Getting your visa for Iran
When entering Iran by land, rather than at an airport, your visa must be secured in advance. There’s no short-cutting the prescribed process:
- A travel agency with an office in Iran (Teheran is best) submits a visa application form on your behalf to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Teheran, which approves visa applications but does not issue the visa itself. The travel agency will supply you with the most current application form. All this can be done by email or fax.
- You don’t have to buy a package tour through the travel agency, but you’ll need to pay them something for their efforts. Additionally, at time of writing, Iran requires that all Americans have a government-approved guide with them while in the country. Someone will be assigned to travel with you whether you want that or not. And you’ll have to pay for their time and expenses.
- Expect to wait at least eight weeks before the Ministry releases an approval number for your visa. They’ll give this code to your travel agency and also transmit it to the Interests Section of the Islamic Republic of Iran, at the Pakistan Embassy in Washington, DC.
- Only once your travel agency notifies you of your approval number can you request issuance of your actual visa from the Interests Section. This requires a different form (select Form 101), additional documents such as photos, entry point, travel plans, travel agency, and your passport.
- The Interests Section compares the number you give them with the authorization number they’ve received from Teheran. Hopefully they match. Your visa is issued within 5-10 business days.
- The people who staff the Interests Section in DC are the most helpful, informed, and cordial of any I’ve dealt with. Don’t hesitate to call them with questions. They also may give you Iran and US travel agency suggestions, or you can pick an agency through Google.
- Visa fee: $112 for single entry; $192 for multiple entry.
Getting to the border
Kapikoy Checkpoint is the newest crossing between Turkey and Iran. Open since April 2011, it’s an hour and a half by car east of Lake Van on the D300. The Turkish roads are rough, but the going is far worse in Iran, which is probably why Kapikoy sees little traffic.
When my husband and I passed through, Kapikoy had been open five months.
Public transport options
Most who cross at Kapikoy are driving their own vehicle. Otherwise:
- Minibuses run from Van to Kapikoy and from Kapikoy to Razi or even Khoy. In Van, it’s best to go straight to the otogar (bus station) and ask what options they have for shared rides. On the Iran side, I’m told minibuses leave routinely for Razi and places onward. The cost for each stretch should be ~$10.
- A train connects Van–>Tabriz each Thursday, departing 21:30, arriving Tabriz Friday at 08:30. For Tabriz–>Van, it leaves Wednesday at 22:30, arriving Van Thursday morning at 06:00. A one-way ticket costs ~$15, with a couchette adding $5 to the fare.
Set in a shallow valley beneath scrub hills, the entire border post is compact enough to fit within a football field. The surroundings are open and barren, discouraging anyone from moving anywhere they shouldn’t.
Both countries’ facilities are housed in modest trailers so similar it’s as if they were ordered from the same catalog. Cube-shaped huts serve as barracks, the whole surrounded by chain-link fence topped with coils of razor wire.
Some borders I’ve seen, like Paso Roballos between Chile and Argentina, are separated by kilometers of no-man’s land. Not so at Kapikoy, where Iranian and Turkish border guards live in such close proximity they can look in each other’s windows.
- Kapikoy Checkpoint opens at 08:00. It closes promptly at 18:00.
- If you arrive too close to 18:00 you will be turned away. Once you leave Van, the Turkish town closest to Kapikoy is Ozalp. The police there will give you a place to sleep, if you beg nicely.
- Once in Iran, the closest town is Razi, about 10km away, where there’s public transport and a railway station. Khoy, 70km further, is a metropolis of 75,000, with buses, trains, and flights to Teheran, Tabriz, and elsewhere.
Our experience at the border
On the day we crossed, it took less than 30 minutes to complete Turkey’s exit formalities, but I felt a reluctance to move on. Turkey is, after all, nearly Europe. I felt safe there.
Walking over, I distractedly trailed my headscarf along the new black tarmac. The stares of the armed guards reminded me it was not where it belonged. Mortified, I swirled the length of fine blue cotton over my hair, crossed the loose ends under my chin, and flung them over my shoulders.
Iran’s trailer was nicer than any in my hometown’s trailer park. Inside, we approached the glass booth that said “Passport Control” in English and Farsi. It was empty. I tried a loud clearing of the throat, a polite “Hello?” but no one appeared. We sat in two of the three new plastic chairs. I adjusted my headscarf. We waited. Nothing happened. To occupy myself, I pulled out my camera and pretended to clean the lens while surreptitiously snapping illegal photos of the border facilities.
A man dressed in dark trousers and a white shirt came out of the room across from us. Though there was no badge declaring “Border Official,” the way he said “Passports, documents,” conveyed he was the one to reckon with. If there was something wrong with our self-procured visas, those ivory stickers with their intricate purple and green swirls, we’d find out now.
The man took our passports, nodded, and disappeared back into the office.
The trailer door opened for five Iranian women dressed in skintight pants and slinky, thigh-length sweaters. Each wore her brilliantly colored silk scarf Grace Kelly style — pushed back on the head, knotted under the throat. Toenails were glossily varnished, feet sheathed in fashionable sandals. Hands grasped the handles of bulging shopping bags, the kind made of heavy paper with store names in bright lettering. A border guard entered the glass booth, gave each identity card a cursory glance, and waved them through. I envied their perfect headscarves.
Twenty minutes later, a handsome Iranian youth in t-shirt and jeans entered the trailer, introducing himself as our government guide. Ignoring my outstretched hand, he leaned forward to knock shoulders.
“Ramadan,” he said, and murmured hesitantly, not wanting to offend, “And as a woman, you are impure.” He told us to be patient, there was nothing he could do to speed things up, but everything would be alright.
An hour more and the border control medical officer invited me into a small side room, where he questioned me solicitously. Did I have a fever? Had I recently vomited? Headaches? Sore throat? He was polite in a detached, doctorly way. And, also, pleased to speak to an American. Spirits boosted, I returned to my plastic chair, adjusted my headscarf, and continued to wait.
After 45 more minutes, the man who took our passports beckoned me into his office. Inside were four men sipping tea, rifles nearby. One nodded, another studied his tea glass, the other two eyed me almost shyly. There were two desks in the room, each with a PC, papers, and folders spread about. The passport officer placed a form in front of me and, digging through a drawer, extracted an ink pad, which he opened and handed to me, as if offering snuff. When I finished pressing each fingertip into the ink and onto the paper, he gave me a tissue so I could clean my fingers.
Another 45 minutes and the man whom I then realized was the senior immigrations officer emerged from the office. In halting English, he apologized for the delay, explaining that Kapikoy Checkpoint was so new their computer link to Teheran and the software to check visa numbers were not yet up to speed. For which he was sorry.
I couldn’t help but gaze admiringly at my visa, which he showed me had been stamped for entry. When a guard walked over and motioned where we should bring our luggage for inspection, the senior officer waved him away. Perhaps he felt things had taken long enough. He pointed us to the exit door. As I walked into Iran, my headscarf stayed in place.