Backpacking in Iran without a tour is becoming more and more popular and although many travellers are put off by the media portrayal of this country it’s actually incredibly safe and easy to travel Iran independently.
Unfortunately, if you have a UK, US or Canadian passport you still need to travel with an organised tour but many other nationalities can get a visa on arrival and stay for up to 30 days as well as extending their visa further (up to 90 days total).
There isn’t a lot of information about backpacking Iran online and guidebooks (even the most recent editions) were outdated, so we weren’t nearly as prepared as we usually are for a new country. But we had a great time and learnt a lot along the way. Independent travel in Iran is the best way to see the country and it’s very affordable compared with the overpriced tours offered by many foreign agencies who cash in on people’s safety concerns.
We travelled Iran independently for 30 days in November- December. Read on for all the tips and information we learnt while backpacking in Iran.
Visa for Iran
Getting a visa on arrival in Iran is very easy. You don’t need to do anything beforehand except book some accommodation or find a host and purchase some travel insurance. Then just turn up at the airport!
To get a visa on arrival in Iran you need:
-An address and contact number for your first night’s accommodation (they will call and check).
- Proof of travel insurance that’s valid in Iran*. It must clearly state Iran on it, your insurance company can send you this on request. We emailed our insurance company and had a copy within 12 hours.
-The fee in EUR or USD (€75 for most countries, €150 for Kiwis and Aussies)
*You can also purchase insurance at the airport for €15.
Accommodation in Iran
Accommodation in Iran is very expensive relative to other costs such as food and transport. After hearing so many great stories, we decided to Couchsurf during most of our stay and had the most fantastic time staying with locals. You can read our detailed article about our Couchsurfing experience here (coming soon). We thoroughly recommend you spend at least some of your trip staying with locals, the Persian hospitality can’t be beaten and it’s a great way to see more of the real Iran.
There are hostels in Iran in most of the major cities and tourist locations. Many can be booked online but you need to pay when you arrive due to the credit card restrictions. Here are our top recommendations:
Tehran: See You in Iran Hostel
Kashan: Sana Historical Hostel
Yazd: Yazd Rest-up Hostel – We can’t recommend this place enough. It’s worth going to Yazd just to stay here. Amazing hosts, stunning rooftop views and delicious breakfast!
Qeshm: Assad’s Homestay Bandar-e-Doulab
Hotels can be booked online but are very expensive. You can also turn up in most places and people will guide you to the nearest hotel, hostel or guesthouse. That’s if they don’t invite you to stay at their house first!
Creating a public trip on Couchsurfing also results in a lot of homestay and tour guide offers.
Useful Apps for Travel in Iran
The Iranian version of Uber, great for cheap taxi trips in big cities.
The standard communication app in Iran. Useful if you need to contact local hosts or friends.
A free app which makes your phone or tablet think you are accessing the internet from another country so you can use websites that are blocked in Iran. Don't worry about using one, everybody does.
You'll need a VPN to use this app in Iran but it's definitely worth having if you want to meet some
Transport in Iran – Between cities
Budget travellers, you’re in luck! Getting around Iran by public transport is cheap, safe and easy.
Buses in Iran
The bus system in Iran is very comprehensive. Most tickets can be booked online but only with an Iranian credit card. Our hosts often booked our buses for us and we paid them back. But otherwise we just turned up at the station an hour before. If it’s peak season and you need to get one specific bus it might pay to turn up a day or two in advance to get a ticket.
The tickets are printed in Farsi but people will help you find the right place. You are given a designated seat but often people will be moved around to ensure women don’t sit next to unrelated men.
The buses are very comfortable, especially the VIP buses and often provide snacks and drinks. An overnight bus costs around €10 and a shorter journey anywhere from €2. The buses don’t have toilets but stop at regular intervals.
Trains in Iran
There is a rail network in Iran but we were told it’s not as reliable or easy as the bus network. Although we heard good reports of the overnight trains and these can be a great option for long distance travel if you’re stretched for time. Again, it helps if you can find someone to book online as the sleeper trains often sell out in advance.
Domestic Flights in Iran
Almost every town in Iran has an airport and there are hundreds of domestic flights every day for really affordable prices. This is a great option for saving time if you’re going to places like Tabriz or Mashhad or for getting back to Tehran at the end of your trip.
It’s difficult to book domestic flights outside of the country and without access to an Iranian credit card you’ll need to book flights through one of the many travel agents.
There are often shared taxis between cities and any local can help you find these and tell you the cost. We found it comparable to bus prices but more flexible with timing. If you’re a group of 4 you can also hire a whole car and it works out to be very affordable. Talk to your accommodation to make arrangements.
We met several hitchhikers in Iran and although it’s not a well-known concept they had had no issues. We hadn't hitchhiked since our adventure from Scotland to Frankfurt so we decided to try hitchhiking around Qeshm over two days and found it easy, safe and fun. Make sure you have a map that works offline, your destination written in Farsi and a few Farsi phrases. Many people will assume you want a taxi so be clear that you don’t want to pay.
Transport in Iran – Within cities
Most large cities in Iran (Tehran, Esfahan, Shiraz, Mashhad) run a good public transport system. The metro in Tehran is easy to use and costs around 20c per ride. The bus systems in the cities cover most places but can be difficult to figure out if you don’t speak Farsi. If you want to take the bus the locals will be very helpful in pointing you in the right direction.
To use the public transport systems you’ll need a card. This can be purchased from metro stations and some bus stations. It comes preloaded for several trips and costs 50,000 IRR. So if you’re only using it once it may not be worth it.
Taxis and Snapp
Taxis are mostly very affordable but make sure you agree on a rate before you get in. We found that many taxi drivers agreed to take us and then spent half and hour driving around asking for directions so it helps if you have an offline map to show them the route.
Snapp is the Iranian equivalent of Uber. You’ll need an Iranian sim card to use it outside of WiFi areas. There is an English option but the map isn’t translated but if you know where you want to go it’s very simple to use. Once you put in your location and destination it will give you the price and the number plate of the driver. Once you arrive at your destination you pay the driver in cash. The prices are about half of the taxi prices and there’s no confusion about where you want to go. You can download the Snapp app here.
Food in Iran
Eating out in Iran is very affordable. You’ll find lots of cheap kebab and falafel places in the streets where you can get a meal for around €2. Many good local restaurants aren’t easily visible so sometimes it pays to ask some people if they know a place. In the more touristy places (Esfahan, Shiraz, Yazd) the restaurants have signs and English menus, a meal costs around €4-8.
Bear in mind that Iranians often eat late and the cities will come alive after dark making it much easier to find the restaurants. If you stay with local people they will most likely cook for you or take you out to some good local restaurants.
Tap Water in Iran
We drank the tap water in most parts of the country and had no issues. In areas where we weren't sure about the water quality we used our steripen (UV water steriliser). We always made sure to carry our reusable water bottle to avoid plastic waste.
Money in Iran
Iran’s banking system is completely closed meaning you will need to bring all you spending money in cash. To us, this seemed to scream dangerous as every traveller must be walking around with stacks of cash and everyone knows! But we had no problems with security during our time in Iran and were actually pleasantly surprised by the exchange system.
The official exchange rate shown online is not the actual rate in the country and as a tourist this works in your favour. You will get more IRR than the official online rate and the rates are the same everywhere so there’s no need to shop around to find the best place. Inflation on the rial is crazy and even within the month we were there the exchange rate to the euro increased by about 5%.
People will also talk about toman instead of rial. Basically a toman is 10 rial so 10,000 rial would be 1,000 toman. If anything it just confuses the matter further but toman is used more regularly. It always pays to check before you purchase or book anything although it’s usally logical which one they’re using.
Budget for Iran
So if you’re bringing all your cash with you how much do you need to travel in Iran? The biggest decider of this will be your accommodation. If you plan to stay in hostels/ guesthouses and go into a range of the attractions then expect to spend around €30-50 per person per day.
If you couchsurf and are selective about your attractions, eat locally and take public transport or even hitchhike it can be very cheap. We met people getting by on €5 per person per day.
We spent an average of €16 per person per day and travelled quite comfortably but did a lot of couchsurfing. We also splashed out on coffee in epic cafes like this one...
Using the Internet in Iran
The internet in Iran isn’t brilliant. Most hotels and hostels will have wifi but it is often unreliable or slow. It’s also quite expensive so we offered to contribute towards costs when we stayed in people’s homes if we were using it often.
Many sites are blocked in Iran including Facebook, Youtube and Couchsurfing. Most people use a VPN to get around this. TurboVPN is a great free option for phones and tablets. We paid for ExpressVPN for our computer just to be safe but in all honesty I think a free one is fine.
What to wear in Iran
People have written entire articles on what you can and can’t wear in Iran and there is a lot of uncertainty about what is illegal. But I found it to be a lot more relaxed than I imagined and tourists are given a bit of extra leeway.
For women- You’ll need to wear a hijab (head scarf) at least loosely covering the top of your head at all times when outside. Colour doesn’t matter. You should also have your bum covered but leggings and skinny jeans are totally fine. You may be asked to wear a chador in some mosques but this will be provided.
Instead of going out and finding things especially just make sure you have one or two versatile items like these tunic tops and then hit the shops when you arrive. I bought a long cardigan so I could wear my normal clothes and then throw this on over top. Everything on sale is appropriate and some of it amazingly fashionable. You’ll be spoilt for choice!
For men – Long trousers are recommended but anything else goes.
Other tips for backpacking in Iran:
- Learn the Farsi numbers as this will help reading prices, bus timetables etc. If you want to take it a step further you can get the Lonely Planet Farsi Phrasebook and get chatting!
- Get an Iranian sim card. Really useful considering the internet is often poor. It's also useful for taxi apps and contacting your accommodation. Doing it at the airport on arrival is easiest but there are also plenty of shops that will sell you one, just ask around.
- Be prepared for conversation. Locals will walk up to you and talk to you everywhere you go. Don't worry, they're just being friendly and curious. Many of them have very good English!
- Bring a towel, this is considered a personal item in Iran and many places don't offer them.
- Make sure you get to the islands, these were one of our highlight in Iran. You can check out our guides here:
Guide to Qeshm (coming soon)
Now you know everything you to backpack through Iran. Have read of our itinerary suggestions.
Have other questions about independent travel in Iran? Ask away in the comments!