Face it, most of us get our ideas about other countries from the media. And when you’re talking about a country like Iran, a lot of that information is, quite frankly, misleading at best, and flat-out wrong at worst. I decided that I wasn’t going to let stuff like this, and things like Donald Trump’s terrible travel ban, stop me from going. Since I spent about ten days in Iran, I thought I would write a list of some things to know before you go to Iran.
Iran is hot, hot, hot! It’s hot as hell! Right? Wrong! It depends on where and what time you go. I was there in February/March. Tehran was cold enough to wear a sweater or warm jacket. Two days later, I traveled to Shiraz and it was 25°C/77°F. Seven days later, while driving back north to Tehran, it was snowing. In the summer though, it’s definitely hot. 45°C/115°F is not uncommon. If you’re going, I suggest you look at the 10-day outlook a week or two before you go and plan for that. At night in the more desert areas, it’ll be cold no matter when you go. One of the main things to know before you go to Iran: Researching the weather is your friend!
The people aren’t that religious. If you watch Western media, you’d think Iran is a hotbed of religious fundamentalism. It’s not. The people here are religious in the same way your average American or Canadian is Christian. They say they are Muslims, but they don’t practice it much. This is especially true for people under 40. My impression, especially with younger Iranians, is that they go to mosque because it’s expected of them and not because they want to – if they even go at all. So one of the things to know before you go to Iran is that you won’t be bombarded with ultra-conservative religion from the time you arrive until you leave. It’s just not that way there.
That said, both women and men are required to dress conservatively, with women being required to follow hijab and wear a headscarf. Alcohol is prohibited and you won’t find it being served anywhere (legally).
There are no traffic rules. None. You take your life into your own hands when you drive or even when you cross the street. This is especially true in Tehran, but it’s everywhere. Traffic lights and the lines on the road are simply suggestions and are mostly ignored. The most aggressive driver always wins. I have traveled all over Southeast Asia and I thought it couldn’t get any worse than that. It can. Much worse. Much, much worse. That said, I came to trust my drivers completely, and what looked like (many) close calls were normal to them.
I would never choose to drive here because I like my life!
ATMs and credit/debit cards
Because much of the world has placed sanctions on Iran, you can’t use ATMs or credit cards here. This presents the problem of having to carry several hundred dollars with you at all times. I don’t like carrying money. In Iran, I had several hundred US dollars on me at all times. The good news is that Iranians are some of the most honest people you will ever meet. In fact, I dropped my wallet in Tehran. It had $200 US and another $400 worth of Iranian rials in it (because I just got done changing money). The person who picked it up and returned it to me didn’t touch it. If I was anywhere else, I doubt I would get the cash back. Still, it’s disconcerting to know that if you lose your money here, you’re absolutely screwed.
Everything is reasonably cheap – but I discovered that coffee wasn’t that cheap in many places. Fortunately, my hotels offered coffee as part of my free breakfast. And it was quite good, in fact. However, I found that in the coffee shops, a small coffee can cost from $3-5 US. If you can settle for instant coffee in hot water, it’s cheaper. But if you want an espresso or cappuccino, be prepared to pay for it. Next time I come here, I may bring something like Starbucks Via. If you’re a person who likes to have a big cup of coffee to carry around for 20 minutes, you won’t find that here. Trade coffee for water and you’ll be happy. Water is ridiculously cheap. At my hotel, three liters of water cost me 30,000 rial or about 97 cents.
Food and Water
Iranian food is delicious and varies from city to city, north to south, and east to west. And it’s safe. Although I did buy bottled water for convenience, I still refilled it at water fountains and didn’t experience any illness because of it. It’s not always easy to get vegetarian food in Iran, but I’ll be honest, I didn’t put a lot of effort into this and ate a lot of salad. But Iran food just tastes good because, like a lot of good cuisine, they use spices to enhance flavor – not just salt and fat. Eat, try different things, enjoy.
My personal favorite food in Iran? Mirza Ghasemi.
You cannot take photos of certain places. This includes any government building, airports, embassies, etc. You also cannot take photos of any police officer or anything related to the military. Many times, you’ll see signs to indicate this. But many times you won’t. If in doubt, don’t take a photo. I was about to take a photo of the flag at the South African embassy. My guide told me that even this was prohibited.
People are so polite here and sometimes you might not understand a conversation because it’s strange to you as a westerner. For example, if you offer someone some of your food, they may politely decline. That doesn’t mean they don’t want it. You may have to offer a couple of times or more before they take it. The same goes with you. If you’re offered something, you may politely decline it. But eventually, you should take it if you really want to. It’s like a little game that Iranians play with each other.
A funny story: When I flew from Tehran to Shiraz, they did not have a vegetarian option for dinner. The flight attendant offered me a first class meal. I politely declined. He insisted. And when he eventually did bring it, he apologized for the meal being so insufficient. The meal was delicious – fresh fruit, cheeses, breads. I told him it was incredible, that he was very nice, and I didn’t deserve his generosity. That’s the way this game works!
It’s very unlikely that you’ll meet an unfriendly Iranian. In my entire time there, I met only one person who appeared unfriendly – a man who didn’t want me taking pictures of the traffic in Tehran on the sidewalk outside his business. Other than that, each interaction I had in the country was super friendly. It won’t be any different for you, I expect.
The lady in this photo was at the airport when I left. She specifically came up to me to thank me for visiting her country. It was a genuine gesture by a person who knows that many people won’t come to her country because they think it’s dangerous. She was grateful that I chose to come despite how the media portrays Iran.
The money is a bit annoying. You should learn the system before you come here. It’s definitely one of the top things to know before you go to Iran. How do I know? Because I didn’t learn anything about it and I wish I did! I was on day three before I started to “get it.” Here is a quick primer:
The Iranian currency is the rial. It’s extremely devalued and Iranians refer to it in a number of ways. The bill in the photo below is 10,000 rials. It can be referred to in several ways: 10, 10 thousand, or 1000 toman.
See what I mean? While the currency is the rial, you will usually pay in toman. So look at the bill you have and drop a zero. That’s a toman. It takes some getting used to because Iranians will refer to it differently depending on where you are. For example, one SIM card provider might say that it’s 10,000 toman for a SIM card and a data plan. Another might say 100,000 rial. Another might just say “100.” So learn it before you go.
The rial fluctuates a lot. Generally speaking though, the U.S. dollar is equivalent to about 30,000 rials (or 3,000 toman) – give or take.
All entrance fees to museums and such are about 150,000-200,000 rials. The exception is Golestan Palace, where you pay about 200,000 just to get inside the complex, and 150,000 for each additional option. Even Persepolis, the pride of Iran, was only 200,000. If you already have your plans made, just assume a 200,000 entry fee and you’ll have plenty and maybe even some extra.
In Iran, Couchsurfing is huge. Even though it is not illegal here, it’s probably not something you should discuss when making your plans or going through Iranian immigration. You could create problems for yourself or the families of the people you’re staying with. Just have hotel names ready in case you’re asked.
Hospitality is deeply rooted in Persian tradition and Iranians are very welcoming. If you want to Couchsurf, I highly recommend it. However, make sure you create a good profile and then write a good request. A couple of good references are our posts on “How to Create a Great Couchsurfing Profile” and “How to Write Couchsurfing Requests That Work.” We’ve personally hosted over 450 people in our home and have a lot of experience in what works and what doesn’t. If you are in Iran, definitely consider Couchsurfing!
Facebook and Twitter are blocked here; however, nearly everyone I met has Facebook and Twitter. This is because most of them use VPN to get around the censors. Learn a bit about VPN before you get here, install one on your phone, and use it. Instagram is freely available without VPN and a lot of Iranians use it.
Iranians are also huge WhatsApp users. So if you don’t have it, get it. It’s a great way to keep in contact with people at home.
Iran is Not a “Backward” Country
Cities in Iran are quite modern. In fact, if it wasn’t for the signage in Farsi, many parts of Tehran could be mistaken for American neighborhoods. It appeared to me that Iran is doing quite well despite the international sanctions. If nothing else, the country has become quite self-sufficient because of them. That being said, you have to remember you are visiting a theocracy with many archaic laws and strict punishments for breaking them. We’ll be publishing more on this topic soon, because it’s important to understand where you are.
Iranians Don’t Hate Westerners
Iranians love westerners, including Americans. Don’t believe the hype. The Iranian people have no ill will towards you, regardless of where you are from. When you hear that Iranians dislike Americans, it’s just that this is the official line of the government. This absolutely does not hold true for the people themselves. Even Israelis would be more than welcomed here if not for the ban on them visiting. See a sign that says, “Down with America” or “Death to Israel”? It’s government propaganda and the people don’t all feel this way.
To be sure, the people complain about America and Israel, but it’s more about legitimate policy issues they have with each, and not about the people who live there.
Things to know before you go to Iran as a British, US, or Canadian
If you are from Canada, the US, or the United Kingdom, you will need to join a tour group to see Iran. That’s because our governments don’t have diplomatic relations with Iran. This is unfortunate because it really does impact your visit.
Citizens of these countries need a visa. I have described that process here: Iranian Visa For Canadians – A Guide (a similar process applies for American and UK citizens)
Personally, I felt very rushed in Iran, and while I enjoyed myself immensely, it was exhausting being carted around by a tour guide and driver. I would much prefer to do it on my own because it would be far more relaxing.
Let’s set religion aside for a moment and stipulate that women are discriminated against by most of them. From an “everyday life” standpoint, however, I could see no evidence that women are otherwise discriminated against – not in public anyway. I often saw women arguing back and forth with men and participating in conversations with them. I’ll be honest: women don’t appear to take any shit from men here. In my experience, there was no condescension towards women of the type that I see every day in the US. So if you travel here, you can expect to be treated with respect and as an equal. It’s my opinion, that of one of my female tour companions, and the opinion of a couple of solo female travelers I met, that women will have as rich an experience here as men. They neither felt unsafe nor uncomfortable.
Is Iran Safe?
I wrote a whole post about that. Short answer: yes!
Enjoy your trip to Iran
Hopefully, some of this helps as you are planning your visit. If you have any questions about other things to know before you got to Iran, please leave them in the comments and I would be happy to answer them if I can. If nothing else, I can point you to a place where you can get the answer. One great place to talk to locals is on the Facebook group See You In Iran. The group is moderated by the owners of a hostel in Tehran, but it’s not really a place that advertises the hostel. Lots of Iranians are there to share information and answer questions. It was very helpful for me.
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