By Alistair Cunningham, first published 2015-04-15. Much of the information in this document depends on politics, and is therefore likely to change rapidly. It may be out of date by the time you read this. Research more before booking travels.
Western governments advise "you to reconsider your need to travel to Iran", "against all but essential travel", or even to "AVOID ALL TRAVEL" to Iran. What more encouragement could a traveller want? Late in 2014, I decided the time had come to pay Iran a visit. I'm about to complete a two week tour of Tehran, Qom, Kashan, Esfahan, and Shiraz.
For the most part, travelling in Iran is like travel in any other middle income country. I wouldn't recommend it for inexperienced travellers, but for those of even moderate travel experience it should present no serious problems as long as you're aware of a few concerns specific to Iran.
For most travellers, a visa is required to visit Iran, and there are three ways to do this:
For the visa on arrival, you'll need to bring hard cash (€51 for Irish passport holders) and a printout of your first hotel reservation. Some websites report that you need to bring a spare passport photograph, but I wasn't asked for one.
The agency I used for the authorisation code submitted the wrong passport number, with some of the digits transposed. This caused confusion at the visa counter at Tehran airport. They eventually found the correct visa, and corrected it with a pen. They were very relaxed about this.
I found booking hotels to be the most difficult thing about visiting Iran. Because of international sanctions against Iranian banks, getting funds in or out of Iran is difficult - more difficult than all the major online travel agencies are willing to deal with. Therefore none of them offer hotels in Iran. I tried a few different travel agencies specialising in Iran, and none seemed particularly professional. I ended up using the same company I used for the visa authorisation code (that sent the wrong passport number). A word to the wise: never have anything to do with iranianvisa.com. I made the bookings five months in advance. Five months and numerous emails later, I finally had a printable hotel confirmation (required for immigration) at 9pm on the evening before flying to Tehran. I get the impression they held on to my funds as long as they possibly could before delivering them to the hotel.
If I was doing this trip again, I'd phone the hotels in Iran directly to make bookings, and then bring cash to pay the bills in person.
Talking of cash, the banking sanctions mean that foreign credit, debit, and cash cards do not work in Iran. Iran has many ATMs, but none of them are connected to the global payment networks such as Maestro. You absolutely must bring enough cash to last your entire stay - running out of cash before leaving Iran is a disaster. You cannot buy Iranian Rials outside Iran as the Iranian government limits imports and exports of Rials to trivial amounts. Fortunately, there are no limits on the quantities of foreign currencies you may bring. There are many currency exchange offices in Iran, including at airports. Euros apparently fetch the best exchange rate, though all other major currencies such as US Dollars and UK pounds are also welcome. Strangely though, no-one would take my spare Qatari Riyals.
As of 2015, the Iranian Rial is the world's lowest value currency. In practice, this isn't a problem - it just requires thinking in bigger numbers. At Tehran airport, I approached the official currency exchange, who advised me that they could only offer 32,000 R/€, and that the black market vendors would offer a better rate. They did indeed, at 36,000 R/€. A few days later, a hotel offered me 39,000 R/€. It's unusual for a hotel to offer the best rate, but Iran is not a normal country when it comes to finance.
Prices in Iran are confusing. The currency is the Rial, but most prices are in Toman, where 1 Toman = 10 Rials. Unfortunately, it's not always obvious which unit prices are in. Helpful vendors will make it clear which they mean, but not all do so. Combined with the large numbers involved, the first few days in Iran are spent trying to figure out what's an appropriate price for everything. When a taxi driver quotes a price of "twenty", they mean 20,000 Toman or 200,000 Rials.
Quite a few major airlines fly to Iran. Tickets for airlines based outside Iran can be bought with a credit card as normal.
Iranian cities are walkable as long as you're comfortable with crossing the street south-east Asian style - cars will not stop for you, but they will slow down enough to allow you to merge through the flow of traffic. Tehran has a decent metro system, though beware that the network maps available on the internet show several lines that are still under construction as of 2015.
For urban trips, and short journeys between cities, taxies work well. Service is fairly standard by middle-income country standards. Prices vary enormously, and few taxies use a meter. If in doubt, negotiate.
For long distances, inter-city buses are excellent. They're comfortable, frequent, and cheap. There are some train services, but they tend to be slow and run at awkward times.
There are a decent selection of car hire companies, including international brands. I didn't try any of them.
As of 2015, internet access in Iran is adequate for light business use. I used the Wifi in six different hotels and various restaurants and cafés. Speeds varied between 0.5Mbps and 4Mbps down and 0.3Mbps and 1Mbps up, with 1Mbps both ways being the most common. All the Wifi networks I tried had a habit of dropping out for a few seconds once every couple of minutes. This was not a problem web-surfing, but was enough to disconnect SIP calls. I ended up using call-back over the PSTN for business calls.
There are two main mobile networks offering data. Irancell has a better reputation for coverage, while Rightel has a better reputation for data speed. As I was mostly visiting cities, I chose Rightel. HSDPA+ coverage was near complete in urban areas, and highly variable HSDPA+, Edge, and GPRS in rural areas. Remote desert areas had no coverage. When on HSDPA+ I consistently got 1Mbps both ways, and did not suffer from any drop-outs.
Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit are blocked. Many news websites are blocked, but exactly which seems arbitrary. Unsurprisingly, Fox News, Haaretz, and the Jerusalem Post are blocked. The BBC website is blocked, despite being available via television. The ABC and CBC are blocked at some hotels but not others. CNN, MSNBC, Reuters, Al Jazeera, and Arab News are not blocked. No east Asian news websites seem to be blocked, nor any American or British newspaper websites.
I was always able to connect either OpenVPN or SSH to a hosted machine in the UK. Only one hotel blocked OpenVPN. Every network allowed SSH, though on one network it was extremely slow, even when connecting to a non-standard port. It may have been a local problem, or there may have been some deep packet inspection taking place.
The selection and variety of restaurants and cafés is a little limited, though perfectly adequate for a visit. Quality is fine. Expect to eat a lot of chicken and lamb kebabs with rice and bread. There are quite a few vegetarian dishes, many made from eggplant. I drank only bottled water, though did drink local fruit juices (excellent, as throughout the middle east) and had drinks with ice made from local water. I had no problems, though rarely do anywhere.
Alcohol is completely illegal in Iran, and unavailable - at least publicly. Rumours abound of alcohol being widely available at private parties.
I met several pairs or trios of women travelling in Iran, though none solo. All were of retirement age. They were obviously having a good time, and didn't seem to be having any problems. I see no reason why women shouldn't visit Iran on their own. A headscarf and either trousers or a ankle-length skirt are required at all times in public, including public areas of hotels. Urbane Iranian women wear a headscarf perched on the back of the head with a lot of hair showing, a long-sleeved jacket, and trousers, and tourists can do the same. Plenty of Iranian women drive cars.
Urban Iranians are highly welcoming of visitors. Those who speak good English are invariably effusive, and delighted that you're visiting their country. It's normal to have young people come up to you on the street and start chatting. If you're a single man in your 30s, expect some of the young women who approach you to be borderline flirtatious. Older people tend to be more reserved, though this seems to be due to lack of confidence with English.
Iranians are very keen to talk about politics, both domestic and international. Many have no hesitation in criticising their government, and openly accept that other countries' disagreements with Iran may have some merit. The Shah seems to be remembered with mixed feelings rather than condemnation. Israel receives criticism, even strong criticism, but not outright condemnation. Iranians I spoke with favoured a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli/Palestinian problem, and viewed their own government's refusal to recognise the existence of an Israeli state as counterproductive. There are some anti-American murals on the wall of the former American embassy, but these didn't seem to be taken too seriously by ordinary Iranians. Apart from those, I saw no signs in Iran critical of any other country (at least that I could read). The only entity who seems to be reviled by ordinary Iranians is Saddam Hussein.
The only time I didn't feel highly welcome was in the city of Qom, and even then I didn't feel unwelcome. Qom is the religious capital of Iran, and has a very different feel to the other places I visited. The atmosphere is austere, even severe. People in Qom were polite and reserved.
I had virtually no contact with rural Iranians, which is a shame.
I suffered zero harassment for being a foreigner, and saw no sign whatsoever of anyone else being harassed. The only government officials I had any dealings with were immigration, and ticket sellers at government owned tourist sites. All were polite and made an attempt to be helpful, though some spoke no English.
For the majority of travellers, there's absolutely no reason not to visit Iran. It's a fascinating country, full of interesting culture and friendly people. It's only slightly more difficult to visit than other middle income countries. The portrayal of Iran by the western media bears no relation to what a traveller will experience. If you're considering a visit, go!