Iraq is still a relatively new backpacking beast, and once you’ve read this you will realise how simple it is to travel to Iraq. While hoards of youngsters head to places like Thailand, Germany, USA and Cambodia on their adventures, not many are tempted by Iraq. And why not? (It must be the media…) Hopefully after reading my stories you will be slightly more inspired and wanting to head to places like Iraq, Suriname and Ethiopia instead of Thailand, Australia and Italy. The whole experience of travelling to Iraq is more rewarding, more challenging and more authentic. Entering Iraq as a tourist these days is best done in the northern region – known as Kurdistan, or Iraqi Kurdistan. Iraqi Kurdistan is still a developing tourist spot but once it gets discovered, things won’t be the same. You know my advice is to head there now – before the other backpackers hear about it! You could be hiking to the old ruins of Amadiya, exploring Erbil’s citadel or paying respects to the victims of the suicide bombings under the Saddam Hussein regime…some reminders still exist by the way…
The Iraq Visa Situation
OK so let’s get this over with straight away – as a non-Iraqi and non-Muslim you will have 2 options when heading to Iraq as a tourist:
1. Get a FULL Iraq Visa and be accompanied with a guide, being permitted to visit ANYWHERE in Iraq as long as you’re with a guide (Kurdistan exempt).
2. Get an Iraqi Kurdistan Visa and backpack on your own, without any intervention, but with a limit as to where you can and can’t go (i.e. Kurdistan only – the northern part of Iraq).
I’ll make it Easier for you:
1. You can get a visa that covers ALL OF IRAQ
2. You can get a visa that covers the KURDISTAN PART OF IRAQ ONLY
As a budget backpacker and one who doesn’t want guided tours, or the risk of being stopped at security checks all the time, or to pay a lot for my travels, we chose to avoid Baghdad, Babylon and Al Basra and head to Kurdistan. This allows you the freedom to do things yourself. We wanted to backpack through the Kurdistan part of Iraq at our own leisure. And that’s my advice. It’s easier, safer, cheaper and more authentic. For the time being you should be getting a visa for Iraqi Kurdistan.
A Full Iraqi Visa
If you want a FULL Iraqi Visa to see the whole country and with a guide, you will have to organise it yourself in advance through a tour company, an agent or an overseas representative of the Republic of Iraq. I didn’t go for this option, I went for visa on arrival for Iraqi Kurdistan only. I didn’t want to be with a guide, or to pay the high price of a tour or all the restrictions, I just wanted to go backpacking in Iraq, so the Kurdistan Visa is the one to go for!
Getting An Iraqi Kurdistan Visa on arrival
If you want an Iraqi Kurdistan Visa, you can get this on arrival at the land borders and airports in Kurdistan. Only the nationalities that are eligible of course, and here’s the list…
These nationalites can definitely get a visa on arrival for Iraqi Kurdistan
Citizens of “EU countries (Ireland, Germany, United Kingdom etc.), Canada, USA, Australia, UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, South Korea (but South Koreans should have special permission note from Korean Ministry of Trade and Foreign Affairs)’ will be granted 15 days visas upon arrival at the Erbil or Sulemaniya International Airports or Border gates and if they wish to stay longer, they should visit the Residency Office to extend the duration of their stay.
All other Nationalities will need an Iraqi Visa or a KRG Entrance Approval
All other nationalities should have an Iraqi visa or KRG Ministry of Interior’s entrance approval prior to the travel. There are three ways to obtain a visa for the nationalities that need visas to the Kurdistan Region:
1- You can apply for the Iraqi visa at the nearest Iraqi Embassy or Consulate
2- You can apply for the KRG Ministry of Interior’s visa through one of these ways:
· Through your company, or counterpart in the Kurdistan Region
· Through your Embassy in Baghdad or Consulate in Erbil if they have one, to send them an official letter requesting KRG’s visa
· Through KRG Representation in your home country if there is one.
If you are in doubt about your situation, please contact the Kurdish government before your trip, their email address is: email@example.com – they normally get back to you relatively quickly. Their website is – Kurdistan Government website. It’s also worth checking out the excellent site Go Kurdistan which is the best backpacking resource for Kurdistan on the web.
How to Get to Iraqi Kurdistan
You have two main options of getting to Iraqi Kurdistan:
2. By Air
Going Overland to Iraqi Kurdistan
Overland you can only really access Kurdistan from two countries – Turkey and Iran. All other borders into Iraq remain tightly closed except for those working there or for special circumstances. For the record, Iraq also borders Kuwait, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria.
A few of my fellow blogging buddies have gone overland without fuss – Derek from Wandering Earl and Adam Pervez from Happiness Plunge. They chose the overland border from Turkey. This goes from Silopi to Zakho.
We decided to fly in and out of Iraq. I have no idea which option is safer, but for sure going overland is cheaper. This was the last part of our 4 month Middle East and Caucases tour so we weren’t bothered about spending money on the flight just to see part of Iraq. We booked flights in and out.
Flying into Iraqi Kurdistan
If you choose to fly into Kurdistan, you have two options for airports:
1. Erbil International Airport
2. Sulimaniyeh International Airport
Both airports have a range of flights which vary depending on time of year and demand. The most popular destinations from Iraqi Kurdistan are Istanbul, Ankara, Adana (all Turkey), Doha (Qatar) and Dubai (UAE). There are also direct flights from Erbil to Amsterdam and Stuttgart. Using Baghdad as a connection can also get you further afield, but please remember Iraq is still recovering from years of War and the Saddam Hussein regime so safety in Baghdad, even in the airport cannot be guaranteed. Unless you have the full Iraqi Visa you won’t be able to leave the airport in Baghdad anyway.
With all that in mind, we eventually decided to fly into Erbil from Doha in Qatar. It’s a direct flight and takes just under 2 and a half hours. We went with Qatar Airways. I’ll write a bit more about the flight itself in another post.
Arrival at Erbil International Airport
On arrival at Erbil International Airport, your plane will most likely head straight to the terminal for a direct walkway into the arrivals hall. There doesn’t appear to be any buses between the terminal and the planes – they’re not needed. Erbil is still a pretty quiet airport, a lot of flights come in daily but generally it is still a “sleeping giant”.
It’s a really nice, swanky, modern airport waiting for a tourist boom to kick into play. You walk straight from your flight to the immigration section without fuss. Clean, well laid out, bilingual (Arabic and English) and modern.
Getting a Visa on Arrival at Erbil International Airport, Kurdistan, Iraq
Join the queues and line up for your visa. You don’t need any photos, any forms or anything else if you are travelling on a British or Irish Passport. Some other nationalities are the same, but check with your embassy to confirm.Canadians, Americans, Japanese can all get visas on arrival for Iraqi Kurdistan.
What you Need to get an Iraqi Kurdistan Visa at Erbil International Airport, Kurdistan, Iraq
I used my Irish passport and this is what I needed:
1. Myself (a given – you have to be there)
2. A valid passport from an eligible region with more than 6 months validity on it
3. To pose while they take a quick photo of you
The entire process must have taken 45 seconds. One of the quickest and easiest entries into a country ever – and this is Iraq! Here’s what the stamp (your visa) looks like:
* You don’t need any forms, you don’t need to pay, you don’t even need proof of your onward flight (if they do ask this – better to say you’ll go overland into Turkey – even if you end up booking a flight and flying out).
How much does an Iraqi Kurdistan Visa cost at Erbil International Airport?
It cost me nothing on my Irish passport. It’s a FREE visa on arrival. Don’t you just want to visit Iraq now? Some nationalities will of course have to pay for a visa though, so again, please check.
How long does the Iraqi Kurdistan Visa last?
As a standard rule they give you 15 days. This is easily enough time to see the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Should you want to stay longer, you’ll need to apply in advance or while in the country, ask for an extension. I have no experience of either situation, but trust me – 15 days is sufficient.
What Restrictions does the Iraqi Kurdistan Visa have?
It does exactly what it says on the tin – you are allowed to visit the Kurdistan region of Iraq only. This is not a crazy rule by any means – it’s for your own safety and parts of Iraq are still out of bounds.
This means you cannot sadly visit the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Baghdad, Mosul, Kirkuk and Al Basra are also off limits so don’t think about it.
Other parts of Kurdistan
Please also note that there are also Kurds in other countries such as Iran and Syria, so the term Kurdistan covers more than just Iraqi Kurdistan. This map kind of shows the entire area known as Kurdistan.
What are the main sights in Iraqi Kurdistan?
Erbil, Sulimaniya, Amadiya, Salahaddin’s Fortress, Zakho, Dohuk and Hamilton Road are the main parts to see. I’ll be writing more about the places I visited in future posts. In the meantime, just check out GoKurdistan.com which is an awesome site which gives a great overview on Kurdistan. I hope my this post on how to get an Iraqi Kurdistan Visa helps you on your way!
Safe travels!! Kurdistan is in Iraq, but you’ll discover it’s a great place to go backpacking in! I can’t wait to write some more posts on it!!