Dangers & Annoyances
- Motorists can be impatient with pedestrians, so take extra care when crossing the road.
- Drunks in Seoul tend to be better behaved than elsewhere, so walking around at 3am shouldn’t pose a problem. There’s always an exception, of course, so it’s best not to antagonise people who have been drinking.
- Police in full riot gear, carrying shields and batons, are a not-uncommon sight in downtown Seoul. Student, trade-union, anti-American, environmental and other protests can occasionally turn physical. Keep well out of the way of any confrontations.
Korea Pass (www.lottecard.co.kr/app/html/koreapass/IHKPAZZ_V100.jsp) is a prepaid card, available in denominations from ₩50,000 to ₩500,000, that provides discounts on a range of goods and services. It can be bought at Lotte Mart and 7-Eleven branches in Seoul as well as at the A'REX booth at Incheon International Airport.
Discover Seoul Pass (www.discoverseoulpass.com) If you're planning on cramming an awful lot of sights into a short of space of time, Seoul's official tourist discount card is just about worth the outlay. Available in 24-hour, 48-hour or 72-hour versions (₩39,900/55,000/70,000), it gets you free or discounted entry into dozens of attractions all over the city. It also works as a rechargeable transport card on subways and buses. Buy it from CU convenience stores inside Incheon Airport, or from Tourist Information Centers throughout the city. You can also purchase it from the website as a mobile app.
South Korea is on the 220V standard at 60Hz and uses two round pins with no earth.
Embassies & Consulates
Emergency & Important Numbers
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Entry & Exit Formalities
Visitors must declare all plants, fresh fruit, vegetables and dairy products that they bring into South Korea. Meat is not allowed without a certificate. Log on to www.customs.go.kr for further information. Antiques of national importance are banned from export.
Australian, UK, US and most western European citizens receive a 90-day entry permit on arrival.
- 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 receive 60 or 30-day permits, while Canadians get 180 days.
- As long as it hasn't already expired, in rare cases it is possible to extend your visa for another 90 days; more info can be found at www.hikorea.go.kr.
- Applications for a work visa can be made inside South Korea, but you must leave the country to pick up the visa. You can also apply for a one-year work visa before entering South 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 is a safeguard against fake degree certificates.
- You don’t need to leave South Korea to renew a work visa as long as you carry on working for the same employer. But if you change employers, you are usually obliged to apply for a new visa which you have to pick up outside Korea.
- If you are working or studying in South 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. In Seoul this is done at the Omokgyo immigration office south of the Han River, or the Anguk office, north of the river.
- Seoul Global Center can also help with issues related to work visas.
There are several social rules that Koreans stick to, although they will generally make allowances for foreigners. Even so, follow these tips to avoid faux pas:
- Meetings and greetings A quick, short bow is most respectful for meetings and departures. Give or receive any object using both hands – especially name cards (an essential feature of doing business in Korea), money and gifts.
- Shoes Remove your shoes on entering a Korean home, guesthouse, temple or Korean-style restaurant.
- Eating and 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 Potentially awkward remarks or scenes should be quickly smoothed over, and if you sense someone trying to change the subject, go with the flow. An argument or embarrassing situation should be avoided at all costs.
Gay & Lesbian Travellers
Korea is a sexually conservative society, and although the country has never outlawed homosexuality, gay and lesbian travellers who disclose their sexual orientation should be prepared for some less than positive reactions. For more information and context, log on to Chingusai (www.chingusai.net), a human rights group for gay Korean men with a detailed website.
Attitudes are changing, however, especially among young people. The annual Seoul Queer Culture Festival organises a range of activities including a gay-pride parade and film festival. In 2017, an estimated 50,000 people took part in the parade.
Seoul has a healthy queer bar scene, although not all are foreigner-friendly. Travelgay Asia (www.travelgayasia.com) has a detailed Korea section with 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…
- Wi-fi is universal, and you can log in at many hot spots throughout the city using Seoul's free public wi-fi network. Hotels generally offer free wi-fi, too, and you can get online in most cafes and many restaurants.
- If you need a computer, look for places with a ‘PC 방’ sign, which charge a few thousand won per hour and are invariably packed with online gamers.
- The major phone companies offer USB wi-fi dongles to rent, in the same way as mobile phones, to connect to the internet anywhere around Korea.
The Korean Tourism Organization (KTO; http://english.visitkorea.or.kr) and Seoul Metropolitan Government publish numerous free brochures and maps of Seoul, which are fine for most purposes. Especially good are maps and brochures on hiking the Seoul City Wall, available from the Seoul City Wall Museum and other places.
- Daily Newspapers Pick up English editions of the Korea Times (www.koreatimes.co.kr), Korea Herald (www.koreaherald.com) and Korea JoongAng Daily (http://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com).
- Monthly Magazines Print magazines in English include Seoul Magazine (http://magazine.seoulselection.com), 10 Magazine (www.10mag.com) and Groove Korea (http://groovekorea.com).
- TV & Radio TV programs in English are aired on Arirang (www.arirang.co.kr). KBS World Radio (http://world.kbs.co.kr) broadcasts news and features programs in English as does TBS (www.tbsefm.seoul.kr) which also features music.
ATMs are widely available, and credit cards are accepted by most businesses, although not everywhere can handle overseas cards, so carry local currency too.
ATMs that accept foreign cards are reasonably common: usually among a row of three or four in a bank at least one will have a ‘Global ATM’ sign or the logo of your credit-card company. Note that convenience store ATMs tend not to accept foreign cards. Restrictions on the amount you can withdraw vary from place to place.
Many banks in Seoul offer a foreign-exchange service. There are also licensed moneychangers, particularly in Itaewon, that keep longer hours than the banks and provide a faster service, but may only exchange US dollars.
Hotels, shops and restaurants accept foreign credit cards, but plenty of places, including budget accommodation and stalls, require cash.
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.
Tipping is not required nor expected in South Korea.
Banks 9am to 4pm Monday to Friday, ATMs 7am to 11pm
Bars 6pm to 1am, longer hours Friday and Saturday
Cafes 7am to 10pm
Post offices 9am to 6pm Monday to Friday
Restaurants 11am to 10pm
Shops 10am to 8pm
For postal rates refer to the website of 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 that 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 (harvest-festival) holidays. 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
Buddha’s Birthday 12 May 2019, 30 April 2020, 8 April 2021
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 Seoul has strict anti-smoking laws, meaning it is forbidden to smoke in all bars, restaurants, hotels and public buildings. It is also forbidden to smoke while walking along the street, or outside subway stations or bus stops. Generally, smokers duck into a side road or alleyway for a quick puff.
Taxes & Refunds
Goods and services sold in Seoul include 10% value-added tax (VAT). If you spend more than ₩30,000 at participating tax-free shops, you can receive a partial refund on some items (between 5% and 7%). Be sure to collect the special receipt, which can be used to obtain a tax refund in the airport or, increasingly, in locations in and around Seoul's malls and shopping areas.
Seoul also has a growing number of duty-free shops and malls where goods are sold tax-free on the spot, but you'll need to show your passport.
Gyeonggi-do code (031) This province surrounds Seoul.
Incheon city and airport code (032)
International access code KT (001)
Seoul code (02) Omit the zero if calling from outside Korea.
South Korea country code (82)
South Korea uses the CDMA digital standard; check compatibility with your phone provider. Phones can be hired at the airport and elsewhere.
- Mobile phone and SIM hire is available from KT Olleh, SK Telecom and LGU+, all of which have counters at Incheon International Airport arrivals floor and branches throughout the city. SIM cards are also available from Evergreen Mobile (www.egsimcard.co.kr/ENG) and SIMCard Korea (www.simcardkorea.com).
- Each company offers similar but not identical schemes, so compare before buying or signing a rental contract if cost is an issue. Prepaid SIMs are also available from Evergreen Mobile, SIMCard Korea and vendors in Itaewon.
- Korean mobile-phone numbers have three-digit codes, always beginning with 01, eg 011 1234 5678. You'll also come across internet phone numbers (also known as VoIP), which begin with 070. When you make a call from your mobile phone, you always input these initial codes or area codes, even if you’re in the city you’re trying to reach. For example, in Seoul, when calling a local Seoul number you would dial 02-123 4567.
Public Phones & Phonecards
- Public payphones are rare; the best place to look are subway stations. Ones accepting coins (₩50 or ₩100) are even rarer.
- Telephone cards usually give you a 10% bonus in value and can be bought at convenience stores. There are two types of cards, so if your card does not fit in one type of payphone, try a different-looking one. A few public phones accept credit cards.
- Local calls cost ₩70 for three minutes.
South Korea is nine hours ahead of GMT/UCT (London) and does not have daylight saving. When it is noon in Seoul, it’s 7pm the previous day in San Francisco, 10pm the previous day in New York and 1pm the same day in Sydney.
- There are plenty of clean, modern and well-signed hwajangsil (public toilets) in Seoul.
- Toilet signs read 숙녀 for female; 신사 for male.
- Virtually all toilets are free of charge.
- Toilet paper is usually available, but it’s wise to carry a stash around with you just in case.
- There are still a few Asian-style squat toilets around. Face the hooded end when you squat.
There are scores of tourist information booths around the city. In major tourist zones such as Insa-dong and Namdaemun Market, look for red-jacketed city tourist guides, who can also help with information in various languages.
KTO Tourist Information Center The best of Seoul's many tourist centres, offering knowledgeable staff, free internet, ample brochures and maps, and free experiences include trying on hanbok, cooking and craft classes.
Travel with Children
Seoul is a safe, family-friendly city with lots of kid-friendly museums (including several devoted to kids themselves), as well as amusement parks, playgrounds and fun events that will appeal to all age groups.
Lonely Planet’s Travel with Children is good for general travel advice.
Thanks to the global appeal of local pop culture, little ones are likely to be more au fait with contemporary Korean pop culture than their parents. Be prepared to search out shops stocking BTS or Big Bang posters, DVDs of Korean TV soap operas, or manhwa (Korean comics and graphic novels). Kyobo Bookshop is a good place to start.
Museums and other traditional culture centres don't need to be boring. The National Museum of Korea and the National Folk Museum have fun, hands-on children’s sections, and the War Memorial of Korea has outdoor warplanes and tanks that make for a popular playground. Various events, some involving dressing up in traditional costumes or having a go at taekwondo happen at Namsangol Hanok Village. Older kids and teenagers will likely want to visit places such as the Seoul Animation Center to learn more about local animated TV series and films, or Samsung D’Light to play with the latest digital technology. Nonverbal shows such as Nanta and Jump are great family entertainment.
At theme parks like Lotte World and Everland, family entertainment comes in mega-sized portions. Easier on the wallet are the scores of free open spaces that constitute Seoul’s wealth of city-managed parks – places such as Seoul Forest, Olympic Park, Children’s Grand Park and the string of bicycle-lane-connected parks that hug the Han River’s banks. Each summer six big outdoor-pool complexes open in the Han River parks, too.
Need to Know
- Sleeping & Eating Korean-style ondol rooms are family-friendly, as everyone sleeps on a yo (floor mattress) in the same space. Children are welcome in restaurants, though few will have kids’ menus. High chairs aren't common.
- Babysitting Some top hotels and residences can arrange babysitting.
- Festivals Children’s Day (5 May) sees special events for kids across Seoul.
- Korea 4 Expats.com (www.korea4expats.com) Child-related information.
Travellers with Disabilities
Seoul has taken big strides in catering for disabled travellers. Most subway stations now have elevators and accessible toilets. A few hotels have specially adapted rooms. Tourist attractions, especially those run by the government, offer generous discounts or even free entry for disabled guests and a helper.
The Seoul Global Center is a good place to start looking for volunteer possibilities.
- The biggest demand for work in Seoul is for English teachers, although those who also have Korean language skills will have more opportunities.
- Native English teachers on a one-year contract can expect to earn around ₩2.5 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 all included in the package. Income tax is very low (around 4%), although a 4.5% pension contribution (reclaimable by some nationalities) is compulsory.
- Most English teachers work in a hagwon (private language school), but some are employed by universities or government schools. Company classes, English camps and teaching via the telephone are also possible, as is private tutoring, although this is technically illegal. Teaching hours in a hagwon are usually around 30 hours a week and are likely to involve split shifts, as well as evening and Saturday classes.
- A degree in any subject is sufficient as long as English is your native language. However, it’s a good idea to obtain some kind of English-teaching qualification before you arrive, as this increases your options and you should be able to find (and do) a better job.
- Some hagwon owners are less than ideal employers and don’t pay all that they promise. Ask any prospective employer for the email addresses of foreign English teachers working at the hagwon, and contact them for their opinion and advice. One important point to keep in mind is that if you change employers, you will usually need to obtain a new work visa, which requires you to leave the country to pick up your new visa. Your new employer may pick up all or at least part of the tab for this.
- 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).