Getting a visa for Iran is perhaps the biggest hurdle to visiting the country but it’s definitely worth the effort and so few tourists try for a visa that when you get to Iran you’ll have it largely to yourself.
Applying before you leave home is the best policy, providing peace of mind and saving potentially long waiting times in foreign cities, although some embassies around the world (notably Istanbul and Ankara) will take applications from travellers on the road. You cannot get an Iranian visa at the border.
Check with the embassy where you will be applying for current guidelines. Women normally need to wear the hijab head covering in the passport photos submitted with the application (not in your passport itself) and may even need a headscarf to enter the embassy building but this is not always the case. Usually you need to make photocopies of your passport and the application forms, submit these along with two passport photos to the embassy and pay the relevant fees at a nearby bank.
Visa prices vary by nationality and are reasonably expensive but this is offset by very low living costs in Iran. In 2007, visas cost 60 euros for German citizens and 90 euros for Britons.
Allow at least six weeks to arrange your visa and don’t book your plane ticket until you have the visa safely in your passport. With luck, you should receive a 30-day tourist visa although the length is at the discretion of the embassy officials involved.
One way to cut through the red tape and speed up the process is to go through an agency. For a fee, the agency submits a pre-application on your behalf to their partner in Iran and gets a code number from the Iranian government which is forwarded to you by email 2-3 weeks later. You then give this number to the Iranian embassy when you make your application. Once you have the code number you are virtually guaranteed to get your visa, often within 24-hours. The code number must be presented at the Iranian embassy within three months and once you get the visa you have a further three months to enter the country.
Using an agency increases the cost but it’s well worth considering for the time it can save. In Istanbul we got our visas the next day without any hassle, while people applying directly through the embassy with the same passports were given waiting times of up to four weeks with no guarantee of success. Waiting in Turkey for an answer from Iranian bureaucrats can burn a lot of cash quickly.
STANtours and Iranianvisa are two popular agencies. We had good luck with STANtours but everyone has their favourite company and recommendations are frequently discussed on the Lonely Planet’s travel forum.
Once in the country, same-day tourist visa extensions are easy to get in the main centres of Shiraz, Esfahan and Tabriz. Yazd is another good place to try but Tehran is notoriously difficult. The cost of a visa renewal is 100,000 Rials and you will need two passport photos, a photocopy of the bank deposit receipt, your Iranian visa and the photo page of your passport. See more on renewing your Iranian visa.