In general there are three categories that visitors to foreign countries fit into when planning a trip.
1. No visa is required to enter
2. Purchasing of a mandatory Visa On Arrival (VOA)
3. A visa must be obtained in advance (usually through the foreign consulate or embassy in the home country)
What documentation you require for entry is primarily dependent on your nationality and subsequently your nation’s diplomatic relations with the country you intend to visit. The rule of thumb is: the better ‘friends’ they are, the fewer restrictions in place.
Iran is in a category of its own. Naturally, visa is required, but in effect it is a two-step process to obtain the necessary visa.
In order to apply for an Iranian visa, you must first be officially invited to the country. Unless you have personal contacts that are able to secure the necessary documentation directly from the Iranian Ministry, you are forced to hire a travel agency to obtain an ‘invitation code’ on your behalf.
In early October, anticipating this trip, I hired an agency in Tehran. They forwarded me the reference number application which I completed and returned. I waited just over a week until the agency contacted me with news that they had an invitation code for me.
They would send my code to ‘the embassy of my choice’ for Step 2 – the processing of the visa. Normally I would have selected Ottawa where I would be able to courier my passport for the final visa from my home in Calgary, but since the Canadian Foreign Ministry’s decided to expel all Iranian diplomats mid-September of this year, this was not an option. After some research, I elected The Hague in The Netherlands – it was en route to the Middle East, I had never been to Amsterdam and most importantly, I had read some recent success stories of foreigners getting Iran visas issued there.
In order to finalize the sending of the code, I needed to pay the agency 45 euro for their troubles. Like the case of choosing which embassy to liaise with, this would normally be dead simple, however; due to economic and financial sanctions currently imposed on Iran, no western banks have relations with Iran and no capital is legally allowed to flow in or out of the country. There are serious penalties overlooking this regulation – just ask UK bank Standard Chartered.
To circumvent this, the agency provided me with an individuals’ bank account info located in the UK. So, I attempted to transfer the amount to the UK bank account using the online banking services of my Canadian bank. It didn’t work. After days of trying different methods and contacting both the sending and receiving institutions, it was apparent that the Canadian banks had restrictions against the BIC number is was trying to use. I had no choice but to send the funds via wire transfer. This was feasible, but it was going to cost me $40 to send 45 euros instead of $13 to send the amount - not the end of the world, but worth working to avoid.
Before spending over $100 dollars on something intangible halfway across the world, I wanted to make sure that the Iran embassy in The Hague was on board to issue me a visa. Because of short embassy working hours, time difference between Holland and Canada, and my tendency to hit ‘snooze’ it took three different mornings of waking up at 3 AM to call the embassy via Skype and try to learn if they had my received code.
At the end of these attempts, I had accomplished little to secure peace of mind. I decided that it was worth the risk and that I would have to trust those involved.
Once I emailed confirmation of the wire transfer to the agency, they sent me my code. Step 1 was complete. Nothing more could be done on this front until I arrived in The Hague and handed over my passport. My plans were more in the balance than ever.