Plan Your Trip
Visas & Planning
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.
Who Needs A Visa?
Passport-holders of Turkey, Lebanon, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Bolivia, Egypt, and Syria can travel to Iran and stay in the country without a visa from between 15 to 90 days. Everyone else needs to arrange a visa in advance or seek a 30-day visa on arrival (VOA) at an airport. VOAs are not available to citizens of the USA, Somalia, the UK, Canada, Bangladesh, Jordan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. If you hold a passport of one of these countries you will need to prearrange a tour or specially qualified private guide or be sponsored by a friend or relative in Iran (who will take legal responsibility for you) to obtain a visa. Israeli passport holders, and anyone with an Israeli stamp in their passport (or exit stamps at the Jordanian or Egyptian crossings into Israel), will not get a visa.
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 authorization 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 authorization from Tehran, only give you up to seven days. The choice is whether to get a tourist visa in advance or on arrival.
Types of Visa
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. Not available to US, UK, or Canadian nationals. 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 authorization number is required.
How Do I Do It?
DIY Deal with an Iranian embassy or consulate directly. Agency Pay an agency to obtain a visa authorization number, which is sent to an embassy where you pay for and pick up the visa. Recommended. VOA works best if you get a visa authorization number in advance and have at least your first night's accommodation confirmed.
Tourist Visa There are two ways to get a tourist visa.
-Do It Yourself
You can go through a consulate, which saves an agency fee but takes 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 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 authorization 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 authorization 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 your 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 a few are rejected. Once the authorization 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 require fingerprints from British applicants. For US citizens, allow three months to be safe
-Tourist Visa on Arrival
Iran usually issues 30-day tourist visas on arrival to people from about 65 countries, including most European, ASEAN, Gulf Arab, and Central Asian countries, several South American countries, Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea. Notable absentees are Britain, Canada, and the USA.
Tourist visas are available at all international airports, but it is recommended to fly into Tehran's Imam Khomeini International Airport to avoid problems. At the time of writing, to obtain the visa on arrival the following was required:
-a printout of your travel insurance. If the printout doesn't specifically mention Iran, you may need 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 recommended 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 is not an official requirement to get the visa;
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. Entry Visa (Business Visa) To get a 30-day (extendable) business visa you must obtain an invitation letter from the company or organization 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 means they submit the paperwork for an authorization 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 take their fee regardless of whether a visa is issued or not.
-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
- Independent Travel
Traveling 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 traveling - some for a month or more. Check that your guide is a qualified one. It takes years of study to become a fully licensed guide.
- The experience, knowledge
and the language ability of these guides can transform a simple excursion into a memorable adventure. Bona fide guides must carry a license (with photo ID and hologram with the date of expiry clearly displayed).
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.
- 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.
- The Process
Head of the Police Department of Aliens Affairs (Edareh Gozannameh Note that the office might have changed its name to the Passport & Immigration Police by the time you arrive. You'll need:
-your passport and two or three mugshots:
-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, 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.
-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 to 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.
Most organized tours start and finish in Tehran, with a quick look around the capital before concentrating on the must-sees: Shiraz and Persepolis, Isfahan and Yazd, with some 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 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.
No right click