Are you planning a trip to South Korea? Good! Here are all the useful travel tips for South Korea you will need to make your vacation careless and memorable.
When we first visited Seoul as tourists for 3 days back in 2019 we didn’t have much time to go outside of the tourist hot spots. Even so, we still had to know a few things to manage to navigate the city.
Seoul is a huge metropolis, with over 30 million inhabitants and no matter how long you spend here, you won’t be able to do and see it all.
Start here when planning a trip to Korea and it will all be a breeze.
Planning a trip to Korea – Useful Information
Money/ Local currency
The local currency in South Korea is the Korean WON – KRW.
1 USD is roughly 1400 KRW.
You won’t need cash almost anywhere, because shops and restaurants accept payment by card for any amount, unlike in most places in Europe.
The local language is Korean.
In most touristic places you will find information also in English, but as you step outside of Seoul this gets a bit more uncommon.
People usually understand English but don’t speak it. However, you will manage to get around just fine.
Weather – the best time to visit South Korea
South Korea has 4 delimited seasons – spring, summer, autumn, and winter.
As a general rule this is the split between seasons by months:
Spring – from March to May, one of the nicest times to visit South Korea, with mild temperatures, cherry blooms, and many activities around this. Read the complete guide for visiting Seoul in spring!
Summer – from June to August, hot and humid, longer days, but not precisely the best time to visit.
Autumn – from September to November, the best time to visit, with stunning landscapes, perfect temperature, not too much rain, and not so much pollution.
Winter – from December to February, temperatures drop fast and you will want to spend more time inside than outside. South Korea has snow and you can visit mountain resorts for skiing. Read the complete guide for visiting South Korea in winter!
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)
Getting to South Korea
If you are traveling from Europe, you will most likely need an overlay either in Turkey or in Dubai/Doha.
If you are traveling from the US, direct flights are linking some of the most important towns to Seoul.
Use Skyscanner to check for the best flight options and prices.
Seoul is served by 2 airports, but most international flights land and depart from Incheon International Airport. Read the complete guide on how to get to Seoul from Incheon Airport!
Internal flights and some international flights (leaving for Japan for example) land and depart from Gimpo Airport.
Internet / SIM Cards
When traveling to South Korea you will need a SIM card and internet. Even though there is free wifi almost anywhere in Seoul or other major towns, you don’t want to risk being stuck without translation or directions.
The easiest solution is to rent a 4G Pocket Wifi and pick it up from Incheon Airport as soon as you land. You get high-speed internet access anywhere, you can choose the number of days, and you can connect up to 3 devices for the price. Get your WIFI here!
Another option is to get a Traveler SIM and Public Transportation Card. Choose between 5 and 60 days of validity, get unlimited 4G data, and a T-Money transportation card that can be used on public transportation anywhere in South Korea. Get your card here!
On my first trip to Seoul, I chose to buy a SIM card and it came in really handy. While you might find free wifi in many places around town, I felt much safer knowing I don’t depend on any location for my internet, especially since I was traveling alone for most of my trip.
Read the complete guide for choosing the best SIM Card or Pocket Wifi in South Korea!
Getting around in Seoul and South Korea
Infrastructure and public transportation are amazing in South Korea and will easily get you almost anywhere.
You will need a T-Money card – a rechargeable card you will be able to use on all public transportation means (subway, buses, trains), but also at different convenience stores. You can buy the card online before your arrival, and from any subway station or convenience store such as 7Eleven, GS25, EMart24, CU.
The cost of the card itself is 4000 KRW (3.6 USD) and you can top up at any of the above-mentioned stores – just know that you will be able to pay by card for the card itself, but you will need cash to top up.
Once you have charged it with money, you will have to validate it once you get on and off the bus or subway.
Seoul City Pass is another option for when you won’t be traveling outside of the capital city. It offers free unlimited transportation for 24, 48, or 72-hour, along with free entry to 40+ attractions and discounts to over 60 attractions.
Traveling between cities is easily done by train. KTX is extremely fast and can get you from the north of South Korea to the south in roughly 2.5 hours. Buy your tickets online ahead of time if you want to get the best prices.
Another option when you are planning to travel by train is to book a Korea Rail Passes for 2/3/4/5 days – the days don’t have to be consecutive, you can use KTX and KTX-Sancheon High-Speed Trains, along with other types of trains.
Another way of getting to the south of Jeju Island is by plane. There are plenty of internal flights departing and arriving at Gimpo Airport.
Inside Seoul, but also in other cities, you can rent a bike and do sightseeing on two wheels. In most areas of Seoul that will be a breeze because you will find well-maintained bike lanes. You will need to go to SeoulBike, register and create an account, connect your T-Money, and use it to purchase a rental voucher on the site.
Inside the app, scan the QR code of any bike and it will be released for use. You can leave it at any drop-off point in town, and inside the app ( for IOS | for Android), you can find a map with all the ones available around you.
Tipping in South Korea
Tipping is not a thing in South Korea and you are not expected to leave anything at restaurants, cafes, or for tours. The same is valid for taxis because in most cases you will be paying by card either way.
Driving in South Korea
While many Koreans told us that driving in South Korea is challenging, coming from Romania we found it extremely easy and organized. People usually follow the rules, and roads are in exemplary shape, even though they can get extremely crowded at times.
They drive on the right side of the road in South Korea.
What you will need to rent a car in South Korea:
- A valid international driving permit
- Your driver’s license
- You must be above 21 years old
- A valid credit card in the name of the driver
- A visa for South Korea
While most local websites are in Korean and will offer car renting services only if you have a local credit card, here are a few options for tourists:
- RentalCars – is an aggregator that will help you save up to 70% on the car rental price. Unlike many aggregators, this one actually has cars in South Korea.
- Klook – if you use this service you will also have to bring the printed version of the voucher.
- Hertz is an international company operating car rentals, their website is in English and you can book your car by using an international card. They have 14 pick-up locations in Seoul, but also in other cities around South Korea.
Useful apps to have
It is worth knowing that South Korea makes most things differently than the rest of the world, that’s why you will need to install certain apps before you go.
If you are planning to travel by taxi, in South Korea is easy and safe to get a cab off the street. However, it will be much better to book it through a dedicated app like KakaoTaxi (for IOS | for Android), especially when you don’t speak Korean (chances are the taxi driver will not understand your destination address in English).
Eating in South Korea
Why should there be a section about eating in South Korea? Well, because we want you to have all the possible information you would need to make your trip as carefree as possible.
Unlike in other tourist places such as Singapore, Hong Kong, and even Vietnam or Thailand, in South Korea, you will find it hard to get a hold of a fork at a restaurant. Korean chopsticks are unique and different from the ones in other Asian countries, looking more like tweezers.
If you know you are not used to eating with chopsticks, make sure to bring your fork.
Another thing worth knowing is that some traditional restaurants will ask you to take off your shoes at the entrance.
Paying at restaurants or cafes in South Korea:
- at most cafes, you will order at the desk and pay before the meal. You will either pick up your food/drinks or they will bring them to the table. Once done, you will be required to clean the table and bring the tray back.
- at restaurants, you must wait to be seated by the staff. As soon as you order, they are very efficient and bring the food very fast, along with the check. When you are done eating, you will pay before exiting and don’t have to waste time waiting for the check or change.
- in both cases, tipping is not custom.
Toilets in South Korea
You might find this funny, but we thought this needs a paragraph of its own.
Usually, toilets in South Korea are extremely clean, even if we are talking about public toilets or the ones in shopping malls or cafes, or restaurants.
In some places, you will find “intelligent toilets” with heated seats, and an incorporated bidet. Flushing is done through a centralized panel you will usually find on the wall, written only in Korean. Make sure to have your phone with you!
Smoking in Seoul
If you are a smoker, Seoul might pose a few challenges.
As a rule, smoking outside designated areas is prohibited, even in open spaces; for example, you can’t smoke on the streets. Likewise, smoking in a bar or a terrace is out of the question! Still, circa 30% of Korean males are smokers (women less so). So how do they smoke, you might ask?
Most city neighborhoods, especially around office buildings or shopping malls, maintain smoking areas nearby – a small fenced place containing few benches and ashtrays, in most cases. Also, you might note a lot of cigarette butts on the ground, usually, at the corners of residential buildings or nearby restaurants or coffee shops; those are ‘unofficial’ smoking places. It is still illegal, but enforcement is less stringent.
Still, be aware that some fancier districts south of the Han river, like Gangnam, enforce a ‘smoke-free’ environment, meaning there are no smoking places at all! Fines are high, so I would urge you to respect the law.
The safest course of action is to ask the reception at your hotel or the waiter at the restaurant – they’ll guide you towards the closest smoking area.