How to Visit Iran as an American
Despite the US government’s best efforts to make life difficult for Iranians, we found out that it is relatively easy to visit Iran as an American if you are willing to jump over a few minor bureaucratic hurdles. The effort is well worthwhile and Iran is full of pleasant surprises and has world-class historical sites as well as landscapes. Best of all, Iranians are enthusiastic to see Americans in their country and your interactions with them will certainly be the highlight of your trip. If you can manage two weeks of vacation, go! We have outlined the steps to getting into Iran below. Apologies in advance for the great level of detail, but the most recent Lonely Planet is painfully dated and, especially for those who don’t speak Farsi (like us), it is better to have more information than less:
1) Register for a tour of Iran. Americans need to be registered with a tour to go to Iran. If you are adventurous enough to want to go to Iran, you will cringe at the thought of going on an organized tour. You don’t have a choice, so there is no reason to fight it. Here’s how you can make this work for you. First, arrange for a private tour – we did this at a 5% mark-up to the cost of a group tour without negotiating. Second, once you get there, inform your tour guide that you want your afternoons free. While you are supposed to be accompanied at all times by your tour guide, no one in Iran actually cares and police/military personnel never checked our passports or credentials – they were much more interested in meeting an American and saying hello. Third, arrange to have dinner or home-stays with Iranians. If you don’t know any Iranians, try www.couchsurfing.com and similar sites. Fourth, pay as little for the tour as possible; negotiate hard. Iran is very cheap compared to the United States. To give you a sense of the underlying costs when you are negotiating: A good hotel room will be $20 per night per person with breakfast included, lunch and dinner will be no more than $5 per person for each meal, domestic plane flights are $45 and long-haul bus rides are about $1 per hour of travel. Don’t let the tour agency take a spread on food, travel and lodging – isolate the cost of the tour itself and haggle this down. Make sure to get in writing exactly how much is budgeted for daily activities, lodging, travel and meals.
Note that you have to go with a tour agency that can host Americans. Not all tour agencies are equipped to do this, so you do need to search around. We used www.key2persia.com. It was OK; they did a good job with the logistics, but we can’t recommend their tour guides.
2) Once you pick your tour agency, get a reference number. What is a reference number? The Iranian government issues you a reference number once they decide that they want you in their country. You then use the reference number to pick up a visa. The tour agency will help you secure a reference number as part of the price of the tour. The reference number will be for use at a predetermined Iranian consulate or embassy that you designate in the reference number application form. In order to get a reference number, fill out the form that the tour agency gives you. Once the form has been submitted to the tour agency, you will have to wait about 40 days to get the reference number. We got our reference number after 30 days.
3) Once you have a reference number, you have to go to the Iranian embassy or consulate that you designated to get your physical visa for your passport. There are rumors and speculations on the internet regarding which reference number pick-up locations are most likely to yield a reference number/visa. We have heard that the Iranian consulate in Istanbul is very likely to give you a reference number/visa, so we arranged for it there on our way to Iran (note that arranging for a reference number in the US is supposed to be the most difficult).
We only have experience in getting a physical visa in Istanbul – so we can only speak to that experience. (One of us initially tried to get the visa in Madagascar and that proved totally impossible and the reference number had to be transferred to Istanbul last minute.) The Istanbul details are as follows:
The Iranian embassy in Istanbul is in Sultanahment on Ankara Caddesi. Go to where the guards are standing on Ankara Caddesi. The door is closed and there are two guards standing there, so it is an unlikely entrance, but this is it! Expect that one of the guards (in a suit) will pat you down. When you walk into the Iranian consulate, wait in line where there is a set of ropes in front of a counter. There are other counters in the consulate, but they are not for visas (all signs are in Farsi, so things won’t be obvious once you get there). Give the person at the window your reference number and passport. They will check your reference number and give you another visa application to fill out and a slip with the amount that you have to pay for the visa. For Americans, the visa is 65 Euros.
Fill out the visa application form. You will need to photocopy this application form along with your passport and have two passport photos ready for submission as well. There is a photocopy shop close to the consulate. To find the photocopy shop, make a right out of the consulate and walk a block up the street, there is one on the left side of the street.
You cannot pay for the visa in the consulate itself. You need to go to the Ziraat bank across the street from the consulate and pay there and bring the receipt of payment back to the consulate along with your visa application form and photocopies. The Ziraat bank operates like a DMV, where you have to pick a number from a machine depending on what service you want. Unless you speak Turkish, this is a hopeless enterprise. Instead, walk up to a teller and explain to them that you are trying to pay for an Iranian visa and show them your slip. They get hundreds of people like you a day; they will take care of you. You can pay in Dollars, Euros or Turkish Lira.
With your photocopies, pictures, forms and payment receipt, stand in line at the counter with the ropes again and submit these items with your passport. The standard wait time for a physical visa after you have submitted all of your materials is 2 business days (so if you submit on Monday, you can expect to get it back on Wednesday). They rushed it the same day for one of us, but this required a lot of pleading and some luck the day of.
The Iranian consulate opens at 8:30am and closes at 11:30am. It is open Monday through Friday (the Lonely Planet is wrong on this point – the consulate is not closed Fridays and open on Saturdays). The consulate sets out some baklava and other sweets at the main counter at about 10am everyday. We can only recommend that you help yourself before everyone else does!
4) With your visa in your passport, you can now board a flight into Iran (you can try going overland, but we were unable to find a tour agency that would pick us up at the border). On arrival in Imam Khomeini airport, there is a passport control area like in all other airports. Here, Americans are treated differently from other foreigners. After showing your passport to the officer behind the glass window, you will be shown aside to a desk to the left of the passport control area. An officer will give you a piece of paper for fingerprinting. The fingerprinting procedure is similar to those you might encounter in the US. Provide a print of your individual fingers from the right pinkie to the left pinkie, then provide a print of all your fingers together on the bottom of the page and another thumbprint at the bottom as well. After being fingerprinted, you will have to take a seat for about half an hour while someone comes down to pick up your fingerprints and takes them upstairs. After this time, they will come back and give you the OK to continue to the baggage claim area.
We go into so much detail because all the forms are in Farsi and the officers do not really speak English, so the whole process can be very confusing. Understand that the officers are just trying to fill out the necessary forms and are not trying to cause you trouble. If they doubt anything that you are saying, repeat it over and over again and they will relent. For example, when one of us was asked about our profession – he replied “investor”, which is what he had used for his visa application. This response was not understood by the officers and several intervened to figure out what was going on. He continued to talk about an example of what an investor does and just kept talking until they got bored and wrote something down on my fingerprint form. He used a similar technique for the address of the tour agency – he had written the address using the roman alphabet, which the officers could not read. So he read it over and over to them until they just wrote something down.
5) After getting the thumbs up to go to the baggage area from the man who takes your fingerprints, you will probably be the last one getting your baggage, so make sure to tell the tour agency to make the driver that will pick you up wait longer to account for this delay. When we arrived in the airport, our contact had left the airport!
6) Change money in the airport. Tehran is a big city and changing money is not easy. The rates offered at the airport are competitive for most international currencies and the offices are open 24/7. ATMs don’t work for foreigners in Iran, so make sure you have cash.
7) A last word on your arrival. Imam Khomeini Airport is about an hour drive from Tehran. If you have to catch a domestic connection, you will have to drive about 45 minutes to an airport that handles domestic connections.
If you have any questions feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Safe travels!