikely due to sanctions) and accredited with Iran Bimeh, the Iranian Green Card Bureau.
No one but the police is allowed to have a motorbike with an engine larger than 150cc. However, foreigners in transit can ride bikes of any size. With big bikes so rare, expect to attract plenty of attention.
Shipping vehicles across the Persian Gulf is possible but tedious, but a reasonable number of people do it nonetheless. Rules and ferry times change regularly.
Lonely Planet Thorn Tree (www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree) Plenty of trip reports.
Africa Overland Network (www.africa-overland.net) Asia branch has links to blogs by overlanders.
Horizons Unlimited (www.horizonsunlimited.com) Search the HUBB forum, which has details on borders, fuel, shipping and repair shops.
Border crossings to Iraqi Kurdistan are open to foreign tourists at Haj Omran, Bashmaq and Sayran Ban. Parvis Khan, Mehran and Khosravi are the border crossings into Iraq. Western government advisories contain strong warnings against travel in the areas in which all of these border crossings are located.
The border at Dogharon, 20km east of Taybad, is open but we strongly warn against crossing this border.
The main road crossing to/from Turkey is at Gürbulak (Turkey) and Bazargan (Iran), where there are hotels, moneychanging facilities and regular transport on either side of the border, though staying in nearby Maku is more pleasant.
Foreigners can also cross at Esendere (40km from Yüksekova, Turkey) and Sero, near Orumiyeh in Iran. There is nowhere to stay on either side and transport can be infrequent. Motorists usually cross at Bazargan. See the boxed text for more information.
Travelling by bus you have two options: long haul or short hops.
Buses between Tehran and İstanbul and/or Ankara (about 36 to 42 hours) cost about US$60. They leave from Terminal-e Jonub and go via Terminal-e Gharb; several bus companies offer the service, but usually it’s just one bus that runs. Those in the know swear it’s better to take the Ankara bus, which is full of students and embassy workers, rather than the İstanbul bus, which is full of traders and therefore more likely to be taken apart at customs.
Alternatively, take it more slowly and enjoy eastern Turkey and western Iran along the way. By taking a bus to – but not across – either border you’ll avoid having to wait for dozens of fellow passengers to clear customs. It’s usually possible to cross from Erzurum (Turkey) to Tabriz (Iran) in one day if you start early. It takes longer in winter when high mountain passes near the border can be snowbound.
The train from İstanbul to Tehran via Ankara and Tabriz is called the Trans-Asia Express. It runs weekly in either direction and, at the time of writing, trains on the 2968km journey departed İstanbul on Tuesday, and left Tehran on Wednesday; it takes 70 hours and costs about €50 each way. Seating is in comfortable 1st-class couchettes with four berths. Check www.raja.ir or the Turkish railways website at www.tcdd.gov.tr for the latest info.
The Trans-Asia Express is two trains: an Iranian train between Tehran and Van, on the shores of Lake Van in eastern Turkey, and a Turkish train from Tatvan to Ankara and İstanbul. It’s evoked some strong feelings among readers, usually relating to the concept of ‘express’, although complaints have been fewer in recent years. Delays are likely in winter when snow can block the tracks and low temperatures can freeze the plumbing. However, there’s a distinctly romantic touch to such a long train trip, and in either direction it’s a great way to meet Iranians.
Along the 830km border with Pakistan, the only recognised crossing for foreigners is between Mirjaveh (Iran) and Taftan (Pakistan). Crossing this border is considered highly dangerous for Western travellers.
If you’re travelling from Bandar Abbas, you’re likely to have to stop at checkpoints designed to catch smugglers. In some cases a customs official or policeman will get onto the bus and walk up and down, presumably looking for obvious smugglers or ‘illegal aliens’, before waving the bus on. However, searches can be much more thorough and time consuming.
The border between Iran and Armenia is only 35km long, with one crossing point in Iran at Norduz. Armenian visas are issued at the border, though sometimes the bus leaves before you have your visa! Apart from that, it’s pretty smooth.
The Azeri border has at least three recognised crossings. You can cross between Astara (Azerbaijan) and Astara (Iran), and Culfa (Azerbaijan) and Jolfa (Iran), the latter leading to the exclave of Nakhchivan, from where you cannot enter Armenia and must fly to get to Baku. The third option, good if you want to go to Jolfa from Baku, is at Bilesuva, the border used by Baku–Nakhchivan buses and plenty of Azeris on their way to Tabriz. Visas are not issued at any of these land borders.
Direct buses between Tehran and Baku, via Astara, are available but are not such a good idea because you’ll probably get stuck for hours while your conveyance gets a full cavity search, which is considerably less interesting than it sounds. Taking one bus to the border, crossing as a pedestrian and finding another bus is much easier.
The train line is meant to open from Baku to Rasht in 2018 but don't hold your breath.
There are three border posts open to foreigners along this 1206km-long frontier. From west to east, there is inconvenient and little-used Incheh Borun/Gyzyl-Etrek, Bajgiran crossing linking Mashhad and the Turkmen capital Ashgabat, and Sarakhs and Saraghs for those heading east; the area around the latter should be visited with caution. You must change transport at all three crossings. See the boxed text for more information.
The new train line from near Gorgan crossing at Gyzyl-Etrek has officially opened but there are no passenger services yet.
The paperwork and organisation involved in travelling to Turkmenistan is a hassle; Stantours seems to be the best at making it all go (relatively) smoothly.