Now that I know you’re interested in possibly traveling to Iraqi Kurdistan (right?), I thought it might be helpful to provide a detailed guide on how to get there. Sure, there’s always the option of simply flying directly into the regional capital of Erbil, with semi-frequent flights now operating from destinations within both Europe and the Middle East. Such airlines as Austrian Airlines, Lufthansa, Royal Jordanian, FlyDubai and Atlas Jet all offer service in and out of Iraqi Kurdistan these days.
However, dishing out $500+ USD for a return flight from Istanbul to Erbil might not be too appealing for those with a budget traveler’s bank account and besides, for those with a little more time or perhaps adventurous spirit, going overland is an option you might want to consider.
I traveled overland into Iraqi Kurdistan myself, starting my long journey from the city of Aleppo, Syria. And first, I will say that just as traveling to Iraq in general is not for everyone, neither is embarking on the overland adventure to get there. The route from Syria/Turkey to Iraq is not exactly a hot backpacker’s trail, so if you’re looking for comfort, organization, fresh juice and banana pancakes along the way, you may want to go with the flight option instead
View Syria to Iraq Overland in a larger map
Overland from Syria to Iraqi Kurdistan
Since the route from Syria passes through Turkey as well, this information should be useful for every traveler trying to make their way to the Turkish/Iraqi border, regardless of where you begin your journey.
Stage 1: Getting to Qamishli
Wherever you may be in Syria, you’ll need to take a bus to Qamishli, a low-key, bakery-obsessed town located in the eastern region of the country, right alongside the Turkish border. Buses depart regularly from both Aleppo (5.5 hours) and Damascus (9 hours) and whatever service you choose, it would be ideal for you to arrive in Qamishli before 8:00am, which is the time that the border with Turkey opens for business. I took a night bus from Aleppo and arrived in Qamishli at 6am.
On a side note, you can expect to encounter checkpoints en route to Qamishli, and chances are, the soldiers that question you will then phone ahead and inform the secret police in Qamishli of your arrival. Very few foreigners visit this town and due to some issues with a possible American spy a few years back, the town is a bit on edge. When my bus arrived at the bus station, a driver appeared out of nowhere, asked me if I was Mr Derek Earl and then proceeded to drive me to a hotel to rest for two hours until the border opened. At the hotel, the manager began asking me an odd collection of personal questions, and eventually admitted that he was instructed to do so by the secret police. It was nothing frightening at all, simply a bit odd.
If you arrive in Qamishli after 1:00pm, you’ll have a decision to make. You probably won’t make it any farther than Nusaybin that day, the Turkish town on the other side of the border, as transportation stops running to other parts of Turkey in the early afternoon. So you can either spend the night in Qamishli (ask for Hotel Asia – excellent rooms for $10 USD/night) or in Nusaybin, where prices are going to be higher.
If all goes well, you’ll preferably be crossing the border at around 8:00am and it should take about an hour in total to pass through both Syrian and Turkish immigration. The Syrian side was extraordinarily friendly, even though I spent a great deal of time trying to explain my profession (eventually we all happily settled on “Photoshop man” for some bizarre reason).
The Turkish side was quite different. Here’s a tip. DO NOT mention the word Kurdistan at all when speaking to the Turkish immigration officers. Tell them your destination is simply IRAQ unless you want to be subjected to one angry immigration officer screaming (with spit flying) at you for a few minutes. (Turkey officially does not recognize Kurdistan and is currently fighting against the Kurdish Workers’ Party in the eastern part of the country.)
Details of Stage 1:
Bus: Damascus to Qamishli – 250 SP or 500 SP for VIP service ($6 USD / $12 USD)
Bus: Aleppo to Qamishli – 250 SP or 450 SP for VIP service ($6 USD / $11 USD)
Departure Tax: Upon leaving Syria, you must pay 500 SP at the immigration office.
Turkish Visa: Depending on your nationality, you will typically receive a 90-day multiple entry visa that ranges in cost from free to about $25 USD. If you already have a Turkish visa, then you won’t have to pay again.
Stage 2: Nusaybin to Cizre
Once crossing the border into Turkey, you’ll walk a few minutes along a dusty road before entering the edge of Nusaybin, where you’ll pass a couple of laid-back taxi drivers offering to take you somewhere for an exorbitant amount of money as well as a couple of money-changers (nothing official, just men carrying around money).
If you walk up the road for five more minutes, you’ll actually enter the town itself, where you’ll find an ATM on your left and a helpful police booth on your right. Simply ask the policemen, who don’t speak any English, where to find the ‘dolmus to Cizre’.
(Useful Tips: A dolmus is a shared van and is the most common mode of passenger transport in these parts and the word ‘Cizre’ is pronounced ‘Jeez ray’, something I wish I had known at the time.)
The police, and a combination of locals you meet along the way, will guide you to a dolmus stop in the middle of town, from where you can catch a ride to the main ‘highway’ where you will find the vans heading to the town of Cizre. Just keep repeating ‘Cizre, Cizre, Cizre’ to everyone you meet and before you know it, you’ll actually be on your way to Cizre.
Details of Stage 2:
Dolmus: Nusaybin town to the main highway – 10 minutes / 1 Turkish Lira (75 US cents)
Dolmus: Main highway to Cizre – 2 hours / 8 Turkish Lira ($5.50 USD)
Note: The dolmus to Cizre does not leave according to a timetable, only when full of passengers.
Note: The ATM in Nusaybin only dispenses Turkish Lira but there is an ATM in Silopi that dispenses US Dollars.
Note: A private taxi from Nusaybin to the Turkey/Iraq border will cost about $100 USD.
Stage 3: Cizre to Silopi
Upon arrival in the center of Cizre, simply walk up to someone and say ‘Silopi?’ The person will most likely point to the street where you’ll find a group of vans, each with a different destination written in the window. Locate the one that says “Silopi”, climb in and wait for the dolmus to fill up. Once it’s full, off you’ll go for the short ride to Silopi.
However, keep in mind that the later in the day you arrive, the less chance there will be that you’ll find a dolmus. From what I gathered, most of the vans stop running after 1:00pm, so if you arrive later than that time, you might want to hire a private taxi for the ride to Silopi, which costs around $15 – $20 USD.
Details of Stage 3:
Dolmus: Cizre to Silopi – 20-30 minutes / 2.5 Turkish Lira ($1.75 USD)
Stage 4: Silopi to Zakho
*If you’re starting off in Turkey and not Syria, you’ll simply need to make your way to the town of Silopi as well, which can easily be reached by bus or a combination of shared vans from Diyarbakir or Mardin, two larger cities in Eastern Turkey.
This is the most exciting stage as you’ll finally cross the border from Turkey into Iraq! But of course, it’s not that straightforward, and when you arrive in Silopi, unless you somehow managed to get there before 12 noon, it’s going to be a challenge finding a ride across the border. There are only a limited number of taxis that are properly licensed to make this trip and most of them head off early in the morning, stay in Iraq for the night and return the next day. So once they’ve all gone, you might have to wait until the following morning.
Once in Silopi, ask anyone on the street where to find a ‘taxi to Zakho’, which is the border town on the Iraqi side. The taxi drivers generally congregate on a random street corner in the center of Silopi, right next to a “Bankomatic” ATM machine, and within seconds of arriving on this street corner, someone will ask where you’re headed and the long process of finding a shared taxi to Zakho will begin.
However, you probably won’t have to do much as the staff who work in the taxi office on the corner will begin making phone calls, shrugging shoulders and yelling out questions to every driver that passes by. If you’re lucky, a taxi will soon be found. Of course, once you do have a taxi and driver lined up, the next step is finding more passengers to split the cost with you. Hopefully there will be some local Iraqis waiting to make the same trip or else you’ll have to pay for four seats, which will prove to be extremely expensive.
If you’re in no rush, you can also spend the night in Silopi, wake up early in the morning and find a shared taxi without any problem. I got lucky when I arrived, as there were four other locals waiting to go to Iraq and after 30 minutes, a taxi was located. And then a few minutes later, we were waiting in the below line at Turkish immigration.
Once your taxi ride to Iraq begins, here’s what to expect…
- You’ll hand over your passport to the taxi driver who will keep it with him until you reach Iraq.
- A ten minute drive from Silopi to the Turkish border, where you’ll wait in a long line of vehicles for your exit stamp. (Average wait time is 1.5 hours)
- A five minute drive to the Iraqi border where you’ll enter the large immigration hall. Your driver will hand your passport to an immigration official and then you’ll take a seat in one of the comfortable chairs and wait until your name is called out. Once you hear your name, you can collect your passport, although foreigners typically have to answer a few questions about why they’re visiting Iraq before getting the stamp. (Average wait time is 1 hour)
- You’ll pass through a very thorough Iraqi customs inspection as well as 3 heavily-guarded checkpoints within a distance of about 300 meters.
- You’ll finally arrive at the “Garaj” in the Iraqi town of Zakho, where you’ll find shared taxis to other destinations within Kurdistan.
Details of Stage 4:
Money: Silopi is your last chance to get cash as there are no ATMs in Iraqi Kurdistan. Your best bet is the Garanti ATM located on the main road a block down from where you catch a taxi to the border. This ATM dispenses cash in either Turkish Lira or US Dollars, both of which can easily be exchanged for Iraqi Dinars once you cross the border.
Shared Taxi: Silopi to Zahko – 2-4 hours / 20 Turkish Lira or $15 USD or 20,000 Iraqi Dinars. This official price is based on four people sharing the taxi.
Iraqi Kurdistan Entry: Citizens of the US, Canada, EU, Japan and Australia receive a free 10-day visa upon arrival. All other nationalities must obtain a special Iraqi Kurdistan visa from an Iraqi Embassy or Consulate before arrival or else you will not be allowed entry.
Stage 5: Zakho and Beyond…
Welcome to Iraqi Kurdistan!
If all went according to plan (which most likely will not happen at all), you’ll arrive in Zakho by 3pm, just in time to catch one of the last shared taxis of the day to either Dohuk or Erbil. However, if there aren’t any shared taxis available, you can always spend the night in Zakho and catch a taxi the following morning, although, this would waste a valuable day of your Iraqi visa. It would be far better to spend the night in Silopi and cross the border early the next day.
Details of Stage 5:
Shared Taxi: Zakho to Dohuk – 1.5 hours / 8000 Iraqi Dinars or $7 USD (based on 4 passengers)
Shared Taxi: Zakho to Erbil – 3.5 hours / 30,000 Iraqi Dinars or $25 USD (based on 4 passengers)
Zakho: If you need to spend the night in Zakho, it will cost about 5000 Iraqi Dinars for a taxi from the “Garaj” to the center of town, where you will find a selection of budget hotels.
And that’s all it takes to travel overland from Syria/Turkey to Iraqi Kurdistan! Although, don’t forget that you’ll have to make this exact same journey in reverse once it’s time to leave