Paperwork

Officially, the US does not have diplomatic relations with Iran (though this may change in the wake of Sept. 11th). That means, if you are a US national or a foreign national working for a US company that is sending you there on business, you’ll have to arrange with the Interests Section of the Islamic Republic of Iran via the Embassy of Pakistan in DC for your visa. You’ll find that here.

FYI: There is no US Embassy in Iran, so the Embassy of Switzerland serves “as the protecting power of U.S. interests in Iran.”

Getting your visa is not an easy task, especially for the independent solo traveler. You need a pretty good reason to travel to Iran (like being part of a scrappy doco crew). As far as holiday making, there are a lot of travel companies that sponsor group package tours and will handle the visa wrangling process for you. While you may gag at the thought of matching hats and name tags, you stand a better chance of getting to Persepolis by going this route than if you apply for a tourist visa on your own.

Aside from answering the standard visa application questions, when submitting your recent passport-sized photo, all female applicants above age 9 are asked to respect the Islamic dress code, meaning: be prepared to don a head scarf. One of our female crewmembers submitted a photo of herself wearing a bandanna. This is the Hejab equivalent of a g-string. After a frantic Photoshop session, we submitted a more modest portrait affording full hair coverage. It’s always best to err on the side of modesty when prepping for your passport photo shoot.

If you are granted a visa, be prepared to receive it on the very day you are due to depart for your trip — this happened to our executive producer.

Getting There

You can arrive by sea, by rail or by road… all depends where you’re coming from, how much time you’ve got and how intrepid you’re feeling.

By Air

Fly in from London or other points by Iran Air — it’s a good intro to the culture — scarves required and no cocktails. On our flight in from London, the food was good and service was excellent. Almost everyone on board seemed to be Iranian — lots of families and children — and the atmosphere was rather festive. Scarves stayed on throughout. Leaving, passengers were also mostly Iranians. But after we’d been underway for a while, about half the women in the plane took their scarves off.

Most international flights are to Tehran, but international flights also land in Mashhad, Esfahan, Dhiraz, Tabriz, Bandar Abbas, Ahwaz and Zahedan. As with most destinations, plane fares can vary drastically depending on when you book.

Getting Around

Rail

For train info and schedules, visit Iranian Railways.

Auto

Roads are excellent. Boulevards in Tehran, Shiraz and Esfahan are wide and beautiful in some places. The most common car is the Iranian-made Paykan — think Toyota Corolla. But you’ll find Mercedes and SUVs, too. Because of the recent population boom, cities — and their streets — are seriously crowded.

For drivers, right-of-way seems determined by who gets into the empty space first. Get your nose in there and force your way through. This goes for left hand turns into oncoming traffic.

Cabs are plentiful and cheap (gas is subsidized). To catch one, find an impromptu cab stand, i.e., a bunch of people crowded on the sidewalk at an intersection. Yell out your destination to passing cabs, and if they’re going your way, they’ll stop and you can jam in.

These days, lots of regular folks have become de facto cabbies, collecting riders as they make their way to work. (Cabs are also robust political forums…unless you’re a mullah, in which case you might not be picked up for a ride, much less invited to join the discussion.)

Air

Flying within Iran is easy and cheap — none of our tickets cost more than $30USD. You have to buy your tix from a travel agency… no e-tickets or phone purchases. And keep in mind that flights get booked up during some times of year (No Ruz—New Year—festival time in the spring; the tourist season in June and July), so try to book ahead. Planes are comfortable and the service is good. Men and women go through separate checkpoints and chances are, you’ll be patted down by security.

Domestic carriers:
Iran Air

Other Tips

When you’re walking, cross busy streets in a crowd. Pedestrians gather on the curb and then venture into the street when the pack’s big enough to damage oncoming cars.

Money

Usually, when packing for a trip, one considers the weather and the availability of tampons. Packing for Iran presents its own quandaries… in the form of sanctions. There have been several Executive Orders signed since 1987 that prohibit any trade and investment activities between the US and Iran. Basically that means if you’re coming from the US, you’ll need a lot of cash — your credit cards are no good here (and forget about finding an ATM).

You might want to bring lots of cash. As of April 2000, the US expanded the list of acceptable purchases. Now, you can bring back:

  • Gifts valued at $100 or less
  • Information or informational materials (like books & magazines, film, posters, and CDs).
  • Nuts, dried fruits & caviar
  • Carpets

Expect to have your luggage searched and your “informational materials” scrutinized when you leave Iran and forget about bringing back a barrel of light sweet crude, as US persons are forbidden to trade in Iranian oil or petroleum products.

Complete information about what you can and cannot bring in and out of Iran is available from the US Department of the Treasury in a helpful fact sheet entitled “What You Need To Know About U.S. Economic Sanctions.”

For more arcane info about US relations with Iran, check out the US Department of State’s web site.

In the Name of God!!

  • It is the Islamic Republic of Iran after all, so be prepared to find God in the most secular of places, starting with visa application form #101. No, it’s not blasphemy, just a reflection of Iran’s conservative Islamic government (who wish not to be confused with those fundamentalist Taliban folks next door). While navigating the bureaucratic hurdles to get our visas and film permits, we discovered that anything vaguely official, from notices on government web sites to recorded voice messages, first invoke the Almighty.
  • Ladies, whenever you’re out in public, you’ll need to wear some version of hejab (a.k.a. “the veil") ranging from full chador (all black from head to toe) to “bad-hejab” (slipping head scarf, sandals, short coat).
  • Expect a friendly reception wherever you go. Iranians are generally ultra hospitable.
  • Be careful who and where you photograph, or you could make the acquaintance of some less-than-friendly Iranians. Best not to photograph government security facilities, and, when you’re snapping shots of people, it’s always good to ask first.
  • Sexual etiquette…men and women are seated separately in buses, but jammed together in cabs. You are not supposed to hold hands in public — but you can get a license to be married for a weekend. Whatever.

Iran: the 411
Getting There
Iran Air Official airline of Iran
Getting Around
Iranian Railways Iran's rail system.
Staying Informed
Zan Website for and about Iranian women around the world
Gooya Links to English & Farsi news sources
Salam Iran News, events, travel info
NetIran A wealth of news & info
Bad Jens Online Iranian feminist magazine — not recently updated, but brimming with articles like "Performance in Everyday Life and the Rediscovery of the "Self" in Iranian Weblogs" and links to other Iranian feminist sites.
Tehran Avenue A online magazine of Tehran arts & culture in English & Farsi.
Getting Involved
Global Exchange A human rights organization dedicated to promoting environmental, political, and social justice around the world. They offer "reality tours" to teach participants about the history and current state of the country. Destinations include Cuba, Iran & more.

Trip Guide: Iran

a few travel tips

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