When I originally thought about writing a post asking “Is Iran Safe For Tourists?,” I was going to try to be funny. The idea was to just type “YES!” and let the post stand on its own. And the fact is, that’s true. Iran is a very safe country and you don’t need to worry about going there. The hardest part for me was the pre-trip planning and getting a visa! But like everything else, the answer is a little more complicated. Let’s start with your pre-trip mindset.
When I first started planning this trip, it was hard to break out of the thinking that Iran is dangerous. We never hear about all the good things happening in this country because that doesn’t get television ratings. So I worried about a lot of things.
- What if someone who read our About Us page figured out I am gay and was waiting for me?
- What if something in my backpack wasn’t “legal”?
- Would my guide be “watching” me the entire time I was there?
- What if an overzealous police officer stopped me for some reason?
- What about the mythical “morality police”?
Everything was “What if? What about? What if?”
And the truth is, none of that was an issue. After all, I wasn’t wearing rainbow clothing or making out with random guys in the streets, so I didn’t have to worry about being gay there. I packed what I normally pack. No one searched my bags looking for anything. Everything I brought was still there when I opened my pack – including my prescriptions. As far as I know, no one cared about anything I wrote on social media. No one “watched” me while I was there, including my guide. I didn’t have anything but positive interactions with police officers (who were always helpful when I asked for directions).
Apprehension about a trip to Iran is normal, given the political atmosphere we live in. But I never felt anything but happy and welcomed. The biggest rule I worried about there was where I could and could not take pictures.
Is Iran safe for me because I am white?
As a not-unimportant side note, a few Iranians have told me that I should also be cognizant of the fact that I am a white, middle-class male. Were I not, I may have been treated differently. While I can’t speak to that, I am very well aware of the inherent privilege of being who I am. I believe it would be worth reading about the experiences of people from other cultures who’ve visited Iran for their perspective.
Iran is a theocracy
Iran is a theocracy. And whether Iranians want to admit it or not, it is a dictatorship based on a strict interpretation of Islamic law. They have “elections,” but only for candidates who are pre-selected or screened by the Supreme Leader. Getting caught breaking the law here can result in serious consequences that are far harsher than in the west.
But most importantly to me and hopefully to you, is that it in no way “feels” like that. I remarked to my guide that, except for the Farsi on the signs (and the awful traffic!), some of the neighborhoods in Tehran look like neighborhoods in American cities.
The rules you set for yourself determine how safe you will be in Iran. It’s the same everywhere. Do you cavalierly do things without thinking? Then you should definitely worry about that. Do you think smuggling in a small bottle of scotch is a good idea because you just can’t go a couple of weeks without a drink? You’re taking a huge chance.
But if you’re traveler who normally respects the people and cultures you visit, and who is coming to Iran to see the sights, interact with the people, and come home with great photos and amazing memories, then Iran is safe.
Is Iran safe for tourists who are women?
Is Iran safe for women? Obviously, I am a man, so my experience here is just my impression. All I can tell you is what I saw. The women I met didn’t seem to have any travel issues. Even the women I met who were traveling solo were not experiencing any significant issues. I was traveling with two women – one Iranian and one from Singapore . Both enjoyed their trip as richly as I did!
For some good advice about a woman’s experience in Iran, I recommend these two posts:
The female traveler’s code of conduct for Iran. Alex has great tips that you should follow. They all seem quite practical and sensible to me.
Is it safe for a woman to solo travel in Iran: Naomi’s experience during her time in Iran is definitely worth a read.
Other things to think about
In Iran, you must dress modestly. That means no shorts, no tank tops, nothing suggestive or profane. Women must follow hijab in public. Both women and men should cover their legs and arms, although men can get away with short sleeve shirts. I only wore long sleeves in Tehran, where it was cold.
Obey the rules about photos. No photos of government buildings, the police, or military allowed. I was about to take a photo of the South African Embassy because I liked the way the flag stood out. My guide stopped me before I did. I never got the impression that he was really that worried about it. It was more of a “Nope! Can’t do that!” type of thing.
Iran has crime just like any other country, but I didn’t experience it. And I got the impression that when it does happen, it does not happen to tourists. In my opinion, one of the things that makes Iran safe for tourists is that Iranians are very self-conscious about how the rest of the world sees them. Doing anything to a guest in their country that could be perceived as negative is frowned upon.
That said, my guide in Tehran was very clear that I should put all my valuables (wallet & passport) in my inside zipper pocket when I was at the Grans Bazaar in Tehran. Apparently, pickpockets can be a problem.
Food and water
You can’t talk about safety without mentioning food and water. Is Iran safe from a food perspective? In my experience, both are generally safe.
While I mostly bought bottled water, because that’s what I am used to doing when I travel, I regularly refilled my water bottles, when I ran out, at water fountains. I was told that there are rarely issues with doing so. But to be safe, drink bottled water. Surprisingly, it is extremely cheap too. I paid less than a dollar for three large bottles at one store. I never had a problem with food either. Cleanliness in restaurants and on the streets was never an issue while I was there. I ate and drank at restaurants and food stalls all over the country without a problem.
Unless you’re a bit crazy or adventurous, you should not drive in Iran, especially in the cities. You’ll be risking your life. My Tehran tour guide and I were talking about democracy one day, and he (somewhat seriously) said to me, “I want democracy, but how can you expect people to follow the rules necessary for democracy when they can’t even follow simple traffic rules!?” In Iran, no one obeys anything when it comes to traffic. Lane markers, stop signs and lights – all mere suggestions. It was awful. Fortunately, Iranians are experts at navigating terrible traffic. Leave the driving to them!
There are so many cars in Tehran. And partly because of the sanctions, there is little pollution control. I enjoyed the city, but I was constantly breathing exhaust fumes which caused me minor headaches. You sit in traffic for hours and it’s all you smell. If you have any sensitivity to air pollution, you might want to finish visiting Tehran as quickly as you can and move on. Be sure to always have your asthma medication on hand. Sadly, you’ll probably need it.
A final thought
I was excited and nervous about my trip. All we ever hear from the media about Iran is negative stuff about terrorism and religious extremism. While Iran is known to be a state sponsor of terrorism, it is something they export and fund in other countries. While ISIS may be in Iran, they are extremely isolated because Iranians hate ISIS. Iranians are not anti-American. This is one of the biggest myths about Iranians (and other Middle East countries for that matter). Iranians are mostly eager to show Americans and other westerners their country. Their issues are with government policies, not the people themselves. Iran is not a hotbed of religious extremism. That stereotype is just wrong because most Iranians are not even that religious!
If all you ever worry about are things like these, then Iran is probably not for you. But if you have an open mind and go to Iran as someone who is skeptical of what you hear in the media, then you’re going to get the surprise of your life. From your experience with immigration at the airport to the people at the restaurants, shops, and hotels, you’ll feel welcome.
Iranians are not only some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met, but most people don’t realize that they are also some of the most highly educated. Most Iranians are like you and me. They are just living their lives, doing what it takes to support their families, going to school, shopping, and hanging out with their friends. And you’re going to have an awesome time seeing your preconceptions mostly disappear. Most importantly, you’ll be safe if you follow the rules and take the same travel precautions you normally take.
Iran is Safe, but…
So, is Iran safe for tourists? I would say emphatically, yes! Just:
- Don’t be an idiot
- Keep a low profile and don’t attract attention to yourself
- Have a great travel attitude
- Follow the law and other rules (e.g., photography)
- Dress appropriately and conservatively
- Treat people with respect and as equals – Stay away from border areas – especially with Afghanistan
- Try Couchsurfing in Iran. It’s a thing!
- If you have a guide, listen to him or her
- Ignore anything Donald Trump says about Iran
- Read my other post: Things to know before you go to Iran
Is Iran safe for tourists? Generally, yes! So go. Enjoy it. I did it and I can’t wait to go back.
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