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Written by Kieran Proctor

Should You Cover Your Tattoos When Traveling?

Tattoo

Updated

I’m a frequent traveler and I often get asked by tattoo newbies, if they’ll need to cover their tattoos while traveling. In the main, it’s perfectly okay to travel with visible tattoos.

And there really is no hard and fast rule about where and when you must cover your tattoos. But there are general principles that should be applied.

In this article let’s look at where and when you might want to cover up your tattoos while traveling abroad. And let’s discuss some of the common tattoo travel rules that I’ve learned while being a heavily tattooed guy traveling in places like Iran.

How Tattoos Can Affect Your Travels

In the past few decades, tattoos have evolved from a taboo to an accepted form of self-expression in many parts of the world. Yet, this acceptance is not universal.

The acceptance of tattoos varies vastly across continents. In Western societies like Europe and North America, tattoos are generally accepted and seen as a form of personal expression. Yet in some Asian, Middle Eastern and African countries, tattoos are viewed negatively due to religious, cultural or social reasons.

Certain countries even have specific laws and norms regarding tattoos, which can affect visa processes. It’s crucial for tattooed individuals to understand these regulations before applying for a visa or traveling to these countries.

In certain countries, having a tattoo can affect your eligibility for a visa. This article explores some of the countries that reject visas for having tattoos and where tattoos are illegal or taboo. And it discusses some of the factors you should consider when traveling with tattoos.

But first, here’s an easy matrix to help you decide if you should cover up your tattoos when traveling.

 Religious CountryNon-Religious CountryGangs, Militias, TerroristsNo Gangs, Militias or Terrorists
AirportYesAdvisableYesAdvisable
CityAdvisableNoYesNo
Outskirts / RuralAdvisableNoYesNo
Religious SitesYesAdvisableYesAdvisable

Style & Placement

First, the type of tattoo you have will determine the level of impact it may have on your travels. As the type or style of tattoo you have and its placement on your body, will have the greatest impact on your travel plans.

As an example, if you have a facial tattoo you’ll need a new passport with a photo that incorporates the tattoo. If your passport doesn’t show you with the facial tattoo you might be rejected at the border.

Or, worse still, as your passport is your primary identification document while overseas, you might have your passport confiscated by the police if they can’t identify you with the photo in your passport.

In some less salubrious regions of the world a passport photo not showing your face exactly as it is with your facial tattoo could be an opening for you to be extorted by the authorities. In parts of South America, Central America and the Caribbean this could be a serious issue.

Facial tattoos can also be a barrier to entry for some sites. Authorities in charge of holy sites and shrines might not allow you to enter if you have facial tattoos. Particularly sacred Islamic sites.

I’m heavily tattooed but I don’t have tattoos on my face, neck or hands. I can cover all my tattoos with a business shirt and jeans. As such, I’ve visited sites like the Shah Mosque (Isfahan Iran) and Shah Cheragh (Shiraz Iran) which are entirely inaccessible to people who can’t cover their tattoos.

Most religious or cultural sites in the Middle East will require you to cover your tattoos to visit. But sites like Shah Mosque and Shah Cheragh could land you in some serious trouble with the authorities if you tried to visit them with visible tattoos.

It’s not just religious and cultural sites the world over that become a problem for you as a traveler, when you have tattoos that you can’t cover up. Some cities and countries have problems with gangs and armed militias (or terrorists). Being easily identifiable because you have tattoos that you can’t cover up could put you at greater risk of harm.

With highly visible tattoos you become an easily identifiable foreigner, because you don’t blend in with all the other foreigners (if any). And it’s easy for the scammers, gangsters and bad guys to track your movements.

Let’s take Cuban scammers as an example. In Cuba the scammers will walk you into places that inflate your prices and give the scammer a kickback. But if you’ve got easily identifiable tattoos that can’t be covered up, the scammer doesn’t even have to scam you and walk you into the establishments.

The Cuban scammers can simply tell all of the businesses that they get kickbacks from that the person with the facial tattoos is theirs. And then you’ll just get ripped off without ever being suckered into the scam.

I spent a few months during 2021, 2022 and 2023 in Cuba watching from Airbnb balconies as these guys worked the tourists. And needless to say, I carry a long sleeve shirt with me when I go out and I cover my tattoos when in local shops and restaurants.

I don’t generally worry about covering my leg tattoos as nobody really looks down. Unless you have a particular style of tattoo conveying a message that is taboo (or illegal) you needn’t worry so much about covering leg tattoos. With that said, common sense does apply to tattoos on the legs and elsewhere.

For example, if you’re in a country where homosexuality is illegal and you have a gay flat tattooed on your leg or another part of your body, you should cover it. Or if you’re in a country where drugs can land you a steep prison sentence and you have a huge marijuana leaf tattoo, you should cover it.

It’s much easier for people to accuse you of doing something illegal if you have a visible tattoo pertaining to that illegal activity. And in countries with high levels of corruption a tattoo pertaining to an illegal activity could see you extorted by the police.

Remember, not every country has the same rules, laws and norms. Always cover any tattoo that conveys a message that’s considered illegal or taboo in the country you’re visiting.

Banned Tattoo Themes & Visas

Immigration authorities may use tattoos as grounds to deny visa applications. The U.S. State Department, for instance, denies visas to applicants with tattoos associated with criminal gangs.

In certain European nations such as Germany, France and Slovakia, tattoos symbolizing Nazi culture are strictly prohibited by law. They are highly illegal. Displaying such tattoos can lead to legal consequences, affecting the visa application process.

CountryRules
AustraliaTattoos linked to gang affiliation, organized criminal syndicates, OMCGs or symbalizing support for hate groups (i.e. nazis) can be used as evidence that you’re not ‘a fit and proper person’ to hold a visa.
FranceTattoos symbolizing Nazi culture are strictly prohibited.
GermanyTattoos symbolizing Nazi culture are strictly prohibited.
IranIn Iran, tattoos are associated with devil-worshipping and are thus discouraged by the Government.
JapanTattoos related to organized crime gangs are frowned upon.
North KoreaAll tattoos must praise the Kim family or have an approved political purpose. Tattoos unrelated to these specifications could lead to deportation or even imprisonment.
SlovakiaTattoos symbolizing Nazi culture are strictly prohibited.
South KoreaAny and all tattoos praising the Kim family or for a North Korean political purpose are frowned upon.
Sri LankaStringent regulations against religious-themed tattoos.
ThailandStringent regulations against religious-themed tattoos.
UAEIn the UAE, tattoos are viewed as a form of self-injury, which is forbidden in Islam.
USATattoos linked to gang affiliation are grounds for denying a visa.

Tattoos In Airports & Airport Security

If you’ve got sleeves or heavy ink, it’s always a good idea to cover it when going through an airport. They say profiling doesn’t occur, but it does. And if you’ve got visible ink you’re far more likely to get a ‘random’ search.

I remember sitting in an airport in Australia. From where I was seated I got to watch the Border Officers work. From what I saw, heavily tattooed people and pretty ladies were the biggest security threat.

Anyone with tattoos and all the pretty ladies, got pat-downs and had their bags checked. I’m not a pretty lady, so I covered my tattoos and I sailed through the airport security without any pat-downs or bag checks.

At the time I was a smoker. I went outside for a cigarette and rolled up my sleeves because it was hot. On the way back in they saw my tattoos and I got a full bag inspection and a pat down. For the airport security guards, I suddenly had visible tattoos and I became ‘dangerous’.

It might seem like I’m picking on the Aussies, but I’m not. I’ve been through airports in Australia, the Middle East including Iran, Europe, Caribbean, Central and South America. And whenever my tattoos are visible, I’m far more likely to be stopped for a ‘random’ inspection by airport security.

To avoid being delayed, I cover all of my tattoos until I’m through airport security and at the gate. Once inside it really doesn’t matter. Airport security won’t bother harassing you once you’re already inside the terminal.

Travel tip: If you have a fresh tattoo, don’t try to recover it. Just deal with the extra nuisance inspections. Proper tattoo aftercare comes first. Even when you’re traveling immediately after a tattoo.

Travel Destinations

There’s a lot said on the internet about various travel destinations and their friendliness towards tattooed people. And most of the articles I’ve seen are complete garbage aimed at trying to rank on Google and the other search engines.

These so called expert articles will list places like Denmark and Iran, along with others, as unfriendly to tattooed people. And while I can’t speak for all the destinations they list, I have visited most of them. And when I think of Denmark or Iran, I can’t say that either was inherently unfriendly to tattooed people.

People in Denmark couldn’t care less if you have tattoos. They won’t even bat en eyelid at a tattooed foreigner. Travel to Denmark with as may tattoos as you want. Nobody cares about your tattoos in Denmark.

Iran on the other hand has a few quirks. At sites of religious or cultural significance you must cover your tattoos. Everywhere else you can have visible tattoos. That is, if you want to be stopped every 10 seconds by somebody telling you that they love your tattoos and wanting a picture with you, the tattooed foreigner.

Persians love tattoos. Tattooing is a relatively recent phenomenon in Iran. Iran spent a few decades without any tattooists. And it’s definitely in vogue now.

Though for most of the youngsters with strict parents in Iran, getting a tattoo is still not an option. But they can dream and they will want to see your tattoos and talk about tattoos with you. So be prepared to be popular if you have visible tattoos in a place like Iran

Tips For Traveling With Tattoos

If you have tattoos and plan to travel, it’s vital to understand and respect the local customs and laws. Keeping your tattoos covered, especially in traditional or religious places, can help you avoid unnecessary confrontations.

If you are unsure about the regulations, it’s always safer to contact local authorities or do thorough research before your visit. And if there’s a chance your ink might cause offense when traveling, cover it up.

Remember, you’re visiting someone else country. And their right not to be offended, always trumps your freedom of personal expression!

Kieran - author - tattoovagabond and inlovelyblue
Kieran in Buenos Aires, Argentina

If you’re interested in travel and not just tattoos, you can follow me at inlovelyblue.com where I write about the places I’ve been. It’s only really on this site that I write about my love of tattoos.

Over on my other website, I write travel articles. And it’s only the readers coming across from here, that would know I run a tattoo website. So, follow me on here for tattoo content and over at In Lovely Blue, if you’re interested in seeing just how far a tattooed yahoo can travel.

I also frequently get tattooed while traveling abroad. Because I’ve been engaged in what the academics call a ‘tattoo tourism‘ for the better part of 2 decades. And when I do write about the tattoos I get overseas, I’ll post about it on this website.

Don’t forget, whether you’re traveling with tattoos, or to get some more tattoos, always use a VPN when traveling or hanging out in tattoo parlors.

Safe travels!

man with blackout sleeve in Köln Germany
In Germany for my blackout sleeve
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