Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Iran Visas Come at a High Price

Many people seeking permission to travel to the neighbouring country say they’re pressured into buying expensive tickets on an Iranian airline.
By Abdul Baseer

A long queue of disgruntled Afghans lines up outside the Iranian embassy in downtown Kabul. They’re waiting to apply for overland visas so they can visit friends and relatives in Iran.


The line - and the frustration of those waiting in it - is about to grow, since the Iranian government is requiring Afghans to furnish proof that they plan to return to their country or provide a round-trip airline ticket – preferably on a specific Iranian airline, according to some who have gone through the application process.


Among those waiting is Sherjan, 18, dressed in scruffy trousers and an old coat.


"I can't afford a round-trip [plane] ticket, so I am waiting to receive a visa to cross into Iran by car," he said.


Sherjan said half of his family lives in Kabul and the other half resides in Iran. He said the trip by car usually costs about 70 US dollars while a return air ticket costs 340 dollars, more than he can afford.


"The Iranian government violates our rights by charging us this huge amount of money," he said. "They are robbing us."


"I haven't had word from my family in Isfahan for three months," said Aminullah, 27, who was also waiting in line. "I can't pay for a round-trip air fare, so if they don't give us a visa to cross at the border, I'll have to cross over illegally."


Hezbullah, 26, said he had spent hours waiting for an overland visa, which costs 33 dollars. "My cousins are in Iran, and I have to go there," he said. "But air travel is too expensive."


For many Afghans, Iran is an important destination. During the civil war and Taleban rule, many took refuge there, and hundreds of thousands still live and work there.


But making the trip to Iran just got more difficult for some Afghans. According to many people interviewed by IWPR, visa applicants in Kabul are being told to buy round-trip tickets from Aseman airlines - an Iranian carrier -in order to speed their visa processing.


Muslim Salatini, Iranian consul in Kabul, denied there was any such arrangement. He said travellers can obtain overland visas as long as they can prove they will return.


"When travellers can prove to consular officials that they will come back, they can receive an overland visa," he said. "But if they don't, they have to furnish a round-trip ticket."


And Salatini dismissed talk of a back-door arrangement between the Iranian embassy and Aseman airline. However, he added that promoting Iranian companies is a priority for the embassy.


"Our job as diplomats is to support Iranians and Iranian companies," he said. "Aiding Afghan residents who travel to Iran comes second."


But many of those queuing outside the embassy remain sceptical. Ali, 42, said, "The Iranian embassy has an arrangement with Aseman, because whenever someone has ticket from Aseman, they get their visa right away."


A representative of Aseman declined to comment, saying the company was busy booking Afghans on pilgrimages to Mecca. The staff member, who identified himself as Javed, said, "Sorry, the only person authorised to give interviews is Muhsim Karemi, the head of our company."


Meanwhile, staff at Ariana, Afghanistan's national airline, who would speak only on condition of anonymity, said many of their planes were flying with empty seats on the Kabul-Tehran route.


Muhammad Nadir Fayaz, a deputy president of Ariana, discounted reports that business was being siphoned off to a rival Iranian airline and said the story about empty seats on Tehran flights was not true.


"It's a fact that if only one airline flew to Tehran, it would make more money," he said. "But I don't think that Aseman airline has had a bad effect on Ariana's business, and competition between airlines is common all over the world."


Fayaz said he understood the Iranian government's policy on round-trip tickets.


"The reason for the Iranian government's policy is clear, because after their visa expires, many of our compatriots overstay their visit and never return," he said.


High costs aren’t the obstacle confronting Afghans seeking visas to Iran.


Zia, 34, complained that the Iranians would only grant visas to people who apply in the province closest to their home.


"They don't allow residents of one [Afghan] province to travel to another for a visa," he said. "The travellers must show an ID for the province where they are applying."


Iran has consulates in Kabul, Herat, Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif.


Salatini dismissed such complaints and said the statistics speak for themselves.


"Each year, we issue about 30,000 land and air visas in Kabul, 40,000 in Herat, 15,000 in Mazar-e-Sharif and 15,000 in Kandahar," he said.


Abdul Baseer Saeed is an IWPR staff reporter in Kabul.