A Digital Pocket Guide On Visiting Northern Iraq: Part 1

January 6, 2011 by Anil Polat  

It is often said that northern Iraq is the gateway to the rest of the country and the areas under the control of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) are a relatively stable place to start for adventurous travelers. Traveling in northern Iraq is easier than you might suspect – albeit with some drastic differences from many other destinations to take into account.

erbil international airport

This digital pocket guide will have you prepared for a trip to this world inside a war zone.

arbil citadel statueSome Basic Questions Answered First

It’s important to understand that all of northern Iraq is not equally stable or as relatively safe. This digital guide focuses on the areas administered by the KRG; primarily the cities of Arbil, Sulaymaniyah, and Duhok. Also, it should be noted that while there might be a thrill in traveling to Iraq, it’s certainly not a trip for everyone.

Finally, before you hop on a flight to northern Iraq, it’s critical you have enough cash on you for the duration of your trip.

streets of arbil iraq

There are no ATMs in the KRG-controlled north, not even at the most common entry-point of Erbil International Airport. US dollars and Turkish lira can be exchanged easily by (the abundant) street vendors once you arrive, however don’t count on using plastic – credit cards won’t be accepted anywhere.

erbil international airport interiorGetting To Northern Iraq By Land And Air

Flights to Arbil are probably the easiest way to arrive in northern Iraq from several connecting cities, including Istanbul, Turkey. Currently your best bets are with AtlasJet, Lufthansa, and Austrian Air.

  • Keep in mind when searching for flights that “Arbil” is often spelled “Erbil” (in English) with “Irbil” also occurring from time to time.
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Finding good deals on flights to northern Iraq isn’t easy, with those from Istanbul on average floating around $600 for a round-trip ticket. The cheaper – yet much more involved – method of crossing overland from Turkey is another option; particularly for intrepid travelers.

Visas And Visiting The Directorate Of Residence

Visas upon arrival are issued by the Kurdistan Regional Government for US, EU, and several other nationalities for visits up to 10 days.

arbil street

These entry stamps are separate from Iraqi national travel visas and also make note that you must “visit [the] Directorate of Residence within 10 days” – which can be a point of confusion.

Upon exit at Erbil International Airport, I was told that this was only necessary for those applying to stay beyond 10 days; though there didn’t seem to be a consensus among the officials I asked. I recommend consulting with your embassy if you have any questions or receive conflicting information upon arrival.

chrakan hotel sulaymaniyahHotels And Finding A Place To Stay

Booking hotel arrangements online prior to a trip to northern Iraq isn’t easy since most are independently owned and not to be found on the Internet. While there are some luxury hotels on the outskirts of the 3 major cities, the majority are the 1-2 start variety. The most straightforward way to find a hotel (there are no hostels) is to make your way to the given city center – in Arbil around the Citadel –Β  walk in and ask.

  • Rates – Obviously they vary but $20-25 is the going price per day.
  • Rooms – Many places only have double rooms, though you can book them for a single at the double rate, you might have to look around if you’re traveling solo.
  • Reception – Although Arabic and Kurdish are the primary languages in north Iraq, basic English is usually enough to book a room. It’s a good idea to brush up or carry a European-to-Arabic numeral chart (shown below) for rates and phone numbers though.
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arabic numberal chart

Also remember that in Arabic, numbers are read from left to right (opposite of everything else).

  • Wi-Fi – Most of the budget hotels will not have wireless Internet, though Internet cafes and shisha bars with wireless can be found in Arbil, Sulaymaniyah, and Duhok.

hotel shahan arbil iraq lobby reception

You can begin your hotel search by seeking out Hotel Shahan in Arbil, Hotel Chrakan in Sulaymaniyah (with good food immediately next door), and Hobo Traveler also has a great set of hotels for you to consider in northern Iraq.

In Part 2: Hopping Cities, Checkpoints, And Spaetzle

Now that you’ve got an idea of how to get to northern Iraq, tomorrow in Part 2 I’ll show you how you can move between the major cities of the Kurdistan-controlled region. As you make your way through checkpoints you’ll discover there’s quite a bit to see and do, with the journey undoubtedly being a memorable part of the experience.


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  1. Thanks for the insightful post. One tends to believe that Iraq has got a safe north and unsafe south, but your first-hand experience is valuable to those who want to have some realistic view of the country.

    Northern Iraq has certainly got lots of culture and old traditions one wants to learn about. This is somewhere you want to touch yourself.

    Rahman Mehraby
    Destination Iran Travel & Tours

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    • Anil P. says:

      Hi Rahman, are you in Iran at the moment? Curious if you see many travelers going to or coming from northern Iraq?

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      • Yes, I’m an Iranian living in Iran as a national tour guide. Northern Iraq is where mostly Kurds are traveling from and to Iran. These days lots of Iranian Kurds travel between the two countries. Western travelers sometimes get into Iran from Turkey border. This sounds more normal here. At least this is what is perceived as normal here. I hope this helps.

        Rahman Mehraby
        Destination Iran

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        • Anil P. says:

          Thanks Rahman, interesting to know and probably a boost to both economies as well. I hope to be in Iran in the next few months and will certainly check out your site for more info πŸ™‚

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          • Sure it helps economy on both sides. Kurds feel like brothers and sisters no matter where they live.

            And you’re more than welcome to check out the info on my site. Stay in touch and let me know what I can do for you. Maybe connecting on facebook could be more helpful. Here’s my page: http://www.facebook.com/DestinationIran

            See you soon here my friend,

            Rahman Mehraby

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          • Anil P. says:

            Hi Rahman,

            Thank you very much – I’ve just connected with you via your Facebook page and will definitely be in touch when I make it to Iran – hopefully which will be around March.

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  2. Rebecca says:

    I agree with Gillian – you’ve definitely put this place on the map (well, for travellers, obviously been on the map for a while for other reasons!). You may be going to address this in part two (which I’m about to read so apologies if I’m getting ahead of myself) but what about the cost of food, and what kinds of food did you eat? And the sights?

    The numbers are my least favourite thing about Arabic. All the words and letters read right to left, then you throw in some numbers and they read from left to right, always confuses me and throws me off!

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    • Anil P. says:

      Hi Rebecca, the cost of food was cheap (when converting to Euro or dollars). The common sandwiches to be found everywhere were about 750 dinar if I recall correctly (~.75 US cents). Even the fancy German restaurant Earl and I stumbled upon only cost about $20 each for what’s probably the poshest meal in town. A bit more in part 2 but let me know if you have more questions after checking it out.

      The sights were mostly free of charge and I believe entry to the Halabja Memorial was the most expensive at about $2.

      The numbers were quite confusing which lead to a rather funny scene with Earl and I trying to figure out the numbers and direction they were read when trying to get a wi-fi code correct. Took us quite a long time but we were wrong on both counts!

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  3. joanne ball says:

    Hi there are several atms in Erbil. located in the new malls…majidi mall and family mall. you an also pay at some of the supermarkets using cards.

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  4. Handy info Anil! Thinking about a trip to visit a friend of mine teaching in Erbil in late May/early June.

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  5. lol I was telling my mother-in-law about you guys and your journey through northern Iraq at christmas dinner. She kept giving me wild-eyed stares as if I was about to whisk Laura off to her doom. I think I was perilously close to losing in-law rep, espeicially when that episode of Top Gear was screened later in the day on BBC one and they were doing something similar :-/

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  6. Gillian says:

    I think the two of you have put Iraq on the map for many more travelers than before. Kudos for going, and for sharing your experiences and how-to’s. I may never get there myself but just knowing that a place like that is accessible makes me realize how much more of the world is open! Cheers!

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    • Anil P. says:

      I think it’s a trend that will pick up in the Middle East in general – there are so many misconceptions about the countries and people here. Travel and travelers can help erase them and if Earl and I are a small part of that, it’s quite humbling.

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  7. ayngelina says:

    Very cool Anil. Even though I’d consider myself an experienced travelers Iraq intimidates me but this is certainly easing some of that.

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    • Anil P. says:

      Thanks Ayngelina. Someone on Twitter mentioned that “[northern] Iraq is not as dangerous as you’d think but not as safe as you’d hope.” I thought that summed it up pretty well. Perhaps when you make your way to this part of the world it can be a part of your travels πŸ™‚

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  8. Sherry Ott says:

    Fascinating information Anil – thanks! I can’t believe there’s not even an ATM at the airport! What an amazing place to travel through.

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  9. Andi says:

    WOW!!! You need to write a guidebook on it. πŸ™‚

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  10. Priyank says:

    Neat information! Did you end up going to the Directorate of residence at all?

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    • Anil P. says:

      I didn’t, but Earl did and as I recall it was quite an intricate process. I’ll ask him to chime in on it πŸ™‚

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      • Earl says:

        The Directorate of Residence experience could only be labeled as ‘absurdly confusing’ and I’ll be writing a detailed post/guide about it that I’ll have up on my site by Friday.

        And excellent work with this guide Anil. I think before my next visit I’ll learn those numbers a little better than I did last time πŸ™‚ I also still can’t get over the fact that shisha bars had free Wi-Fi over there. Yesterday, I actually went into a shisha bar here in Melbourne and asked if they had Wi-Fi and the man working there just said, “Why would we have Wi-Fi?” Oh well!

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        • Anil P. says:

          haha, figuring out the numbers for that wi-fi code was a hilarious experience. Backwards, who would have thought?

          Shisha and wi-fi go so well together – it definitely keeps people there longer!

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