Update November 2018: There are no new updates. Iraqi Kurdistan is safer than ever. Mosul has been taken from back from ISIS and, after all the trouble caused by the referendum of independence in Kurdistan in October 2017, the situation has gone back to normal. 

From the Iran-Iraq war in 1980 to the Saddam Hussein Gulf conflict, the USA invasion and the current civil war, where the bloodthirsty Islamic State is the main protagonist, for more than three decades, the media has been showing us a country dominated by war.

With hundreds of thousands of displaced people, dozens of thousands of killings and with an average of one terrorist attack per week, Iraq is nowadays considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world.

If you want to know more about Kurdistan, read my 50 Useful tips for traveling to Iraqi Kurdistan

 

is Iraq safe

 

Is Iraq safe? Welcome to Kurdistan

In this article you will find:
Separating Iraqi Kurdistan from the rest of the country
What is it like to travel in Kurdistan?
So is Iraqi Kurdistan and Erbil safe to visit?
Bonus: Iraq safety tips
Conclusion

 

Is Iraq safe? Separating Iraqi Kurdistan from the rest of country

Is it safe to travel to Iraq? This is the $1,000,000 question that any adventurous traveler wonders at least once in his life. The answer is: ”it depends”.

In order to understand it, we need to first understand and separate Iraqi Kurdistan (the pink part of the map) from the rest of the country.

Kurdistan, the pink area of the map – Is Iraq safe?

Iraqi Kurdistan is a semi-autonomous region located in the north of the country. Technically, they are the same country but Kurdistan enjoys a significant degree of political autonomy, it has its own army, visa rules are not the same and you even get a different entry stamp.

Kurdistan also has a different culture from the rest of Iraq. You need to keep in mind that Kurdish people are not Arabs. They wear their own traditional clothes, eat their own food and speak a different language. Kurdish people like to say that their culture is closer to Iranians than Arabs.

They are two completely different regions and, whatever you have been hearing on the news, for the past years, in relation to bombs, terrorist attacks, and ISIS, it doesn’t happen in Kurdistan but in the rest of Iraq.

Today, Kurdistan is a relatively safe place to travel to. There hasn’t been a terrorist attack since April 2014 and there hasn’t been a single foreigner killed since 2003, when Sadam Hussein invaded the region.

Friendly Kurds, in Rawandiz – Is it safe to travel to Iraq

 

Is Kurdistan safe? What is it like to travel there?

When I first arrived at Erbil’s citadel, I could not believe what my eyes saw: the sun was shining, the cafés and terraces were crowded and everybody seemed to have a happy, normal life.

I still remember sitting on a terrace, next to a French expat family whose kids were running around for the entire lunchtime.

In the evening, I headed to the Christian neighborhood, strolling down the streets in search of ale and all I could see was countless bars full of happily drunk expats and friendly locals.

Seriously, is Erbil that safe?

Kurdistan is, definitely, one of the most liberal and open-minded parts of the Middle East, that follows a similar lifestyle to Lebanon.

With a huge touristic potential, impressive landscapes, a deep history, and hospitable people, Kurdistan is a must-visit destination.

For further information, I recommend you read: Places to visit in Iraqi Kurdistan – a 2-week itinerary

Rawandiz Canyon near Soran – Is Kurdistan safe?

 

So, why are Iraqi Kurdistan and Erbil safe to visit?

Erbil is the most modern place in the region but, from a safety point of view, the entire region can be classified as relatively safe.

If you look at the maps below, you will see the evolution of the ISIS territory.

As you can see, from 2014 to 2017, ISIS was, basically, bordering Iraqi Kurdistan but believe it or not, it was really safe.

In July 2017, the Iraqi forces took Mosul back, so the region got safer than ever.

ISIS map from 2014 till 2017 – Is Erbil safe?
ISIS map in 2018 – Erbil safety

 

So, how can Kurdistan and Erbil be safe if ISIS is or was just next door?

Kurdish people have nothing to do with ISIS, as they are religiously moderate

In 2017 and 2018, 4 Iraqi women were murdered in Baghdad just for being social influencers (Instagramers). These women were breaking all Iraqi stereotypes, by portraiting themselves as liberal women wearing Western clothes.

When the last of those women was threatened with her life, she escaped to Iraqi Kurdistan. Unfortunately, at some point, she had to come back to Baghdad for the weekend and got shot by an extremist.

The reason she decided to go there is that she knew she Erbil is safe, as Kurdistan is a very liberal region, compared to the rest of Iraq, of course.

There are liquor stores all over the region and, in the cities, you always see both men and women hanging out together, something barely seen when in actual Iraq.

A friend of mine told me that when Sadam Hussein invaded Kurdistan, he committed the most brutal atrocities in the name of God so, after this, many Kurds lost faith in Islam.

That is why, in Kurdistan, there is no room for extremism and, as a consequence, the Kurds absolutely hate anything that has to do with ISIS and, unlike in Syria, Afghanistan or Pakistan, the terrorists are not living among the population.

 

The region is completely militarized

In Kurdistan, the investment in military security is huge.

There are loads and loads of checkpoints across all cities and roads, where they will ask for your passport and, occasionally, they will even check the car.

As a Western foreigner, they won’t give you any trouble but once, I was traveling by taxi with an Arab man, and the peshmergas (Kurdish soldiers) took him for 15 minutes at least. The reason is that any Arab, which is very rare to see, by the way, is suspicious in their eyes.

Playing with a tank in Suli – Is Erbil safe?

The airport security is extreme

I had never before seen such a degree of airport security.

From the moment you leave the city until the moment you board the plane, you pass through over 10 different checkpoints. Cars and buses can’t get to the departure or arrival terminal but just a few kilometers before and, even by then, they are checked thoroughly.

Read: Tales of backpacking in Iraqi Kurdistan

A plane from Sadam Hussein’s regime – is it safe to travel to Iraq

The American army is everywhere

That used to be before 2017 but, since Mosul was taken back in July 2017, the international military presence has decreased significantly, which means that the region is getting safer and safer.

Before July 2017, I saw many American soldiers in Erbil. Some of them were dressed as civilians, just hanging out, while I saw quite a few in actual duty.

During my second visit, in 2018, I didn’t see any and I believe it was for the aforementioned reasons.

Before Mosul was taken, hundreds of soldiers were watching over the ISIS border 24/7. No one could get out or get in. I got to know from a reliable source that, whenever they see any minimal movement coming from the other side… BAM! They shoot.

My point is that even if you were 1 km away from the ISIS border and wished to get in to say ”Hello” to the radicals, you just could not do it. The Americans would stop you right there and send you home.

Keep reading: 25 Safe Places to visit in Iraq

The road to Mosul
The road to Mosul, at that time, occupied by ISIS – Is it safe to travel toIraqq

 

Bonus – How to visit Kurdistan and Erbil safely

Get a proper travel insurance

You should know that most regular travel insurance companies, like World Nomads, for example, won’t fully cover for travel in Iraq and the reason is that most governments advice against all travel to the country. Therefore, if anything happened to you for not following the FCO advice, your policy would become invalid.

If you go to Kurdistan, it would be wise to get a travel insurance specialized in high-risk areas, like First Allied, a company that offers full coverage for any kind of destination, no matter how dangerous it is.

CLICK HERE TO GET YOUR FREE QUOTE FROM FIRST ALLIED

For more information, read: How to find the right travel insurance for high-risk destinations

Consider traveling with a guide

In order to feel safer, some people may prefer to travel with a guide.

For this, I strongly recommend Karwan from Iraqi Kurdistan Tours.

Do your own research and you will see that Karwan is an amazing independent guide that has loads of positive reviews from travelers. He is extremely knowledgeable about the region and provides with an invaluable service.

Moreover, the readers of Against the Compass can get a unique price 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.

At night, don’t go out alone

I know, this is pretty obvious, right? But still, even though kidnappings are unheard of, if they occurred, they would target those walking alone at late hours.

Stay away from public demonstrations

This kind of event is an easy target for terrorists and the last

Use Couchsurfing

In Erbil, the Couchsurfing community is pretty active and there are quite a few profiles with many reviews, who will be happy to help and guide you throughout your journey.

Read before you go

Whereas it will not keep you safe, it’s advisable to read before your journey, so you understand the complexity of the region. I highly recommend:

The Rise of the Islamic State by Patrick Cockburn – Written by one of the world’s top experts on the Middle Eastern conflict. In this book, he gives a very comprehensive explanation of the origin of DAESH, with many references to Erbil and Iraq. A very useful book to understand the complexity and origin of the conflict.

Click here to check the latest prices on Amazon

 

Iraq Travel Guide by Bradt – The most comprehensive book guide to Iraq, which is relatively updated.

Click here to check the latest prices on Amazon

 

Conclusion – Is it safe to travel to Iraq?

So, are Kurdistan and Erbil safe or not? Let me give you a small piece of advice. Yes but, as I mentioned previously, security is only relative. Please keep in mind that this is a war zone and unstable region, hence could change overnight. Be wise and travel safely.

More on Iraq:

Visiting a Syrian refugee camp in Iraq
Tales of backpacking in Iraqi Kurdistan – What is it like
Places to visit in Kurdistan – A 2-week itinerary
Iraq Travel Guide
10 things to do in Erbil

Visiting the historical village of Amadiya

 

If you like my website and found this post useful, remember that, if you book any service through any of my links, I will get a small commission at no extra cost to you. These earnings help me maintain and keep Against the Compass going! Thanks 🙂

 

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19 comments

  1. Very interesting and unbelievable article! Congrats for your work! This opens new horizons to unusual travel destinations. What did the locals told you? What do they think about people visiting their “not the safest country”? Did you meet any other traveler?

    You have a new follower here! Wish you the best and many more posts like this one.

    Molt segur. Cuniiiiill!!!!

    1. Hey Marc, thank you so much for your email. Basically, what locals told me is that the Kurdistan government started a campaign to promote tourism in Kurdistan. The area is completely safe and they want the world to know about it. In Erbil, there are quite a lot of expats, especially from the American army. To be honest, no one tells you anything because everyday you see a few foreigners. Outside of Erbil, the situation is quite different and they basically ask you a lot of questions. In my case, in most of the times I had been the first Spanish they met, so they were basically asking loads of questions about football and simple stuff like that.

    1. People get crazy! But they went crazy when I told them I was going to Sudan, which is one of the most peaceful regions i’ve ever been. If you ever go to Iraq, let me know 😉

  2. Hi joan
    I just want to thank you about all the good things that you have mention about iraq
    I am 23 year old iraqi citizen
    My name is mustafa
    I live in the capital baghdad
    My feeling now is acobination of happyness and sadness ;

    Happy of seeing one part of iraq is become great and safe after 2003 and forigener pepole can say what you said about us

    Sad because the pepol who run kurdistan are doing what ever it takes to make what you went through happen for only thier teritory only which is kurdistan
    I dont hate kurdish peopl at all
    I invey them only cuz they have some one who looking after them
    I dont want to start talking about that there is no one care about us cuz we dont diserve to be treated good
    you wont belive if i told you that i was asking google “when will iraq be safe like any other county?? ” and i found your articl
    From that you cat tell what my life is .
    IRAQ WILL NEVER BE SAFE ..

    1. Hi Mustafa, thank you so much. I really liked what you wrote, as I find it really sensitive. I would like to feature you on one of my Facebook posts. Only if I have your permission, of course. I would like to feature you and add a picture of your choice. It can be you or any place you like in Iraq. What do you think?

  3. What a helpful article Joan. I knew little about Kurdistan. But then I read this super detailed piece. Well done! Because the little I knew painted this region as being either outright dangerous or at the least, somewhere to skip during your travels. Per usual, the Western and World media paints with such a wide brush and completely divides the world with fear versus bringing it together with honesty, truth and love. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Hey Ryan! Erbil is an awesome metropolis which has been in peace for years!. It is rich in petrol and has a potential and growing middle class. The Government of Kurdistan wanted Erbil to become a business hub in the Middle East, similar to Dubai but, unfortunately, due to the war, it was not possible I guess. But still, this is home to a huge expat community. The city is clean, full and history and with plenty of awesome restaurants. You should give it a try!

  4. Hello.
    Thank you about all the good things that you have mention about iraqi Kurdistan. My name is Haval I’m from Erbil, I am a tour Guide. Did you have chance to visit Mar Mattai, Alqosh and Shanadar cave. What about Sulaymani province , I think worth to visit.
    Thank you.

  5. Your post is really helpful, especially for travelers looking for specific information. If you get to Iraqi Kurdistan next time you visit, drop me a message. I believe that this could help a lot of people in the region. Your post is immensely helpful.

  6. As-salāmu ʿalaykum
    Praise be to Allah, peace and blessings be upon the Messenger of Allah, peace be upon you and your family.
    My name is Abbas Rajiha,Iam 16 years old Originally from Yemen.I lost both parents in the war,and since the death of my parents things have not been easy with me here.But before the death of father he deposited the sum of $1.5million usd with a security company.I will need your assistance to help me receive the money
    so i can come to your country to start a new life and go back to school
    you can reach me via my email [email protected]
    thanks and I am willing to offer you some percentage of the money for your help
    thanks

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