Iran is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, with a vibrant history and warm people. Anyone interested in food, ancient history, or spectacular landscapes will find themselves at home in Iran.
Unfortunately, it’s not as easy to get to and around Iran as it once was, especially for Americans. We’ve compiled a complete list of things you must remember before visiting this Middle Eastern country.
Is Iran Safe to Visit?
Unfortunately, Iran is not very safe for U.S. citizens to visit. The State Department issued a “do not travel” advisory, citing various reasons Americans should not go to Iran.
While the British Embassy isn’t quite as stringent as the American one, they still advise against unnecessary travel to Iran. The reasons for these travel advisories and restrictions are unfortunately understandable.
According to the American State Department, U.S. citizens in Iran are often detained or arrested without warning. Since negotiating a release can be very difficult, especially in foreign countries, the State Department sees it as ill-advised to travel there.
That is especially true and dangerous for people who are dual citizens of both Iran and the United States and disproportionately affects certain professions, like journalists.
Also, the United States does not have a functioning embassy in Iran, so it’s that much harder to get consulate services and assistance while in the country.
If you have to travel to Iran, consider enrolling in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, (or STEP), so you can stay on top of things happening within the country and leave immediately and safely if need be.
Crime in Iran
While many tourist destinations have problems with petty crimes like theft and crimes of opportunity, the two most significant things you’ll have to watch out for in Iran are civil unrest and unlawful detention, especially if you’re an American.
Civil unrest is an ongoing issue in Iran, and it’s only become even more pronounced in the last few months. Public protests are widespread in Iran and can, and often do, involve foreigners. It’s easy to get caught up, especially if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.
To keep yourself safe, consider following some of these steps:
- Don’t knowingly enter into any protest or civil demonstration
- Avoid large groups of people, especially when political unrest seems to be brewing
- Don’t talk about politics or religion
You are much less likely to encounter protesting if you stay near more tourist-centric areas, but you could run across some if you’re off the beaten path in Tehran. Avoid Enghelab Square, one of the top places for protesters to assemble.
Kidnapping and Detention
Kidnapping in Iran has gotten so bad that the Pacific Council on International Policy even put out a call to end the arbitrary detention and abduction of Americans. It’s a serious concern that might understandably dissuade people from visiting Iran.
If you visit Iran, you must make yourself a hard target. Learn at least a few phrases in the local language, stick to tourist places where you’ll have more safety, and avoid doing anything and everything illegal. Hire a local guide and a driver, and don’t go out alone at night.
Although these steps seem excessive, being detained in a foreign country is one of the worst things that can happen to anyone, and you’ll want to avoid becoming a statistic.
Avoiding Bad Areas
When visiting Iran, it’s important to keep dangerous or dicey areas in mind and avoid them if possible. Fortunately, many of these bad areas are off-the-beaten tourist paths, so most people won’t come across them in the first place.
Avoid certain places where protesters congregate in cities like Tehran, especially if there’s been civil unrest or the threat of civil unrest. Enghelab Square is one prime example of a place you shouldn’t go.
Sometimes these protests can spill out into more touristy areas, like the Grand Bazaar, so keep your eyes peeled on what’s going on and stay away from large crowds. Stay away from Iran’s borders.
The border with Iraq is particularly dangerous, but most border areas are not entirely safe. So stick on the safe side and stay in the central part of the country. One surefire way to know if you’re in a place you shouldn’t be is to see if there’s a significant military presence.
Iran’s southeast area is quite dangerous, too, especially close to Afghanistan. Since there’s not much to see or experience in the region, you can safely put it on your “can skip” list.
Similarly, stay away from the Sistan-Baluchistan region, which has been experiencing a protracted conflict for several decades. The Sunni and Kurd situation there has made it exceptionally dangerous for anyone, and getting stuck in the crossfire is easy.
While you can traverse through many tourist areas of large cities, like Tehran, relatively safe during the day, avoid going out at night.
Deserted streets and dark areas are goldmines for would-be opportunists, and you should avoid going near them, even if you’re walking with other people. In short, it’s wise to avoid going off the beaten path when you’re in Iran.
Stick to tourist destinations, vetted and safe guided tours, and places where people speak English. It’s not worth it to get stuck in the middle of a regional conflict that has little to do with you.
Things to Consider
Following the spoken and unspoken rules in Iran will help you stay safe and have a good time in the country overall:
- Don’t talk about religion, even with people you think you know well
- Avoid criticizing any politicians or high-ranking officials, past or present
- Don’t visit off-the-beaten-path places, borders, or any other unfamiliar and non-tourist areas
- Do learn a little bit of Farsi
- Don’t try to access your bank account or PayPal in Iran because these services are blocked, and it might raise suspicion with your bank
- Do bring enough cash with you to get around
- Don’t drink alcohol while in Iran
- Dress modestly, especially when in religious places
- Do refer to the area as the “Persian Gulf” rather than the “Arabian Gulf”
Frequently Asked Questions
If you’re heading to Iran, chances are you’ll have many questions about different customs and ways to behave there.
These frequently asked questions and answers will help you be an excellent guest and stay safe while on your trip. The following are some concerns that people have when traveling to the region.
What currency do people use in Iran?
Iranians use the Iranian Rial, but you must get them before visiting the country. Due to sanctions, American bank cards do not work in Iran. So you’ll have to withdraw your money in advance, convert it, and bring it with you to the country. Similarly, American credit cards do not work in Iran.
It’s also not a good idea to try to access your bank information, Venmo, or PayPal in Iran. These services are forbidden there, and your account could get flagged for suspicious activity upon returning to the states.
Instead, bring more cash than you think you’ll reasonably need because you won’t be able to stock up while you’re in the country, and with no PayPal or Venmo; your family won’t be able to send you anything either. Make sure you keep your cash safe while you’re traveling – consider investing in a money belt or a portable safe.
Do Americans need a visit to visit Iran?
Americans need a visa to visit Iran, and there is a good chance that you won’t get it even if you apply for one. Currently, tensions between the United States and Iran are exceptionally high, so it’s challenging to secure the paperwork if you’re not a diplomat or have a specific reason to go to Iran.
In addition to your visa, you’ll need six months of validity on your passport, blank pages, and some vaccinations. Unfortunately, there’s no U.S. Embassy in Iran, so Americans must contact the Embassy of Switzerland while in the country.
The Embassy of Switzerland handles consulate services for Iran, including keeping track of U.S. citizens, responding to emergencies with American citizens, and providing necessary paperwork to Americans abroad. If you travel to Iran, make sure you get your visa well in advance and be prepared to answer plenty of questions.
Can I photograph the architecture in Iran?
A good rule for people visiting Iran is that if you’re not entirely sure if you can do something, don’t do it. So, for example, while it’s perfectly permissible to take pictures of many Persian buildings, several governmental buildings are off-limits.
These buildings are generally military installations or other such places, but most will not be marked. If you see a sign that states “no photography,” don’t even try to sneak in a picture.
Since it’s pretty standard for people to get detained in Iran, tempting fate by doing something illegal is not the best idea. The best way to get your pictures without getting into trouble is to take a guided tour and ask your guide where and when you can grab a photo.
What is there to see in Iran?
Iran is a spectacularly beautiful and unique country with tons of glorious nature, beautiful mountains, beaches, and impressive Persian history. There’s also excellent cuisine, warm hospitality, and plenty of modern-way wonders in this country.
Although Iran is in the Middle East, it’s not hot all the time. So instead, you’ll enjoy all four seasons when you visit. Some of the country’s key highlights include places like Nasir-ol-Molk Mosque, or “the Pink Mosque,” full of stunning Persian rugs and pink stones.
There’s also Persepolis, which was one time the capital of Iran. Although Persepolis is only in ruins now, it’s still a phenomenal place to visit if you want to fully appreciate Iranian history. A little Farsi will go a long way, especially when you’re outside of places like Tehran.
Due to language barriers and safety concerns, it might be a good idea to get a guide, especially if you want to maximize your time. It’s also wise to come up with an itinerary in advance so you’re not making decisions while you’re in the country. When devising your itinerary, take unsafe areas and any political unrest into account.
Can I drink alcohol in Iran?
The short answer is no, you can’t drink alcohol in Iran. It’s completely illegal, and any alcohol you might come across is probably unsafe to drink regardless. The dangers of drinking bootleg alcohol aside, you’ll also be in big trouble if you get caught partaking in illegal alcohol.
So instead, make sure that your vacation to Iran is a dry one. Drugs are similarly illegal, and you should abstain from using any kind of drug while you’re in Iran. Doing so will only give the authorities a reason to detain you, and the embassy will not be on your side if you have a drug conviction.
If you’re going to visit Iran, make sure that you behave in a way that is above board at all times. Iran is a stricter country with rules that might not be familiar to Westerners, but you must follow them. Not only is it considered rude to be culturally insensitive, but it could also get you into a lot of trouble.
Hopefully, these frequently asked questions and answers have given you a good idea of what to expect and how to get your visa well in advance. Make sure you pack enough money with you to ensure that you’ll have enough spending cash to do everything you want, with a little extra left over for emergencies.
So, Is Iran Safe to Visit?
Ultimately, no, Iran is not very safe to visit. Unfortunately, this country has quite a long history of detaining, arresting, and kidnapping Americans, plus plenty of civil unrest.
So, although it’s an undeniably beautiful land with a lot to offer, it’s not a destination for people who want a safe, worry-free vacation. But don’t worry — we have many more travel guides for safer destinations to help you pick the right vacation for you!