Try bargaining (with a smile) if you're prepared to pay in cash and buy in bulk at markets, from street and subway vendors and even, occasionally, for big-ticket items in department stores.
Dangers & Annoyances
With some common sense, South Korea is generally very safe.
- Drivers routinely jump red lights late at night, so take care on pedestrian crossings even if they are protected by lights.
- Drivers almost never stop for pedestrian crossings that are not protected by traffic lights.
- Motorcyclists often drive along pavements and pedestrian crossings.
- In Seoul, you might see police in full riot gear streaming out of blue police buses with their windows covered in protective wire. Student, trade-union, anti-American, environmental, ferry disaster and other protests occasionally turn violent. Keep well out of the way of any confrontations that may occur.
Government Travel Advice
The following government websites offer travel advisories and information on current hotspots:
- Australian Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade (www.smarttraveller.gov.au)
- Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs (www.dfait-maeci.gc.ca)
- New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade (www.safetravel.govt.nz)
- UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office (www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice)
- US Department of State (www.travel.state.gov)
Korea Pass (www.koreapass.or.kr) is a prepaid card, available in denominations from ₩50,000 to ₩500,000. It provides discounts on a range of goods and services, especially those offered by the Lotte department stores, since the pass was taken over by Lotte Card in 2013. It can be bought at Incheon and Gimpo International Airports as well as Lotte Mart and 7-Eleven stores.
Discover Seoul Pass (www.discoverseoulpass.com) A foreigner-only tourist pass that comes with unlimited transport and free admission for 24/48/72 hours (from ₩39,900) to attractions such as Gyeongbokgung and the major palaces, Musical Chef, SMTown coexartium, 63 Square Art Gallery and N Seoul Tower, plus free use of A'REX, Seoul City Tour Bus and Seoul Bike, and discounted entry to Lotte World.
South Korea is on the 220V standard at 60Hz and uses two round pins with no earth – the same shape (but not necessarily voltage) used in many European, South American and Asian countries such as Spain, Brazil and India.
Embassies & Consulates
Most embassies are located in Seoul.
Emergency & Important Numbers
|South Korea country code||82|
|Ambulance & Fire (English translators available)||119|
|Emergency medical information (English available)||1339|
|Tourist information (English-speaking)||1330|
Entry & Exit Formalities
Entry to South Korea is not complicated or time-consuming for most visitors, who simply receive a stamp in their passport on arrival. A paper slip verifying this entry (which isn't the visa itself) is provided; hold onto this slip as it is requested by some hotels and when leaving the country.
Visitors must declare all plants, fresh fruit, vegetables and dairy products that they bring into South Korea. Meat is not allowed in without a certificate. Go to www.customs.go.kr for further information.
Antiques of national importance are not allowed to be exported.
Many visitors don’t need a visa, but if your country is not on the permit-on-arrival list, you will need one.
- With a confirmed onward ticket, visitors from the USA, nearly all Western European countries, New Zealand, Australia and around 30 other countries receive 90-day permits on arrival. Visitors from a handful of countries, such as South Africa, receive 30-day permits, while 60-day permits are given to citizens of Italy and Portugal. Canadians receive a six-month permit.
- About 30 countries – including India and Nigeria – do not qualify for visa exemptions. Citizens from these countries must apply for a tourist visa, which allows a stay of 90 days.
- Visitors cannot extend their stay beyond 90 days except in situations such as a medical emergency. More info is at www.mofat.go.kr and www.moj.go.kr.
- Flights direct to Jeju-do are 30 days visa-free for most passport holders.
- Holders of a passport from China must apply for a tourist visa but are allowed an exemption of 120 hours (five days) in South Korea if they join a tour group to visit Jeju-do (where they can stay for 15 days) and arrive through certain airports. This list is always increasing but includes the airports Gimpo (Seoul), Incheon (near Seoul), Gimhae (Busan), Daegu (Gangwon-do), Yangyang (Gangwon-do) and Cheongju (Chungcheongbuk-do). Other incentives aimed at wooing Chinese tourists include being able to apply online for electronic visas and increased visa application centres in China.
- An electronic travel authorisation system for visa-free visitors to South Korea was being rolled out at the time of writing. The system is expected to resemble that of the USA's ESTA and Canada's eTA where visitors must provide personal and travel information, and pay a small fee, through an online portal at least 72 hours before flying to obtain a waiver that is valid for years.
- As rules are always changing, see www.hikorea.go.kr for more visa information.
Applications for a work visa can be made inside Korea but you must leave the country to pick up the visa. You can also apply for a one-year work visa before entering Korea but it can take a few weeks to process. Note that the visa authorities will want to see originals (not photocopies) of your educational qualifications. This a safeguard against fake degree certificates.
You don’t need to leave Korea to renew a work visa as long as you carry on working for the same employer. But if you change employers you must normally apply for a new visa and pick it up outside Korea.
If you are working or studying in Korea on a long-term visa, it is necessary to apply for an alien registration card (ARC) within 90 days of arrival, which costs ₩10,000. This is done at your local immigration office.
The main Seoul Immigration Office is always busy, so take something to read. To reach it, take line 5 to Omokgyo, Exit 7. Carry straight on from the subway exit and walk along the road until it ends, where you’ll see a white-tiled building on your left with a big blue sign in English. An immigration office at Seoul Global Centre can help with issues related to D8 and any C-type visa.
There are several social rules that Koreans stick to, although foreigners are generally given some slack.
- Meetings and greetings A quick, short bow is most respectful for meetings and departures. Use both hands to give or receive business cards (an essential feature of doing business in Korea), money or gifts. Receive money crossing one hand over the receiving arm.
- Shoes Remove your shoes on entering a Korean home, guesthouse, temple or Korean-style restaurant. Some temples indicate a side entrance for non-monks.
- Eating & Drinking Pour drinks for others and use both hands when pouring or receiving. Use chopsticks or a spoon to touch food and don’t leave either sticking up in a bowl of rice.
- Loss of face A mishandled remark should be smoothed over quickly, and if you sense someone trying to change the subject, go with the flow. Arguing is best avoided, even if you are in the right.
Korea has never passed any laws that mention homosexuality, but this shouldn’t be taken as a sign of tolerance or acceptance. Attempts to include sexual orientation in antidiscrimination laws by the Democratic Party in 2013 were shot down by conservative religious groups. President Moon – despite being a former human rights lawyer – said he 'opposed homosexuality' in 2017. Some older Koreans insist that there are no queer people in Korea – even though there are at least several very high profile ones such as the TV personality and Seoul restaurateur Hong Seok-chun and transgender celebrity Ha Ri-su.
Attitudes are changing, especially among young people – 2018 saw South Korea's first openly gay K-Pop idol (Holland), its first drag parade, and the most internationally successful K-Pop group, BTS, speak about supporting LGBT rights – but virtually all local gays and lesbians choose to stay firmly in the closet. Gay and lesbian travellers who publicise their sexual orientation tend to receive less than positive reactions. However, there are openly gay areas of Seoul where few will blink an eye at displays of affection, and other major cities have gay bars too. Gays and lesbian locals use the English loan words gei and lejeubieon as the other term in Korean, ivan, can mean 'second-class citizen'.
Chingusai (Between Friends; www.chingusai.net) Korean LGBT human-rights group.
Solidarity for LGBT Human Rights of Korea (Haeng Seong In; 02-715-9984; lgbtpride.or.kr) Campaigns for LGBT equality and runs community workshops.
iShap (www.ishap.org) Gay HIV/AIDS awareness project; produces a free Korean guidebook to gay bars and clubs – ask for it at bars such as Barcode in Nagwon-dong in Seoul, and in bars in Busan.
Utopia (www.utopia-asia.com) Check the Korea section for maps and reviews to gay bars, clubs and services.
A policy covering theft, loss, medical expenses and compensation for cancellation or delays in your travel arrangements is highly recommended. If items are lost or stolen, make sure you obtain a police report straight away – otherwise your insurer might not pay up. There is a wide variety of policies available, but always check the small print.
Worldwide travel insurance is available at www.lonelyplanet.com/travel-insurance. You can buy, extend and claim online any time – even if you’re already on the road.
Checking insurance quotes…
With the world's fastest connections and one of the highest rates of internet usage, you'll find abundant free internet access, either via a computer or wi-fi in cafes, public streets, guesthouses, hotels and tourist information centres.
- Some motels and nearly all hotels provide computers with broadband access.
- Major phone companies offer USB dongle devices (known as 'pocket wi-fi' or a 'wi-fi egg') to rent, in the same way as mobile phones, to connect all your devices to the internet from your own portable wi-fi hotspot. If you are travelling outside Seoul or major cities, make sure your device plan covers the whole country. Reliable services are available from Pocket WiFi Korea (www.pocketwifikorea.com) and Package Korea (www.packagekorea.com) and charge from ₩7150 per day. Link Korea (www.linkkorea.co.kr) rents pocket wi-fi devices (US$5 per day) that you can pre-order and pay for online, then pick up at airports or Hongik University station in Seoul.
- If you just need internet access on your (unlocked) phone, a Korean SIM geared towards foreigners might be a cheaper option, with one-month plans for 1GB data starting at ₩34,900 with Korea Telecom (www.roaming.kt.com), widely available from stores aimed at tourists in Itaewon and Hongdae in Seoul, and some convenience stores such as at the entrance to Gimpo Airport subway.
Most tourists’ legal problems involve visa violations or illegal drugs. In the case of visa transgressions, the penalty is normally a fine and possible expulsion from the country. If caught using or selling narcotics, you’ll either be deported or spend a few years researching the living conditions in a South Korean prison.
The Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) and Seoul Metropolitan Government publish numerous free brochures, maps and excellent booklets of Seoul and major cities.
Finding an Address
Under an old system of addresses, big cities such as Seoul were divided into districts (gu, eg Jongno-gu) with these districts further divided into subdistricts (dong, eg Insa-dong). Buildings were then numbered according to their chronology within the subdistrict. It was pretty confusing, so Korea moved over to a new address system of logically numbered buildings on named streets (gil).
However, until the end of 2013 the old address system existed alongside the new one and you will still find that giving a description to a local works better than a new address.
If you have the correct full address (either system), or the telephone number, these can be used by satellite navigation in taxi or on phones to find your location. For more information on the address changeover including an address converter, see www.juso.go.kr. There is also a free app (search for Juso or 주소 찾아, Korean only).
- Daily newspapers Korea Herald (www.koreaherald.co.kr), Korea JoongAng Daily (www.joongangdaily.joins.com) and Korea Times (www.koreatimes.co.kr).
- Monthly magazines 10 Magazine (10mag.com), Groove Korea (www.groovekorea.com) and Seoul (www.seoulselection.com)
- TV & Radio KBS World (www.world.kbs.co.kr) news, features; Arirang (www.arirang.co.kr) English-language TV and radio; Radio Gugak (www.gugakfm.co.kr) traditional Korean music; TBS (tbsefm.seoul.kr) music and news.
- DVD Region 3; some with English-language option.
ATMs with a ‘Global’ sign work with internationally issued cards; very few are open 24 hours. Credit cards are widely accepted, except in the countryside.
The South Korean unit of currency is the won (₩), with ₩10, ₩50, ₩100 and ₩500 coins. Notes come in denominations of ₩1000, ₩5000, ₩10,000 and ₩50,000.
ATMs that accept foreign cards are common: look for one that has a ‘Global’ sign or the logo of your credit-card company. ATMs often operate from 7am to 11pm but some are 24-hour. Restrictions on the amount you can withdraw in one transaction can vary but is usually around ₩1,000,000 per day. Lotte ATMs in 7-Eleven stores allow you to select from international banks for the transaction, including Citibank.
Many banks offer a foreign-exchange service. In big cities there are also licensed moneychangers, that keep longer hours than the banks and provide a faster service, but may only exchange $US cash.
Credit cards are increasingly accepted across the board, but plenty of places, including budget accommodation, stalls and small restaurants, still require cash. Always have handy a stash of ₩10,000 notes in case.
For current exchange rates, see www.xe.com.
Tipping is generally not expected.
- Restaurants No need to tip; only top-end hotel restaurants will add a service charge.
- Guides Not expected; a small gift will be appreciated, though.
- Taxis No need to tip; fares are metered or agreed before you get in.
- Hotels Only in the most luxurious do you need to tip bellboys etc, and only if service is good.
Banks 9am to 4pm Monday to Friday, ATMs 7am to 11pm (or 24 hours)
Bars 6pm to 1am, longer hours Friday and Saturday
Cafes 7am to 10pm
Restaurants 11am to 10pm
Shops 10am to 8pm
- All the major camera and video brands are available including the local ones, such as Samsung. Yongsan Electronics Market and Namdaemun Market in Seoul are the cheapest places to buy the latest camera and video equipment.
- Some Koreans are shy, reluctant or even hostile about being photographed, so always ask first.
- Never take photographs inside Buddhist shrines or of shamanist ceremonies without asking permission first, and don’t expect Seoul’s riot police to be too happy to be snapped either. In and around the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) there are very strict rules about what can and can’t be photographed, as prominently signposted on site.
Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Photography is full of helpful tips for photography while on the road.
For postal rates see Korea Post (www.koreapost.go.kr); post offices are fairly common and have a red/orange sign.
Eight Korean public holidays are set according to the solar calendar and three according to the lunar calendar, meaning they fall on different days each year. Restaurants, shops and tourist sights stay open during most holidays, but may close over the three-day Lunar New Year and Chuseok (Thanksgiving) holidays. Buddha's Birthday, while not a public holiday, can be a very busy time with accommodation booked out, but is a festive period to visit Buddhist temples. School holidays mean that beaches and resort areas are busy in August.
New Year’s Day 1 January
Lunar New Year 5 February 2019, 25 January 2020, 12 February 2021
Independence Movement Day 1 March
Children’s Day 5 May
Memorial Day 6 June
Constitution Day 17 July
Liberation Day 15 August
Chuseok 12 September 2019, 30 September 2020, 20 September 2021
National Foundation Day 3 October
Christmas Day 25 December
- Smoking Nationwide ban on smoking in public enclosed spaces such as bars and restaurants, and also in parks in Seoul, on train platforms and 10m from station exits. Street smoking is not allowed on many tourist streets; smoking booths exist in areas such as Myeongdong, Seoul.
- Vaping Increasingly popular, fashionable and accepted in many, but not all, bars and restaurants where smoking is not permitted.
Taxes & Refunds
Global Blue (www.globalblue.com; also Global Tax Free or KT Tourist Reward) offers a partial refund (between 5% and 7%) of the 10% value-added tax (VAT) on some items. Spend more than ₩30,000 in any participating shop and the retailer gives you a special receipt, which you must show to a customs officer at Incheon International Airport within three months of purchase.
Go to a Customs Declaration Desk (near the check-in counters; or to kiosks for refunds less than ₩75,000) before checking in your luggage, as the customs officer will want to see the items before stamping your receipt. After you go through immigration, show your stamped receipt at the refund desk corresponding to the brand of the refund service to receive your won refund in cash or by cheque. Some stores now offer immediate tax refunds when you show your passport, or from in-store machines.
Most networks in South Korea use the WCDMA 2100 MHz network, as well as one of five different 4G LTE bands. Most unlocked recent smartphones will work with a Korean SIM. Mobile phones and portable wi-fi eggs can be hired.
- Korea’s nine provinces and seven largest cities have their own area codes.
- The major cities have their own codes – thus Gwangju City’s code (062) is one digit different to the surrounding province of Jeollanam-do (061).
- South Korea’s country code is 82.
- Do not dial the first zero of the area codes if you are calling from outside Korea.
- Phone numbers that begin with a four-figure number starting with 15 do not have an area code.
- The international access code is 001.
South Korea is nine hours ahead of GMT/UCT and does not have daylight saving. When it is noon in Seoul it is 7pm the previous day in San Francisco, 10pm the previous day in New York and 1pm the same day in Sydney.
- Korea has plenty of clean, modern and well-signed hwajangsil (public toilets; 화장실); inside the subway is a reliable place to find them in Seoul.
- Virtually all toilets are free, some are decorated with flowers and artwork, and a few even have music.
- Toilet paper is usually outside the cubicles. As always, it’s wise to carry a stash of toilet tissue around with you just in case.
- Asian-style squat toilets are losing their battle with European-style ones, but there are still a few around. Face the hooded end when you squat.
In Seoul the excellent KTO tourist information centre has stacks of brochures on every region plus helpful, patient and well-informed staff. They can book hotels for you and advise you about almost anything. Chat to them also about the nationwide system of Goodwill Guides (www.hiseoulyh.com/en/youth-goodwill-guide), who are volunteer tour guides.
Many tourist areas throughout the country have their own tourist information centres, so it’s not a problem to locate one.
Translation & Counselling Services
If you need interpretation help or information on practically any topic, any time of the day or night, you can call either of the following:
- BBB (1588 5644; www.bbbkorea.org)
- Tourist Phone Number In Seoul 1330 or 02 1330 from a mobile phone; outside Seoul dial the provincial or metropolitan code first – so for information on Gangwon-do, dial 033 1330.
Travel with Children
Koreans adore children and make them the centre of attention, so travelling with your offspring here is highly recommended. Expect the locals to be particularly helpful and intrigued. Check out www.travelwithyourkids.com for general advice and a first-hand report on Seoul for kids, which gives the city a thumbs up.
Zoos, funfairs and parks can be found in most cities along with cinemas, DVD rooms, internet rooms, video-game arcades, ten-pin bowling alleys, norae-bang (karaoke rooms), pool tables and board-game cafes. Children will rarely be more than 100m away from an ice-cream, cake or fast-food outlet. In winter hit the ski slopes, and in summer head for the water parks or beaches.
For general advice pick up a copy of Lonely Planet’s Travel with Children.
Only luxury hotels are likely to be able to organise a cot, but you could always ask for a yo (traditional floor mattress). Few restaurants have high chairs. Nappy-changing facilities are more common in Seoul toilets than in the provinces.
Facilities for travellers with disabilities in Seoul and some other cities are far from perfect but are improving. Most Seoul subway stations have stair lifts, elevators and toilets with wheelchair access and handrails, while buses have ramps to aid wheelchair access. Tourist attractions, especially government-run ones, offer generous discounts or even free entry for people with disabilities and a helper. There are also some hotels with accessible rooms. For more information go to http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/GK/GK_EN_2_5_2.jsp.
Download Lonely Planet's free Accessible Travel guides from http://lptravel.to/AccessibleTravel.
Before setting off get in touch with your national support organisation (preferably with the travel officer, if there is one). For general travel advice in Australia contact Nican (02 6241 1220); in the UK contact Tourism For All (www.tourismforall.org.uk; 0845 124 9971); in the USA try Accessible Journeys (www.accessiblejourneys.com; 800 846 4537), an agency specialising in travel for the disabled, or Mobility International USA (www.miusa.org; 541 343 1284).
Many travellers find that volunteering to teach English can be a fulfilling way to experience the local culture.
The Seoul Global Center (www.global.seoul.go.kr) is a good place to start looking for other volunteer possibilities. More charities and organisations with volunteer opportunities:
Amnesty International (www.amnesty.or.kr) Raises awareness in Korea about international human-rights issues.
Cross-Cultural Awareness Program (CCAP; www.ccap.or.kr) Unesco-run program activities include presenting a class about your culture to Korean young people in a Korean public school, or on a weekend trip to a remote area.
Korea Women’s Hot Line (KWHL; www.eng.hotline.or.kr; 02-3156 5400) Nationwide organisation that also runs a shelter for abused women.
Korean Federation for Environmental Movement (KFEM; www.kfem.or.kr; 02-735 7000) Volunteer on various environmental projects and campaigns.
Korean Unwed Mothers’ Families Association (KUMFA; www.facebook.com/groups/kumfa) Provides support to single mothers.
Seoul International Women’s Association (www.siwakorea.com) Organises fundraising events to help charities across Korea.
Seoul Volunteer Center (www.volunteer.seoul.go.kr; 070-8797 1861) Teach language and culture, take part in environmental clean-ups and help at social welfare centres.
World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF; http://wwoofkorea.org; 02-723 4458) Welcomes volunteers to farms across Korea who provide labour in exchange for board and lodging.
Weights & Measures
- Weights & Measures South Korea uses the metric system, but real estate is often measured in pyeong (3.3 sq metres or almost 6ft x 6ft), and some traditional markets still use wooden measuring boxes.
Although a few other opportunities are available for work (particularly for those with Korean-language skills), the biggest demand is for English teachers.
Native English teachers on a one-year contract can expect to earn around ₩2 million or more a month, with a furnished apartment, return flights, 50% of medical insurance, 10-days paid holiday and a one-month completion bonus included in the package. Income tax is very low (around 4%), although a 4.5% pension contribution (reclaimable by some nationalities) is compulsory.
The best starting point for finding out more about the English-teaching scene is the Korea Association of Teachers of English (KATE; www.kate.or.kr).