Planning your first trip to South Korea? In this post you can read about things to know before travelling to South Korea. Below are some practical information, important things to know and tips that will help you to prepare for your next trip to South Korea. All of that is based on our own recent experience visiting South Korea.
Visas and K-ETA
The very first thing when you plan your visit to South Korea is to check whether you need a tourist visa to travel there. There are several countries, citizens of which can visit South Korea without requiring a visa. There are also several countries with a visa waiver (and lucky for us, New Zealand is one of them). Citizens of such countries only need to apply online for a K-ETA (Korea Electronic Travel Authorization) at least 72 hrs before the departure.
Check VisitKorea website to see whether you need a visa to South Korea.
Another thing you need in order to enter South Korea is Q-Code. You can fill the application online and receive your Q-code before departing your home country. On arrival to Seoul (or another international airport of South Korea) just scan the Q-code at the quarantine checkpoint. This way you will save yourself some time by avoiding queues for those who don’t have Q-code issued in advance.
If you didn’t get Q-code online, then on arrival to Seoul airport you will need to fill out the paper application before going through the quarantine checkpoint.
Mobile Internet in South Korea
When travelling, we rely on mobile internet a lot – to check our planned itinerary, to get directions, to find a coffee shop or a restaurant nearby, to stay connected with friends and family at home, and etc. In other words, it’s important to have mobile internet data wherever you travel.
First of all, check with your mobile provider for the roaming and coverage in South Korea. If the cost of the roaming is acceptable then just use it and skip to the next item in our list of ‘Things to know before travelling to South Korea’. If roaming is unavailable or too expensive, there are two other options:
Get a SIM card
First option to get yourself mobile data when in South Korea is to buy a local 4G SIM card. You can get a SIM Card on your arrival at Incheon airport. There are few kiosks selling SIM cards in the Arrival Lounge at Incheon airport. For the peace of mind, you can even pre-purchase a SIM card before your trip and pick it up on arrival. Explore this option and purchase here: South Korea SIM Cards
Get a pocket WiFi device
Another option is to rent a pocket WiFi device (aka portable WiFi device). It’s a popular option for short visits to South Korea. Pocket WiFi devices come with a battery and you can usually connect a few mobile devices to it. Rent it for the duration of your stay and pick up/drop off at Incheon airport (also available in other international airports across South Korea). Explore this option and purchase here: South Korea Pocket WiFi
How to get to Seoul from Incheon airport
Incheon International airport is located about 50 km away from Seoul. Approximate travel times are 45 min by Express Train, 45-60 min by car/taxi, 60 min by subway or bus.
There are few options on how to get to Seoul from Incheon airport:
Taxi or Private Transfer from Incheon airport
Perhaps, the easiest option to get to Seoul from Incheon airport is by taxi or private transfer. Of course, it’s also the most expensive one. The taxi will bring you from the airport right to your hotel (or wherever you’re staying) in Seoul.
You can either book a private transfer in advance or just take a taxi at the airport. When booking a private transfer and providing pickup time, keep in mind that it will take you around 1 hour to get through immigration and quarantine checkpoints and get the baggage. Also, check with your airline which Terminal you’re arriving at – Terminal 1 or Terminal 2.
Here is the link to the official Incheon Airport’s information on taxi fares and taxi stand locations: Incheon Airport Taxi
Express Train (AREX) between Incheon airport and Seoul
Airport Railroad Express Train (AREX) is a train connecting Incheon International Airport and Seoul Station. It’s fast and convenient – the train only stops at Terminal 2, Terminal 1 and then non-stop all the way to Seoul Station. It takes only 45 min from Terminal 1 to Seoul Station by AREX.
Of course, once at Seoul Station you need to transfer to a bus or subway to get to your hotel. So, add another 15-20 mins to the total travel time depending on where you’re staying.
You can purchase tickets to the Express Train at the official website – AREX.
Getting to/from Incheon airport by Bus or Subway
Another option is to use public transport. You can either take a bus or subway (or a combination) from the airport. Depending on where you’re staying it will take around 1-1.5 hr to get from the airport to Seoul. This would be the cheapest, but also the slowest option to get to/from the airport.
If you’re planning to use bus or subway make sure to first purchase Tmoney card (see below) to pay for the ride.
When we travelled to South Korea, we pre-ordered a private transfer from the airport to our hotel in Seoul. We chose this option because our arrival time was quite late, and by the time we went through all the immigration, picked up our baggage, bought Tmoney card (see below) and left the airport, it was past 11pm already. Travelling with children at such late hours it was important to us to get to the hotel fast and with as little hassle as possible. So, a taxi from the airport to our hotel in Seoul was the best option for us.
However, on the way back we took the Express Train (AREX) from Seoul station to Incheon International airport. On that day we arrived from Busan to Seoul Station, and from there taking the Express Train to Incheon airport was the most convenient and effective option – duration and price wise.
Public Transport in South Korea – Buses, Subway and Tmoney card
Public transport network is very well developed in South Korea and it’s really easy to travel by public transport. That’s what we did during our stay in South Korea – mostly travelled by public transport and trains.
To calculate the route and see public transport options in South Korea I simply used Google Maps and Naver Map on my mobile phone. At some subway stations we saw people in orange vests whose work was to help tourists and new visitors in Seoul with finding their way using public transport. You could stop and ask them to help you find a station, a route or any other travel related information.
To pay for bus and subway trips you will need to buy Tmoney card.
Tmoney cards – where to buy and how to top up
Tmoney cards are used to travel by public transport in Seoul, Busan and other cities in South Korea. One card per person, you just scan it when getting on the bus and then when getting off the bus (tag on and tag off). Same when using the subway – scan it when entering the station, and then scan on exit. Don’t forget to check the balance that’s shown when tagging the card off.
You can either install “Korea Tour Card” application on your mobile phone or buy physical Tmoney card. If you’re using the mobile app, your phone must have NFC function in order to scan it in public transport. In the app you can check balance and top up the card easily.
We haven’t used the mobile app because of few reasons. Mainly, because our boys would have to carry their mobile phones with the app and have internet connection on their phones too. Secondly, we heard and read few negative reviews of the app being glitchy and slow. So, instead we bought and used physical Tmoney cards during our travels in South Korea.
You can buy physical Tmoney card in one of the convenience stores all over South Korea, such as 7-eleven, CU and GS25. We bought our cards in Incheon airport, in the CU shop at the Arrivals hall.
The card itself costs 2500 KRW, plus you will need to load some money on it in order to use the card. We initially put 10000 KRW on each card (we are 4 people travelling, so each had to have its own card). We had to top it up twice during our week in Korea (we actively used public transport in Seoul and Busan). Just don’t forget to check the balance on the card that’s shown when you tag it off.
To top up or reload Tmoney card you can either do it in one of the convenience stores (7-Eleven, CU, GS25, etc.) or at a machine/kiosk at a subway station.
In a convenience store, even if a seller doesn’t speak English, you just show them your Tmoney card in one hand and cash in another and they will know the drill.
The process of loading money to Tmoney card at machine on subway station is easy too. Select the English language (they usually have a selection of Korean, English, Japanese or Chinese), follow the on-screen instructions to “Reloading the transit car”, insert cash to load and confirm the balance.
Important: You can only use cash when topping up Tmoney card. You won’t be able to use a credit card. So, make sure to get some cash from an ATM before reloading your Tmoney card.
If at the end of the trip in South Korea you have money left on Tmoney card you can get a refund. Refunding the excess money can be done at one of the convenience stores or at Seoul Station. You can’t get a refund of the cost of the card itself (the initial 2500 KRW you paid to buy the card), but only a refund of the remaining amount on the card. Also, you can refund no more than 25000 KRW (so, make sure not to load more than this amount to your Tmoney card).
Travelling by Train in South Korea
Travelling by train in South Korea is convenient and easy. KORAIL (Korea’s rail system) connects many cities in the country, has fast trains and a reliable schedule. KORAIL has two types of high-speed trains – KTX and KTX-Sancheon.
We travelled on the KTX high-speed train between Seoul and Busan, and it took only 2.5hrs one way.
You can check train routes, schedule and prices, and book tickets online on the official KORAIL website.
If you’re planning to make more than one trip by train within a couple of days period you may benefit from buying a KORAIL Pass.
KORAIL Pass is a special train pass for foreign visitors, which allows you to travel cheaper throughout South Korea. You can buy either 2, 4 day flexible pass or 3, 5 day consecutive pass to travel by trains as many times as you want within this period. They have Adult, Youth, Child and Saver (a group of 2-5 people) rates.
A 3 day consecutive KORAIL pass means that you have to make your trips within 3 consecutive days (and similarly with a 5 day consecutive pass).
A 2 day flexible KORAIL pass means that you have to make your trips on any 2 days within a 10-day period (and similarly with a 4 day flexible pass).
For example, we travelled from Seoul to Busan on Thursday and then back on Saturday same week. So, we bought a 2-day Flexible Saver Pass (for a group of 4 people) to use for our trips. It was cheaper than buying regular train tickets without a KORAIL Pass.
Read about KORAIL Pass and purchase it online on the official website – KORAIL Pass.
Driving in South Korea
We didn’t drive ourselves in South Korea, but opted for using public transport, trains and booked a few guided tours.
If you decide to rent a car and self drive during your trip in South Korea, then in addition to your International Driving License you must obtain an International Driving Permit in your home country before travel.
Read all about driving as a tourist in South Korea here – South Korea: Driving as a Tourist
Power plugs and voltage
The standard voltage in South Korea is 220V – the same as commonly used around the world. The Power Plug type used in South Korea is similar to the European one – with two round pins. Which is good news for travellers from Europe – you won’t need a power adapter.
If you’re from a country that uses a different plug type, make sure to buy a power adapter prior to travelling to South Korea (or you can buy it in one of the shops at Seoul airport on arrival).
Obviously, Korean is the language they speak in South Korea. But what I wanted to mention is that we found travelling with English is quite easy.
Before the trip we learned a couple of basics, such as Hello and Thank you. Plus my older son learned Korean in school for a semester (which he refreshed in preparation for the trip). Of course, it didn’t allow him to speak Korean freely, but at least it helped with basic phrases and pronunciation. I have also downloaded a Korean dictionary to my Google Translate phone application before the trip. In other words, we were ready to face translating between Korean and English back and forth and often.
However, in reality most of the signs in Seoul, Busan and Gyeongju had English translations. Metro, bus and train stations had English translations and often announcements too. Many shops had both Korean and English signs side by side. Sellers on the local markets knew basic English, like ‘beef’, ‘chicken’, ‘3 pieces’, and other words required for a minimal sell-buy conversation. Many koreans speak English very well, and twice we had a situation when someone actually asked us whether we need some help with directions (first, when we stopped to admire a knot of subway lines on display at one of the stations; and second, when it was obvious we were a bit lost looking at the mobile map and trying to figure out where to go 🙂 ).
So, don’t be afraid of travelling in the country without knowing the Korean language. We found it’s really easy to travel and find our way in South Korea if you speak English.
When you travel (especially between cities), at times you want to store your baggage somewhere while exploring attractions and places of interest. Most hotels will store your baggage before check in time or after checkout. But sometimes it’s more convenient to use baggage storage at a train station or somewhere in a city.
You can find baggage storage lockers on many train stations all over South Korea. They are automatic and easy to use with on-screen menus and instructions usually available in English. We have also seen a few baggage storage lockers at subway stations in Seoul.
This is how baggage storage lockers look like at Busan train station:
Official currency in South Korea is the South Korean Won (KRW).
We would advise to always carry some cash when in South Korea. Of course, places like hotels, big stores and restaurants accept eftpos or credit cards. But when buying small goods at the markets, for example, or food stalls, it’s better to have cash. Also, when loading money to Tmoney card to travel on public transport you will need cash too.
We brought some cash with us (exchanging NZD to KRW at home in Auckland), but used it within the first couple of days. So, we then used ATMs in Seoul and Busan to get more cash – all ATMs we used had an English menu option.
Useful Mobile apps
This is a small list of mobile applications I found very useful to have when travelling in South Korea:
Google Translate. Well, obviously 🙂 Make sure to download the Korean dictionary before you travel to South Korea. I used it to “ask” sellers on food markets about nuts in their products (my son has food allergies and it’s super important to ensure nuts weren’t used in sauces, cooking, etc.). Also, camera mode translation proved itself very useful – when you want to translate Korean signs/menu/etc. on the go.
Naver Map. Unfortunately, Google Maps – my usual navigation tool when travelling – fails to show walking or driving routes in South Korea. It’s also not that reliable when planning public transport routes. So, I have downloaded and installed the Naver Map app to my mobile. We used it often to calculate walking routes and public transport options (along with transport fares). There is also an option to download maps in Naver Map if you go offline. Though we didn’t use it as we always had mobile internet via roaming.
WhatsApp. If you plan to book some local tours in South Korea, they usually want to know your Whatsapp, Wechat, or Kakaotalk number in order to contact you before and during the tour. Neither Viber nor Facebook messenger are usually used by Korean tour operators. So, for the tours we booked and went on I’ve been contacted via WhatsApp.
Google Maps. Even though I mentioned above that Google Maps fails to calculate walking and driving routes in South Korea, I still used it for navigation sometimes. It was very convenient to check our current location and see where we are going. Plus, apart from Naver Map, Google Maps showed street names, subway stations, bus stops and attraction names in English.
You may need a few other apps depending on your preferences. For example, Kakao Maps as an alternative to Naver Map. Or the Korea Tour Card app that I mentioned above for using in public transport. Or a Subway app to check subway lines, stations and schedules. But we only used the four apps I mentioned above, and that was sufficient.
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