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
In this Iraqi safety guide you will find:
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.
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.
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?
With a huge touristic potential, impressive landscapes, a deep history, and hospitable people, Kurdistan is a must-visit destination.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Read: Syria travel guide
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.
Is Kurdistan safe for solo women?
I recommend you read:
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 [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
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.
Iraq Travel Guide by Bradt – The most comprehensive book guide to Iraq, which is relatively updated.
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
- Solo female travel in Kurdistan