Visiting Iran is an absolute pleasure. Persian (and really all Middle Eastern) hospitality is deeply rooted in the culture and the people are curious about foreigners. Getting in is relatively easy, compared to many of its neighbours and neighbours’ neighbours. Most nationalities can either enter visa free or apply for visa upon arrival. The big exceptions are Israeli and US passport holders. The latter is not allowed to enter the country and US persons must be a part of a tour group if not a diplomatic mission.
I found myself in Iran a couple of weeks ago, flying into Tehran from Amman, Jordan. The purpose of the visit was to visit friends and oversee the installation of new equipment in a Tehran data center. However, I had been tasked with opening a bank account for a client, if possible.
Those were the keywords.
In theory, Iran should be attractive to all sorts of shady people, tax evaders, money launderers, and other clandestine types. My client is a non-Middle Eastern who is trying to tap into the regional market with a new product sold online. The reason for opening a bank account in Iran would be to facilitate accepting payments from Iran’s increasingly wealthy and tech-savvy population.
Due to international sanctions, it is very difficult to receive payments from Iran. In fact, it may be illegal to even attempt to send money to or receive money from Iran in certain countries.
Meeting the Bank
Under a scorching sun, I met with a friend at a café near the Vali-e Asr square. We had made arrangements with the bank in advance and my friend was there to introduce me to the bank.
As it turned out, however, an introducer was not necessary. It helped with navigating the hitherto unknown Iranian banking sector, though.
The bank staff was very friendly throughout the process. Some of the documents I had with me where in English and some in Arabic. The bank was willing to accept them provided I pay for the translation to Farsi. The fee was very modest.
Bank accounts and a merchant account were opened before the translations were done after the bank manager quickly read through the documents.
Using an Iranian Bank Account
Banking in Iran needs to be done extremely carefully. We set up a cash-flow structure that in no way would interfere with embargoes and sanctions against Iran, ensuring that the funds from Iran either stayed in Iran or left the country through permissive means.
Internet banking is a few years behind the internet banking of banks in jurisdictions with a more modern banking system. It’s rudimentary but it works.
Since neither Visa nor MasterCard operate in Iran, you are left with a confusing mix of domestic debit cards, all of which are useless outside of Iran.
Since October 2012, SWIFT has disconnected Iranian banks. Wire transfers in and out of the country would have to pass through other channels.
This was more of a learning experience. I cannot recommend banking in Iran unless you are doing business in Iran.