The topic of Iran and the USA is a complex and often misunderstood subject.
The western media paints the country of Iran as a pariah state and since the 1979 Iranian revolution diplomatic relations between the USA and Iran have been frosty at the best of times.
Despite the decades-long complications and tensions with western governments, Iran remains one of the most fascinating countries to visit as a tourist.
So here is the big question: can Americans travel to Iran and if so, is it even safe to do so? The short answer is yes!
The latest post from our blog breaks down how to visit Iran as an American, the visa situation for Americans and other nationalities, and what the REAL vibe of traveling as an American in Iran feels like.
It should be noted that I am from the USA and I just got back from traveling to Iran with other Americans.
Why Visit (the Truth About Iran)?
What do you get when you take a country with the legacy of one of the oldest (and most powerful) civilizations in history, incredible culinary traditions, amazing architecture, and some of the friendliest local people on the planet? A world-class tourism destination. That’s what.
However, Iran is not on the radar of most tourists because of the reputation of its government and fears about traveler safety. Mass foreign tourism is not a thing in Iran… yet. Personally, I found it such a joy to be exploring this wonderful country without seeing many (in some places zero) tourists.
Most if not all of the local people I met on the street are very happy to see Americans and other nationalities visiting their country and the majority also seriously disagree with the direction and policies of their government.
Iran is an absolute gem of a country on so many levels and the potential for tourism here is boundless. It is only a matter of time before tourism explodes here – and for the time being, it remains the most un-touched-by-tourism country I have been to.
The reality is that the average Iranian person you meet is STOKED to meet and talk with Americans. When you have this experience over and over again – all the stuff you might read in the media about Iran kind of just goes out the window.
Legal Situation in Iran for American Tourists
I have been asked many times “Can Americans travel to Iran? I thought it was not allowed by the US government.” This question might be in the heads of most Americans considering travel to Iran. So let me clarify.
The official line of the US State Department is AVOID ALL TRAVEL to Iran. That said, traveling to Iran as an American is perfectly legal. Technically, Americans can’t travel to neighboring Cuba (even though that is totally possible too) – but Iran travel for US citizens is not prohibited by the US government and vice versa for the Iranian government: Americans can legally travel to Iran.
For Americans and a few other select nationalities though, there are certain rules one must follow upon arrival in Iran.
Complete independent/solo travel in Iran is not possible for citizens of the USA, UK, and Canada. The rule is that these nationalities must have a government-licensed guide with them when traveling here at all times. Depending on where you are in the country – this rule is either strict or pretty relaxed.
As an example, in Isfahan, it was possible for various groups of Americans (and me on my own) to wander about the bazaar, main square, and pretty much go where we wanted on our own. The guide was in the hotel and we had the freedom to move about without her there all the time. Tehran is a bit more strict and our guide went with us pretty much everywhere.
It should also be noted that no police or authorities asked any of us about our nationality during the 2+ weeks we were there – so it would just be by chance if you were stopped walking about alone without a guide and asked your nationality. That does not really happen.
Visa Process – The First Steps
The visa process for the citizens of the USA, UK, and Canada can also seem tricky – but the main thing is that it just takes time. If you plan on visiting Iran as an American last minute, think again!
The first step is finding a tour operator (like Epic Backpacker Tours) that can do the application and visa submission in Iran for you and obtain a Visa Grant Letter from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). The above-mentioned nationalities can not do the visa application on their own without the aid of a tour operator.
Tour operators require the following to submit your visa application:
- A short visa application document filled in with your details, planned travel dates, etc
- A passport copy
- A detailed job resume/CV
- A passport photo
- Possibly links to your social media profiles/website (if you have one).
Once the tour operator submits your application, it then takes about a month to receive the visa approval letter.
NOTE: If you have been to Israel and have an Israeli stamp in your passport dated from the last 2 years, I would get a new passport before applying. Otherwise, you could be denied.
Collecting the Visa
The final step is either physically going to an Iranian Embassy anywhere in the world to pick up the actual visa or mailing your passport to an Iran Embassy for the same purpose if you are unable to go in person. Then you are all set!
Two important things to note:
1. Getting a visa extension to stay in Iran is not possible for Americans.
2. The exact Iranian Embassy you indicate on your application of where you want to collect your visa can’t be modified either – so think carefully about your EXACT travel dates and where you want to collect the visa before you submit it!
Solo Travel vs Group Travel
Exploring Iran as a solo traveler might be the way you prefer to see the country, but traveling to Iran as an American means you need to join a group tour or find a company that can organize a custom tour in which you will need to have the Iranian guide with you at all times – which can be a lot more expensive than joining a group tour as you pay for the guide, their accommodation, their food, transport, etc on a per-day basis. The cost of traveling to Iran as an American with just you and one Iranian guide can be around $150+ a day when you factor in activities, transport, food, etc.
Are their specific Iran tours for Americans? As far as I know, very few American companies apart from Epic Backpacker Tours are running tours to Iran for Americans. But our tours are not just for Americans though! On our last trip, we had 8 different nationalities – the majority were, however, American.
If you want to learn more about our Iran Tours for Americans (and everyone else) check out our Ultimate Iran Adventure Tour page.
Overall Safety: Is Iran Safe for American Tourists?
Possibly the biggest question on the minds of most potential travelers (and the mothers of potential travelers): is Iran safe for American tourists?
In our experience in Iran traveling with Americans, we encountered no safety or security issues and had basically no interactions with police or uptight military people. In Pakistan as an example, there are police checkpoints everywhere and sometimes police are required to travel with foreigners as an escort in some areas. We found none of this in Iran.
Some areas, like the southern border with Pakistan (Baluchistan), might be a little sketchier for any tourist – but the majority of people visiting Iran don’t go there.
The main thing when traveling as an American in Iran is to follow the rules and behave yourself. By doing so, you should have no reason to fear for your safety. I felt 100x safer traveling in Iran than I have felt (and experienced) traveling in South America in the past. Things like armed robbery or assault against foreigners are basically unheard of in Iran – and in South America, it happens every day (and happened to me 3 different times in Ecuador and Peru).
Additional Tips for Traveling to Iran as an American
Iran is a fascinating country to be explored and should be at the top of the list for any serious traveler.
Because of paperwork and silly rules and whatnot it is not the easiest place to get to – but once you go through the steps to get the visa and plan a trip here – the rewards of visiting Iran are pure magic.
Here are a few more helpful tips for Americans traveling to Iran:
- Leave your drone at home – seriously don’t even bring it into the country
- Carry plenty of cash to exchange (USD is fine). Your bank card will not work here.
- Give yourself plenty of time to get the visa. Apply for your visa 3 months before you plan to visit.
- Don’t take any photos of police or military facilities.
- Ladies – bring a headscarf as all women must have their heads covered by law when out in public.
- Bring copies of your documents.
- Come to Iran with an open mind! Leave everything you have heard in the media about Iran at home!
And again: If you want to learn more about our Iran Tours for Americans (and everyone else) check out our Ultimate Iran Adventure Tour page.