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Your Iraq Tour Guide: Everything You Need to Know for 2024

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5 months ago

At this rate, I visit Iraq at least once a year. When I tell people that I am going for vacation to Iraq, I am always met with a million questions – can I really go to Iraq for vacation? Is Iraq really safe? Can woman travellers go to Iraq? In this ultimate Iraq tour guide, I will address all your questions and concerns about visiting Iraq in 2024.

Iraq v Iraqi Kurdistan

If you are planning a trip to Iraq, you are probably wandering what is the difference between Federal Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan?

Iraqi Kurdistan operates as an autonomous region within Iraq. What does that mean for you? Iraqi Kurdistan has its own immigration system and is effectively separate from the rest of Iraq.

Both politically and culturally Iraqi Kurdistan operates entirely separate from the rest of Iraq (though Iraqi Kurdistan uses the same currency as Federal Iraq, being the Iraqi dinar). Iraqi Kurdistan is far more economically developed, more culturally liberal and generally more stable.

For example, if you start your trip at the Iraqi Kurdistan airports of Erbil or Sulaymaniyah, or you cross by land from Türkiye, you will only be granted entry to Iraqi Kurdistan. This means you will need a new visa for Federal Iraq (Baghdad, Mosul etc.). Don’t worry though, this is very easy to arrange and can be done once you are on the ground!

The information in this article provides insights into traveling in Federal Iraq. If you are traveling to Iraqi Kurdistan, we have prepared a separate Kurdistan guide with everything you need to know.

Is it worth visiting Iraq?

Absolutely!

Iraq stepped out of civil war and the war against ISIS in 2017 and is slowly but surely developing their tourism industry: new easy visa procedures, new airlines, and fancier hotels.

Don’t get me wrong: Iraq is still a long way off the more tourist friendly Middle Eastern countries like Egypt and Jordan. Yet Iraq easily competes for a star-studded itinerary! From the ancient ruins of Babylon and Hatra to the waterways of the Mesopotamian Marshlands, there is no shortage of things to do in Iraq.

Can Americans visit Iraq? 

Yes, Americans can easily visit Iraq. 

In Federal Iraq airports (Baghdad, Basra, Najaf), Americans can get a visa on arrival for US$75 on arrival. There is occasionally a small processing fee (for example, US$3 at Basra airport), so keep some small change handy too.

Travel tip: Make sure you have USD in cash to pay for your Iraqi visa on arrival. You will need to bring new notes (post-2011, preferably with the blue strip). Credit cards are not accepted.

You are probably thinking: but how do I get to Iraq? Unfortunately, there are currently no direct flights between the United States and Iraq. However, there are countless one-stop options via Europe or the Middle East.

Do I need a visa for Iraq? Can I get a tourist visa upon arrival in Iraq?

Most Western travelers can also obtain the visa on arrival option. For Americans, I’ve set out above how you can visit Iraq.  

British, EU, Australian and New Zealand citizens are eligible for the visa on arrival at Iraqi airports for $75. The process is really straightforward: you fill out a form, you hand over your documents, you wait anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes and you pay the cash. Welcome to Iraq!

Do I need a guide to travel in Iraq?

While it’s certainly possible to travel independently or even go backpacking in Iraq, I recommend taking a guide for your trip. In particular if you are planning any inter-city transport (for example, between Baghdad and Samarra), you’ll want a guide.

I have traveled extensively across the Middle East, and I think only Syria has more checkpoints than Iraq. Generally, the Iraqi soldiers (or militia) will be friendly to foreigners and will likely ask to see your passport. However, when traveling independently in Iraq I find myself often held up at checkpoints for anywhere between 30 minutes to over 2 hours.

With a guide, the checkpoints are unquestionably a more seamless experience. It makes life so much easier to have someone handy (with tourism credentials) to vouch for you, explain your itinerary and sweet-talk you through.

Another reason to take a guided tour through Iraq is that many of the most famous archaeological sites (like Ur or Hatra) have no public transport.

Finally, Iraq is not your ordinary tourist destination. You will find extremely limited English and not much tourism infrastructure. A good guide will help with the language barrier and explain key historic and cultural insights.

We have extensive experience running and operating tours in both Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan. If you are interested in arranging a tour to Iraq, please contact us.

Is Iraq safe?

Since the end of the war against ISIS, Iraq has made huge strides in terms of safety.

There has been a significant decline in terrorism attacks against Western interests and the era of suicide bombings seems to be more or less over.

However, I must acknowledge that Iraq remains a volatile country and an element of the unknown exists. I recommend keeping an eye on political developments, election timelines and Iraq’s relations with Iran – all of which can very quickly lead to mass protests and violence.

What is the best time of year to visit Iraq? 

In my opinion, October to May is the best time to visit Iraq, with pleasant and warm daytime temperatures and crisp evenings (particularly around December-February).  

The summer months put a whole new meaning to the word hot. From June to September, temperatures often sit at 43°C/110°F across Iraq. In Basra, temperatures have been recorded as high 54°C/129°F.

If you do end up visiting during the Iraqi summer, consider a trip to Iraqi Kurdistan. While Erbil is still very hot, as you head further into the mountains (Rawanduz, Sulaymaniyah) you will often find cooler daytime temperatures.

Do I need to carry my passport around?

Yes. I would advise you to always carry your passport around in Iraq.

Besides the countless checkpoints between cities, even within cities police officers may ask to see your ID.

Can non-Muslims visit the Holy Cities of Karbala and Najaf?

Yes.

Unlike Mecca, non-Muslims are welcome to visit the shrines at Karbala and Najaf. In my opinion, both Karbala and Najaf are genuine highlights for visitors to Iraq!

Can women travel solo in Iraq?

Yes. There are no legal restrictions on visiting Iraq as a woman

Female travelers will note that many spaces (including cafes) are often male-dominated. Generally speaking, these are cultural norms rather than dictated by law.

Do women need to wear abayas or headscarves in Iraq?  

No. There are no rules governing how a woman dresses in Iraq.  

There will be times when you feel more comfortable having a headscarf on hand, but it is certainly far from compulsory. For context, in most major cities you will find women generally wearing headscarves, although it is certainly common to see women without a scarf in more upscale areas of Baghdad.

Travel tip: If you are planning on visiting the major Shi’a shrines, like Karbala or Najaf, or smaller shrines like the Tomb of Ezekiel in Al-Kifl, you will be required to wear an abaya within the holy zone (there are checkpoints in and out of this area). Make sure to buy one beforehand!

Can I buy alcohol in Iraq? 

Yes. Drinking alcohol is legal in Iraq. The availability of alcohol will really differ between cities.

The reality is that outside of Baghdad, Mosul and Basra, alcohol can be a little difficult to find. But don’t worry – Iraq is also home to some of the most unique drinks in the Middle East! And Iraqi cities are still very much alive after dark!

Can I use my credit card in Iraq? 

Yes and no.

In Iraq, cash is king. From haggling in the markets of Baghdad, to buying a street-side kahi geymar, you will need Iraqi dinar on hand. Outside of 5 star hotels, you won’t be able to use your credit card.

However, there are a limited number of ATMs across the country (including in the international airports). I generally have been able to withdraw Iraqi Dinar when on the ground. But I should be honest, I have certainly had the headache of driving around trying to find an ATM with cash in it!

How is the internet in Iraq?

Generally speaking, data and internet coverage in Iraq is excellent with a strong LTE connection across most of the country. Even in remote archaeological sites like Hatra you will have good internet coverage.

Local SIM cards can be bought at the airport or in most major cities. You will need your passport and the process can take quite a while. If you are going to have an Iraq tour guide with you, I recommend getting them to help!

If you want to avoid the headache of arranging a local SIM, Iraqi eSIMs are affordable and instantly available.

Can I bring a drone to Iraq? 

Officially no. The reality is that, if your drone isn’t spotted by airport authorities, you likely won’t have an issue with it.

However, Iraqi airports do generally require all visitors to scan their bags.

Can I ask people about the War, Saddam Hussein or ISIS? 

War often results in ongoing and deeply personal processes of trauma and re-traumatization. While you may want to hear all the gory stories of life under Saddam Hussein or ISIS, never forget that there are real people in Iraq who lived behind the headlines.

Many Iraqis will be keen to share their experiences. But there are many who will not. Many have heartbreaking stories of immense tragedy; for example, they may have lost loved ones in suicide bombings or family members to Saddam’s notorious secret police. Rather than asking ‘what was the war like?‘, take a moment to consider how you plan to interact with people on the ground.

I recommend: 

1. Listening actively: Let people offer information, their thoughts and feelings. Avoid interrupting or judging their narratives. For example, for many Sunni Muslims in Iraq, the Saddam-era was a period of immense opportunity and privilege. Take a moment to consider why this is so and what we can learn from this.

2. Showing empathy: Acknowledge the hardships and challenges. No matter your political opinions, never forget that almost every single person you meet will know people that have been killed during the decades of war.

3. Avoiding political discussions: War often involves complex political and historical narratives. No matter how much you have read, as the visitor this is not your story to tell. For many Iraqis, the presence of Western armies in Iraq was a great humiliation and affront to their national dignity.

4. Respecting privacy: Some individuals may not want to discuss their wartime experiences. It’s not your job to push them.

5. Asking open-ended questions: This will encourage them to guide the conversation as they wish. For example, ‘Would you be willing share more about your experiences during the first few months of the War?’ rather than ‘did any of your friends or family die?’. You will very quickly get an idea of whether the person is willing to share their experiences.


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