Kurdistan Travel Guide
Before you go: A number of nationalities can obtain a ten-day tourist visa on arrival. If you are unable to obtain a visa on arrival, you will need to apply to an Iraqi embassy or consulate prior, and this may include obtaining a letter from the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior.
If flying, check with the airline on their understanding of your visa requirements. A certain airline (which I shall not name here) wrongly informed me that I required a letter from the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior and refused my boarding. That airline has since corrected its stance after I wrote a letter of complaint.
A visa on arrival will also state that you need to report to the Directorate of Residence within 15 days. However, it seems only to apply if you extend your stay beyond 15 days. I stayed for 10 days, never visited the Directorate and had no problems upon leaving.
Finding ATMs is problematic, so best to bring as much cash on you (especially US Dollars) to cover yourself for the entire trip.
Accommodation: Some cheap options offer poor value for money. I found it better to pay a bit more for a decent place. In Erbil, I stayed at the Kotri Salam (called the Peace Pigeon hotel in Lonely Planet), it was centrally located, with great staff and free Wifi. In Sulaymaniyah, I headed to the Yadi hotel, which also had free breakfast and free Wifi. Whatever price you see advertised can be negotiated, so prepare to haggle.
Food: The Kurds are lavish in the meals they serve and eat. Great roast chickens can always be found, with falafel and a strong selection of Turkish meals also available. Eating is cheap, but places can close early, so your options later at night may be limited. Western food (particularly pasta and pizza) are commonly found too but is far more expensive than local options.
Transport: Taxi drivers are prone to overcharge foreigners, so ask the price of the fare from your hotel, and use that information to gauge what is a fair fare. Between cities, you can take either a bus or a more comfortable taxi, though the latter is more expensive. The prices on these routes seem to be the same for locals and foreigners. Road safety in Kurdistan is not strong, so don’t be afraid to tell a driver to slow down if their speed becomes ridiculous.
Safety: Note: Due to the current conflict encroaching into parts of Kurdistan (from the western border with Iraq), one should exercise extreme caution if travelling through that part of the country.
For many years, the Kurdish regions of Iraq (namely the provinces of Dohuk, Erbil and Sulaymaniyah – known collectively as Kurdistan) have been safe and stable.
During my visit to the cities of Sulaymaniyah and Erbil in February 2013, all was safe, and so is Dohuk according to reports from locals. If travelling between Dohuk and Erbil, it is best to avoid any transport that goes anywhere near Mosul. As of June 2014, Mosul is in the centre of armed conflict, so travel to anywhere near there is not advisable. There are two roads between Erbil and Sulaymaniyah. The most direct route passes near to Kirkuk, one of Iraq’s most dangerous cities. Every local person I met strongly recommended against that route and informed me that I could be shot if I dared enter Kirkuk. However, Kirkuk was taken over by Kurdish forces in June 2014, and it may become safer in the future.
My ten-day experience in Iraq exposed me to the most hospitable people that I have ever met. The welcome was almost overwhelming. Everyone ensured that I was happy and safe, and this included the time when I witnessed a man in the street draw a pistol ready to fire it at an adversary. Even with this incident, I felt in no danger at all during my time in the Kurdish Region of Iraq.
I found the streets at night to be comfortable to walk along – you are extremely unlikely to be harassed by a person drunk or under the influence of drugs – something that people (including myself) would argue is a major source of crime in other countries.
The biggest threat you face in the Kurdish region of Iraq is on the roads. Some taxi drivers hurtle along at irresponsible speeds, and travelling anywhere will reveal the recent carcass of a smashed vehicle.
If you wish to visit Kurdistan, it is important to read the following information, but remember to read information applying to Kurdistan (the Kurdish regions) and not Iraq: