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Is Iraq safe to visit in 2022?

is Iraq safe

For the average traveler, Iraq is considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world to travel to, and the reasons are more than obvious.

From the Iran-Iraq war back in 1980 to the Saddam Hussein Gulf conflict, the following US invasion, and the more contemporary civil war, where the bloodthirsty Islamic State was the main protagonist, the media has been showing us a dangerous Iraq dominated by war for more than three decades.

It will take years for Iraqis to get rid of that unfortunate reputation, and that’s why we are here:

To tell you that despite all that recent trouble, safety in Iraq has drastically improved, making it a relatively safe country to travel to, a land inhabited by beautiful Iraqis who just carry on with their lives and show nothing but kindness to any foreign guest they may bump into.

This guide is a complete analysis made to diagnose how safe is Iraq from a traveling perspective, which includes my personal experience, local insights, safety by region and more.

Note that I have to Iraq 5 times, always traveling independently.

For travel tips, check: How to travel to Federal Iraq

is Iraq safe

Latest update: Is Iraq safe now?

How safe is Iraq right now?

In March 2021, Pope Francis went to Iraq, visiting regions once held by ISIS, while proving to the rest of the world that Iraq wasn’t as dangerous as the media pretends it is.

Right after his visit, the Iraqi Government announced the introduction of a visa on arrival regime, available for up to 38 nationalities, including all EU passport holders, the USA, Canada, the UK and a couple more.

Check the Iraq visa section of my travel guide for more details.

Before the Pope’s visit, getting into Iraq with a tourist visa had always been extremely difficult, and expensive, so easing and liberalizing their visa regime, while encouraging travelers to go to Iraq, can only mean one thing:

From a tourism perspective, the safety situation has improved, which means that Iraq is a safe country to visit

The Islamic State took control of pretty much the entire north of Iraq – excluding the Kurdistan region – but by March 2019, they had lost most of their territory and today, they are nothing but a few insurgent groups hiding in remote desert areas, or not even that.

Their legacy in the northern towns and cities is still visible, especially in the old city of Mosul, most streets of which are composed of rubble. Reconstruction, however, is ongoing, many Iraqis are slowly moving back to their hometowns and the city bazaars seem more lively than ever.

So, is Iraq safe to travel?

In my opinion, there’s never been a safer time to travel to Iraq than in 2022.

Is it safe to travel to Mosul
The Old City of Mosul is mostly composed of rubble, but Mosul is a safe destination within Iraq nowadays

Travel Insurance for Iraq (with COVID-19 coverage)

Most travel insurance companies will not offer coverage for Iraq.

One of the very few which gives covering in Iraq is IATI Insurance

IATI Insurance offers full COVID-19 coverage and has tons of plans at very competitive prices.

Moreover, readers of Against the Compass can get an exclusive 5% discount

Is it safe to travel to Iraq? A look into the Goverment’s advice

When looking at the Iraq travel advice from the US Department of State or the FCDO, it looks like Iraq is immersed in the most dangerous chaos ever, a giant red zone where only the absolutely insane would dare to venture.

While it’s true that this kind of advice has a certain logic behind it, know that they also show a distorted version of the reality, typically based on an unlikely worst-case scenario.

Instead of trusting these biased reports, do talk to travelers who have recently been there, or locals who can tell you the latest updates in terms of safety in Iraq.

This blog post is precisely that, a deep analysis based on my personal traveling experience and locals’ insights.

How safe is traveling to Iraq from my personal experience

Remember to get travel insurance for Iraq
IATI Insurance is one of the very few that covers travel in Iraq + it offers full COVID-19 coverage.
5% discount if purchasing via this link

I have personally been to Iraq 6 times, mainly in the Kurdistan area, but I have also traveled independently in the rest of the country, including Mosul, Baghdad, Nasiriya, the Marshes, and everything in between.

In my experience, I personally believe that Iraq is a safe country to travel to, and the reasons are as follows:

It’s easy to move around

I found Iraq to be an extremely easy country to travel around, with plenty of public transportation and accommodation options.

All towns and cities are well-connected with buses and local shared taxis, and pretty much any city has a good offer of hotels for all budgets.

To my surprise, my initial perception was that backpacking in Iraq would be quite challenging, but it was not and in fact, I found Iraq much safer than Afghanistan, Mali, or even Pakistan, for example

The atmosphere is pretty relaxed

I was also surprised by how calm and peaceful all towns and cities seemed to be.

Petty crime is extremely rare and there wasn’t any visible tension. I was always able to walk around freely with my camera without anyone ever asking questions or stopping me.

Local Iraqis will be there to help you

Local Iraqis are particularly kind, helpful, and hospitable. Amazing people.

As soon as they knew I was a foreigner, they would always approach me. In the worst-case scenario, they would just want to have a friendly chat while on other occasions, they would even offer to show me around or a cup of chai.

From my experience, Iraq felt like a safe place to visit, and I can’t recommend it enough.

teahouse in Nasiriya, Iraq
Meeting local Iraqis is a great way to travel safer in Iraq

Analysis: which regions in Iraq are safe to visit?

Remember to get travel insurance for Iraq
IATI Insurance is one of the very few that covers travel in Iraq + it offers full COVID-19 coverage.
5% discount if purchasing via this link

Let’s look at Iraq’s safety by region.

Is Baghdad safe?

Baghdad is a giant metropolis and the most likely starting point for adventurers heading into this country. It’s chaotic and absolutely packed with traffic jams but, with its lively bazaars and historical sites, it’s also one of the most exciting destinations to visit in Iraq.

The capital has lived some pretty dark days in its recent past, but it’s also one of the places which has seen the biggest security improvement. Nowadays, I personally believe that Baghdad is a safe city to travel to. There’s a lot of security, you can walk around freely, and the locals are very nice.

Nevertheless, always be cautious. We can’t forget that Baghdad is under terrorism threat, as happened in July 2021.

Is Baghdad safe?
Baghdad is chaotic but safe

Is southern Iraq safe?

Anywhere south of Baghdad is considered southern Iraq, which includes popular destinations such as Karbala, Najaf, Babylon, Nasiriya, Chibayish, and Basra.

ISIS was mainly operating in the north and west, so south of Iraq has been safe for quite a while, even during ISIS rule.

Are Karbala and Najaf safe?
As you may know, Karbala and Najaf are the holiest cities in the world for Shia Muslims, two cities that every year receive millions of pilgrim tourists. Given their importance for the Shia community, many foreign travelers believe Karbala and Najaf are dangerous cities to travel to, an obvious high-priority target for Sunni terrorists. The threat definitely exists, but there’s also a high level of security, with strict checkpoints within a 1km perimeter from the actual shrines. Moreover, to enter the shrines you are thoroughly checked and cameras and bags are not allowed to be brought inside. Despite all this trouble, however, the atmosphere was rather relaxed.

is Karbala safe?
Karbala is one of the safest places to visit in Iraq

Is northern Iraq safe?

The north is dominated by Mosul, a city liberated from ISIS back in 2017.

Is it safe to travel to Mosul?

I visited Mosul twice (2020 & 2021) and it does feel safe, a city full of hope, becoming more and more vibrant as we speak, and where UNESCO is putting tremendous efforts into rebuilding one of the most beautiful old cities in the Middle East.

On my second visit, I stayed in Mosul for 3 nights, walked all around by myself, went for dinner alone, etc. and everything was pretty smooth.

For more information, read. How to visit Mosul

Is western Iraq safe?

Fallujah, Hit, Haditha or Rawa are all cities in West Iraq which you might be familiar with, especially Fallujah, a city that witnessed a fierce battle during the US Invasion. The area was also taken by the Islamic State, only liberated in 2016/17.

Today, west of Iraq remains the most off the beaten track region in Iraq – with touristic interest – home to lovely oasis towns sitting on the shores of the Euphrates River.

Is Kurdistan safe?

Kurdistan is, by far, the safest region in Iraq.

For more information, read the next section.

is Mosul safe
The ongoing reconstruction of Al Noori mosque in Mosul

Is Kurdistan safe to visit?

When reading about safety in Iraq, it’s important to differentiate between the northern region of Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq.

Is it safe to travel to Erbil and Iraqi kurdistan?

Kurdistan has always been a relatively safe and easy country to travel to compared to Federal Iraq, and a good alternative for travelers looking for something less hardcore.

Iraqi Kurdistan is a semi-autonomous region located in the north of the country.

Check my Iraqi Kurdistan travel guide

Technically, they are the same country, but Kurdistan enjoys a significant degree of political autonomy, it has its own army, there are different visa rules and you even get a different passport stamp.

From a cultural standpoint, Kurdistan is very different from the rest of Iraq.

You need to keep in mind that Kurdish people are not Arabs: they wear their own traditional clothes, eat their own food, and speak a different language. Kurds like to say that their culture is closer to Iran than Arabs.

is Erbil safe
A Kurdish man in Erbil

They are two completely different regions and, whatever you have been hearing in the news, for the past years, in relation to bombs, terrorist attacks, and ISIS, it didn’t really happen in Kurdistan but in the rest of Iraq.

Kurdistan has always been a relatively safe place to travel to, and that’s why travelers and backpackers alike have been visiting the country for quite some time now.

Why is Kurdistan safer than the rest of Iraq?

No religious sectarianism – Kurdistan is a mix of different religions and groups, including Christians, Muslims, Yazidis, Assyrians and more. However, their national identity has always prevailed over their religion, the reason why Kurdistan has never been a victim of the religious sectarianism that nearly led the rest of Iraq into being a failed state.

Support from foreign armies – If you look at the map before the liberation, you clearly see that Kurdistan was bordering ISIS territory. Yet, ISIS barely managed to get into Kurdistan and that’s partly due to the large support and presence of foreign armies, especially the Americans.

ISIS map in 2015

Large expat community – This is more like a consequence of all the above but, since Iraqi Kurdistan has always enjoyed certain stability, Erbil has become some sort of (a safe) regional business hub with many settled foreign companies.

Seeing Western expats and families wandering around the city is not a rare thing to see. On the other hand, there are many foreigners living in Baghdad too but, while in Erbil they are free to move around without putting themselves at risk, in Baghdad, they are not allowed to leave the international area known as the Green Zone.

Read: Where in the Middle East is safe to travel?

is Kurdistan safe?
Enjoying our time in Iraqi Kurdistan, the safest region to visit in Iraq

Is Iraq a dangerous country to visit? What you need to know

Is Iraq dangerous for tourists?

Here are some of the dangers:

Is there ISIS in Iraq?

After the liberation, most ISIS fighters were either killed or locked up in the high-security prison of Al-Hoot, in Nasiriya.

Those who managed to escape are either hiding the fact that they are former fighters or scraping by in the desert.

Suicide bombings in Iraq

Unfortunately, one of the dangers in Iraq is that the country is under terrorist threat, and anybody telling you otherwise is ignoring the reality because, in 2021, two suicide bombings took place in Baghdad, in January and July.

However, the probability of being caught in such an attack is low, since they happened in a specific place, at a certain time of the day.

Checkpoints in Iraq

One of the challenges – not really a danger- you may face as an independent traveler is going through checkpoints.

There are both army and police checkpoints at the entrance of every city, and also on roads. They may convey a certain respect but they exist for security reasons.

Some checkpoints are easy and you will just get through. Others, however, require some extra patience because the respective authorities will want to check your passport or even what’s inside your bag. And last, there are two checkpoints (Samarra and Nasiriya), where having a local contact is a must.

In any case, know that at all checkpoints the army guys tend to be friendly.

For more information and tips, check the checkpoints section of my travel guide.

Checkpoints in Kurdistan
In Kurdistan region, all checkpoints are run by Peshmerga (the Kurdish army), but they are a lot easier than in Iraq. They might check your passport from time to time, but even independent travelers self-driving will get through very easily.

Shia Militias

Before venturing into Federal Iraq, I was warned to be careful with the different Shia Militias. They control different parts of Iraqi territory and are known to be quite hostile with anyone.

That’s not entirely true, in my opinion. Having traveled from north to south, the only place where I encountered some slight trouble was in the city of Samarra, which is controlled by a Shia Militia named Sarayat al Salam, and the only trouble they gave me was that they made me wait for a long time, but they were never unfriendly.

is it dangerous to travel to Iraq
Hanging out in a checkpoint

How to stay safe in Iraq

Consider hiring a guide

Traveling with a local guide or an organized tour group can prove useful, not only because you will manage to get through all checkpoints easily, but also because good local guides always know the latest security updates.

Against the Compass (this site) is leading group expeditions (with expert local guides) into Federal Iraq.

Learn more: Against the Compass EXPEDITION to Federal Iraq

An Against the Compass EXPEDITION we did in Iraqi Kurdistan

Don’t forget your travel insurance for Iraq

In a country like Iraq, where safety is the #1 priority, traveling with proper insurance is a must.

IATI Insurance is one of the very few that covers travel in Iraq + it offers full COVID-19 coverage.

5% discount if purchasing via this link

Make local friends

For independent travelers, having local friends is almost as good as traveling with a local guide.

For that, the Facebook group Iraqi Travelers Café is a great place to stay connected with English-speaking local Iraqis.

Use common sense

Stay away from public demonstrations, don’t walk alone in certain areas in the middle of the night, don’t trust anyone with suspicious behavior, etc., the usual stuff. Use your common traveling sense.

Is Iraq safe for American tourists?

Because of the invasion, many Americans wonder whether Iraq is a safe country to travel to for US citizens.

To be honest, I don’t think your nationality makes any difference in terms of safety. To the average Iraqi, you will just be one more foreigner and, when it comes to getting a visa, the same rules apply as EU passport holders.

Nevertheless, I have to admit that for entering Samarra – where you find the checkpoint of Sarayat al Salam – Americans tend to spend longer there, and that’s because, during the invasion, the US army killed many members from this Shia militia.

Is Iraq safe for women?

According to female travelers I have been talking to, traveling in Iraq as a solo woman isn’t very different than in other Arab countries like Egypt or Jordan.

Occasional verbal harassment does happen, but it’s rare, and most Iraqis will be nothing but extra kind with any foreign women.

What to wear as a solo female traveler in Iraq

In cities like Baghdad, Mosul, or Nasiriya, you will see all sorts of women dressing in all different ways, some of them apparently quite liberal.

However, do always dress modestly in order to avoid unwanted attention, and bring a headscarf with you, since you may need it depending on the area you are visiting.

On the other hand, in Karbala and Najaf – two very holy cities – a full abaya covering your whole body is mandatory.

More information for traveling in Iraq

Remember to get travel insurance for Iraq

IATI Insurance gives full COVID-19 coverage and also for all of Iraq.

Readers of this blog can get an exclusive 5% discount.

Buy it here to get your discount

Iraq travel guides

More travel guides to neighboring countries: