How to Travel to Iran for Americans, British and Canadians.
Written in 2017, this post was last updated in March 2018. If you have corrections to make or experiences to share, we would love to hear from you: please comment at the end of the post.
Can Americans Travel to Iran?
Update May 2018: Given the current position of the American President on Iran, relations are more than tense. There has been no formal change to visa policies, but we advise checking the latest situation with regards to visas on your country’s State Department / Foreign Office’s website. Bear in mind that travel advisories issued by governments are always pessimistic, as well as politically driven.
If you have travelled to Iran as an American in 2018 please get in touch and let us know how it was!
First off: Why the Special Treatment for Americans, British and Canadians?
A country that was effectively cut off from the outside world in the ‘80s and ‘90s by sanctions, since 2016 Iran has started opening up, and the good news is that includes to tourism. Iran travel, is perhaps complicated at times, but surely there are plenty ofrewards for those who persevere.
In the last year, record numbers of international visitors have fallen for this beautiful country’s charms and seen that Iran is anything but the image portrayed by western media.
Not yet sure if you want to travel to Iran but simply curious? Check out my Why Travel to Iran post here.
Iran remains, however, a country that British, Americans and Canadian citizens cannot travel independently to. We can travel to Iran, but with some key differences than other nationalities. Iran travel for Brits, Americans and Canadians has not been easy.
Can I travel to Iran as an American, British or Canadian Passport Holder?
The good news: yes, you can. Even after the current US President’s latest anti-Islamic legislation in June 2017. The position of the Iranians is clear: Americans are welcome in Iran. (Americans see latest update at the top)
Now for the less good news. As a Brit, every time I read about couch surfing in Iran or the wonderful experiences travellers had hanging out hitchhiking with Iranians, my heart would bleed a little. I knew that that experience of Iran was out of reach for me, and here’s why:
Americans, British and Canadian Passport Holders need to go on an organised tour of Iran or be accompanied by a Licensed Iranian Tour Guide during their trip. That’s unless you have managed to find an Iranian to sponsor your visa application and accept legal responsibility for you during your time in Iran.
Need to get a visa for Iran in the UK? Check out my guide to getting an Iranian Visa in London, UK, here.
Is Iran Safe for British, American and Canadian Citizens?
Contrary to what you might think from watching the news, Iran felt – to me – like probably one of the safest countries I’ve visited. If you were to drop your wallet while wandering its bazaars or craning your neck to admire its beautiful mosques, chances are that a throng of locals would run screaming after you to return the wallet to you, full of its contents. Problems with crime are arguably a lot less than your average European or American country.
What you do want to avoid of course, is a stint in Iranian jail for arousing suspicion for being an American / British / Canadian spy. This does not happen often, but of course there have been a couple of high profile examples. Let’s be clear, the average tourist is at very low risk of getting in trouble. Especially seeing as an American, British or Canadian traveller, you need to go on a guided tour, your guide will always advise you of any behaviour that might cause problems. During my time in Iran I encountered no problems whatsoever – the only time we were clearly told not to take any photos was in our bus as we drove past the infamous Natanz uranium enrichment facility (it’s just off a main road!)
In short, Iran is a very safe place. As an American, British or Canadian tourist, be particularly mindful of the following things:
- Photography of official buildings is prohibited. Anything with army/police outside, government buildings, and even the political murals by the “US den of Espionage” are best avoided for photoshoots.. If in doubt, ask your guide (or an official).
- Do not even think about taking a drone into Iran.
- Obey the hijab dressing rules (see below) and stay clear of any political or anti-hijab demonstrations.
- Take a guided tour, and don’t try to get creative with travelling independently if you are travelling on a British, American or Canadian passport.
- Generally keep a low profile during your visit to Iran, don’t make critical statements of Iran (or post them on social media), and don’t ask probing questions about Iran’s political, religious or (especially) nuclear status while travelling in Iran.
- If you have Israeli stamps (or even evidence of Israeli border crossings) in your passport, you won’t be allowed into Iran.
- If you are questioned about something “suspicious”, remember, you are just a dumb, snap-happy tourist 🙂 trying to capture beautiful Iran.
- If in doubt… ask your guide.
Note that the above does not apply if you have dual Iranian – American/British/Canadian citizenship. You will then purely be treated as an Iranian national and Iran will not acknowledge your other nationality. If your family comes from Iran generations back, then this is again a more complicated situation. Consult your government’s travel advisory for advice.
How to Choose a Tour of Iran?
So we’ve established that (unless you have an Iranian sponsor) you’re going to need a guide or a tour of Iran. If you’re short on time, you can find all the info on the G Adventures Discover Persia tour that I took (and loved!) here.
How to choose an Iranian tour?
In my research for my trip to Iran I contacted a mix of local and international operators, asking a load of annoying questions. Ultimately, your decision will probably come down to a number of factors:
- Budget & level of comfort required
- How you want to travel (local transport vs private a/c coach)
- “Must See” places – destinations you want to include vs off the beaten track
- Other specific interests – food, hiking/wintersports, art, train travel.. etc.
Interested in responsible travel in Iran? Check out my tips for travelling responsibly in Iran here!
Iran is a huge country. It sounds obvious but this is something I underestimated when starting research for my trip. Two weeks in Iran (which is what I had) is barely enough to scratch the surface and visit the main cities along with some more off-beat places mixed in.
Iran is also not particularly cheap compared to some other Middle Eastern or Central Asian countries. A mid range hotel room will easily go for 100 USD per night, and hotels in Esfahan in peak season get booked up far in advance (a tour / travel agent comes in very handy here).
I chose to travel with G Adventures for my trip due to a couple of deciding factors. Firstly, they use some local transport on their trips (something that’s a bit of an obsession for me), and secondly, they have a global commitment to sustainable tourism. Something that was not easy to find in Iran where the tourism infrastructure is relatively un-developed.
During my research I found some Iranian operators that offered more budget trips (travelling entirely on public transport), desert experiences, and others that even offered tours of Iran by private train if that’s more your thing, but communication was not straight forward like it was with G Adventures.
Private guides and drivers are also available through travel agencies, and are likely to cost significantly more than a group tour which allows individuals to join.
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So does this mean I’m going to be “followed” around / have no time to explore by myself?
I had visions of not being able to leave my hotel room without my tour guide, or my guide being required to inform on any suspicious activity I might engage in (blog posts?!).
I didn’t experience anything of the sort.
On my G Adventures trip we had plenty of free time, and as a Brit I was treated no differently than the other group members of different nationalities. On landing in Tehran I haggled my way through the taxi line and made my own way into the city.
Throughout the trip I wandered freely, rode the Tehran metro alone, and when asked where I was from and said British, I was never once asked where my guide was. On telling people where I was from I was never once met with hostility or suspicion, only curiosity, friendliness or mild indifference. There were no Americans in our group, but my Canadian group mate’s experience was similar.
Policemen even came up to us and told us they would love to have a photo with us but couldn’t due to the rules!
In addition to your organised tour of Iran, you can stay one extra day either side of your organised/guided trip individually. For additional extra days you need to organise a guide.
There’s one exception to the above for Americans – who at time of writing (July 2017) were required to have a pre-booked airport transfer via their travel agent. Let’s call it the red carpet treatment!
Female Travel in Iran.
Though I did not travel as a solo female traveller to Iran, I did on occasions make a point of walking around by myself to get an idea of what it might feel like. My feeling of Iran was safe and I did not feel threatened or harassed – although of course you are likely to draw a bit of curiosity / attention. If able to return independently, I would feel comfortable travelling as a solo woman.
In cities like Tehran, Esfahan and Shiraz it seemed the norm for women to be out in the evening enjoying dinner and meeting friends. In smaller cities I would avoid going out alone after dark to avoid sending out the wrong message. There are also marked differences in how women dress between these cities and more religious areas – smaller towns and the religious cities of Yazd, Mashhad. As a solo female it is better to dress more conservatively especially outside the main metropolitan areas. See more on what to wear below!
For the full picture on what it is like to travel in Iran as a woman, check out Lost with Purpose’s Female Travel to Iran post here!
What Should I wear?!
This is an important one, especially for the ladies. Hejab – modest islamic dress – is mandatory in Iran, including for foreign visitors. Ladies, it means you’ll need to cover your hair at all times (except inside your hotel room), and wear loose fitting long tops that cover your derrière. You’ll also need to make sure you cover your legs down to your ankles and arms down to at least over your elbows. Flip flops / sandals are fine as feet do not need to be covered. Guys: just make sure you wear long trousers, shorts are not allowed. Regular short sleeved T-shirts are fine for men, no need for long sleeves.
You’ll be expected to be wearing the appropriate clothing and cover your hair from the moment your plane lands in Iran. So don’t try to enter Iran without your hair covered ladies!
Sound a bit confusing? For more on what to wear for travel to Iran check out Travel Geekery’s post on what to wear for travel in Iran here!
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I want to go to Iran!! What next?!
Great! You’ll have an amazing time and wonder what all the fuss was about.
The first step is to book a tour or guide through a travel agent. At 90 days out prior to departure of your trip they will need to submit an application (with input from you) for your Letter of Invitation from the Ministry of Tourism in Iran. No Letter of Invitation = No Visa.
American, British and Canadian passport holders are NOT eligible for Visa on Arrival in Iran.
You’ll need to provide standard information plus the itinerary of your trip which your travel agent will provide, plus you’ll need to send a copy of your CV / resume in. Needless to say, it’s best to avoid mentions of military service, journalism / media, or other job titles that might make you sound suspicious. Another deal breaker is Israeli stamps in your passport. Updated 2018: you now need to provide a cover letter with your CV. It should contain details of:
– Your education and employment, and if you have had any change in location (countries only).
– Marriage / Divorce & name of spouse / ex spouse.
– Children (if any) and their names.
– Other citizenships (if a citizen of more than one country).
– Any social media IDs.
– If you are retired, please also include your date of retirement.
Once you have your Letter of Invitation you need to mail or bring it to the Iranian Embassy in London (UK), or the Embassy of Pakistan in Washington DC who handle Iranian Consular affairs in the US and also for Canada (no Iran Embassy in the US for obvious reasons…). If you live in another country but hold a passport of one of these 3 countries, you will likely be able to get your visa processed by the Iranian Embassy of the country you are resident in.
Next get yourself an Iran travel guide (I use and recommend Lonely Planet) – and let the countdown begin!
Happy travels and enjoy the wonderful country that is Iran!