Iran Travel Guide series will give you useful tips for navigating and discovering this country independently. In this piece, I am going to give you some general information about Iran currency and using cell-phones in Iran. Upon reading it, you should know almost everything there is to know about money exchange and getting a SIM card. Both of these are the essentials of traveling in Iran or any other country, for that matter.
The first thing you should keep in mind is that Iran is disconnected from the international banking system. Once you come here, the ubiquity of banks and ATMs will probably surprise you. The banking system in Iran is quite modern and efficient; most people have Debit+ cards, which they use for online payments; they are also accepted in almost all of the retail stores. However, international sanctions render impossible any non-domestic transactions. Thus, you have to calculate in advance, how much money you need to spend and bring it in a common international currency and exchange it here. You can easily exchange US dollar and Euro, as well as the British Pound, the Australian and Canadian dollar. The currencies of the neighboring countries are easy to swap as well: Turkish Lira, Emirati Dirham, etc.
Where to Exchange Money in Iran
Here are a few tips on exchanging currencies: firstly, do not go knocking on the door of any bank and ask them for money exchange. Banks in Iran deal only with “official rates.” Unlike other countries, Iranian banks do not exchange foreign currencies. As other countries, do not exchange a lot of money at the airport– maybe enough for your cab fare. Exchange bureaus are found everywhere; often, however, they are clustered in a hub not far from the town’s center. In Tehran, for example, you find dozens of them at Ferdowsi Square (Ferdowsi Metro Station, Line 4). If you need to ask for directions, the keyword would be sarrafi. Finally, if you are uncomfortable with carrying a lot of cash, you can go to a bank and ask for a prepaid debit card, in Iran known as cash gift-cards or kart hadiye. This will give you pretty much all the functionalities of a debit card and you can travel with more ease of mind.
Rial or Toman: One Country Two Currencies
Iranian money has a lot of zeros. The people of this country automatically drop one zero off the official unit, Rial; thus, ten thousand Rials is one thousand, in the nominal currency, Toman. Sometimes they go further and drop four zeros altogether. Let us imagine you want to buy a pair of shoes. The price tag shows a 65 followed by four zeros. In Iran, that would be 65. Iranians mentally add the four zeros. So if you are in a restaurant and hear 12, that is a hundred and twenty thousand Rials…. more or less $4. You might need a few days to get used to this, but it is not all that confusing.
Stay Connected: Where to Get a SIM Card in Iran
Another thing often needed is a SIM card. First off, do not forget to bring an unlocked phone with you. You cannot use an Iranian SIM card if you bought your phone with a contract. Currently, there are three major providers in Iran: IR-MCI, MTN Irancell, and Rightel. All provide good services, yet most travelers stick with Irancell, probably because it is easier to register and their customer service centers, more ubiquitous. Yes, you need to register your SIM before you can use it; that’s something you can probably do if you have some time at the IKA airport. There are two kiosks that sell prepaid SIM cards of all the providers. In Tehran, two metro stations, Imam Khomeini and Imam Hossein, host MTN Irancell customer service centers. If you get a 3G or 4G SIM, you have solved the problem of your Internet needs as well. Roaming in Iran is possible, mostly via IR-MCI, if you have a contract. You can inquire the prices from your network provider. However, you will probably end up paying hundreds of dollars for a two-week stay.
Read also: How to Stay Connected Even in Iran!
Registration of a SIM Card in Iran
The going price for a 4G SIM card is about 4 euros. You can buy and register your SIM card at the two aforementioned metro stations or any other customer service center. The problem with the ones stationed in the Metro (and all such centers in Tehran) is that they are always packed. They work till 17:00 every day (except their half-day Thursdays and their off Fridays) and you will have to wait some 50 minutes or more for your turn. The plus side is that registration at these customer centers is smooth and instantaneous. If you want to spare yourself the long wait, many retailers all over the country sell SIM cards at a higher price. In this scenario, if you have an Iranian helping you with translation, things will probably move more smoothly. However, it will be a few hours before your SIM is up and working.
Tips for Optimizing Your MTN Irancell Experience
So you now have a registered prepaid SIM card. One of the first things you might inquire is how to put credit in it. Newspaper kiosks, as well as grocery stores, can sell you a little piece of cardboard with a 16-digit pin; credit in Persian is “Sharj,” so the keyword would be “Irancell sharj.”After scratching the ink that covers the pin, dial in *141*[16-digit pin]# and hit call. If you have entered the pin correctly, you should get a message with your new balance. Other providers give you a similar option for topping off your balance, yet the code is not the same; no worries though, as the relevant code is noted on the little cardboard you bought. With the credit you have now, you can call, text or surf the Internet. Using ATMs, you can recharge your SIM directly; yet, as previously noted, it is only possible with an Iranian debit card.
Access Internet (Almost) Everywhere
Network coverage in Iran is nearly decent. That is to say, in big cities you have a very good coverage, which translates into a relatively fast Internet connection. If you are an Internet junkie, it is in your financial interest to get an “Internet Package.” These are prepaid packages that give you a certain amount of traffic for a specific period of time. They must be activated accordingly: you need to put enough credit on your phone and dial in a USSD code. You can get a list of Irancell’s packages by dialing *555*5# or visiting Irancell’s website for the list of all their offers and their activation codes.
Here are a few other useful USSD codes: to inquire your credit balance, dial *141*1# and hit call; to change the language of your SIM to English, dial, *555*4*3*2# and hit call; to request your phone’s Internet setting, dial *555*4*2# and hit call.
Making an International Call from Iran
As explained before, your home SIM card will work very well in Iran; both Irancell and IR-MCI have contracts with major providers of different countries. You should contact your provider to inquire the cost of such services. The most economical option is to keep in touch with your loved ones is applications like Skype. They are fully functional with the data plans previously described. With an MTN Irancell SIM, as well as other providers, you can make international calls or send text messages. An international text message will cost 1500 Rials with a prepaid MTN Irancell. You can also make international calls; to inquire the price, take a look at Irancell’s international tariff page and simply choose your call destination from the pop-up list.
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