Update – January 2020: The Canadian government has a travel advisory for Iran. Obviously, there is a lot of tension in the region right now and you might want to consider that during your planning. This is especially true for dual Iran/Canadian citizens. If you are an Iranian “dual” citizen, understand that Iran does not recognize dual citizenship and will consider you a citizen of Iran only. The same holds true for Iranians who hold U.S. citizenship.
Because of the tensions in the region, and because we’re not experts on Iran, we don’t feel comfortable advising you on whether or not you should visit. This post is for informational purposes only.
Iran is a country full of beautiful things. Architecture, deserts, snow-capped mountains, amazing mosques, ancient Persepolis, and so much more. Iran is not exactly a country that’s on a lot of tourists’ radars. But it’s got a lot going for it. Naturally, the question that comes to mind is, “Is Iran safe for tourists?”
I was going to try to be funny. The idea was to just type “YES!” and let the post stand on its own. Because really, it’s true.
Certainly, Iran has a lot of problems. The government, for example, is very hostile to the West. The Iranian government is an authoritarian, theocratic regime that has committed its share of grave human rights abuses. Get on the bad side of the Iranian government and you’re likely to experience trouble in Iran.
But for people using common sense when they travel, Iran is a very safe country and you generally don’t need to worry about your safety when you are there. In fact, the hardest part for me was the pre-trip planning and getting a visa!
But like everything else, the answer is a little more complicated. Let’s start with your pre-trip mindset.
Table of Contents
Planning a trip to Iran
When I first started planning this trip, it was hard to break out of the thinking that Iran is dangerous. We never hear about the beauty in Iran. We have a saying when it comes to news: If it bleeds, it leads. The dark side of Iran is what gets in the news. That’s what gets television ratings.
How would I – a Canadian citizen who lives in America – travel in Iran safely? I worried about a lot of things.
- What if someone who read our About Us page figured out I am gay?
- What if something in my backpack wasn’t legal in Iran?
- Does your guide watch you the entire time you’re in Iran?
- What if an overzealous police officer stopped me for some reason?
- What about the mythical “morality police” in Iran?
Everything was “What if? What about? What if?”
And the truth is, none of that was an issue. After all, I wasn’t wearing rainbow clothing or making out with random guys in the streets, so I didn’t have to worry about being gay there.
Safety in Iran comes down to using your common sense. I packed what I normally pack. No one searched my bags looking for anything. Everything I brought was still there when I opened my pack – including my prescriptions.
As far as I know, no one cared about anything I wrote on social media.
No one “watched” me while I was there, including my guide. I didn’t have anything but positive interactions with police officers (who were always helpful when I asked for directions).
Apprehension about a trip to Iran is normal, given the political atmosphere we live in. It’s completely normal to wonder if Iran is safe for tourists.
But I never felt anything but happy and welcomed.
The biggest rule I worried about there was where I could and could not take pictures.
Is Iran safer when you’re white?
As a not-unimportant side note, a few Iranians have told me that I should also be cognizant of the fact that I am white, middle-class, and male.
Were I not, I may have been treated differently.
While I can’t speak to that, I am very well aware of the inherent privilege of being who I am. I believe it would be worth reading about the experiences of people from other cultures who’ve visited Iran for their perspective.
Iran is a theocracy
Iran is a theocracy. And whether Iranians want to admit it or not, it is a dictatorship based on a strict interpretation of Islamic law. They have “elections,” but only for candidates who are pre-selected or screened by the Supreme Leader.
Getting caught breaking the law here can result in serious consequences that are far harsher than in the west.
But most importantly to me and hopefully to you, is that it in no way “feels” like that. I remarked to my guide that, except for the Farsi on the signs (and the awful traffic!), some of the neighborhoods in Tehran look like neighborhoods in American cities.
The rules you set for yourself determine how safe you will be in Iran. It’s the same everywhere.
Do you cavalierly do things without thinking? Then you should definitely worry about that.
Do you think smuggling in a small bottle of scotch is a good idea because you just can’t go a couple of weeks without a drink?
You’re taking a huge chance.
But if you’re traveler who normally respects the people and cultures you visit, and who is coming to Iran to see the sights, interact with the people, and come home with great photos and amazing memories, then Iran is safe.
Is Iran safe for women?
Is Iran safe for women? Obviously, I am a man, so my experience here is just my impression. All I can tell you is what I saw.
The women I met didn’t seem to have any travel issues. Even solo female travelers in Iran that I met were not experiencing any significant issues.
I was traveling with two women – one Iranian and one from Singapore. With the exception of the hajib (head scarves), which they both hated, they both gave me the impression that they enjoyed their trip as richly as I did!
Traveling to Iran as a woman?
For some good advice about traveling to Iran as a woman, I recommend these two posts:
- The female traveler’s code of conduct for Iran. Alex has great tips that you should follow. They all seem quite practical and sensible to me.
- What about solo female travel in Iran?: Naomi’s experience during her time in Iran is definitely worth a read.
Practical Iran safety
Here are a few things that will help you avoid any hassle while you’re in Iran. Some of them, I figured out on my own. Others, my guide told me about.
Dress Code in Iran
To travel in Iran safely and avoid hassle, you must dress modestly. That means no shorts, no tank tops, nothing suggestive or profane.
Women must follow hijab in public. Both women and men should cover their legs and arms, although men can get away with short sleeve shirts.
I only wore long sleeves in Tehran, where it was cold.
Taking photos in Iran
Obey the rules about taking photos in Iran. They are not always clear, but be sure not to take photos of government buildings Iran. Also, no photos of the police, or military are allowed.
I was about to take a photo of the South African Embassy because I liked the way the flag stood out. My guide stopped me before I did. I never got the impression that he was really that worried about it. It was more of a “Nope! Can’t do that!” type of thing.
Any government building. Even other governments’ buildings, apparently.
Crime in Iran
Iran has crime just like any other country, but I didn’t experience it. And I got the impression that when it does happen, it does not happen to tourists.
In my opinion, one of the things that makes Iran safe for tourists is that Iranians are very self-conscious about how the rest of the world sees them.
Doing anything to a guest in their country that could be perceived as negative is frowned upon. That said, my guide in Tehran was very clear that I should put all my valuables (wallet & passport) in my inside zipper pocket when I was at the Grand Bazaar in Tehran.
Apparently, pickpockets can be a problem.
Food and water safety in Iran
You can’t talk about safety without mentioning food and water. Is Iran’s food and water safe? In my experience, both are generally safe.
While I mostly bought bottled water, because that’s what I am used to doing when I travel, I regularly refilled my water bottles at water fountains. I was told that there are rarely issues with doing so.
But to be safe, drink bottled water. Surprisingly, it is extremely cheap too. I paid less than a dollar for three large bottles at one store. I never had a problem with food either.
Or, do what I eventually did and bring a Lifestraw Go water bottle with you. In Iran, you’ll often find water fountains. Take your Lifestraw bottle and fill it up as you go!
Cleanliness in restaurants and on the streets was never an issue while I was there. I ate and drank at restaurants and food stalls all over the country without a problem.
Should you drive in Iran
My advice? Don’t drive in Iran. If there was one place in Iran where I felt a bit unsafe, it was in Tehran. Not because I was afraid of getting arrested or anything. It was because of the drivers. Unless you’re a bit crazy or adventurous, you should not drive in Iran, especially in the cities. You’ll be risking your life.
My Tehran tour guide and I were talking about democracy one day, and he (somewhat seriously) said to me, “I want democracy, but how can you expect people to follow the rules necessary for democracy when they can’t even follow simple traffic rules!?”
In Iran, no one obeys anything when it comes to traffic. Lane markers, stop signs and lights – all mere suggestions – meaningless. It was awful.
Fortunately, Iranians are experts at navigating terrible traffic. I didn’t see even a minor traffic accident in Tehran. Leave the driving to Iranians!
Pollution in Tehran
There are so many cars in Tehran. And partly because of the sanctions, there is little pollution control. I enjoyed the city, but I was constantly breathing exhaust fumes which caused me minor headaches. You sit in traffic for hours and it’s all you smell.
If you have any sensitivity to air pollution, you might want to get out of Tehran as quickly as you can and move on. At least make it a short stay.
If you take it, be sure to always have your asthma medication on hand. Sadly, you’ll probably need it.
Misconceptions about Iran
I was excited and nervous about my trip. All we ever hear from the media about Iran is negative stuff about terrorism and religious extremism. So I had a bit of trepidation about the trip as a whole. So much so that, whenever something negative happened during the planning (flight booking fumbles, arranging a tour, etc.), I almost used it as an excuse to just give up.
Terrorism in Iran
While Iran is known to be a state sponsor of terrorism, it is something they export and fund in other countries. While ISIS may be in Iran, they are extremely isolated because, as I learned, Iranians hate ISIS. So much so, in fact, that Iran actually helps Iraq fight ISIS. That’s notable because Iran and Iraq don’t exactly have a friendly history.
Iran is not a hotbed of religious extremism. That stereotype is just wrong because most Iranians are not even that religious!
Is it safe to travel to Iran as an American?
Iranians are not anti-American. Americans visiting Iran might get a little extra scrutiny at customs, but that should be it. I was asked by my guide if I was a dual Canadian/U.S. citizen because “the police wanted to know.” But I think this was nothing more than a way to make me believe people were watching (which they probably weren’t).
One of the biggest myths about Iranians (and other Middle East countries for that matter) is that the people are anti-American. Iranians are mostly eager to show Americans and other westerners their country.
Their issues are with American policies, not American people.
Is Iran safe for tourists?
If you aren’t open to changing your mind about the the things you see on TV, then Iran is probably not for you. But if you have an open mind and visit Iran as someone who is genuinely interested in learning about the people and the country, then you’re going to get the surprise of your life.
From your experience with immigration at the airport to the people at the restaurants, shops, and hotels, I have no doubt that you’ll feel welcomed in Iran. Iranians are not only some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met, but most people don’t realize that they are also some of the most highly educated.
Most Iranians are like you and me. They are just living their lives, doing what it takes to support their families, going to school, shopping, and hanging out with their friends.
And you’re going to have an awesome time seeing your preconceptions about Iran mostly disappear. Most importantly, you’ll be safe if you follow the rules and take the same travel precautions you normally take.
Iran is Safe, but…
So, is Iran safe for tourists? I would say emphatically, yes! Just:
- Use common sense – as you should everywhere. Don’t be an idiot.
- Keep a low profile and don’t attract attention to yourself
- Have a great travel attitude
- Follow the law and other rules (e.g., photography)
- Dress appropriately and conservatively
- Treat people with respect and dignity and take them seriously. Iranians are your equals
- Stay away from border areas – especially with Afghanistan
- Try Couchsurfing in Iran. It’s illegal, but it’s a thing!
- Listen to your guide if you have one. They are genuinely interested in making your experience a positive one.
- Read my other post: Things to know before you go to Iran
Is Iran safe for tourists? Generally, yes! So go. Enjoy it. I did it and I can’t wait to go back.
Watch: Don’t Go to Iran
This is one of my favorite videos about Iran. It’s less than 4 minutes long and 100% worth your time!
For more information on your trip to Iran, start here:
- Iranian tourism for Canadians and Americans
- Things to know before you go to Iran
- Should you do an Iran guided tour?
For More on Iran: When we travel, we use Lonely Planet. By buying a book at one of the Amazon.com links below, we get a small referral fee at no additional cost to you.
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Michael is originally from Canada but now resides in Atlanta, GA with his husband, Halef, who also writes here. He is a Couchsurfing expert. Michael has traveled to over 50 countries learning how to experience more for less as he travels.