Has any country gained as much cachet in recent years as South Korea?
Once overlooked by travelers headed to its bigger East Asian neighbors, the country is turning into an obsession for many, thanks to its cutting-edge technology, trendy cuisine, the world’s biggest pop bands and some of the most exciting movies and TV series being made anywhere.
Add to all this centuries of tradition and copious natural blessings, all in a country scarcely larger than Ireland, and you’ve got one of the planet’s great travel destinations.
Safe, friendly and possessing superb infrastructure, this is a truly easy – not to mention rewarding – place to explore. Read on for tips to make your visit even easier: all you need to know before your trip to South Korea.
Complete your pre-trip registration 3 days before your flight
Most travelers – including citizens of the US, Australia and the UK – can visit South Korea visa-free for up to 90 days (up to six months for Canadians). However, you’ll still need to apply for a Korea Electronic Travel Authorization on the K-ETA website at least 72 hours before departure. It’s a simple process, and your K-ETA is valid for two years from the date of approval.
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Time your visit with the trees
We recommending planning your visit to South Korea for spring or fall, when the peninsula gets its most temperate weather. Bonus points if you can time it to coincide with one of the country’s two periods of arboreal magic. Korea’s cherry blossoms start blooming in mid-March on Jeju-do Island, off the south coast, and typically appear in Seoul in early April. In late October and early November, the leaves of Korea’s many ancient ginkgo trees turn into brilliant golden torches, giving Seoul and other cities a particularly regal look for several weeks.
Mind these two major holidays
The two periods that can cause travelers real problems are the multi-day Lunar New Year and Chuseok (fall harvest) holidays, when Koreans hit the road en masse, making booking a bus or train ticket nearly impossible. The dates change each year, so be sure to check when these are before making travel plans.
If you can’t avoid a holiday, base yourself in Seoul or Busan for its duration. Plenty of businesses stay open, and the cities can be surprisingly peaceful with everyone out of town.
Use common sense and keep these numbers handy, just in case
Theft and violent crime are rare in South Korea. Scams and pickpockets targeting travelers are virtually nonexistent, and Koreans typically go out of their way to be hospitable to visitors. Nonetheless, as should anywhere, exercise basic caution and common sense. Korea has strict drug laws, and don’t even think about trying to sneak past them. Nightlife often revolves around heavy drinking, so know your limit to avoid putting yourself in a sketchy situation.
If you do have an emergency, call 112 to reach the police, 119 for emergency services or 1330 to reach the Korea Travel Hotline, where an operator will connect you to the appropriate service and serve as an interpreter. That number can also be used to reach the Korea Tourist Police.
Be ready to get personal
The typical greeting here is a quick bow – nothing dramatic, just a head nod deep enough for your gaze to meet the floor – but you’ll sometimes be offered a handshake instead. If you are, expect more of a gentle clasp than the old squeeze-and-pump.
You’ll likely be asked questions more personal than you’re accustomed to by someone you just met. At the top of this list is your age. This data point is essential to Koreans, as it informs how they talk to one another: how formal their verb endings should be and whether to use honorifics. Inquiries about marital status, occupation and your opinion of Korea are also common. Answer politely, and feel free to return the question.
Is North Korea a concern?
Despite international headlines, South Koreans don’t worry about an attack from North Korea – and neither should you. Military clashes are very rare, and danger to civilians is rarer still. A guided tour to the DMZ can be a fascinating and truly nowhere-else experience. From afar, North Korea can seem almost comical in its eccentricities, but when you’re looking at South Korean soldiers looking at North Korean soldiers looking at you, the geopolitical stakes hit different. Plus, many tours offer what may be your only chance to actually step foot in the world’s most secretive country.
Monitor the air quality
Even in COVID-free times, it’s a good idea to always carry a mask as air quality can occasionally drop to pretty nasty levels. This is especially true in spring, when dust blown off the deserts of Mongolia and northern China combines with local pollution to create unhealthy air. Download an app like IQAir Air Visual (for iOS or Android) to keep track of current conditions and the upcoming forecast across the country.
Wear what you like, but don’t pack anything too risqué
As a traveler, you can feel free to dress for the weather and comfort. Koreans are pretty relaxed about attire, even if they’re more modest than you might expect. If visiting a temple, while shorts are fine, tank tops and miniskirts are not. Both men and women frequently wear t-shirts at the beach, and it’s best to leave the Speedo or thong at home. Korean women almost never wear low-cut tops, and female travelers could find that doing so brings unwelcome looks. Tattoos are now common among young people, yet even still some bathhouses will deny entry if you have any ink.
Learn your ga, na, da, ra, ma, bas
Basic English is widely understood in Korea by folks under 50, and signage is almost always in both Korean and English. Yet it’s still a good (and respectful) idea to learn a bit of the language.
Beyond memorizing a few essential Korean words and phrases, learning hangul, the Korean alphabet, is like gaining access to a secret bonus level of Korean travel. If you can sound out the letters, you’ll find that you already know what things like 카페 모카 (ka-pe mo-ka), 비빔밥 (bibimbap) and 사우나 (sa-oo-na) are.
Hangul is easy to learn. King Sejong the Great, who oversaw its creation in the 15th century, declared that a wise man could pick it up before noon and even an idiot could learn it in 10 days. Let’s Learn Hangul teaches the Korean alphabet in an interactive, easy-to-follow way.
Take advantage of Korea’s world-class public transportation
Korea’s subways, trains and buses are clean, convenient and efficient. It can sometimes seem like a new station is added to the Seoul metro every month, and the rail and intercity bus networks will take you to every corner of the country. Public transportation is cheap: bus and subway fares in Seoul start at just ₩1250. In all of South Korea, Jeju-do is the only place where renting a car might make sense, and even there it’s probably not necessary.
With plentiful English information and sensible design, public transportation in Korea makes getting from here to there a breeze. To get moving, start by picking up a T-money transit card at a convenience store or from a vending machine in any subway station. Separate kiosks can be used to load money onto your card. Tap your card both when you board and get off the subway or bus. Fares are calculated by distance, so if you forget to tap when disembarking, you’ll be charged more and won’t be able to transfer for free. You can also use T-money cards in most taxis.
When traveling longer distances, it’s simple enough to just buy intercity bus or train tickets at stations. For the high-speed KTX train and some of the more popular routes and times – departing Seoul on Saturday morning, for example – it’s a good idea to purchase in advance. Bus tickets are typically readily available for purchase from machines and counters in bus stations. Buy train tickets on the website of KORAIL, the national railway operator.
Stay connected with these essential apps
Wi-fi is so prevalent in Korean cities that you can do without a local SIM card, but if you decide that you want one just in case, or if you plan to head to rural areas, the easiest place to pick one up is at one of the many telecom roaming centers at Incheon Airport upon arrival. You can also rent a phone if you didn’t bring your own.
Helpful apps to download include Naver Map (iOS and Android), which works better than Google Maps in South Korea; MangoPlate (iOS and Android) for finding restaurants and cafes; Subway Korea for navigating cities’ metro systems; and Kakao T (iOS and Android), which is like Uber but for taxis.
Eat with others and don’t be afraid to shout for service
Eating is a communal activity in Korea, and many restaurants, especially barbecue joints, don’t offer single servings. So if you’re traveling solo, you might either have to drag someone from your hostel along with you (not a tough sell) or loosen your belt and order pork belly for two (poor thing).
At restaurants, waiters won’t come check up on you, and most places have call buttons on each table. Give it a push, and someone will be right over. Otherwise, to grab the waitstaff’s attention, raise your hand and shout, “Yogiyo!” (“Over here!”) Water is usually self-service, and occasionally side dishes are, too. If your server doesn’t set a bottle of water on your table, look around for a water dispenser and stacks of metal cups. At the end of your meal, take the check to the front counter to pay. There’s no tipping.
You might have to be flexible about your diet
If you have food allergies or a specific diet, you may have a hard time finding places to eat or getting clear information about ingredients. Vegetarianism and veganism are slowly gaining popularity in Korea, but not many restaurants cater to these diets. Even dishes that you might think are vegetarian are often made with anchovy broth or fermented shrimp.
Recognize that LGBTQI+ acceptance still has a long way to go
While attitudes are slowly changing, Korea remains a conservative society in many respects, and anti-LGBTQI+ prejudice is common. Even so, LGBTQI+ travelers are more likely to be on the receiving end of curious – if misinformed – questions than any sort of open hostility. Public displays of affection are generally frowned upon – though this goes for straight couples too.
Seoul has small gay districts in Itaweon and Jongno-3-ga, while the Hongdae-Sinchon-Ewha university corridor is another place where LGBTQI+ Koreans feel comfortable being themselves.
Get out of town
There are two Koreas. We don’t mean North and South, but rather Seoul and everything else – or, a bit more broadly, urban Korea and rural Korea. The country has a reputation for being a hyper-paced, highly wired pop-culture dynamo, but its hinterlands present a much different picture, and you’d be missing out big time if you skip them.
The Korean countryside is beautiful, mountains and rivers make for beautiful vistas, and life is lived differently here than in the cities. The population is older – most people under 40 have decamped to the cities – and the pace is slower. At least once on your trip, get out of the cities and immerse yourself in this more traditional side of Korea.
Roll with the nudges
Koreans live life in a hurry, and they do so in a densely populated country, so you shouldn’t expect the same sense of personal space or public courtesies you find in your home country. Koreans won’t hold doors open for you or apologize if they bump into you when walking. When getting on or off the subway, they likely won’t say, “Excuse me” – they’ll just nudge you aside. They’re not being rude, though.
When you live in a city as crowded as Seoul, it’s just not practical to say sorry every time you knock shoulders with someone – you’d be apologizing constantly. This can be maddening to outsiders, but just accept it and roll with the nudges.