Known as the "Land of the Morning Calm", Korea has for a long time served as a cultural bridge between its neighbors, China and Japan. South Korea has emerged from the shadows of its turbulent past and cemented its place as one of the world's major economic powers. Since the turn of the 21st century, South Korean culture has become enormously popular all over East Asia, and this has made it a very popular tourist destination.
South Korea is administratively divided into 9 provinces as listed below. The largest cities are separate entities from these provinces, but we include them in the most relevant province.
Surrounding Seoul and covered in its urban sprawl, and the Korean Demilitarised Zone close by.
Natural wonderland with the Seoraksan National Park, beaches and ski resorts.
|North Chungcheong |
A landlocked province filled with mountains and national parks.
|South Chungcheong |
Central western part of the country. Flat area made up of rice paddies. Point where main train lines and highways converge and known for its hot springs.
|North Gyeongsang |
Largest province and richest area for historical and cultural sites, such as Andong, Gyeongju and the islands of Ulleungdo.
|South Gyeongsang |
Known for its gorgeous seaside cities, and beaches where most Koreans take their summer holidays.
|North Jeolla |
Noted for great food.
|South Jeolla |
Lots of beautiful small islands and landscape, fantastic food (especially seafood along the coast) and good for fishing.
South Korea's honeymoon island, created by a volcano. Great scenery with wild flowers and horseback riding.
- 1 Seoul (서울) — the dynamic 600-year-old capital of South Korea, a fusion of the ancient and modern
- 2 Busan (부산, 釜山) — the second largest city and a major port city of Korea
- 3 Chuncheon (춘천, 春川) — capital city of Gangwon province, surrounded by lakes and mountains and known for local dishes, dakgalbi and makguksu
- 4 Daegu (대구, 大邱) — a cosmopolitan city, rich with ancient traditions and sights
- 5 Daejeon (대전, 大田) — a large and dynamic metropolis located in Chungnam province
- 6 Gwangju (광주, 光州) — the administrative and economic centre of the area, the largest city in the province
- 7 Gyeongju (경주, 慶州) — the ancient capital of the Silla Kingdom
- 8 Incheon (인천, 仁川) — second busiest port in the country, location of the country's largest international airport
- 9 Jeonju (전주, 全州) — once the spiritual capital of the Joseon Dynasty, now a leading center of the arts filled with museums, ancient Buddhist temples, and historical monuments
- 1 Seoraksan National Park (설악산국립공원) — spread out over four cities and counties, the country's most renowned national park and mountain range
- 2 Andong (안동시) — historically rich in Confucius traditions and home of living folk village
- 3 Ansan (안산시) — a city in Gyeonggi province on the coast of the Yellow Sea
- 4 Panmunjeom (판문점) — the only tourist site in the world where the Cold War is still reality
- 5 Boseong (보성군) — rolling hills blanketed with green tea leaves where you can stroll along a wooded path and stop at a nearby spa to drink the home grown tea and take a seawater bath.
- 6 Yeosu (여수시) — one of the country's most picturesque port cities especially at night. Famous for its seafood and beaches, you can visit some of the islands in Hallyeo Ocean Park with cruise or watch sunset from its fabulous Dolsan Bridge or romantic cafes near marinas.
- 7 Jindo (진도) — commonly associated with the dog native to that area, the Jindo, every year people flock to the area to witness the parting of the sea and participate with the accompanying festivities
- 8 Ulleungdo (울릉도) — scenic remote island off the east coast of peninsula
- 9 Pyeongchang (평창군) — the host city of the 2018 Winter Olympics.
|Currency||South Korean won (KRW)|
|Population||51 million (2015)|
|Electricity||220±13 volt / 60±0.2 hertz (Schuko, Europlug)|
|Time zone||Korea Standard Time, UTC+09:00, Asia/Seoul|
|Emergencies||112 (police), 119 (emergency medical services, fire department), 113 (counterintelligence)|
|edit on Wikidata|
Early history and founding of a nation
- See also: Pre-modern Korea
Archeological finds of prehistoric toolmaking on the Korean Peninsula date back to 70,000 BC, and the first pottery is found around 8000 BC. Comb-pattern pottery culture peaked around 3500–2000 BC.
Legend has it that Korea began with the founding of Gojoseon (고조선, 古朝鮮, also called Ancient Chosun) by the legendary Dangun in 2333 BC. Archeological and contemporaneous written records of Gojoseon as a kingdom date back to around 7th–4th century BC. Gojoseon was eventually defeated by the Chinese Han Dynasty and its territories were governed as four commanderies. The political chaos following the fall of the Han Dynasty in China allowed native tribes to regain control of Korea and led to the emergence of the Three Kingdoms of Korea (삼국시대, 三國時代), namely Goguryeo (고구려, 高句麗), Silla (신라, 新羅) and Baekje (백제, 百濟). Despite repeated attempts by China, namely the Sui Dynasty and later the Tang Dynasty, to conquer the Korean Peninsula, northern-based Goguryeo managed to repel them. Eventually, Goguryeo fell to a Silla-Tang alliance, which had earlier defeated Baekje, and unified Korea under the Silla Dynasty. A later invasion by the Tang was repelled by Silla forces, thus maintaining Korea's independence. The remnants of Goguryeo would go on to found another kingdom known as Balhae (발해, 渤海) in what is now Northeast China, which would last until 926 AD when it was conquered by the Khitans.
Unified Silla was replaced by the Goryeo Dynasty (고려, 高麗, also called Koryo), from which the modern name "Korea" derives. One highlight of the Goryeo dynasty was that in 1234 the world's first metal movable type was invented by a Korean named Choe Yun-ui (200 years before Gutenberg's printing press). Goryeo was replaced by the Joseon Dynasty (조선, 朝鮮, also called Chosun), after a coup by one of its generals. The Joseon dynasty ruled Korea from 1392 to 1910, being one of the longest actively ruling dynasties in world history. It was during the early part of the Joseon dynasty that Korean technological inventions such as the world's first water clock, ironclad ship, and other innovations took place. During the rule of King Sejong the Great, the world's first rain gauge was invented and the Korean alphabet known as hangul was created.
Japanese occupation and division
Korea was invaded by the Japanese led by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the late 16th century, who was eventually defeated by an alliance between the Joseon dynasty and China's Ming dynasty. This defeat and the untimely death of Hideyoshi forced the Japanese to pull out of Korea.
Later, Korea's status as an independent kingdom under the Chinese sphere of cultural influence (사대 sadae) ended in 1895 after China's defeat in the Sino-Japanese War and the signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki. Under the terms of the treaty, China was to recognize the severing of the several centuries-old, nominal elder-younger brother relationship between China and Korea, bringing Japan the window of opportunity to force Korea into its own growing sphere of influence. Although the elder-younger brother relationship between China and Joseon was a voluntary diplomatic formality assumed by Joseon's rulers in order to receive the benefits of advanced Chinese culture and trade, it was a symbolic victory for Japan to achieve the breakage of this link. It put Japan in position to take possession of Korea without fear of Chinese intervention. In 1910, Imperial Japan annexed Korea, thus beginning a 35-year occupation of the country. Despite numerous armed rebellions, assassinations and intellectual and cultural resistance, suppression and a cultural assimilation policy that included forcing Koreans to take Japanese names and forbidding them to speak the Korean language allowed Japan to maintain control of the peninsula.
After Imperial Japan's defeat in World War II, Soviet forces occupied the northern half of Korea while U.S. forces occupied the southern half. North and South Korea each declared independence as separate states in 1948. Kim Il-Sung established a communist regime with the support of the Soviet Union in the north, and Syngman Rhee established a capitalist regime with the support of the United States in the south. After antagonism from both sides, North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, starting the Korean War which destroyed much of the country. U.S. and other U.N. forces intervened on South Korea's side, while the Soviet Union and China supported the North. An armistice was signed in 1953 splitting the peninsula along a demilitarized zone, after the war had reached a stalemate with no significant territorial gains made by either side. However, as no peace treaty has ever been signed, the two Koreas technically remain at war with each other to this day.
Republic of Korea
Despite initially being economically outperformed by its northern rival, South Korea eventually emerged from the ashes of the Korean War and achieved rapid economic growth starting in the 1960s under the iron-fisted rule of President Park Chung-hee. As one of the East Asian Tigers, the South Korean economy's industrialization and modernization efforts gained traction in the 1980s and 1990s, and per capita income rose to 20 times that of North Korea. In 1996, South Korea joined the OECD. Today, South Korea is an industrialized and developed economy with some of the world's leading high technology corporations such as Samsung and LG.
Demands for greater freedom of speech and human rights led to nationwide demonstrations that led to democratic elections in 1987, just prior to the South Korean capital of Seoul hosting the 1988 Summer Olympic Games.
South Korea is now a liberal democracy and an economic powerhouse. The peace process with the North is still underway at a glacial pace, with little sign that the status quo will change anytime soon. In 2012 the country elected its first female president, Park Geun-hye, although she was dramatically ejected from power in 2017 after widespread demonstrations over alleged corruption that involved personal connections and Korea's largest corporations.
The cultural phenomenon known as the Korean Wave (한류 hallyu) has swept most of Asia and many other parts of the world as South Korean film, television, music, food and other culture aspects have become popular. In 2012 Psy's Korean language song "Gangnam Style" actually topped the charts in many Western countries.
South Korea is a very homogeneous country, with nearly all native residents identifying themselves as ethnically Korean and speaking the Korean language. However the demographics are changing, with immigrants having passed the one million mark for the first time in South Korean history. The largest resident minority are the Chinese, numbering around 440,000, though the majority of them are Chinese citizens of Korean ethnicity. There are also workers from Mongolia, Bangladesh, Southeast Asia and other parts of world. A community of 20,000 English teachers from anglophone nations are spread out throughout the country. A long standing 30,000 American military personnel are stationed here. South Korea's large and growing economy has attracted people from all over the world and Seoul's status as a leading financial center has brought many financial workers from North America, Europe and Japan.
It is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, but also has one of the world's lowest birthrates (1.21 children per woman). Dealing with this very low birthrate will be one of the major problems for this country in the 21st century. Confucian attitudes about the importance of a male heir have led to a strongly skewed sex ratio, with about 112 men for every 100 women, encouraging many Korean men in rural areas to seek wives from other countries such as China, Vietnam and the Philippines. About 85% of South Koreans live in urban areas.
Government and politics
South Korea is a full and relatively stable democracy, with executive, judicial, and legislative branches of government. Democracy began in 1948 but suffered frequent periods of military coups. The country has been a stable democracy since 1987 when the sixth republic was declared.
The president is the head of state, and is elected for one five-year term. The current president is Moon Jae-in, who was elected in 2017 following the dramatic impeachment of previous president Park Geun-hye. Party composition and naming changes frequently in South Korean politics, although conservative, liberal and progressive platforms are usually represented. In general, left-wing parties tend to support reconciliation and more cooperation with North Korea, while right-wing parties tend to support closer ties with the United States and taking a tougher stance against North Korea.
Although the military remain a powerful force in Korean politics (not surprising given that the country is surrounded by Japan, China and North Korea), it is widely considered that another military coup is very unlikely.
Having been in the cultural sphere of China for much of its history, substantial Chinese influences are evident in traditional Korean culture. Nevertheless, many fundamental differences remain and Korea has managed to retain a distinct cultural identity from its larger neighbor. Koreans are fiercely proud of their heritage and their resistance to outside domination.
During the Joseon dynasty, Korea's dominant philosophy was a strict form of Confucianism, perhaps even more strict than the Chinese original. People were separated into a rigid hierarchy, with the king at the apex, an elite of officials and warriors and a small group of nobility (양반 yangban) below him, a middle class of petty civil servants (중인 chungin) below them, and then a vast population of commoners (상민 sangmin) at the bottom. The educated were superior to the uneducated, women served men, and everybody stuck to a defined role or faced severe consequences. Korea adopted its own version of the imperial examination system invented by and used in China to select officials, creating somewhat of a premodern meritocracy for government like its Chinese counterpart, though unlike the Chinese version, the Korean version was largely restricted to the yangban and chungin classes. Buddhism was suppressed largely due to the widespread corruption and greed of monks and temples during the waning stages of the Goryeo dynasty. While the Joseon dynasty ceased to exist in 1910, its legacy lives on in Korean culture: education and hard work are valued above all else, and women still struggle for equal treatment.
Koreans believe that the things that set them the most apart from other Asian cultures are their cuisine, their language and their Hangul script. Outsiders will note their extreme modernity, tempered by a well-developed artistic and architectural joyfulness. Nothing goes undecorated if it can be helped, and they have a knack for stylish interior design. South Korea also has a vibrant film and TV industry, and the country is one of only a few countries in the world in which local films have a greater market share than Hollywood films.
South Koreans strongly hold on to many ancient traditions which go back thousands of years, yet paradoxically they are often also obsessed with the latest technology. Consumer devices with amazing advanced technology are developed and produced by themselves and are often several years ahead of the rest of the world.
South Korea has a significant number of Christians (18% Protestants, 11% Roman Catholic) and Buddhists (23% practicing, 47% non practicing), and churches can be found in the towns and temples and monasteries on hills. Over a third of the country professes to follow no particular organized religion, although most people (including Christians) are still strongly influenced by traditional Korean Buddhist and Confucian philosophies that have been seeped into the Korean cultural background. Islam and local religions also have a small number of followers in parts of the country.
Lunar New Year dates
The year of the Pig started on 5 Feb 2019
Korea's traditional holidays mostly follow the lunar calendar and therefore fall on different days each year from the perspective of the Western Gregorian calendar. The two biggest, Lunar New Year and Chuseok, are family holidays where everybody returns to their hometowns en masse and all forms of transport are absolutely packed. It is worth planning your itinerary around these dates, as well as realizing that your best eating options may be noodle packets from a 7-Eleven! On the other holidays you will not notice too much difference, however all banks and government offices will be closed.
- New Year's Day (신정 Sinjeong) — January 1
- Lunar New Year (설날 Seolnal, also known as "Korean New Year" or 구정 Gujeong) — 1st day of 1st lunar month (January–February) — Families gather together, eat traditional foods, especially tteokguk (떡국), and perform an ancestral service. The public holiday lasts for 3 days, which includes the eve and second day. Many shops and restaurants close for the 3 days, so it is not an ideal time to visit.
- Independence Movement Day (삼일절 or 3·1절 Samiljeol, lit. "3-1 Day") — March 1 — In commemoration of the March 1st resistance movement against the invading Japanese Imperial Army in 1919.
- Children's Day (어린이날 Eorininal) — 5 May
- Buddha's Birthday (부처님 오신 날 Bucheonnim Osin Nal or 사월 초파일 Sawol Chopail) — 8th day of the 4th lunar month (April–May)
- Memorial Day (현충일 Hyeonchung-il) — June 6 — Commemorates Koreans who gave their lives to the nation.
- Constitution Day (제헌절 Jeheonjeol) — July 17
- Liberation Day (광복절 Gwangbokjeol) — August 15 — This day is actually the end of World War II with the official Japanese surrender to the Allied forces, which also meant Korea gaining independence after many decades of Japanese colonialism.
- Chuseok (추석, often translated as "Korean Thanksgiving") — 15th day of 8th lunar month (September–October) — Koreans celebrate by eating traditional foods, notably a rice cake called songpyeon (송편) and playing folk games. The public holiday lasts for 3 days and much like Lunar New Year, everything shuts down which makes visiting rather boring.
- National Foundation Day (개천절 Gaecheonjeol) — October 3 — In celebration of the first formation of the nation of ancient Korea.
- Hangul Day (한글날 Hangeulnal) — October 9 — Anniversary for the Korean alphabet
- Christmas (크리스마스 Keuriseumaseu, 기독탄신일 Gidoktansinil, or 성탄절 Seongtanjeol) — December 25 — A significant holiday in South Korea, although it is mostly celebrated by young couples spending a romantic day together. Since a significant proportion (approximately 30%) of the country is Christian, there is no shortage of celebration in the thousands of churches whilst everyone else takes a well deserved rest at home.
|Climate chart (explanation)|
- Spring is a great time of year to be in Korea. The temperatures are warm, but not hot and there's not too much rain either. However, spring is also the time when yellow dust storms blow over from China making the air horrible to breathe.
- Summer starts with a dreary rainy season (장마철 jangma-cheol) in June and turns into a steambath in July-August, with extreme humidity and the temperature heading as high as 35 °C. Best avoided unless heading to the beaches.
- Autumn, starting in September, is perhaps the best time to be in Korea. Temperatures and humidity become more tolerable, fair days are common and the justly renowned fall colors make their appearance.
- Winter is a good time to go skiing or hot-spring hopping, and the Korean invention of ondol (온돌, floor heating) helps defrost any parts that froze outside. However, January and February can be bone-biting cold due to Siberian winds from the north. The south of the country (including Busan and Jeju) are relatively mild compared to the north (Seoul) during this season.
South Korean households and hotels use the same dual round sockets for their electrical outlets as are found in most of Continental Europe. Some hotels may provide an adapter for you to use; ask for one at the reception desk.
South Korean electrical outlets accept appliances with a voltage rating of 220 V at 60 Hz. If your appliance has this rating that includes 220 V (Such as 100-240 V that most laptop chargers now accept), you will be able to use the appliance with only a plug adapter. If it falls below or above this rating, you will need to purchase a transformer or a voltage adapter before leaving your country.
Some very old buildings and very new hotels and apartments are dual wired and also have 110 V outlets (identifiable by the smaller dual flat sockets) in addition to the regular South Korean variety, built specifically to accommodate the Japanese and Americans.
A long and complicated relationship between the Western world and the South Korean nation have led to a plethora of literature on the country.
Books focused on Korean history:
- Battle for Korea: The Associated Press History of the Korean Conflict by Robert J. Dvorchak (1993) — Great journalistic photography accompanied by short descriptive narratives
- Korea Old and New: A History by Carter Eckert and Lee Ki-Baik (1991) — Simply stated writing, good overview of Korea's history
- Korea Witness: 135 Years of War, Crisis and New in the Land of the Morning Calm by Donald Kirk and Choe Sang Hun (2006) — Compilation of articles from foreign correspondents starting from 1871, notably from Jack London, a war correspondent from 1903–'04
- True Stories of the Korean Comfort Women by Keith Howard (1996) — Unflinching look at the atrocities committed during the Imperial Japanese occupation period
Books about Korean culture:
- The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies by Michael Breen (1999) — Anectodal accounts and insights of a British journalist on the country he spends half the year in; informative and entertaining
- Social Change in Korea published by Jimoondang (2008) — Compilation of articles written by academic experts on Korea
- The Discovery of Korea: History-Nature-Cultural Heritages-Art-Tradition-Cities by Yoo Myeong-jong (2005) — Amazing scenic views on Korea
South Korea has a substantial film industry considering the size of the country. There are many films that can give you a good background to the country, and almost all DVDs will have good English subtitles.
The list below could include hundreds of films, however the selection below will give you a good taste.
- Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War (태극기 휘날리며) — A story of two brothers serving as soldiers during the Korean War.
- Joint Security Area (공동경비구역) — A rather haunting movie about soldiers on opposite sides of the Demilitarized Zone who strike up a tenuous friendship.
- May 18 (화려한 휴가) — As recently as 1980, South Korea was effectively a military dictatorship. This film is a historical drama around the events of the infamous Gwangju massacre, when the president ordered the shooting of protestors in that city.
- Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring — A film set completely at an isolated lake in the mountains, which shows each season as a stage in the lives of a Buddhist monk and his adopted boy.
- Secret Sunshine (밀양) — A contemporary film about the nature of forgiveness set in the country town of Miryang.
- My Sassy Girl (엽기적인 그녀) — Romantic comedy that is often seen as a quintessential Korean movie experience, and especially well regarded by people from other Asian countries.
- The Host (괴물) — Monster horror film around the lives of a family in Seoul. A lot of footage of the Han river that flows through the middle of the city.
- See also: Korean phrasebook
South Koreans speak Korean, and knowing a few words of this will come in very handy. The language is rather drastically different from any Western language in its grammar, and pronunciation is rather difficult for the English speaker to get right (though not tonal). Depending on which part of the country you go to, various different dialects are spoken, though standard Korean, which is based on the Seoul dialect, is understood and spoken by almost everyone. Most notably among the dialects, the Gyeongsang dialect spoken around Busan and Daegu is considered to be rather rough and aggressive compared to standard Korean, and the Jeju dialect spoken on Jeju Island is known for being almost incomprehensible to speakers of standard Korean.
Differences between North and South Korean
Despite 60 years of separation, the Korean language in both North Korea and South Korea is fundamentally the same. The main differences are around the large amount of English nouns that South Korean has borrowed, whereas North Korean uses indigenous or Russian derived words instead. Descriptions of political and social structures are also completely different as a direct result of the different ideological directions of both countries.
The Korean writing system is deceptively simple. Although it looks at first glance to be as complex as Chinese or Japanese, it is a unique and simple alphabetic writing system called hangul (한글 hangeul) where letters are stacked up into blocks that represent syllables. It was designed by a committee and looks like simple lines, boxes and little circles, but it is remarkably consistent, logical and quick to pick up. A document from 1446 describing hangul said that "A wise man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over; a stupid man can learn them in the space of ten days."
Learning to read hangul before you arrive in Korea will make traveling much easier, as many signs and menus are written in hangul only. Further, the Korean words for many common products are often English loan words, but will be written in hangul, such as 주스 (juseu, "juice") or 컴퓨터 (keompyuteo, "computer"). If you can read hangul, you'll find surviving in Korea surprisingly easy.
Many Korean words can also be written with much more complex Chinese characters, known as hanja (한자, 漢字) in Korean, and these are still occasionally mixed into text but are increasingly few and far between. Nowadays, hanja are mainly used for disambiguation if the meaning is ambiguous when written in hangul; in such instances, the hanja is usually written in parentheses next to the hangul. Hanja are also used to mark Korean chess pieces, newspaper headlines, and personal names on official documents.
The transliteration of Korean words in Roman letters can be quite inconsistent, so don't be too surprised to see adjacent signs for Gwangalli and Kwanganri — it's the same place. In 2000, the government officially standardized on the Revised Romanization system also used in Wikivoyage, but you will frequently encounter older McCune-Reischauer spellings and just plain weird spellings. Notably, words beginning with g, d, b, j may be spelled with k, t, p, ch instead, and the vowels eo and eu may be spelled o and u. The letters l, r and n also get swapped often, and the vowels i and u are sometimes written as ee and oo respectively. In foreign words imported into Korean, f turns into p, so don't be too surprised by a cup of keopi ("coffee") or a round of golpeu ("golf").
Most South Koreans have taken English lessons as part of their education. However, due to lack of practice (as well as fear of mispronunciation), outside of major tourist attractions, hotels and establishments catering specifically for foreigners, it is rare to find locals who are conversant in English. Reading and writing generally comes much easier. Many employees at airlines, hotels and stores catering to international tourists are likely to speak at least basic English.
A typical experience for Western travelers in South Korea is to be approached by children interested in practicing their English skills. They will often take a picture of you for their school class as proof that they really talked to you.
Older folks may also still speak some Japanese. The city of Busan, being a short trip from Fukuoka in Japan, has a larger number of Japanese speakers per capita, and the dialect in Busan is more similar to Japanese in the same way that the Japanese dialect in Fukuoka also has a large Korean influence. However, many Koreans (especially older ones) still resent the Japanese for the atrocities committed during the occupation, so try not to address a Korean in Japanese unless you have no other choice. Thanks to the Korean Wave (hallyu) of Korean pop music and soap operas throughout East Asia, many shopkeepers in touristy areas speak some Japanese, Mandarin or Cantonese.
Korean Sign Language (한국 수화 언어 Hanguk Suhwa Eoneo, or just 수화 suhwa, "signing") is an official language of South Korea since 2016, equal in status with spoken Korean. It is mutually intelligible with Japanese and Taiwainese Sign Languages, but not with Chinese Sign Language, Auslan, American Sign Language, or others.
- Citizens of Canada are allowed visa free entry for up to 180 days.
- Citizens of the European Union (except Cyprus, Portugal, and French territory of New Caledonia), Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, Bahamas, Barbados, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Grenada, Guatemala, Haiti, Hong Kong, Iceland, Israel, Jamaica, Japan, Liberia, Liechtenstein, Macau, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Peru, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Serbia, Singapore, Suriname, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, the United States/American Samoa (Except Guam), Uruguay, and Venezuela can visit visa free for up to 90 days.
- Citizens from Lesotho, Portugal, and Russia can visit visa free for up to 60 days.
- Citizens of Albania, Andorra, Argentina, Bahrain, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brunei, Cyprus, Eswatini, Fiji, Guam, Guyana, Honduras, Kazakhstan, Kiribati, Kuwait, the Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Monaco, Montenegro, F.S. Micronesia, Nauru, New Caledonia, Oman, Palau, Paraguay, Qatar, Samoa, San Marino, Saudi Arabia, Seychelles, South Africa, Tonga, Tunisia, Tuvalu, the United Arab Emirates, and Vatican City can stay visa free for up to 30 days.
Hence, the citizens of most countries will receive a visa on arrival valid between 30 to 90 days. The official "Hi, Korea" site has the latest details.
Jeju is an autonomous province with more relaxed entry conditions than the South Korean mainland, allowing visa-free entry for everybody except citizens of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Cuba, Egypt, Gambia, Ghana, Iran, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Kosovo, Myanmar, Nepal, Nigeria, North Macedonia, Palestine, Pakistan, Senegal, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Uzbekistan, and Yemen for up to 30 days. Subsequently leaving Jeju for the mainland will require you to have a visa for the rest of South Korea.
South Korean immigration no longer stamps passports. Instead, visitors are given an entry slip with their terms of entry, and their entry and exit is recorded electronically. South Korea is really good at keeping electronic track of everyone coming and going, so do not overstay your visa. Violations will at best likely result in you being banned from re-entering, and prosecution is a possibility.
Military personnel travelling under the U.S.–South Korea Status of Forces Agreement are not required to possess a passport for entry, provided they hold a copy of their travel orders and a military ID. Their dependents, however, must hold a passport and A-3 visa.
Most foreigners staying longer than 90 days must register with the authorities within 90 days of entry and obtain an Alien Registration Card. Contact your local authorities for further information.
The Korean Immigration Service collects the biometric data (digital photo and fingerprints) of foreign visitors at ports of entry (international airports and seaports). Entry will be denied if any of these procedures is refused. Children under the age of 17 and foreign government and international organization officials and their accompanying immediate family members are exempt from this requirement.
South Korea has many international airports; however, only a few have scheduled services. South Korea has experienced an airport building frenzy over the last decade. Many large towns have dedicated functioning airports that handle only a handful of flights a week.
- Incheon International Airport (ICN IATA), about 1 hour west of Seoul, is the country's largest airport and is served by many international airlines. There are many options for flying there from locations throughout Asia, Europe and North America, and even routes to South America and Africa. It is also frequently rated as the best run and best designed airport in the world. There are direct inter-city buses that travel from just outside the international arrival hall to many locations throughout South Korea. The airport has a metro line (express AREX 43 min and all-stop subway 56 min) that goes directly to both Seoul–Gimpo airport and Seoul Station. (There is an airline check-in facility in Seoul Station.) Also, the KTX high-speed train service connects all over the country within 3 hours.
- Seoul's Gimpo Airport (GMP IATA) offers domestic flights to most South Korean cities, and the international "city shuttle" services from Tokyo–Haneda, Beijing, Shanghai–Hongqiao and Taipei–Songshan are quite convenient. It is more centrally located to Seoul than Incheon. You can connect from Incheon airport either by train or by limousine bus.
- Busan's Gimhae International Airport (PUS IATA) has international connections to Cambodia, China, Guam, Japan, Hong Kong, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Russia, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. Gimhae also has a few flights a day directly from Seoul–Incheon, which is much more convenient than changing to Seoul–Gimpo airport after a long international flight. The airport has a light rail line connecting Gimhae and West Busan.
- Jeju (CJU IATA) has flights from many South Korean cities and international flights to major Taiwanese, Japanese and Chinese cities. The Seoul–Gimpo—Jeju route is the busiest flight corridor in the world and the island is well served from other Korean airports.
- Airports at Daegu, Muan (close to Gwangju and Mokpo), Cheongju (close to Daejeon and Sejong) also have an international flight.
- Yangyang Airport is a very quiet airport in the remote northeast of the country. Korea Express Air operates domestic flights between Busan, Seoul–Gimpo, and Gwangju Airport. There are charter flights to Chinese cities as well. This airport is also the closest airport to the Seoraksan National Park and parts of Northeast Gangwon-do.
Flag carrier Korean Air (대한항공 Daehan Hanggong) and Asiana (아시아나 항공 Asiana Hanggong) are the principal full service carriers from South Korea that fly around the world. Although Korean airlines had long been known for their poor safety record, things have improved dramatically since the 1990s, and they are now just as safe as any Western airline. Low-cost airlines Air Busan, Jin Air, Jeju Air, Eastar Jet and T'way Air offer domestic flights to Jeju and international flights across Asia.
Korail and Japan Rail have an agreement where train trips between the countries can be completed via a ferry journey in the middle. Train travellers coming from or continuing on to Japan can purchase special through tickets giving discounts of 30% on KTX services and 9–30% on Busan–Fukuoka ferries as well as Japanese trains.
Travel to North Korea by train is not an option. There is a train track connecting the Korail network with North Korea and even an active Korail station (albeit with no scheduled trains) on the border. However there is no traffic and it will likely remain more of a political statement than a potential travel option for some time to come.
The services listed here may change frequently, and English language websites may not be updated with the current information. Verify before travelling.
Busan's International Passenger Terminal is the largest seaport in the country and offers ferry rides mostly to and from Japan. The JR Beetle hydrofoil service from Busan to Fukuoka manages the trip in just under three hours with up to five connections a day. It also offers service to nearby Tsushima. All other links are slower overnight ferries, such as Pukwan Ferry Company's services to Shimonoseki. A Busan–Osaka ferry is operated by Panstar Line Co., Ltd..
Incheon's International Ferry Terminal (연안부두 Yeonan Budu) has services to several cities in China, such as Weihai, Dandong, Qingdao and Tianjin. The largest operator is Jinchon, but Incheon Port has full listings on their website. The Chinese ports of Rizhao, Rongcheng and Lianyungang, all in Shandong province, can also be accessed by ferry from Pyeongtaek.
There are also weekly departures from Sokcho (Gangwon-do) to Vladivostok from USD270 operated by Dong Chun Ferry, and from Donghae (Gangwon-do) to Vladivostok from USD205 operated by DBS Cruise Ferry Co.
Due the political and military situation with North Korea, entering South Korea overland is not possible. The border between North and South Korea is considered the most heavily fortified border in the world, and while some unauthorized crossings have occurred at the truce village of Panmunjeom, they have usually resulted in gunfire.
A group of South Korean businessmen used to cross the border daily by bus to work in the joint industrial park in the North Korean city of Kaesong. However, as of 2016, the industrial park is closed, a casualty of inter-Korean tensions.
South Korea is fairly compact and you can get anywhere very fast if you fly, and reasonably fast even if you don't. Subways are available in most of the cities including metropolitan Seoul. Larger cities have service or are developing subways. Travel by bus or taxi is easily available, although bus services are more economical.
Seoul's public transportation smart card is known as T-money (티머니 Ti-meoni) card. This can be used on many local buses and subways throughout the country, as well as some taxis. Fares and transfers up to 30 minutes are calculated automatically; just tap on and tap off when riding on buses and trains. (In some buses in the countryside, you only need to tap on; watch locals to see what they do.) It even gives you a ₩100 discount on bus and subway rides, which is even more reason to use it. The card costs ₩4,000; it can be purchased at convenience stores displaying the T-money logo, as well as at ticket vending machines in subway stations. You can get back your credit in cash afterward, less a ₩500 fee. Some retail shops may also accept payment by T-money. T-money is also usable on the public transportation systems in many other cities, so it is a good option for travelling around South Korea.
Other cities may have their own public transportation smart cards as well such as Busan's Hanaro Card. Unlike T-money, these cards are often not usable outside their respective metropolitan areas, making them somewhat less useful for visitors unless you plan to only stay within that area.
South Korea is a relatively small country with a fast and efficient train service, so flying is not necessary unless you are going to the island of Jeju.
Nevertheless, plenty of airlines fly between the main cities at a cost comparable to the KTX train. Most flights are with Korean Air or Asiana, however many new options exist with budget airlines such as T'way Air, Air Busan, Eastar Jet, Jin Air and Jeju Air (which despite the name also serves the busy Seoul–Gimpo to Busan route). Service is similar between full service and low-cost airlines on domestic flights; low-cost airlines offer free soft drinks and 15 kg of checked luggage.
National train operator Korail (KR) connects major cities in South Korea. A large amount of money has been plowed into the network and trains are now competitive with buses and planes on speed and price, with high safety standards and a good deal of comfort.
South Korea's flagship service is the high speed Korea Train eXpress (KTX) with services from Seoul to Busan, Yeosu, Mokpo, and Masan (with new services opening all the time). The trains use a combination of French TGV technology and Korean technology to travel at speeds in excess of 300 km/h. The fastest non-stop trains travel between Busan and Seoul in just over two hours. There are drink vending machines on board and an attendant that comes by with a snack cart which includes reasonably priced beer, soda, cookies, candy, sausages, hard-boiled eggs, and kimbap (rice rolls).
|KTX First Class||2 to 2.5 hours||₩83,700|
|KTX Standard||2 to 2.5 hours||₩59,800|
|All prices off-peak (Mon-Thu), small surcharges apply for peak (Fri-Sun)|
Non-KTX trains are poetically ranked as Saemaeul (새마을, "New Village"), Mugunghwa (무궁화, "Rose of Sharon", which is the national flower of Korea) and Tonggeun (통근, "commuter"), corresponding roughly to express, semi-express and local services. All Saemaeul and Mugunghwa trains can travel at up to 150 km/h. Saemaeul trains are a little pricier than buses, while Mugunghwa are about 30% cheaper. However, Saemaeul trains are extremely comfortable, having seats that are comparable to business class seats on airplanes. Since the introduction of the KTX, there are much fewer Saemaeul and Mugunghwa services, but they are worth trying out. Tonggeun are cheapest of all, but long-distance, unairconditioned services have been phased out and they're now limited to short regional commuter services. Most longer-distance trains have a cafeteria car with a small cafe/bar, computers with internet access (₩500 for 15 minutes) and a few trains have private compartments with coin-operated karaoke machines!
Saemaeul and some Mugunghwa trains are equipped with power plugs on laptop seats.
Smoking is not permitted on any Korean trains or stations (including open platforms).
Tickets are much cheaper than in Japan but more expensive than other Asian countries — although the damage can be lowered by travelling on local trains rather than KTX. Buying tickets is fairly easy: self-service terminals accepting cash and credit cards are in multiple languages and are very simple to use. Station staff can usually speak basic English. Most stations are clean, modern and have good signposting in Korean and English, and compared to China or Japan, Korea's rail system is very user-friendly.
Pre-booking any train tickets a day prior (be they KTX, Saemaeul, or Mugunghwa) is recommended for weekend trips, as all trains can be booked up for hours on end. On Sunday in particular, all but local trains may regularly be completely booked up. If you don't reserve tickets in advance when departing busy hubs such as Seoul or Busan, you may see your options reduced to "unallocated seating" on the slowest local trains (sitting on the floor in the unairconditioned space between carriages, or standing in the toilet for much of the trip). You are, however, free to sit on any seat that seems free until someone with the ticket to that seat shows up. If you are confident in your Korean, you can ask to reserve seats on sections that are available and travel standing up the rest of the way.
The Korail Pass is a rail pass only for non-resident foreigners staying less than 6 months in Korea, allowing unlimited travel for a set period on any Korail train (including KTX) and including free seat reservation. The pass is not valid for first class or sleeping cars, but you can upgrade for half the price if you wish. The pass must be purchased at least five days before travel (preferably before arrival in Korea). It's not cheap as it needs a substantial amount of travel (e.g. Seoul–Busan round trip) to pay off and severe limitations on usage apply during Korean holidays and peak traveling periods including Lunar New Year and Chuseok. Prices as of May 2015 are for a 1-day pass ₩66,900, 3-day ₩93,100, 5-day ₩139,700, 7-day ₩168,400, and 10-day ₩194,400, with discounts for youth (age 13–25), students and groups.
Joint KR/JR Passes between Korea and Japan also exist, however, considering how much of a discount the JR Pass offers, and how strikingly little the KR Pass does by comparison, it usually makes sense to just get the JR Pass.
Buses (버스 beoseu) remain the main mode of national transport, connecting all cities and towns. They're frequent, punctual and fast, sometimes dangerously so, so fasten the belts you'll often find in the seats.
There is a somewhat pointless division of long-distance buses into express buses (고속버스 gosok beoseu) and intercity buses (시외버스 si-oe beoseu), which often use separate terminals to boot. In addition, local inner-city bus (시내버스 si-nae beoseu) networks often connect directly neighboring cities. The express vs. intercity bus differentiation comes down to whether the bus uses the nation's toll expressways (고속 gosok). In practical terms, express buses are marginally faster on long runs, but intercity buses go to more places. For additional comfort, look for udeung buses (우등 버스) which have just three seats across instead of the usual four; these cost about 50% extra. However, some intercity buses use udeung buses without extra fares on highly competitive lines such as Seoul–Andong routes. A fourth type of bus exists, which is the airport limousine bus, a separate network of express buses that ferry people directly to and from Incheon International Airport. The airport limousines typically use separate pickup points from the intercity or express bus terminals.
No Korean buses have toilets, and rest stops are not standard on trips of less than 2 hours duration, so think twice about that bottle of tea at the terminal.
Unlike trains, the bus terminal staffs and drivers are less likely to speak or understand English.
The Korean Express Bus Lines Association have timetables and fares of the Express bus routes in South Korea on their website.
There is daily service from Busan to Jeju (April 2013). There are mostly undiscovered and scenic islands near Incheon that can seem almost deserted.
An International Driving Permit (IDP) may be used to drive around South Korea. In general, road conditions are good in South Korea, and directional signs are in both Korean and English. Car rental rates start from ₩54,400/day for the smallest car with a week's rental. South Korea drives on the right in left-hand-drive cars. South Korea also follows the American practice of allowing cars to turn right at red lights as long as they (in theory) yield to pedestrians. In contrast, left turns on green lights are illegal unless there is a blue sign pointing left saying 비보호 or a green left arrow.
If you are traveling in the big cities, especially Seoul or Busan, driving is not recommended as the roads often experience heavy traffic jams, and parking is expensive and difficult to find. Many drivers tend to get reckless under such conditions, weaving in and out of traffic. Drivers often try to speed past traffic lights when they are about to turn red, and several cars (including fully-loaded public transit buses) will typically run through lights after they have turned red, whether pedestrians are in the crosswalk or not.
Koreans consider driving rules as guidelines only, and don't expect to be punished for parking illegally or cutting through a red light. This means that if you want to drive you will need to do so assertively by pushing yourself into an intersection and forcing other cars to yield.
A GPS is highly recommended while navigating Seoul or Busan. Lanes end or turn into bus lanes with little to no warning, and it may not always be obvious where turns are allowed. A good rule of thumb is to stay in the middle lane as cars will often illegally park in the right lane while the left lane will become a turning lane with little warning. Because of stringent national security laws that mandate navigation processing be done on local servers, Google Maps does not give driving directions in South Korea. Alternatives are Apple Maps, Bing Maps, crowd-sourced Waze and Korean KakaoNavi.
Taxis are a convenient, if somewhat pricey way of getting around the cities, and are sometimes the only practical way of reaching a place. Even in the major cities, you are extremely unlikely to get an English-speaking taxi driver, so it will be necessary to have the name of your destination written in Korean to show your taxi driver. Likewise, get your hotel's business card to show the taxi driver in case you get lost.
Although doing so is illegal, cab drivers, particularly the cheaper white cabs on busy Friday or Saturday nights, may deny service to short-distance fares. A very handy technique to counter this is to have your destination (hotel name, or the district (구 gu) and neighborhood (동 dong), in Korean of course) written in thick black ink on a large A4 sheet of paper and hold it to the traffic. Passing cab drivers responding to long distance call outs, or with space in their cab in addition to an existing fare in that direction will often pick you up en route.
When hailing a cab in particular, ensure you follow the local custom and wave it over with your hand extended but all your fingers extended downwards and beckoning as opposed to upwards in the Western fashion (this style is reserved for animals).
Asian tourists have long discovered South Korea as a prime shopping, culinary and sightseeing destination. For the western world, it is a relatively new travel destination, but it has gained popularity fast. And for good reason, as South Korea offers a most pleasant combination of ancient Asian features and all the amenities you would expect from a modern, high-tech nation. Despite its compact size it boasts a broad range of fine attractions and an excellent infrastructure makes getting around easy.
- Seoul Most journeys begin in the nation's capital that never sleeps. This ancient place has seen centuries and wars come and go but seems to have come out stronger than ever. Popularly called the "Miracle on the Han River", it's one of the largest metropolitan economies in the world. It's the country's industrial epicentre, the birthplace of K-pop, a hotspot for South-Korean nightlife and fine dining and home to countless museums. The fabulous history and art collection of the National Museum of Korea (국립중앙박물관) reigns supreme and a visit there is a day well spent. The city has been rediscovering its historic treasures and improving city parks, adding to its charm. Downtown Seoul, where the old Joseon Dynasty city was, is where you'll find most of the palaces, Gyeongbokgung (경복궁), Changdeokgung (창덕궁) and Gwanghwamun (광화문). It is surrounded by a Fortress Wall, with the famous Namdaemun, one of the eight gates, being perhaps the main attraction. The Banpo bridge (반포대교) turns into beautiful colours at night, and the Yeouido Island (여의도), apart from the famous 63 Building has splendid parks for rollerblading/biking. Other sights are the Secret Garden (비원), Seodaemun (서대문), or the Seoul Tower (서울타워) accompanied by the famous Teddy Bear Museum. To get away from the buzz, follow the locals to Cheonggyecheon (청계천), one of the urban renewal projects and a popular public recreation space, or enjoy an afternoon tea in a traditional teahouse in Insadong.
- Busan is the country's second city and most significant port. Called the nation's summer capital, Koreans flock to this city's fine beaches, seafood restaurants and festivals. Haeundae beach (해운대) in Busan is the most famous in the country, with an atmosphere is comparable to southern France or California in the summer.
- Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) On July 27th 1953, The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) was established as a cease-fire agreement with a boundary area of 2km between North and South Koreas. Panmunjeom aka Joint Security Area (JSA) is the ‘truce village’ of the DMZ where tourists can view North and South Korea without much hostility. Here you can also enter one of the buildings that are located on the border aka Military Demarcation Line (MDL), which means you can actually cross into the North when entering those buildings. The border is indicated by a line where North and South Korean soldiers face each other coldly. The tour includes the nearby bridge of no return that used to be the main controlled crossing point between the countries. Also, the Third Tunnel of Aggression, created by North Korea (1.7 km long, 2 m high and about 73m below ground), was discovered in 1978. This tunnel is not more than an hour or 44km away from Seoul.
- Bukhansan is just a stone's throw north of Seoul and one of the most visited national parks in the world. Some 836 meters high, Mount Bukhansan is a major landmark visible from large parts of the city and the park is home to the beautiful Bukhansanseong Fortress. The popular hike to get up there is well worth it, as you'll be rewarded with great views of the metropolis. The country has over 20 national parks, mostly mountainous such as Seoraksan National Park, but some also focus on marine and coastal nature. The lush green tea fields of Boseong offer an equally nice and peaceful get-a-way.
- Jeju Island If you don't mind the crowds, this volcanic and semi-tropical island offers a spectacular scenery and numerous natural sights, a relaxing and warm (especially in winter) atmosphere and plenty of activities. Don't miss the Lava tubes, Seongsan Ilchubong, Loveland, and South Korea's highest mountain Hallasan (1,950 m).
- Gochang, Hwasun and Ganghwa Dolmen Sites is a World Heritage and home to a significant part of all the dolmen in the world. Apart from the impressive megalithic stones, it has brought forward a highly important collection of archaeological finds.
- Gyeongju Once the nation's capital, it boasts numerous royal burial and World Heritage cultural sites, as well as relaxing resorts.
- Folk villages If you'd like to see a bit of Korean folklore, Hahoe Folk Village near Andong, Yangdong, the living museum-like Korean Folk Village in Yongin or Hanok Village in Jeonju are among the best.
- Festivals Korea is a country of festivals'. No matter where you go, there's likely something happening close by. Watching or even joining in the bustling celebrations is often a fabulous and colourful experience. The Boryeong Mud Festival (보령머드축제) is a popular pick, when participants drench themselves in mud and take part in everything from mud wrestling to body painting. The nearby beach becomes something of a party apocalypse.
For a definite list of activities refer to individual cities. However, some of the best ones are:
- Hiking With the country being covered in mountains, Korea is a fantastic destination with numerous hiking opportunities. Try Jirisan (지리산), Seoraksan (설악산) or go to South Korea's highest peak, the extinct volcano Hallasan on Jeju island. They offer great views, 1-3 day tracks, English sign posts/maps, huts (most of them heated), and can be organized easily. In autumn the leaves turn into beautiful colours, so the best seasons to go there are autumn and spring.
- Jjimjilbang Koreans love saunas! If you can get past everyone being naked, then this is an excellent way to feel refreshed after a hard day sightseeing. Even small towns will have one. They can also be used to stay overnight — this is especially convenient if you missed to make a reservation for an accommodation, everything is full or you are looking for a cheap accommodation. Weekends are extremely busy with families.
- Hot springs In common with their Japanese and Taiwanese neighbors, Koreans love their hot springs (온천, 溫泉 oncheon), and resorts can be found throughout the country. Etiquette usually require bathers to be nude. Many places also have saunas connected.
- Snowboarding/Skiing The Gangwon province offers ski decent opportunities in winter, which is very beautiful when it snows. See the Seoul guide for close to the city destinations, which you can reach by free public (ski) bus within 90 minutes.
- Eat Perhaps you have had Korean BBQ in your home country. The reality of Korean food is so much more diverse and tasty. Try something new delicious every each day! (Seafood, meat or vegetarian)
- Winter surfing Owing to local tidal conditions, the best surf is in the winter! Pohang and Busan are two places you can try this
- Karaoke/Singing Rooms Noraebang (노래방) is the same as Japanese Karaoke palors, popular and hard to miss wherever you go in metropolitan cities.
- Martial arts Learn martial arts such as the famous Taekwondo (태권도), Hapkido (합기도), and the dance-like martial art Taekkyeon (택견). You can also go and watch a competition or performance — for instance cultural festivals may feature traditional martial arts.
- Temple Stay Spend a few days meditating and learning about Buddhism at a Korean monastery.
- Water amusement parks are plentiful in the Gyeonggi & Gangwon provinces, such as Caribbean Bay in Yongin, Ocean World in Hongcheon, with a more Ancient Egyptian setting, and Ocean 700 in Pyeongchang. Tourists and locals usually go there in the summer.
Baseball was brought to Korea by American missionaries in 1904 and is the most popular sport in the country. Most cities have a team and the biggest are sponsored by the largest South Korean companies, and many South Korean players have become famous MLB players in the United States. The South Korean national baseball team is also regarded as one of the strongest in the world, finishing second at the 2009 World Baseball Classic.
Soccer is becoming more important to South Korea over time, and is a sport shared by North and South. South Korea is one of the strongest teams in Asia and many of their players work for the top European clubs. The sport gained an incredible amount of short term popularity when the South Korean national team reached the World Cup semi-finals in 2002, and even today the country stops for World Cup matches. Unfortunately the enthusiasm for domestic and friendly international games is extremely low, and stadiums are usually mostly empty.
Other popular sports include golf and basketball. Badminton, table tennis and bowling are also popular and facilities for the public are widely available in cities. Korean martial arts such as taekwondo (태권도) are also popular. Golf particularly has a strong following, with membership fees for Korea's top golf clubs being more expensive than those in neighboring Japan or the United States. Many of the world's top female golfers are from Korea or of Korean descent.
As for winter sports, speed skating (especially short track) and figure skating are extremely popular due to the repeated success of South Korea in the Winter Olympics. The city of Pyeongchang hosted the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.
Exchange rates for South Korean won
As of December 2019:
Exchange rates fluctuate. Current rates for these and other currencies are available from XE.com
The currency of South Korea is the South Korean won, denoted by ₩ (ISO code: KRW) and written 원 (won) in the Korean language.
Bills come in denominations of ₩1,000 (blue), ₩5,000 (red), ₩10,000 (green) and ₩50,000 (yellow). The ₩50,000 is very practical if you need to carry around a reasonable amount of cash, however it can be hard to use on goods or services with a value of less than ₩10,000. The ₩50,000 can be hard to find and often only provided by ATM's that display a picture of the yellow note on the outside.
₩100,000 "checks" are frequently used, and some of the checks go up to ₩10,000,000 in value. These checks are privately issued by banks and can be used instead of cash for larger purchases, such as hotel rooms.
Coins mainly come in denominations of ₩10, ₩50, ₩100 and ₩500. Very rare ₩1 and ₩5 coins do exist. Generally speaking it is rare to buy anything valued less than ₩100.
Banking and payment
Credit card acceptance at shops, hotels and other businesses on the other hand is very good, and all but the very cheapest restaurants and motels will accept Visa and MasterCard. Even small purchases such as ₩4,000 for a coffee are okay. This works well since credit cards have good exchange rates, however if you are using a foreign card then you should ensure with your bank that there isn't a fee for this foreign transaction.
ATMs are ubiquitous, although using a foreign card with them is rather hit and miss, except for foreign bank ATMs like Citibank. There are however many special global ATMs which accept foreign cards. They can generally be found at Shinhan/Jeju Bank, airports, in areas frequented by foreigners, in major cities, some subway stations, and in many Family Mart convenience stores — most of the time indicated by the "Foreign Cards" button on the screen. Some banks, such as Citibank, have a fee of ₩3,500 for foreign cards. Before heading to the countryside where foreign cards are less likely to be accepted, be sure to have cash or another source of money.
T-money smart cards are an alternative source of payment accepted widely, especially for public transportation. (See § Smart cards.) Some other cities have their own smart cards, and topping up T-money outside of Seoul can be a problem but at Shinhan/Jeju Bank it should always be possible. You may need to ask the local cashier for help due to the Korean-only menus/buttons.
If you plan on staying in South Korea for a longer time, you'll probably want to set up a bank account at a Korean bank such as Woori Bank, which can then be used at the bank's ATMs throughout the country. (Even some non-local accounts can do this, e.g. Woori Bank accounts setup in China come with an ATM card that can be used with all its ATMs in South Korea.) Many banks will even allow you to open an account on a tourist visa, though the services you will be able to access will often be very limited. Some of the larger banks may have English-speaking staff on hand at their major branches.
South Korea is fairly expensive compared to most Asian countries, but is a little cheaper compared to other modern developed countries such as Japan and most Western countries. A frugal backpacker who enjoys eating, living and travelling Korean-style can easily squeeze by on under ₩60,000/day, but if you want top-class hotels and Western food even ₩200,000/day will not suffice. Seoul is more expensive than the rest of the country, and has become particularly expensive competing in many ways with Tokyo, but this has eased since the financial crisis.
Tipping is not expected anywhere in South Korea and is not practiced by Koreans. It could be considered an insult between Koreans as it is regarded as giving someone charity, although people generally know of American tipping culture and would be understanding of a foreigner doing this.
Many hotels and a few tourist restaurants add 10% service charge on their bills. Bellhops, hotel maids, taxi drivers and bars frequented by Westerners will not reject any tips that you care to hand out.
Restaurants sometimes provide complimentary food or drinks to customers as a sign of generosity or to reward customer loyalty. Colloquially, this is known as "service".
At certain retail outlets with a "Tax Free Shopping" or a "Tax Refund Shopping" sign, you can obtain a voucher and get a large percentage of your taxes refunded. When you leave South Korea, go to customs and have it stamped then go to the "Global Refund Korea" or "Korea Tax Refund" counters near the duty-free shops. However to get a refund you must leave within 3 months of purchase.
Bargaining is common at outdoor markets and applies to everything they may have to offer. However, do not state a specific monetary amount. Instead, say "ssage juseyo" (싸게 주세요, "Cheaper, please."). Doing this once or twice will suffice. However, you will rarely be discounted more than a few dollars.
Korea is the ginseng (인삼 insam) capital of the world. Widely considered to have medicinal properties, it can be found in special mountain areas throughout Korea. A thick black paste made from ginseng is popular, as is ginseng tea and various other products. There are many grades of ginseng, with the best grades potentially fetching millions of US dollars at auctions. A good place to check out the different types of ginseng would be Gyeongdong Herbal Medicine Market in Seoul.
Visitors looking for traditional items to bring home can find a wide variety of choices. You can find a blue-jade celadon from the Goryeo Dynasty, handmade traditional costumes, paper kites and ceramic pieces that depict human emotions in their designs at the numerous markets and souvenir shops. Insadong in Seoul would be the first place to shop around. After a while one store might start to look like every other store but chances are you'll find what you need.
Keeping up with the latest fashion trends, shoppers and boutique owners alike flock the streets and markets every weekend. Centered largely in Seoul with popular places such as Dongdaemun, Mok dong Rodeo Street and Myeong dong, fashion centers can be divided into two large categories; markets and department stores. Markets are affordable and each shop will have trendy similar type clothing that appeal to the masses. Also, be aware that you cannot try on most tops. So better to know your size before shopping there. Though department stores will have areas or floors that have discounted items, they are considered overpriced and catering mostly to an older, wealthier crowd.
The traditional Korean garment known as the hanbok (한복), which is still worn by South Koreans for special occasions and historical re-enactments, and can be found in various garment markets. While a traditional hanbok requires visiting a specialist shop and customized fittings, making it rather expensive, more casual versions that are more practical for daily use and significantly cheaper can also be found. When wearing a hanbok, it should always be wrapped left over right. While foreigners wearing a hanbok is generally not a problem in South Korea itself, American visitors should be careful about doing so back in the United States unless you are of Korean ethnicity, as some Korean-Americans consider this to be "cultural appropriation" and hence racist.
For all things considered antique, such as furniture, calligraphic works, ceramics and books, you can go to Jangangpyeong Antique Market in Seoul. Items over 50 years old cannot leave the country. Check with the Art and Antique Assessment Office at +82-32-740-2921.
Electronics are widely available, especially in larger cities like Seoul and Busan. South Korea has most of the latest gadgets available in most Western countries and some that are not. In fact, when it comes to consumer technology, South Korea is probably second only to Japan. However, you would probably have to contend with having the instruction booklets and functions being written in Korean.
K-pop is a large element of the Korean Wave (hallyu) phenomenon that took East Asia by storm at the beginning of the 21st century, so you might want to buy the latest Korean music CDs by popular K-pop singers and groups — and discover some of the less known. Most music is now consumed as digital downloads, but there are still some music shops selling CD's to be found. And if you want to see them live, there is of course no better place for that than South Korea.
K-dramas are massively popular in Asia and a boxed DVD set of a drama will certainly last you many rainy afternoons. Drama serials and movies sold in South Korea are for the Korean market and usually do not have subtitles, so check before buying; outside of Korea, you could likely buy the same media dubbed in another Asian language such as Cantonese or Mandarin. In addition, South Korea is in DVD region 3, so discs bought here will work in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, but are generally not playable in most players in North America, Europe, mainland China, Japan or Australia. CDs and DVDs are not particularly popular anymore in South Korea, the younger generation having moved onto digital downloads some time ago.
- See also: Korean cuisine
Korean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular outside of Korea, especially in other parts of East Asia and the U.S. It can be an acquired taste, with lots of spicy and fermented dishes, but it's addictive once you get used to it and Korean food is definitely in a class of its own, mixing spicy chilies and copious amounts of garlic with delicate ingredients like raw fish. Although Korean food is quite low in fat, a fact attested to by the observation that very few South Koreans are overweight, those with sodium-limited diets should beware, as Korean cuisine can be heavy in salt.
A Korean meal is centered around rice and soup and likely a fish or meat dish, invariably served with a vast assortment of small side dishes known as banchan (반찬). The humblest meal comes with three types while a royal banquet may well feature twenty types of banchan. In addition to kimchi, typical side dishes include bean sprouts (콩나물 kongnamul), spinach (시금치 shigeumchi), and small dried fish.
The ubiquitous kimchi (김치 gimchi), made from fermented cabbage and chili, accompanies nearly every meal and ranges from mild to roaringly spicy. In addition to the common cabbage type, kimchi can also be made from white radish (깍두기 ggakdugi), cucumbers (오이 소박이 oi-sobagi), chives (부추 김치 buchu gimchi) or pretty much any vegetable that can be pickled. Many different dishes are made using kimchi for flavoring, and kimchi is served as a side dish as well. It is not uncommon to find Korean tourists carrying a stash of tightly packed kimchi when travelling abroad.
Two more condiments found in almost every dish are doenjang (된장), a fermented soybean paste akin to Japanese miso, and gochujang (고추장), a spicy chili paste.
While many of these dishes can be found throughout Korea, every city also has its own regional specialties, such as dakgalbi (닭갈비) in the city of Chuncheon.
A common perception among Koreans is that foreigners don't like spicy food, so you might have to spend some time convincing people otherwise if you really want to eat something hot. And while Korean food undoubtedly has the neighboring bland-dieted Japanese and northern Chinese breathing fire, if you're accustomed to, say, Thai or Mexican food, you may wonder what the fuss is about.
Foreign food restaurants are also popular, albeit usually with a Korean twist. Fried chicken has been adopted and many believe it better than the American original. Pizzas are also ubiquitous although you may wonder quite where the inspirations behind the toppings came from. Vietnamese and Mexican food appeals to Koreans as well. Japanese restaurants of all varieties are very common. Strangely enough, authentic Chinese food is somewhat hard to come by, and Koreans often think of Korean Chinese dishes such as jajangmyeon (자장면, noodles topped with a thick brown sauce, distantly related to a northern Chinese dish) with tangsuyuk (탕수육, sweet and sour pork) as Chinese dining.
Korean utensils (수저 sujeo) consist of a spoon (숟가락 sutgarak) and chopsticks (젓가락 jeotgarak). Unique in Asia, Koreans use chopsticks made of metal, which don't burn when used over a hot grill and are easier to wash and reuse. Restaurants typically provide stainless steel chopsticks, which unfortunately for the chopstick learner, are very difficult to use! These thin and slippery sticks are not as easy as the wooden or plastic chopsticks but you'll still manage with some fumbling.
Spoons are used to eat rice, soup, and porridge. (Koreans find it strange that their Asian neighbors eat rice with chopsticks.) Dongaseu (돈가스, Japanese-style tonkatsu or fried pork cutlet) is eaten with a fork and knife. Many Korean restaurants may also offer Western cutlery to a Westerner.
When eating as a group, communal dishes will be placed in the center and everybody can chopstick what they want, but you'll still get individual portions of rice and soup. Unless you are eating royal cuisine, most dishes are served family style.
In many traditional households, children were taught that it is impolite to speak during meals. Don't be surprised if there's complete silence while eating. People, particularly men, will use mealtimes to quickly eat up and move on to other things. This can be attributed to the short mealtimes during military service that most young Korean men must perform.
Some etiquette pointers:
- Do not leave chopsticks sticking upright in a dish, especially rice. This is only done when honoring the deceased. Similarly, a spoon sticking upright into a bowl of rice is also not a good sign.
- Do not pick up your chopsticks or start eating until the eldest at the table has begun to eat.
- Do not lift any plates or bowls off the table while eating, as Koreans consider this to be rude.
- Do not make noises by hitting your utensils on the food bowls and plates.
Going hungry in South Korea would be difficult. Everywhere you turn, there is always somewhere to eat. Korean restaurants can be divided into a few categories:
- Bunsik (분식) are snack eateries that have cheap, tasty food prepared quickly.
- Kogijip (고기집), literally meaning "meat house", are where you'll find grilled meat dishes and fixings.
- Hoejip (회집), "raw fish house", serve slices of fresh fish akin to Japanese sashimi, known as hwe in Korean, and free side dishes. You'll normally find these restaurants cluttering the shores of any waterway.
- Hansik (한식) serve the full-course Korean meal (한정식, hanjeongsik), a Korean haute cuisine that originated with banquets given at the royal palace. Traditionally served all at once, restaurants today will serve courses separately. The meal starts with a cold appetizer and juk (죽, porridge). The main dish includes seasoned meat and vegetable dishes that can be either steamed, boiled, fried or grilled. After the meal, you are served traditional drinks such as sikhye or sujeonggwa.
- Department stores have two types of food areas: a food hall in the basement and full service restaurants on the top levels. The food hall areas have take-away as well as eat-in areas. The full service restaurants are more expensive, but typically have the advantage of picture menus and good ambience.
Korean barbecue is probably the most popular Korean dish for Westerners. In Korea, it's split into bulgogi (불고기, thin cuts of marinated meat), galbi (갈비, ribs, usually unmarinated), and a few other categories. In these, a charcoal brazier is placed in the middle of the table, and you cook your choice of meats, adding garlic to the brazier for spice. A popular way of eating it is to wrap the meat with a lettuce or perilla leaf, adding shredded green onion salad (파무침 pa-muchim), raw or cooked garlic, shredded pickled radish (무채 muchae) and ssamjang (쌈장, a sauce made from doenjang, gochujang, and other flavorings) to your liking.
The cost of a barbecue meal depends largely on the meat chosen. In most Korean restaurants that serve meat, it is sold in units (usually 100 grams). Pork is by far the most common meat ordered; it's much cheaper than beef and according to diners tastier. You'll rarely see filet mignon; instead, common cuts of meat include ribs, unsalted pork bacon (삼겹살 samgyeopsal) and chicken stir-fried with veggies and spicy sauce (닭갈비 dak-galbi). Unmarinated meats tend to be higher quality, but in cheaper joints it's best to stick with the marinated stuff.
Bibimbap (비빔밥) literally means "mixed rice", which is a pretty good description. It consists of a bowl of rice topped with vegetables and usually shreds of meat and an egg, which you mix up with your spoon, stirring in your preferred quantity of gochujang, and then devour. Particularly tasty is dolsot bibimbap (돌솥비빔밥), served in a piping hot stone bowl (watch your fingers!) that cooks the rice to a crisp on the bottom and edges.
Another healthy and tasty option is gimbap (김밥), sometimes dubbed "Korean sushi". Gimbap contains rice, sesame seed, a Korean variety of spinach, pickled radish, and an optional meat such as minced beef or tuna, all neatly wrapped in dried seaweed, topped with sesame oil and sliced. A single roll makes a good snack or a whole meal depending on your appetite, and they travel well. What differentiates Korean gimbap and Japanese sushi is how they prepare rice: gimbap usually uses salt and sesame oil to flavor the rice, while sushi uses sugar and vinegar.
More of a snack than a meal is tteokbokki (떡볶이), which resembles a pile of steaming intestines at first sight, but is actually rice cakes (떡, tteok) in a sweet chili sauce that's much milder than it looks.
Soups and stews
Soups are known as guk (국) or tang (탕), while jjigae (찌개) covers a wide variety of stews. The line is fuzzy, and a few dishes can be referred to with both (e.g. the fish soup-stew dongtae jjigae/dongtaetang), but in general, jjigae are spicier and thicker while guk/tang are milder. Both are always eaten with plenty of white rice on the side.
Common versions of jjigae include doenjang jjigae (된장찌개), made with doenjang, vegetables and shellfish, and gimchi jjigae (김치찌개), made with — you guessed it — kimchi. Sundubu jjigae (순두부찌개) uses soft tofu as the main ingredient, usually with minced pork added, but there's also a seafood version called haemul sundubu jjigae (해물 순두부찌개) where the meat is replaced by shrimp, squid and the like.
Budae jjigae (부대찌개) is an interesting type of Korean fusion food from the city of Uijeongbu, where a US military base was located. Locals experimenting with American canned food like Spam, sausages, and pork and beans tried adding them into jjigae, and while recipes vary, most of them involve large quantities of fiery kimchi. Most places will bring you a big pan of stew and put it on a gas stove in the middle of the table. Many like to put ramyeon noodles (라면 사리) in the stew, which is optional.
Popular tang soups include seolleongtang (설렁탕), a milky white broth from ox bones and meat, gamjatang (감자탕), a stew of potatoes with pork spine and chilies, and doganitang (도가니탕), made from cow knees. One soup worth a special mention is samgyetang (삼계탕), which is a whole spring chicken stuffed with ginseng and rice. Thanks to the ginseng, it's often a little expensive, but the taste is quite mild. It's commonly eaten right before the hottest part of summer in warm broth in a sort of "eat the heat to beat the heat" tradition.
Guk are mostly side dishes like the seaweed soup miyeokguk (미역국) and the dumpling soup manduguk (만두국), but a few like the scary-looking pork spine and ox blood soup haejangguk (해장국), a popular hangover remedy, are substantial enough to be a meal.
Koreans love noodles, and the terms kuksu (국수) and myeon (면) span a vast variety of types available. They're often sold in fast-food noodle shops for as little as ₩3000. Wheat-based noodles are a staple of Korea.
Naengmyeon (냉면) are a Korean specialty, originally from the north. The thin, chewy buckwheat noodles served in ice-cold beef broth are a popular summer dish — although it's traditionally a winter food! They're also a classic way to end a heavy, meaty barbecue meal. The key to the dish is the broth (육수 yuksu); the recipes of well known restaurants are usually closely guarded secrets. Generally comes in two distinct styles: Pyongyang naengmyeon and Hamhung naengmyeon.
Japchae (잡채) are yam noodles, which are fried along with some vegetables (commonly cabbage, carrots, onions) and sometimes beef or odeng (fishcake). Mandu (만두) dumplings are also very popular and are served up in steamed or fried as an accompaniment to other foods, or boiled in soup to make a whole meal.
Ramyeon (라면) is Korea's variant of ramen, often served with — what else? — kimchi. Korean ramyeon is well known for its overall spiciness, at least when compared to Japanese ramen. The Shin Ramyun brand of instant noodles are exported to over 100 countries.
Jajangmyeon (자장면) is considered to be Chinese food by Koreans, being somewhat related to northern Chinese zhájiàngmiàn, a wheat noodle dish served with a black sauce that usually includes minced pork, onions, cucumber, and garlic. It's typically served at (what are liberally described as) Chinese restaurants. Its sauce contains some caramel and therefore makes the overall dish sweet. A popular combination is jajangmyeon with "Chinese" sweet and sour pork and chicken.
Finally, udong (우동) are thick wheat noodles, akin to Japanese udon.
Since Korea is a peninsula, you can find every type of seafood (해물 haemul), eaten both cooked and raw. Restaurants where you pick your own fish — or bring it from the fish market next door — are popular, but can be very expensive depending on what you order.
Hoe (회, pronounced roughly "hweh") is raw fish Korean-style (similar to sashimi), served with spicy cho-gochujang sauce (a mixture of gochujang and vinegar). Chobap (초밥) is raw fish with vinegared rice, similar to Japanese sushi. In both dishes, the bony parts not served raw are often made into a tasty but spicy soup called meuntang (매운탕).
Another cooked specialty is haemultang (해물탕), a spicy red hotpot stew filled crab, shrimp, fish, squid, vegetables and noodles.
Whale meat is available in a few restaurants in the cities and at festivals in smaller coastal towns, but is not easy to find and unlike Japan is not considered part of national culture. The city of Pohang has a long history of whaling, and its seafood market still openly offers whale. South Korea has outlawed whaling following the International Whaling Commission international moratorium in 1986, although makes an exception for whales caught by accident during regular fishing. Whale meat sourced from Japan has been sold in some restaurants, which is illegal (although the law is usually ignored). Whale restaurants are easy to identify, with pictures of whales on the outside leaving you in no doubt. If you choose to eat whale then you should understand that the species in question could be endangered and therefore a decision left to your own moral compass.
Jeon (전), jijimi (지짐이), jijim (지짐), bindaetteok (빈대떡) and buchimgae (부침개) are all general terms for Korean-style pan-fried pancakes, which can be made of virtually anything. Pajeon (파전) is a Korean-style pan-fried pancake laden with spring onions (파 pa). Haemul pajeon (해물파전), which has seafood added, is particularly popular. Saengseonjeon (생선전) is made of small fillets of fish covered with egg and flour and then pan fried, and nokdu bindaetteok (녹두빈대떡) is made from ground mung bean and various vegetables and meat combined.
If barbecued meat is not to your taste, then try Korean-style beef tartar, known as yukhoe (육회). Raw beef is finely shredded and then some sesame oil, sesame, pine nuts and egg yolk are added, plus soy and sometimes gochujang to taste. It's also occasionally prepared with raw tuna or even chicken instead.
Sundae (순대, pron. "soon-deh") are Korean blood sausages made from a wide variety of ingredients, often including barley, potato noodles and pig blood. Sundae is very tasty in spicy sauce or soup.
A squirmy delicacy is raw octopus (산낙지 sannakji) — it's sliced to order, but keeps wiggling for another half hour as you try to remove its suction cups from your plate with your chopsticks. Sea squirts (멍게 meongge) are at least usually killed before eating, but you might be hard-pressed to tell the difference as the taste has been memorably described as "rubber dipped in ammonia".
Hound by the pound
Yes, it's true — Koreans eat dog. Although it is technically illegal in South Korea to sell dog meat for human consumption, in practice the ban is rarely enforced, and dog meat soup (보신탕 bosintang or 영양탕 yeongyangtang) is often eaten for invigoration during the hottest days of summer. It is not regularly consumed as a common food item and is generally only sold in specialty dog restaurants, so you're unlikely to end up chewing on Snoopy by accident. It is most commonly consumed as a spicy soup or stew or as suyuk (수육), which is just meat boiled with spices to eliminate smell and make the meat tender.
Due to the lack of legal recognition, the industry is completely unregulated, resulting in many issues around how the dogs are raised, butchered, and processed. Although dogs are generally no longer beaten to death to improve the taste, the conditions in which dogs are raised and butchered are often still inhumane. This is one intrinsic aspect of South Korean culture that South Koreans generally believe foreigners cannot hope to understand, and will rarely want to discuss with you.
South Koreans are aware of Western attitudes towards dogs and will not try to make you eat any, although you'd probably gain a lot of respect from your Korean friends if you give it a try. If you are interested, it is best to ask your Korean friends to take you to such a restaurant since they rarely advertise. If you do make the effort, a bowl can go for under ₩10,000 and you'll find that dog tastes broadly like beef or veal, if perhaps a tad gamier.
Most South Koreans do not eat dog meat regularly and these days more of them are considering dogs to be pets rather than food, with a growing number supportive of enforcing the ban on dog meat more strongly.
Vegetarians will have a hard time in Korea. As in most of East Asia, "meat" is understood to be the flesh of land animals, so seafood is not considered meat. Spam can also be confused as not being meat, so be specific in explaining what you do not eat. If you ask for "no gogi (고기)" they will probably just cook as usual and pick out the big chunks of meat. One good phrase is to say you are "chaesikjuwija" (채식주의자), a person who only eats vegetables. This may prompt questions from the server, so be prepared! It is probably best to have a very explicit list of foods you do and do not eat in Korean on a card or piece of paper to show restaurant servers and cooks. (See Korean phrasebook § Eating.) Or look for namul (나물), a variety of Korean-style edible grass and leaves dishes.
Most stews will use fish stock, especially myeolchi (멸치, anchovy). This will be your bane, and outside of reputable vegetarian restaurants, you should ask if you are ordering any stews, hotpots, or casseroles.
Spicy (red) kimchi will almost certainly have seafood, such as salted tiny shrimp, as an ingredient. Since it disappears into the brine, you will not be able to visually identify it. Another type of kimchi called mulgimchi (물김치, "water kimchi") is vegan, as it is simply salted in a clear, white broth with many different vegetables. If you are willing to eat something flavored with brine shrimp, then kimchi will certainly take you a long way in Korea.
As per Korea's Buddhist tradition, vegans and vegetarians are perfectly safe at Korean monastery cuisine restaurants, which uses no dairy, egg, or animal products, except perhaps honey. This cuisine has been in vogue, but it can be rather expensive.
There is an increasing number of vegetarian restaurants in Korea — most are in the larger or medium-sized places. Some of these are run by Seventh-Day Adventists or Hindus.
When out and about, the following vegetarian and vegan food is relatively easy to find and safe to order:
- Many of the banchan side dishes served with most meals are vegetarian, although the kimchi usually is not.
- Bibimbap (비빔밥) is a great vegan option of mixed rice and vegetables and found pretty much everywhere! Still, be careful because it is occasionally offered with ground beef, and often with a fried egg.
- Somandu (소만두) are Korean dumplings with vegetable and glass noodle filling. Stay clear of almost any other kind of dumpling.
- Japchae (잡채) are cold noodles in a vegetable broth, often with ice. Delicious in summer.
- Gimbap (김밥) are Korean sushi rolls with rice and pickled vegetables, and can be found everywhere. There are many varieties, but you should look for the ones without Spam or fishcake in the middle.
Drinkers rejoice — booze is cheap and Koreans are among the heaviest drinkers in the world. Due to the strict social norms in effect at the workplace, the drinking hall tends to be the only place where inhibitions can be released and personal relationships expressed. Significant business deals are closed not in the boardroom, but in the bar. Promotions, grants, and other business advancements are secured over drinks at singing rooms, late night raw fish restaurants, and restaurant-bars. Many Korean men are what would be considered heavy drinkers in the west, and as alcoholism is being recognized as an ailment, public moves have begun to attempt to curb alcohol intake. Don't be surprised to see businessmen in suits lying around sleeping it off, and be careful not to step in the puddles of vomit common on the sidewalks in the mornings.
The drinking age in South Korea is 19.
Compared to Western drinking habits, Koreans have adopted slightly different ways to enjoy their night out. Sure, you can find Western style bars easily, but going to a Korean style bar can be an interesting experience. Hofs (호프 hopeu, from German Hof, "yard" or "house") are just normal beer places, which serve beer and side dishes. Customers are supposed to order some side dish to go along their drinks at most drinking establishments in Korea. Due to growing competition, many hofs have started to install various gadgets for entertainment.
Booking clubs are the Korean version of night clubs. What makes them interesting is the "booking" part of the name. It's basically a way to meet new people of the opposite sex by introduction of the waiters (who usually bring women to visit tables of men, but increasingly vice-versa). Booking clubs are slightly more expensive than normal bars and hofs, but can be extremely fun. These can be different from American-style clubs, in that in addition to a cover charge, you are pretty much expected to order booze and side dishes (which can be quite pricey in ₩200,000-₩500,000 range and up). But other than that, the dancing and atmosphere is about the same.
One of the customary things to do at a booking club is to "dress-up" your table or booth by purchasing expensive liquors and fruit plates, which signals your "status" to the other patrons of the club (especially your gender of interest). Scotch whisky is especially marked up a great deal in Korea, so don't be surprised to pay very high prices for that innocuous bottle of Johnnie Walker. On the other hand, it is a better value overall to buy a bottle of liquor or a "liquor set" than to purchase drinks individually.
On the other end of the spectrum, many locals go out to drink and eat with their friends at the many Korean grillhouses found throughout the city. It is not uncommon for people to consume several bottles of soju each, and mixing beer and hard liquor is encouraged. Group bonding over liquor and food is a cultural feature across South Korea.
For those who love singing as well as drinking, karaoke is popular and therefore widely available in South Korea, where it's called noraebang (노래방). In addition to Korean songs, larger establishments may include some Chinese, Japanese and English songs.
There are a few etiquette rules to observe when drinking with Koreans. You're not supposed to fill your own glass; instead, keep an eye on others' glasses, fill them up when they become empty (but not before), and they'll return the favor. It's considered polite to use both hands when pouring for somebody and when receiving a drink, and to turn your head away from seniors when drinking.
Younger people often have a difficult time refusing a drink from an older person, so be aware when asking someone younger than you if they want to drink more as they will often feel unable to say no to you. Of course, this works both ways. Oftentimes, if an older person feels you are not keeping up with the party, he may offer you his glass, which he will then fill and expect you to drink. It is considered polite to promptly return the empty glass and refill it.
The national drink of South Korea is soju (소주), a vodka-like alcoholic beverage (usually around 20% alcohol by volume). It's cheaper than any other drink — a 350 mL bottle can cost slightly over ₩3,000 at bars (as little as ₩1,100 at convenience stores!) — and also strong. It's usually made by fermenting starch from rice, barley, corn, potato, sweet potato, etc., to produce pure alcohol which is then diluted with water and other flavors. The manufacturing process leaves in a lot of extraneous chemicals, so be prepared for a four-alarm hangover in the morning, even after drinking a comparatively small amount.
Traditionally, soju was made by distilling rice wine and aging it, which created a smooth spirit of about 40%. This type of traditional soju can still be found, for example Andong Soju (안동 소주) — named after the town of Andong — and munbaeju (문배주). These can be expensive, but prices (and quality) vary considerably.
Historically, there were numerous brewers throughout the country until late Chosun dynasty and before Japanese colonization. However, by the Japanese colonization and the oppressive and economy-obsessed government in the 1960-'70s, using rice for making wine or spirits was strictly prohibited. This eliminated most of the traditional brewers in the country, and Korea was left with a few large distilleries (Jinro 진로, Gyeongwol 경월, Bohae 보해, Bobae 보배, Sunyang 선양, etc.) that basically made "chemical soju". Brewery distribution and markets were regionalized, and until the 1990s it was difficult to find a Jinro soju anywhere else than Seoul (you would have to pay premium even if you found one), Gyeongwol soju outside Gangwon, or Sunyang outside Chungcheong.
Also, there are soju cocktails such as "socol" (soju + Coke), ppyong-gari (soju + Pocari Sweat, a Japanese isotonic drink like flavorless Gatorade), so-maek (soju + beer), etc., all aimed at getting you drunk quicker and cheaper.
Traditional unfiltered rice wines in Korea are known as takju (탁주), literally "cloudy alcohol". In the most basic and traditional form, these are made by fermenting rice with nuruk (누룩), a mix of fungi and yeast that breaks down starch in rice into sugar and then alcohol over 3–5 days. Then this is strained, usually diluted to 4–6% and imbibed. However, as with the case of traditional soju, unless explicitly stated on the bottle most takju are made from wheat flour and other cheaper grains. Makgeolli (막걸리) is the simplest takju, fermented once and then strained, while in dongdongju (동동주) more rice is added once or more during the fermentation to boost the alcohol content and the flavor. Typically you can find a couple of rice grains floating in dongdongju as a result.
Cheongju vs. sake
There are two major differences between Korean and Japanese rice wine. The first is that Korean wine uses nuruk, while Japanese wine uses koji. While both can be considered yeasts, nuruk contains various kinds of fungi and other microorganisms, while in koji a more selected breed of fungi does its job. The treatment of rice is also different: traditionally rice for making cheongju is washed "a hundred times" (백세 paekse), but for sake, the rice is polished until the grain size is as little as 50% of its original size. Therefore, some people comment that in general cheongju tastes more complex and earthy, while sake tastes cleaner and sweeter.
Yakju (약주) or cheongju (청주) is filtered rice wine, similar to the Japanese rice wine sake. The fermentation of rice is sustained for about 2 weeks or longer, strained, and then is kept still to have the suspended particles settle out. The end result is the clear wine on top, with about 12–15% alcohol. Various recipes exist, which involve a variety of ingredients and when and how to add them accordingly. Popular brands include Baekseju (백세주) and Dugyeonju (두견주).
Those with an interest in the wine production process and its history will want to visit the Traditional Korean Wine Museum in Jeonju.
One expensive but tasty type of alcohol you can find in Korea is Korean ginseng wine (인삼주 insamju), which is believed to have medicinal properties and is particularly popular among the elderly. It is made by fermenting Korean ginseng, just as the name implies.
Western-style lagers are also quite popular in Korea, with the three big brands being Cass, Hite (pronounced like "height") and OB, all of which are rather light and watery and cost around ₩1,500 per bottle at a supermarket. Hofs serve pints of beer in the ₩2,000-5,000 range, although imported beers can be much more expensive. You are expected to order food as well, and may even get served grilled squid or similar Korean pub grub without ordering, for a charge of ₩10,000 or so.
Like their Asian neighbors, Koreans drink a lot of tea (차 cha), most of it green tea (녹차 nokcha). However, the label cha is applied to a number of other tealike drinks as well:
- boricha (보리차), roasted barley tea, often served cold in summer, water substitute for many household
- insamcha (인삼차), ginseng tea
- oksusucha (옥수수차), roasted corn tea
- yulmucha (율무차), a thick white drink made from a barley-like plant called Job's tears
Like Chinese and Japanese teas, Korean teas are always drunk neat, without the addition of milk or sugar. However, Western-style milk tea is available at Western restaurants and the usual American fast-food chains.
Coffee (커피 keopi) has become widely available, especially from streetside vending machines that will pour you a cupful for as little as ₩300, usually sweet and milky, but there is often a plain option.
Coffee shops can be seen virtually everywhere in the country. There are a large number of Korean chains such as Cafe Bene and Angel in Us. A coffee costs around ₩4,000. It is worth to hunt out independent coffee shops that take great pride in their coffee. Even in small countryside villages, the ubiquitous bread shop Paris Baguette will give you a decent latte for around ₩2,000. Foreign-owned coffee shops such as Starbucks tend to be much less common than their Korean counterparts. Aside from coffee, these cafes will usually sell food such as sandwiches, toasties, paninis and quesadillas as well as sweet options such as bingsu (Korean shaved ice), Korean-style toast, pastries and a wide variety of cakes, some even vegan.
Some other traditional drinks worth keeping an eye out for:
- Sikhye (식혜), a very sweet, grainy rice drink served cold
- Sujeonggwa (수정과), a sweet, cinnamon-y drink made from persimmons served cold
There's plenty of accommodation in all price brackets in South Korea. Prices in Seoul are typically about twice that of anywhere else in the country.
Some higher-end hotels offer a choice of Western-style and Korean-style rooms. The main feature of Korean rooms is an elaborate floor-heating system known as ondol (온돌), where hot steam (or, these days, water or electricity) heats stone slabs under a layer of clay and oiled paper. There are no beds; instead, mattresses are laid directly on the floor. Other furniture is typically limited to some low tables (you're also expected to sit on the floor) and maybe a TV.
Some of the cheapest accommodation in South Korea are in what are called motels (모텔 motel) or yeogwan (여관), but a more accurate name would be sex hotels. Since Koreans often live with parents and extended family, motels are generally very cheap hotels targeted at young couples aiming to spend personal time together, complete with plastic beds, occasionally vibrating, with strategically placed mirrors on the ceiling, as well as a VCR and a variety of appropriate videos. However for the budget traveller, they can simply be inexpensive lodging, with rates as low as ₩25,000/night.
The easiest way to find a motel is to just look for the symbol "♨" and gaudy architecture, particularly near stations or highway exits. They're harder to find online, as they rarely if ever show up in English-language booking sites.
In some motels picking your room is very easy, as there will be room numbers, lit pictures and prices on the wall. The lower price is for a "rest" (휴식 hyusik) of 2–4 hours, while the higher price is the overnight rate. Press the button for the one you like, which will go dark, and proceed to check-in. You'll usually be expected to pay in advance, often to just a pair of hands behind a frosted glass window. English is rarely spoken, but the only word you need to know is sukbak (숙박, "staying"). You may or may not receive a key, but even if you don't, the staff can usually let you in and out on request — just don't lose your receipt!
Full-service hotels can be found in all larger towns in Korea. Cheaper hotels blend into motels with rooms from ₩40,000, while three and four star hotels are ₩100,000-200,000 and five-star luxury hotels can easily top ₩300,000. Outside peak season you can often get steep discounts from the rack rates, so be sure to ask when reserving.
Hanok (한옥) are traditional Korean houses. Once considered to be old-fashioned and an impediment to modernization, many of these houses dating back to the Joseon dynasty are being renovated and opened to paying guests, operating similar to B&Bs or Japanese ryokan or minshuku. Amenities range from very basic backpacker-style to over-the-top luxury, with prices to match. Higher-end establishments typically provide the option of having a traditional Korean dinner, as well as a choice of either Western or traditional Korean-style breakfast. Guests would usually sleep on mattresses on the floor. Hanok accommodations can typically be found in old towns such as Bukchon in Seoul, as well as historical towns and cities such as Hahoe and Gyeongju.
Hostels and guesthouses
While not as common in South Korea as in other parts of Asia or the world, hostels and guesthouses can be found. Major cities, such as Seoul, will have a few dozen, while smaller cities may have a handful. Prices can vary widely, even within one hostel. In Seoul, mixed dorms average ₩15,000-25,000 per person; private rooms with a shared toilet and shower average ₩20,000-30,000 per person; and private ensuite rooms average ₩25,000-40,000 per person. Many hostels will have a common room with free TV, games, computers, and internet; some will have a public full kitchen and other amenities.
In rural areas in and near national parks, you can find a minbak (민박). Most of these are just a room or two in someone's home — others are quite fancy and may be similar to motels/yeogwan or hotels. Generally, they have ondol rooms with maybe a TV and that's about it. You don't usually get your own bathroom in your room, although some of the fancier ones do have an en suite. Minbak usually run around ₩20,000 off-season, though the price may go up quite a bit during high season.
Very similar in concept to a minbak, these aren't limited to just rural areas or near national parks. Since the World Cup in 2002, many families around the country have opened their doors and hearts to foreigners looking for a good place to sleep and a breakfast included in the price. These can run between ₩30,000 and ₩35,000 per night.
A fancier and costly version of rural minbak. Most of them are European-style detached bungalows, equipped with private shower/bath, TV, air conditioner, private kitchen and camping grills. Pensions usually run around ₩60,000-150,000 off-season and over ₩200,000 peak season depending on the size of the house. Pensions near Seoul (Gyeonggi, Incheon) usually costs twice or more the price.
For the budget traveller, public bath houses known as jjimjilbang (찜질방) can offer a great way to sleep, besides a relaxing bath and sauna. (Some Korean spas don't offer overnight stay, like the "Spa Land Centum City" in Busan, and some can be limited in time, like the "Dragon Hill Spa" in Seoul, but they are exceptions.) Entrance costs around ₩5,000-12,000, and includes a robe or T-shirts/shorts (for mixed facilities and sleeping hall) to wear. However, when you leave, you have to take everything with you and pay to get back in.
The facilities can be expansive, including showers, public baths, restaurants, computer/video game rooms, a room with DVD movies, and a warm hall to sleep, mostly with mattresses and sometimes soft head rests available. These places are generally used by families or couples during the weekend, as well as Korean working men from the countryside on weekday evenings, but travellers are welcome. A jjimjilbang is no more awkward than any Western public bath — so go ahead.
Usually two lockers are provided, one for the shoes (at the entrance) and one for your clothes and everything else (near the bath entrance). A very large backpack may not fit, although you can usually leave it at reception.
South Korea offers many temple stays in all parts of the country. The basic idea is that you stay for one or more days living with the monks and participating in some of their rituals.
Jogye (조계사), Korea's largest Buddhist sect, runs a popular temple stay program where visitors get to spend 24 hours living at a Buddhist temple. Speaking Korean helps but is not necessary at some temples, but you will be expected to work at the temple and get up at 3 or 4AM to participate in morning prayer. In exchange for three meals and a basic bed for the night, a donation of ₩50,000-80,000 is expected. Reservations are necessary and can be made at the Temple Stay site or via Korea Travel Phone (+82-2-1330).
Education is taken very seriously in South Korea, and the country is home to several world class universities, many of which have exchange agreements with various foreign universities, and are a good way for foreigners to experience life in the country. The most prestigious general universities, collectively known as SKY, are Seoul National University (SNU), Yonsei University and Korea University, the former of which is widely regarded as the undisputed number one university in South Korea. Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) and Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH) are regarded as the top universities specializing in science and engineering.
- Taekwondo (태권도 taegwondo, literally "the way of kicking and punching") — The quintessential Korean martial art that is also an Olympic sport, and you can study at any of the numerous schools all over the country.
- Cooking — Most major cities will offer Korean cooking classes to foreigners.
- Kimchi — Many tourist packages nowadays include learning how to make a Korean staple dish kimchi.
- Changgeuk (창극) or pansori (판소리) — If you like music, this will be good for you. It's a unique traditional Korean form of singing. If you want to learn about pansori through film, Seopyeonje (서편제) (1993) would be an excellent choice.
- Korean language — Seoul National University, Korea University, Sogang University, and Yonsei University (in Seoul) provide Korean language programs. You can meet people from all over the world while studying Korean.
- Korean traditional dance — You can go to a dance studio and learn Korean traditional dance. You will wear hanbok, Korean traditional clothes.
- Baduk (바둑) — Korean name for the ancient Chinese board game called Go in English and Japanese. Many Koreans play the game, and among them are some of the world's finest players. There are even schools that specialize in baduk.
- Janggi (장기) — Also known as Korean chess, a board game similar to Chinese chess, with which it shares its origins, though the rules of the two games have diverged significantly.
Working in Korea can be a great way to experience the country. For English teachers the hours and pay are reasonable, however for other professions bear in mind that South Korea has some of the longest working hours globally, and frequent obligatory after-work drinking can be demanding. In addition, Korea isn't yet really set up to make entering the job market easy for foreigners. Reading and speaking Korean will definitely open up many more opportunities for you.
Foreigners must obtain an Employment Visa in order to legally work in South Korea, and will usually require a company based in South Korea to sponsor your application. For prospective teachers the school will almost always arrange this on your behalf. Citizens of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Japan may apply for a one year Working Holiday Visa which allows for short term employment whilst on holiday in Korea.
After you have been living in South Korea continuously for 5 years, you may apply for permanent residency, which allows you to live and work in South Korea indefinitely with no restrictions. Alternative routes to permanent residency are by investing a large amount of money in a local business, by marrying a South Korean citizen, or by obtaining a PhD in certain scientific fields. The application process is still complex even if you meet one of these criteria.
Korean work culture is a lot more hierarchical and formal than what most Westerners are used to back home. South Korean companies place a strong emphasis on group cohesiveness, meaning that the success of the company is a whole is a lot more emphasized than an individual's accomplishments. Employees are also expected to obey their bosses' instructions without question, and must usually get approval from their bosses before making any decisions. It is considered rude to not be at work when your boss is, which means arriving at work early before your boss does, and staying late until after your boss has left, and often working on weekends as well. Korean workers are also often expected to go out for food and drinks with their colleagues after work multiple times a week, which means getting home only when it is really late.
Work as an English teacher is the most common type of work available to foreigners from English speaking countries, with the requirements of being able to speak English and a minimum level of education being a Bachelor's degree. Schools prefer native English speakers and many prefer North American accents. In most instances, native English speakers from the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland, and the United Kingdom are the only applicants that are usually considered.
The main employer of native English speaking teachers are private academies called hagwon (학원). Many parents enroll their children in order to catch up or overtake their peers, and therefore scheduled classes are often in the evenings and Saturdays. People interested in these teaching positions often find them via professional recruiters. There are pros and cons to teaching ESL in the hagwon system. On the plus side the money can be quite good. As of 2016, the average monthly salary is approximately ₩2,000,000 and basic housing is usually provided. It's often possible to live comfortably on half of one's salary and to save the rest.
On the negative side, hagwon are privately run and strictly for profit, and may only operate for a few years. As such it is important to research and evaluate each prospective employer before accepting an offer, since there are plenty of horror stories of unscrupulous academy owners and incompetent directors. Although you will have full employment rights in South Korea, there is practically very little you can do when an issue or dispute arises. The majority of English teachers have a good experience through the hagwon system.
University employment is also possible. Those who have a graduate-level degree, preferably in TESOL (Teaching English as a Second or Other Language), may find professional opportunities at the post secondary level preferable to teaching in private academies.
South Korean employers tend to be more discriminatory towards non-white people, especially towards people of African and Indian ethnic origin. Although the official position is that all people are welcome, there are actually no laws related to racial discrimination in South Korea. This is largely based on economics; the stereotypical native English speaker is a white person, and many parents expect the teacher to look like that when they send their children to learn English. South Korean job applications usually require you to attach a photo of yourself, along with other information usually considered private in the western English speaking world such as height, weight and marital status. Many foreign non-white people are hired into hagwon, but be aware that there is a bias.
Some of the best positions are in the public sector, although in Seoul and Busan, schools have been phasing out foreign English teachers and replacing them with English-speaking South Koreans. Still, year-long public school positions are available though the government-funded EPIK Program in most provinces and the rapidly contracting GEPIK Program in Gyeonggi, with a few also handled by recruiter companies. Alternately, the TALK Program runs 6-month rural public school positions for non-graduates.
Daejeon full-time public elementary school positions stand apart from most in the country in that they consist of multiple part-time support positions at different schools. Most public school and university positions start at the beginning of March or September, however these are the more desirable jobs and must be applied for months before the start date.
South Korean Immigration is constantly changing the visa regulations for E-2 visa holders, so keep abreast of updates.
South Korea is often promoted as the world's most wired country, and as such has a massive IT infrastructure. There is plenty of IT work if you can speak Korean, although local rates are much lower than in western countries.
South Korea is a very safe country, with reported crime rates much lower than in the U.S. and most European Union countries. Crime rates are comparable to other safe places such as Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong, and it is safe for women to walk around alone at night, even in the major cities. Violent crime is rare toward locals and tourists alike. For the most part, the only foreigners who encounter trouble in South Korea are drunken ones that provoke fights at bars or clubs.
If you do happen to encounter any trouble, police stations are located in every district, usually in walking distance from subway entrances and bus stops. While most policemen won't understand English, they do have interpreters on-call that can assist you.
South Korea is a very ethnically homogeneous country, and for many South Koreans, this is a point of pride. Discrimination against non-Koreans is systemic and there is no anti-discrimination legislation whatsoever. Nevertheless South Korea is changing. 3.5% of residents today were born overseas, a number expected to rise to 10% by 2020. Negative perceptions of foreigners are reducing all the time. As recently as 2000 it was not advisable for a foreign man to hold hands in public with a South Korean woman and today it is almost no issue at all. Any horror stories you hear should be taken in context of the positive changes that are happening.
The reality is that white people will mostly get a free pass from experiencing much if any racial abuse. When applying for work in South Korea, especially in teaching positions, many employers prefer white people over other ethnicities. (This may be one of the reasons they ask for a picture on your application.) Darker skinned people do experience more problems, including being barred from saunas and bars.
Most visitors to South Korea are extremely unlikely to encounter any problems at all. If you do experience racial abuse then you can call on the police to help, although realistically if no other offense has been committed then they will at most just try and reason with the abuser.
People from North Korea also experience discrimination in society, partly out of suspicion (North Korea has sent assassins and spies disguised as refugees) and partly out of the difficulty to integrate themselves into a vastly different society. Ethnic Koreans from China are also often regarded poorly due to being associated with low economic status and crime. People from South East Asia are also discriminated against since most immigrant workers in low paid work come from that region.
With one of the highest rates of traffic deaths, South Korean motorists will speed through pedestrian crossings, jump red lights and come within a hair-width distance to pedestrians and other cars alike. Even when the light turns red, drivers will not stop. Motorcyclists are particularly reckless weaving in and out on crowded sidewalks. It is up to you to avoid them.
There is a lot of discussion about the reason for this, although it basically comes down to Koreans regarding traffic laws as guidelines that are nice ideas rather than rules to be obeyed.
Pedestrian crosswalks stay green for a very short period of time. When the walk signal is flashing and you are still at the curb, do not cross. Instead, you should wait and be ready for the light to turn green. The moment it turns green, wait for about 3 to 5 seconds and see if other pedestrians start to cross, and if all the traffic has indeed stopped, then walk briskly to cross safely. It is safer to take underground passageways at busy intersections. Most mopeds prefer to weave through pedestrians rather than wait with the rest of the traffic.
There are plenty of marked pedestrian crossings in Korea, and they are essentially ignored by all drivers. As a foreigner you can use them by stepping onto the crossing and directly staring down any approaching cars and they will usually yield. It is important for you to stay alert while crossing the roads. Taxis, buses, freight trucks, and delivery scooters are more likely to ignore traffic rules, since many of them are pressured to ignore rules by harsh timetables or their customers.
Illegal taxis are a problem and run even from the airport. Each Korean city has a different taxi scheme with a specific car color, so check out your destination city's taxi scheme before you arrive. At the airport, ignore anyone asking if you want a taxi at arrivals and head out to the official taxi rank.
In the heart of the political center of Seoul, near Gwanghwamun and City Hall, you may witness political activists of one sort or another in the city center and demonstrations can grow to tens of thousands. You'll have to use discretion as violence during political demonstrations can happen, often with water cannons and tear gas, and also large crowds may pose safety issues. Fighting is always between the demonstrators and police, and foreigners are not targeted. Also note that South Korean legislation prohibits non-South Koreans from engaging with political activities.
Ignorance of the law here is no excuse for breaking it and can even be seen as a reason for harsher punishment. They include heavy fines, lengthy jail sentences and immediate deportation.
- Penalties concerning drug offenses may seem particularly harsh to Westerners
- Submitting fraudulent documentation for obtaining visas
- Giving somebody an English lesson without possessing the correct visa
- Causing injury during a fight, even if you were not the one who instigated it
South Korea has a draconian National Security Act (국가보안법, Gukga Boanbeop) with regards to North Korea that restricts any unauthorized contact with that country or its citizens. Although it rarely applies to foreign visitors you should still be careful since being associated with any "anti-State group" (반국가단체 bangukga danche) is a criminal offense. With this in mind, you should under no circumstances display any symbols that represent North Korea or be seen to praise (찬양 chanyang) North Korean figures, in particular Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un, in public, websites or social media. Doing this as a joke is not in any way an excuse, and criminal convictions can incur a penalty of up to seven years in prison.
Websites in North Korea or from North Korean-affiliated organizations are blocked from South Korea. In any case you should not attempt to access them since it could be regarded as a "communication" (통신 tongsin) with an anti-State group.
Gambling is illegal for South Korean citizens, although a limited number of casinos are available for foreigners only in Seoul, Busan and Jeju island. You will need to bring your passport to enter these establishments.
The Asian giant hornet (장수말벌, jangsu malbeol) or "commander bee" is usually seen around summer time; it is about 40 mm (1.6 in) long and can sting repeatedly and painfully. A hornet defending its nest or feeding spot will make a clicking sound to warn away intruders; if you encounter one, retreat. If you are stung, receive prompt medical attention, as prolonged exposure to the venom could cause permanent injury or even death.
There are very few other animals that can be dangerous in Korea. The Siberian Tiger is sadly no longer found on the Korean Peninsula. Large wild boars can sometimes be found in forested areas and can be very dangerous if they attack. If you see a boar with piglets then keep well away since the mother will not hesitate to protect them.
Large sharks including the Great White and Hammerhead are being sighted more frequently off the coast of South Korea. To date there has never been a recorded attack on swimmers although a few abalone divers have been killed in the past 20 years. The most popular beaches are closely monitored, and this is unlikely to be a real risk to you.
South Korea is considerably less prone to natural disasters than its neighbors. Earthquakes are rare occurrences, though minor ones occasionally occur in the southwest of the country. Tsunamis are a recognized hazard in coastal areas, although Japan's strategic position prevents most tsunamis from ever reaching Korea. While typhoons do not occur as often as in Japan, Taiwan or the Philippines, they are nevertheless an almost yearly occurrence, and are occasionally known to be deadly and cause major property damage.
Although same-sex relationships are not recognized by the government, there are no laws against homosexuality in South Korea. Gay clubs and bars exist in the larger cities, though openly displaying your sexual orientation in public is still likely to be met with disapproval. South Korea has a large number of Evangelical Christians who generally strongly disapprove of homosexuality. Nevertheless, verbal and physical attacks against gay people are rare.
Conversely, platonic displays of physical affection between same-sex friends are very common, particularly when alcohol has been consumed, and holding hands with a same-sex romantic partner may be viewed in this light.
Conflict with North Korea
An understandable concern about traveling to South Korea is the possibility of war. However, while war has remained a distinct possibility ever since the end of the Korean war over 60 years ago, the North Koreans appear to have become very skilled at sabre-rattling and limited provocations that are never allowed to escalate into out-and-out warfare. This is not to say that miscalculations could not spiral out of control, but simply that the odd missile launch or loudly publicized border closure does not mean war is nigh.
If a full scale war did break out between the North and South, it would almost certainly result in many casualties, military and civilian alike. If this were to happen when you are visiting Seoul, it would definitely be life-threatening. There was a great deal of brinkmanship following the appointment of Kim Jong-un as North Korea's leader, and open conflict seemed to become more likely. However, no big conflagration has broken out, and it is safe to say that the possibility of all-out war is very low, though it would be reasonable to weigh the risks when planning to visit South Korea.
There isn't really much you can do to mitigate the risk of military action. Find out the contact details of your embassy, and be aware of the current situation when traveling. Most embassies will have an evacuation strategy for their nationals in the case of war. Also be aware that Seoul's Incheon International Airport is relatively close to the North Korean border, so therefore it may not be advisable to run there looking for a flight out.
- Police: 112 from a phone and region code-112 from a cellular phone
- Fire and ambulance services: 119 and region code-119 from a cellular.
Emergency-service English interpreters are available 24 hours a day.
An urban legend that is very prevalent in (and particular to) South Korea is the danger of fan death—that is, death occurring while sleeping in a room with an operating electric fan. Many Koreans accept it as fact without being able to provide a plausible explanation, though several theories have been floated (i.e. a vortex sucking the air out of your body is one of the more surprising ones). It may surprise you a great deal how seriously this is taken, with simple fans having elaborate safety settings. The correct explanation for this condition is straightforward hyperthermia (the body overheating), which sets in if the temperature and humidity are high, the sleeper is dehydrated, and a fan close by keeps evaporating the body's sweat. Eventually the body runs out of water due to sweat loss and becomes overheated. The risk is no greater in Korea than anywhere else with similar climate.
South Korean healthcare is known for its excellence in both research and clinical medicine, and most towns will be able to offer a high quality of healthcare. The sheer number of hospitals and specialized clinics in the country will also offer you a greater amount of choice. Healthcare is subsidized by the government and is relatively cheap compared to most western countries. Expatriate workers who have the required medical insurance card will experience further discounts. South Korea also promotes medical tourism where quality operations can be had for a fraction of the price of many other developed countries.
South Korea is especially known for having a thriving plastic surgery industry, and the vast majority of South Korean celebrities have undergone cosmetic surgery to one degree or another. It is also common for parents who can afford it to pay for their daughters to go under the knife to achieve the "perfect look". The downside is that seeing the top plastic surgeons is usually very expensive.
Most South Korean doctors can communicate well in English, being the most highly educated in the country. (Indeed, many have achieved their medical qualifications in the United States.) However, you may find them a little difficult to understand due to their Korean accent, so do ask them to slow down and go through things with you clearly. On the other hand, nurses will very rarely speak much, if any, English.
Traditional Chinese medicine, along with traditional Korean medicine (한의학 hanuihak or 향약 hyangyak), is highly regarded in South Korea and involves many traditional methods including acupuncture, heating and herbal medicine. Traditional Chinese medicine has deep roots and practitioners must undergo strict government certification in order to practice. Typically Koreans use Oriental medicine for chronic ailments such as back pain and Western medicine for sudden injuries. Due to the holistic nature of Oriental medicine (i.e. treating the whole body rather than a specific ailment) it is very hard to measure its effectiveness, but nevertheless it is a widely trusted part of the Korean medical system. Western medicine, however, does not generally recognize the effectiveness of the procedures in Oriental medicine.
Pharmacies are available everywhere, and are indicated by one very large word 약 (yak). As hospitals in South Korea are not allowed to dispense take-home prescriptions there will almost always be a separate pharmacy available there.
Although there are no official vaccinations that are required or recommended for visitors, Hepatitis A is known throughout the country and attacks the liver after ingesting contaminated food and water. Once infected, time is the only cure. The Center for Disease Control designates the prevalence of infection in South Korea to be intermediate.
Tap water in South Korea is perfectly safe to drink, although you may want to follow the local habits of boiling and filtering if only to get rid of the chlorine smell. Bottled mineral water from Jeju Island is also very popular. Fresh mountain spring water is available directly in wells around the country (especially Buddhist monasteries), and although these are generally safe you should note that the water has not been treated in any way and is therefore potentially risky.
Spring water Koreans are especially fond of drinking mountain spring water when hiking through mountains or at monasteries, although this water is completely untreated. If you see plastic (or metal) ladles provided that are obviously in use, then the water is probably safe. Some places in Korea have communal wells set up that supply fresh water, and in theory the local government will test from time to time in order to certify the safety. The certification (or warning) will be in Korean, so you may not know if a particular water source is safe.
South Korea has several English language media sources for daily news and other information, such as the Yonhap News Agency.
For television, there is an English-language channel called Arirang TV that is available throughout the world on some cable subscriptions. AFN Korea is available to U.S. military community or via cable.
There are some English-language radio stations in South Korea such as TBS e-FM (101.3 FM) and AFN channel (1530 AM and 102.7 FM in Seoul).
Naming conventions and modes of address
Korean names follow the East Asian order of family name followed by given name. Someone called 홍길동 (Hong Gil Dong) has the family name Hong and the given name Gil Dong. Koreans often, but not always, preserve their East Asian name order in English. However, many Koreans have an English nickname (which may simply be the initials of their given Korean name); when using it, they will use the Western name order.
When addressing other people, Koreans generally use the other person's family and given name + -ssi (씨) for most situations, substituting a job position/title for -ssi in business. Addressing someone by just their given name is only done when addressing young children and close friends. Using just the family name is generally not done in Korea, as Koreans consider it to be condescending, since it implies that you are talking down to someone of a lower social status. (It would also be confusing, since nearly half of all Koreans have one of the three most common family names: Kim, Lee, or Park.)
In English, it's okay to use just family name, or family name plus initials of their given name. However, it's more proper to use their job title (even if it's a mouthful) than "Mr./Miss". Our example Hong Gil Dong from before might be called General Manager Hong, or General Manager G.D. Hong, or Mr. Hong if he's a low-level employee without a title.
If unsure how to call someone, feel free to ask; even Koreans can get confused by it. They may also mix up the order of your name, referring to you as Mr. John or President Mary. (If your given name is Kim, to avoid confusion you may want to go by Kimberly/Kimball. If you're a Lee, you should perhaps use a different name.)
Coming from a land of strict Confucian hierarchy and etiquette, the Korean people are regarded as reserved and well-mannered. As a visitor, you will not be expected to know every nuance, but making an effort will certainly be appreciated. The further you are away from metropolitan areas the more conservative the people are.
For the most part, Koreans are understanding of foreigners not knowing all the traditional Korean customs. Nevertheless following these rules will impress them:
- Koreans bow to each other to show their respect when they meet. They may also shake hands. (When shaking hands, particularly with someone older, support your right arm with your left hand.) However, with people you know well, a quick nod of the head and a simple "Annyeonghaseyo" (안녕하세요, "Hello") should suffice.
- It is very important to remove your shoes when entering many places in Korea. It is always expected that you take off your shoes in someone's home. It is also required in many good restaurants (especially family-run ones), smaller hospitals, medical clinics and dentists. Leave your shoes by the front door; indoor slippers may be provided.
- When meeting for the first time, older Koreans will tend to ask about your age, your parents' jobs, your job, and your education level. If you feel uncomfortable about the questions, just provide short answers and discreetly try to change the topic if possible.
- Respect for elders is very important in Korean culture, and it is considered rude to directly challenge a statement made by an older person. In buses and trains, you are expected to give up your seat to the elderly, and it is considered rude to sit in the priority seats if you are not elderly, disabled or visibly pregnant, even if the bus or train is not full.
- Never discuss or joke about your criminal history, or even that of someone to whom you are related. Even if the crime is regarded as very minor in your home country, Koreans will still likely regard you in a very negative way.
- When picking something up or taking something from somebody older, always use two hands. If you have to use one hand, you can simply support your right arm with your left hand.
- Business cards (명함 myeongham) in particular are treated very respectfully and formally. How you treat someone's business card is seen as representing how you will treat the person. Make sure to pack more than you'll need, as not having a business card to present is a serious faux pas. There's a lot of nuanced etiquette, but here are some basics:
- When presenting a business card, orient it so it's readable by the person you're giving it to, and use both hands to present or receive one. Juniors give their cards to seniors first; people of equal rank can exchange simultaneously using your right hand to give yours and left hand to receive theirs. Take the time to read the card and confirm their name and job title. (Korean business cards are often bilingual, sometimes on opposite sides of the card.) You can ask permission to write notes on the back of a card if you need to. It's disrespectful to fold a card or place it in your back pocket (where you'll sit on it!). Instead, you should arrange cards on the table (in order of seniority) to help you remember who's who. When it's time to leave, then you can pack the cards in a nice case to keep them pristine; if you don't have one, hold on to them until you're out of sight before pocketing them.
- South Koreans in general have very strong nationalistic views and would view any criticism of their country with varying degrees of hostility. To avoid getting into the bad books of your hosts, it is advisable to praise the country, or at least avoid bringing up anything negative about it.
- Although you may notice similarities between Korean culture and that of neighboring China and Japan, be aware that Koreans are fiercely proud of their unique culture and that you shouldn't go overboard making national comparisons.
- Do not attempt to compliment North Korea in any way, even in jest. On the other hand, be careful not to go out of your way to be critical since they are still regarded as fellow Koreans, and you are a foreigner.
- South Korean households often have strict rules about recycling: for example, one bin may be for paper only and another in the kitchen may be for food/drink containers. Each district in Korea has its own unique recycling scheme. Garbage bags must be purchased from a supermarket and must be of the type designated for your local district.
- Never pour your own drink when dining with Koreans, but always take the initiative to pour for others. When dining with Koreans, the oldest or most senior should always eat first.
- It is common to hear people talking loudly in restaurants, as a sign of being happy and enjoying the food. But always remember to act polite in front of older people especially at the table. Koreans think making a loud sound in front of older people is rude.
- Much like their Chinese and Japanese neighbors, Koreans place a very strong emphasis on "saving face". Unless you are in a position of seniority, you are advised not to point out the mistakes of others in order to avoid causing major embarrassment.
Given the long history of unwanted intervention in Korea by foreign nations, Koreans are understandably rather sensitive about political discussions. You should avoid discussing the following topics since they are never going to achieve anything but getting you onto someone's bad side:
- Japan's annexation and brutal colonization of Korea until 1945
- Japan's lack of sufficient recognition and apology over the sexual enslavement of Korean "comfort women" during World War II
- Japan's territorial claims over the South Korean island of Dokdo
- The Korean war and anything to do with North Korea
- Bad behavior of individual members of the United States military stationed in South Korea
- Any deference of the South Korean military towards the United States military
- Any international sporting controversies where South Korean athletes are involved
- Do not refer to the sea east of South Korea as the "Sea of Japan" (even though this is by far the most accepted name internationally). Always refer to it as the "East Sea" (동해 Donghae).
- The MV Sewol ferry disaster of April 2014. It is no exaggeration to say that the country was deeply traumatized by this incident, and many entertainment programs were cancelled over the following months. There is a lot of introspection going on around this, although as a foreigner your contributions may not be appreciated. Solidarity is shown with yellow ribbons so make sure you don't make jokes about the many ribbons when you see them.
Should your hosts bring any such topics up, it is best to stay neutral and avoid any debates. Playing devil's advocate is really not appreciated in Korea.
Religion in South Korea has changed a great deal over time, with today's main religions of Buddhism and Christianity both having been oppressed over the past centuries. Today just under half of Koreans state that they have no religious affiliation. There are practically no tensions at all between the different groups, with religion being usually regarded as a personal choice.
Buddhism was historically the main religion in Korea (albeit often suppressed in favor of Chinese Confucianism), and Buddhist temples are major tourist attractions throughout the country. As in India, China, and other countries there are Buddhist swastikas representing good luck on display at religious buildings. You will notice they are actually drawn in reverse to the one used in Nazi Germany, and they in no way represent antisemitism. When visiting Buddhist temples you should be respectful by not making too much noise, eating or drinking.
South Korea has a high proportion of Christians (18% of the population are Protestant and 11% are Roman Catholic) and dozens of churches can be found in absolutely every major city. Protestants in South Korea tend to be strongly conservative and frequently highly evangelical, sending large number of missionaries abroad (rivaling the United States in this regard). It is common for both strangers and acquaintances to ask you to come to their church, although offense will not usually be taken if you decline.
Korean Shamanism, also known as Muism, is the indigenous religion of the Korean people since ancient times. Although it is followed by less than 1% of South Koreans today, its practices and beliefs are known to most and to some extent still practiced by many people, having been incorporated into both Christian and Buddhist rituals.
Confucianism was often promoted as the state religion during Korea's history, and although there are few adherents today the majority of Koreans will be familiar with its teachings and practices, and even government officials are still required to sit Confucian examinations.
While smoking in Korea is not quite as popular as in Japan or China, many Korean men and an increasing number of Korean women smoke, and it's fairly cheap compared to much of Europe and America. A pack of twenty costs around ₩5,000 and cigarettes can be bought from all convenience stores. Koreans favor mild cigarettes (around 6mg tar) so Korean-made cigarettes may taste bland and flavorless compared to those from America or Europe, and even the Korean-produced Western cigarettes are much lighter than the originals (e.g., full-strength Marlboro Reds in Korea have only 8mg tar, the same as Marlboro Lights in the U.S.). If you prefer stronger cigarettes it's wise to bring some duty-free cigarettes with you.
Smoking is forbidden in public buildings, public transport and restaurants. Various establishments will tacitly allow smoking despite the ban, although they will never explicitly tell you that you can smoke, for fear of legal repercussions. Smoking in public is also banned, but this is largely unenforced and designated smoking areas are sparse.
Female smokers may give a negative impression to some Koreans, as smoking is not considered feminine in Korea.
For calls to South Korea, the country code is +82. International dialing prefixes in South Korea vary by operator.
South Korea shut down its last 2G network in 2012, so 2G (GSM or CDMA) mobile phones will not work. However, if you have a 3G phone with a 3G SIM card, you can probably roam onto the UMTS/W-CDMA 2100 networks of KT or SK Telecom; check with your home operator before you leave to be sure. 4G LTE has been made available in Korea; again, check with your provider.
The country has three service providers: KT, SK Telecom and LG U+. They offer prepaid mobile phone services ("pre-paid service" or "PPS"). Incoming calls are free. Phones and prepaid services can be acquired at any retail location found on any street (for Koreans). Second-hand phones are also available at selected stores in Seoul.
Mobile phone coverage is generally excellent, with the exception of some remote mountainous areas. SK Telecom has the best coverage, followed by olleh (KT) and LG U+.
As a foreigner without Korean residency your choices are:
- Buy a prepaid SIM card from a olleh expat store (available 3 days after arriving in South Korea)
- Rent a phone from an airport (expensive — best for short visits)
- Using roaming on your phone if available by your home provider
- Borrow a phone from a Korean resident
- Have a Korean resident acquire another SIM card and lend it to you
- Use Internet telephony (e.g. Skype) over the many Wi-Fi spots available
If you want to buy a prepaid SIM card, you should be able to get a prepaid SIM card at one of the olleh expat locations. However, you must have been in Korea for at least 3 days, and you must bring your passport. The fee for a prepaid SIM card is ₩5,500, and you have to charge at least ₩10,000 at the spot. You must also have a compatible phone. All modern iPhones (3GS and later) should work. Contact olleh expat at @olleh_expats on Twitter for any questions.
All the carriers offer mobile phone rental services, and some handsets also support GSM SIM roaming. They have outlets at the Incheon, Seoul–Gimpo and Busan–Gimhae airports. You can find service centers for KT SHOW and SK Telecom at Jeju airport as well. Charges start from ₩2000/day if you reserve in advance via the visitkorea website for a discount and guaranteed availability.
You can rent a 4G WiBro device between ₩5,000-10,000 a day for unlimited access, although coverage is not always available outside larger cities and in enclosed areas.
The 1330 Korea Travel Phone service is a very useful service provided by the Korea Tourism organization. It is a 24-hour service and offered in four different languages (Korean, English, Japanese, and Chinese). The operator will answer questions on bus schedules, accommodation, museum hours, etc.
The internationally popular messaging app WhatsApp is not popular in South Korea. Most South Koreans use the local app KaKaoTalk instead.
South Korea is the world's most wired country and Internet cafes, known as PC bang (PC방), are ubiquitous through the country. Most customers are there for gaming but you're free to sit and type e-mails as well. Typical charges are about ₩1,000-2,000/hour, although more luxurious places may charge more. Most PC bang tend to be cash only. Snacks and drinks are available for purchase in most PC bang. Smoking is banned in PC bang but many stores will give tacit consent to smoking, despite stating otherwise if asked explicitly (for legal reasons).
There is also a lot of free Wi-Fi available throughout South Korea.
Most households in South Korea do have broadband connections with Wi-Fi, and most are encrypted by default.
ollehWiFi is one of the most common Wi-Fi hotspots available and requires payment. The service is fast (30Mbps+) and prices are cheap at ₩1,100/hour or ₩3,300/day. You can buy the service on your device by credit card, or by cash or card in most convenience stores. ollehWiFi is available at most convenient stores, coffee shops, some marts, restaurants, intercity buses, and on all subways and subway stations in the Seoul Metropolitan Area.
The Starbucks Coffee chain also offers Wi-Fi, however you will require a South Korean phone number to use it. Many other coffee shops offer free Wi-Fi with no registration required. ollehWiFi should also be available in all Starbucks stores.
South Korean websites frequently require Windows and Microsoft Internet Explorer, especially those involving online payment. As elsewhere in Asia, a lot of services are becoming available primarily for mobile phones, with Kakao Talk being the most popular.
Korea Post is fast, reliable and reasonably priced. Postage for a postcard anywhere in the world is ₩660, while letters and packages start from ₩480. If you want actual traditional stamps, be sure to ask for them, or else you will just get a printed label. On request, fancy "tourist" cancellations (Gwangwang Tongsin Ilbuin) for your stamps are available at selected post offices without additional charge. Korea Post accepts Visa and MasterCard for purchases over ₩1,000.
Most post offices are open only M-F 09:00-18:00. Larger post offices also open Saturday mornings, and central offices in the main cities stay open late and are open on Sundays as well.