Truth be said, Iran is a pretty relaxed country to visit, locals are friendly and very willing to help, plus, in tourist areas, you will now find more people speaking English than before, so you will hardly have problems. However, traveling prepared on what to expect and knowing what to do in different situations is always a good habit.
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So, to avoid surprises and make the most of your trip, here are the things to know before you travel to Iran.
1. When in Rome do as the Romans do. Same in Iran
One of the most important things when traveling is to respect your hosting culture, so this aspect could not be left out of the things to know before you travel to Iran.
For example, it’s important to respect Iranian dress code, meaning wearing jeans or leggings under a dress, tunic or manteau, and a headscarf, or a chador when requested, such as entering the shrines or some mosques like Vakil Mosque in Shiraz, the only mosque where I was asked to wear it.
If you want to be extra thoughtful towards the religious sentiment, when you hear Azan (call for prayer), in more conservative and religious cities it will show respect if turn off your music, unless it’s already on headphone and you are the only one who can hear it.
2. Get ready for some taarof
Taarof is something you will understand better while there, and truthfully, it’s more common “between Iranians”, but it’s still good that you go with the right mindset, just in case you find yourself in a situation that you find hard to understand.
When you are buying something or paying the taxi, there is a chance the seller/driver won’t accept your money immediately but will start telling you that it’s not important, that you can pay him next year. While I understand your impulse to thank and leave, it might not be the case, so keep insisting and take part in the overmannered etiquette until when, eventually, you manage to pay.
Sometimes, mainly when buying bigger things such as carpets, especially in tourist places, right after taarof is finished and you are friendly enough that you can’t really negotiate the price anymore, there is a chance you hear a crazy price.
Taarof is a nice ritual and very much appreciated in Iran, but for sure it doesn’t mean you can just leave and don’t pay nor pay whatever price they ask after the ceremony is over.
3. No handshake between sexes
One of the things to know before you travel to Iran and avoid misunderstandings while there if you are a man you shouldn’t shake hands with women and vice versa. Handshaking is only between men or between women, especially in public or public offices. If you are with friends, it all depends on how your friends are, usually, if you know they are religious, you can assume they are not likely to shake hands unless it’s between men or between women.
Obviously, if you meet clerics, don’t expect to shake hands if you are a woman, although, with the austere aura their turbans convey, I doubt you will even be inspired to try.
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4. Alcohol is illegal
This is an absolute must among the things to know before you travel to Iran. If partying and heavy drinking is your idea of traveling, then Iran is not for you. Here, you can’t get drunk, even though it’s possible to find alcohol in Iran, it’s illegal and if caught you can face legal troubles, so I will totally recommend you wait until you are back home to get your booze.
5. Be careful when taking photos of people
While taking pictures in Iran is pretty easy and welcome everywhere when you want to take photos of people you might want to ask first as sometimes it’s not appreciated. Be it a conservative family or someone who likes to protect their privacy, it can happen that people don’t want to be photographed and maybe end up in social media. It has also happened that women got upset and demanded to delete the pictures where she appeared.
This is not much of a news to me as in Italy people usually don’t like to be photographed, but since in Iran this is rarely an issue, you might start feeling overconfident and forget that also here not everyone wants to be the subject of your artistic expression.
6. Every province is different
This is definitely one of the things to know before you travel to Iran and keep in mind when traveling to different cities and provinces. For example, you might want to adjust your dress code depending on where you are. In Tehran, you can see women wearing dresses with stockings underneath, albeit thick, while in more conservative places such as Qom or Kashan, this might not be the case. Apart from this aspect, be prepared to see many different Iran, a plethora of cultures, traditions, landscapes and ethnic groups.
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7. The weekend is Friday
As the Islamic Republic following Islamic rules and calendar, the weekend in Iran is Friday, meaning that some offices are open until Thursday evening or even until noon, like some government departments. Tehran Grand Bazaar is open until Thursday evening, on Friday some of the shops will open but not all, which can be better if you are into relaxed shopping and photography since during the week it’s just mental.
Exchange agencies in Ferdowsi Square are closed on Friday, keep that in mind if you are running out of local currency.
8. Exchange your cash at exchange agencies instead of banks
Iran’s local currency is the Rial (IRR) and since bank sanctions are not lifted yet, you need to carry enough cash for your stay. In most countries you won’t be able to buy IRR, so you will have to exchange your money in Iran. At the airport, you will find a bank for this and I suggest you exchange the necessary for the first day, including the first taxi from the airport, the fare of which ranges from 650.000 to 800.000 IRR.
Try to exchange the remaining that you need at exchange agencies, they have far better rates than banks. In Tehran, you can find exchange agencies in Ferdowsi Square, in Esfahan around Naqsh-e Jahan (Imam Square), and most cities will have agencies near the tourist attractions.
Tourists can also get a “tourist card” where you can put your money and use it like an ATM card, that will avoid carrying a lot of cash all the time. I’ve never done this before so I’m not sure about the process but I think you can open it at the airport too. If you do it, do leave a comment telling us about your experience!
9. Buy a local SIM Card
Way cheaper than using your own country’s SIM card, I suggest you buy an Iranian one. Usually, you need to be a resident, but phone stores have numbers already registered that can be used for tourists. The first company I tried was MCI and I had problems connecting to the internet because apparently, the normal configuration wasn’t enough. Eventually, I did manage to fix it, but when I went back to Iran a couple of months later, again it wasn’t working, so instead of doing all the process again, I bought a RighTel card and it worked just fine from the minute I opened it. There is also another company, Irancell, which is cheap, but I have no experience with this one.
10. Social media in Iran
In Iran Facebook and Twitter are filtered so if you can’t stay without, you need to install a VPN (Virtual Private Network) in your smartphone (or laptop, tablet, or whatever device you are using). In Iran it’s quite popular Psiphon, which is a free software, I tried it twice and my phones reported some issues (both times), so now I prefer to download a VPN.
You can find many VPN services, a simple Google search is enough to find them, from free to cheap to more expensive. Often the paid versions start from one month, so if you are only staying a week you might opt for a free one. As for me, I always use ExpressVPN because after trying different ones, paid and free, this is what works best for me: I installed it both on my smartphone and my laptop and I haven’t had any issue, it was fast, always working and with a wide range of servers. Last time was 12.95$ per one-month subscription but they always have different offers especially if you subscribe for more than one month. In case you want to have a working VPN as soon as you arrive, you need to buy it before leaving as sanctions haven’t been lifted yet so you can’t use your credit card while in Iran.
To chat with your Iranian friends download Telegram, it’s more common than Whatsapp and Viber.
11. Use public transport
When visiting Iran, I’ve always found public transport, both extra- and intra-urban, really great. While for some off-the-beaten-path provinces and areas you might prefer hiring a taxi, traveling around the most popular tourist cities can be easily done by public transport, either bus or train, that you can book from a local travel agency or buy the ticket directly at the stations. If you take the bus, do book a VIP one, the difference in price is small and you will get very comfortable seats and even a meal. As I wrote in my post about my experience as a woman traveling in Iran, I often took night buses and trains and they are completely safe with frequent police checks.
On a related note, when you are in Tehran, I strongly advise using public transport, too. I fell in love with Tehran metro, not only for the beautiful interior decorations but because it’s a widespread system connecting all city’s neighborhoods. The first and last cabins of Tehran metro’s trains are for women only, while the cabins in the middle are mixed. I suggest you buy a metro card to swipe when you enter and exit so that you don’t need to queue for a ticket every time, and to get yourself a map of the lines to find your way easily.
There are some apps for the smartphone to help you get by in the metro: one is Tehran Metro and informs you also about landmarks, services, restaurants and buses around each metro station, and Tehran Metro Map for a complete map of all the lines.
12. Renting a car in Iran
Traffic in Tehran is pretty mental, and Iranians’ driving style can be quite… adventurous, so rent a car only if you feel confident and brave enough. Depending on the provinces, highways and country roads are pretty quiet, even though you will find many trucks, so you should inquire what are the best times to get on the road between cities and provinces.
Apart from traffic, safety is an issue too, as Iran has one of the world’s highest rates of deaths by car accidents, so I would suggest relying either on public transport or local drivers.
13. Tips are welcome
While it’s not as mandatory as in India, where even who tells you where the toilet is wants a tip, also in Iran tipping is appreciated. Usually, tips are for hotels’ employees who help you carry your luggage to your room (especially when you are on the third floor and there is no elevator!), where you can leave around 50,000 IRR, and, when in a tour, for your guide and the driver. It will be up to you and depending on how long the tour was, usually, if you ask the tour guide, he will be able to help.
14. Haggling in Iran
Especially in tourist areas, haggling is fine. In tourist bazaars, especially the one around Imam Square in Esfahan, haggling is highly recommended. Like everywhere, the more you buy, the more they are inclined to give you a better price, so if there is a shop you like, you might gather there all your gift shopping.
You can bargain the price with taxi drivers too, even though it’s very likely they will overcharge you anyway. Fares range from 20.000 IRR (less than 1€/$/£) to 200.000 IRR (roughly 6€/7$/5£) depending on the city and obviously the distance. In Tehran, you can find also shared taxis that will pick up also other people during the journey and usually cover a street or a specific distance. With these, the fare ranges from 10.000 to 20.000 Rials and there is no haggling, also because you can hardly go lower than this.
15. Taking a taxi in Iran
Since the written Persian uses Arabic letters, when you take a taxi it won’t harm to have the destination written in Persian characters. Especially in non-tourist areas, English is seldom spoken among taxi drivers and they might not understand your pronunciation, so instead of wandering aimlessly looking for the right spot you can just show them your destination or ask the hotel reception to tell them directly.
16. Bring hand soap or sanitizer and wet wipes
In public toilets hand soap is not always present, be it in bus stations or tourist attractions, so among the things to know before you travel to Iran, I suggest you carry a liquid soap or sanitizer with you just in case. Ladies should better always carry tissue with them.
In most places toilets are Turkish/Asian style, meaning squat toilets: as Naz suggested in a comment below, keep your pockets empty as you will have to crouch and you definitely don’t want to see what’s in your pockets going down the black hole!
17. Don’t travel with your dog
I know you love your pet, but one of the things to know before you travel to Iran is that it might not be a good idea to bring your dog. First of all, cats, dogs, and other pets are listed among the prohibited items to carry, unless permission has been previously granted after providing all required vet health certificates and a rabies certificate issued in the country of origin, and second, there are religious/cultural/social issues.
There have been proposals for laws to ban pets in Iran, either because dogs are not considered clean in Islam or because seen, mostly by the most conservative wing of the Parliament, in terms of “Western cultural invasion”. However, many Iranians do keep cats and dogs, and do walk them every day, but they know where to go and this is why they don’t have problems. As a tourist, you won’t, so better not to take your beloved pet with you.
Moreover, you might face other problems when traveling around Iran, for example when taking domestic flights, public transport, or entering hotels and restaurants. Since they are almost never allowed inside, especially in more conservative and religious cities, you will hardly enjoy your trip to Iran or visit places, and if the alternative option is to keep it in shelters, they are probably better off at home.
18. Before going do your homework, essential among the things to know before you travel to Iran!
While this can sound pretty obvious, to the extent that I wasn’t even mentioning it among the things to know before you travel to Iran, I was friendly reminded by an Iranian reader: “Do some research ahead! You should know in front of what you are standing and what the significance and importance of that particular place are. Not only religious places but also shrines, historical sights such as Persepolis or Bisotun and general Iran tourist attractions. It’s also a matter of respect: if you go to a country to have a good time you should invest a bit of your time studying the culture. What would be the difference between dusk on a random wall or Persepolis then? It is completely senseless visiting Saadi’s tomb if you don’t know who he was and what role he plays for Iranians and Persians.”
Something always good to keep in mind and definitely among the things to know before you travel to Iran, never underestimate Iranian pride!
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