Driving in South Korea as a tourist: everything you must know

Driving in South Korea

One of the first questions we asked ourselves when we moved to Seoul was related to transportation. While living our suburban lives in Romania, driving was a must. However, after we moved to Hong Kong, we shunned the use of personal cars since the local public transportation system was fast, clean, cheap, and convenient.

So, is it a necessity to drive in South Korea? The short answer is NO. The country has an excellent public transportation system, and you can travel virtually everywhere using the train, subway, bus, or plane.

Still, driving around can be a fun way to explore the country. Let’s start with the basics.

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Driving in South Korea as a tourist: everything you must know

South Korea Essential Travel Tips

VISA & K-ETA

Depending on where you are traveling from, you will or won’t need a visa. Check your Visa requirements here!

Currently, South Korea has in place a visa-free online application process for certain eligible countries (you can check the list here) that you must obtain before your trip.

K-ETA or the Korean Electronic Travel Authorization must be obtained before boarding a flight or ship. Here is some useful information regarding the K-ETA visa:

  • The approval process takes more than 72 hours, thus it is useful to apply in advance;
  • You will need to have accommodation booked before applying for the K-ETA, the address is one of the required information.
  • The validity of the K-ETA visa is of 2 years from the date of approval;
  • With the K-ETA you can stay in South Korea for 30 to 90 days;
  • However, if you are visiting for travel purposes, and plan to return after your first visit, you will have to come back and update your visa with the new hotel address;
  • One person can apply for up to 30 persons and can pay for all at once;
  • K-ETA price: 10.000 won (around 9-10 USD)

How to get from the airport to Seoul

Communication and transportation

Getting around South Korea

Other useful tips & links

Is Korea a left or right-hand drive?

Korea drives on the right hand, the same as the USA and most European countries.

Is Korea using the metric system?

Yes, the distances are measured in kilometers, and the speed is in kilometers/hour.

Is it safe to drive in Korea?

Yes, it is safe but be aware that Koreans love their rules, and driving is no exception. I strongly suggest that you respect the laws and regulations by the letter. Don’t show off the racing skills you learned in Bucharest, Athens, or Istanbul, or you might land in jail.

Can I drink and drive?

Absolutely not!

Although Koreans like to drink, there is zero tolerance for driving under the influence. So, if you enjoy the time-honored European tradition of having a glass of wine for lunch, I suggest you leave the car at home.

Driving Requirements

To drive in South Korea, you must be at least 21 years old and have a driving license issued by your country of residence at least 1 year earlier. The bottom line is that you need to have minimal driving experience.

Attention! You must hold an international driving permit—it is not enough to have a driving license issued by your home country.

Make sure you apply for one in your country of residence before visiting South Korea.

Your international driving permit should be acceptable if you are from the USA, UK, most European countries, Australia, New Zeeland, Canada, or Singapore.

Still, you should double-check the signatories of the Geneva or the Vienna Conventions.

Renting a Car in South Korea

To rent a car, you’ll need the following:

  • Be at least 21 years old
  • A driving license issued by your home country at least 1 year earlier
  • An international driving permit issued by one of the signatories of the Geneva or Vienna Agreements
  • A valid passport
  • A credit card in the driver’s name

Remember that Korean society puts a high value on maturity— it is probably one of the best countries to be old in. Still, it can sometimes be a nuisance to be young there. For example, if you are under 25, you might need to pay a young driver’s surcharge when renting a car.

Renting a car can prove to be challenging when you don’t own a Korean-issued credit card, but that doesn’t mean it is impossible.

During our trip to Yeosu, Boseong, and Namhae, someone helped us rent a car on a local website. It was, of course, a bit cheaper, but the whole experience was extremely stressful for us since we don’t speak Korean.

First of all, we weren’t informed ( or at least we haven’t seen that information) that the car will be left in the parking lot in front of the airport. Needless to say, we searched for a rental office or a car drop-off place for some time.

Secondly, in their call center or their app support, nobody spoke English thus it was impossible for us to understand anything they told us. We have local friends we could bother for help, but if you are visiting as a tourist, chances are you aren’t so lucky.

That’s why we recommend you book a car either through an international aggregator or through an international dealer.

RentalCars – is an aggregator that will help you save up to 70% on the car rental price. It is also the world’s biggest online car rental service, which gives you the opportunity to travel independently. Unlike many aggregators, this one actually has cars in South Korea.

Klook is an Asian travel provider that offers car rental options for South Korea, on top of organized tours and activities.

Hertz is another great option when you want to book directly from a dealer. They have offices in most major towns in South Korea and accept internationally issued credit cards.

Trazy.com – this is a Korean website offering tours and activities, but you will also find car rentals from Seoul or Busan. The offer might not be as good as the previous 2 ones, but you might want to check it out.

Highways, Expressways, and Regular Roads

An extensive highway and expressway system crisscrosses South Korea. The speed limit varies between 100 and 120 km/hour on these. Just follow the signs, and you’ll be fine.

You should pay attention at the toll gates, though. Usually, there are no barriers, but the lanes are marked with different colors, primarily blue and red, but you might also encounter green and pink (the colored lines are drawn on the pavement, so you can’t miss them).

Unless you have a multi-pass subscription (I never had one), you should NOT cross through the toll gates marked with blue. Instead, you should follow one of the red lines and stop by one of the open gates, taking a ticket from the ticketing machine. Once you have it, you can drive on, but please keep it safe because you’ll need it when you leave the highway or expressway—you’ll have to hand it to the lovely lady at your exit gate and then pay the fee.

Korea strives to become a cashless economy, so you’ll have to pay the toll by using your credit or debit card (I had Mastercard and Visa, and both worked fine for me)—I am not sure if cash payment is an option since I never tried paying cash.

If you lose your ticket, don’t panic. When you reach your exit gate, just shrug apologetically and put on your lost foreigner face. “I am sorry, no ticket.” The cashier can check your route in the system and charge you accordingly. Typically, you should pay a surcharge for losing the ticket, but they never claimed it from me, although I lost it several times. Remember, Koreans are super nice and welcoming to foreigners. If you are polite, they’ll be helpful and understanding.

Now, there is one more situation that we have encountered during our extensive travels. Sometimes, the ticketing machine hasn’t issued a ticket for me. It gave one to the car in front of me and also to the vehicle behind me, but not me. I don’t know why it didn’t like us since we had a lovely Korean car—nice color too.

Anyway, if it happens to you, don’t worry. Drive on and then act as if you lost your ticket. At the exit gate, you just tell the lady that “no ticket, sorry,” and she will sort it out.

Lastly, if you plan to visit some of the hidden gems of South Korea, you might have to take the regular roads (one-lane roads, not the highways or expressways).

The speed limit on these is up to 80km/hour, but it has many segments with speed restrictions, so please pay attention. There is no toll fee on these. However, in most sections, you are not allowed to overtake the car in front of you. In plain English, you follow the vehicle in front of you, no matter how annoyed you are with their driving skills or speed.

Personally, I found this rule refreshing after years of being overtaken by the suicidal maniacs roaming the Romanian roads.

Parking

Forget parking in front of the place you are visiting. In Korea, one can’t just leave the car on the side of the road. Most buildings have designated parking spaces on the ground floor or below ground. So, if you are visiting a museum, a restaurant, or a shop, ask for a parking space.

Typically, parking is not free, and you’ll need to pay. However, if you visit a mall and you buy something, keep the receipt because you might have a discount or even free parking based on it. Also, if you eat at a restaurant or fast food, tell the cashier that you have parked there so they’ll give you a receipt that you can use to get a discount or free parking.

There are many public parking spaces (just follow the signs) outside of malls and restaurants. You’ll be required to leave the car key with the parking attendant, and when you are ready to go, he’ll give you the key and the receipt.

Usually, in the old parts of towns or other crowded places, restaurants and coffee shops have valet parking. You just drive there and give the key to the attendant, and they’ll move it to some parking space a few blocks away. Tell the attendant your plate numbers when you are ready to go, and somebody will bring you your car.

And don’t worry about leaving your belongings in the vehicle—South Korea is one of the safest places in the world. Once I left my wallet on a fast-food table for hours, but when I returned in a panic, it was still there, and nobody had touched it.

Other Tips and Tricks for Driving in South Korea

I must start by saying this: BEWARE THE KOREAN PEDESTRIANS!

Unlike Western countries, where pedestrians maintain a high awareness of the traffic around them, Korean pedestrians have complete confidence in the skills of their drivers. Everybody is entranced by their smartphones, and they routinely cross the road without looking left or right. Sometimes, they walk in the middle of the road, headphones on, impervious to the world around them. Therefore, please stay alert and don’t assume that pedestrians wouldn’t jump in front of your car.

The traffic is highly monitored, and there are cameras at almost every street corner and on all highways and expressways. Some are the classic ones, measuring your speed at a given time. Others measure your average speed, so you’ll have to behave all the time, not only when in the range of a particular camera.

If you are American or East European (like me), please note that the instructions written on the traffic indicators are mandatory. If it says that you need to slow down to 30 km/hour because you entered a school zone, I suggest you do it even if there is no child in sight.

One of the things I found disconcerting was the positioning of the traffic lights. In Europe, the lights are positioned next to or above the line where the intersection starts, so if you are the first car in line, you stop nearby the traffic light, right? Well, in South Korea, the traffic lights are mounted on the opposite side of the intersection — you’ll need good eyes to spot them. Just be careful with this, or you’ll risk passing the red light or bumping into somebody.

Another tricky thing is turning right. Frankly, even after 1 year of driving in South Korea, I am not 100% sure how this works. In Europe, a blinking green light shows drivers when they can turn right even if the red light is on for moving forward. In Korea, there is no such thing. Basically, you can turn right by default as long as there is no oncoming traffic and the red light is on for pedestrian crossing.

Speaking of pedestrian crossings, as long as the green light is on for the pedestrians and at least one person is crossing, you should stop and wait until she or he reaches the other side, no matter how many lanes the road might have. When the pedestrian steps on the road, you wait until she or he is on the other side.

Other South Korea Travel Resources to check out

Seoul Travel itineraries – no matter how much time you are planning to spend in Seoul, you will find here plenty of itinerary options and travel resources

Busan Travel itineraries – our favorite South Korean city, Busan should not be missed

South Korea Travel Itineraries – the easy-to-follow options for when you have more time to spend in South Korea

Accommodation Guides – don’t know where to stay in Seoul, either one of its most popular areas Busan, or other places in South Korea? Here you will find all the answers to your questions!