Traveling to Iran as an American citizen may sound complicated and dangerous. It’s not. We’re here to dispel the myths and answer the questions piling up in our inbox about visas, safety, and other concerns based on our visit to Iran.
Our aim in the following Q&A is to answer actual reader queries and to help demystify the process of traveling to Iran, especially for Americans.
Are American citizens legally allowed to visit Iran?
It’s a common belief that Iran holds the same status as Cuba for American citizens (i.e., that it’s illegal to visit without special permission from the U.S. government). Although the United States has imposed sanctions against Iran, there are currently no restrictions on American citizens visiting Iran as tourists. Currently, about 1,000-1,500 Americans visit Iran each year.
Can Americans travel independently in Iran?
The Iranian government requires that all American tourists travel with a private guide or group tour. Your Iranian guide will be specially authorized to guide American citizens and should be aware of any relevant Iranian government regulations.
If you happen to be independent travelers like us, don’t be deterred by this requirement. We experienced both a group tour and a private guide in Iran. In both circumstances, we still had ample time to explore, walk the streets and browse the bazaars (markets) on our own. We made connections with ordinary people, we ate street food and we were even fortunate enough to accept a couple invitations to people’s homes.
Update: As of February 2014 it is also required for UK and Canadian citizens to either be part of a group tour or have a private guide to receive a visa to Iran.
How does an American citizen obtain an Iranian tourist visa?
Obtaining an Iranian visa is roughly a two-step process: 1) a travel authorization number from the Iranian Ministry of Foreign affairs, and 2) the actual tourist visa issued by an Iranian consulate.
The tour company you work with will help you with the paperwork you need for your visa. All you need to do is fill out an application form, inform them of the Iranian consulate where you’ll pick up the visa, then summon some patience.
The difficult part of the process is the authorization number; this usually takes 30-40 business days for American citizens. Once you have that number, getting your visa from the Iranian consulate is almost a sure thing (2-3 days).
Update April 2015: We've been informed that some Iranian agencies have been able to get the authorization numbers for US citizens in about two weeks right now. However, for your planning purposes we still suggest you assume 30 days so you're not down to the last minute.
Our advice is to get the visa process started as early as you can so that you don’t have a heart attack waiting for your visa to arrive on the same morning as your flight (true story from a member of our tour group).
But there is no Iranian Embassy in the United States. How will I get my visa?
Although Iran doesn’t have an official embassy in Washington, DC, there is an Iranian “interest section” at the Pakistan Embassy that handles Iranian visa requests. If you don’t live in the DC area, you’ll need to send your passport, application form and passport photos by mail (e.g., DHL, FedEx, etc.) with a prepaid return envelope.
Or, if you’re traveling like us, you can pick up your visa at an Iranian consulate abroad. You just need to specify which consulate location when you apply for the authorization number. We collected our Iranian tourist visa in Istanbul, Turkey. The process was relatively easy and painless. We highly recommend it. Just leave a few days cushion if you can and make sure you show up promptly at the time stamped on your visa application receipt. The cost was €70 for a 20-day Iranian tourist visa.
As an American, how will Iranians treat me?
Iranian people were often shocked to discover that we were American and that we were able to get a visa to their country. Once this fact set in, they often went over the top in welcoming us — everything from cordial greetings, to smiles, hugs, gifts and invitations to homes — especially when our guide was out of sight. We joke that it’s the closest we’ve felt to being rock stars.
READ MORE: A Flight to Tehran: The Full Story
Iran: Group Tour or Private Guide?
Whether you choose to travel Iran on a group tour or with a private guide will likely boil down to cost and travel style.
We traveled on a group tour for two weeks, then concluded with a private guide for a third week. We enjoyed both experiences, but each comes with its own benefits and potential drawbacks.
One of the things we loved about our G Adventures tour was our group. There were seven of us – four from the United States, two from Australia and one from Denmark –and we all hit it off immediately.
During our private tour, we had a bit more freedom to determine the itinerary and schedule. However, having a private guide (possibly with you at all times, depending on the guide’s style and adherence to the rules) can be intense, and at times almost stifling.
Regardless, in both circumstances it’s best to continually express your wishes and find creative ways to help facilitate your guide in meeting those wishes.
Keep in mind: the Iranian tour company who sponsors your visa is technically responsible for you during your entire stay in Iran. As a result, you can’t really mix and match tour companies in assembling your itinerary. But you can use the same tour company for both a group and a private tour.
We encountered only one incident in three weeks where a uniformed guy with a gun followed us for a bit through a market and asked to see our passports. Our Iranian guide yelled at him and told him that he had no right to ask for our papers. The guard backed down and left us alone, but our guide insisted on calling him an “uneducated donkey” as we walked away. As unsettling as the episode was at first, it eventually made us laugh and left us with a good story.
It’s impossible for us to know whether or not we were being tracked, but it certainly didn’t feel like it. We walked the streets and engaged with local people. It all felt very safe and normal; we were never concerned for our personal safety.
Is there a dress code for women traveling in Iran?
Women visiting Iran are required to wear a headscarf that covers one's head when in public. In addition, women should plan wearing a long shirt, sweater or jacket over your trousers (jeans are OK) or long skirt. As a foreign woman you will get less scrutiny than local women, but it's still best to dress modestly and respectfully.
What I did during my visit to Iran was wear a long, black cardigan sweater over whatever shirt I wanted to wear. The sweater covered my butt and thighs, and I could wear it easily over jeans and under my winter jacket. And, of course, I had my headscarf on a all times.
Just because Iran has a dress code for women, don't expect Iranians to be unfashionable. In fact, it's the complete opposite. Headscarves and outfits are perfectly matched, and many women are pushing the boundaries of what is considered acceptable by the authorities. This sophisticated sense of fashion crossed with a bit of rebelliousness is fascinating.
What should I expect in terms of immigration and security entering and exiting Iran?
For us and everyone else in our tour group, entry into Iran was a non-event. We were fingerprinted on our way into the country at the Tehran airport, but we did not experience exceptional scrutiny of our camera and travel equipment.
Upon exiting Iran into Turkey (via the train from Tabriz to Istanbul), Iranian passport control was similarly uneventful. Iranian border officials aboard our train were jovial and interested in what we saw, where we went and how our experience was.
READ MORE: Midnight Express: Iran to Turkey by Train
What should I expect in terms of immigrations and customs upon re-entry into the U.S. after a visit to Iran?
Stories circulating from other American visitors to Iran indicate that experiences vary. Again, ours was a non-event. We listed Iran on our inbound immigrations and customs form and the Homeland Security agent said, “Iran. I have to ask.”
We explained that we are travel bloggers and photographers. He asked where we went, mentioned that he’d seen a show about Iran on the Travel Channel and we were on our way.
Going through U.S. customs was similarly uneventful. Agents waved us on without asking us to open our bags.
What about American sanctions? Can I buy Iranian souvenirs?
Americans are technically only allowed to bring $100 of Iranian goods per person into the U.S.
Does that mean you need to restrict your shopping? Well, not really. It’s up to you. Many businesses offer special receipts with “adjusted” amounts that are a bit lower than what was actually paid.
Iranian carpets are also subject to U.S. sanctions as well. So if your heart is set on a Persian carpet, you may want to find a shop that has a presence or partner in Dubai (or elsewhere in the Middle East) so that they can ship the carpet to you from their partner location.
Can I get money out of ATM machines in Iran? Can I use credit cards in Iran?
Iranian banks are also subject to international sanctions. So although Iran is full of banks and ATM machines, you won’t be able to get money out at any of them with your ATM card. So cash is the name of the game. Come armed with U.S. dollars (or Euros) and exchange them in major cities at currency exchange outlets where exchange rates are 20% higher than in Iranian banks.
Don't count on using your credit card. Only some of the more sophisticated Iranian souvenir and carpet shops will accept credit cards and route transactions through a partner business in Dubai or elsewhere in the Middle East.
Recommended Reading and Guidebooks for Iran
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood: The story of the author, Marjane Satrapi, growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. While on the surface this looks like a comic-strip book, it is a powerful story.
Reading Lolita in Tehran: A memoir of a literature teacher who formed a secret reading group of women to read and discuss forbidden Western classics.
Lonely Planet Iran: Several people in our group had this book and we ended up buying a copy of it while in-country as we found the restaurant and activity recommendations useful. We also used the city maps when going around on our own.
Iran Bradt Travel Guide: This specific Iran guide was not out when we traveled to Iran, but we have used other Bradt Travel Guides and have found them thorough and comprehensive on history, culture and context.
Have other questions about traveling to Iran? Let us know in the comments.