We are currently one of the very companies taking groups into Afghanistan, visiting Kabul, Bamyan, Mazar and even Kandahar. The next one is scheduled on:
May 15th to 24th, 2024
The first time I traveled in Afghanistan was in June 2021, just when the US Army had begun to withdraw from the country, and shortly before the Taliban took it over.
In 2023, with the change of government, I decided to go back to see what it was like to travel in Afghanistan under new Taliban rule.
From a traveling perspective, a lot has changed in this country.
After more than 1 month of independent backpacking in Afghanistan, here is the most updated and complete travel guide to Afghanistan ever, containing everything you need to know relating to safety, visas, permits, budget, top experiences, cultural facts, and more.
Yes, today, anyone can go to Afghanistan.
In fact, Afghanistan has always been open for tourism, and visas have always been issued at the respective embassies.
With the Taliban, nevertheless, there’s only a small bunch of embassies that can issue you a valid tourist visa – more on that on the visa section – but it’s a pretty easy and straightforward process.
Moreover, either because they want to whitewash their image, or because they need foreign currency, the new Taliban Government is welcoming foreign tourists, the only barrier being the ethical issues that such a trip may trigger on certain travelers.
More than 40 years of conflict have turned Afghanistan into an actual war-torn country, starting in 1979, when tribal people rebelled against the Communist party, starting a war between the Soviet Union and the Mujahideen, which lasted until 1989.
The Soviets were defeated but then, Mujahideen warlords began to fight each other over power, impoverishing the country even more.
Fed up with all that warlordism and disappointed that Islamic law had not been enforced after the communists were kicked out, a former Mujahid founded a movement named Taliban in the city of Kandahar.
That man was Mullah Omar, the historical leader of the Taliban.
The Taliban quickly took over the whole Kandahar province and, by 1996, they controlled 90% of Afghanistan’s territory, including Kabul, ruling until 2001.
Then, the American Invasion came, initiating a war that ended with their withdrawal in 2021, an event that Taliban used to take over the country.
Afghanistan under Taliban rule is the situation you will witness if you travel today in Afghanistan.
Before the Taliban took over in 2021, you could get an Afghanistan visa at pretty much any embassy around the world but things have changed now, since there’s only a handful of embassies and consulates that can issue you with a valid visa that is also recognized by the Taliban:
I personally got my Afghan visa at the embassy in Islamabad, and these were the requirements:
In Islamabad, you can also pay an additional 50 USD to get your visa in less than 24 hours. In my case, I went to the embassy at 3:30pm and got it on the next day around 2pm. If I had applied early in the morning, I could have got it on the same day in the afternoon.
The visa is single entry and it’s valid for 30 days within a 90-day period.
The other embassies and consulates have similar rules, but visa fees may vary.
Your reports on this matter are welcome in the comments section.
All nationalities are eligible to apply for an Afghan visa at any of the previously shared embassies.
Yes, Americans can also travel to Afghanistan without any sort of restriction.
Upon applying for your Afghan visa, they might ask who will be your sponsor in Afghanistan, but you can just say that you don’t need one, that you are traveling alone, and it will be fine, proof that the LOI isn’t mandatory for visiting Afghanistan.
Most travel insurance companies don’t cover for travel in Afghanistan.
The one which does, however, is IATI Insurance.
From a safety perspective, there hasn’t been a better time to visit Afghanistan.
Let me explain why.
Up to summer 2021, any trip to Afghanistan was potentially dangerous.
The country was ruled by a “democratic’” Government, but they were in an ongoing war with the Taliban, who controlled a significant part of Afghanistan.
Traveling in the Government-controlled areas was relatively OK but suicide bombings occurred every other day and violent crime in cities like Kabul were kind of a big deal.
On the other hand, Taliban-controlled areas were physically possible to visit but the chance of getting kidnapped was extremely high.
In summary, visiting Afghanistan was possible but you had to travel with an extra degree of caution and accept a certain amount of risk.
Read: Is Pakistan safe?
Despite the humanitarian and economic crisis, the war is finally over in Afghanistan and the new rulers are trying to build a peaceful and legitimate Government – or pretending to at least – aiming at being recognized by the entire international community.
Taliban are not carrying out terrorist attacks any longer, kidnappings are a thing from the past, and violent crime seems to have disappeared from Kabul.
Is this thanks to the Taliban?
Well, that’s what they want you to believe but not really, it’s just that they are the ones in charge now, they aren’t fighting anymore and just wish to be a normal country, while attracting foreign investment.
Afghanistan is very safe today, one can really feel it because all the provinces are fully open and also because the Afghans you will meet along the way will keep repeating all the time, that Afghanistan is finally safe.
You might find it hard to believe that the Islamic State is still alive and that they have become the number 1 enemy of the Taliban, claiming that Taliban are too soft and mere puppets of the West.
IS Khorasan has carried out several terrorist attacks under Taliban rule but it’s all been at a small scale and, as I mentioned several times, the likelihood of being caught in the middle of a suicide bombing is extremely low.
Nonetheless, remember that this isn’t Thailand, and that traveling in Afghanistan never comes without risk.
For traveling around Afghanistan, you will need special permission from the Taliban.
If you are traveling on an organized tour, you don’t need to worry about anything because your local fixer will take care of that but independent travelers will have to get it for themselves which, in our experience, isn’t an easy thing to do.
By the way, remember that Against the Compass has several Afghanistan expeditions scheduled all year long.
Your travel permit must mention all the provinces you will visit in Afghanistan.
However, it should only mention those provinces you are planning to stay in, not those you are just passing through.
For example, if you want to visit Bamyan from Kabul, you will inevitably pass through Wardak province, but you don’t necessarily need a permit for that, because you’ll just be driving through.
You will have to pay 1000 AFN for each province you visit, which is around 12 USD.
This permit is absolutely needed, and many Taliban will ask for it at checkpoints.
Warning: The following steps look pretty straightforward but, in our experience, rules keep changing and everyone seemed to give us different information. Getting inside the different offices and ministries was also pretty challenging, since the Taliban guarding the gates don’t speak a single word of English, and they never seemed to understand the purpose of our visit.
Step 1 – Go to the Ministry of Culture & Information
Location is here.
Here, you’ll need to get 2 signatures from 2 different authorities, which will take around 2 hours.
Once you get your 2 signatures, they will give you an address and a phone number.
In our case, each of the 2 authorities gave us completely different addresses, phone numbers and contact persons but only one of them picked up the phone.
Step 2 – Go to the Tourism Directory
Location is here.
This building was difficult to find, since there wasn’t any sign but only concrete walls around it.
Once you get in the building, you’ll be interviewed by a person, who will probably ask why you aren’t traveling with a guide or a translator.
For this conversation, it’s important to wear local clothes, be extremely polite and pretend that you know your way around the country.
We said we had good friends in Bamyan and Herat, that they would be our translators, which seemed to satisfy him.
He’ll also ask for the provinces you plan to visit and after the interview, you’ll speak to the highest authority from this department, the person responsible for signing your travel permit and giving the final OK.
Taliban are everywhere and, as an independent traveler, you will have to interact with them at checkpoints or when trying to get your permits.
Here’s what you need to know about it.
Believe it or not, most Taliban I spoke with were particularly nice and helpful.
They are mostly Pashtun, a group of people living across Pakistan and Afghanistan, known for being the most hospitable people on Earth, ruled by a code of conduct that dictates that guests should be protected with their own life if needed.
I personally believe that, on most occasions, their kindness is genuine but you also need to remember that Taliban wish to be recognized as a legit Government and that their extreme kindness could be part of that strategy.
Taliban are usually very keen to be photographed or to be in selfies, and they seem to enjoy it a lot, so don’t be shy and just ask.
Look, I have no particular sympathy for the Taliban.
At the end of the day, we all know that their aim is imposing and forcing all Afghans to follow their fundamentalist Orthodox ideas of Islam.
However, if you want to travel around the country independently, you will need to play along with their game and if you are not willing to do that, perhaps you should travel in Afghanistan with a local guide, so your interactions with them will be minimum.
I am at a stage where I don’t really care to be judged by other travelers – or people reading this blog – so know that in Kabul, I did buy a Taliban flag, which I showed and waved at checkpoints when I found it convenient, just to make our journey a smooth one.
It’s important to remember that Afghanistan is the most conservative country in the world (along with Yemen and way more than Saudi Arabia) and whether we like it or not, many Afghans – and that includes many women too – haven’t seen their lives changed with the new Taliban rule and that reason is that they were already following those rules.
This is the reason why Taliban are supported by a massive part of the total population.
Moreover, there’s another significant segment of Afghans who, while they don’t necessarily agree with the Taliban agenda, accept them because they have brought stability and safety across the country.
Nonetheless, remember that not everyone supports them, especially Hazara people – a Shia minority – and that there are many Afghans who, while still conservative, are not happy with their extremist ideas, like banning women from higher education, for example.
What is the situation like for female travelers in Afghanistan?
If you are traveling with a man, it should be fine but solo female travelers will certainly have a different experience.
My friend and fellow traveler Emma Witters has traveled solo extensively across Afghanistan, including in provinces such as Helmand.
You can reach her at @emmawitters_
International airlines that used to fly to Kabul like Turkish Airlines or Fly Emirates, have stopped operating in Afghanistan.
Instead, the Afghan-run airline of Kam Air is the only one that can get you to Afghanistan.
Kam Air has daily flights from Dubai and 5 or 6 weekly flights from Islamabad.
Afghanistan shares a border with:
Pakistan: The Khyber Pass at Torkham is finally open but this is the most chaotic border I have ever crossed.
Iran: It’s fully operational. From the Iranian city of Mashhad, you can get into Herat. Many travelers have used this border in the past.
Turkmenistan: The border is open as long as you have valid visas but this is truly unexplored territory. I contacted a Turkmen fixer who told me that Turkmen visas are often denied if your idea is to enter or exit Afghanistan from Turkmenistan, but there’s a chance to get in.
China: Very deep into the Wakhan Corridor, at 4,923m above sea level, the Wakhir pass connects Afghanistan with China. The border is closed for foreigners and in any case, it’s just too remote to go.
Tajikistan: There are a few border crossings that foreigners can cross, the most popular being Ishkashim, the most transited border crossing among foreigners in Afghanistan, since it leads to the Wakhan Valley. Here you have the border crossing report.
Is independent travel allowed in Afghanistan?
Yes, it is, as long as you have a valid travel permit. Check the permit section of this post.
Is backpacking in Afghanistan difficult?
Well, it depends on your previous backpacking experience and where you want to go within Afghanistan but, to be honest, I didn’t find it more difficult than backpacking in Pakistan.
If you are planning to visit Mazar, Herat, Kabul or Bamyan, it shouldn’t be very difficult. There is plenty of local transportation or you can easily take a domestic flight.
My recommendation would be however, to save the name and location of your hotel because for security purposes, some hotels in Afghanistan have no signs, so they can be difficult to find.
Visiting rural areas, Kandahar province or traveling beyond Bamyan in Ghor province is a different story. Nobody speaks English, hotels are scarce (if any) and there’s little public transportation.
We did travel from Kabul to Herat through the Hindu Kush by public transportation. It was difficult but worth the adventure. Check the travel report.
Do you wish to join a tour in Afghanistan?
In Against the Compass, we have several tours scheduled per year:
Our Afghanistan tours sell out extremely quickly, so do book them in advance.
With different geographical areas, Afghanistan can be a year-round destination.
Traveling in Afghanistan season by season:
In winter, many parts of Afghanistan are covered in snow, with temperatures reaching -20ºC in places like Bamyan or the Wakhan, but it might be a good time to visit the south, including Kandahar and Helmand.
Kabul will certainly be cold, but you can still visit it, as well as Herat and Mazar.
From a tourism perspective, spring and autumn are the best seasons for visiting Afghanistan, when the weather is pleasant across the whole country.
Nevertheless, it can be too early/late for trekking in the Wakhan Corridor.
In late spring or early autumn, it might already be too hot for Mazar or Kandahar. In fact, I visited them in May and the temperature was already at nearly 40ºC.
In summer, cities like Herat, Mazar and Kandahar are hell ovens, with temperatures averaging over 40ºC.
Kabul is hot too but, because of the high altitude, it can be bearable for some.
Summer, nonetheless, is the best season for trekking along the Wakhan Corridor.
Some of the best things to do in Afghanistan are:
The old city of Kabul is one of those places where there is always something to look at.
It’s chaotic, lively, bustling and its different bazaars are composed of labyrinthic lanes which are perfect for random rambling.
The bird market is perhaps the most acclaimed spot among travelers.
Few places in Afghanistan feel as peaceful as Bamyan, a mountainous, remote region in central Afghanistan, home to a large ancient Buddhist heritage and some of the most epic, unspoiled mountains in the country.
If you like nature, it doesn’t get better than Bamyan.
Kandahar is the former Taliban capital, where the Taliban movement started and also Mullah Omar’s home city.
It’s also the heartland of the Pashtun, a world apart from the rest of Afghanistan.
This is one of the most imposingly beautiful mosques I have ever seen, dating from the 15th century, a reason by itself to travel all the way to Mazar.
Afghanistan’s countryside offers some of the most unspoiled and authentic areas in the world, regions that have received very little exposure from the outside world, and are home to mesmerizing, lush valleys dotted with adobe-made villages and curious locals.
In Afghanistan, their currency is called the Afghani (AFN) and approximately:
$1 = 80 AFN
Afghani or Afghan?
Some people commit the funny mistake (including myself in the past) of referring to the people of Afghanistan as Afghani. It’s wrong. Afghani is their currency and the people are Afghans.
I always change money at one of the many stalls in Shahr-e Naw, in Kabul.
They accept both Euros and USD. They even accept Pakistani rupees, in case you have any left from your trip in Pakistan.
Before the Taliban rule, Afghan International Bank accepted international credit and debit cards.
There are quite a few of them in Kabul, and you could withdraw both AFN and USD.
Today, I am not sure if they still work because I didn’t try but I believe they still should.
You might be able to withdraw money from an ATM but you can’t pay by card anywhere in Afghanistan, so do have cash for your trip.
Everyday life in Afghanistan is cheap but domestic flights and accommodation add up.
Here’s an overview of the most typical costs.
Here’s the thing.
Good, decent accommodation can get pricey.
Expect to pay anything between 30 USD and 50 USD for a room, a relatively basic one but clean and with security.
You can definitely find cheaper hotels but there won’t be any kind of security.
Afghanistan has a good network of buses, minibuses and local shared taxis connecting towns and cities.
Experienced budget backpackers won’t find it difficult to move around the country.
Taking a domestic flight is also a good option for traveling around Afghanistan.
You can book your tickets online on Kam Air.
There’s another local airline named Ariana but I never used it because apparently, it’s not very reliable.
However, note that Kam Air isn’t very reliable either: 4 out of the 7 flights I have taken with them were delayed for 1 or 2 hours, while 1 was canceled and merged with another flight that was scheduled for 5 hours later.
Note that all domestic flights go through Kabul, and that there’s no direct flight from Herat to Mazar, for example, or from Herat to Kandahar, but you need to go through Kabul.
Typically, all flights cost $60-$120 and, if you are already in Afghanistan, I strongly recommend booking it through a physical Kam Air office.
It happened to me once that after booking a flight with Kam Air online, the booking never went through, even though they did charge it from my card. Eventually, I had to go to an actual office to sort it out.
The level of security in all Afghanistan airports is absolutely insane, consisting of several security layers with body searches and bag scans. That’s why it’s recommended to be at the airport at least two hours before your departure time.
Something interesting to mention is that when the Taliban took over, the country officially changed its name from the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
They also removed any sign of the official flag – the one with black, green, and red stripes and replaced it with the Talib-friendly white flag, today visible everywhere.
Afghanistan is composed of several ethnicities, including Pashtuns (42%), Tajik (27%) and Hazara (9%).
Hazara are the Shia minority who have Mongolian features, Bamyan being their heartland.
There’s also a significant population of Uzbeks in Mazer-i-Sharif and around, who mostly came from Uzbekistan escaping the terror from former dictator Islam Karimov.
Dari is a variation from Farsi, the language spoken in Iran.
Afghans and Iranians can understand each other without a problem.
Dari is the language used by the administration and it’s spoken by nearly 80% of the population.
Pashto is an official language too but it’s usually spoken only by the Pashtuns, who are the dominant ethnicity.
When traveling in rural Afghanistan across the Hindu Kush, I found communicating with people to be extremely difficult, not only because of the language barrier but even sign language didn’t work, probably because they have had so little Western exposure, that their way of communication is just completely different.
Afghanistan is the most patriarchal country in the world, with or without the Taliban but, since the latter returned to power, women have lost even more freedom.
It’s not mandatory for women to wear the burqa, they can wear a hijab and they can walk alone in the streets but the Taliban have banned them from accessing higher education.
I actually discussed this particular topic with a Taliban sympathizer and he said that according to Prophet Mohammed, schools must be segregated by gender so there’s no actual room for women now but the new Government is doing their best to figure it out.
What I found truly unreal is that he was actually believing all that shit.
It’s heavily meat-based to the extent that it can be a struggle for vegetarians venturing into more rural areas.
Their national dish is Kabuli palaw, consisting of rice fried in meat fat typically topped with carrots and raisins and essentially, the same as plov in Uzbekistan.
Afghanistan also has their own dumplings named mantu, typically filled with mutton and covered with yogurt and yellow lentils.
Ashak is the only vegetarian dish in Afghan cuisine, consisting of dumplings filled with leeks and other vegetables.
Afghanistan is a dry country, as it was before the Taliban.
An American bestseller in 2003, Kite runner narrates the story of two Afghan kids in Kabul, a rich boy and the son of his parent’s servants.
The book also gives endless insights of what life in Kabul and Afghanistan is like.
This is the mind-blowing biography of a senior former member of the Taliban.
From growing up in conservative, rural Afghanistan to the years he spent in Guantanamo, this amazing book gives priceless insights into the Taliban movement from the inside.
Cultural Smart! is a series of guidebooks that focus on the country’s culture, giving loads of information about local customs, cultural etiquette and stuff like that. The one on Afghanistan is great, with deep explanations of why Afghans are so hospitable.
The travel guide to Afghanistan from Lonely Planet is outdated (2007) but still, is a great source of information on the country. It can be difficult to find a copy.
There’s kind of unreliable Wi-Fi in big cities but if you need it for work, it won’t be good enough.
To buy a SIM, you’ll have to go to one of the official branches, which tend to open from 8am to 4pm.
There are many mobile companies in Afghanistan, including: Afghan Telecom, Afghan Wirless, Etisalat, MTN, Roshan, and Salaam.
Apparently, each company is only good for certain provinces but everyone was telling us different things.
In the end, I bought MTN because they said it was the best one for all Afghanistan but it only worked in the big cities.
Note that there’s no 4G but only 3G or not even that.
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 Afghanistan.
I recommend ExpressVPN – Extremely easy to use, fast and cheap.
📢 In my Travel Resources Page you can find the list of all the sites and services I use to book hotels, tours, travel insurance and more.
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