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Laura at the base of the tombs near Persepolis. Iran is a fascinating place, and well worth the effort of arranging visas on the road. In our case, we got our visas in Turkey.
Since getting back to Canada, our site has been getting a lot of search traffic on the topic of our journey from Turkey overland into Iran. I’ve also had people on other websites I frequent ask me questions about this particular border crossing. This post is just meant for those folks looking for more information on this topic. When we were in Turkey, we went through our own period of uncertainty once we decided to cross into Iran. There is not a lot of info out there about how to do it.
Here’s what we did to arrange Iranian visas in Turkey, in mid-2010:
1. Arranged for Iranian Visas through a third-party Iranian visa agency (Touran Zamin)
There’s a few other agencies offering this service but after reading online reviews, Touran Zamin seemed to be the most highly regarded overall. In our experience, they were very prompt and friendly. We had some questions about the intricacies of the visas (more on that below), and they did their best to explain things. What these guys do is to contact the Iranian government ministry responsible for issuing visas, and submit an application on your behalf to have your visa pre-approved by the ministry. They will then issue an approval number to you and to the Iranian embassy or consulate of your choice. You simply bring that number to the consulate after a certain date, and they will issue your visa, no real questions asked. Touran Zamin promises something like a 10-day turnaround, after which (if approved) you can go to the embassy and get your visa. In our case, they delivered it in about a week, and we were approved on our first try.
If you are not approved, I have read that you can apply again and your previous failed application shouldn’t count against you. The situation with tourist visa approvals has changed several times over the past ten years during moments of diplomatic squabbles between Iran and western countries. The ministry has been known to reject applications from foreign nationals of specific countries during these times. To be fair, the West given Iran a pretty tough go of things in a lot of ways. Diplomacy is always a two-way street.
Special note: Americans cannot currently visit Iran as independent travellers due to obvious diplomatic issues between the two countries. However, Americans are allowed to visit as part of an Iranian-organized guided tour group. Unfortunately, I can’t say anything about these tours, except that my mother-in-law went on a trip like that several years ago and has never said anything bad about it. Also: an Israeli stamp in your passport will nix your travel plans to Iran, and vice versa, as far as I know.
You can always skip the middle man (Touran Zamin), and just apply to the embassy directly, but then they submit that application to the ministry, and the process is supposedly much longer (weeks to months). You can also apply for a visa from the Iranian Embassy in your home country, but this is apparently another drawn out process, taking months sometimes. As far as I can tell, going through one of the visa agencies is the quickest possible way.
All of this was done by email and through the Touran Zamin website, except that international sanctions have cut Iran off from the international monetary sytem, so Touran Zamin, as an Iranian company, cannot accept credit cards. Instead they ask you to submit their fee to a German bank account. Once you provide a tracking number to them for the payment, they release your approval code by email. Sound like a bad spy movie? It gets more complicated from here...
2. Paid the Visa Agency fee through a bank
We tried several Turkish banks, in the hopes that we could give them the German account number and the fee, and they could do the transfer for us for an additional bank fee. This involved a few hours of hoofing it around Antalya. If you’ve ever been to Antalya, you’ll know that there are many, many things more fun to see and do in Antalya than visit its banks. So I hope this post can save you from wasting your time as we did. Basically, they all said no.
We needed to have an account with them to do it, and although we had the option of opening one (which surprised me), we didn’t think that made much sense. In the end we went through our own bank back in Canada. I believe if you have a European bank account, you won’t have these issues.
For us, because we are Canadian, the German bank number Touran Zamin gave us did not play nice with our own North American banking system (for one thing, the number of digits in a bank account is different). We had hoped to put the payment through online, but we actually had to get in touch with our bank back home by phone and email, including some faxes and signed papers, in order to transfer the fee. We weren’t really in a rush, so all of this occurred over about three weeks. If you are in a hurry, you should be able to do it in less than two.
Total Cost For Visa Agency Deal:
- 35 Euros (for each visa) to Touran Zamin for visa approval service*
- $15 charge from our bank for the transfer
- $20-ish incidental costs for things like Internet, international phone cards and faxes
- A wasted afternoon in beautiful Antalya
*Note: this fee is just the agency fee, and is on top of the actual visa fee you pay later at the embassy.
3. Arranged to pick up our Iranian Visas at the Iranian Embassy in Ankara, Turkey
The other nice thing about going through an agency is that you can arrange to pick up your visa at any Iranian embassy in the world (I think). For us, we told Touran Zamin that we would be able to get them in Ankara, Turkey’s capital city. I’ve heard that the Ankara Embassy (Iran’s main embassy in Turkey) is one of the best places to go. People have been known to get them in smaller cities closer to the border, but I’ve also heard mixed things about the success in those embassies. We chose to play it safe. I can’t give you much advice for countries other than Turkey, but I believe the process would be similar.
Total Cost For Arranging Visas in Ankara:
- 20 Euros (for each visa) to Touran Zamin for them to arrange to get the visa at a specific embassy
We saw a few sites in Ankara, including Ataturk’s Mausoleum. This is the promenade on the way in/out. It’s also, apparently, one of the only shots I took in three days in Ankara. That’s too bad in hindsight, but dealing with visas has a way of sucking your creativity and will power for photography. Apparently.
4. Spent three days in Ankara seeing the sites and jumping through bureaucratic hoops
It took three days, and five visits to the Embassy to finally get the visas.
You need a few things to actually get the visa. Make sure you have them before going to the embassy:
- passport photos (bring a couple copies minimum)
- passport photocopies (bring a couple copies minimum)
- visa fee
We woke our first morning in Ankara intent on finding a copy place and passport photography studio and then heading to the embassy to pick up our visas. We figured we could be done wrangling our visas by dinner time. Imagine how proud of ourselves we were after asking directions led to us to what we needed in less than an hour. Unfortunately, our luck didn’t hold much after that.
The copy shop we found ( a small internet cafe with a photocopier/scanner) offered a couple of challenges. Apparently, Canadian passports have security features which makes them come out unreadable on photocopies. Luckily, we had photographed our passports before leaving Canada, and emailed these pictures to ourselves as backups. So instead, we logged into our email and printed these photos.
The photo place was just around the corner, and we got some usable, but very unflattering headshots of ourselves in Iranian visa size (I can’t remember what this is, but the photo studio knew). Special Note: Iran is an Islamic theocracy. Women are expected to keep Hijab (wearing a headscarf and covering their arms and legs), including in their visa photos. The family at the photo studio got quite a kick out of seeing Laura figure out how to put hers on for the first time.
It was about a 30 min. walk to the Embassy, and as we approached I reached into my bag to get all of our papers out and ready. We stopped for a moment so Laura could put on her scarf. This is when I realized that I left my passport at the copy place in the guy’s scanner. I jogged the 3 km back to the copy place, cursing my blatant stupidity every step of the way. Luckily, our friend at the copy shop was neither dishonest, nor particularly aware that he had my passport in his scanner. I sheepishly asked for the passport, and then jogged back to the embassy, while Laura waited patiently in a park. It was only now, after ringing the bell fruitlessly at the embassy gate, that we learned from a passing Turk that the embassy was closed that day for a holiday. So we trudged back toward the hotel, along the same three kilometre route I had just run. It seemed a fitting conclusion to a bungling day.
The next day we did it all again, only this time we had what we needed and knew where to go.
Total Cost For Visa Paperwork:
- Probably $20 for passport copies, Internet access, and photos (I don’t recall how many Turkish Lira, but it wasn’t any more than this)
5. Finally got into the Embassy
The embassy was a bit of an experience. We were buzzed in through a big gate, and then buzzed in through a second security area where we signed in with a bored looking security guard, before being ushered into a waiting room. There were several Iranians sitting in creeky old chairs, existing in what appeared to be various stages of bureaucratic limbo. Nobody was speaking. A TV in the corner blared Iranian national TV, cutting out to loud and blurry static more often than showing clear pictures. Nobody turned it down or off.
Paintings of Iran’s revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Khomeini and his successor, Ayatollah Khamenie, stared down at us. One wall was a giant one-way window.
There was no number system, and no apparent order for who was to be called next. Our only glimpse into officialdom was two reinforced glass windows with surly looking moustached officials behind them. We didn’t want to be rude, so we weren’t sure if we should go to the windows or wait to be called. One of the women in the waiting room made a helpful gesture to beckon us to go ahead and approach one of the windows, so we did.
The man turned out to be friendlier than he looked, especially after we told him that we planned to go to Tabriz, one of several Iranian cities we had memorized based on maps in our guidebook. Since we weren’t planning on being Iran for several more weeks, we really didn’t know much about Tabriz or most of the other cities we recited. Our trip was too off-the-cuff to plan that far ahead. We had just read somewhere that the Embassy would want to know your loose itinerary, so we had memorized one.
“Tabriz! That is my city!” he said with obvious pleasure. “It is very beautiful. Most beautiful place in Iran.”
Once the man from Tabriz learned that we had a pre-approval number from the ministry, he dispatched someone to fetch our file. After a bit of waiting he called us up again and told us that we would have to pay a fee, leave our passports, and come back in ten days to collect our visas. Laura and I looked at each other. Disappointment clear on both of our faces. Ten days! We had scheduled some flights out of Turkey within the week (it’s a long story) and the prospect of spending ten more days waiting around Ankara wasn’t really in the plan. I very politely explained this, and asked if there was anything the man from Tabriz could do. He went away again, ostensibly to speak to a superior, and came back to tell us that if we paid the fee and left our passports today, we could pick up our visas tomorrow. He gave us directions to a bank down the street where we could pay our fee. We thanked him profusely and stressed just how much we were looking forward to seeing the unrivalled beauty of Tabriz.
The unrivalled beauty of Tabriz (we always seemed to go to markets on Fridays, when they are closed for prayers).
6. Paid the visa fee at a local bank; got our Iranian Visas
Again, Iran is cut off from the international monetary system, so don’t expect to be able to whip out your credit card and get things done. In fact, they don’t accept cash either, at least not at the embassy directly. Instead you have to go down to a local bank to make a deposit into their account. The embassy will give you a slip of paper that you can give the teller. This didn’t take very long, but I believe we had to pay some more fees to the bank on top of our visa fees. We did all of this in Turkish currency (I think... it may have been Euros). You have to bring the deposit receipt back to the embassy, as well as drop off your passport.
Content that we were finally getting things done, we dropped off our passports with a plan to return the next day. After our first four visits, by now we had our route to the embassy all figured out, and had no problems arriving early in the day to collect our visas. True to his word, the man from Tabriz had everything ready for us, and we left him with our gratitude and one last comment about the fabled beauty of his home city.
Total Cost For Actual Visa Fee:
- It’s funny; I can’t remember for sure. I think it was around $170 each. If I can dig this info up somewhere, I will update this. It doesn’t matter much anyway, this fee is different for different nationalities. I think we also paid a small fee to the bank for the transaction.
7. Travelled to Van, in Eastern Turkey to arrange a bus ride across the border
Although our trip took us out of Turkey and then back again before we headed east, most travellers will likely want to use their visas sooner. The visas are good for three months from date of issue. Train and bus travel in Turkey is excellent, although the distances are often longer than they seem. We eventually made it to Van by train, where we bought some bus tickets to cross the border into Iran. I don’t remember what the bus cost to go from Van to Orumiyeh, Iran, but it wasn’t particularly expensive. Maybe equivalent to 20 or 40 dollars each. It was about an eight hour drive, and we were the only westerners on the bus. We chatted politely with some of the mostly Iranian passengers. We learned the man from Tabriz is not the only Iranian who believes his home is the most beautiful part of the country. We also got our first taste of very pleasant Iranian hospitality, with offers of shared food and polite conversation.
8. Had one of the easiest border crossings ever, and really enjoyed our time in Iran
The border crossing itself was, frankly, a breeze, although we were a little concerned about our visas. Because we had waited close to the three month period of validity before crossing the border (the visas can be used for up to three months after getting them), we were concerned that if that period ran out while we were in the country, that our visas would be officially expired. I know that’s a little confusing, and it’s because we are talking about two things: our visas were 30-day visas, meaning we could stay in Iran for up to 30 days. But they also had a validity period of three months. This is the window of time that begins when you get the visa in your passport, and ends when you cross the border into Iran. If you don’t cross the border within that 3 months, you will have to apply for a new visa.
I was concerned that since we would be crossing the border only a couple of days before the end of this window that we would have problems. We didn’t. And you probably won’t either. This was one area where I could find very little info online, and I was admittedly concerned leading up to our border crossing. I scoured the Lonely Planet forums to little avail and even asked Touran Zamin by email what they thought. They replied that they were “pretty sure” it would be fine, but a worst case scenario would involve extending our visas in Iran before they expire.
I asked the border guards, but the only thing they cared about is that our visas were valid when they stamped it. They said not to worry about anything and to enjoy our 30 days in Iran. Although we got called into a special line for foreigners, and spoke briefly with a couple of border officials in a small office space, they were all very friendly, and processed us in less than twenty minutes. We met a pair of German motorcyclists who were also crossing into Iran, and from what I could tell, they were processed very fast as well. Our entire bus pulled out of there in under 30 minutes, and we were in!
A couple more notes on travel in Iran:
1. Yes, you need to bring cash into Iran. There are no bank machines in the country that can access the international monetary system. I’ve heard it’s possible to get credit card advances in some of the biggest hotels in Tehran, but it’s not easy or advisable to rely on this. Traveller’s cheques aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. We brought a combination of American dollars and Euros, split up and tucked away in various places on us and in our bags. I believe it was less than $3000, and we left the country with money left after thirty days.
2. Iran is really friendly, so bring some small gifts or pictures from home to show people. The language barrier, when it exists, is usually not enough to stop people from trying to welcome you to their country. Pictures etc. make great conversation helpers and break the awkwardness of not being able to say much.
3. Expect to be surprised: whatever your expectations of Iran, just know that you probably have it all wrong. Not very many countries have had so much baloney said about them in the western media, especially where so much of that is propaganda and lies and foolishness. Years of sanctions and hard-nosed foreign policy have punished the people of Iran unfairly, crippling the kind of economic development and cultural exchange that could benefit Iranians and break down these stereotypes. These policies have been utter failures, implemented in order to weaken a distasteful regime, but often strengthening it instead. Try not to act surprised the first time someone says “Ahmadinejad is Terrorist!” to you on the street. Sentiment among Iran’s 70-million people is as diverse as you’d expect.
It is a fascinating country, with millennia of historical and cultural heritage. It is also easily the most friendly country we’ve visited. I hope this helps some of you get there. If you have specific questions, post them in the comments below.
p.s. — Enjoy a few more pictures, just because. You can see a bunch more in our Iran posts from during our trip. Search the archives at the top of the page, or click here.
Downtown Tehran: looking much like any other sizable city.
One of our cab drivers. He looks mean, but he’s actually smiling. We had several really nice cab drivers (and one absolutely terrible one).
Some kids in Yazd, who agreed to let me snap a picture.
Night market in Tehran.
Scenery outside Hamedan.
Us and our good friend Abed from Esfahan. Unfortunately, all of the good pictures I took in Esfahan (including some nice portraits of Abed on the rooftops) were lost.
The skyline of Yazd.
Traditional house architecture in Yazd. Those are wind towers, meant to channel the breeze into houses to cool them.
Tehran’s main bazaar.
The volcano at Takht-e-Suleyman. We hiked up it in about ten minutes to look into the dormant caldera. It was kind of surreal.
Typical Iranian restaurant fare.