We’ve been traveling a fair bit around Iran and would like to share some tips and advices with you.
First off, let’s say it again : Iranians are awesome, and Iran has a lot to show for overlanders. Don’t listen to politics, Iranians are just as pissed about their president as are the Americans (and many others). Speaking of which, if you’re a Yankee or a Brit, or Israeli, you’re out of luck. You’re not welcome in Iran as an independent traveler, you’re required to take a guide. Again, Iranians have nothing against those people, it’s just politics). For all other nationals, applying for a visa and crossing the border isn’t much different from most other countries in the world.
Well, that’s for half of the population, the part with a dick and no tits. For you women, you’ll have to abide by the law and wear a scarf and hide your legs when you’re out in public eyes. Mind you, most Iranian (young, urban) girls resent this very much, and they will immediately throw away their scarf as soon as they’re at home and change into a short or mini skirt and low-cut shirt. That means also bathing fully clothed, if you fancy a dip. It’s just the way it is. For guys, there are rules too : no tank top, no shorts. And even for men, bathing without a shirt is often frowned upon. So it’s not as bad, but you have to know the rules.
Police, revolutionary guards and other annoyances.
Let’s get something out of the way : in 2 months of traveling intensively over 2 different trips, never have I been in trouble with the police or army or whatever. Well, except twice. One was when I flew a drone right in the middle of a city. That was the dumbest thing to do, drones are completely illegal in Iran. But even though we were brought to the police station, they eventually let us go with no fine and all our gear, and a few kind of words of excuses ! the other time was some distance north of Bandar Abbas, where they insisted I could not ride alone and should be escorted. It was a waste of time, but I got to visit some barackments and offered a lot of tea, of course.
We encountered quite a few speed traps, but we never got pulled over so I can’t really say what would happen should you get caught speeding. I would definitely not try to bribe them, this is not central Asia or Africa and you risk much bigger trouble going down that road. Generally speaking, the police is very low-key, much more so than, e.g. Turkey. There are very few police checkpoints, and they always have been very friendly and have just checked our papers. Except for the time when they insisted on me following an escort, but I guess they had orders.
Restriction of travel
You can get wherever you want in most of the country, except for Baluchistan (South-East) and the border zone with Afghanistan, where there is a lot of smuggling. Oh, and I guess it’s not a great idea to take pictures around Natanz or other nuclear facilities, just as you would imagine. I’ve never felt insecure traveling in Iran’s Kurdistan, although the situation may be different now with Iraq’s Kurdistan declaring independence. Keep on eye on the news.
You can find hotels pretty easily, of course the choice will be much greater in touristy cities like Yazd or Isfahan, but generally it’s no problem. The prices are not rock-bottom like in south-east Asia, more like Turkey. In any case, always haggle the price, it’s a widely accepted practice. During the low season (winter and middle of summer) you can get up to 50% off the regular price.
Note that according to Iran law, only married couples are allowed to stay in the same room. So if you’re traveling with your girl/boy-friend, and the hotel owner asks you if you’re married, just answer yes and nobody will bother you.
If you’re driving a camping-car, and are used to the European campgrounds, you’ll find none in Iran. But there are some parks in bigger cities (Shiraz, Tehran, Tabriz, ..) where you can park for free (or a small fee) and use the public toilet and shower (if available). It’s usually crowded and noisy, but that can be useful in a pinch. Check in iOverlander, e.g. for waypoints.
Also, something to be aware of, is the police isn’t too fond of having tourists sleeping out in the wild. Once, we’ve been “invited” to sleep in the police barackments when we were searching for a camping spot (at night with headlights on, not a smart idea). Eventually we’ve been able to get off their grip and as there were no hotel in the village, the locals gave us the key to.. the mosque ! yes, it’s pretty common in Iran for travelers to sleep on the carpets in the prayer room of a mosque (I think that’s a Shia exclusive, the Sunni would never allow it). There are often a mosque in petrol stations, so it’s perfectly acceptable to ask permission to sleep in the mosque. I’ve done that, and even been woken up by Iranians coming to sleep and making tea on the carpets !
Couch surfing is an option, but sooner or later you will be invited by locals to sleep at their place. Which leads us to the topic of etiquette.
Everybody who’ve traveled to Iran will come back with one main story : the Iranians are incredibly hospitable. They will invite you at home, they will offer you food, and they will invite you to stay for the night. No other country is even close as far as hospitality in concerned. So some overlanders come to think of Iran as a freeloader’s dream, and boast of having spent very little money visiting the country. But this would leave a bad opinion on foreigners to the Iranians. This is complicated because we don’t play by the same rules. Iran’s politeness rules are known as “taarof”. It says that you a host should offer food and lodging to a visitor, but, and this is where the ambiguity lies, expecting the visitor to refuse it. Then it would insist, and you should refuse again. Only if the person insists three times then it becomes a genuine offer and not just a show of politeness.
It doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t get invited anymore, Iranians are very curious and want to know what foreigners think of Iran. So most of the time you will still get invited, but only after politely refusing a couple times. Sometimes it even gets complicated to refuse an invitation when you’d rather take a hotel room as you’re knackered or you feel like being alone. And the rules go both ways, so you should try and offer something to locals too. If you offer to pay for somebody in a restaurant, they will always refuse, so try again, and insist. You’ll quickly see if that’s politeness or real generosity.
Sometimes the question is moot. Often, while sitting in a park, Iranians would reach over and offer us a slice of watermelon or some sweets. This is just the pleasure of sharing with other people and can break the ice, so there’s obviously no problem accepting this right away. And Iranians love to picnic in the public gardens so you’ll meet a lot of people by doing this too.
Seeing how easy it is to get in touch with Iranians, it’s just too bad that so few of them speak English (or any French or German for that matters). Iranians all speak Farsi, often as a second language as there are many ethnicities in Iran who are not Persians, such as Azeris, Kurds, Arabs, Baloch, etc.., but very few of them speak English, beyond a couple basic words. That makes conversations quite frustrating, unless you speak Farsi, of course, or Turkish, which Azerbaijani is very close to. It’s much easier in big cities and touristy places, but English still isn’t that popular. So get yourself a conversation book in Farsi and learn a few basic words, that will really please them - and help you at times.
Road signs in the larger cities and main roads are typically translated in English, so that’s not an issue. But it helps to be able to read the Persian numbers, at least. Out in smaller places, you can expect all signs to be in Arabic (Persian) script, so trust your GPS ! Speaking of which, OpenstreetMap is quite OK in Iran, so you can get around using just that, either loaded onto your garmin or through a mobile app such as Maps.me, which is based on OpenstreetMap.
Overall, as in other countries, I’ve never felt it was a big problem not speaking any local language. It’s frustrating as hell, but not a deterrent by any stretch of the imagination.
Now for some more down-to-earth overlanding considerations
By all means, do not try the infamous e-visa that Iran has put in place for a year or so. It doesn’t work, and worse, if you start down this road you’ll have hard time reverting to the usual process : once you’re registered in their computers for e-visa, you can’t get one any other way, so you’re stuck waiting seemingly for ever. Until there are first-hand reports of people succeeding in getting a visa on this website (http://evisa.mfa.ir/en/), do yourself a favor and ignore it.
You can buy a visa in any consulate in the world, but you must have prior approval from the ministry of foreign affairs in Tehran. This can be done through a specialized travel agency, such as Key2persia e.g. For a reasonable fee (about 35€), they will get approval for you and send you, and the embassy you’ve selected, a reservation number, with which you can get your visa in a few hours. Note: do not ever mention that you’re overlanding when you ask for visa pre-aproval. Just say that you haven’t booked your flights yet or that you will enter by bus from a neighboring country. For some reason, they will reject you if you tell them you’re entering with your own vehicle, whereas in reality it’s sot a problem at all.
You will get a 30-days visa, which is quite easy to extend in most larger cities. Some are easier than others, some will do it only when you have only a couple days left on your visa, but most people get a one-month extension, and even another one, for a stay of up to 3 months.
Carnet de passage
You need a carnet to get into Iran. If you don’t have one, then you can reach out to a guy called Hossein who can provide one just for your stay in Iran, for a small fortune (http://www.overlandtoiran.com/). So by all means, get a carnet before leaving for Iran. Also, you’ll need one if you continue on to Pakistan.
You need an insurance if you’re driving in Iran, even though it’s very unlikely that anybody will ask for it (as long as you don’t have any accident, that is). Sometimes your green card will be valid in Iran, then good for you. Otherwise you’ll have the opportunity to but one at the border - at least in Bazargan you can.
You can enter Iran overland from Turkey, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Armenia and Azerbaijan, even from Afghanistan and Iraq if you’re foolish enough to go there in the first place. You can also enter at Bandar Abbas coming from UAE on a ferry. All of them are pretty hassle free, as long as you have the necessary papers. There are 3 crossing points with Turkey: Bazargan is the main one, on the highway to Tabriz. It’s pretty busy and hectic, but relatively straightforward. You may encounter a fixer who will tell you that you must use his services. This is not true, but it can also be convenient to let him fight his way to the officials. Make sure to pay him a reasonable amount, no matter how much he’s complaining. The two other crossing with Turkey are further south in Kurdish territory, which means they are much quieter, but also sometimes out of bounds depending on what the situation is.
There is one single point of crossing with Pakistan in Taftan, near Zahedan. The situation in Baluchistan is pretty dodgy so you may have to follow an escort from Zahedan to the border (and certainly beyond to Quetta, but that’s another story). Otherwise, there is no drama at this border.
For Turkmenistan, you’ll have to use the crossing that is mentioned in your (turkmen) visa. For Armenia, there is a single crossing at Norduz, pretty quiet and straightforward to get through. There is a border between Iran and Iraq Kurdistan, but due to the current situation in Kurdistan it’s difficult to advise to go there. There are crossing to Azerbaijan proper at Bilasuvar and Astara, all without any problem.
Note that you’re not allowed to bring any alcohol into Iran, so now you know..
You’ll never be too worried about your fuel mileage in Iran as petrol stations are plenty and fuel is very cheap ! About 0.35$/liter for petrol and 0.15$/liter for diesel (1000 and 6000 rials resp.) The petrol pumps need a “ration card” to operate, but since rationing is all but over (except for diesel), almost all petrol stations have their own card that they use to serve foreigners (or not). You’ll find petrol stations not far from the border of Bazargan (Turkey) or Nordooz (Armenia) so remember to top up before leaving Iran. Only in Taftan/Zahedan is fuel a bit problematic, so try not to reach the border from Pakistan with an empty tank.
Driving in Iran
Many people will describe the driving manners of Iranians as “maniac” or “crazy”. It’s actually not that bad, but coming from more tame countries as Turkey or Armenia it comes as a surprise. Once you get he hang of it, though, it’s quite bearable. You just need to understand a few unwritten rules.
First off, there are no “lanes” per se in Iran, there is room for a car or there isn’t, period. It’s just physics. So if two lanes are marked on the road, 3 cars will fir in parallel. With three lanes, you have room for four or five cars, if you squeeze in with just a few cm left on either side. Cars will also rear you a meter or so behind and overtake you if you leave so much as a car’s length between your front bumper and the car before you. All of this driving at 80 km/h, which leaves no room for error. So it’s a little nerve-racking but you’ll get used to. This only happens in cities, so you’ll quickly learn to void entering any large city unless you absolutely need to. Tehran being the worst of course.
There a few proper freeways in the country, e.g. between Tabriz and Tehran or Tehran - Isfahan, and they are pretty well maintained and fast. There is a toll, but it’s quite cheap although quite often employees will lift the gate for free after a quick chat, seeing you as a tourist. Bikes are not allowed on the freeways, so bikers will have to use other highways, which are quite okay but slower, because there will be crossings, speed bumps, red lights and slow vehicles (animals sometimes) on the road.
Speed bumps are a plague in Iran, but this is the most effective way to slow down cars, and without it you can pretty easily imagine how bad the situation would be in small villages where children play on the road ! As said above, police have quite a few radars on hand, so you need to pay attention to the speed limits, even though the entrance/exit of built-up areas are not always well marked.
There’s one thing in particular that seems to baffle overlanders: the roundabouts. Many complain that the Iranians fail to give right of way when entering the roundabout. This is wrong, because in Iran these are not “roundabouts” as we know them, there’s not special rule: priority to the right applies, which means that cars in the roundabout must give priority to vehicles entering it. This is counter-intuitive but once you get the hang of it, if works just as well. Just remember the old rules when you get back home !
Another rule that all Iranians seem to agree on, is that cars merging into a large road from a smaller one have priority over incoming cars: the drivers seldom pay attention to incoming cars, they just merge in and stay to the extreme right of the road, hoping that there will be enough space left in the road for any incoming vehicle to pass through, which, miraculously, will be often the case. So you better be prepared for this. At first, the reaction is a liberal use of expletives toward the driver’s mother, but after a while you get used to it.
As often in these countries (just like here in southern France), the pedestrians have the same right as the cats and dogs when it comes to crossing the road. Don’t expect cars to brake or even slow down if there is no life-or-death situation, and even so it’s not always obvious that the car’s (or bike’s) brakes are functioning. So when it comes to crossing a busy road, step onto the road and slowly make your way across the different traffic lanes, dodging cars and trucks with centimeters to spare. Or just stay for ever on one side of the road, it’s up to you.