In the beginning of 2015 we made our first attempt to get to the country. We gave up after having faced quite complicated visa application procedure via one of the local travel agencies and after having realized about the problems concerning payments to Iran.
Few months ago we decided to try again and we managed this time. The key to our success was to find a reliable local tour operator who would help us in visa arrangements and bookings (www.triptopersia.com). TripAdvisor and its Forum were very helpful. Our main driver to go to Iran was to visit the grave of one of my relatives who was one of the several hundred thousands of the Polish refugees from the Soviet Union on their way to the West in the 1940s.
Visa to Iran. Money exchange at Tehran airport
In general there are two ways to obtain visas to Iran (except of British and American citizens who need to have their visa pre-stamped before boarding the plane). The first one which is not recommended by the official sources of information like foreign ministries or official travel portals is so called “visa on arrival” issued for 15 days and available to most of European nationalities. You simply take your passport and you apply at the visa counter at the airport. Several travelers’ reports available online confirm that the procedure gets complicated if the officials at the airport try to call hotels or tour operators to confirm your itinerary. However, I didn’t find any report stating that visa on arrival was refused.
The second option is to obtain visa authorization code with help of local travel agencies (cost of service is 35 euro). At the moment of application the applicant has to indicate the place of visa issuance being one of the Iranian embassies or airports. To note, I saw several reports of travelers who were trying to apply for visa directly at the embassy and they were send back to get their authorization code before arriving at the Iranian embassy.
As there is no Iranian embassy in our place of residence, we opted for visa collection at Tehran airport. The authorization codes have been issued smoothly within few days. Upon arrival we went to the visa counter at Khomeini airport in Tehran to collect the visas. There are just 2 counters available and the queue is common for those having the code and those traveling without the code. In order to get your visa you need to present the accident insurance which can be purchased at the airport at USD 15. We had the general insurance issued in our place of residence and it was accepted.
We received our visas after queuing for 2 hours and I would recommend all travelers who have access to the Iranian embassy in their place of residence to collect their visas there. Queuing at the airport is extremely frustrating i.e. some travelers are serviced quickly whereas others are sent aside to wait for visa decision and called suddenly back to the counter after some time. The officials disappear from the counter with the passport to return back after some time etc. etc.
Nevertheless, you have to pay 50 euro per person (on top of the service fee paid to the agency already) before the visa is issued, irrespectively of traveling with the code or without it.
Last but not least, before leaving the airport – money exchange is a must. Following the advices on TripAdvisor I decided to avoid the exchange point in the arrival hall and I found the one located in the departure hall (close to the escalator from the arrival level). The exchange rates were indeed better than downstairs, however still 10% lower than the market rates. However, they were able to change 50 euro only as they had not enough rials. Nevertheless it was more than sufficient to pay the official taxi fare to the city center of 600,000 rials (17 euro).
General tips and hints
For the first trip to Iran we did not want to spend weeks there. We were rather thinking about few days while limiting ourselves to major attractions in Tehran and Isfahan. Many reviews we were studying prior to our trip were actually discouraging the travelers from spending too much time in Tehran. Our experience is exactly the opposite one. It all depends on what one is looking for. If you want to taste the country, it’s diversity and its people – Tehran is the best place for it.
The experience we got with our tour operator Trip to Persia (www.triptopersia.com) is actually mixed. The contact during the booking phase was very good and processing of our visas went smoothly, the hotels were what they were expected to be, however, the guiding service by one of the guides (Isfahan, Abyaneh, Kashan) was poor. Our guide who was expected to drive us to Isfahan and to show us the city was for the first time in his life on such trip with the tourists. His guiding service was based on facts taken from Wikipedia. Moreover, he was trying to sell us additional tour packages without making us aware in advance. Based on our experience we truly recommend travelers to check the experience of the guide more carefully than we did as the poor guiding service adversely impacted some of our overall positive impressions from Iran.
Irrespectively of the poor experience with one of the guides, Iranian people are very friendly and open. Signs of sympathy are frequently shown in the streets by approaching for a small-talk or by helping to get to the place you want to find. All positive reviews available online about Iranian hospitality and friendliness of Iranian people are not exaggerated.
While on the trip we were meeting local people complaining about the situation in the country. Please be extremely careful when entering into such conversation. Just listen politely to the complaints and keep your mouth shut.
During the trip, we opted for hotels of the highest standard available in the country. They were both OK but nothing more. For more details please refer to my other posts.
The official currency of Iran is rial. 1 euro costed some 38,500 rials in February 2016. However, in order not to make it too easy for everyone, Iranians use two other virtual currencies when discussing the prices which are tomans (10 rials) and khomeinis (10,000 rials). For obvious reasons, tomans are used more frequently than khomeinis :-).
To sum up, Iran reminds me of my own home country at the end of 1980s with people being extremely positive and awaiting the change, the springtime felt in the air and the infrastructure and the service quality dating back to the deepest communism era.
Links to the places visited in Iran: