How to travel Iraq – a complete guide for curious visitor (2023)

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How to travel Iraq – a complete guide for curious visitor (2023)

Isolated for decades from the rest of the world, Iraq has decided to finally open its borders, fulfilling the dream of many travellers.

This country is the cradle of modern civilization and the heart of Ancient Mesopotamia, home to Babylon, the city of Ur and Nineveh, once the center of the world and now an epic archaeological site waiting for adventurous travelers to discover it.

In this guide, I have summarized all the most important facts a traveler should know before traveling Federal Iraq. I will cover Kurdistan in a separate article

What language is spoken in Iraq

Arabic is spoken in Iraq, but English is very popular, especially in Baghdad. It’s also possible to speak it with soldiers at checkpoints, but don’t rely on it too much and download an off line Arabic translator if you don’t speak Arabic.

ℹ Religion in Iraq and its specifics

More than 90 percent of Iraqis are Muslim. They are further divided into Shia and Sunni, roughly 50:50, by region. There is also a large Christian population in Iraq, up to 7%, especially in Baghdad, Mosul and Erbil.

travel iraq abandoned kadafi summer villa over babylon
Abandoned Kadafi summer villa over city of Babylon

⛅ Best time to travel Iraq

From mid-October to March, the temperature in Iraq is the most pleasant. However, the nights are quite cold and in the north the temperature can drop below 0 °C, so it’s a good idea to have warm clothes with you.

In the summer months, it is unbearably hot in Iraq. Temperatures can reach 40 to 50 °C, so unless you can withstand extreme heat, I’d recommend coming in the winter.

✈️ How to travel Iraq

By plane

Baghdad International Airport has connections to almost any city in the Middle East, especially Dubai, Doha and Riyadh. For us Europeans, however, the best value for money flight there at the moment is the Turkish Pegasus with a connection in Istanbul.

You can also fly into Erbil in Kurdistan, but it is preferable to arrive in federal Iraq first and then go to Kurdistan, as Iraqi visas are valid throughout whole Iraq.

Budget tip: A taxi to Baghdad from the airport costs over 40 000IQD. This is a government set price as every taxi that goes there must have a special license. If you have time and want to save some money, you can take a bus for 9000IQD. However, this only runs during the daytime.

🚌 By land

Iraq shares a border with these countries:

  • Turkey – Iraqi Kurdistan is easy to get to. There are direct buses from Diyarbakir in Turkey to Zakho, the first Kurdish city, and visas are available on arrival.
  • Iran – Kurdistan as well as the rest of Iraq is open and a visa is available both ways. You must cross the border on foot and take another bus or taxi on the other side.
  • Kuwait – The border is open and you will get a visa on arrival.
  • Saudi Arabia – The border is open and you will receive your visa on arrival.
  • Jordan – The border is open and you will receive your visa on arrival. This is how I entered the country.
  • Syria – The border is closed
travel iraq entering from Jordan
Entering Iraq with a private taxi from Jordan

💻 Internet & connectivity in Iraq

You can buy a SIM card from a phone shop, but not everyone will be able to sell you one. I had an electronic sim card. The best operator in the country is Zain. The price of a physical sim card is around 10000IQD for 5GB for a week. The internet works, however I rarely got 4G. VPN is not necessary.

🛂 How to get a tourist visa for Iraq

In March 2021, Iraq finally introduced the long-awaited Visa on Arrival (VOA), through which residents of 37 countries can enter the country virtually immediately.
The VOA is valid at all international border crossings, i.e. both air terminals and land borders.

The visa costs $76 and it is extremely advisable to have the exact amount in banknotes and in good condition (unwritten, unbroken). Otherwise, they may not have to give you the change or take the notes from you at all.

If you are entering the country from Turkey by land, you will only get a visa for Kurdistan, and you will have to arrange visa for federal Iraq separately.
However, if you are entering directly into federal Iraq, your visa will also be valid in Kurdistan.

As a condition of entry, you must have booked a hotel in Iraq. I didn’t have anything booked though, I just told them which hotel I intended to spend the night in and that was enough. However, if you’re going to enter the country by air, I’d recommend booking a hotel via Booking.com and then cancelling it afterward, as hotels in the normal price range aren’t on the booking site (yet).

I entered federal Iraq from Jordan. Not many tourists use this border, so I was a border attraction. Visa processing was done in a relaxed atmosphere in the general’s office for about two hours. While drinking tea together, the typical questions were asked, where have I been, where am I going, what am I doing and so on, at the end of which everyone involved shake my hand and wish me well in Iraq.
If you’re entering the country by air, you’ll probably get your visa even quicker.

Iraq Baghdad monument
Al-Shaheed Monument in Baghdad

Dealing with checkpoints

However, the situation is more complicated at checkpoints, which are numerous in the country. The soldiers are generally very nice, they are happy to take photos, they even invite you for a meal. It’s a great travel experience, but you have to expect a lot of delays, as at each checkpoint they are obliged to report your visit to the general. Then you wait for a reply, which sometimes comes in minutes, but I have also waited for over an hour.

Fortunately, none of them have kept me longer and they have always done their best to resolve the situation as quickly as possible. Nevertheless, there are at least two checkpoints in the country that a knowledgeable tourist is likely to come across and will not get through without prior preparation. These are the towns of Samarra and Nasiriyah. In both cases, you need to know the local people (or have a contact to the local CK) so that the soldiers at the checkpoint can call those people and put you in their care.

I managed to get in touch with a local Iraqi man via Couchsurfing and he was willing to pick me up at the checkpoint and show me around Samarra, especially its famous minaret.

My visit to Samarra went like this:

I hitchhiked to the checkpoint in front of Samarra town, the soldiers informed me in a friendly but firm tone that if I do not have a contact in the town, they will not let me in.
I gave them the phone number of the Couchsurfer, they called him, and made him come and pick me up.
When he arrived, they put my papers, his papers and even the taxi driver’s papers, including the car papers, in a safe deposit box and basically made them responsible for me in the city.
But everything went smoothly, and a few hours later when I left town we all got our papers back. It is impossible to overnight in the city.

If you don’t want to go through a local CK, I definitely recommend CS or other similar travel communities. Every active member knows about the situation and will surely be happy to help, as even local Iraqis aren’t allowed in these towns unless they are permanent residents or have friends there.

travel iraq Samarra top minaret
On the top of 52m minaret in Samarra

How to find accommodation in Iraq

Accommodation in Iraq can be a challenge for less experienced travelers. Hostels do not exist, and the few reasonably priced hotels on the usual well-known portals are not available for a cheap price.
To make it even more complicated, Baghdad is an expensive city, so there are only a few hotels that will accommodate you for under $40 per night. One is the Diwan Hotel (33.321232, 44.415062) and the other is the Royal Garden (33.317310, 44.420503).
I stayed at Hotel Diwan and despite the terrible reviews it served me well. It was quite clean, quiet and warm enough with a good location near the centre.
It can only be booked by phone (+9647736368688) or via WhatsApp.

Outside Baghdad, accommodation is considerably easier to find and the prices are also friendly. Most of the time you can just ask on the street or use your hands to gesture what you need and a locals will be happy to show you. The advantage is that there are usually multiple hotels in one place so if you go for the cheapest price, you can find it pretty quickly.

💰 Prices, budget, costs. Is Iraq expensive ?

The Iraqi dinar is the currency used in Iraq. The exchange rate is approximately 1€ – 1,58IQD. Money can be changed at ATMs and street exchange offices. I recommend exchange offices, they have a better exchange rate and the ATM fee is often high (8-10€). In Baghdad there is no problem to change dollars or euros, but in general dollars are better accepted.

travel Iraq Baghdad busy city centre
Baghdad busy city centre

How much does it cost to travel in Iraq

  • Visa: 76$
  • Entrance fees to archaeological sites cost individually around – 25 000 IQD
  • Cheap (but comfortable) hotels in Baghdad: from 30 000 IQD
  • Cheap (but comfortable) hotels in the rest of Iraq: 15 000 IQD – 40 000 IQD
  • A bottle of beer in a liquor store: 1 200 IQD – 1 1200 IQD
  • Local restaurants: 1 000 IQD – 8 000 IQD for a local meal
  • Fancy restaurants: main meals from 14 000 IQD
  • Taxi rides in cities: 3 000 IQD – 7 000 IQD
  • Transport between cities: 2 000 IQD – 25 000 IQD depending on distance
  • PCR test: 60 USD – 80 USD

What to visit in Iraq

I spent a good planned 4 days in Iraq. I was most interested in:

Baghdad

I have walked basically the whole city on foot. However, it is possible to use classic taxis(Carrem app) or touktuks. The Martira monument (33.343068, 44.445781), the bazaar (33.334042, 44.403114) the museum (33.328058, 44.385017) and the general vibe of Baghdad is definitely interesting.
It was actually safe to be and walk there, even after midnight.

Babylon + Karbala

I took a bus to Babylon from Alavi South station (33.322943, 44.385667 – all buses go south from there) and then took a taxi for a few cents to the gate. Later walked to Saddam Husain’s summer residence and from there walked again to the town of Hillah (it is also possible to go by taxi of course, there are no buses) In Hillah I took a bus (from here 32.502405, 44.415967) to Karbala. There the mosque and the tomb of Imam Hossain (32.616298, 44.032445) which attracted my attention. From Karbala to Baghdad I went again by bus (from here 32.608202, 44.039656). If you’d like to stay overnight in Karbala, you can try Hotel Rawan (32.616742, 44.038898)

travel iraq Babylon walls
Photo of Babylon Walls taken from Kadafi’s summer house

Samarra

Iraq Samara Minaret
Malwiya Mosque and its 52m high minaret

What not to miss in Iraq

If you have more time, I definitely recommend going to Nasiriyah, see the Ur and visit the Mesopotamian lowlands and its marshes.
Most travelers later continue to Iraqi Kurdistan. There you can take the route directly from Samarra all the way to the city of Mosul. I, however, saved Kurdistan for later and continued on to Iran via the small border crossing of Mehran(33.122317, 46.051251). The best way to get there is by shared taxi from Alnahdha Garage (33.342390, 44.407989). The visa for Iran itself needs to be arranged in advance.

🎒 Is it safe to travel independently in Iraq?

Iraq is doing everything they can to correct visitors’ prejudices and make an Iraq a safe tourist destination. All the checkpoints and all the heavy vehicles in the cities serve this purpose.

From my point of view, Iraq is a very safe country because practically everyone there is trying to make it that way. I’ve been invited to tea many times, gotten free falafel, been taken by taxi for free and I wasn’t afraid to walk down the street in the evening or after midnight. People there are happy to see tourists.

Of course anything can happen, but in terms of general security Iraq is doing pretty well. The challenge for the traveler, however, may be the lack of tourist infrastructure, especially affordable hotels and the ability to get to tourist spots more easily. For these reasons, I think that Iraq should be visited for travellers who already have experience of travelling independently in the Middle East, at least in Egypt or Jordan.

Iraq Baghdad colorful painting
Colorful painting in the city center of Baghdad

Learn more 💬

Visit Countries page for more information about each country

All my travel guides and articles for Iraq

My travel guides for other neighboring countries


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