Is Iraq safe? Welcome to Kurdistan

Update 2020 – 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


In this Iraqi safety guide 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.

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


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.

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.

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, for whatever reason. 

The one which does cover, however, is IATI Insurance, a company based in Europe that offers loads of plans for any type of traveler, from budget backpackers to families. 

Moreover, the readers of this blog can get an exclusive 5% discount

BUY IT THROUGH THIS LINK TO GET YOUR 5% DISCOUNT

Is Kurdistan safe for solo women?

I recommend you read: 

Tips for solo female travel in Kurdistan

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 an exclusive 5% price discount by using my code ATC-KURD.

Just email him at karwan.wahed@gmail.com 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 PRICES ON AMAZON


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

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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:

More on the Middle East:

Is Iraq safe?

Disclosure: As a traveler, I use all the companies I recommend and you should know that, if you buy any service through any of these links, I get a small commission at no extra cost to you. These small earnings help me to improve and create more content for Against the Compass. I really appreciate your support :)

Start planning and booking your trip

For booking accommodation

Use Booking.com for hotels and guesthouses

Check on Hostelworld for for backpacker hostels

For travel insurance (with COVID-19 coverage), I recommend:

1 – IATI Insurance (5% discount) – Cheapest travel insurance and for travelers above 70

2 – True Traveller – Best backpacking insurance (only Europeans)

 

For all your travel gear

Trekking equipment, books, etc, check on Amazon

If you want to know all the companies I use to plan my trips, check my travel resources page

27 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 abbasrajiha@gmail.com
    thanks and I am willing to offer you some percentage of the money for your help
    thanks

  7. Hi Rajiha. I am so sorry to hear about your family. Hopefully I can help you to leave the terrible situation you are currently in. Please let me know what you need from me to help you.

    1. Are you Rajiha’s friend (or Rajiha herself), someone who is trying to make her story more credible, or are you so stupid to believe that you are about to get rich by commenting on a random blog post from a random blog?

  8. Pathetic propaganda for the Kurdish terrorists by another filthy amerishit. The problem is that you filthy ameriturds ,along with the Kurds are despised in Iraq. And when the Iraqi people are liberated from the Iranian and Amerishit scum, those Kurds will be annihilated ,it will be MUCH WORSE than Saddam’s era.

    1. First of all, I am not American, and second of all, this is not propaganda but traveling information.
      I wish actual Iraq was as safe and easy to visit, so I could travel & write about it but, unfortunately, it’s not.

      1. Iraq is safer than you are making it seem! It is not one of the most dangerous countries and this is definitely propaganda!! You need yo get your facts straight before writing all of this and you can visit Iraq and see for your self the peacefulness of our country and its people

  9. Hi Dania,

    I admire your patriotism – I’m Irish and for many years my country had a bad reputation for travel.

    I am curious though – have you travelled to other parts of the world?

    1. No matter if you are American or Spanish. Why do we let hatred speech be published here, as well as scams? Racist speech against Americans and Kurds, genocidal speech against Kurds. Unacceptable.

  10. was touched by the facebook video post of the American expat having trouble to exit Kurdistan.
    I hereby share my comments:

    All travelers/passengers are responsible for verifying immigration policies prior to their entry to a given country, same as to their exit from the country, all related territories to this country included.

    Kurdistan is indeed, unfortunately, not an independent country yet. But it has a different, much more relaxed, visa regime, than Iraq, the federative country in which it is obliged to remain at present.

    Much more relaxed, true, much more expatriate-friendly and not corrupt at all; however, it is still a distinct territory and a separate visa regime. And that has fortunately been so for many years.
    This should be known to anyone with a minimal general knowledge of the context and should be verified, as said, by the expatriate; a thing, that can be easily done on social media, travel sites and governmental sites.
    An expatriate that travels to Baghdad with an Iraqi visa and chooses to go through the papers, as said in the video, and act meticulously even on the COVID-19 test – should not miss the visa issue, even without a reliable travel agent that has issued the ticket for her/him.

    It is logical and common in the Middle East and elsewhere:

    You enter Sinai in Egypt, Aqaba in Jordan, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, Northern/Southern Cyprus from each direction, Pogradec in Albania, Mitrovica in Kosovo/Serbia, Kish/Bandar Anzali Free Trade Zones in Iran, tourists poles in the DMZ between the Koreas, Puerto Rico and few Mexican and Canadian territories vs. the US:

    You can exit them back to original, immediate place you came from – with the same visa you entered it, and according to the time-limits decreed in those places.

    However, if you wish to exit those territories to the outside world, and not to the place you came from, but to a third destination (to enter Eilat/Israel from Sweden but to return to Sweden from Aqaba/Jordan) – you have to get an exit visa, or to stay a minimum amount of nights, depends on the local immigration law.

    As for the lady, apparently, she is very well connected (maybe due to the fact that she is not a 20-year old volunteer that could be new to the context, and having a year-long multiple entry Iraqi visa is a rare, precious commodity): She managed to get into Kurdistan with the help of the Mosul Governor. Why not to do it the right way? Only because Kurdistan was closed (protection from COVID-19) and because the flight was from Erbil whereas it could have equally been booked from Baghdad? The Governor could have then helped her to exit Kurdistan the same way.

    Anyway, having a recourse to Mosul Governor’s good services should have triggered an alarm signal in the lady’s mind : His help was needed because her entry to Kurdistan would have not been that smooth and needed an exceptional intervention, meaning: getting out of Kurdistan, out of the Iraqi territory and not back to Iraq – would have been problematic as well, had she not settled her immigration status as thousands of others do every day. The Governor is not a travel agent and not an immigration officer, and Kurdistan is not a third-world country nor a banana-republic. It has its SoP and the Governor, by the way, is not even part of Kurdistan.

    Kurdistan does not ask her or her friend to pay 900 USD. Its Administration does not need their money nor do they fine them with pleasure. They can simply do a U-Turn back to Baghdad/Mosul.
    500 USD ticket to Germany? Good price, but it does not worth the whole trouble, she can fly back from Baghdad.

    Cursing in an ignorant, racist and condescending generalization and threatening to “deal with it” would not help. Visas’ refusals are rarely subjected to appeals anywhere in the world, even if you come to a place for the first time with a valid visa. Her case was not a case of lack of chemistry with the Immigration officer. It was worse: Entering without a valid visa (but with success) – but you can rarely have 2 exceptions successfully granted, and in such a short interval, if you are so much out of the rule: this time to exit without that valid visa.

    Her 5 minutes fury and frustration lost my empathy when I saw her true thoughts about Kurdistan reaching the surface, with the video-editing time needed to cool down and correct it. It was not done.

    The lady made her misconception public about Shingal: I work as a part-timer volunteer with a local NGO helping refugees in and from Shingal. On a daily basis, we never had any single problem to move people and goods, staff and beneficiaries, with the Kurdish side.
    To complain that they restricted movements to and from Kurdistan? Welcome to the COVID-19 era.
    Believe me, 6th time in Kurdistan, expatriates are fighting to come here, including diplomats, thanks to the safety and the clean, comely, kind, generous and pleasant attitude of the Kurdish administration.

    Not only it is one of the safest political entities in the world, perfectly apt for assuming full sovereignty to its people as well as to the minorities it protects as a safe haven (yes, also from Shingal), but it goes out of its way and always in a VIP manner, to ease the administrative regularization of the expatriates, so shorten it, facilitate it, ease it and accelerate its good completion and accomplishment.
    Especially in all what concerns immigration, visas, residencies – it is exemplary. Fine here is not an example of greed and capricious temper. It is an example of good governance, rigor, seriousness and drawing a red line on which there are no exceptions.
    If there is a ‘need’ to bypass the rules and use a Wasta, with no exceptionally-justified or humanitarian reason, let this Wasta assume the same responsibility and facilitate her exit via Mosul for the same reasons.
    A person committed to the humanitarian cause and knowledgeable of the context, cannot curse Kurdistan but only praise it. Its Administration, as witnessed, is always clean, efficient, no bribes – needless to say that in Kurdistan, but needed to say when you compare it to its neighbours.
    Usually, the bribery phenomenon is crystallized around the very same places: Visas, Residency. I have hardly seen such clean places in the world as the Kurdistan’s Residency administration. It is a lighthouse for many Western countries, not only with no reason to be ashamed of, but with a lot of just pride.

    It is easy to blame and not to take any responsibility. But US authorities and other Western countries are pickier on simpler, more benign and innocent matters than those ones. I urge her to take back her words and to apologize to the Kurdish people and their authorities, especially the Immigration and the Ministry of Interior. Otherwise and in other words, the shame should not be on Kurdistan, but on those who try to shame it wrongfully.

    Eyal Reinich, Polish volunteer in Kurdistan

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