From my own personal experience traveling Iran, here’s a detailed Iran travel guide with tips on visas, safety and dressing in Iran. I hope my Iran travel tips will be helpful for fellow solo female travelers.
As a curious traveler, I believe traveling is the best way to learn on-the-ground knowledge and to see a place beyond the headlines. My recent visit to Iran – just like my previous trips to “dangerous places” like North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Palestine – further reaffirmed that what we see in the media isn’t always the real truth.
As I discovered, Iran is a country extremely rich in Islamic culture and old Persian history. It’s a land of poets, artists, and traders who carry on centuries-old traditions. Thousand-year-old ancient sites sprawl across the deserts, surrounding outstanding Persian architecture and fabled towns. Modern Iran is a sharp contrast, with chaotic traffic flooding up the bustling metropolis and busy urban dwellers rushing from one place to another in fashionable apparel.
Iran is so many things rolled into one, but there’s one thing it’s not. It’s not a country of gun-toting or American-hating extremists. It’s not a land of war-loving, flag-burning terrorists. And it’s definitely not how the world perceives it to be.
As soon as you’re here, you’ll find that the reality is far removed from the stereotypes — it’s a country desperate to be seen for what it is, rather than what it is depicted to be. The Iranians are undoubtedly the friendliest people I’ve ever met in the world and travelers will often find themselves getting invited to stranger’s homes, being treated to endless flow of tea from a shop vendor and getting a free ride from helpful drivers along the way.
As a word of advice, don’t make judgment based on what you see and read on the news; go see Iran and find out for yourself.
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If you’re opened to getting your mind altered, then here are some of my tips and info that can help you plan a trip to Iran:
Iran Travel Tips
How to Obtain Iran Visas
Getting an Iran visa can be a tricky, frustrating and expensive process for certain nationalities. Every nationality needs an Iran visa – except for nationals of Turkey, Malaysia, Syria, Georgia, Azerbaijan (15 days), Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador. Entry will be refused to citizens of Israel and travelers with any evidence of visiting Israel. If you’ve got an Israeli entry stamp, get a new passport. British, American and Canadian travelers are only allowed to travel to Iran with a guided tour only.
To apply for an Iranian visa you need a visa authorization number. You can get it through any local Iranian operator or The Visa Machine for £55 or US$91 (and a £15 or US$25 admin fee). It takes at least two weeks to get it, but once you’ve got it you just need to show up at the embassy, fill up a form and present a passport photo (women must wear a headscarf in the photo).
I was lucky enough to get my express visa in just one day at the Iranian embassy in Biskek, Kyrgyzstan, and the visa cost €50 or US$65 (and an additional €25 or US$33 to expedite it). That said, I heard cases of visas taking almost a month to process for certain nationalities (and even embassies requesting for medical check-ups) and visas costing three times as much for British, American and Canadian travelers.
How to Travel Iran: Traveling Solo or with a Tour
Independent travel in Iran is amazing but it can be challenging for solo female travelers.
There is a lack of tourism infrastructure in the country with limited options when it comes to transportation and accommodation. There are definitely a number of accommodation options available in Iran, but they can be pricey and limited in availability (especially during Muslim festivals). I traveled to Iran as part of a two-month Silk Road journey; As compared to other parts of Central Asia, basic budget hotels (with squat toilets) are relatively expensive and not exactly value for money.
I also met several travelers who hitchhiked and couchsurfed their way through Iran. Even though couchsurfing is officially banned in Iran, there is quite a large community. The couchsurfers I met in Iran talked about how helpful and hospitable their hosts were, showing them around the cities and even connecting them to their friends in other cities.
Take note that traveling Iran as a solo female has its challenges. I spent most of my time traveling Iran alone. It can be daunting for some solo female travelers, especially if you’re not a seasoned traveler — Iranian men can be very forward and even aggressive to some extent, expect some stares and wolf whistles especially in the bigger cities; but as long as you are dressed modestly and practice common sense, you should be safe.
READ MORE: Silk Road Travel Guide
Safety in Iran for Solo Female Travelers
Iran is generally safe to visit as long as you follow the rules of the Islamic regime. Besides the few stares from men, I didn’t feel unsafe at all in Iran. While there were murals depicting Anti-American sentiments and paintings of war martyrs everywhere, there weren’t any soldiers toting guns or military tanks roaming the streets. Everything felt very peaceful and normal everywhere we went in Iran.
For Americans or British, the Iranians welcome you just as equally. While most Iranians do not like the American government, they understand that the people do not represent the government. They know that people are people and we are all generally the same.
If you are worried, it might be wise to pre-register with your foreign office before departure for a peace of mind. Many foreign offices (including in the UK and US) advise against all but essential travel to Iran, and most travel insurance companies will not cover you during your time in Iran.
Iran Travel Advice: Prepare to Be Surprised!
Traveling Iran can be an eye-opening experience, considering how misunderstood this Islamic Republic is. It is a rewarding place to visit especially for curious travelers who want to learn the basis of the country, who its people are, and what their culture stand for — beyond political issues and news headlines.
In all honesty, I went to Iran with no idea what to expect; but Iran still surprised me on so many levels. Unknown to many, it’s a very urban and populated country, with over 75 million people occupying a country that ranks 17th biggest in the world. It’s the biggest country in Central Asia and also the most populated. Almost two-thirds of Iranians live in cities and many of its cities bursting at their seams with over five million people. Heavy traffic is a severe problem in the country,with the government increasing oil prices and building underground metro systems to help control the problems.
Cities like Tehran, Tabriz and Shiraz exude the modern and prosperous 21st-century vibes you’ll find in developed Middle Eastern cities. They are constantly buzzing with endless traffic, weaving through rows of markets, shops and tall buildings. There are people everywhere, literally in every street corner and square. Urban dwellers rush from one place to another, spotting heavy make-up and funky haircut.
You’ll be surprised to find women pushing the limits by wearing hijab (headscarf) halfway back on their head and tight, colorful leggings or skinny jeans. Oh and even more over-the-top is how popular nose jobs are in Iran. It’s common to see women spotting bandages on their noses, the result of plastic surgery that is getting more and more popular by the day.
And of course, the warmth and hospitality of the people was the biggest surprise of all. “Welcome!” was the word I heard most in Iran. I lost count of the number of times when Iranians warmly welcomed me into their country. Perhaps because of the hospitable nature of the Central Asians, they are undoubtedly the friendliest people I’ve ever met on my travels.
Locals came up to me ever so often, wanting to know where I’m from and how I liked their country. A few invited me to sit down with them for tea, while others ditched their plans and helped me get to where I was going. The people of Iran moved me with their genuine generosity and kindness — and it’s people like that who made my trip to Iran truly memorable.
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Challenges for Solo Female Travelers in Iran
Every country has its own rules, and as travelers it is our responsibility to follow and respect them. Iran, as a conservative Islamic Republic, has stricter rules than most countries, but as long as you follow them, you won’t encounter any problem. I wouldn’t advise visiting if you’ve never been to any Muslim or Middle Eastern country — you need to have an open mind and be respectful of their culture.
According to the Islamic regime in Iran, every woman has to practise hijab or cover up by wearing a headscarf — foreigners included. This doesn’t mean you need to cover up your entire body with a burkha or chador, you simply need to cover your head and hair with a loose scarf. To blend in and show your respect for their culture, female travelers should also wear long, flowing tops that cover your bottom, baggy pants and covered shoes.
I was a little worried about dressing in Iran, but surprisingly after an hour or so, I got used to the headscarf and wearing baggy clothes as everyone else was dressed the same. In big cities like Tehran and Shiraz, it was more common to find ladies wearing skinny jeans and open toe sandals. That said, once I wore a long-sleeved shirt that went down my waist but not my bum, and shockingly, everyone – male and female – was staring at my crotch. I learned to stick to my long, flowing blouse from then on.
An issue that I found harder to adapt to was the double standards in Muslim culture that favor the male gender. Men and women have separate entrances into mosques, palaces and many monuments. Women can only sit at the back seats on buses and they are not allowed to sit next to men they are not related to. Men only shake hands with other men (while women shake other women’s hands). This I found a hard pill to swallow, but just like how I’d handled such cultural practices in Egypt and Morocco, I keep quiet and followed their rules.
Other than that, it’s generally easy to adjust to things in Iran. In fact, I had heard from some people about how women may be excluded from conversations with Iranian men and some men won’t even look at women in the eyes — but that wasn’t true at all. Iranian men were more happy to speak to me (and sometimes they can be too friendly) and many Iranian women I met were educated and not afraid to speak up.
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Discussing Religion and Politics with Iranians
While traveling Iran, the two topics that you’d find impossible to escape are religion and politics. As I discovered, Iranians are more than happy to discuss them with you if you’re respectful of their opinions.
From the people I spoke to, I found that there was a mix of opinions: there are some young Iranians who aren’t happy with their government and the strict Islamic regime, but there are also the older generation contented to live within the constraints set by the ayotollah (religious leader). One young Iranian man in particular was quite vocal about his dislike for the regime, but sadly he stopped talking when a military soldier came to join the conversation. He was scared of getting into trouble and get to keep his mouth shut to save himself. It became pretty clear that the Iranians were living in a controlled regime where there was no freedom of speech.
That said, change is evidently coming to Iran and you can see it from the modern Iranian society. Despite the controlled media (TV, news and internet are heavily censored in Iran), there is still a lot of international influence. It’s obvious from the way young Iranians are dressed, from the range of local fast food chains and the mentality of young Iranians. I’m quite confident that things will change for Iran in the future and the new era is going to arrive pretty soon.
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