15 Jul Solo Female Travel in Iran Guide: All you need to know before visiting Iran
I recently spent a delightful month in Iran and, even though I shared my insights on the country and stories of all the places I visited, I got a bunch of questions. From practical issues, like clothing and visas, to fears about safety. So, after answering a ton of emails, I thought to put together all the knowledge in hope to inspire more people to visit this extraordinary country, which, in my opinion, is one of the best in the world for solo female travel! Here is a Solo female Travel in Iran Guide with everything you need to know before visiting Iran.
Visiting Iran as a woman: Is it safe to visit?
When Anthony Bourdain recorded his show Parts Unknown in Iran he stated “everyone is ridiculously nice to us, aren’t you supposed to be the axis of evil?”. Preparing for the trip his words –as they often do– encouraged me. But what I got was much more. Not only people are extremely welcoming, but I have never felt safer anywhere else in all my years traveling.
The most dangerous thing you’ll experience in Iran will be to cross the street, because people drive like maniacs! Getting in a car is just as extreme. But soon you realize that you almost never see an accident, so you relax. And before you know it, you don’t give a second thought to traffic.
The only topic that is completely off limits is the supreme leader. Khomeini is bigger than god, and anything you say against him will absolutely get you into trouble. Don’t even think about criticizing him!
It’s also wise not to take photos of power plants, factories, transportation hubs, or anything military or police. Most governmental buildings will have a sign stating that photography is prohibited.
Restrictions to enter – I’m an American, can I go?
United States, United Kingdom and Canadian citizens can’t travel in Iran without an organized tour with a guide. I know this can be discouraging for the independent travelers, but there’s hope. There’re many agencies that will allow you to plan every bit of the trip, if you want to. You can create your own itinerary and just hire guide to act as a chaperone.
If this still doesn’t appeal to you, I heard of agencies that will greet you at the airport and let you go explore on your own.
Keep in mind that the problems are between the governments, and people have absolutely nothing against Americans, Brits or Canadians. I had hundreds of conversations with locals, and none but one said anything against these countries. There’s a lot of prejudice, but most of it is from the west towards Iran, not the other way around.
The only real limitation to enter the country is if you have proof of entry to Israel in your passport, which not only mean an Israeli stamp, but also an overland entry stamp to any of its neighbors.
Will it be OK for my travel style?
No matter if you’re a backpacker traveling in a tight budget, or a 5-star-hotel kind of traveler, Iran will have an option for you. Considering it’s an off the beaten path destination, the kind of people that visit Iran tend to be more seasoned travelers, so you’ll meet interesting people everywhere, making it the perfect destination for solo traveling. Locals are among the friendliest people I’ve ever encountered, so you’ll make friends even if you don’t look for them. If you’re up for an adventure, try Couchsurfing. If you want luxury, every city has nice hotels waiting for you.
How difficult is to get a visa?
I read horror stories while planning the trip. People saying to prepare for it months and months in advance. The truth is that it doesn’t have to be that complicated. Officially there’re 3 ways to get a visa: in an Embassy, an e-visa, or a visa on arrival (VOA). For the ones that are traveling, getting it at an Embassy is close to impossible. As for e-visa the rejection rate is huge if you apply directly (without using an agency), probably because they prefer to be able to ask questions before letting you in the country. So I’d recommend to choose VOA at the Imam Khomeini airport in Tehran. To get it you need an address in the country and travel insurance. An address means proof of a reservation in a hotel/hostel for at least the first night. As for insurance, I had a worldwide policy and it was enough –just make sure it covers Iran. They sell insurance at the airport, so no worries if they don’t accept yours, it would only set you back 15€ if you purchase it there.
I know it’s unsettling to depart for a country in the Middle East without being sure you’ll be allowed in. So here’s the trick. I applied to an e-visa to be collected at the airport, but only about a week before the trip. I knew it wasn’t enough time for them to process it (and possibly reject it), but all my data was in their system, so when I arrived to the airport I handed the print out of the form I filled out for the visa together with my insurance and hostel reservation. The officer looked at all my papers and asked me to go pay. And that was it. 15 minutes tops. Welcome to Iran!
If you’re concerned about your future travel plans, bear in mind that Iran won’t stamp your passport, so there will be no evidence of your trip.
What’s the deal with money?
There are some practical aspects to money in Iran. First of all, cash is king. Take as much as you think you’ll need, and a bit extra. Credit/debit cards don’t work in Iran. Due to the issues with the US since the 1979 revolution, they’re not part of the international banking system. So bring cash –ideally euros or American dollars– and exchange at the airport. There are plenty of options in the cities, but –oddly– the airport has the best exchange rate. You’ll get many millions of rials for a few hundred euros/dollars. It’s uncomfortable, but there’s not much to do. There’s a bank that offers a sort of gift card for tourist. You put in it as much as you want, and you use it as a debit card. But in all honesty, I found it pointless. I felt so safe in Iran that I didn’t have any issues carrying cash. Besides, prices are so ridiculously cheap that you don’t need much.
Official exchange rate tells you that 1 euro is around 50.000 rials, but in reality I got over 150.000 rials for each euro (you’ll find the official rate everywhere, but the real rate can be found here https://bonbast.com/).
If you find yourself in need of more cash, there’re alternatives! Some stores offer the option to receive international transfers for you, for a fee, of course. And some sellers, especially carpet ones, will accept credit cards.
The other important thing to know is that even though the official currency is rials, all the prices are in toman. A toman is a rial minus a zero. 100.000 rials = 10.000 toman. They take this even further by removing 3 more zeros from tomans, so if you hear 10 toman, it means 10.000. Crazy, I know, but you get the hang of it within a few days.
Clothing in Iran – How should I dress?
This is a big deal for women, and a source of worry when planning a trip to Iran. From the moment you enter the country, there’s a dress code imposed by law. The most important thing is the hijab, the infamous headscarf. You have to step down from the airplane wearing it. You also need to dress in a way in which the shape of your body is not seen, which means a blouse or sweater that covers you bump (known locally as mantou), as well as long sleeves (at least covering you elbows), and –of course– no cleavage.
Sounds complicated, but it really isn’t. I wore skinny jeans with a long blouse or t-shirt the whole time. You can go for leggings too. You’ll see that most women, especially younger ones, look quite westernized. The hijab is often worn loosely, showing most of the hair, which is completely acceptable.
If you get caught violating any of these requirements, apologize profusely and you’ll be out of trouble –they’re really understanding when it comes to foreigners. Keep in mind that in no way I’m suggesting not to follow the law, but the hijab falls quite often, especially while its worn loosely.
A chador (the full-body-length fabric that covers everything but the face) will only be require when entering some mosques or shrines, but they will have them available for visitors to borrow.
Colors are not only accepted but encouraged. Since the hijab is mandatory, Iranian women have seen the bright side and use it as a fashion piece. You’ll see vibrant headscarves all around.
For men is much easier, as in most things. They just need to avoid wearing shorts.
What language do they speak?
The official language of Iran is Persian (Farsi). Even though the scrip is the same as Arabic, the languages are completely different. There’re also several other regional languages, like Kurdish and Azeri.
As for any international trip, I recommend learning a few basic words before you go.
Thank you: merci (no one knows why, but they all use it)
You’re welcome: khahesh mikonam
Nice to meet you: khosh bakhtam
Goodbye: khoda hafez
Also, it will be super useful to learn the characters of the numbers, that way you can see prices without having to ask.
Any Apps that are useful?
Censorship is big in Iran and a ton of websites are blocked, like Facebook, Couchsurfing, You Tube and Twitter. To get around this, you’ll need a VPN (virtual private network). There are plenty of free ones, and better quality paid ones. Make sure you download one to you mobile and to your laptop before you arrive.
Google Maps doesn’t have as much information as in other countries, so get Maps.me to make sure you have an updated map. You can download the map beforehand, so it’s available offline in case you don’t have internet.
The local app that’s a lifesaver is Snapp, the local version of Uber. It’s the most convenient way to move within cities at a crazy cheap price.
Can I survive being vegetarian/vegan?
Absolutely, but you better like eggplant! Look for koshke bademjan, kookoo sabzi, ash reshteh, kalam polo, mirza ghasemi, sabzijat, dopiazeh aloo or chelo fassenjan. If none of them are available, you’ll always find tahdig, the famous crispy Persian rice.
If you like sweets, you’re in luck! Shirini are sold everywhere. They’re a nice dessert or snack, and they make the perfect gift if you’re invited to eat with a local, which most likely you will be.
Where do I get reliable information?
Guides tend to be outdated. Lonely Planet is the most used one, and a great source of general information, but prices and availability of restaurants and accommodation are far from accurate. It’s not their fault, it’s just that it’s impossible to keep up, especially with prices, considering the crazy levels of inflation the country is experimenting. A few years ago 1 euro will get you around 50.000 rial (which is still the official exchange rate), but now for each euro you will get more than 150.000.
So rely on bloggers that visited in the last few months. You have a much better chance to get close to accurate information from us.
Beyond wearing a headscarf, anything else imposed by law?
Alcohol is strictly prohibited, but don’t be surprised if you encounter it, especially in local’s houses. It’s illegal to purchase it, but for non-Muslim people, it’s permitted to drink it.
Public displays of affection are also a complicated subject. They’re not banned, but hardly seen, so better avoid them. This include touching someone from the opposite sex. If you’re married, holding hands is ok, but that’s it. As a rule of thumb men can’t touch women. Even though younger people don’t care –you’ll see some of them kissing on the cheek or hugging– pay attention when around older or religious men. Don’t extend your hand to them, you’ll put them in an awkward situation. It’s better to greet or say thanks with you hand over you heart.
Any other cultural differences?
It might be obvious, but as it’s a Muslim country, Friday is the equivalent of our Sunday. So weekends are Thursday and Friday. Keep it in mind because most of the commerce and all banks will be closed on Friday.
Something that surprised me was how many personal questions Iranians ask. Even people with limited English will be able to question how old you are, what you do for a living, if you’re married, and if you have children. Showing them photos of your family will immediately get you invited for a cup of tea.
Well, you’ll get invited for tea in many circumstances. It’s the way they socialize. The first few days I was refusing because I thought they were only being polite, but soon I realize they don’t offer to be nice, they really want to sit down and talk to you over a cup of hot tea.
You’ll often feel like a celebrity. I was stopped in the street dozens of times to pose for a photo. There aren’t many foreigners around, so enjoy being a novelty!
The most important thing to learn is about taarof. This concept has a lot of definitions, but the easiest way to explain it would be to refuse out of politeness. That means that if you’re being offered something, you should say no a couple of times to check if they actually mean it. If they keep offering, then you’re free to say yes. It works the other way around too. For instance, when you go to pay for something the vendor will refuse your money. Of course it’s expected that you insist and pay. In my view, it’s a dance. It can be tiring, but it’s an integral part of their culture, so embrace it!
When to visit? Best time to visit Iran
Iran is a big and diverse country, so temperatures differ greatly between one region and the next. While it’s raining in Tehran, you could be getting a tan in the Persian Gulf islands (at least on the one island that has a beach only for women, where you can wear a bathing suit).
The best time to go is spring and autumn –that is April to May, or September to October. The winter is freezing cold (although perfect for skiing), and the summer is hot as hell (which in general is not fun, but even less when you’re covered head to toes, besides, Iran has the record for the highest temperature ever recorded in the planet, in the Lut desert).
I know Iran sounds like a hard destination, that it seems like it’s a different world. And in a way it is. That’s what makes it so special! It’s full of treasures waiting to be discovered. It was layer after layer of cultures and traditions. And it has something for every taste. If you like nature don’t miss the deserts and islands. If you’re into architecture, you’ll fall in love with Isfahan. If you want to witness ancient history head to Persepolis, and to Tehran to learn about recent one. If what you look for is the renowned Iranian hospitality, the best place to add to your itinerary is Kurdistan. Regardless of how long you spend in the country, or how much you see, I can assure you that you’ll have the time of your life!
This is a Guest post by Coni from the travel blog Experiencing the Globe
If you want to see more of her photos and follow her adventures, follow her on Instagram!