How to get a visa for Iran (for Brits - current Jan 2002)
All visitors need to arrange a visa prior to arrival at the border. If you are travelling independently (i.e. not with a tour group) you should be able to get a 5 day transit visa without too many problems. It's better to give yourself plenty of time and arrange the visa from London, but the visa is only valid for 3 months from date of issue so if you want to take longer getting there you can pick one up in Istanbul, Ankara or Erzurum. Transit visas can be extended, but only once and only for 5 days.
If you want to stay longer in Iran you will be better off obtaining a tourist visa. If you apply independently you will almost certainly be rejected, the other options (assuming you don't have friends/family in Iran who can invite you) are to contact a travel agency in Iran and ask them to sponsor you, or to apply via one of the following organisations:
We used Magic Carpet - www.magic-carpet-travel.com who charged us £75 each but organised a 30 day tourist visa for us within 2 weeks. They provide you with the reference number and you go to the embassy in London to collect it. We found them a little expensive, but efficient and helpful.
Other organisations we've since heard of include:
Apparently you can also arrange with these companies to pick your visa up at an Iranian embassy along the way, say from Istanbul. Visa extensions are also possible once in Iran, but I'm not sure how easy they are to obtain or how long they are extended for. One man told us that you can extend them easily up to 3 times, but he told us a lot of things.
NB: When applying for the visa:
What to wear (women)
Don't be too worried about covering yourself from head to foot in a black robe. It is quite acceptable to cover your head with a scarf, and wear a long loose shirt down to the knees (with long trousers/skirt underneath). The idea is simply to cover the head and disguise the shape of the body. You don't have to wear black either - this is only if you are orthodox muslim. Lighter shades and cotton are preferable in the heat. You can buy Iranian clothing cheaply and easily from any town or market.
Restrictions are being relaxed, certainly for foreigners - the best overall advice I found was tucked away on P.310 of the Lonely Planet 'Istanbul to Kathmandu' book::
"While female tourists are not encouraged to bend Islamic law, should they choose to do so their eccentricity will be tolerated for the simple fact that they are foreign. Iranians are getting used to the increasing numbers of foreign tour groups which (thanks to the security of numbers) often include women only cursorily observing hejab requirements. Independant travellers will feel equally comfortable as long as they wear a loose kaftan or ' roupush' (light manteau), trousers and a head scarf. Plain colours need not be worn either on the head scarf or the coat; and a chador is only required when it is handed over at the entrance to a shrine. Looking smart and well presented will earn the tourist infinitely more respect than wearing a chador (girls will be ogled in Tehran even if they wear bags over their heads for the simple reason that they are foreign and female)".
We did meet a girl who had been 'arrested' - in the friendliest and most apologetic of manners - because someone had complained that the shirt she was wearing didn't cover her bum.