For many in Europe and the West, traveling to the Middle East can be fun, exciting and full of adventure. And travel in Iran, with its unique culture and traditions, can be particularly rewarding.
Obviously, tourists and travelers should always research the “dos and “don’ts” before visiting a new place. Like other more popular travel destinations, Iran is an Islamic country with its fair share of restrictions: alcohol and drugs are forbidden, as is pork. But in addition to these key matters of etiquette, there are less obvious things to be aware of too. Iran is quite different from other countries in the region. And it can be easy to get things wrong. Even though Iranians are known to be some of the most hospitable people in the world, it can be pretty easy to offend them. So follow these tips to make the most of your trip and stay safe (and avoid offending your hosts!).
Using Arabic words might not the best way to make conversation…
It is always important to research a country before you travel there, and to get an idea of its culture, traditions and social mores. In Iran, failure to do so can result in people feeling insulted. Iranians are proud of their culture, language and history. For Iranians, it is important to be distinguished from Arabs and Arab culture. So, if you want to avoid offence, don’t call them Arabs. They speak Persian, so using Arabic words to make conversation is not generally a clever idea. Instead, try “salam” for hello, “merci” for thanks, and “chtori?” to ask someone how they are.
As part of their efforts to explain the differences between Arabs and Persians -- and to emphasize their differences — a group of Iranians launched Persians are not Arabs, a website outlining some of the most important distinctions.
Also, avoid referring to "the Gulf”, and especially the “Arabian Gulf.” It is the Persian Gulf. For Iranians, it’s not just a matter of semantics: it’s a matter of identity and history. Ancient geographers such as Strabo and Ptolemy called the sea the Persian Gulf, but in the 1960s, Iran’s Arab neighbors across the way coined the new, less historic “Arabian Gulf”.
This sensitivity has flared into full-on arguments dozens of times on social media, and it is so contentious that for a time in 2012 Google Maps did not give the area any name at all, prompting Iranians to set up an online petition and Facebook page. Currently, Google Maps refers to it as “the Persian Gulf,” politely reminding people in brackets that it is "also known as the Arabian Gulf". Perhaps the biggest controversy was in 2004, when National Geographic added "Arabian Gulf" as an alternative name in its atlas. In response, Iranian bloggers set up a "Google bomb," so that whenever anyone searched the term "Arabian Gulf", a spoof error message would appear.
Forget about traveling to Iran during the Iranian New Year
Nowruz, or the Iranian new year break, which begins on March 21 and can last up to 14 days, is the biggest annual holiday in Iran, a time when Iranians customarily travel around the country to visit family. Hotels in most of the cities attractive to tourists are almost always fully booked, except in Tehran. Trains and flights to and from these cities are also packed with Iranian travelers, making it difficult for tourists to get around.
“We ask foreign visitors to consider coming later, in April or May, or we tell them to just go to Tehran,” says Iranian travel agent Abbas Hosseini.
However, there could be an argument that Nowruz is one of the best times to visit Iran — okay, well maybe just Tehran. Tehran, which is normally crowded and congested due to heavy traffic, is always relatively peaceful and quiet during the Nowruz holiday. Read more here.
Unless you’re religious, Ramadan is to be avoided
During the holy month of Ramadan, which happens at a different time each year according to the lunar calendar, Muslims around the world abstain from eating, drinking and smoking from dawn until sunset. Of course, tourists should always show respect to those who are fasting. But that’s not enough — because in Iran it is actually illegal to eat, drink and smoke, or even chew gum, in public, during Ramadan. Restaurants are closed during daytime hours, though some hotels will serve food for tourists.
“Spending the the entire day under a blazing sun walking everywhere and not drinking hardly anything” is not necessarily a good idea, advise one couple who visited Iran during the holy month. “On our second day in Tehran, we were waiting for the taxi outside the hotel with a bottle of water in hand, when the receptionist came to warn us that we could not drink or carry the water on the street. The way we found to circumvent the hunger and thirst was to pack a bottle of water and some potato chips (our favorite was the salt and vinegar) in our bag. And the trick was to eat well hidden, behind a tree or something, so nobody would get offended and we did not starve!” They even said sneaking snacks felt rather exciting because they were doing something illegal...
Thumbs-up: A Definite No-no
Some gestures and customs do not easily translate, and can have different meanings from country to country. The thumbs-up gesture so popular in the West is one of them. When visiting Iran, one is likely to encounter a language barrier. But do not feel tempted to convey that something is “good” or “okay” by giving a thumbs-up, because in Iran, the gesture is offensive, roughly equivalent to giving someone “the finger.”
Although hitchhiking is not common, some travelers have found it a very enjoyable way of getting around Iran. But it's perhaps a good idea to simply wave at passing cars when trying to get a ride. The Western habit of putting one's thumb up just won't translate well in Iran.
Don’t check your PayPal account
Because of the sanctions against the country, Iranian banks don’t have direct links to the global banking system, so Visa and Mastercards cannot be accepted. Travelers might think that bringing cash will solve the problem, and that they will still be able to check bank or PayPal accounts. But it is important for people to keep in mind that when you go online to view an account, banks will track this activity, and be aware of the IP address being used to access the account — and then the banks will suspend accounts being accessed from Iran.
Check out the safest VPNs to use while in Iran. Visitors can also ask hotels and internet cafes for advice on how to use and access VPNs. “An Iranian friend of ours in the United States went back to Iran in January 2009 for her mother's funeral. While in Iran, she checked her Bank of America account. When she got home, she got visited by the FBI”, one person commentated on the Lonely Planet forum. Other Iranians living outside of the country report experiences of trying to access accounts without VPNs while in Iran, only to find their accounts suspended — and that they are inundated with questions from their banks once they return home.
Don’t even think about driving in Iran
In theory, people visiting Iran are allowed to drive a car while they are there, as long as they have an international driving license. But in practical terms, driving in Iran — and driving safely — is virtually impossible for visitors. Driving in Iran is absolutely chaotic and therefore utterly scary and seriously dangerous. Iranians drive aggressively, and road rage is common. Drivers regularly ignore traffic rules and they do not keep to lanes.
“Please just forget the idea of driving a car in Iran,” Clemens Sehi wrote on his blog . Travelers are better off using taxis, which are relatively cheap. Taxi drivers in most cities in Iran can be relied upon to know how to handle the traffic, and, especially the unspoken rules of the road.
The country has one the highest number of deaths caused by road accidents in the world. According to the Persian website Fararu, only Sierra Leone tops Iran when it comes to road accident deaths.
“Drivers may seem crazy, but I was impressed by their expertise at keeping things moving,” says Rick Steves, a well-known American travel writer.
And sometimes even walking can be a challenge…
In Iran, a zebra crossing does not work as everyone might expect. Drivers do not stop for pedestrians, even when they are walking across it in the middle of the street. It is a safer bet to use a traffic light, waiting for the light to turn green — but even then, it is essential to look first and check everyone is following the rules and observing the red-light-means-stop regulation. Luckily, Iran is full of there pedestrian bridges — much safer to use for crossing the roads.
No matter what, don’t blow your nose in a restaurant
Blowing one's nose might seems normal and natural to someone in the West, but in Iran doing this in public is extremely rude and will lead to looks of disgust and negative comments from witnesses, especially in a restaurant. In Iran, it is polite to excuse oneself from the table and take care of nasal irritations outside of the public eye — usually in the lavatory.
In Iranian culture, making noise when you are eating is impolite and doing this can also result in strange looks. “Please, please, please don't make slurping noise when you eat soup or any other liquid food. I've heard many Iranians complain that some friends from South East Asia do that to show they've enjoyed it. That's disgusting in Iranian culture.” wrote an Iranian blogger in an article about Iranian table manners.
Breaking bad with “shisha”
In Persian, “shishe” — which sounds very like “shisha” — does not refer to the flavored tobacco Iranians love to smoke out of hookahs. Instead, it refers to something quite different: crystal meth. In order to avoid being accused of asking to break the law, avoid using confusion and avoid the word altogether. Just stick to “hookah” — or even the US- term “hubble bubble” will do. It could even be tricky to try to order “cokc”, as Iranians use the full brand name Coca-Cola when referring to the soft drink. In English, “coke” has two meanings, and the context usually makes it clear which one a person means. In Iran though, “coke” always means the illegal substance.