Is it Safe to Travel in Iraq?

Mention “Iraq” to anyone who reads the newspaper regularly and they’ll probably get a troubled look on their faces. It feels like at least once a week or so, I see a headline about explosions ripping through Iraqi cities as sectarian violence flares. The perceived danger alone is why people give me this strange look when I tell them I traveled in Iraq.

Meet Iraqi Kurdistan

Let’s get one thing clear real quick. Iraq is really two countries, one called Iraq, the other, Iraqi Kurdistan. Ok, sure, technically, Kurdistan is part of Iraq, though you’d never know it traveling there. Officially called the “Kurdish Autonomous Region,” they’ve taken self-governance to the next level, with their own independent military and immigration that is totally separate from the central Iraqi government.

Welcome to Iraqi Kurdistan

Border of Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey

This means that the security situation in Iraqi Kurdistan is radically different than it is in “Arab” (Southern) Iraq. And all of those bombings you read about constantly are actually in Southern Iraq, not within the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan.

It’s almost amazing in some regards, as there are moments in Kurdistan where you are no more than 80 or so km (50 miles) from dangerous hotspots like Kirkuk or Mosul but there’s in effect a border between the two. In fact, sitting around enjoying the calm of Erbil’s citadel or Dohuk’s amusement park, you’d never realize that you are an hour or so from a couple of the most dangerous cities on Earth…

Building in Erbil Citadel

Courtyard in Erbil’s historic Citadel

Is Traveling in Iraqi Kurdistan Safe?

So is traveling in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region safe? Well, no place is 100% safe. I mean, I could get mugged walking down the streets of NYC (heck a guy was murdered in Greenwich Village recently just for being gay). I happen to be of the opinion that bad things can happen anywhere and there isn’t much you can do stop them so why should you worry?

But let me emphasize that I never once felt unsafe or even pause while I was traveling in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region.

Kurdish Men in Traditional Outfits

Kurdish men in traditional outfits in Dohuk

That’s not to say that nothing has ever happened. Suicide bombings did rock Iraqi Kurdistan as the war raged in the south following the 2003 U.S. invasion, though they have largely calmed down since 2007. And car bombings, though incredibly rare, have been known to happen, most recently in March 2013, when a magnetic bomb was stuck to an unsuspecting car driven by a Kurdish general.

When things do happen, they tend to be very targeted. Nobody was killed in that car bombing, which only injured the driver. The chances of something happening, particularly in areas where tourists visit, are pretty slim. Security is everywhere in Iraqi Kurdistan and I can’t even count the number of checkpoint I went through, all staffed by heavily armed Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers (which literally means “those who face death”). But things do occasionally slip through, like the car bomb.

I would say that by far the biggest danger to your personal safety is the reckless way in which people drive (I’ve written my own little “driving guide” to Iraq based on my experiences with a rental car there which is coming down the pipeline soon!). That, and I have to agree with Wandering Earl’s notion that starvation may be the biggest risk from his visit in 2010, as I unfortunately found the food to be pretty lackluster, even though I eat meat (which he doesn’t).

What You Can Do to Keep Yourself Safe

Here are a couple of other things you can do to help keep yourself safe. When traveling between Dohuk and Erbil, the fast way to go is via the outskirts of Mosul, which may not be the safest decision you could make. When I did that route, I took a standard share taxi and it took a different route, which made me feel much safer (it left from an office across from the market in Dohuk).

And when traveling between Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, most share taxis travel via the outskirts of Kirkuk, which, again, puts you at a higher risk of encountering violence. I solved this by taking a share taxi from Sulaymaniyah to Koya to check out the really cool mudbrick houses (pictured below), before catching another share taxi back to Erbil.

Mud Brick House

Mudbrick House in Koya

Perhaps the most important thing you can do is to keep yourself aware of what’s going on around you. Trust your own gut instincts and what local people tell you. The Kurds are very honest people and I never once felt that anyone had an ulterior motive like they do in Egypt or was out to rip me off or steal from me. And stay on top of current events. Like anywhere in the world, the situation can change very quickly.

If you are a traveler with a sense of adventure…one who is comfortable finding your own way around an undeveloped land with no tourism infrastructure, then taking the chance to travel in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan Region can be an amazingly rewarding experience. A chance to witness nation building first hand and get to know the most hospitable people I’ve ever experienced.

Safe travels out there!

Read More About My Adventure in Iraq

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34 Responses to Is it Safe to Travel in Iraq?

  1. Sam August 4, 2013 at 11:38 am #

    Thank you for clearing this up, Aaron. It really bothers me (though we’re all guilty of it, so I know I’m being hypocritcal) that people have such knee-jerk reactions to country names like Iraq. Such a shame. Iraqi Kurdistan sounds quite lovely, and perhaps rather similar to how Syria used to be before the civil war…?

    • Aaron August 8, 2013 at 10:23 pm #

      I haven’t been to Syria so I can’t make that comparison. But yes, I think it works into a much larger issue in that people generally feel that the world is somehow a very dangerous place. Chock it up to lack of education and an overzealous, sensationalist news media (at least in the U.S.) and abundantly cautious government travel warnings. Heck when I went to Egypt before the Morsi election they were still protesting in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and somehow that made the entire country “dangerous” in many peoples eyes. When I announced on Twitter the night before that I’d decided to go to Cairo, I got tweets from well-traveled friends about how “dangerous” it was. Yet Cairo is a GIANT city and Tahrir Square a tiny little speck in that giant city. And you could be two blocks away and never know anything was happening…

  2. Marysia @ My Travel Affairs August 5, 2013 at 10:56 am #

    I have recently met a Girl who travelled there and had the same experience and opinion as you!
    I’m planning to go soon as well!

    • Aaron August 8, 2013 at 10:29 pm #

      That’s wonderful! I always imagined that female travelers would probably have a different experience than I had, as Iraqi Kurdistan is a very gender-segregated society. Men and women do not socialize in public, and, while I made loads of local friends, they were all male. So glad to hear this girl had a great time!

  3. Jennifer August 6, 2013 at 3:09 am #

    I have read alot about iraq of late and it is definitely a place that intrigues me. Thanks for the article 🙂

    • Aaron August 8, 2013 at 10:30 pm #

      It’s definitely an intriguing place. And definitely not a place for an inexperienced traveler as there’s literally no travel infrastructure around. Glad you found the post useful!

  4. Laetitia September 8, 2013 at 3:59 am #

    Hi Aaron!
    Thanks for the info, very interesting. When were you there? Do you have information about the situation right now and what people expect to happen in the short term?
    My friend is supposed to travel to Iraki Kurdistan for work-related reasons. She has an American passport. We are wondering if it is safe to plan to go there now (second half of September) given the situation in Syria and the threats of military strikes by US and others, which might lead to an escalation in the region. What do you think about that?
    Thanks!

    • Aaron September 9, 2013 at 3:48 am #

      I was there in June 2012. I still have friends who live there and life goes on as normal. Nobody lives in fear and neither should your friend. The dangerous parts of Iraq where weekly bombings still occur are MUCH closer to Iraqi Kurdistan’s cities than Syria is and there hasn’t been any spillover from that. Hard to fathom that a US strike in Syria would cause any spillover issues.

      As for the American passport, it’s also important to remember two things. The Kurds LOVE Americans because the US took out Saddam Hussein. Whatever your thoughts were on the US invasion in 2003, it’s hard to argue that it wasn’t very good for the Kurds (he tried to wipe them out). And the people who want Assad out in Syria include the Kurds there, and they support a US strike in Syria. Not to mention that people the world over recognize that what one’s government does does not necessarily reflect the belief of the people. So I really don’t think your friend has anything to worry about.

  5. Jeff October 25, 2013 at 3:01 am #

    I always thought that Iraq was a very dangerous place to be, thanks for clearing this up. I also didn’t know that Iraq has two countries, that is Iraq and Iraq Kurdistan.

    • Aaron October 25, 2013 at 8:50 pm #

      In theory Iraq is two countries, but in actuality it isn’t. It’s a bit like the relationship between Hong Kong and China. Hong Kong is technically part of China but you’d never realize that in Hong Kong proper and you literally have to exit one to get to the other. Except Iraqi Kurdistan shares Iraq’s currency but not their military.

  6. Andy October 30, 2013 at 10:12 am #

    Wonderful adventure, I find that the more I travel the more I think that safety is relative. Most crimes could occur anywhere in the world, it is often the luck of the draw so to speak. Glad to see some people getting off of the beaten path and changing stereotypes.

    • Aaron October 31, 2013 at 2:14 am #

      Safety is totally relative. And since I’ve started traveling to more places that many people consider to be “unsafe” because of what they hear in the news, I learn more and more than the news paints a very broad picture and leaves a lot of details out. For example, I was in Egypt after the revolution and before the election, when protests were still the norm in Tahrir Square. Nobody was going to Egypt because everyone thought Cairo was so dangerous! Except, Tahrir Square is a tiny speck in a city of 20 million people and you’d never even know anything was happening unless you were right there. I most definitely live my life by the mentality that bad things happen everywhere,and there’s not much you can do to prevent them, so why let them worry you?

  7. Erik November 4, 2013 at 7:30 pm #

    This is an incredible adventure, Aaron. I’ve really enjoyed all the posts. Like most people, this was my biggest question. It’s even wilder that you rented a car, too!

    Thanks for sharing this- Kurdistan certainly could use the tourism financially, and it’s visits like this may help people overcome that fear of what they hear in the news.

    • Aaron November 7, 2013 at 12:05 am #

      Thanks Erik! It’s so true. Whenever I tell anyone that I went to Iraq, they get this horrified look on their face. But most people also don’t get that what they see on the news is a gross generalization about an entire place, and its really not fair to make blanket statements like “Iraq is dangerous” or “Egypt is dangerous.” The more people know that there are safe areas all over the place, the more they’ll overcome their fears.

  8. vakta mondal January 19, 2014 at 12:54 am #

    Great news about Iraq. That makes me happy a lot. I’m thinking to go there. Really fantastic. Thanks

    • Aaron January 28, 2014 at 12:27 am #

      Glad you enjoyed the post.

  9. Jim Bowater March 15, 2014 at 5:18 pm #

    Hi Aaron,
    I enjoyed your posts mate,you are a legend.
    Im hoping Iraq will be on my travel list next year,and perhaps Pakastan too.
    Keep on doing what you enjoy most.

    • Aaron March 20, 2014 at 6:16 pm #

      Thanks Jim! Good luck on your own travels and don’t hesitate to reach out if you need any help with Iraq!

  10. Derek Raskin February 21, 2015 at 4:02 pm #

    Hello Aaron,

    Thank you for your travel information. I am considering visiting the region in the fall.

    When you were there what languages were you communicating in?

    Thank you in advance!

    • Aaron February 25, 2015 at 9:53 pm #

      English. I found it to be fairly widely spoken, particularly given the large U.S. troop presence for so many years. Most people I met were just so thrilled to meet a native speaker. Strangely enough, I also got to use my Spanish (more on that here: http://www.aaronswwadventures.com/2012/09/amusement-park-in-iraq-dohuk-dream-city/).

      The Kurds speak Kurdish, though there are two different dialects of it that are quite different from one another.

  11. Azad September 24, 2015 at 9:40 am #

    Dear Aron
    Thanks to your kind information about Kurdistan ,,,we hope see more people look like you in Kurdistan and writing good about our Kurdistan we hope soon become our Kurdistan great Kurdistan .
    Regards
    Azad ( UK )

    • Aaron September 26, 2015 at 9:52 pm #

      Thanks Azad! I’m happy to share my experience with such a wonderfully warm and friendly group of people!

    • Elfi January 7, 2017 at 10:29 pm #

      Hi Azad, how safe is it for an Asian woman to travel there on her own, would local culture permit it?
      Thank you so much!

      • Aaron January 8, 2017 at 11:41 pm #

        Yes I think so. I met two European women traveling alone there. They were actually the only other foreign travelers I met the entire time I was there! That said, there were some female teachers who worked with my friend and they reported having a tough experience with some male soldiers trying who told them they needed to have a pat down. A man would never pat down a woman in local culture, but they assumed that a foreigner wouldn’t know any better. Just FYI.

        • Elfira Sidharta January 9, 2017 at 2:04 am #

          Thank You Aaron!!

  12. Katrina December 20, 2015 at 3:21 am #

    My friend traveled to Iraq, his car got shot at, There was an airstrike a few miles away from where he was, and a gun fight a few miles away and in the few hours he saw over a hundred bodies.
    In my eyes it isn’t very safe compared to almost every other country.

    • Aaron December 20, 2015 at 3:39 am #

      Yes but WHERE in Iraq did your friend travel? Safety is very dependent on where you are, as I describe in the article. The Kurdistan region is night and day from the rest of Iraq.

  13. Omar May 30, 2016 at 5:30 pm #

    Yo man, you’re just talking about Kurd side of Iraq the south Iraq is safe but not the west and middle. See Najaf and Karbala for example have high security standards so it might be difficult for you to get in but otherwise if you do. You won’t be dead. I was there last year and it’s beautiful, I suggest you visit imam ali mosque and imam Hussein mosque, while you are at imam Hussein mosque try asking for the museum where they have old swords and other weapons from Muhammeds time.

    • Aaron June 9, 2016 at 11:47 pm #

      Good to know. Last I heard, Iraqi tourist visas (for the non-Kurdish portion) were only attainable if you traveled with a tour group (and armed guards). Is that still the case?

      • Omar June 10, 2016 at 4:58 am #

        well kind of in some cities but in Najaf their security is soooo damn high! You need to atleast know 3 people who are living in Najaf and provide home for you. And if you don’t have anyone in Najaf you know of, they will let you in but they need to check if you have anything inside yourself basically no electronics, you need to get naked to the pint you only have underwear on (note this is not in front of people and women have their own room) and a lot more that goes into it that i don’t remember. but often Americans are welcomed by a Najafi citizen mos of the time a taxi driver to let you enter. And i have met some americans, but you have to know that entering Najaf and entering the mosques is the hardest thing i have ever done in my life.

        • deena January 18, 2017 at 12:22 am #

          Hi Omar, I just stumbled on this blog when researching Najaf. My husband and I are based in NYC and we’re heading to Najaf to visit an Iraqi friend in March. He just sent us an invitation letter and we’re very excited to visit, but our families are very worried about the security situation in Najaf (especially since my husband has light eyes and hair so will stick out in a crowd … I will probably blend more having traveled to Iran and Pakistan without problems). Should we, as US citizens, be worried about traveling to Najaf? I’d love your advice. Thanks so much.

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