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Going to Iran: No need to play for safety

Updated: Dec 22, 2022

Blog in three parts - PART I

Let us take you to a wonderful and surprising country: the following information helps you prepare for a successful business trip and gives you some tips on travelling and doing business in Iran. At the end of part three, you will find a summary.

«You don’t have to pay.»

Did I understand him …? - «No, no, of course not, you don’t have to pay. »

But let’s start at the beginning: A trip to Iran is not much different to other trips you have undertaken, at least they’re less different than you would assume.

Salaam Tehran

Your Iranian contact has invited you to Tehran and sent you a reference number from the relevant ministry, or/and a letter of invitation including a hotel reservation. As the terms of entry can vary, be sure to check the Iranian embassy of your country of residence well in advance. For Swiss nationals getting their visa in Berne the visa costs CHF 69.- for a business visa, CHF 58.- for a tourist visa. Due to booming tourism, you might have to wait for two to three weeks, depending on the time of year you’re traveling. During July and August, and December and January it might take less time. Upon arrival at Imam Khomeini Airport you can directly go to passport control. Of the two FOREIGN lanes choose the left one, as you can switch to IRANIAN as it empties faster. As usual, airport officers are not the cheeriest of humans. With a Salaam or shoma tschetor hastid? (how are you) you might be able to coax a small smile or mamnoon choob hastam (thank you I’m fine) out of him. For a few months now, some nationals can obtain a «Visa On Arrival» (VOA) in Tehran and other Iranian airports. Due to the mentioned demand, there is usually a cluster of tourists and business travelers surrounding the visa booth. If you’re not a big fan of sharing the somewhat dull arrival area with people deprived of sleep (many flights arrive in the wee morning hours) you might want to go through the longer process of getting the visa at your Iranian embassy. VOA cost between € 60-75, depending on your nationality and change in government rulings. You have to pay in cash. Remember that apart from drugs, weapons etc., pork and alcohol are also strictly forbidden and may not be carried in your luggage.


Pick-up and transport to your hotel is usually organized by your customer or client. The arrival halls are not huge, to be on the safe side ask for your driver’s mobile phone number in advance. A bar of chocolate or a pack of Marlboro Red will not make the drive any shorter but you will have your first friend.

The airport is roughly 40km south of Tehran and it will take you about 40 minutes to one hour to get to your hotel, depending on the time of day. If you are connecting to a domestic flight, it will take you little less to reach Mehrabad airport. The bonus of arriving early morning is that you can enjoy a quiet drive without stop-and-go. Traffic in Tehran is a beloved topic for being late (or early). In our third blog, you will read more on punctuality and some basics for a successful business meeting.

Inside the car, privacy seems to start. We could write an entire chapter on Iranians and what they define and relish as privacy (taking to account that not all define it in the same way, of course). Not only have many sequences of movies or entire films been shot inside a car, driving as such is an art that requires flexibility and innovation, two traits that are inherent to the Iranian fabric. It seems that being in a car is kind of like being at home, an intimate space. Hence the driver’s rules are law. And the drivers are heroes of multitasking. Talking on one of their mobile phones, picking some bills for the tollgate and asking you «Do you like Iran?» .

However, he will safely bring his honored guest to the destination. A tip is not necessary but appreciated. If you didn’t get Rials at the airport exchange, Euros are also appreciated. Iran is back on SWIFT, but you must carry cash for all expenses that will incur, as non-Iranian credit cards will not be accepted (still sanctioned).

No Is Maybe a No

If you got a taxi yourself, the driver will say «You don’t have to pay». Never get out and wonder why he didn’t’ want the money. Insist two, three times, until he finally says yes. Wonderful! You’ve just learnt the first basic rule, called Taarof. Taarof is more than just saying no three times, it is courtesy in perfection. Iranians tend to be very obliging, not only towards a guest but also amongst each other. Saying YES immediately implies greediness and a lack of respect. So if you’re offered tea, politely say NO at least once. They might not expect this from you, but will appreciate you’ve done your homework. Young people and those who have travelled the world, as many Iranian business people have, will tell you «I don’t do Taarof» which in our experience only means that they tend to be a tad more straightforward. Because Taarof is more than just mere politeness: it’s their way of behaving in general. On top of that, Persian (Farsi) is a very poetic language and they love and quote their poets at any given moment. For the more linear minds of us we just have to remember that Iranians are true masters in communicating with (for us) invisible subtitles, at home as well as at a meeting table. It will likely take a few trips and more meetings to grasp the extensiveness and intricacies of taarof. To keep it simple: · Never take a No for a No · Never take a Yes for a Yes You can understand their etiquette by observing closely and in doing so learn Taarof from them. There will be fewer misunderstandings and you will have a stronger position during negotiations. But as always when travelling to a different culture, remain natural. .

«Let’s meet at Vanak Square»

Your contact will have a driver bring you to the company premises. In case you meet somewhere in the city, meeting “at Vanak Square” is bound to increase your roaming costs. Squares and roundabouts are often elaborately landscaped and huge. Except at the large metro stations, there are few pedestrian tunnels.

Insist on a cross-road and on which side of the street you will meet, or the name of a prominent shopping center/café/historic site: «Vanak Square, Haghani Street, on the north side». Where is

north when it’s dark and rainy? Tehran is built on a slope, from the south to the north end of the city there’s a difference in altitude of approx. 700m, with the Alborz* mountains in the north. You will easily get the hang of Tehran’s geography.

Streets and highway exits are written in Farsi and English. Some street names vary depending on the times, so it’s good to know that not everybody uses the same name. To this day, for instance, Nelson Mandela Boulevard is colloquially known as Jordan** Street or Africa Boulevard (written Afriqa), despite the name change dating back to 1979.

TIP Download a GPS-piloted APP, for instance, at home.

Streets, underpasses and tunnels are in good condition and traffic lights are well-observed. Pedestrians should remain alert at all times. Crossing the streets can be considered an Olympic challenge, so join a group of Tehrani traversing the flow, it’s a natural flocking behavior. Also, before leaving the safety of the sidewalk, keep eyes and ears wide awake. Motorcyclists have a special philosophy, namely “one-way roads are two-way roads”.

Depending on your destination within Tehran, we recommend you take a trip with the metro. It’s clean, fast and cheap. Tickets cost IRR 10'000 (ca. € 0.30) per single trip journey, regardless of distance or change of lines. On top of fast transport, you can witness Iranian Daily Life. Commuters buy anything from socks to umbrellas (when it rains) to mobile phone charging cables from heavily packed vendors. As an outsider it’s rather entertaining but locals dislike them - especially during peak hours when the metro is quite packed to begin with. Nonetheless, Tehran Underground is not that bold a venture and worth a try.

Operating hours are roughly from 5:30am (7am on Fridays) to 11pm. Announcements are in Farsi only, but station signs also in English. If in doubt simply ask, it will not be the last time you experience Iranian helpfulness. As a man ask a man, as a woman you can ask either a man or a woman. And then just say "Merci!"

* Also spelled Alburz, Elburz, Elborz ** Jordan is also the name of a somewhat wealthy district of Tehran, with a popular street for “have a look at my new shiny car”

Iran ain’t small

Ranging from the green north to the arid Persian Gulf, Iran extends over 1.65m sq. meters. Laying Iran on Europe this amounts to an area from Denmark to Istanbul and from Cologne to Minsk. Most companies are headquartered in Tehran but it might be necessary to travel. Don’t miss this chance to see less hectic cities than the capital.

Rental car? Unless you’re planning an adventure holiday it’s rather unusual to rent a car. There are few rental stations, you will have to pay cash and it’s rather expensive. Go for one of the “taxi heroes”. There are plenty of local drivers-cum-guides.

Domestic flights will be booked by your customer. It’s (almost) impossible to book from abroad, as an Iranian credit card is required. Should you want to book something yourself when you’re there, ask a local tourist agency or your contact to help.

Iran Air boasts three new airbuses A330, with more due over the next months. Many airplanes though have their prime of life behind them due to very difficult access to new planes or spare parts under the sanctions. Iran Air, Mahan Air und Kish Air are the most reliable with very good service. Delays are quite frequent, regardless of the carrier. Prices are determined by the government, so prices will not vary among the carriers.

Domestic flights leave from centrally located Mehrabad airport. Should you have some spare time on your way there, ask your driver to let you out and have a look at iconic Azadi Tower (Freedom Tower).

Alternatively, you can also take the train, which is a great way to meet Iranians. Like with most public transport, it is very low priced: six hours cost about €10. Trains are faster than busses but don’t run that often. Again, internet booking from outside Iran is impossible. The Iranian Railways have a good online booking system though, so your contact can organize tickets for you. Remember that trains leaving on Thursdays and Fridays tend to be fully booked.

Iranians are enthusiastic travelers and there’s always some matter or a Public Holiday around the corner. They very often use the excellent busses, as they’re comfortable and affordable. Bus terminals are usually located at the city limits or close to highway junctions. You’ll find a range of bus tour agencies at the terminals and always someone who speaks English, German or French to help you, so you can easily do this on your own.

Tickets can be purchased up to a week in advance. A two- to three-hour trip costs between € 9 – € 11, just about the same amount spent for a good meal for two. Between major cities such as from Tehran to Isfahan buses depart frequently, sometimes hourly, from 6am to midnight. There will be bi-hourly stops at road-side restaurants for small breaks. The varied and extremely tasty Iranian cuisine is, apart from other reasons, a perfect excuse to prolong your business trip for a day or two.

In Blog Two we invite you to a Persian table and explain the missing zeros.

Sylvia Leisi, Geschäftsführerin Insta und Twitter @syal_pm

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