Getting a Visa to Iran

The majority of the process for getting a visa to Iran can be summed up by a Jack Johnson song: Sitting, Waiting, Wishing. It is not a process for the impatient or the anxiety-prone (of which I am both)! I thought I'd share what I went through so that others (especially Americans) who are thinking of going to Iran can have some idea of what to expect - though I'm sure every experience is different.

Group Tour

As an American, the first step is to sign up for a group tour or a private guide - currently this is basically the only way that Americans (and some other nationalities including UK citizens) are eligible for a tourist visa to Iran. I chose a two-week Discover Persia tour with G Adventures because I know people that have traveled with them elsewhere, I've read trip reports from this particular tour, and because there was a 15% discount running at the time I was doing research. Group tours aren't cheap, y'all!

Online Visa Application 

Three months before my tour, I filled out an online visa application through G Adventures. It's pretty simple and didn't ask nearly as many questions as I expected, but they do have some pretty specific instructions to follow about what dates you put for your visa, etc.  At this point, I paid a $100 processing fee. You also have to select the embassy you want to receive the visa from. In the US, the only place to get the visa is the Iran Interests section in the Pakistani Embassy in Washington DC. You likely won't have time to send your passport off by mail and get it back before your trip, so if you don't live nearby you may want to plan at least a week in DC directly before your trip, or choose to stopover in another country with an embassy for at least a week before your trip - not exactly convenient. In my case, I knew I'd be traveling in Georgia and Armenia for 6 weeks before Iran, so I opted to get my visa in Tbilisi.

(Note: in hindsight, I might have chosen to get the visa in Istanbul for a couple of reasons: 1) most flights to Tehran go through Istanbul anyway and 2) it's a great place to stock up on head scarves and appropriate clothing before getting to Iran. I had a heck of a time finding tunic-type shirts in Georgia.)

The Hardest Part 

Then you wait.

And wait.

And buy travel insurance and hope that it will cover you in the case that the visa doesn't actually come through (and because it's good to have).

Wait some more. I'm really bad at this part.

Originally, the tour company said to expect the visa 1-3 weeks before the start of my tour. When I contacted them a week and a half before my trip, they said that most visas have been coming one week to 2 days before I was scheduled to leave. WHAT?! That was pretty terrifying to this plan-loving girl.

So I waited some more. And started to formulate a back-up plan to spend the 2 weeks visiting friends in Germany instead.

I was scheduled to fly out of Tbilisi early Friday morning. On Monday morning I emailed G Adventures asking about my number, and later that evening I came back from dinner and finally - FINALLY - there was a visa authorization number in my inbox! This meant I was now able to go to the embassy to request my visa!

In-Person Visa Application in Tbilisi

The Iranian Consulate in Tbilisi (Irani Sakonsuloshi for the taxi drivers, in case you need to know) opens at 10am and I rolled up at 10:05. The employee sorted through a stack of paperwork looking for my name but didn't find it. He asked when I got my number and I told him the night before. He informed me it can take 3 days for the numbers to be sent to the embassy. "But I don't have three days!" I cried (like, really almost in tears). He told me and another guy to come back in an hour while he contacted the office in Tehran.

I walked to a nearby supermarket and got a Coke and tried not to freak out. I arrived back at the embassy at 11:30 - my number was there, thank the Universe! Now the documentation game began. Be sure to have everything you might possibly need before you show up to the embassy. First I showed proof of my travel insurance (for those from other countries, be sure that the proof of insurance is in English, Farsi or the local language of your embassy or they won't accept it - the German guy who had come back with me got sent away to buy new insurance or find a notarized translator). Then my tour voucher. Then my proof of onward travel. You'll need an address in Iran, so be sure to have the address of the hotel your tour will start/end at.

Things to bring to the embassy:
1) 2 passport-sized photos (in this case I didn't need to have my head covered, but I came prepared with 2 covered and 2 uncovered that I got taken at home before I left)
2) 60 Euro cash (varies by nationality - look it up before you go)
3) Authorization number
4) Proof of travel insurance, in English or Farsi
5) Proof of onward travel from Iran (plane ticket out)
6) Address in Iran (your starting hotel is fine)
7) Tour voucher
8) Passport

After this was all found to be satisfactory, I got sent into an interview with a different man. He asked about my occupation - I tried to explain public health and avoid mentioning HIV/sexual health, just in case that was a touchy subject. Instead I talked about cancer prevention and clean water. Everyone loves clean water. He asks if I'm a Christian - ummmm, what is the right answer here? I settle for ambiguous middle ground - agnostic. Not a missionary, but not an atheist either. This seems to satisfy him (or he doesn't want to admit that he doesn't know what the word means). After maybe 10 minutes questions, I've apparently passed!

Now I had to go to the bank to pay the 60 Euro visa fee. Just to make things fun, it's now 12:05 on Tuesday. The embassy closes at 1:00 (yes, it's only open for 3 hours a day for visa applications). They will also be closed on Thursday through Sunday (why 4 days? no idea), and they need an overnight to process the visa - which means I have 55 minutes to get this thing turned in if I want to make my tour. So I hop in a taxi, run into the bank, pay the fee, taxi back, run back in. I have to fill out yet another form, which asks a lot of the same questions as the interview and the online application. Luckily, the man at the embassy double checked to make sure everything was filled out correctly and fixed some errors - be sure to ask someone to do this if you have any doubts. I handed over my passport (eeek!) and left the embassy at 12:45, told to come back the next day at noon to pick it up.

I showed up at 11:30 am on Wednesday, to give myself a little extra time in case there were things I needed to fix or more hoops to jump through, but the embassy guy just handed me my passport, visa printed inside, and said "Welcome to Iran!" Grinning wildly, I told him thank you and skipped out of the building in a state of euphoria/disbelief - I'm going to Iran!!!!!!!!!

Post-script - Arriving in Iran 

Arriving in the Tehran airport, I was nervously tugging at my shirt (did it cover enough of my butt?) and readjusting my head scarf while I waited in line. I was in the latter third of the line of foreigners coming off the plane, so it was a long wait to begin with. And once I got to the passport control, I began being passed off from one person to another who didn't seem to know what to do with me. They asked me for the number of my driver (Americans are required to have a scheduled pick up at the airport, you can't just grab a taxi), which I didn't have - G Adventures just told me someone would be waiting with my name on a sign. The immigration guys took my passport and sat me in some chairs off to the side until I was the only person left in the area. Then they stood around some more, chatting with each other and eyeing me. I was sweating by this point, afraid I might not make it out of the airport. Finally, they came over and told me they needed to fingerprint me. Two guys led me into a little cubicle with a computer for electronic fingerprinting - one of them apologized "Sorry. It's your government." And then, as soon as the fingerprinting was done, after all that waiting and stress, they suddenly lightened up - "Welcome to Iran! You can go now." Phew.

Notes for Non-Americans/Brits

If you're not American or British, you can still apply ahead of time for a visa and will probably have a pretty similar process - check with your local Iranian embassy to be sure. But, lucky you, you have a back up plan! If you don't get your authorization number in time to process the visa (most on our tour did not), you can show up in Iran and apply for a visa on arrival. It might help to have a letter from your tour company (if you're traveling with one) and your authorization number, if you received it. No one in our group who applied for a visa on arrival got denied, but they were pretty stressed out at the airport hoping they'd get in.

And a Post Post-Script on Freedom to Travel 

Lastly, I just want to acknowledge that while this process was a bit nerve-wracking, it is the first time in 18 years of travel that I've had to go through something like this in order to visit a country. Holding an American passport grants me quite a lot of freedom. People from many other nations (including - or maybe especially - Iranians) have to go through this type of process, or worse, every single time they want to go out of the country. And that, of course, is assuming they have the economic freedom to travel (a whole separate issue). So, just a moment of gratitude and acknowledgment that my place of birth gives me an awful lot of privilege to roam the world freely.


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