Join our upcoming Federal Iraq EXPEDITION
9 days, including Baghdad, Mosul, Samarra, Marshes and more.
Jan 30th to Feb 7th
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After decades (literally) of being pretty isolated from the outside world, Iraq finally decided to open its borders to international travelers, making a dream for many come true.
This 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 today epic archaeological sites awaiting to be discovered by intrepid adventurers.
The country, however, is much more than just archaeological sites; Iraq is made of its people, kind-hearted Iraqis who will accompany you in your journey, offering you unprecedented doses of Arab hospitality and generosity.
Jaw-dropping shrines, the lively streets of Baghdad, and a surprisingly elaborate local cuisine: there are many reasons to travel to Iraq.
This country is truly an adventure, and this guide contains absolutely everything you need to know to travel to Federal Iraq, including visa procedures, how to move around, where to stay, going through checkpoints, budget, money, security tips and much more.
Note that this guide is aimed at independent travelers wanting to visit Iraq.
Note: This guide refers to traveling independently in Iraq proper, which includes Baghdad, Mosul, the Marshes, and everything in between, but it doesn’t focus on the autonomous region of Kurdistan.
For that, read: How to travel to the autonomous region of Kurdistan
Iraq COVID-19 travel bans, restrictions and requirements
Travelers wishing to visit Iraq must be fully vaccinated.
If the traveler is not vaccinated, then, you need to present a proof letter from the medical explaining why the person can’t take vaccination in addition to negative PCR.
Travel Insurance for Iraq with COVID-19 coverage
IATI Insurance is one of the few providers that offers full Coronavirus coverage, not only when it comes to treatment, but also cancellation costs in case you tested positive before departure.
And not only this, but it’s one of the few insurance providers that gives coverage for traveling to Iraq.
Readers of Against the Compass can get an exclusive 5% discount.
How to get a tourist visa for Iraq
For your information, you can travel to Iraq since March 2021, when they finally introduced a very long-awaited Visa on Arrival regime.
The visa on arrival for Iraq is available at:
- Baghdad International Airport
- Basra International Airport
- Jordan-Iraq border
- Kuwait-Iraq border
- Iran-Iraq border
- Saudi-Iraq border
Which countries can get a visa on arrival for Iraq?
All EU passport holders, and also the United States (yes, Americans can travel to Iraq), United Kingdom, Russia, China, Japan, South Korea, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Switzerland
How long is the Iraq VOA valid for?
The visa allows you to travel in Iraq for 60 days.
Iraq visa on arrival requirements
Getting my Iraq travel visa on arrival was surprisingly easy.
Upon my arrival at the airport, all I had to do was fill out a form and pay the respective fee.
They processed my visa in less than 15 minutes.
Officially, the cost of the Iraqi visa is 75USD – it’s actually written there – but they ask for 77USD, the extra being a tip I believe. I recommend bringing the exact amount.
Moreover, in order to be eligible for a VOA, you must present a hotel reservation in a 5-star hotel, for at least your first 1 or 2 nights in Baghdad.
That’s the official statement. I did book two nights at the luxurious Babylon Rotana Baghdad – $250 a night – printed out the reservation, and canceled it right after. However, they didn’t ask for it, but I recommend you do present it because there are several reports from travelers who were forced to pay $50 as a hotel rebooking fee.
Your experience is welcome in the comments section.
Is the Iraq travel visa valid for the Kurdistan region?
Yes, it is. Once you are in possession of an Iraqi tourist visa, you can travel freely all over the country, from Baghdad to Erbil, including by land.
However, if you enter Iraq via the Kurdistan region, the Kurdistan visa (60USD, on arrival) is not valid for Federal Iraq. Therefore, given that the visa for Federal Iraq is only available if flying in, you will have to fly from Erbil to Baghdad.
Iraq travel tip – If you are planning to visit all over Iraq, including the Kurdistan region, it’s better to fly into Baghdad first, so you will only have to purchase one visa, hence saving 60USD.
How to sign up for a tour in Federal Iraq
Traveling with a group and an expert local guide will make things much easier, and more fun!
Against the Compass has several Iraq expeditions scheduled all year long:
Also click here to learn more about our Iraq Tours
Do you wish to join a small group, but you can’t travel on any of the above dates?
No problem, just shoot me an email ([email protected]) indicating:
- How many people you are
- How many days do you want to spend in Iraq
- Which dates
And we will try to find other travel buddies you may travel with. Otherwise, know that we can also organize private, tailored trips.
Travel Insurance for Iraq
For obvious reasons, regular insurance companies don’t cover travel in Iraq.
One of the very few companies which does cover, however, is IATI Insurance, a travel company based in Europe, which I recommend because:
- It offers different plans for all types of travelers: from families to budget backpackers
- COVID-19 coverage
- Covers up to 1-year trips
- Readers of this blog can get an exclusive 5% discount.
Useful books for planning your trip to Iraq
Iraq Travel Guide by Bradt
If you follow my blog, you will see that I always recommend Bradt guides for all destinations, so Iraq will be no different. They have the most insightful guidebook to Iraq.
The Rise of the Islamic State by Patrick Cockburn
This is my favorite journalism book ever and it is written by Patrick Cockburn, one of the world’s top experts on the Middle Eastern conflict. In this book, he gives an extremely perceptive introduction to the origins of ISIS, with many references to Iraq, of course. A really useful book to understand the complexity and origin of the conflict.
Is it safe to travel to Iraq?
Safety is the number one concern for people visiting Iraq.
From the war between Iran and Iraq in 1980 to Saddam’s Hussein regime, the US invasion in 2003 and the more recent ISIS rule, decades of conflict and religious sectarianism made Iraq an actual war-torn country, labeled by all international media as one of the most dangerous destinations in the world.
While it’s true that for decades, Iraq was a pretty dangerous country to travel to, the situation has drastically improved.
This has been recently proved by the visit of Pope Francis in March 2021, thanks to whom – no kidding – Iraq finally opened its borders for tourism.
I traveled around Iraq independently, moving around by public transportation and I was particularly surprised by how calm and peaceful everything seemed to be, especially Mosul and around, an area occupied by ISIS just a few years ago.
With the exception of the endless checkpoints, everything else seemed pretty normal when traveling in Iraq, with the particularity that Iraqis, in general, were always extremely kind, helpful, and generous, like nowhere else you might have been to.
Nevertheless, remember that religious sectarianism still exists across the country and that occasional bombings may happen from time to time, in Baghdad in July 2021.
Iraq is mostly safe to travel but even experienced travelers should keep an eye open because we can’t forget that the country is highly unstable.
Always stay up-to-date with the latest security updates but, instead of reading biased newspapers or the Iraq travel advice FCDO, do contact the local people. For that, Iraq Travelers Café is an invaluable source of information, where you can get in touch with English-speaking Iraqis.
What about the Kurdistan region?
Kurdistan is a different story. The region has always been safe, which is why it has been open to international tourism for quite a while now. For a better understanding, read:
Is Kurdistan safe?
Iraq independent travel vs organized tour
Join our upcoming Federal Iraq EXPEDITION
9 days, including Baghdad, Mosul, Samarra, Marshes and more.
Jan 30th to Feb 7th
CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE
For most people, Iraq is perceived as a challenging country to travel to, a destination only aimed at experienced backpackers, the reason why most travelers tend to visit Iraq with a local guide or on an organized tour group.
Traveling in Iraq independently – aka backpacking in Iraq
There’s plenty of public transportation, most cities have a range of hotels and local Iraqis are super helpful.
The only challenge you may encounter, however, is police and army checkpoints.
Some checkpoints are pretty easy to get through, but some may come with their own challenges, for which is best to have a local contact, which you can easily get from Iraqi Travelers Café. More on checkpoints later.
Traveling in Iraq with a local guide or on a group tour
That’s what most people do, and it’s fine.
Against the Compass (this site) is leading group expeditions into Federal Iraq.
Learn more: Against the Compass EXPEDITION to Federal Iraq.
Top experiences when traveling in Iraq
Explore vibrant Baghdad
With its bustling bazaars and lively districts, Baghdad is a thrilling city with so much going on, the destination within Iraq where you need to spend at least one day.
Learn about the Islamic State legacy
The rule of the Islamic State in the north of Iraq is still latent in people’s life, living history I call it.
Witnessing the city’s reconstruction and the Iraqis’ struggle to return to normality is an unmissable part of their history to experience.
Touring the Mesopotamian Marshes on a boat
The Arab Marshes are a wetland ecosystem in south Iraq, a huge aquatic landscape in the middle of the desert, home to a distinct cultural group named the Marsh Arabs. Going through the Marshes on a traditional boat, visiting the different islands and the local people is a great experience.
Witness one of the largest pilgrimages in the world
The city of Karbala, along with Najaf and Samarra, are the holiest cities for Shia Muslims, cities that every year receive millions and millions of pilgrims from all over the world, especially from Iran.
Discover Iraq’s ancient history
Iraq was the heart of Ancient Mesopotamia, the people who developed the first cities, writing and agriculture, between 10,000 and 3,000 BC.
Discover Iraq’s glorious past by paying a visit to the most relevant archaeological sites.
Iraq culture, language and religion
Iraqis are proud Arabs, something you are likely to notice throughout your travels in Iraq.
They comprise 75% of the total Iraqi population, the rest being Kurds, Turkmens, Assyrians, Yazidis, Armenians, Mandaeans, Shabaks, and other minority groups.
It’s an ethnically diverse country but these figures might have changed in recent years, especially those of Yazidis, Mandaeans and Turkmens, whose numbers have drastically decreased due to violence unleashed against them.
Getting to know local Iraqis
Before traveling in Iraq, I expected Iraqis to be very generous, similar to their Arab neighbors, but what surprised me the most is that they could be perfectly equal to Pakistanis, Afghans or Iranians – you know, the most hospitable countries in the world – unprecedented hospitality in the Middle East.
Topics aside, making friends in Iraq is particularly easy, and a lot of fun.
Local Iraqis will always be super happy to hang out with you, to show you around, something truly appreciated in a country where chances to meet other travelers are scarce.
They can, however, be over-protective sometimes, and will always want to pay for all your meals and buy you souvenirs. This made me feel awkward but that’s their culture, you are their guest and, although you should always attempt to pay for your own food, just go with their flow.
Language spoken in Iraq
Arabic is the common language throughout Iraq, understood by pretty much everybody, except for a large portion of Kurds.
English is relatively commonly spoken among highly educated people but not the rest of Iraqis, especially at checkpoints, so learning some Arabic words can prove very useful.
Religion in Iraq
More than 90% of Iraqis are Muslim, divided into Shia and Sunni Muslims by ≈ 50%, depending on the report.
This extreme division dictates Iraq’s everyday politics and is one of the reasons why religious sectarianism flourishes.
There is a large proportion of Christians too, around 7% according to some reports, mostly living in Baghdad, Mosul, and Erbil.
Close to Mosul, there is a city named Bakhdida, home to 300,000 people, 90% of whom are Christian, the largest Christian city in Iraq and perhaps in the whole Middle East. Pope Francis visited it in March 2021, where he said Mass in a recently restored Catholic church that had been burnt down by ISIS.
Cuisine in Iraq
Before traveling to Iraq proper, I had spent two weeks in Kurdistan running two expeditions, eating nearly the same thing every single day.
In Iraq proper, where I also traveled for two weeks, I thought I’d be eating the same dishes again, but I was wrong.
While it’s true that shawarma, falafel, and grilled kebabs abound everywhere, being their staple foods, there are many must-try, elaborate dishes defining Iraq’s rich, complex history.
In the north, I found the food to be more sophisticated, more varied, probably because of their proximity to Syria and also because the land is more fertile. The classic Syrian foul for example, which is like hummus but made of beans, could be found everywhere in Mosul.
In the south, I ate mandi on a few occasions, consisting of rice with meat on top, and the national dish in Yemen, but also in neighboring Saudi Arabia.
Alcohol in Iraq
You would be surprised that liquor shops in Iraq abound, especially in Baghdad and Mosul, where you find the largest Christian populations. Drinking in the street is technically not allowed in Federal Iraq, but you can do it in your hotel and in Baghdad there are many Western-style bars. Kurdistan on the other hand, is way more permissive than Federal Iraq, with far more liquor shops.
Anyways, some more must-try dishes when you visit Iraq are:
Kubba – Consisting of a couscous paste filled with meat. It comes in plenty of different sizes and shapes, depending on the region in Iraq. I was always down for kubba
Masgouf – An old Mesopotamian dish consisting of a huge fish from either the Tigris or Euphrates, which they grill for hours sometimes.
Kahi with Geymar – The national breakfast, consisting of a sweet pastry with honey or syrup, covered with a creamy, thick white cream made from buffalo milk. Amazing.
Gus – Similar to shawarma but eaten with broth and floating pieces of bread. Typical from Mosul.
When is the best time to visit Iraq
Read: Places to visit in Syria
Best season to travel to Federal Iraq
From mid-October until March, when the temperature is pleasant.
You should know, however, that in winter, especially from December until January, the northern part (Mosul and surroundings) can get pretty cold (0ºC).
The south is warmer but it can also get chilly at night so, if you are traveling in Iraq during winter time, do bring some warm clothes.
Worst season to travel to Federal Iraq
Summer, late spring, early autumn.
During the warmer months, all Iraq can be too hot for traveling so, unless you can stand extreme heat (40 to 50ºC), I don’t recommend visiting Iraq at that time of the year.
What about Kurdistan?
Kurdistan is a mountainous region, with extremely cold winters and extremely hot summers. In December-January, most of the region is covered by snow but in spring, the whole region is covered in lush green and colorful meadows, making it a visually appealing season to travel to. Autumn is a great season too, with pleasant temperatures and beautiful fall colors.
Remember to check my Kurdistan itinerary
How to get to Iraq
How to travel to Iraq by air
If you are coming from Europe, Istanbul is a common stopover, Pegasus having the cheapest fares.
Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, has an international airport too, with similar connections to Baghdad. Remember, however, that it’s recommended to fly into Baghdad first because the Iraqi visa can be used for Kurdistan too, while the Kurdish visa is only valid for Kurdistan.
Getting from Baghdad International Airport to the city center
At the arrival terminal, there are branded official taxis that can take you to the city for 40,000IQD.
To make it cheaper, you can take the bus (9,000IQD) that takes you out of the airport security zone. From there, you can take a taxi for 12,000-15,000IQD
How to travel to Iraq by land
Iraq shares a border with:
- Turkey – You can easily cross into the Iraqi Kurdistan region. There are direct buses from the city of Diyarbakir to Zakho, the first Kurdish town, and visa is available on arrival.
- Iran – You can also easily cross into both Kurdistan, and the rest of Iraq, and the visa is available at both. You cross the border on foot because direct transportation is not available. I once crossed from Iran into Kurdistan at Bashmak-Penjwen.
- Kuwait – The border is fully open, and you can get a visa on arrival.
- Saudi Arabia – The border is fully open, and you can get a visa on arrival. Read my Saudi travel guide
- Jordan – The border is fully open, and you can get a visa on arrival.
- Syria – The border is closed. Read my Syria travel guide
Internet & connectivity in Iraq
Buying a SIM Card in Iraq
You can buy a SIM Card in a phone shop but not all of them can sell one, you will have to enter and ask.
I recommend Zain. Typically, they have 1-week or 1-month plans, the 1-week plan starting at 10,000IQD, more or less, for 3-5GB.
If you start your journey in Kurdistan, don’t get Korek, a Kurdish operator with limited service in southern Iraq.
Connecting to Wi-Fi in Iraq
Relatively good hotels do have Wi-Fi, and some cafés too, but it’s not very reliable. Do buy a SIM Card to stay connected.
Get a VPN for traveling in Iraq
You should always use a VPN when you travel, especially when you connect to public Wi-Fi networks.
Your connection will be much safer.
Moreover, you will be able to access content which is typically censored in Iraq.
I recommend ExpressVPN – Extremely easy to use, fast and cheap.
If you want to learn more about VPN, check: Why you need a VPN for traveling.
Money and budget: need to know
In Iraq, they use the Iraqi Dinar (IQD) and approximately:
1USD = 1,450IQD
Exchanging money in Iraq
Exchanging money in Iraq is fairly easy.
Exchange offices are plentiful, but one small issue I encountered is that Euros (€) are not accepted everywhere, especially outside of the big cities.
US dollars, however, can be changed all over.
This wasn’t the case in Iraqi Kurdistan, where both USD and € are widely accepted.
Withdrawing money in Iraq
There are ATMs accepting both VISA and Mastercard but you need to look for them. It’s better to bring cash with you.
Also remember that except for a few fancy places, you can’t pay by credit card in Iraq, but only cash.
How much does cost to travel in Iraq independently?
Baghdad was obviously the most expensive city in all Iraq, while Mosul was the cheapest.
Kurdistan lies somewhere in between and the rest of Iraq is pretty affordable. These are the cost of the most typical things:
- Visa: 77USD
- All entry sites to archaelogical sites cost 25,000IQD
- Budget (but comfortable) hotels in Baghdad: from 60,000IQD
- Budget (but comfortable) hotels in the rest of Iraq: 25,000IQD – 40,000IQD
- Bottle of beer in a liquor shop: 1,200IQD – 1,1200IQD
- Local eateries: 5,000IQD to 8,000IQD for a local meal
- Fancy restaurants: main courses starting at 14,000IQD
- Taxi rides within cities: 3,000IQD – 7,000IQD
- Transportation between cities: 5,000IQD – 25,000IQD depending on distance
- PCR test: 60USD – 80USD
Average daily backpacking budget for Iraq
Starting from $45 – $65 a day
Transportation: how to travel around Iraq
Moving around Iraq by public transportation is fairly easy.
Typically, most towns and cities are connected with either local shared taxis or minibuses.
The local shared taxi is always a bit more expensive than the bus, but it’s way faster and more comfortable. I only took shared taxis and I recommend you do the same.
Shared taxis I took (with prices):
- Baghdad to Karbala – 10,000IQD (115km)
- Karbala to Hilla (Babylon) – 2,000IQD (45km)
- Hilla to Najaf – 7,000IQD (60km)
- Najaf to Nasiriya – 10,000IQD (250km)
- Nasiriya to Chibayish (Marshes) – 5,000IQD (90km)
- Nasiriya to Baghdad – 20,000IQD – 25,000IQD, depending on the seat (345km)
- Baghdad to Mosul – 20,000IQD – 25,000IQD, depending on the seat (400km)
Iraq Travel tip – garage is the word used for referring to a bus or taxi station. If you wish to go to Nasiriya, just ask for the Nasiriya garage and Iraqis will point you in the right direction,
Hitchhiking in Iraq
I didn’t hitchhike but in Karbala, when asking for the Hilla garage, a random Iraqi told me: I am going in that direction, you can join me. Does that count as hitchhiking?
In any case, hitchhiking in Iraq should be easy.
Taxis to move around Baghdad
If you have a SIM Card, get your Careem App, which is the regional version of Uber.
Taxi rides within Baghdad cost anything between 3,000-7,000IQD.
Checkpoints in Iraq
As mentioned, military checkpoints are the one challenge travelers need to face when backpacking in Iraq.
A few things about checkpoints in Iraq:
- There are checkpoints to enter each and every city, and also on roads.
- Checkpoints exist for security purposes.
- The authorities tend to be very friendly, and even ask for photos.
- Checkpoints can be operated by different armed groups. Most of them are run by the Iraqi police, but they can also be controlled by different local militias, mostly Shia but also Christian militias, like in Bakhdida.
- Most checkpoints are pretty straightforward, you either get through or they just quickly check your passport.
- One issue I encountered in many checkpoints was that, since the entry date of my visa was written in English, soldiers weren’t able to understand it. This meant waiting a bit extra, since they had to consult with a superior, but it never turned out to be an issue.
However, there are 2 checkpoints that can take a lot of time, like hours of waiting.
Based on my own experience, here’s an overview of each one of them:
Nasiriya is a big city in southern Iraq and an unavoidable destination for anyone heading to Basra or the Marshes.
Its main peculiarity is that this is home to al-Hoot prison, an American-made high-security prison, today filled with ISIS fighters, and the reason why the Nasiriya checkpoint is a tricky one.
Basically, in order to enter Nasiriya, you are supposed to have a local to sponsor your visit. If you don’t have one, you will eventually make it through but there are reports from travelers who waited there for several hours.
In my case, I did have a friend in Nasiriya.
I gave his phone number to the authorities and after 45 minutes, they let me go. During those 45 minutes, all we did was have friendly chats, mainly about Spanish football. That’s it.
In 2006, the city of Samarra was affected by a suicide bombing targeting Al-Askari mosque, one of the holiest shrines in the world for Shia Muslims.
Since then, the armed group and Shia militia Sarayat al Salam has taken control of Samarra, establishing checkpoints all over the city, closing all hotels, and making Samarra the worst city to live today in Iraq, according to local Iraqis.
Sarayat al Salam is a paranoid group which is suspicious of everyone, especially foreigners. If you come to Samarra by yourself, without a local Iraqi, chances are that you can be waiting at the checkpoint all day before they let you through.
I visited Samarra with two local Iraqis actually from Samarra and even with them, we had to wait 15-20 minutes at each checkpoint before they let us through.
Where to stay in Iraq: accommodation guide
There are no hostels in Iraq, but you can find all sorts of hotels.
In Baghdad, they can be expensive for what you get but, in the rest of the country, they are pretty affordable.
Here’s a list of all the hotels I stayed during my trip to Iraq:
- Baghdad – Oscar Hotel – Around 60,000IQD a night. Very good location, comfortable and great Wi-Fi. This is the best hotel I stayed in Iraq.
- Karbala – Al Karama Hotel – 15,000IQD. Very basic, but OK for one night. It was close to the shrine.
- Najaf – Qaem Hotel – 20,000IQD. Also basic but better than the one in Karbala. Amazing shower and good Wi-Fi.
- Nasiriya – Hotel Tourist – 50,000IQD. Quite good, and comfortable.
- Chibayish – I did a homestay, paying around $30 including dinner and breakfast.
- Mosul – Alsfer Hotel – $15. Surprisingly good for the price.
- Samarra – There are no hotels in Samarra
Solo female travel in Iraq
Occasional verbal harassment does happen, but it’s rare, and most Iraqis will be nothing but extra kind with any foreign women.
What to wear as a solo female traveler in Iraq
In cities like Baghdad, Mosul, or Nasiriya, you will see all sorts of women dressing in all different ways, some of them apparently quite liberal.
However, do always dress modestly in order to avoid unwanted attention, and bring a headscarf with you, since you may need it depending on the area you are visiting.
On the other hand, in Karbala and Najaf – two very holy cities – a full abaya covering your whole body is mandatory.
For more information, read this Iraq travel guide for females.
I hope you enjoyed this article, which I believe is the best travel guide to Iraq available on the internet. Any questions or concerns, kindly let me know in the comments section.