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How Safe Is Traveling To Iraq?

Iraqi Kurdistan

Without even asking anyone, I’m quite certain that the reason Iraq doesn’t end up on many traveler’s itineraries is because of a strong sense of fear that bodily harm or even death is a very real possibility for any foreign visitor to this region.

However, traveling has taught me to expect the unexpected and so I figured that the best way to assess the safety situation in Iraq, was to venture there myself. And far from visiting such cities as Baghdad and Tikrit, which are both extremely dangerous, I instead headed to the semi-autonomous region known as Kurdistan. Of course, Kurdistan itself suffers from continued conflict with Turkey to the north and Iran to the east as well as having to fiercely protect it’s borders from the highly unstable regions of Iraq to the south. As a result, traveling to this part of the country is not exactly an automatic exemption from danger.

So the questions is….

Did I fear for my safety during my visit to Iraq?

The honest answer is….’no‘. Not at all.

At no time did I feel a threat to my safety and at no time did I witness anything that instilled even an ounce of fear in me.

With that said, traveling to Iraq is still not an adventure for everyone. I’m quite aware that everybody’s perception of danger is completely different. For me, after 11 years on the road and after trips to places such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, much of what might appear shocking, intense or just downright frightening to others, now seems completely normal to me. For example, if the sight of balaclava-clad soldiers standing in the back of pick-up trucks while pointing their massive machine guns in all directions seems somewhat terrifying, then Iraq may not be the place for you. :)

But before you make up your mind, let’s examine more closely some of the potential dangers (at least the perceived dangers) involved with traveling to Iraqi Kurdistan.


TARGETED VIOLENCE

The chance of a foreign traveler being targeted for violence in Iraqi Kurdistan is extremely low. The Kurdish people are incredibly fond of foreigners, especially Americans, and not an hour goes by without a Kurd telling you how much they love George Bush and the USA. The Kurds benefited immensely during Bush’s eight year presidency, as the take down of Saddam led to a safer, freer and more autonomous Kurdistan. So there’s practically zero chance that foreigners would be targeted by Kurds for any violence and besides, the Kurds themselves are not committing violent acts on their own soil. And while it is feasible that non-Kurdish Iraqis could enter Kurdistan with the intention of harming foreign travelers, it would be quite a challenge for such a person to successfully pass through the dozens of checkpoints in the region. In addition, there just aren’t that many foreigners traveling here either.

Bazani and George BushIn conclusion, being a foreign traveler in Iraqi Kurdistan is not a problem at all and far from being a reason for concern, your nationality will most likely lead to interesting conversations, a lot of hand-shaking and everyone in the restaurant suddenly yelling out your country’s name while still shaking their heads in disbelief that you don’t speak Kurdish or Arabic.


RANDOM VIOLENCE

Violent incidents that are not targeted at foreign visitors certainly do take place in Iraqi Kurdistan. In the past year alone, there has been a car bombing in Erbil, bombings from the Turkish army in the north and apparently, even bombings carried out by Iran on a few villages on the Iraqi side of the border. And only a few weeks before I arrived in Kurdistan, a man driving a bomb-laden car tried to ram through a checkpoint on the outskirts of Erbil as well (the driver was promptly shot by soldiers).

So yes, being caught up in random violence is always a possibility in Iraqi Kurdistan. Due to those highly unstable relationships with both Turkey and the rest of Iraq, it’s just not possible for a region involved in so much fighting to be classified as completely safe. But all of the roadblocks and checkpoints in place do offer a certain degree of protection as it would take considerable planning and effort for anyone with violent intentions to reach his/her potential target.

To give you an idea of the checkpoint situation when traveling through this region, during my 10 day stay, I passed through 91 heavily-guarded checkpoints (yes, I did keep track), about half of which required all passengers to hand over identification and for the vehicle to be inspected.

Checkpoint in Iraq

And besides, you certainly wouldn’t travel to any part of Kurdistan that is engaged in active fighting. If you stick to the main cities/towns such as Dohuk, Erbil and Sulamainiyah, your chances of ending up in the midst of a battlefield or danger zone are quite low.

However, changing sides once again, even though I personally felt safe at all times, it is important to understand that the situation could change instantly. All it takes is one act of violence or even a minor escalation of words between two warring sides and the relative peace and normalcy of life in most of Kurdistan would become quite chaotic and yes, very dangerous in mere minutes.


GENERAL SAFETY CONCERNS

In my opinion, the most dangerous threat to your personal safety in Iraqi Kurdistan is the very real possibility of starvation due to the lack of variety in the Kurdish cuisine (at least with what is available in street stalls and restaurants)! Actually, if you love meat or chicken shawarma, then you’ll be absolutely ecstatic about the food. If you don’t, well, be prepared to eat it for every meal anyway or else be prepared to starve!

On a more serious note, from what I could tell, such typical travel concerns as pickpockets, scams and theft are no reason for concern at all when traveling through Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurds are extremely honest people and you’ll often witness remarkable acts of trust. For example, in every town there are money changers who pile thousands of US Dollars, Euros, Iraqi Dinars and other currencies on a small, unprotected table on the footpath. And I was repeatedly shocked at how often these money changers would leave their table unattended (with all the money just sitting there) in order to go grab some food or a cup of tea, even if it was located on a busy street.

Due to the insistence of locals, I often left my backpack unattended in hotel lobbies, shared taxi stations and even on the side of the road while off doing something else as well. Nobody stole anything. While I can’t say that theft would never happen here, I’m quite sure that it’s not something a traveler needs to be overly concerned about.

Kurdish couple in Iraq

CONCLUSION

To some, after reading the above, it may seem that the region is quite safe, just as it did to me, and yet others may still feel that the potential danger is not worth the risk at all.

I feel that it’s important to repeat that this is still Iraq and in the end, it is a war zone. And that fact alone is not one to be taken lightly.

So despite any descriptions I make of a remarkably easy-going Kurdistan, despite almost every Kurd I met telling me that there are absolutely no safety concerns in Kurdistan whatsoever and despite the fact that walking around the streets, both during the day and at night, feels even safer than it does to walk around the streets of most towns back home in the USA, this is still not the safest of travel destinations.

Erbil, Iraq

That peaceful surface is just too fragile to think otherwise.

A US Marine that Anil and I encountered at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Kirkuk (not the “Holy Sh*t!” Marine) gave us what is perhaps the most concise, yet realistic, explanation of the current state of things in Kurdistan. He said: “While the situation has calmed down significantly over the last couple of years, just remember that there is definitely still a situation here.


So, who’s thinking of a visit to Iraq? Anyone?

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135 Responses to How Safe Is Traveling To Iraq?

  1. Avesta says:

    Hi i am from kurdistan but living in the uk i would just like to say how wonderful itis for people to finally realise that kurdistan is its own we might be in iraq but we honestly do not feel like we are apart of iraq with all respect, and i was in kurdistan sulaimania 2 months ago but i have tickets booked also for next wednesday and i am very sad about what is going on at the moment but i am going to kurdistan and i do not see the threat or danger as we have hundreds of thousands of peshmarga fighters around our borders makking sure any isis or iraqi fighters do not get it we as kurds are completly against violence and the reason we are involved is only to protect our people and our beautiful kurdistan from any terrorists and we welcome people of any nationality :)

  2. Sarah says:

    Lars, as long as you travel via Koya to erbil should be fine. Avoid the way that involves Kirkuk! This is via chamcumal so I would avoid it. When you cross from Iran that way what place in Kurdistan do you end up in?

  3. Lars Cox says:

    Hey Earl,

    Very interesting to read your story about Iraqi Kurdistan. My name is Lars, and I’m planning to make a trip there in october, but i will be coming from Iran. My only concern is the border crossing between Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan, through the piranshahr/haji omaran border and from there on the hamilton road to Arbil. Do you have any experience with this border crossing? Or maybe you know people who have been there? Websites that could help me? I’ve been looking all over the internet but its very hard to find info about this route and border crossing. I mailed some travel organisations in this area and most say it’s an easy crossing, butthe more opinions the better, because i will be travelling alone and really dont want to get in trouble :)

    Many greetings and happy travels

    Lars, belgium

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Lars – I haven’t done that crossing myself but I do know others who have done it over the years and they all said the same….that it was an easy crossing. The road to Arbil is fine as well since that road is 100% within Kurdistan and does not dip into the other areas of Iraq like some of the other roads.

  4. Tody says:

    Maryam, I think travelling to Baghdad is a terrible idea. Maybe you should wait for a few years for the situation to (maybe) improve a bit? Or arrange a family meet in Kurdistan instead?

    • Maryam says:

      Kurdistan is impossible. Al amiriyah is closed down today and no one is coming in or out. Its either I go or I don’t get to see them. Ever. I have postponed my trip 2 weeks. It would be a £600 loss if I miss it and never get to see my family. Just praying and crossing my fingers.

    • Roger says:

      Hi Earl,
      I’ve posted here a couple of times regarding my visits to Kurdistan and how much I’ve absolutely loved my times there.
      After 2 years now I was planning a return visit there in August this year for 3 weeks but sadly now I have had to cancel.
      This is obviously due to the sudden and dramatic turn of events in Iraq, which seems to be getting worse by the day.
      Kurdistan itself is still seen as relatively safe at the moment but having had long discussions with my friends in Kurdistan I have decided it is, simply, far too dangerous at present to go.I have to consider both my own safety and the safety of my friends who are looking after me, and the responsibility that goes with that. There is a marked increase in checks at the checkpoints in and out of all the cities in Kurdistan and the general feeling is that the situation is going to get markedly worse before it gets any better. There have been price increases for food and other essentials which are causing upset, as a lot of supplies are brought in from Turkey which now is seen now as too risky for the lorry drivers from Turkey.
      Generally a very volatile situation throughout the country.
      I am genuinely very saddened by this having planned this for 2 years but my loss of holiday is nothing compared to the tragic and dangerous circumstances the people of Iraq now find thrust upon themselves.

      I am now hoping, possibly, a visit in the new year but at present I cannot make any plans while Iraq descends into anarchy.
      Just thought you and your readers may be interested to hear this.

      Thanks,

      Roger.

      • Wandering Earl says:

        Hey Roger – It is a sad situation what’s going on right now and I’ve been following it quite closely. My contacts in Iraqi Kurdistan have informed me that things are indeed still safe over there but I can understand your hesitation in going at this time. Hopefully it will change soon!

  5. Maryam says:

    Hey Wandering Earl,
    I am going to Baghdad, Al-a’amiriya in a week now to see my aunts, uncles cousins, grandmothers.. basically every family member apart from mum and dad.
    Today my aunt called saying that her area has been boarded up with bricks and no one can leave-go until further notice.
    She basically said it’s extremely risky for me to enter that area because I have a british passport. My uncle was murdered for money by a gang a few years ago and about a year ago one of my cousins was kidnapped (he’s an adult) and was told that he would get chopped up if his family was not willing to pay $30,000. Don’t worry, we all chipped in and paid.

    But anyway, seriously I have in my messed up head that I want to go there but the risk of that cousin having to pick me up from Abbas ibn firnas is starting to make me think, also on the way from there and getting me to their house we will obviously checked a minimum of one time and I would probably have to show my british passport, which is a problem.
    My aunt thinks and has got it in my head that if they find out i’m british they’ll kidnap me (again, I’m an adult) and ask for ransom.

    What’s your honest opinion?
    Thanks,

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Maryam – That’s a tough call since it involves family but I don’t think I would personally go to Baghdad right now given the current situation. Doesn’t seem worth the risk.

  6. Jimshearr says:

    Hi everyone,
    I am Kurdish from Iraq I would like to say Kurdistan is a safe area and we respect all people (white black green red) and all nationalities
    Don’t worry and welcome in Kurdistan
    Sorry my English language is not good.

  7. Patty Duncan says:

    No, but he watched the value of the dollar closely.

  8. Bill Barros says:

    How much did this trip cost you?

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Bill – I’m not sure of the exact figures but in the 10 days I was there, my guess is that I spent about $350 USD or so.

  9. Sozan smith says:

    I’m a (black) women in USA I traveled to kurdistan 5 time In 2012 and 8 time in 2013 kurdistan is a vary nice country and u will not enough to visit this country and it’s safe place if you are black or white they we’ll love u I’m planning to visit again.

  10. Tory says:

    Hi Patty,
    Just curious- has your friend from Iraq ever encouraged you to buy their currency- the dinar?

    Thanks

  11. Patty Duncan says:

    Thanks, fellas… I’m really starting to get pumped about this… what an adventure to enjoy an Iraqi extended family, and feel very safe with my host… thanks for all the advice and good thoughts…

  12. Patty Duncan says:

    I am learning much from your posts, which is exciting for me, because I have just hosted a Kurdish Iraqi at my bnb for two weeks. Never have I met a more fascinating person. His stories of the war, his family, his insights and wisdom…. kept me riveted the whole time, and included many laughs. He currently lives in London with his wife and children, but plans on moving back to Iraq soon to be closer to their families. He has invited me to spend Christmas with them in London, which I am planning on doing, but his invitation to visit Iraq some day has me studying up on things. The way Roger describes the people is very much the impression I got. This fellow is at the top of his community, with much respect and admiration for his history and his generosities. I’m confident he would treat me like family and be very protective of me. Is this an opportunity I shouldn’t pass up?

    • Roger says:

      Hi Patty,
      If you have the opportunity to go I would say definitely do so. You will not regret it, Kurdistan is a beautiful country with the warmest, most friendly people you will ever meet. I suggest you also do a little research into the history of Kurdistan before you go. You have a wonderful source of knowledge in your friend, who I am sure will be delighted to take care of you while you visit.
      Of course it is still in a very troubled part of the world,and you should be under no illusion of that. There has recently been elections in Kurdistan which has led to some unrest, which is partly why I have not been this year. However, I am sure the situation will settle again soon.
      Check government advice nearer the time you are travelling for advice but generally Kurdistan is considered safe, but avoid demonstrations and large crowds. Oh, and how about learning a language a little. Ask your friend to teach you some basic Kurdish sorani. Not easy but very interesting.
      Please let me know your plans, especially where you intend to visit. I myself will be returning next year, can’t wait!
      Roger.

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Patty – Definitely a great opportunity!

  13. Roger says:

    Hi Chel,
    This is Roger. I wrote a while ago that I have been to Kurdistan twice and travelled back by car last year. My full message is above so I hope this at least helps if you have read it.
    I have indeed been to Ranya, albeit briefly. It is a fairly remote town surrounded by some smallish mountains, in a beautiful area of Kurdistan. I’m not sure where you are from but it is certainly not a large city, there being just the normal run of shops etc. for that area. If you haven’t already been or even looked at pictures don’t expect a busy lifestyle there, the way of life will be slow and quiet. It is in a remote area and I guess will be subject to extremes of temperature ie very hot in summer ( 42 degrees when I was there in 2011)and very cold in winter.
    Please let me know if this was helpful or if you need any more information.
    Roger.

  14. Marcio Marques says:

    Hi,

    Thanks for this information, but does anyone have any idea about traveling to the rest of the country, especially Baghdad? I made a friend from there who assures me that its safe, and insisted i should go, but obviously I have my concerns!

  15. QsArt says:

    Hi!
    I am Engineer by profession. I have a job offer for Construction of Hospital in Sulemaniyah. The pay is expected to good. Like most of the people, I am worried. Although I belong to Pakistan but still I feel Kurdistan to be unsafer.
    Whats your suggestion for me?

  16. Max says:

    Hi ,

    do you think that entering Iraq from Turkey and proceeding down until entering to Saudi Arabia (visiting places like Hatra and Babylon) might be safe and possible ?

    I was told that the border crossing between Iraq and Saudi Arabia is closed or often closes…
    Thank you in advance for your suggestions !

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Max – You won’t be allowed to do that because your Iraqi Kurdistan visa is only good for Iraqi Kurdistan. You won’t be allowed into regular parts of Iraq on that visa.

  17. Pingback: Is it Safe to Travel in Iraq? | Aaron's Worldwide Adventures

  18. Sarah says:

    I’ve been 4 times now each time being 7 weeks plus. What part are you looking to go too? I think it is safe if you respect them and the culture. Every town has a check point to make sure no one is going and coming that shouldn’t be.

    • Chel says:

      Hi, I have lots of kurdish friends and I have kurdish boyfriend who I have been dating for nearly 2 years. He is returning to Kurdistan soon and wants me to go with him. I only have his story’s of kurdistan so it would be nice to hear others. His home town is ranya has anyone got any experience of visiting here? Looking forward to your replays :)

  19. Anthony says:

    This is a very informative and personal take on Kurdistan. It helps because a group of my friends after meeting some Kurdish friends through a program are trying to go. Unfortunately my mom is very iffy and is really leaning towards no on this one. We have a place to stay and people watching us. But would you recommend that we go. I mean safety is the only concern I think and maybe money as well.

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Anthony – In the end it’s your call but I personally feel, as do many other travelers who visit the region without any problems at all, that is very safe for foreigners.

  20. Tory says:

    thanks for your response Earl and Sarah and for the record we are all colored so no offense taken :)

  21. Sarah says:

    I’ve been out there 4 times now and I’ve been to the capital once but I hear there are quite a few coloured people in the capital. I’m sorry if that is the wrong word to use I don’t mean any offence at all! I spend most of my time in slamani and I’ve seen people from all over including a few coloured people as well as Indian and Pakistani. I can’t say for sure either but there are other people from different countries there but like any country tbh you never no.

  22. Tory says:

    Hey Earl,
    I am an American woman of African descent and would love to travel to Kurdistan- Can you advise of your thoughts of how ‘black’ people were treated here?

    Thanks

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Tory – To be honest, I don’t really have an answer as I just don’t know. You would of course stand out but then again, almost every foreigner stands out over there :) I personally can’t imagine any problems but again, since I’ve never faced that situation, I can’t say for sure.

  23. Roger says:

    Hi Earl,
    I am English, originating from Devon but have several Kurdish friends living here who I have become very close to over the years. As a result of this I have been to Kurdistan for holiday twice now, in 2011 and 2012. I can’t stress enough to everyone just how beautiful the country is, and how friendly and welcoming the people are. Not once did I ever feel that I was in any way threatened or made to feel uneasy. The scenery is, quite simply, breathtaking and like nothing I have ever seen before. Hospitality and generosity seem to be second nature to the Kurdish people. They are very warm, friendly and genuinely pleased to accept foreigners visiting Kurdistan. If you visit someone’s home be prepared to be offered a lot of food and drink. Please accept this as part of their welcome, as refusal may offend the house owner.
    Of course, I was with my friend all the time who dealt with the guards at the checkpoints. We inevitably got stopped many times at checkpoints, largely because of my appearance, but I did not mind this at all as they were only concerned for my safety and wanted to know who I was, who and where I was staying with and for how long. Anyone visiting Kurdistan should be prepared for this as part of the daily way of life if you intent travelling between cities.
    Obviously the situation in the rest of Iraq and indeed the whole of the Middle East is never very far from your mind and for myself I did not venture outside Kurdistan whilst in Iraq.
    In 2012 I only flew one way to Kurdistan as I returned to England by car with my friend through Turkey, Greece, ( ferry to) Italy, France and home. Quite an adventure and there is not enough time to relay those events now. Only I would say to the traveller going to Istanbul from Saudi Arabia that we found the Turkish guards at both ends of Turkey ( Silopi and Edernie) quite hostile toward us and had many hours delay.
    In conclusion I absolutely loved my time in Kurdistan. Through my friend I now have many more friends in Kurdistan who I keep in contact with and I can’t wait to return there soon, hopefully later this year.

  24. g says:

    it is safe like a paradise go Kurdistan with out any problem

    black white green red any co-lour the will love you more than Kurdish people

    anything you won’t text me

  25. Majid says:

    Hey…nice information. I want to visit from Saudi Arabia to Istanbul by road and off-course I cannot avoid Iraq. I want to avoid Syria and pass through kurdistan border into Turkey. What do you think about my planning? I am a Pakistani passport wanting to take Saudia number plate vehicle with me.

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Majid – I’m not sure as I haven’t done that full route. All I know is the Iraqi Kurdistan itself was very safe when I was there and the border was open and it was easy for me to cross. But I don’t really know about driving across or what the situation would be like for other nationalities.

  26. nana says:

    Heya earl, :)
    Your blog is so amazinggg and detailed, really inspires me to travel here. however, i have huge concerns because my partner is kurdish and he wants us to visit oneday but i am from london bt of african decent. Do you think it would be safe for a young black woman to travel to kurdistan as many places react differently to a different race?

    • Abdullah Barwary says:

      Actually, I moved to Iraq from Australia because I’m Kurdish.
      My dad works as a Lawyer-Solicitor at a Syrian Refugee Camp.
      His boss is an African old man called Richard.

      But at the same time, many people here think that black
      people are evil, home-less beggars, though I fight them over it so
      they don’t think that, after all, Saddam killed Kurds because
      he was racist towards them. Here in Dohuk, especially in the poor
      suburbs, like “Baroshke”, kids have a notorious reputation for
      throwing rocks at people they don’t like, so all-in-all,
      I don’t know whether it’s safe enough.

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