American travel to Iran: The most up-to-date information
Iran is a beautiful country with an unfortunate image problem that prevents many Americans from even considering it as a vacation destination. That is too bad. Iran has a lot to offer: warm and welcoming people, ancient ruins, about 20 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, exotic foods, and a rich culture going back many thousands of years.
I just returned from a 10 day trip to Iran and wanted to share the latest (December 2015) practical information for an American to consider when planning a trip. There’s a lot to be aware of, but those who decide to go will be rewarded with an unforgettable travel experience that will challenge long-held viewpoints about a country that many Americans have written off as a tourist destination.
Americans can legally travel to Iran
No law or regulation prevents Americans from visiting Iran as tourists. However, one should read carefully the current travel warning issued by the U.S. State Department on August 5, 2015: “The U.S. government does not have diplomatic or consular relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran and therefore cannot provide protection or routine consular services to U.S. citizens in Iran. If you get into trouble in Iran, let’s say losing your passport, you need to visit the Swiss Embassy to get assistance. Thankfully I didn’t lose my passport or wallet or get into any trouble over there so I don’t have any information to verify the helpfulness of the Swiss Embassy.
Dual citizens should take extra precautions
This is where it gets tricky. Iran does not recognize dual citizenship status with the USA and thus treats all Iranian-Americans as Iranians.
Virtually all of the diplomatic incidents you have read about in the last five years have involved Iranian-American citizens being accused by the Iranian government of spying. If you’re not an Iranian-American citizen and are registered with a tour company and not taking pictures of any government sites or doing anything illegal then you’ll probably be OK. This is not to ignore the plight of Americans citizens being held in Iran on vague charges without trial, such as Jason Rezaian, Amir Hekmati, and Saeed Abedini.
You won’t be able to travel to Iran independently
Americans, Britons, and Canadians cannot travel to Iran as independent travelers; they need to be sponsored by an Iranian tour company and be accompanied by an Iranian tour guide during the trip. There are many Iranian tour companies that will gladly sponsor Americans and plan an amazing trip for you. After much research, I chose the Shiraz-based Homafaran Travel Agency, known alternatively as the Iran Traveling Center.
You won’t have a “minder” watching everything you do
Iran is not North Korea. While your tour company is technically responsible for you while you are in Iran, your guide does not have to be watching you every second. There were many times when I was able to browse the bazaars on my own, walk around the ancient sites independently, and go out to dinner alone.
Getting a Visa
Getting a visa is relatively easy
Once you’re serious about booking a trip, your tour company will ask you to fill out a form with your basic information, passport information, and occupation/employer. Send this back to them and they’ll submit a visa request to the Iran Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
It takes less than one month to get a visa
The entire process can take up to 30 days on average. For me it was a total of 18 days from the time my tour company submitted the initial paperwork to the time I picked up my visa in person in Washington, DC. It may have been faster because it was the low tourist season (December).
My visa timeline:
Nov 17: I submitted my visa request to my tour company, the Iran Traveling Center
Nov 20: Iran Traveling Center submitted my visa request to the Iran Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Dec 3: Iran Traveling Center informed me that my visa authorization number was granted
Dec 4: With this authorization paperwork in hand, I visited the Iranian Interests Section at the Pakistan Embassy in Washington, DC and submitted my visa application along with a $90 money order (conveniently obtained at the CVS across the street), a 1×1 passport photo, and and my passport. Tip: Bring a book; there is only one person working behind the counter and the wait could take hours.
Dec 8: I returned to the Iranian Interests Section at the Pakistan Embassy in Washington, DC to pick up my visa and passport. Tip: Do not wait in line along with the dozens of other people sitting in the waiting room; simply walk up to the window and cut everyone to get your passport and visa.
If you cannot visit the DC office in person…
Once you obtain your visa authorization number from your tour company, mail your documents to the Iranian Interests Section in Washington, DC. You send your passport, the visa application form, the $90, and a shipping fee (follow the instructions here). Passports must be valid for at least six months. Of course this will take a lot longer than visiting the office in person, like I did.
You will have to pay your tour company in cash or through a third party
Because of the sanctions, you cannot just pay the tour company with your credit card. In most cases, you’ll pay a deposit through a bank in a third country and bring the rest in American cash to Iran. Carrying a lot of cash can be a little unsettling even in the USA; imagine doing so in Iran and during several different legs of travel. If you lose the money along the way, you’re in real trouble.
You cannot use credit cards or ATM machines in Iran
You cannot use any of the conveniences of modern finance as an American traveling in Iran. There are ATMs everywhere in Iran, but you can’t use them. You’ll have to bring American dollars and then convert them into Iranian currency, the rial.
Exchanging money is straightforward and safe
There are money exchange establishments located here and there in all the big cities you will likely visit. They provide a better rate than regular banks, which work off the official rate. During my December 2015 visit, the official rate was 30,000 rials to 1 USD, but in the money exchange establishments I was getting 36,000 rials for each dollar (a 20% bonus). I was surprised that the exchange places didn’t even take a cut.
Make an effort to bring dollars that are newly printed. For example, at one hotel in Shiraz the front desk attendant said he could not take bills older than 2010. My guide said to just use the money exchange places found around the city. It turned out that those places did not inspect my dollars for printing dates.
Bring small bills as well as large ones
In addition the one hundred dollar bills that your tour company will likely asked to be paid in, it’s a good idea to bring a few one dollar bills. They are appreciated by Iranian hotel employees as tips. Inflation runs around 15%-20% some years in Iran.
The U.S. dollar goes a long way in Iran
At the present time (December 2015), the dollar goes a long way in Iran. At 36,000 rials/USD, typical prices were as follows:
- Large bottle of water: 10,000 rials ($0.30)
- Double espresso at a cafe: 70,000-90,000 rials ($1.90 – $2.50)
- Lunch at a basic restaurant, including rice and a soft drink or water: 200,000 – 250,000 rials ( $5.50 – $7.00)
- Dinner at a nice (not luxury) restaurant, including an appetizer and a soft drink or water: 300,000-400,000 rials ($8.30 – $11.00)
- Admission fees to historic sites or mosques
- Hafez Tomb in Shiraz: 200,000 rials ($5.50)
- Persepolis: 200,000 rials ($5.50)
- Towers of Silence in Yazd: 50,000 rials ($1.40)
- Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art: 50,000 rials ($1.40)
- 10 minute taxi ride across town in Shiraz: 100,000 rials ($2.75)
You can fly to Iran from the United States, but not directly
There are no direct flights from the United States but there are a million ways to get to Istanbul or Dubai. I took Turkish Airlines from Washington Dulles to Istanbul, had a three hour layover, and flew Turkish Airlines (operated by IranAir) to Shiraz. For the return trip, I flew out of Tehran. My flight cost $1,208 and I bought the ticket 7 days before my flight.
U.S. Customs officials will likely not give you problems upon return to the USA
I can’t say for sure that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection will not hassle you upon return, but I didn’t experience any problems whatsoever. I am a member of Global Entry, so when I return from foreign trips, I don’t even have to speak to a CBP representative. I simply go to the computer terminal, scan my passport and fill out the customs form, pick up my bag, drop off my customs form to the CBP representative and exit the airport. It was no different with my recent Iran trip. It was as if I had been to the Bahamas!
You can bring back souvenirs
I brought home sesame oil, olive oil, dried figs and dates, spices (dill, garlic, turmeric, cumin), baklava from a famous sweet shop (Haj Khalifeh Ali Rahbar) in Yazd, a handbag for my wife, and ceramics. Iran was heaven for shopping. The big question that many Americans have is about carpets (because Iran is one of the best places on earth to buy one) but I didn’t purchase one so I can’t help you there.
You can access the internet in Iran
Using hotel WiFi, I was able to access Gmail, Whatsapp, and Instagram. But some sites such as Facebook and Twitter were blocked. For those of you who want to access blocked sites, you can use a VPN. I didn’t want to run afoul of any laws, so I refrained from using one.
The bathrooms are different
Thankfully public bathrooms are ubiquitous in Iran. They are located in every tourist site you visit and every mosque. Most pubic toilets consist of a hole in the floor over which you stand and do your business. No toilet paper. Just a water hose. If this scares you, there are western toilets in some of the stalls. I suggest bringing your own toilet paper. There is always soap at the sinks.
Safety and Perceptions
Iran is safe for Americans provided they follow the tour company rules and use street smarts
Unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran is not at war and does not suffer from the same level of sectarian strife affecting the broader Middle East. On top of that the Iranian government has strict border controls to prevent terrorists from entering the country. Of course there is always the risk of terror these days, so one must be vigilant at all times while traveling. Just don’t let the very minor risk of an attack prevent you from enjoying your life and seeing what you want to see.
There is little street crime in Iran so if you keep alert and watch your belongings–just as you’d do in any foreign country–you’ll probably have no trouble. I found the biggest danger in the country to be crossing busy streets against a steady stream of traffic–there are very few traffic lights in the country!
The food is safe
I didn’t have problems with food-borne illness while I was in Iran. I ate at a both modest and upscale restaurants, hotels, and family homes. I drank water out of the tap on occasion, but mostly I drank bottled water, which in Iran is ridiculously cheap–probably too cheap, given the drought the country is having.
Iranians are very welcoming to Americans
Without exception, the Iranians I met were so happy to learn that I was an American. Their eyes lit up. They don’t see too many of us over there.
Don’t believe all the hype you hear about Iran in some American media outlets. Some have a bias against Iran and have led us all to believe that the Iranian people hate us. That is absolutely not true.
Things to consider
The State Department travel warning reminds us that Iran is still run by an unelected and repressive theocracy that has used violence on many occasions to stamp out peaceful political resistance. And as I mentioned before, Iran has jailed American citizens on trumped up spying charges with little recourse or fair trial.
All this aside, I still wanted to visit Iran for educational reasons. I went for the ancient ruins, the beautiful mosques and public squares, the food, and to meet ordinary Iranians. How could one even begin to understand Iran without having visited the country?
Technically, some of your spending will end up as taxes in the pockets of the Revolutionary Guard and the Guardian Council, but you will also be supporting hardworking Iranians struggling to make a living in the face of economic stagnation and relentless inflation.
If you go with an open mind and a thirst for learning, your visit to Iran will be an enjoyable and rewarding one. If you want to see history in the making, there aren’t too many other places that will provide you with a better seat than Iran.
When you tell people you’re planning a trip to Iran, many will furrow their brows and tell you that you’re crazy. Others will raise their brows and smile and tell you that they wish they could go with you. Listen to those people. You’ll be glad you did.
I’m interested in learning about your stories. Please share them in the comments sections below.