Even if you've used Couchsurfing before, couchsurfing in Iran is an experience unlike any other. We are big fans of Couchsurfing and have hosted and surfed many times. Our experiences in Iran really enhanced our love of this form of travel and showed us just how different our perceptions of a country can be once you immerse yourself with some locals.
The hospitality in Iran is second to none but it's also culturally quite different to the West. While this is all part of the experience, many travellers feel daunted by the idea of staying with strangers in a completely foreign and particularly volatile country. We really believe that everyone should try Couchsurfing at least once in their lives and Iran is the perfect place to start!
Is Couchsurfing legal in Iran?
This is a complicated situation. The actual act of staying with someone free of charge is allowed and welcoming guests into your home is a huge part of Persian culture and hospitality. But the Couchsurfing website was blocked in Iran in 2017. As a result, many Iranians removed their profiles but the network is still going strong and is a great way to meet open-minded locals.
How to use Couchsurfing in Iran
Firstly, you'll need a VPN to access the site. Don't be nervous about this, VPNs are widely used in Iran and thousands of Iranians actively use blocked sites.
If you don't already have a Couchsurfing account you'll need to set up a profile with some basic info about yourself. Make sure you add a photo so you look like an actual person but don't worry about not having any references, Iran is a great place to start your Couchsurfing career.
Search for the places you'll be staying and send requests to people who have some information in their profile or references from other travellers. We found that for smaller places we could request as late as a day before arrival but in more popular places e.g Shiraz we needed to send several requests.
Another option is to create a public trip for the cities you'll be travelling to. You are almost guaranteed to find a host this way but be prepared to be inundated with messages from people looking to meet to practice their English, tour guides, guesthouses and even people just wanting to say hello and welcome! You will also get invitations from people in other cities and towns. This whole process can be a bit annoying and difficult with limited internet but we found some of our best hosts through public trips.
What to expect with a Couchsurfing host in Iran
As with anywhere in the world, every host will be different. Here are some things you may want to prepare for when Couchsurfing in Iran.
Iran is an Islamic Republic and while not everyone is a practising Muslim, many people are. Couchsurfing hosts are no exception. There are several customs that hosts may or may not follow in their own home so it's important to ask observe first rather than risk offending people.
-No shoes in the house - Almost every household does this and provides plastic slippers for the shower and toilet.
-Eating on the floor - This is the traditional way to do it and most people still eat this way at home. Practice sitting cross-legged for longer periods!
-Wearing a headscarf - If you are a male some women will continue to wear their headscarf inside around you. Females, always ask before removing your headscarf in front of men.
-Shaking hands - Muslim men are not supposed to touch women who aren't related so if you're a female wait for the man to offer his hand and if he doesn't just greet with a wave!
-Prayer times - Your host might pray but they will often have a private space to do this.
Mats on the floor
Traditional Persian custom is to sleep on a mat and while many people have a bed for themselves they only have mats for visitors. We found it perfectly comfortable but were a little surprised when we first arrived. Sheets and towels are often not given to guests either so it's a good idea to bring a small sleeping bag liner like this one and a travel towel to use during your trip.
If you've travelled in Asia you'll be a pro at using these but otherwise just be prepared that there may not be a Western toilet at your host's place. I'll let you google your own photo of this one!
There are not many tourists in Iran and having some stay at your house can be quite a novelty. Expect to be invited to family events, friends' houses or to meet the neighbours. People will no doubt want to take selfies with you and talk to you about anything and everything. Be prepared to feel like a total celebrity during your stay.
Your hosts will be tour guides, chefs and encyclopedias
All of our hosts were absolutely wonderful and so generous. Many of them took time off work or made time to take us places, cook for us and talk to us about Iran and our home countries. The hospitality was incredible but if you like your own space, to make your own plans or don't feel like socialising all the time then maybe intersperse your couchsurfing with some stays in hotels or hostels to have some time out.
Taroof is a complicated system that you'll definitely come across if you stay with locals in Iran. It's basically a dance of offering and declining, regardless of what you actually want, until somebody gives in. It's a form of politeness and as far as we can tell there's no way of telling whether the person is genuinely making an offer or just doing taroof. It can make exchanges very confusing but many hosts will explain it to you and have a policy of 'no taroof' .Read more about it here.
Other tips for Couchsuring in Iran
Bring some gifts - Although your hosts won't expect presents it's a nice gesture to bring something small from your own country. Iranians are so curious about other countries so even a postcard or some sweets will be greatly appreciated. We didn't bring enough for all our hosts and wished we had brought more to thank people for the amazing hostpitality and show them a little bit of our homes.
Download Telegram - This is like Whats App and is widely used for messaging in Iran. It's handy to have it on your phone so you can communicate with hosts before, during and after your stay.
Be careful with political and religious discussions - Many Iranians are very open and interested in political discussions. As with any country, there are a variety of opinions on the current political situation. While it's not taboo to discuss these things they should be approached with care and respect. We had some very interesting discussions with our hosts and they wanted to know a lot about politics in our own countries. But not everyone was comfortable discussing these things. Try not to bring up these discussions in public places unless you know your host is comfortable with it.
Get tips for further travels - Our hosts shared so much travel knowledge with us about their country. Because it is difficult for Iranians to travel overseas they often travel with Iran and have lots of tips and advice to offer. Make sure you ask them about the places you're heading to next!
Staying with locals in Iran is definitely a one of a kind experience that everyone should have on their trip to Iran. If you're looking for more must-do things in Iran check out our favourite things to do in Iran.
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