After spending nearly a month in Iran, I decided at the last second to cross over to Iraq. While at the time, I had no idea what to expect, the border crossing was incredibly straight forward and I had no issues as a foreigner travelling solo. I then headed into the Kurdistan region of Iraq and was able to enjoy a couple of weeks exploring the area.
For those who are interested in crossing the Iraq-Iraqi Kurdistan border, this blog post will outline how exactly I was able to do it. The border crossing at Bashmagh/Penjwen is relatively easy to reach from Marivan in Iran or Sulaymaniyah in Iraq.
Marivan in Iranian Kurdistan
Marivan is a small town in Iranian Kurdistan close to the border with Iraqi Kurdistan. There’s a pretty lake on the edge of town with a small market and food stalls that is the local favourite hangout of an evening. I enjoyed walking along the main street and through the bazaar, watching the older men in their traditional Kurdish clothes drinking tea and in deep conversation about life.
Before crossing the Iran-Iraqi Kurdistan border, I recommend you take the time to explore Hawraman Valley, an incredibly picturesque deep split in the earth’s surface, which traditional Kurdish villages have inhabited for centuries. It’s an incredibly beautiful place that is best explored on a day trip or tour with a knowledgeable guide from Marivan.
Where to stay in Marivan
In Marivan, I stayed at See You in Kurdistan Hostel, run by the founders of the See You in Iran Hostel in Tehran. It’s such a beautifully decorated place with a nice courtyard, perfect for chilling out and chatting with other travellers or interesting locals who stop by. It’s just off the main market street and I had plenty of locals pointing me the way as there’s only a tiny sign which is easy to miss. It’s the only English-friendly place to stay in town, you can find out more about the hostel here.
How to cross the Iran-Iraqi Kurdistan border from Marivan in Iran
Within minutes of hitting the main street in Marivan, I had a taxi driver approach me who spoke pretty good English. He offered to drive me to the border at Bashmagh or sometimes written Bashmarq for 300, 000 rials (AUD$4).
I needed to change money too as my rials were not going to be any good to me in Iraq so he drove me to a corner where there was a string of guys walking the streets with bundles of cash. He obviously had a friend and called him over. The rate was actually very good, and I exchanged my rials into Iraqi dinar. Then we were on the way to Bashmarq. The 20km drive took around half an hour to the gate where vehicles that are not crossing have to drop their passengers. I said thank you to my driver, and headed across to Immigration.
The walk from the gate to immigration is around 500m. There are taxis offering to drive you for 50, 000 rials (less than 50c) or you can just walk.
Inside the building was a large hall with two lines (one for foreign passports and one for Iranian passports). First, everyone has to put their bags through an x-ray and then you can move to the exit stamp queue. I lined up in the line that was marked for “foreign passports” and then found out when I got to the officer that I was in the wrong line? So he pushed me to the front of the other line where another officer stamped me out of Iran without much of a fuss.
Iraqi Kurdistan Immigration
I walked outside and across the ‘no man’s land’ between he two countries, which was only a couple of hundred metres. It wasn’t immediately clear where I had to go, but I saw a building to the left with a crowd of people outside and only assumed that must be immigration.
There were two lines coming out of two doors, one saying IN and one saying OUT. I lined up at the IN line, which I assumed meant entry. The wait was only around 15 minutes and I got to a small room with two officers working frantically. He pulled out a list of foreign countries in front of him to see whether I needed a visa and said, “Australia – no visa.” They took a headshot and stamped my passport and I was through – it seemed easier for me than the Iranians in the room.
Note: The visa stamp says Iraq, which is slightly confusing as technically it doesn’t permit you to enter into Arab Iraq as that requires a proper visa application and another kind of border crossing that separates Kurdistan with Arab Iraq.
I walked back outside and wasn’t sure where I needed to go from there. I followed the road back towards the Iran gate and then turned left towards what appeared to be another gate and which I assumed was the Iraq gate, but again nothing was clear. There was no one around to ask but I figured that if I was walking somewhere that I shouldn’t then I would soon be told. I got to the gate and some friendly Kurdish soldiers looked at my passport, “Ah Australia! My cousin is in Perth, very nice!”. I decided to ask him where the taxis were for Sulaymaniyah and he pointed across to the parking lot. Perfect.
Getting to Sulaymaniyah
The parking lot the soldier had pointed me to was for shared taxis and there happened to already be three young guys waiting as well so we left straight away. It cost 2, 000 Iraqi Dinar (AUD$2.50) to reach Penjwen, the closest settlement and border town.
From there, we had to change to another shared taxi to get us to Sulaymaniyah which cost 7, 000 Iraqi Dinar (AUD$9). It took just over an hour altogether.
As we flew along the road, I couldn’t believe that I was in Iraqi Kurdistan. The border had been a breeze. From leaving Marivan to being at my hotel in Sulaymaniyah took just three hours in total.
Where to stay in Sulaymaniyah
I highly recommend, Dolphin Hostel/Hotel. It’s owned by Shah, a man who’s travelled to over 60 countries (on an Iraqi passport, which is a significant feat) and he understands tourists and their needs. The place is very clean and although the budget rooms are small, for the price it’s good value. He has free tea, coffee and water available 24/7 and all his staff are very friendly.
He can provide information and recommendations for travel throughout Kurdistan and he has started the Facebook group Backpacking in Iraqi Kurdistan, which anyone can join. He’s also available on Whatsapp and Messenger and he gave me recommendations even after I’d left Sulaymaniyah.
Iraqi Kurdistan visa
Immigration for Iraqi Kurdistan is controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government. For European nationals, American, Canadian, Australian, Japanese and Korean passport holders, visas are not necessary and you’ll be granted 30 days on arrival.
Note that this is different from the Iraq visa, in which most foreign nationals require to apply for in advance. If you want to visit cities like Mosul or Kirkuk, which are now under Iraqi control, then a proper Iraqi visa is required, even to use the roads leading to those cities.
For Europeans, visas are generally pretty straight forward with a 75 euro fee. Australians on the other hand have to fork out a huge 145 euro fee for their visa, but the process is still straight forward.
For Americans, Brits and Canadians, unfortunately, visiting Iran is complicated and must be done on an approved tour.
There are a handful of countries who can visit visa free, it’s best to check the most recent updates online.
Technically, if you have visited Israel previously then you may be denied entry into Iran, however, in my experience they didn’t ask nor did they search very hard in my passport. I also heard that if it wasn’t a recent trip then they are less likely to care anyway.
Visas can be applied for in advance through an e-visa platform or on arrival at the airport. I got my visa on arrival at Tehran’s international airport and it was a very easy process with no questions asked. I suspect, although risky, visa on arrival is the best option, and I never heard anyone say they had any trouble. Note that these visas are 30 days, although it’s relatively easy (from what I heard) to extend in any major city.
If you plan on crossing a border into Iran, however, it’s recommended to have a pre-approved visa through the e-visa platform before attempting to cross. Officials at borders are unlikely to be able to process visa applications, check online before heading to the border.
It’s also mandatory to have travel insurance for Iran. Your policy needs to actually state “Iran” and not Asia or Middle East or something else. I already had insurance paid up for “All of Asia” but that was not good enough for immigration so I simply had to buy Iranian insurance which cost 14 euros on top of the visa fee at the airport. It’s also worth checking whether your policy or company do actually cover Iran, as many don’t due to the political instability and government travel warnings.