Colorful, ornate tiled mosques, beautiful Persian carpets, and ancient civilizations that span back thousands of years are just a few of the images that come to mind when I think back to the magical few weeks I spent in Iran. Traveling in Iran as an American, I found myself constantly surprised at how different Iran is from what our media at home portrays.
If you’ve happened to stumble upon this page, you are probably at least a tiny bit curious about experiencing the beauty, history, and culture of Iran first-hand. However, you may have heard lots of negative things about Iran: things like, “it’s dangerous,” “they have a contentious relationship with the United States,” and “they hate Americans.” During my travels in this beautiful country, I learned that these one-sided messages couldn’t be farther from the truth.
In this guide, I’ll explain everything you need to know to travel to Iran as an American and experience this complex, awe-inspiring country for yourself.
Can Americans Visit Iran?
Contrary to popular belief, Americans can get a tourist visa and visit Iran completely legally. Getting an Iranian visa isn’t too difficult, but it can be a lengthy process that requires some patience. As an American, in order to get a visa, you must be accompanied by a guide at all times and submit your information for pre-screening. That’s it!
How to Travel to Iran as an American Citizen
Visiting Iran not something to be done on a whim. Planning a trip there is hefty and time-consuming process that takes several months end-to-end. I recommend planning your trip, at a minimum, at least six months in advance to make sure you cover all your bases before your departure. In order to visit Iran as an American, you’ll need to choose a tour operator, get your visa, and prepare a few things before your trip.
Choosing a Tour Operator
I mentioned above that all American citizens can travel to Iran with one caveat: they must register with a licensed tour operator. By “licensed”, I mean that your tour operator and guide must be specifically registered and accredited to work with Americans. These tour operators/travel agencies can help you with your visa paperwork and work out the logistics of your travel (hotels, transfers, etc.) within the country.
I’ve rarely traveled with tours in the past, so I was hesitant at first about going somewhere that required me join one. However, I ended up having a really fabulous time, as my small group of three people provided plenty of room for flexibility in our itinerary. Don’t let the tour requirement prevent you from visiting this beautiful country!
There are lots of tour operators (both Iranian and non-Iranian) that host tours to Iran. I highly recommend choosing an Iran-based tour operator for your trip there. Why? Because a) you’re fully supporting the Iranian people and local economy and b) because your experience will be led by someone who is fluent in the language and has personal connections within every city you’ll visit, giving you a hyper-local experience.
Our Recommendation: Travel Agent/Tour Company
There are quite a few options when it comes to travel agencies in Iran. Personally, I went to Iran with a company called SurfIran and highly recommend them. I had a fantastic experience on their 15-day small group tour, alongside just one other American and an Australian. Since our group was quite small, we were able to adjust our schedule based on our personal interests and last-minute whims. It was the perfect amount of structure and flexibility that made for a fantastic experience.
Sarah Azadmehr, my trusty representative, was quick to respond to me via WhatsApp and made sure all my questions were answered before my trip. She helped me secure my visa authorization code and was extremely reassuring during the process, despite my worry at times.
My experience with SurfIran was smooth, easy, and affordable, and I can’t recommend them enough. You can see SurfIran’s small group tours here.
Our Recommendation: Tour Guide
However, if you’re hoping to organize your trip with a private guide, the tour guide for my trip, Ahmad Janati, was fantastic. He speaks English fluently and has a great sense of humor. During my trip, Ahmad introduced me to his friends, taught me some Farsi, took me to some lesser-known destinations, and answered all of my questions (I probably asked a thousand).
If you want to hire a private guide who is licensed to work with Americans, I highly recommend working with Ahmad. You can request Ahmad via SurfIran’s website.
Getting an Iranian Visa as an American Citizen
Step 1: Apply for a visa authorization code via your tour operator
Once you choose a tour operator or guide, contact them to get the visa authorization code process started. This will require submitting the following information:
- A passport scan
- A complete tour itinerary (provided by the organization)
- A personal information document (name, birth date, etc.)
- A professional resume
Many tour operators will also require a deposit to secure your space on the tour. Because of the sanctions, it is difficult to transfer money directly from the United States to Iran. To circumvent this, many companies will request a wire transfer to a third-party vendor in some other partner country, like Malaysia.
Don’t worry, this is normal! I transferred 50% of the cost of my tour via a Malaysian bank and it reached SurfIran just fine. However, if you decide to go with a different tour operator, always check with your financial institution to figure out what your protections are.
From contacting your tour operator to receiving your visa authorization code, this process can take anywhere from 4 to 6+ weeks, depending on holiday schedules and other factors in your application. During this time, be sure to check in with your tour operator frequently – they can provide updates and answer any questions.
Once you receive your visa authorization code, the waiting game is almost over and you’re officially approved to get a visa. Now, all you need to do is actually *get* the visa.
Step 2: Mail (or bring) your visa application and passport
Mail Your Iranian Visa Application
For most Americans who live outside of the Washington DC metro area, you’ll have to mail your visa application and passport to the Iranian Interests Section of the Pakistani Embassy. Pakistan’s embassy operates as the representation for Iran, as there’s no Iranian embassy in the United States. To obtain the visa, you’ll need to provide the following items in your mailed package, and send to 1250 23rd St. N.W. Suite # 200 Washington, DC 20037:
- Visa application forms
- Authorization code
- Passport photo
- $120 USD money order for visa processing fee and return mailing fee
- Return envelope?
After you mail your paperwork, it typically takes 2-3 weeks to process and arrive in your mailbox again. You can also pay an additional fee to expedite the process, if necessary.
Bring Your Iranian Visa Application to the Pakistani Embassy
If you’re lucky enough, like me, to live in or near Washington DC, you can simply bring your authorization code, visa application forms, passport photos, passport, and $90 USD money order (no mailing fee needed) to the Pakistani Embassy yourself, located at 1250 23rd St NW #200, on any weekday from 8-11 AM or 2-4 PM.
After I dropped my passport off, it took approximately 4 days for them to process the visa and return my passport to me. I picked it up at the same office where I dropped it off.
Preparing For Your Trip to Iran
Travel Insurance for Iran
My go-to travel insurance company actually doesn’t cover Iran, so I purchased a plan from another fantastic insurer, AIG Travel Guard. Their plans cover medical issues, trip delays, cancellation, and more.
Within Iran, you should also plan to purchase the government-run health insurance at the airport (~$12). It’s best to cover all your bases!
What to Pack for Iran
For men, packing for Iran is fairly straightforward. You’ll want to bring long pants for the duration of your stay, plus long- and short-sleeved shirts. If you’re going in the summer, be sure you bring breathable fabrics, such as cotton and linen. For wintertime, be sure you pack a coat and boots. When I was there (in late May), I saw most Iranian men wearing button-downs and polo-style shirts with long pants such as jeans or khakis. Sneakers and open-toed shoes are both acceptable, but I recommend bringing easily removable shoes because you’ll have to remove them quite often in mosques, restaurants, and some guesthouses.
For women, it’s a bit more complicated. Iranian law states that all women must be covered fully except for the face, hands, and feet. This means that, in public, all women should cover their hair with a hijab, or headscarf, and wear long-sleeved tops at all times. Also, women are required to cover their butt, either with a long sweater or a tunic top (you DON’T need both). Here are a few examples from yours truly of what women can wear in Iran:
If you’re planning on going to Iran in the winter, dressing in a long overcoat and boots shouldn’t be too difficult. However, in the spring and summer, I recommend bringing a light synthetic or cotton sweater on top of your regular clothes. Wearing a knee-length dress with jeans underneath works well too. As long as you cover your head, arms, butt, and legs, you’re good to go. For women, both sneakers and open-toed shoes are perfectly fine, but I recommend bringing shoes you can easily remove for mosques, homes, and restaurants.
While visiting Iran, if you’re staying in hotels and guesthouses, laundry services are typically available. Laundry usually takes about 24 hours and will cost you anywhere from 600,000-1,500,000 rials ($15-35) per load, depending on the number of pieces.
Money Exchange in Iran & How Much to Bring
Because of the current sanctions, it is impossible to withdraw money from Iranian ATMs as an American. Additionally, it’s really hard to exchange currency other than USD or EUR. The Australian tourist in my group had some issues exchanging his Australian Dollars. I imagine it’s similar for CAD, GBP, and other currencies, too.
Because of this, plan to bring all of the money you might need for your trip in either USD or EUR. You can exchange USD and EUR easily at most banks, hotels, or exchange kiosks.
How Much Money Should You Bring?
On a reasonable budget, you should plan on spending ~$25-35 USD per day on food and entry fees, plus extras for souvenirs, laundry, and other incidentals. I also recommend bringing some “miscellaneous/emergency fund” money. For 15 days, I budgeted ~$800 USD ended up spending ~$500. This amount included small souvenirs, a few fancy dinners, and gratuities for my driver and guide. I’m a pretty light eater, though.
Internet, Mobile Services, and Messaging in Iran
Wi-Fi and Internet
In Iran, Wi-Fi is available at basically every hotel and most restaurants, too. However, its speed and reliability can vary substantially. In general, I found the fastest WiFi in Tehran and Esfahan, and varying levels of connectivity around the rest of the towns and cities.
It’s not possible to freely access all sites in Iran. Many websites, including Facebook, Twitter, and several large media websites, are banned by the government. Google, Instagram, and WhatsApp are not blocked.
Mobile Services and SIM Cards
Buying a SIM card in Iran is affordable and provides the best connectivity if you’re moving around from place to place. On Irancell, there’s 3G data available almost everywhere you’ll visit on a tour.
An activated SIM card will run you ~500,000 rials ($12-13), and you’ll need to load it with some money for data. I spent ~400,000 rials per week. Heavier data users might need to spend a bit more.
You’ll need to unlock your phone before you reach Iran.
Messaging in Iran
Most Iranians use WhatsApp and Gmail to communicate with their friends and family. Instagram and Instagram messaging are also abundant in Iran, as the app is not blocked. Facebook Messenger and Telegram are blocked.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Iran safe?
Iran is totally safe for all tourists to visit. As female traveling on my own, I felt completely welcomed and never felt in danger. Because you’re American, you’ll be with an experienced guide your entire stay, adding another layer of security to an already safe place to visit.
As an American, do I really have to be with a tour group at all times?
Yes, as an American you must travel with a guide and follow an itinerary during the duration of your trip.
What if my tour has free time in the itinerary?
During my 15-day itinerary, there was plenty of free time factored in. I wasn’t confined to my hotel during this time, I just had to do a bit of planning with my guide to make sure he was available to help me. Work with your guide to determine the best way to use your free time within your limitations (or email me if you’re wondering how I spent my own free time!).
Am I allowed to enter locals’ homes?
As an American citizen, you cannot enter local homes without prior consent. However, this does not mean you can’t enter a local home at all. If you are interested in learning more about local life in Iran, your guide can surely help organize some kind of home visit for you and get the right permissions on your behalf.
What kinds of accommodations can I expect in Iran?
Iran has all kinds of accommodations, from hostels to basic guest houses to mid-range hotels to ornate 5-star resorts. SurfIran typically puts its group tours up in 3-star hotels, but if you organize a custom tour you can choose which accommodation type best fits your budget.
Will I be able to communicate with friends and family back home?
Yes! WhatsApp, Instagram, and email are the best ways to communicate with people back home during your trip.
Do people speak English there?
Many people speak a very basic level of English, but not much more than that. With that said, locals are super friendly and want to talk to you, even via a translator. Your guide should be happy to help translate at bazaars, in restaurants, or with friendly locals who just want to say hi.
Are people openly hostile to Americans?
Not at all. Everyone I met in Iran was friendly, courteous, and curious to learn more about the rest of the world. I didn’t experience any hostility from anyone at all (and neither did my fellow American tour group mate).
Why should I travel to Iran?
It is so important to get outside of the things we see and hear solely from our American media and government. Visiting Iran is the perfect way to go beyond the stereotypes. If you’re curious about the Middle East or about one of the countries with the oldest history in the world, Iran is an amazing place to experience first-hand. It was one of my favorite countries I’ve ever visited and one I hope to return to many times over.
If you want to travel to Iran as an American but have more questions about the process, please post a question or start a discussion in our Jetfarer Facebook group and I will try my best to help!
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