How the JCPOA Affects American Tourists Travelling to Iran

By Caitlin Steinke and Tina Monshipour Foster, Law Firm of Tina Foster

February 17, 2016

The recent implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran Deal, has led to a surge in American tourists planning trips to Iran. While the JCPOA has led the US government to remove some sanctions against Iran, most sanctions prohibiting transactions between Americans and Iran are still in place. Importantly, Americans are subject to the sanctions whether they are in the United States, Iran, or a third country. Americans travelling to Iran should be especially familiar with how the Iran sanctions – and other legal restrictions put in place by the United States and Iran – will affect their ability to travel to and through Iran. 

Do I need special permission from OFAC to travel to Iran?

The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), a division of the US Treasury Department, oversees and enforces the Iran sanctions. Americans wanting to travel to Iran may need special permission from OFAC before doing so, but it all depends on the purpose of the travel to Iran and what kinds of activities you will be engaging in once in Iran. Generally speaking, an American who goes to Iran exclusively as a tourist will not need a license from OFAC to do so. But if you are going to Iran in order to participate in certain projects or activities designed to directly benefit the Iran people – such as exchange programs or environmental projects – an OFAC license is required. And, of course, Americans are generally prohibited from travelling to Iran in order to do business there. Penalties for violating the Iran sanctions are severe, and Americans planning to travel to Iran for business  or participation in specific projects or events should consult with an experienced OFAC attorney to determine whether an OFAC license is required for such travel.

How do I obtain a tourist visa to visit Iran?

There are two very important considerations for Americans wishing to travel to Iran. First, the Iranian government requires Americans to obtain a tourist visa before arriving in Iran. Second, the Iranian government requires Americans to be accompanied by a guide at all times while travelling through Iran. Therefore, the very first step is to book your trip to Iran with either a tour group or a private travel guide. Information about your tour operator and the itinerary for your trip are necessary in order to complete the visa process.

Once you have booked your tour, you must apply for a travel authorization number from the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Many tour operators will assist Americans with obtaining a travel authorization number. After the Ministry has approved your itinerary and issued a travel authorization number, you can apply for an Iran tourist visa. The application for a visa must be made through the Pakistani Embassy’s Iranian Interests Section in Washington, D.C.  

Is there anything I should pay particular attention to when planning my itinerary?

You must be sure that your trip to Iran will not involve transactions with any individuals or entities on OFAC’s Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list

How do I travel to and from Iran?

Americans are permitted to engage in transactions ordinarily incident to travel to and from Iran. While the US government prohibits US airlines from operating flights to and from Iran, many foreign airlines operate flights to Iran via Europe or Asia. Additionally, Americans are allowed to travel on Iranian airlines, as long as the airlines do not appear on OFAC’s SDN list.

Can I register with the US Embassy in Iran?

There is no US Embassy in Iran. However, the Swiss government serves as the protecting power for Americans in Iran. Americans can register with the Swiss Embassy’s Foreign Interests Section in Tehran. While the Swiss Embassy provides some consular services to Americans living in and travelling to Iran, it does not carry out any US visa, green card, or immigration-related services. 

Can I withdraw money in Iran?

You will not be able to access your US bank account from an Iranian ATM, so it is imperative that you bring enough cash with you to Iran. You should also refrain from using the internet to access your US bank account; due to the US-Iran sanctions, your bank could block or freeze your account if it is accessed via the internet in Iran. 

Are there restrictions on what I can sell while in Iran?

Americans in Iran on a tourist visa should not be selling any goods or services while they are there. 

Are there restrictions on what I can purchase while in Iran?

The US government permits Americans to engage in transactions that are ordinarily incident to travel to and from Iran. This includes baggage costs, living expenses, and the acquisition of goods or services for personal use.

What can I bring back with me into the United States? 

The Iran sanctions generally prohibit Americans from importing Iranian goods into the United States, either directly or through a third country, with limited exceptions. The exceptions are: 

  1. Gifts valued at $100 or less
  2. Information and information materials
  3. Your personal effects that were actually used in Iran and are not intended for any other person or for sale, and that are not otherwise prohibited from importation
  4. Accompanied baggage for personal use normally incident to travel
  5. Iranian-origin carpets and foodstuffs, subject to all other laws and regulations governing goods imported into the United States (such as those administered by the Departments of Agriculture or Commerce, the Food and Drug Administration, and Customs and Border Protection)

Are there any special considerations for US-Iranian dual nationals?

The US sanctions on Iran apply to all Americans, including US-Iranian dual nationals. However, the Iranian government does not recognize dual nationality, and may confiscate the US passports of US-Iranian dual nationals. Therefore, any US-Iranian dual nationals travelling to Iran must use their Iranian passport to enter Iran, and will be treated solely as Iranian citizens. The Iranian government has prohibited US-Iranian dual citizens from seeking consular protection from the Swiss Embassy’s Foreign Interests Section on many occasions in the past.


This article provides only general information, and is not intended as legal advice. Please consult with an attorney for guidance on specific legal matters.