10 Tips You Should Know Before Visiting Iran
Getting a Visa
As with any country, the visa requirements for entry into Iran differ depending on the passport that you hold. If you are from Australia, New Zealand, Germany, The Netherlands, France, or Japan, things are really easy – you can either apply for a 20 day tourist visa from the Iranian embassy in your country or you can get a visa on arrival. That’s right, Aussies and Kiwis can rock up to any airport in Iran without a visa and get one then and there.
If you find that you’re having too much of a good time in Iran and that you’d like to spend more time in the country, you can easily get your tourist visa extended at an immigration office in one of Iran’s major cities. By all accounts the immigration office in Shiraz is one of the best for this.
The currency used in Iran is the Iranian Rial. It’s a currency whose exchange rate can vary wildly and what I write today could be completely inaccurate in a few weeks time.
There are 2 places where you can get your money changed in Iran. The first are currency exchanges just like any other country while the second are black market currency dealers – you’ll see these guys on the sidewalk with briefcases full of cash open and a hive of activity around them. They aren’t dodgy as such but they aren’t technically official either. Our advice is to shop around and get a rate that you feel comfortable with. You’ll get an idea very early on as to what a “good” rate is and you should use this as a ballpark guide for the rest of your trip.
On the topic of currency, things can get confusing because of the exchange rate and because there are 2 measures of money used. Although there is only one kind of note, the Rial, prices are sometimes expressed in Rial and other times in Toman. 10 Rial = 1 Toman. This does cause some confusion – the best we can say is to use your judgment. If a price seems too good to be true, that’s probably because it is. When in doubt, the safe bet is to assume that the price is listed in Rial – if you hand over what you think you’re meant to be paying in Rial you’ll soon be corrected, and at that time you can choose whether or not you want to continue with the transaction.
There are banks, automatic teller machines, and credit card facilities everywhere in Iran but unfortunately these can’t be accessed by foreigners due to US sanctions. As a foreigner you’ll need to bring cash, and the best currency to bring with you is US Dollars or Euro. How much cash do you need? Well as a guide, not including accommodation, you shouldn’t need to budget any more than 25$ per person, per day at the aforementioned exchange rate. That’s right, Iran is a very cheap country to visit.
Most of the information that you find on the Internet about the dress code in Iran is quite vague, and often incorrect. The reason for this is that the rules keep on changing. Currently, things are better than they have been in the past. For men, the dress code is simple – jeans or trousers and any kind of top. The main thing that’s important for men is that the legs are covered – no shorts guys. Footwear can be whatever you like – open shoes such as sandals are perfectly acceptable.
For women, things get a bit more complicated. As a general rule, relatively loose fitting tops that cover your arms and come down to your midthigh or knees is what’s required. Trousers are essential. Your hair must be covered with a headscarf, however your face is allowed to be fully exposed and it’s usually a headscarf or hijab that you see, along with the chador in more conservative areas.
In the big cities like Tehran, Shiraz and Isfahan, you see women pushing the limits of what’s allowed in the country. Don’t be fooled by what the western media tells you – Iranian women are strong willed and independent and like to push boundaries. You’ll see women wearing the mantou – a sort of fitted coat, bright shoes and head scarves that only cover the back half of the head. Look around to see what the local women are wearing and dress accordingly.
In Iran, internet cafes are known as cafenets (previously called coffeenets), although there are fewer such places with each passing year as everyone has mobile internet and wi-fi is increasingly common. In Tehran, for example, there are virtually no cafenets left as pretty much all cafes, teahouses and hotels have wi-fi. Speeds are variable, but most cities have ADSL connections.
Wi-fi is increasingly available in hotels and cafes, and it's usually (but not always) free. Upmarket coffee shops invariably have wi-fi, and whether you pay for it or not seems to depend a little on how much you pay for your coffee – the more expensive your espresso, the less likely you are to have to pay to get connected.
Banned Websites: Access to thousands of websites is blocked included the following: Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, BBC and most Western news services.
At the time of writing, Skype, Yahoo! Messenger and Instagram were accessible, but most Iranians use telegram.me or whatsapp to communicate with each other. Many, perhaps even most, Iranian businesses in the tourist sector have an Instagram page.
To get around blocked websites, most Iranians use a VPN client – set one up on your device before you leave home, although it can slow things down considerably, which can be particularly frustrating where the wi-fi is already slow.
The rule when it comes to alcohol in Iran is simple. It’s illegal, it’s banned, don’t think about it. Officially recognized non-Muslim minorities are allowed to produce alcoholic beverages for their own consumption and for religious rites (for example Armenians and Assyrians) and interestingly statistics show that alcohol consumption in Iran is the third highest in Middle Eastern.
What you will see in every drinks fridge in cafes and restaurants across the country are non-alcoholic malt beverages. Popular brands include Istak, Delstar, Hey Day and Shams. The original flavors are pretty bad tasting however the fruit flavored options, such as lemon, peach and tropical are actually quite tasty, although they have more in common with soda rather than beer. The bottles/cans and labels certainly look like beer, but beer this is not.
Despite what the mainstream Western media tells you, Iran is not a dangerous place full of terrorists who want to kill you. The famous 12th century Sufi poet Sanai once said “Know him as a gift from thy lord, when a guest suddenly shows at your door”, and this attitude permeates the Iranian mindset. Iranians are friendly, really friendly. They want to know about you, why you decided to visit Iran, what you think of the country and how you’re doing. They are genuinely nice people and love to chat to visitors about anything and everything. Tourists are rare in Iran for a variety of reasons and when Iranians see a visitor, they want to make sure that that visitor feels welcome.
Walking through the streets of Iran’s cities, we were surprised at just how safe we felt. Money changers sit on the sidewalks, openly displaying cases and boxes full of cash, there are people everywhere going about their lives and it’s not uncommon to see families out enjoying themselves and picnicking (a favorite pass time of Iranians) late into the night, every night. You feel safer in Iran than you have in most other countries that you’ve visited.
Iranians will offer you gifts out of the goodness of their hearts and expect nothing in return however you might be surprised at the extent and value of the gift that they offer you, which leads to the next point…
Ta'arof is a Persian form of civility that encompasses a variety of social behaviors. Where visitors will encounter ta’arof is when at the shops or talking with a local about an object that they admire. Essentially a person (offeree) is obliged to offer anything another might want, and the person receiving the offer (offeror) is equally obliged to refuse it. This goes back and forth several times (generally 3) before the offeror and offeree finally determine whether the offer and refusal were real or simply polite. It’s confusing and you kind of just have to roll with it.
You will encounter Ta’arof several times during your stay in Iran but one example from one of our tourists really illustrates it nicely. "On our first day in Tehran we were waiting outside of our hotel when we spotted a really nice vintage car. One of our friends was admiring the car when a hotel employee walked out and indicated to us that it was his car. He asked our friend if he wanted to sit inside the car and take a look, which he did. When it was obvious that our friend really liked the car, the employee offered him the car. He handed over the keys and said “take it, it’s yours”. In this situation, ta’arof was clearly at play."
Iran might be an Islamic republic but one thing that was surprising even to us is that it didn’t feel like an overly religious place. Sure there’s the strict dress code and the ban on alcohol but when it comes down to people actually living their lives, everything seems quite normal. Iranians follow the rules that are set down of course, but walking down the street you don’t feel like anything is being shoved in your face and beyond the obvious things, it’s all very subtle and the street scenes that you see could be that of any other place in the world.
Persians Aren’t Arabs
Persians have a long and proud culture, which dates back thousands of years. Persians are proud of their culture and who they are and it’s important to note that Persian culture is distinct from Arab culture. One of the biggest insults that you can throw at a Persian is to call them an Arab. It’s the misrepresentation of Persian culture that is offensive. For example Iranians were highly offended by the false depiction of ancient Persians as barbarians in the movie 300, as ancient Persian was in fact a highly civilized and advanced culture. You will clearly see this rich culture during your travel in Iran.
Numbers & Letters
Although you see European numbers in some places, by far the most common numeral system used in Iran is the Hindu-Arabic numeral system. Knowing the symbols for numbers 0-9 is essential. Thankfully they are really easy to learn.
Shops often only use Farsi in their signs, which can make pinpointing a specific place difficult however navigation is made easier by the fact that most street signs are bilingual, and contain street names that use both Farsi and Roman letters. This gives visitors a shot at being able to read maps and find their way around. When it comes to menus at restaurants and cafes, you’ve got about a 50/50 chance of getting an English menu. Thankfully, the super friendly Iranians will do all they can to make sure you can order something that you want.