Located in the far north of Iraq, nestled between Iran and Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan is today a safe but turbulent region, home to some of the most breathtaking landscape in the Middle East, composed of green mountains with snow-capped peaks that, definitely, will break with all the stereotypes you have about Iraq.
Iraqi Kurdistan is no desert and, most importantly, it is not a war zone filled with ISIS terrorists but an autonomous region which, for the last couple of years, has done a tremendous job defending its borders.
It is in fact, one of the safest countries in the Middle East and the most ultimate destination for travelers looking for something unique, very off the beaten track, and who are willing to meet the Kurds, a very proud and brave nation, who turn out to also be some of the most hospitable people I have ever encountered, with similar experiences to Iran, Pakistan, and Sudan.
From visiting a Syrian refugee camp to remote Christian monasteries and millennial villages, discovering Sadam Hussein’s heritage and learning from the conflict against ISIS, Kurdistan may be the high point of all your backpacking travels.
I have visited the country three times, here you have all my travel tips for Iraqi Kurdistan.
This guide focus on the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan.
For the rest of Iraq, including Mosul, Baghdad, Basra, etc. check:
How to travel to Federal Iraq
COVID-19 travel restrictions for Iraqi Kurdistan
For entering Iraqi Kurdistan, the following requirements apply:
Upon you arrival in Kurdistan, you must undergo a PCR test
Whether you enter by land or air, you will have to take a PCR test, and pay the respective 30USD fee. Euros (€) are also accepted. The health authorities will ask for your contact details and, if you tested positive, they will contact you on the next day with further instructions.
No quarantine is required upon arrival, despite what you may read in their website.
Since July 2021, the following exceptions apply:
- Fully vaccinated travelers, as long as they can prove it. However, be aware that some airlines may require a PCR test
- Travelers holding a negative PCR test issued no later than 48 hours before entering Kurdistan
A second PCR test is also mandatory when leaving Kurdistan
Which you can do at Zanko Health Center in Erbil, for a 30USD fee.
You can pick up your results after 24 hours.
Travel Insurance for Iraqi Kurdistan with COVID-19 coverage
IATI Insurance is one of the few providers that offers full Coronavirus coverage, not only when it comes to treatment, but also cancellations costs in case you tested positive before departure.
And not only this, but it’s one of the few insurance providers that gives coverage for traveling to Iraqi Kurdistan.
Readers of Against the Compass can get an exclusive 5% discount.
How to get a visa for Iraqi Kurdistan
Citizens from most high GDP countries can get a visa on arrival for Iraqi Kurdistan
European Union, USA, Canada, Australia, Brazil, United Arab Emirates, Iran, Japan, Kuwait, New Zealand, Qatar, South Korea, Turkey, UK
The visa is valid for 30 days, either you enter by land or by air.
Iraqi Kurdistan visa had always been free but since April 2021, it costs 75USD or 60€.
The rest of nationalities need to go through a particularly tedious process
Citizens from the rest of the world should contact the nearest KRG Representation (like a Kurdistan Consulate) or email them at [email protected].
In the best-case scenario, they will reply and ask for a letter of invitation but my guide, one of the most experienced guides in Kurdistan, said he doesn’t provide LOI anymore, since getting the government approval is a nightmare.
Iraqi Kurdistan visas can’t be used to visit Iraq proper (Baghdad, Mosul, etc.)
This is important.
A valid visa for traveling to Iraqi Kurdistan doesn’t allow you to visit outside of Kurdistan, that is to enter actual Iraq, including Mosul.
For the rest of Iraq, check my travel guide to Federal Iraq.
Best time to visit Iraqi Kurdistan
Unlike other countries in the Middle East, Kurdistan has 4 distinct seasons:
Traveling to Kurdistan in spring
Spring is definitely the best time to travel to Iraqi Kurdistan, from March to the end of April, when the whole region is fully blossoming, at its greenest, and the weather is pleasant.
Traveling to Kurdistan in summer
Summers can get hot, especially in the area around Erbil and Sulamaniyah, where the temperature may easily reach 45ºC.
In the mountains, or in cities like Duhok, the weather might be slightly cooler but still hot, the reason why summer is low season for visiting Kurdistan, from mid May to September.
Traveling to Kurdistan in autumn
Autumn is the second best time to visit Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurdish mountains and meadows may not be green, but you get the beautiful autumn colors and the weather is pleasant.
Traveling to Kurdistan in winter
In winter, the temperature drops and most Iraqi Kurdistan gets covered in snow. I have never traveled in Kurdistan during its freezing winter but it must be beautiful, despite the cold weather.
Travel Insurance for Iraqi Kurdistan
Iraqi Kurdistan is no normal destination and, most likely, it is a country that your Government advises against all travel, so most travel insurance companies will not offer coverage for Iraq, including World Nomads.
One of the very few companies which does cover, however, is IATI Insurance, a travel company based in Europe that has loads of different plans for every type of traveler. I strongly recommend them because:
- They have loads of different plans for all types of travelers: from families to backpackers and senior citizens
- Covers wide range of COVID-19 related stuff.
- Covers both short-term trips and 1-year long trips.
- Readers of this blog can get an exclusive 5% discount.
How to go to Iraqi Kurdistan
How to travel to Iraqi Kurdistan by air
Kurdistan has two international airports: Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, Erbil being the most transited airport.
Istanbul (both Turkish and Pegasus) and Dubai (Fly Dubai) are the cheapest and most common routes.
How to travel to Iraqi Kurdistan by land
You can enter Kurdistan from either Iran or Turkey. The Iranian side is very easy and straightforward but on the Turkish side, the Turkish authorities may give you some trouble.
Books for traveling in Iraqi Kurdistan
Iraq Travel Guide by Bradt
If you follow my blog, you will see that I always recommend their guides for all destinations, so Iraq will be no different. They have, obviously, the only travel guide to the country, with a pretty long chapter focused on Kurdistan. Bradt has the most insightful guidebooks I have ever read.
The Rise of the Islamic State by Patrick Cockburn
This is my favorite journalism book ever and it is written by Patrick Cockburn, one of the world’s top experts on the Middle Eastern conflict. In this book, he gives an extremely perceptive introduction to the origins of ISIS, with many references to Iraqi Kurdistan and Iraq, of course. A really useful book to understand the complexity and origin of the conflict.
Is it safe to travel to Iraqi Kurdistan?
Read about how to travel to Mosul in Iraq
The bad things that happen in Iraq don’t happen in Kurdistan
Whatever you have been hearing in the news about Iraq for the last few years, happened in Arab Iraq, not in Kurdistan.
The last terrorist attack that occurred in Kurdistan was in Erbil back in 2014. This means that London and Paris have suffered more attacks than the whole of Kurdistan itself.
However, the region is very unstable
I never meant that traveling to Kurdistan will be as peaceful as your spiritual journey through Bhutan, not even close.
Despite being safe, the region is highly volatile and effective military operations are the only reason why it is safe. This means that things may change overnight, so being extra careful is more than wise.
There are military controls everywhere
When you travel between towns and cities, you will find so many military checkpoints run by Kurdish Army guys named Peshmergas.
As a Western passport holder, they don’t give you any trouble but, once, I was traveling with an Iraqi from Baghdad and they held him for 15 minutes, at least. They don’t trust Arabs at all as any Arab could, potentially, be an ISIS spy.
Crime rates are ridiculously low
Kurdistan has one of the lowest crime rates in the world. It is one of those places where you may forget your phone in a café, come back in a few hours and still recover it.
For a more complete and detailed analysis, read: Is it safe to travel to Iraq?
Solo female travel in Iraqi Kurdistan
Iraqi Kurdistan is a very safe region of Iraq, regardless of your gender but women should of course, take extra care, like they would do in other conservative Muslim countries.
If you want to know more, read this article that a kick ass female traveler posted on my blog: 6 Tips for solo female travel in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Money and budget when travel in Kurdistan
In Kurdistan, they use the Iraqi Dinar and, approximately:
1SD = 1,450ID
Exchanging money in Kurdistan
You can easily exchange €, USD and GBP in all the main cities.
Some exchange offices are just stalls in the middle of the street, with no surveillance, no security and no glass screen with lots of huge bundles of cash. The reason is that the crime rates here are very low.
Credit cards and ATMs
There are quite a few banks which accept foreign cards, so you can withdraw money easily but, except for some good hotels, most places in Kurdistan accept only cash.
How much does to cost to travel in Iraqi Kurdistan?
Compared to its neighbors, traveling in Kurdistan isn’t very cheap.
- Budget Hotels: 20,000-25,000ID
- Beer in a liquor shop: 1,200-2,000ID
- Beer in a bar: 8,000-12,000ID
- Fast food (like a shawarma or falafel): 1,000-1,500ID
- Local eateries: 5,000 to 8,000ID for a local meal, consisting of rice, beans and chicken, or a kebab
- Fancy restaurants: Main courses starting at 14,000ID
- Taxi rides within cities: from 3,000ID to 5,000ID
- Transportation between cities: Local shared taxi from Suleymaniyah to Erbil costs 15,000ID
The country, its people and culture
From all Kurdistan regions, Kurdistan in Iraq enjoys the highest level of autonomy, to the extent that they control their borders, immigration, they have their own army and even Parliament.
Kurds are spread over 4 countries
There are 40 million Kurds spread over Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq, making them the largest stateless nation in the world.
Many years ago, they used to be one single country but, at the end of the British Empire, the British themselves decided to draw the Middle Eastern map like that.
Kurds are not Arabs
Kurds are a different nation and ethnicity who are closer to Persians than Arabs. Never tell a Kurd that they are Arabs because they won’t like it, and it’s extremely important to know and make the distinction.
Kurdish is the main language
Kurdish – a language with many similarities to Farsi or Dari and Turkish – is the official language in Kurdistan.
Many young Kurds don’t even speak Arabic anymore
People who are less than 30-years old don’t really speak Arabic, or very little at least. They don’t teach it in schools anymore, a very drastic measure from the Kurdish Government after the Saddam Hussein invasion, when their national pride and differences versus the Arabs accentuated even more.
Speaking English in Iraqi Kurdistan
Young, well-educated people in Erbil and Sulamaniyah speak English but that’s it. With the rest of the population, you will have to talk using signs or Google Translate.
Many Kurds don’t like Arabs, at all
Educated Kurds are aware that their problems with the Arabs are more political but, during my journey, I met many closed-minded Kurds, especially in the villages, who told me that they really hate Arabs.
They are Sunni Muslims
Kurdistan is a Muslim country and most Kurds are Sunni Muslims.
However, they are moderate Sunnis
In Kurdistan, you may realize that Kurds are not as religious as Muslims from other Middle Eastern countries.
As I said, Kurds are the largest stateless nation, 40 million people spread over 4 different countries striving to get more recognition, more autonomy, so their national identity prevails over religion, the reason why Kurdistan is such a diverse nation composed of all types of Muslims, Christians, as well as other minorities.
This is the reason why the Kurds are moderate Muslims.
There is also a huge Christian community as well as other minorities
In Erbil, there is a big Christian district named Anqawa and you actually find several Christian villages and Orthodox monasteries throughout the region.
Other minorities include Yazidis, Kakais and Shabaks.
Similarly to when you are traveling in Iran, house, lunch and chai invitations aren’t a rare thing to happen. Hospitality is in their blood, especially if you are an outsider.
Kurdistan is the most developed region in Iraq
Iraqi Kurdistan, especially Erbil and Sulaimaniyah, have drastically developed in recent years. They hold some of the largest oil reserves in the country, control the main borders with Iran and Turkey and Erbil has become sort of a business hub, where many international companies have settled in.
Because of all the above, Kurds are craving for independence
More than 90% of the Kurds want to separate from Iraq. In fact, they already celebrated a referendum back in 2017 but due to international pressure and threats from Iraq and its neighbors, they didn’t move it forward.
The food in Iraqi Kurdistan
A shawarma economy
During your trip to Kurdistan, you will get absolutely sick of shawarma, being the only option in most places. Eating a shawarma costs less than a dollar but it’s very unhealthy, even though many Kurds eat shawarma every single day.
Vegetarian falafel is widely available as well.
You may find kebabs
Sometimes, you may find some places serving good kebabs, of all types. A good kebab, however, isn’t cheap and you may end up paying up to 10USD for just a few of them.
If you are lucky, you may find local eateries
Local eateries typically serve red beans with rice, chicken and also kebabs. There aren’t many, however, and you will have to look for them. You need to look for them, however, or know where to go.
The best Kurdish food is served at home
I have been invited in quite a few Kurdish houses and the main conclusion is that the best traditional Kurdish food can’t be found in restaurants but only in Kurdish homes.
Their cuisine is mostly rice and meat-based, quite fatty and with many stews. Red beans will always be the side dish of any meal and, when they have guests, they don’t care about making you eat chicken, lamb, and beef at the same time, along with fried rice with meat in it and a lot of flatbread.
I always left their houses completely rolling.
Drinking alcohol when you travel in Kurdistan
Good news: Alcohol is widely available in Kurdistan
Unlike the rest of Iraq, liquor stores are available everywhere. You can buy fresh, cold beer, wine and any type of liquor. In Erbil and Sulaymaniyah you can find plenty of bars, as well.
You can actually drink on the street
I didn’t really drink in the center of Erbil but I had some beers in a few parks in both Erbil and Suleymaniyah, as well as in villages throughout the country, and I never had any problems.
Well, this is not actually true because, in Suleymaniyah, I had a beer in the main square, basically because my Couchsurfing host told me it was OK to do so, but the police came to me quite annoyed, even though they just made me put it away. Apparently, it is legal to drink but some police don’t like it anyways.
In liquor shops, beer is cheap, not in bars
In the stores, a beer costs not much more than a dollar but, in bars, they charge 10 times more, unfortunately, so if you are on a budget, don’t get drunk in bars.
Chai and cafés
Like pretty much in all countries in the Middle East, chai is a big deal and it always comes with sugar by default. Hanging out in cafés is one of the highlights of any trip to Kurdistan, the best place to socialize with friendly locals.
How to travel around Iraqi Kurdistan: transportation
Moving around by bus or minivan
Buses are basically mini-vans but they don’t really run to many places, except between the main cities. They are much slower than shared taxis and not much cheaper.
Local shared taxis
The way to go. They go everywhere and are the most common way of transportation among locals. They aren’t cheap as in Iran and Central Asia but still quite affordable.
Hitchhiking in Kurdistan
Super safe and convenient. I hitchhiked all the way from Soran to Dohuk via Amedi, which is around 300km. Nobody never asked me for money and I had great experiences with many of the people, which a few times involved stopping for lunch or even making a detour, so they could drop me just at the place I wanted.
Internet and SIM Card
Wi-Fi in Kurdistan
It is not the fastest Wi-Fi in the world, but it is pretty decent and you find good connection all across the country. Internet is not much of an issue when you travel in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Getting a SIM Card
You can easily buy a local SIM Card in many of the stalls located around the covered bazaar in Erbil. I got Korek Telecom and I remember paying around 12USD for a SIM Card and 3GB of data but as you know, data plans change every other day.
Where to stay in Iraqi Kurdistan: accommodation
Hotels in Iraqi Kurdistan
Erbil, Sulaimaniyah and Dohuk are well-sorted of hotels.
Budget Hotels (pensions)
Like I said in the budget section, the cheapest hotels will cost you around 12-20USD but they can’t be booked online. You can check all the hotels I stayed at in my Kurdistan itinerary.
In Suleymaniyah and Erbil, there are so many active profiles. You may also find a few in Dohuk but outside of the main cities, I never got a couch.
More useful information to visit Iraqi Kurdistan
I am telling you this based on my own experience. When I was traveling in Kurdistan, I got arrested for having a drone and I didn’t even fly it. They found it in my backpack and they took me to a military base, where they interrogated me for a few hours.
I really thought I would not get my drone back but, in the end, they believed my story. Basically, they are used by ISIS to spy, so if you do have one because you are overlanding, hide it and don’t fly it!
Tourists visiting refugee camps
It is possible to visit some Syrian refugee camps, but just some of them. They are outside the cities and you should go with a local. I visited Darashakran and you can read about my experience: Visiting a Syrian refugee camp in Iraq.
Traveling to Iran next?
No problem, don’t forget to check all my articles and guides to Iran.
And remember to read all my articles and guides to Iraqi Kurdistan
Check my travel guide to Iraq proper