Located in the north of Iraq, nestled between Iran and Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan is today a safe but turbulent region, home to some of the most breathtaking landscape in the Middle East, composed of green mountains with snow-capped peaks that, definitely, will break with all the stereotypes you have about Iraq.
Iraqi Kurdistan is no desert and, most importantly, it is not a war zone filled with ISIS terrorists but an autonomous region which, for the last couple of years, has done a tremendous job defending its borders.
Kurdistan is very safe and the most ultimate destination for travelers looking for something unique, very off the beaten track, and who are willing to meet the Kurds, a very proud and brave nation, who turn out to also be some of the most hospitable people I have ever encountered, with similar experiences to Iran, Pakistan, and Sudan.
From visiting refugee camps to crazy stories involving the Peshmerga military, great hitchhiking and camping experiences and just amazing people with unbelievable stories to tell, Kurdistan may be the high point of all your backpacking travels.
After visiting Kurdistan twice, I have compiled a guide with 50 useful tips which, hopefully, will help you traveling to Iraqi Kurdistan.
This guide contains all the practical information. For places to visit read: 2-week itinerary in Iraqi Kurdistan
50 Useful tips for traveling to Iraqi Kurdistan
Here you will find:
Travel insurance for Iraqi Kurdistan
Tours & Guides
People and culture
Internet & SIM Card
Total transparency! – If you like my website and find this post useful, remember that, if you buy your travel insurance or any of the books I recommend through any of my links, I will get a small commission at no extra cost to you. These earnings help me keep Against the Compass going! Thanks
A few quick tips before traveling to Kurdistan
1 – What to do in Kurdistan – You may be wondering why the hell you should visit Kurdistan, but there is actually a lot of potential in this country. From visiting historical sites to volunteering in refugee camps, hanging out with local people, war heritage stuff and even outdoor adventures, I think that Kurdistan is a pretty complete destination with plenty of stuff to do. Stay tuned because, very soon, I am going to publish my itinerary.
2 – When to visit Iraqi Kurdistan – Spring and fall are the ideal months to travel, when the temperatures are mild. Winters are surprisingly cold, even in Erbil, and summers are hot. However, the weather is never really extreme, so I would say that Kurdistan is a year-round destination.
3 – Iraqi Kurdistan is an autonomous region – Kurdistan has a lot of autonomy from the rest of Iraq, to the extent that they control the airport, immigration, their borders; they have their own army and, of course, they have their own Parliament. This is one of the main reasons why Kurdistan is a safe destination and whatever unfortunate event you heard recently in the news about Iraq, doesn’t really affect Kurdistan.
Visa for traveling to Kurdistan
4 – Many Western nationalities can get a free visa on arrival – EU countries, the USA, Canada, Australia, Brazil, Argentina, South Korea, Japan and New Zealand can get a free 30-day free visa on arrival, both at the airport and the land border. You just get a tiny, insignificant stamp and that’s it.
5 – The other countries though, need to go through a very tedious process – For people of other nationalities, getting a visa can be a difficult and expensive process. I suggest you contact your nearest Iraqi Embassy or email the KRG Representation at [email protected].
6 – Iraqi Kurdistan visas can’t be used to visit the Arab Iraq – This is important. A valid visa for traveling to Iraqi Kurdistan doesn’t allow you to visit outside of Kurdistan, that is to enter actual Iraq. If you try to enter, you will just bump into very strict military control who will send you back home. Just to clarify, because many people ask me, this also includes Mosul. You can’t go to Mosul with a Kurdistan visa.
Travel Insurance for Iraqi Kurdistan
7 – Don’t get any regular travel insurance – Iraqi Kurdistan is no normal destination and, most likely, it is a country that your Government advises against all travel to. If you read the fine print of World Nomads, you will realize that there are many situations when your policy will not be valid, especially under unfortunate events, for not following the FCO advice.
8 – Therefore, get First Allied, an insurance specialized in high-risk destinations – First Allied is a trust-worthy travel insurance company which exclusively focuses on dangerous destinations. Why should you buy First Allied?
- They provide full medical coverage, including for any accident related to war, terrorism, etc.
- They can pay for kidnapping ransom
- World Nomads would never cover any of the above
Tours for traveling to Iraqi Kurdistan
Iraqi Kurdistan is not an easy destination, so many people decide to travel there on a tour, which is perfectly all right.
There are, of course, many tour guides out there but I strongly recommend Karwan from Iraqi Kurdistan Tours.
Karwan is an independent tour guide who, in the last few years, he has become a real legend in the region. He is very knowledgeable about the region and, if you make a bit of online research, you will see that all travelers have been really happy with him, so I can’t recommend him enough.
In addition, the readers of this blog can get an exclusive discount by using my code ATC-KURD
The discount is 7,50USD per day traveled so, for example, if you hire a 7-day tour, you will get a 52,50USD discount.
Just email him at [email protected] and mention Against the Compass plus the discount code somewhere in the subject or the body text.
How to get to Iraqi Kurdistan
9 – Flying in – Kurdistan has two international airports: Erbil and Suleymaniyah and, most likely, you will be flying to Erbil. Pegasus (via Istanbul) and Fly Dubai (via Dubai) are the cheapest and most common routes.
10 – Entering by land – You can enter Kurdistan from either Iran or Turkey. The Iranian side is very easy and straightforward but the Turkish authorities will give you a lot of trouble.
Books for traveling in Iraqi Kurdistan
11 – Iraq Travel Guide by Bradt – If you follow my blog, you will see that I always recommend their guides for all destinations, so Iraq will be no different. They have, obviously, the only travel guide to the country, with a pretty long chapter focused on Kurdistan. Bradt has the most insightful guidebooks I have ever read.Click here to see the latest prices on Amazon
12 – The Rise of the Islamic State – 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 preceptive introduction to the origins of ISIS, with many references to Iraqi Kurdistan and Iraq, of course. A really useful book to understand the complexity and origin of the conflict.Click here to see the latest prices on Amazon
Safety in Iraqi Kurdistan
13 – The bad things that happen in Iraq don’t happen in Kurdistan – Whatever you have been hearing in the news about Iraq for the last few years, happened in Arab Iraq, not in Kurdistan. The last terrorist attack that occurred in Kurdistan was in Erbil back in 2014. This means that London and Paris have suffered more attacks than the whole of Kurdistan itself.
14 – However, the region is very unstable – I never meant that traveling to Kurdistan will be as peaceful as your spiritual journey through Bhutan, not even close. Despite being safe, the region is highly volatile and effective military operations are the only reason why it is safe. This means that things may change overnight, so being extra careful is more than wise. That is the main reason why you should travel with a high-risk travel insurance like First Allied.
15 – There are military controls everywhere – When you travel between towns and cities, you will find so many military checkpoints run by Kurdish Army guys named Peshmergas. As a Western passport holder, they don’t give you any trouble but, once, I was traveling with an Iraqi from Baghdad and they held him for 15 minutes, at least. They don’t trust Arabs at all as any Arab could, potentially, be an ISIS spy.
16 – Crime rates are ridiculously low – Kurdistan has one of the lowest crime rates in the world. It is one of those places where you may forget your phone in a café, come back in a few hours and still recover it.
For a more complete and detailed analysis, read: Is it safe to travel to Iraq?
Money when travel in Kurdistan
17 – The official currency is the Iraqi Dinar – And, in September 2018, 1USD = 1,200ID.
18 – Money exchange – You can easily exchange €, USD and GBP in all the main cities.
19 – Some exchange offices are, somehow, peculiar – Some exchange offices are just stalls in the middle of the street, with no surveillance, no security and no glass screen with lots of huge bundles of cash. The reason is that the crime rates here are very low.
20 – Credit cards and ATMs – Most ATMs will accept foreign cards but most places, even in expensive restaurants where I ate, didn’t accept credit cards, so remember to always have cash with you.
21 – How much does to cost to travel in Iraqi Kurdistan – Compared to its neighbors, traveling in Kurdistan isn’t very cheap.
- Budget Hotels: 20,000-25,000ID (16-21USD)
- Beer: 1,200ID (1USD) at the supermarket and 10,000ID (8.40USD) in a bar
- Fast food: 1,000-1,200ID (around 1USD) for a shawarma
- Local eateries: 5,000 to 8,000ID (4 to 7USD) for a local meal, consisting of rice, beans and chicken
- Fancy restaurants: Main courses starting at 14,000ID (12USD)
- Taxi rides within cities: from 3,000ID to 5,000ID (from 4 to 7USD)
- Transportation between cities: Local shared taxi from Suleymaniyah to Erbil costs 15,000ID (12USD)
The Kurds and their country and culture – Kurdistan Travel Guide
22 – Kurds are spread over 4 countries – Kurds are spread over Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq, the last one being the most autonomous region. Many years ago, they used to be one single country but, at the end of the British Empire, the British themselves decided to draw the Middle Eastern map like that.
23 – Kurds are not Arabs – Kurds are a different nation and ethnicity who are closer to Persians than Arabs. Never tell a Kurd that they are Arabs, or like Arabs, because they won’t like it.
24 – Kurdish is the main language – Kurdish, a language with many similarities to Farsi and Turkish is the official language in Kurdistan.
25 – Young people don’t speak Arabic anymore – People who are less than 30-years old don’t speak Arabic. They don’t teach it in schools anymore and this was a very drastic measure from the Kurdish Government after the Saddam Hussein invasion, when their national pride and differences versus the Arabs accentuated even more.
26 – English – Young, well-educated people speak English but that’s it. With the rest of the population, you will have to talk using signs or Google Translate.
27 – Many Kurds don’t like Arabs, at all – Educated Kurds are aware that their problems with the Arabs are more political but, during my journey, I met many closed-minded Kurds, especially in the villages, who told me that they really hate Arabs.
28 – They are Sunni Muslims – Kurdistan is a Muslim country and most of them are Sunni.
29 – However, they are some of the least religious people in the Middle East – My good Kurdish friend Badarkhan once told me that, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kurdistan, he committed the most brutal atrocities in the name of God so, after this, many Kurds lost faith in Islam. You will quickly realize that Kurdistan is not as religious as many other Middle Eastern countries and people are much more liberal.
30 – There is also a huge Christian community – Erbil has a big Christian district and there are several Christian villages throughout the region. There are also other religious minorities, such as Yazidis and Zoroastrians.
31 – Hospitality – Like when you are traveling in Iran, in Kurdistan you will also receive so many house, lunch and chai invitations. Being hospitable with their guests is in their blood and, on top of this, they absolutely love foreigners.
32 – Kurdistan is the most developed region in Iraq – And not only due to the fact that they have some of the largest oil reserves in the country, an important business hub like Erbil and control the main borders with Turkey and Iran but also, because Kurdistan hasn’t been so affected by the current war.
33 – Because of all the above, it is not surprising that they would like to separate – More than 90% of the Kurds want to separate from Iraq and, in fact, they had a referendum in October 2017 but, due to the international pressure and threats from Iraq and its neighbors, they couldn’t move it forward.
The food in Iraqi Kurdistan
34 – A shawarma economy – During your trip to Kurdistan, you will get absolutely sick of shawarmas. In 90% of the cases, they will be the only option. They are extremely cheap but they are also extremely nasty and unhealthy. I hated them but this is what their street food culture is about. I used to tell one joke to my Kurdish friends: I think that your economy is based on oil and shawarmas. Being such an oil-dependent country having shawarmas absolutely everywhere made me come up with this. It is obviously a joke which you may not find funny but I do. By the way, many places serving shawarma also serve falafel, a more decent option.
35 – You may find kebabs – On a lucky day, you may find some places serving good kebabs, of all types. The good ones aren’t cheap though and you will realize that you may end up paying almost 10USD for just a few kebabs.
36 – And if you are extremely lucky, you may find a local eatery – Local eateries typically serve red beans with rice and chicken. However, I never found any of these in small towns and villages and very few in both Erbil and Suleymaniyah.
37 – The best Kurdish food is served at home – When I visited Iraqi Kurdistan, I was very lucky when a friend invited me to his house and his mother had cooked lunch for a whole army. She made loads of different traditional dishes, so I could try a lot of new things. Their cuisine is mostly rice and meat-based, always quite fatty and with many stews. Red beans will always accompany any meal and, when they have guests or on any special occasion, they don’t care about making you eat chicken, lamb, and beef at the same time, along with fried rice with meat in it and a lot of flatbread. I left his house completely rolling.
Drinking alcohol when you travel in Kurdistan
38 – Good news: Alcohol is easily available in Kurdistan – Unlike the rest of Iraq, liquor stores are available everywhere. You can buy fresh, cold beer, wine and any type of liquor. In Erbil and Suleymaniyah you can find plenty of bars, as well.
39 – You may actually drink on the street – I didn’t really drink in the center of Erbil but I had some beers in a few parks in both Erbil and Suleymaniyah, as well as in villages throughout the country and I never had any problems. Well, this is not actually true because, in Suleymaniyah, I had a beer in the main square, basically because my Couchsurfing host told me it was OK but the police came to me quite annoyed, but they just made me put it away. Apparently, it is legal to drink but some police don’t like it anyways.
40 – In supermarkets, beer is cheap, not in bars – In the stores, a beer costs not much more than a dollar but, in bars, they charge 10 times more, unfortunately, so if you are on a budget, don’t get drunk in bars.
41 – Chai and cafés – Like pretty much everywhere in the region, chai is a big deal and it always comes with sugar by default. Hanging out in cafés is one of the highlights of any trip to Kurdistan, as it is the best place to socialize with friendly locals.
Transportation – Traveling around Kurdistan
42 – Buses – Buses are basically mini-vans but they don’t really run to many places, except between the main cities. They are much slower than shared taxis and not much cheaper.
44 – Hitchhiking – Super safe and convenient. I hitchhiked all the way from Soran to Dohuk via Amedi, which is around 300km. Nobody never asked me for money and I had great experiences with many of the people, which a few times involved stopping for lunch or even making a detour so they could drop me just at the place I wanted. However, I have to say that many people didn’t stop, so I had to wait for some time on a couple of occasions.
Internet and SIM Card
45 – Wi-Fi – It is not the fastest Wi-Fi in the world but it is pretty decent and you find it all across the country. Internet is not much of an issue when you travel in Iraqi Kurdistan.
46 – SIM Card and 3G – You can buy a local SIM Card but buying data is rather expensive. The locals recommended me Ana Cell and I paid 5,000ID (4.20USD) for the SIM Card and 18,500ID (15USD) for 5GB of data.
Accommodation when you travel in Iraqi Kurdistan
47 – Couchsurfing – In Suleymaniyah and Erbil there are so many active profiles. You may also find a few in Dohuk but outside of the main cities, I never got a couch.
48 – Budget Hotels – Like I said before, the cheapest hotels will cost you around 12 or 15USD but they can’t be booked online. You can check all the hotels I stayed at when I publish my Kurdistan itinerary.
49 – Mid-range / Top-end Hotels – In Erbil, Suleymaniyah and Dohuk you can find endless hotels and deals on Booking.
More useful information to visit Iraqi Kurdistan
50 – Drones – I am telling you this based on my own experience. When I was traveling in Kurdistan, I got arrested for having a drone and I didn’t even fly it. They found it in my backpack and they took me to a military base, where they interrogated me for a few hours. I really thought they I would not get my drone back but, in the end, they believed my story. Basically, they are used by ISIS to spy, so if you do have one because you are overlanding, hide it and don’t fly it!
51 – Tourists visiting refugee camps – It is possible to visit some Syrian refugee camps, but just some of them. They are outside the cities and you should go with a local. I visited Darashakran and you can read about my experience: Visiting a Syrian refugee camp in Iraq.
52 – Traveling to Iran next? – No problem, don’t forget to check all my articles and guides to Iran.
And remember to read all my articles and guides to Iraqi Kurdistan