Bargaining is not really possible anywhere in the country, as nearly all shops are state-owned and prices centrally set.
Dangers & Annoyances
There is relatively little crime in North Korea. The main danger is lack of medical supplies in the case of a serious and sudden illness taking place outside of Pyongyang. The other very real danger is of being arrested for any thoughtless or reckless actions, such as disrespecting the leadership, proselytising, offending local sensibilities or protesting against the government. Anyone doing any of these things risks draconian treatment, a long jail sentence and possible ramifications for their guides. If you choose to visit, you should always obey the laws of the country, do nothing to disrespect the ruling Kim family and follow the instructions of your local guides.
Emergency & Important Numbers
In an emergency your guides will need to take control. Emergency numbers for North Korea are not published.
Entry & Exit Formalities
Once you’ve obtained a visa, entering North Korea is straightforward, even if the welcome at immigration tends to be rather frosty. Your guides will take your passport for the duration of your stay in the country. This is totally routine, so do not worry about it being lost.
North Korean customs procedures vary in severity from general polite inquiries to thorough goings-over. You will normally have to present all books on arrival for inspection, and the Lonely Planet Korea guide and other books about the country will usually be confiscated, although it's not always common for bags to be searched. All electronic goods, including cameras, laptops, e-readers, tablets and phones, will also need to be presented. Cameras of almost any size and nonprofessional video recorders are fine, though huge zoom lenses and enormous tripods are not allowed.
People of all nationalities need a visa to visit North Korea. At present North Korea bans only citizens of South Korea and Malaysia from visiting, while since 2017 the US government has banned all its citizens from travelling to the DPRK.
Restrictions have relaxed somewhat for visa applicants, and you currently just have to supply the name of your employer and your job. If you work in the media, human rights or any other potentially controversial professions, you might not be offered a visa. Each visa needs approval from Pyongyang, so apply at least one month before you travel. Your travel agency will normally handle the application for you, and in most cases the visa is a formality if you travel with an established agency.
Tour groups usually have visas issued in Běijīng the day before travel, so don’t worry about leaving home without one in your passport. It does mean that you need to spend 24 hours in Běijīng before going on to Pyongyang, but you won’t have to go to the embassy yourself in most cases. Individual visas can usually be issued at any North Korean embassy around the world.
The embassy visa charges (€50 in Běijīng) are included in some, but not all, tour packages. North Korean visas are not put into passports, but are separate documents taken from you when you exit the country. If you want a souvenir, ask if you can make a photocopy or take a photo (and obey your guides if they say no). No stamp of any kind will be made in your passport.
Bear in mind that in most cases you will need to travel through China to enter and leave North Korea. This means that you'll either need to get a dual-entry visa for China, or – much simpler – use the 144-hour visa-free transit scheme, for which you simply need to show an onward air ticket out of China within that time period.
Needed by everyone and normally issued the day before you travel by the North Korean embassy in Běijīng.
Embassies & Consulates
North Korea now enjoys diplomatic relations with many countries, although very few maintain embassies in Pyongyang. North Korean embassies abroad can all process visa applications, but most travellers will have theirs processed at the Běijīng embassy by their tour agency the day before they travel.
Embassies & Consulates in North Korea
The UK Embassy represents the interests of Australians, New Zealanders and citizens of the Republic of Ireland, while the Swedish legation looks after US and Canadian citizens as well as EU citizens whose own country does not have representation in Pyongyang. All embassies are in the Munsudong diplomatic compound.
Greetings The standard greeting in North Korea is a handshake, no matter whom you're meeting.
Media Don’t ever fold, tear or throw away a newspaper with one of the Kims on the cover.
Stay Close Don’t wander away from your group; this can result in serious consequences for your guides.
Photography Take it seriously when your guides ask you not to take photographs. Never photograph only one part of a Kim statue, but the entire thing.
Politics Avoid discussing controversial topics with any North Koreans you may meet, even your guides.
LGBT+ relationships are a taboo subject in North Korea, and it's unwise to discuss them unless you're very comfortable with your guides. Homosexuality is not illegal in North Korea, but it's also totally invisible, with no place in society granted to anyone not fitting into the heterosexual mould. Indeed, it appears most gay people get married and live ostensibly heterosexual lifestyles. Gay and lesbian travellers have nothing to worry about, although public displays of affection are definitely not recommended.
With the exception of the flagship Masik-Ryong Hotel near Wonsan, where cable internet is available in the rooms, there is no internet access available in hotels. The only way to get online in North Korea currently is by purchasing a KoryoLink SIM card, which costs €215 plus data. The cards are designed for international residents rather than tourists, but they are available to short-term visitors: the best place to buy one is at the airport on arrival.
While most travellers will not run into legal problems in North Korea, a number of cases in the past few years have highlighted the devastating ramifications that this can have, most particularly in the case of the young American tourist Otto Warmbier. He died shortly after his release from a North Korean prison in 2017, having been arrested for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster from the Yanggakdo Hotel in Pyongyang.
Usually, tourists who break the law in North Korea are deported immediately, though the growing trend in the past decade has been to use prisoners for international leverage. Only the truly reckless and foolhardy would travel to DPRK with the intention of proselytising or protesting against the regime.
You do not need maps of anywhere in North Korea, due to the unique hand-holding arrangement with the guides. However, poorly detailed Pyongyang maps are available at most hotels in the capital and can be helpful for getting to grips with the capital’s layout. There are few good-quality maps of North Korea available outside the country; the best on offer from travel specialists is the general map of Korea published by Nelles Maps.
The unit of currency is the North Korean won (KPW), though most travellers will never even see them. Banknotes come in denominations of five, 10, 50, 100, 200, 500, 1000, 2000 and 5000KPW and coins come in denominations of one, five, 10 and 50 chon, as well as one won. Visitors can pay for everything with euros, Chinese RMB or US dollars (but bring small change of both; big notes can be impossible to change). Japanese yen may also be accepted in some places.
Credit cards are completely useless everywhere in the country, so bring as much cash as you’ll need, with some leeway for any unexpected expenses. While you're unlikely to use the won, it may be possible to get some from your guides, but it’s officially illegal to take it out of the country.
Travellers cheques are not usable in North Korea and there are no ATMs linked to international networks anywhere in the country.
Set Your Budget
The cost of a trip to North Korea is considerable. Visitors have to pay to hire their guides and for food and hotels in advance as part of an all-inclusive tour. The only real way to cut costs is to join a large group and share the expenses between many travellers. It’s difficult to travel to North Korea for much less than €1000 per person for five days, though competition between the various Běijīng-based travel agencies is currently fierce.
For current exchange rates, see www.xe.com.
Tipping is expected by your guides and driver and is generally calculated at €10 per driver or per guide per day, meaning that you should plan for €30 per day in total. Tips will be given collectively on your final morning in North Korea. Elsewhere tipping is not expected anywhere in the country.
Banks 8am–4pm Monday to Friday
Restaurants noon–3pm and 6pm–11pm
Bars & Clubs 2pm–2am
Shops 9am–6pm Monday to Saturday
Always ask before taking photos and obey the reply. North Koreans, acutely aware of the political power of an image in the western press, are especially sensitive about visitors taking photos of them without their permission. Your guides are familiar with the issue of tourists taking photos that end up in anti-DPRK news content, and it’s quite normal for customs officers to give your pictures a quick look-through at the border – they will ask you to delete any offending content. Taking photographs from the bus is officially banned, though in practice travellers do get away with it if they are discreet and are not photographing sensitive objects. Avoid taking photos of soldiers or any military facilities at any time, unless told otherwise by your guides (the DMZ is generally an exception to that rule). The safest and recommended practice is to only take photographs when granted express permission by your guides.
Memory cards are not easily available in North Korea, so bring as many as you’ll need. Having a laptop on which to download your pictures gives you double protection if your camera is checked and any photos deleted when you leave the country.
Restrictions are similar to still cameras. However, as a number of journalists have made video documentaries about the country in the guise of simply filming tourist sights, the guides and customs officers have become stricter about their use.
Like all other means of communication in North Korea, the post is monitored. It is, however, generally reliable and the colourful North Korean stamps, featuring everything from tributes to the Great Leader to Princess Diana commemoratives, make great souvenirs. Some people have suggested that postcards arrive more quickly than letters, as they do not need to be opened by censors. In either medium, keep any negative thoughts about the country to yourself to ensure your letter gets through.
Note that North Korea does not celebrate Christmas or the Lunar New Year, nor many of South Korea’s major traditional holidays. National holidays are a good time to visit North Korea – try to be in Pyongyang during May Day or Liberation Day as both are celebrated with huge extravaganzas featuring military parades that rank among North Korea’s most memorable sights.
New Year’s Day 1 January
Kim Jong-il’s birthday 16 February
Kim Il-sung’s birthday 15 April
Armed Forces Day 25 April
May Day 1 May
The Death of Kim Il-sung 8 July
Victory in the Fatherland Liberation War 27 July
National Liberation (from Japan) Day 15 August
National Foundation Day 9 September
Korean Workers’ Party Foundation Day 10 October
Constitution Day 27 December
Smoking is still commonly permitted in many places, though the situation is improving gradually, and most bars and restaurants in Pyongyang are now smoke-free. Smoking in hotel rooms is still widely permitted, however.
North Korea’s country code is 850, though it's extremely unlikely you'll be making international calls during your stay. Your mobile phone will not work in North Korea unless you purchase a local SIM card.
North Korean telephone numbers are divided into 381 numbers (which can be called from outside North Korea) and 382 (which can be called only from inside the country). It is not possible to call a 381 number from a 382 number or vice versa. International calls from hotels start at €3 per minute to China and €8 to Europe.
To call North Korea, use the country code 850. Nearly all numbers you dial from abroad will be Pyongyang numbers, so dial +850-2-381 and then the local number.
Mobile phones – once banned – are now ubiquitous in Pyongyang and several other cities, and visitors are welcome to bring their smart phones with them into the country. International SIM cards will not roam here, though it is possible to purchase a KoryoLink SIM card for the considerable cost of €215. KoryoLink 3G services allow access to the internet, but a VPN (which must be downloaded before arriving in North Korea or China) is necessary to get past the firewall, which is as strict as China's. Data is expensive, but the network works well in much of the country.
Do note, however, that you will only be able to call internationally and to other KoryoLink visitor numbers in North Korea – it's impossible to call locals, whose phones connect to a ring-fenced network.
The time in North Korea is GMT plus nine hours, exactly the same as in South Korea. Previously clocks in North Korea were set 30 minutes earlier to those in the South, with the change to Pyongyang time coming after the summit between Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in in early 2018.
You will also see years such as Juche 8 (1919) or Juche 99 (2011). Three years after the death of Kim Il-sung, the state adopted a new system of recording years, starting from Juche 1 (1912) when Kim No 1 was born. Despite the wide use of these dates internally, they are always clarified with ‘normal’ years.
In Pyongyang and around frequently visited tourist sites, toilet facilities are basic and smelly, usually with squat toilets. There are regular cuts in the water supply outside Pyongyang, and often a bucket of water will be left in your hotel room or a public toilet for this eventuality. Toilet paper is supplied in hotels but it’s always a good idea to carry tissues for emergencies, especially as diarrhoea is a common problem for visitors. Hand sanitiser is also a handy thing to bring with you, as soap is nearly as scarce as running water in public toilets.
There is a tourist information booth at Pyongyang's Sunan International Airport that sells leaflets, maps and brochures, though as nearly all visitors arrive on guided tours, there's really very little reason most travellers would need to avail themselves of these services.
North Korean culture places great emphasis on caring for the disabled, especially as the Korean War left such a brutal legacy. Despite this, seeing disabled people on the streets is actually relatively rare. Facilities are basic, but manageable, and even in situations where disabled access is a problem, the guides are likely to find some locals to help out. Many hotels have lifts due to their large size and many floors.
Travel with Children
While North Koreans love children, a DPRK tour is not really suitable for kids. The long, exhausting days and endless sightseeing may tire out even the most diehard Kimophiles and they are likely to bore a child to tears. It is possible to take children to North Korea, though you will have to book a private tour, as most group tours will not take minors.
While in general there are no volunteering positions available in North Korea, a few travel agencies run programs – which in all cases cost just as much as (and often more than) normal tours – that incorporate volunteer work. The most prominent of these are the English-language teaching volunteer programs in Pyongyang offered by Juche Travel Services and the Young Pioneer Tours Collective Farm volunteer programs.
Weights & Measures
North Korea uses the metric system.
There are very few chances to work in North Korea, though people working as diplomats and as field workers for certain NGOs and aid organisations operating in the country could have the opportunity for a posting in the country.