Has any nation recently attained as much notoriety as South Korea?
Due to its cutting-edge technology, trendy food, most prominent pop bands in the world, and some of the fascinating movies and TV series being produced anywhere, the nation, which was once disregarded by tourists traveling to its larger East Asian neighbors, is now becoming an obsession for many.
One of the world’s top tourism destinations may be created by combining all of this with centuries of culture and a wealth of natural blessings in a hardly larger country than Ireland.
This is an elementary – not to mention gratifying – area to explore. It is safe, welcoming, and has excellent infrastructure. Continue reading for advice on making your vacation even more straightforward: everything you should know before visiting South Korea.
Complete your pre-trip registration 3 days before your flight
Most travelers – including citizens of the US, Australia and the UK – can visit South Korea visa-free for up to 90 days (up to six months for Canadians). However, you’ll still need to apply for a Korea Electronic Travel Authorization on the K-ETA website at least 72 hours before departure. It’s a simple process, and your K-ETA is valid for two years from the date of approval.
Time your visit with the trees
We advise scheduling your trip to South Korea for the spring or fall when the region has its most agreeable weather. You’ll get bonus points if you can plan it to coincide with one of the nation’s two arboreal magic seasons. Jeju-do Island, off the south coast, is where Korea’s cherry blossoms bloom in mid-March, and Seoul typically sees them in early April. The numerous old ginkgo trees in Korea change their leaves into magnificent golden torches in late October and early November, giving Seoul and other cities a particularly royal appearance for a few weeks.
Mind these two major holidays
During the lengthy Lunar New Year and Chuseok (autumn harvest) holidays, when Koreans travel in large numbers, getting a bus or rail ticket can be challenging. So before making trip arrangements, check the dates carefully because they vary from year to year.
If you can’t avoid a holiday, make Seoul or Busan your home base for the length of it. Many companies remain open, and cities can be surprisingly quiet even with everyone away.
Use common sense and keep these numbers handy, just in case
In South Korea, theft and violent crime are uncommon. Virtually no tourists are the target of scams or pickpockets, and locals in Korea often go out of their way to be friendly to foreigners. Nevertheless, use common sense and prudence as you would anyplace. There are strong drug regulations in Korea, so don’t consider circumventing them. Knowing your limit will prevent you from getting into awkward situations because nightlife frequently involves heavy drinking.
To contact the police, emergency services, or the Korea Travel Hotline in case of an emergency, dial 112, 119, or 1330. An operator will connect you to the necessary service and act as an interpreter. The Korea Tourist Police can also be reached at that number.
Be ready to get personal
The standard welcome in this country is a brief bow and simply a head nod deep enough so that your gaze meets the ground. However, you might also be given the option of a handshake. If so, anticipate a gentler grasp than the standard squeeze and pump.
Someone you just met will ask you more intimate questions than you’re used to. Naturally, your age is at the top of this list. For Koreans, this information is crucial since it guides how they speak to one another, including how formally to end their verbs and when to use honorifics. It’s also usual to get questions about your marital status, profession, and thoughts on Korea. Kindly respond to the question and feel free to ask another one.
Is North Korea a concern?
Despite news reports worldwide, South Koreans don’t fear a North Korean strike, and neither should you. Military conflicts are incredibly uncommon, and civilian peril is much less often. It can be a fascinating and unique experience to tour the DMZ. When you are staring at South Korean soldiers looking at North Korean soldiers looking at you, the geopolitical stakes become much more apparent. From a distance, North Korea might appear almost funny in its oddities. Additionally, many excursions provide what may be your only opportunity to enter the most secretive nation in the world.
Monitor the air quality
It’s a good idea to always have a mask on hand because air quality can periodically drop to appalling levels, even in COVID-free periods. This is particularly true in the spring when the combination of local pollutants and dust from Mongolian and Chinese deserts creates unhealthful air. For iOS or Android, download the IQAir Air Visual app to keep track of local weather conditions and predictions for the days ahead.
Wear what you like, but don’t pack anything too risqué
You can feel free to dress comfortably according to the weather as a traveler. Even though they dress more modestly than you might assume, Koreans generally don’t mind what they wear. While shorts are OK when visiting a temple, tank tops and miniskirts are not. At the beach, both sexes commonly don t-shirts, so it’s best to leave the Speedo and thong at home. Korean women practically never wear low-cut tops, and female tourists may discover that wearing so draws unwanted attention. Even though tattoos are increasingly popular among young people, certain bathhouses will still refuse your access if you have any ink.
Learn your ga, na, da, ra, ma, bas
Signage in Korea is usually in Korean and English, and most people under 50 can understand basic English. Nevertheless, learning a little bit of the language is a wise (and respectable) idea.
Learning hangul, the Korean alphabet is like unlocking a secret bonus level of Korean travel beyond just remembering a few essential Korean words and phrases. You’ll discover that you already know what items like (ka-pe mo-ka), (bibimbap), and (sa-oo-na) are if you can sound out the letters.
Take advantage of Korea’s world-class public transportation
Korea’s trains, buses, and subways are hygienic, practical, and effective. The train and intercity bus networks will transport you to every part of the country, even though it often seems like a new station is added to the Seoul metro system every month. In Seoul, the cost of a bus or metro ride begins at merely 1250 won. The only location in South Korea where renting a car would make sense is Jeju-do, and even there, it’s probably optional.
Korea’s public transportation system is easy to use, has a lot of English information, and is well-designed. Pick up a T-money transit card at a convenience store or a vending machine at any subway station to start traveling. Your card can be loaded with money at several kiosks. Then, both times you board and exit the bus or subway, tap your card. Because fares are determined by distance, you need to tap when getting off the bus to pay more and be able to transfer for free. T-money cards are also accepted in the majority of cabs.
It’s easy enough to purchase intercity bus or rail tickets at stations when going longer distances. However, getting tickets in advance for the fast KTX train and some busier routes and times is an excellent idea, such as the Saturday early departure from Seoul. Most bus stations have machines and counters where you can buy bus tickets. Purchase train tickets via the KORAIL website, the country’s railroad company.
Stay connected with these essential apps
In Korean cities, wi-fi is so standard that you may get by without a local SIM card. However, if you want one just in case or intend to travel to a rural region, the most specific location to get one is at one of the many telecom roaming centers at Incheon Airport once you arrive. You can also rent one if you don’t bring your phone.
Downloading useful apps like Naver Map (iOS and Android), which performs better than Google Maps in South Korea, MangoPlate (iOS and Android), Subway Korea, which lets you navigate metro systems, and Kakao T, which functions like Uber but for taxis, are all recommended.
Eat with others and don’t be afraid to shout for service
In Korea, eating is a social activity; hence many eateries, particularly barbecue establishments, serve only some servings. Therefore, if you’re traveling alone, you should convince a fellow hostel guest to join you (not a difficult sell), relax your diet, and order a pig belly for two (poor thing).
Restaurants typically have call buttons on each table, but servers will only sometimes come by to see how you’re doing. Push it, and someone will come running. Otherwise, raise your hand and yell “Yogiyo!” to get the waitstaff’s attention. “Get over here!” Water and occasionally side meals are available for self-service. Find a water dispenser and metal cups if your waitress doesn’t place a water bottle on your table. Take the check to the front desk to pay when your dinner is finished. There is no gratuity.
You might have to be flexible about your diet
If you are on a special diet or have food allergies, identifying restaurants or understanding the ingredients could be challenging. In Korea, vegetarianism and veganism are gradually gaining popularity, although only some restaurants offer these menus. However, even vegetarian recipes are frequently made with anchovy broth or fermented shrimp.
Recognize that LGBTQI+ acceptance still has a long way to go
Although opinions are gradually shifting, Korea is still a conservative society in many ways, and discrimination against LGBTQI+ people is widespread. However, interested, though ignorant, queries are more likely to be directed at LGBTQI+ visitors than any overt hatred. Although this applies to straight couples, public shows of affection are often discouraged.
Small gay communities may be found in Seoul’s Itaewon and Jongno-3-ga, while LGBTQI+ Koreans can also feel at home in the Hongdae-Sinchon-Ewha university corridor.
Get out of town
Two Koreas exist. We refer to Seoul and everything else rather than North and South, or, to put it more generally, urban and rural Korea. Despite the nation’s well-deserved reputation as a fast-moving, highly networked pop-culture powerhouse, its hinterlands are very different. You’d be missing out if you skipped them.
The Korean countryside is stunning, with mountains and rivers providing picturesque vistas, and people here lead different lives from those in the city. Most persons under 40 have moved to the cities, making the population older and the pace slower. Get away from the cities at least once during your vacation and spend time experiencing this more conventional aspect of Korea.
Roll with the nudges
You shouldn’t expect the same sense of personal space or common courtesy as you would find at home because Koreans lead a fast-paced lifestyle in a heavily crowded nation. Koreans won’t hold open doors for you or say sorry if they walk into you. They probably won’t say “Excuse me” as you enter or exit the metro; instead, they’ll nudge you aside. But they’re not being impolite.
It’s unrealistic to apologize whenever you brush shoulders with someone in a congested metropolis like Seoul since you’d be doing it all the time. Outsiders may find this frustrating, but you should accept it and go with the nudges.