|Currency||Iraqi dinar (IQD)|
|Population||5 754 770 (2017 est.)|
|Time zone||GMT (UTC+3)|
|edit on Wikidata|
Iraqi Kurdistan is comprised of four governorates: Dohuk, Erbil, Halabja, and Sulaymaniyah, administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). As an autonomous region, the Iraqi military is not allowed to enter Iraqi Kurdistan and the Iraqi government does not have the means to enforce Iraqi laws in Kurdistan.
There are disputed areas, such as Kirkuk and parts of the Ninaveh and Diyala provinces, which are regarded part of Kurdistan by many Kurds, but are not part of the autonomous region. They are not described in this guide.
Iraqi Kurdistan has long been a hotbed for ethnic nationalism. Throughout history, the Kurds in Iraq have vacillated between autonomy and self-determination, and this has often put them into conflict with the Iraqi government. Of all the ethnic groups in Iraq, the Kurds are the ones who are the most critical of the Iraqi government and many Kurds do not call themselves "Iraqis".
During Saddam Hussein's rule, the Kurds were severely marginalised by the Ba'athist government; they experienced Arabisation at the hands of the government and thousands were massacred in the Anfal campaign, a genocidal counterinsurgency in the 1980s. Many Kurds fled Iraq during this time.
After the uprising in connection with the Gulf War 1991, Iraqi Kurdistan achieved de facto autonomy. When Iraq was invaded in 2003, the Kurdish region was largely spared from conflict and their autonomy was made official in the new constitution. With a minimal level of terrorist activity and massive economic development, Kurdistan fast became a "gateway to Iraq" with high levels of foreign investment and development.
Since the defeat of ISIL, it appears that relations between the Arabs and the Kurds are showing signs of improvement. Still, the relationship is quite complex and tense.
Kurdish society consists of a variety of religions and beliefs (such as Muslims, Christians, Jewish, Yazidis, Kakayis, Zoroastrians, Yarsanis, Hawaris, Ahli Haqs) and they all coexist peacefully.
In general, Kurdish people are very friendly and hospitable, you can make friends with anybody and start talking to anyone on the street, so be open to new experiences.
Iraqi Kurdistan is cooler and wetter than the rest of Iraq, which is no surprise, considering that much of Iraqi Kurdistan is mountainous and hilly. Temperatures can fall as low as −2 °C (28 °F) and they can reach as high as 40 °C (104 °F).
|Dohuk Governorate (Dahuk, Zakho)|
The nort-eastern part of Iraqi Kurdistan with Dahuk and Zakho, sharing much of its border with Turkey to the north and a tiny border crossing with Syria to the east in Khanik.
|Erbil Governorate (Erbil)|
Central governorate with the capital Erbil.
|Sulemania Governorate (Sulemania, Raniya)|
City of Halabja and surroundings, bordering Iran.
The major cities controlled by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) are
- 1 Choman – Countryside with summer resorts, parks, rivers, green pastures and waterfalls.
- 2 Dahuk – A city encircled by mountains along the Tigris river.
- 3 Erbil — The capital city of Kurdistan; its citadel, Hawler is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- 4 Halabja — The town that was the scene for Saddam Hussein's gruesome gas attack that killed 5000 people in 1988 now holds a number of memorials, monuments and cemeteries commemorating the event.
- 5 Koya – In a beautiful region of Kurdistan, this town is famous for its mosques, which also have been centres of art and science.
- 6 Rawanduz – A town on the ancient the Nineveh trade route, it became capital of the Soran Emirate from 1399 to 1835.
- 7 Shaqlawa – A historic city and a hill station, known for its waterfalls, trees, and greenery.
- 8 Sulemania — The centre of education and culture in Iraqi Kurdistan. The city features the best museums – the Amna Suraka and Slemani Museum, and a number of pleasant parks.
- 9 Zakho – the main border crossing from Turkey.
- 1 Al-Kosh – a tranquil, 2500-year-old Christian village.
- 2 Amedi – a 4000 year old town perched on the peak of a mountain, rumoured home of Biblical Magi, and confirmed home to Assyrian ruins.
- 3 Chemi Rezan — the famous caves in which the earliest human ceremonial burial site.
- 4 Dukan Lake — a large man-made lake lying at an altitude of 900 m. Great for Friday picnicking.
- 5 Hamilton Road – beautiful mountain road between as a shortcut between Erbil and Iran.
- 6 Gondik – site of ancient cave paintings.
- 7 Lalish — valley. The "Holy See" of Yazidi faith.
- 8 Mar Mattai – 4th century Syrian Orthodox Monastery, the oldest of its kind, overlooking Mosul in its horizon.
- 9 Halgurd and Sakran National Park — the biggest national park in the Middle East, located by Choman in North Erbil, on the Zagros mountains.
- 10 Mount Korek — The only ski resort which is open in the region is accessible by a 4 km long Teleferic (cable car) from Bekhal. Has a resort and activities park at 2,127 m above sea level.
- 11 Erbil Observatory — the largest astronomical observatory in Iraq with a 30 m telescope, staring into the night sky from Mount Korek.
Citizens of the EU, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Iceland, Japan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Monaco, New Zealand, Norway, Qatar, San Marino, South Korea, Switzerland, the UAE, and Vatican City are automatically given a 30 day entry stamp on arrival for a 100,000 dinars (Dec 2021) (about €60/US$68) fee. You will be asked to change money at the airport and pay in Iraqi dinar). Just step right off the plane, go to the exchange money counter next to the visa counter, pay the fee, get the "visa" (on a separated sheet). This is valid for 30 days after arrival, which can be extended by reporting to the Residency Office within 30 days of arrival. This involves many forms to fill out, around US$30 in fees as well as a compulsory blood test to check for hepatitis C and HIV. Be prepared to wait for around 2–3 hours throughout this whole process. Citizens of Iran and Turkey are given a free stamp with a validity of 15 days after arrival. Most other nationalities must produce a valid "Iraq – Kurdistan Region" visa upon arrival.
Border control at land borders is fairly strict. If you have a contact in Kurdistan, come armed with their name and address. If you don't, make sure you have a very good idea of what exactly you will be doing and where you will be staying. You are also more likely to get in if travelling with someone else, and if you are well-dressed.
A visa for Iraqi Kurdistan can not be used to travel to other areas in Iraq, which includes Mosul as of 2019. When attempting to cross the Iraqi Kurdistan border, you will be sent back at the first military checkpoint encountered.
Kurdish authorities are detaining for questioning all foreign citizens that have crossed the border from Turkey. You may face deportation. Note that even Arab nationals entering from Turkey will need a "Kurdish guarantor" to enter the region.
Kurdistan is served by two international airports:
Carriers such as Austrian, Turkish Airways and Pegasus have daily flights from Europe and Turkey to Erbil International Airport. Pegasus (via Istanbul) and Fly Dubai (via Dubai) are often the cheapest routes.
Silopi, the closest town on the Turkish side, is connected to Istanbul and Ankara by bus. From here shared taxi across the border to Zakho, the closest town to the border on the side.
Buses link Erbil with Diyarbakir and Van (about 9-15 hours depending on border traffic) and even Istanbul. From Diyarbakir leaves at least three buses every morning from the otogar to Duhok (50-60 TL, 7 hr), Erbil (70-80 TL, 12 hr) and Sulaymaniyah.
The border formalities may take as little as 45 minutes (entering of Iraq) or as long as 7 hours (leaving Iraq). No papers or photocopies are needed - all you need is your passport. Excellent crossing inbound actually, you get a cup of tea and lounge on a couch watching TV till they finish processing your passport.
Buses to destinations in Iraq are cheaper than the Turkey-bound buses; maybe this is caused by longer queues on the border. Have prepared USD30 (towards Erbil) or USD40 (towards Diyarbakir) and don't be afraid to negotiate.
Iran shares two border crossings with Iraqi Kurdistan: One at Piranshahr - Haji Omaran (at the end of Hamilton Road in the northeast) and one at Bashmaq - Panjwin (also spelled Penjwen) (east of Sulaymaniyah), with the former being the easiest to catch connecting transportation from. These are the only 2 border crossings between Iraq and Iran that are realistic for travellers with foreign passports, since all other border crossings require Iraqi visa which are notoriously difficult to obtain.
- 3 Piranshahr — convenient for those travelling from Tabriz to Iraqi Kurdistan, ca. 150 km from Erbil. Rawandiz, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Iraqi Kurdistan, is encountered underway.
- 4 Bashmaq — closest to Tehran and most convenient for those already in Iranian Kurdistan. This crossing is the closest to Sulaymaniyah.
The border is very safe to cross, although the numerous trucks transporting oil make it a somewhat unpleasant experience.
There is one contested border crossing in the disputed region of Nineveh, northeast of the Iraqi city of Sinjar. This crossing is continuously changing hands between Kurdish militias, Sunni Islamists and the Iraqi Army. Going anywhere near this crossing is extremely dangerous.
Travel between cities is largely done by shared taxis from the garages at each city. Larger cities will have a number of garages. Asking for e.g. "Garage Sulaymaniyah" will usually be enough. Minibuses do exist on routes between major cities, but are not as safe as taxis as they may make stops in Kirkuk or Mosul. Taxis are not that cheap – expect prices ranging between 7000 and 20000 dinar (USD 6–18) for a seat, but in most places they are the means of transportation. Minibuses cost about the half of taxis and take about 1½ hour for driving the distance a taxi can do in an hour.
Taxis are everywhere and are either beige or white with a couple of orange squires. Taxis usually charge between 2000 and 6000 dinars for an intra-city trip. Agree on the price before getting in as there are no meters. Most drivers will be fair, but you can often save a thousand dinars or so by haggling. Each driver will own his own car and tips are included in the price.
In the big cities there are fairly frequent bus services in the day, but no night buses. While confusing, timetables are available in shopping malls and major supermarkets, sometimes free of charge. Streets in Kurdistan are often designed in circles, and then named 10 Meter Street, 20m st, 30m st, etc.
Air travel between Erbil and Sulaymaniyah is available and cheap (around 100$ for a round trip), although this is only a 2½ hour trip by road.
The railway is not yet operational, although there are plans to refurbish the line Between Erbil and Sulaymaniyah. Expect this to take a while.
Driving standards are reasonable in Iraqi Kurdistan. Roads in the cities are in excellent condition. Traffic signals and signs are good and mostly observed. Speed cameras are present on many major roads in and outside the cities.
Because of the low crime rates in Iraqi Kurdistan, hitchhiking is a safe, cheap, and convenient way of transportation between cities. Drivers will rarely ask for any compensation at all, and even make detours to drop you off where you want to be. Although rising in popularity, hitchhiking is not very common yet in Iraqi Kurdistan, so it may take a while before someone stops to pick you up.
- See also: Kurdish phrasebook
Kurdish is official language. Two varieties of Kurdish are spoken in the region: Kurmanji and Sorani. Generally speaking, the use of Kurmanji is limited to Dahuk, whereas Sorani is more commonly spoken. The two varieties are mutually unintelligible. Some minority groups speak other languages.
Arabic is understood by the older generation, but it hasn't been taught in schools since the early 1990s.
English is spoken by the younger generation and well-educated people. Outside the major cities, English isn't widely spoken or understood.
Kurdistan is, at certain times of the year, a land of rugged beauty, characterised by mountains, green rolling hills, waterfalls and natural springs. It has long been famed in Middle Eastern literature as a paradise on earth. So do not expect a trip into the Iraqi desert when visiting Kurdistan. The country is at its most beautiful by spring, but don't expect particularly beautiful landscapes in the dry summer - unless you are fond of the colour yellow.
- 1 Hawler Citadel is in the centre of the Kurdish capital (Hawler is Kurdish for Erbil), and has been inhabited for at least 6,500 years. This ancient mound is one of the contenders for the longest continuously inhabited city on Earth. Nowadays, the citadel, with the slightly confusing bazaar beneath it, continues to be Kurdistan's most famous attraction and a recognized UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2014.
- Parastaga Zardasht: An ancient Zoroastrian/Mithradate temple in Duhok province.
- 2 Chemi Rezan: The famous caves in which the earliest human ceremonial burial site was discovered by German archaeologists. The area is now carefully protected; however, access is still possible.
- 3 Tel Gomel: also called (Gaugamela) The site of the famous battle between Alexander the Great and King Darius, is just under 90 minutes’ drive west of Erbil and close to Jerwana (Sennacherib's aqueduct to Nineveh).
- 4 Mar Mattai: is a 4th century Syrian Orthodox Monastery, the oldest of its kind. It is on the slopes of Jabel Maqlub overlooking Mosul in its horizon.
- Al-Kosh, a tranquil, 2500-year-old Christian village in the Ninaveh province with shady streets, an old Jewish grave site and the Rabban Hormizd Monetary carved out of the cliffs high above it.
- Delal Bridge in Zakho is the oldest example of an open arch bridge in the Middle East, dating back to Abbasid times.
- Gali Ali Bag: The most beautiful waterfall in the Middle East. Just at the beginning of the Hamilton Road in the northeast of the country.
- Bekhal: Another beautiful waterfall is near to the city of Rawanduz.
- Jundian: An artificial waterfall on top of a Mestirus Cave is near the city of Rawanduz and also the Magical Eye.
- Ahmedawa between Sulaymaniyah and Halabja a resort village good for hiking and yet more waterfalls.
- Salahaddin’s Castle 11th-century castle ruin 30 km north of Erbil. Supposedly build by the famous conqueror’s grandfather.
- Haj Omaran the ski resort in the north of the Erbil Province is no longer open.
- Numerous religious sites of especially the Judeo-Christian faiths. Such as the Tomb of the Prophet Daniel in Kirkuk province, the 9th-century St. Thomas Monastery and Jewlakan, Jewish quarter of Sulaymaniyah, with its numerous renovated synagogues.
Hiking: There are plenty of hiking opportunities in the Kurdish mountains; however there are few operators or facilities. Be careful of venturing too close to the Iranian border: three US hikers were arrested in 2009 accused of being spies after supposedly having crossed the border illegally.
Picnics: A favourite local pastime, especially on Friday afternoons. Whether it will be in the mountains or in the city parks, locals love to spend their free time eating and conversing with friends and family. Invitations to join the fun are not unusual.
Shopping: Erbil and Sulaymaniyah have had a number of new, modern shopping malls open over the last decade. This is the face of the new Kurdistan and there is no reason not to join in, either for the shopping itself or the people-watching.
Weddings: Coming across a Kurdish wedding is not uncommon. Neither is being invited to participate in the festivity. Kurdish weddings are quite big, with a lot of guests. Expect plenty of food and dancing; though only few will include alcohol.
Sports: Football is popular. Many towns have their own football pitch. Bowling and table tennis are also popular recreational activities. Alternatively there will probably a gym.
As is the case with cuisines from all over the Middle East, Kurdish cuisine is rich in meat and fresh herbs. Vegetarianism is relatively rare.
Staples of Kurdish cuisine are kebabs, dolma (stuffed grape vines), yaprax (assorted stuffed vegetables ranging from onions to zucchini), shila u brinc (the Kurdish national dish), gipa (similar to Scottish haggis) , and biryani.
Shawarma is the most common street dish, and many food stalls sell it.
Tea is the most popular drink. Iraqi Kurds consume on average 1.5 kilograms of tea per year. Teahouses are found in every nook and corner and they are popular social gathering spots.
Fruit drinks of every kind are usually available at small shops.
Since most Kurds are Sunni Muslims, alcohol is not sold or served everywhere. In larger cities there are some (mostly Christian) neighbourhoods that sell alcoholic beverages.
The official currency is the Iraqi Dinar (ID). Money can be exchanged in major cities, and ATMs do accept credit cards. Foreign debit cards are rarely accepted however. Shops, restaurants, or hotels also rarely accept debit or credit cards, so always make sure you have cash dinars with you. Crime rates in Iraqi Kurdistan are low, so carrying around several hundred thousand dinar on the street does not pose a safety risk.
Iraqi Kurdistan is much safer than the rest of Iraq. Crime rates tend to be low, and people can travel independently without any worries. This said, there is still high risk of terrorist activity in certain areas, and cities near the Syrian, Turkish, and Iranian borders are unsafe. As a tourist, you have little reason to go to those areas unless you really want to explore them.
Since many governments still advise against all travel to Iraq, your travel insurance company may not cover your trip to Iraqi Kurdistan. IATI is one of the few travel insurance companies that can cover your trip to Iraqi Kurdistan.
Security tends to be very tight in Iraqi Kurdistan, often to the point of irritation. For example, it's not uncommon to go through 6–8 security checks before boarding a plane. The Peshmergas (the Kurdish armed forces) can be found everywhere and are responsible for ensuring the external and internal security of Iraqi Kurdistan. As with all authority figures, if a Peshmerga asks you to do something, just do it. Don't challenge or question their authority.
If you are from an Arabic-speaking country or are of Arab descent, you can expect some unwanted attention from the Peshmergas. Do not be surprised or alarmed if this happens to you; just be polite and comply with their requests.
Do not fly or bring drones into the autonomous region. If a drone is found in your possession, you will be detained by the Peshmergas and you will be treated as a suspected spy, militant or terrorist.
Do not take photographs of sensitive areas. If you do this, the Peshmergas will detain you and you will be treated as a suspected spy, militant or terrorist.
The Kurds are known for their friendliness and hospitality. They are generally interested in getting to know people and it's not uncommon for them to invite people over to their homes. You may expect them to ask very personal questions (e.g. your vocation, your marital status) about your lifestyle and who you are. Don't be put off by this; this is how Kurds get to know other people! If you feel a question is too personal, simply give an indirect answer.
You may often be invited to social gatherings (e.g. weddings and the like). If you've been invited, accept the invitation! This is one of the highlights of Kurdish hospitality.
The Kurds are not Arabs; they are their own ethnic group and should be treated as such.
Kurds in general tend to express feelings of antipathy towards Arabs and the Iraqi government. They consider it unjust and unfair that they've been harshly treated by the Iraqi government. Talk about Saddam Hussein and Ba'athism can very easily arouse strong emotions.
Show extreme respect when discussing the Anfal campaign; many Kurds lost their loved ones in the massacre and it can very easily bring up bad memories.
The Kurds are, to a large extent, secular, and they tend to have liberal attitudes towards religion. Most Kurds are Sunni Muslims, but there are also many Christians, Yazidis and Zoroastrians in the region.
The issues of Kurdish nationalism, Kurdish irredentism and Kurdish independence are certainly much debated. An independence referendum was conducted in 2017 in which many people (approximately 92%) voted in favour of independence from Iraq, but due to international pressure, the process was halted. Many Kurds consider it unjust that there is no independent Kurdistan. The issues are quite sensitive and divisive, so avoid discussing them with your hosts unless you have a heart for fierce, passionate debates.
The Kurds strongly condemn religious extremism, and many Peshmergas have been killed defending the region against ISIS.
It would be unwise to criticise or speak badly of the Peshmergas. They are well-respected and pride in them is strong.
Wifi access is widely available in malls, shops, and restaurants. It's not the fastest in the world, but more than sufficient to get around.
Mobile data is relatively expensive, and 3G connectivity is limited to major cities. SIM cards are available for 5000 dinars, with an additional 18 500 dinars for 5 GB of data.
The following sites can be helpful with information for travelers interested in Kurdistan:
The Kurdish Regional Government webpage
KRG produced fact-sheet (PDF) on Travel to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
For more on daily Kurdish life, check the blog ErbilLifestyle.com.