Some people come to Korea expecting it to be a budget destination on a par with the Southeast Asian countries, while others arrive with expectations of Japanese-style levels. The latter is closer to the truth – if you're staying at five-star hotels and eating at Western-style restaurants you'll spend almost as much as you would in other developed countries, though there are numerous ways for budget travellers to make their trip a cheap one. Your biggest outlay is likely to be accommodation – Seoul has some grand places to stay for W400,000 and up, though most cities have dedicated tourist hotels for around W100,000. Though they’re not to everyone’s taste, motels usually make acceptable places to stay; costing around W30,000 (or often double that in Seoul). The capital does, however, have a few backpacker hostels with dorms for around W20,000, while real scrimpers can stay at a jjimjilbang for a few bucks.
Because the country is small, transport is unlikely to make too much of a dent in your wallet – even a high-speed KTX train from Seoul in the northwest to Busan in the southeast will only set you back W52,000, and you can cut that in half by taking a slower service. Inner-city transport is also good value, with most journeys costing W1000 or so, and admission charges to temples, museums and the like are similarly unlikely to cause your wallet discomfort.
By staying in motels or guesthouses and eating at reasonably cheap restaurants, you should be able to survive easily on a daily budget of W40,000, or even half this if seriously pushed. After you’ve added in transport costs and a few entry tickets, a realistic daily figure may be W60,000.
Tipping plays almost no part in Korean transactions – try not to leave unwanted change in the hands of a cashier, lest they feel forced to abandon their duties and chase you down the street with it. Exceptions are tourist hotels, most of which tack a 10 percent service charge onto the room bill; these are also among the few places in the country to omit tax – levied at 10 percent – from their quoted prices.
Crime and personal safety
Korea is a country in which you’re far more likely to see someone running towards you with a dropped wallet than away with a stolen one – tales abound about travellers who have left a valuable possession on a restaurant table or park bench and returned hours later to find it in the same place. Though you’d be very unlucky to fall victim to a crime, it’s prudent to take a few simple precautions. The country has an awful road safety record, the gruesome statistics heightened by the number of vehicles that use pavements as shortcuts or parking spaces. Caution should also be exercised around any street fights that you may have the misfortune to come across – since Korean men practise taekwondo to a fairly high level during their compulsory national service, Korea is not a great place to get caught in a scuffle.
The electrical current runs at 220v, 60Hz throughout the country, and requires European-style plugs with two round pins, though some older buildings, including many yeogwan and yeoinsuk, may still take flat-pinned plugs at 110v.
Citizens of almost any Western nation can enter Korea visa-free with an onward ticket, though the duration of the permit varies. Most West European nationals qualify for a three-month visa exemption, as do citizens of New Zealand and Australia; Italians and Portuguese are allowed sixty days, Americans and South Africans just thirty, and Canadians a full six months. If you need more than this, apply before entering Korea. Overstaying your visa will result in a large fine (up to W500,000 per day), with exceptions only being made in emergencies such as illness or loss of passport. Getting a new passport is time-consuming and troublesome, though the process will be simplified if your passport has been registered with your embassy in Seoul, or if you can prove your existence with a birth certificate or copy of your old passport.
Work visas, valid for one year and extendable for at least one more, can be applied for before or after entering Korea. Applications can take up to a month to be processed by Korean embassies, but once inside the country it can take as little as a week. Your employer will do all the hard work with the authorities, then provide you with a visa confirmation slip; the visa must be picked up outside Korea (the nearest consulate is in Fukuoka, Japan; visas here can be issued on the day of application). Visas with the same employer can be extended without leaving Korea. An alien card must be applied for at the local immigration office within 90 days of arrival – again, this is usually taken care of by the employer. Work visas are forfeited on leaving Korea, though re-entry visas can be applied for at your provincial immigration office, W30,000 for single entry, W50,000 for multiple. Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders can apply for a working holiday visa at their local South Korean embassy.
South Korean embassies and consulates abroad
Gay and lesbian travellers
Despite Goryeo-era evidence suggesting that undisguised homosexuality was common in Royal and Buddhist circles, the gay scene in today’s Korea forms a small, alienated section of society. Indeed, many locals genuinely seem to believe that Korean homosexuality simply does not exist, regarding it instead as a “foreign disease” that instantly gives people AIDS. The prevalent Confucian attitudes, together with the lack of a decent gay scene, have been the bane of many a queer expat’s life in the country. For Korean homosexuals, the problems are more serious – although the law makes no explicit reference to the legality of sexual intercourse between adults of the same sex, this is less a tacit nod of consent than a refusal of officialdom to discuss such matters, and gay activities may be punishable as sexual harassment, or even, shockingly, “mutual rape” if it takes place in the military. In the early 1990s, the first few gay and lesbian websites were cracked down on by a government that, during the course of the subsequent appeal, made it clear that human rights did not fully apply to homosexuals – all the more reason for the “different people” (iban-in), already fearful of losing their jobs, friends and family, to lock themselves firmly in the closet.
Korean society is, however, becoming more liberal. With more and more high-profile homosexuals coming out, a critical mass has been reached, and younger generations are markedly less prejudiced against – and more willing to discuss – the pink issue. Gay clubs, bars and saunas, while still generally low-key outside “Homo Hill” in Seoul’s Itaewon district, can be found in every major city, and lobbyists have been making inroads into the Korean parliament. Still the only pride event in the country, the Korean Queer Culture Festival takes place over a fortnight in early June at locations across Seoul.
South Korea is pretty high in the world rankings as far as healthcare goes, and there are no compulsory vaccinations or diseases worth getting too worried about. Hospitals are clean and well staffed, and most doctors can speak English, so the main health concerns for foreign travellers are likely to be financial – without adequate insurance cover, a large bill may rub salt into your healing wounds if you end up in hospital. Though no vaccinations are legally required, get medical advice ahead of your trip, particularly regarding Hepatitis A and B, typhoid and Japanese B Encephalitis (which are all rare in Korea but it’s better to err on the side of caution), and make sure you’re up to date with the usual boosters. It’s also wise to bring along any medicines that you might need, especially for drugs that need to be prescribed – bring a copy of your prescription, as well as the generic name of the drug in question, as brand names may vary from country to country.
Despite the swarms of mosquitoes that blanket the country in warmer months, malaria is not prevalent in Korea. However, infected mosquitoes breed in the DMZ, so those planning to hang around the rural north of the Gyeonggi or Gangwon provinces should take extra precautions to prevent getting bitten. All travellers should get up-to-date malarial advice from their GP before arriving in Korea, and wherever you are in the country during the monsoon season in late summer, it’s also a good idea to slap on some repellent before going out.
Drinking Korean tap water is a bad idea, and with free drinking fountains in every restaurant, hotel, supermarket, police station, department store and PC bar in the country, there really should be no need. Water is also sold at train and bus stations – around W700 for a small bottle. Restaurant food will almost always be prepared and cooked adequately, and all necessary precautions taken with raw fish.
In an emergency, you should first try to ask a local to call for an ambulance. Should you need to do so yourself, the number is t119, though it’s possible that no English-speaker will be available to take your call. Alternatively, try the tourist information line on t1330. If you’re in a major city and the problem isn’t life-threatening, the local tourist office should be able to point you towards the most suitable doctor or hospital. Once there, you may find it surprisingly hard to get information about what’s wrong with you – as in much of East Asia, patients are expected to trust doctors to do their jobs properly, and any sign that this trust is not in place results in a loss of face for the practitioner.
For minor complaints or medical advice, there are pharmacies all over the place, usually distinguished by the Korean character “yak” (약) at the entrance, though English-speakers are few and far between. Travellers can also visit a practitioner of oriental medicine, who uses acupuncture and pressure-point massage, among other techniques, to combat the problems that Western medicine cannot reach. If you have Korean friends, ask around for a personal recommendation in order to find a reputable practitioner.
The price of hospital treatment in Korea can be quite high so it’s advisable to take out a decent travel insurance policy before you go. Bear in mind that most policies exclude “dangerous activities”; this term may well cover activities as seemingly benign as hiking or skiing, and if you plan to bungee or raft you’ll probably be paying a premium. Keep the emergency number of your insurance company handy in the event of an accident and, as in any country, if you have anything stolen make sure to obtain a copy of the police report, as you will need this to make a claim.
You should have no problem getting online in South Korea, possibly the most connected nation on the planet. It’s a national addiction – PC rooms (PC-방; pronounced “pishi-bang”) are everywhere; look around any urban area and you’ll see one. These noisy, air-conditioned shrines to the latest computing equipment hide behind neon-lit street signs (the PC in Roman characters; the bang, meaning room, in Korean text), and despite their ubiquity can be full to the brim with gamers – you’re likely to be the only one checking your mail. These cafés have charged the same price since the dawn of the internet age: an almost uniform W1000 per hour, with a one-hour minimum charge (though it’s far more expensive in hotels, and usually free in post offices). Most will have snacks and instant noodles for sale behind the counter – customers need occasional nutrition – and some will offer you a free tea or coffee when you sit down, topping you up every few hours.
Wi-fi access is becoming ever more common, with many cafés allowing customers to use their connection for free. Tom N’ Toms and Ti-amo are generally the best chains for this (though the coffee at the former is pretty poor); Starbucks will only let you on if you have a Korean ID number. You may also be able to get online at your accommodation, though ironically the cheaper places are better: most modern motels have free-to-use terminals inside the rooms, while hotels generally charge extortionate rates of over W20,000 per day.
For unlimited Wi-Fi on the go whilst travelling South Korea, buy a Skyroam Solis, which works in 130+ countries at one flat daily rate, paid for on a pay-as-you-go basis. You can connect up to five devices at once. Prices start from as little as €5 a day.
Almost all tourist hotels provide a laundry service, and some of the Seoul backpacker hostels will wash your smalls for free, but with public laundries so thin on the ground those staying elsewhere may have to resort to a spot of DIY cleaning. All motels have 24-hour hot water, as well as soap, body lotion and/or shampoo in the bathrooms, and in the winter clothes dry in no time on the heated ondol floors. Summer is a different story, with the humidity making it very hard to dry clothes in a hurry.
The Korean postal system is cheap and trustworthy, and there are post offices in even the smallest town. Most are open Monday to Friday from 9am to 6pm; all should be able to handle international mail, and the larger ones offer free internet access. The main problem facing many travellers is the relative dearth of postcards for sale, though if you do track some down postal rates are cheap, at around W400 per card. Letters will cost a little more, though as with parcels the tariff will vary depending on their destination – the largest box you can send (20kg) will cost about W150,000 to mail to the UK or USA, though this price drops to about W50,000 if you post via surface mail, a process that can take up to three months. All post offices have the necessary boxes for sale, and will even do your packing for a small fee. Alternatively, international courier chains such as UPS and FedEx can also ship from Korea.
Free maps – many of which are available in English – can be picked up at any tourist office or higher-end hotel, as well as most travel terminals. The main drawback with them is that distances and exact street patterns are hard to gauge, though it’s a complaint the powers that be are slowly taking on board. Excellent national park maps, drawn to scale, cost W1000 from the ticket booths.
The Korean currency is the won (W), which comes in notes of W1000, W5000, W10,000 and W50,000, and coins of W10, W50, W100 and W500. At the time of writing the exchange rate was approximately W1750 to £1, W1550 to €1, and W1050 to US$1.
ATMs are everywhere in Korea, not only in banks (eunhaeng) but 24-hour convenience stores such as Family Mart, 7-Eleven or LG25. Most machines are capable of dealing with foreign cards, and those that do are usually able to switch to English-language mode. Smaller towns may not have such facilities – stock up on cash in larger cities.
Foreign credit cards are being accepted in more and more hotels, restaurants and shops. It shouldn’t be too hard to exchange foreign notes or travellers’ cheques for Korean cash; banks are all over the place, and the only likely problem when dealing in dollars, pounds or euros is time – some places simply won’t have exchanged money before, forcing staff to consult the procedure manual.
Opening hours and public holidays
Korea is one of the world’s truest 24-hour societies – opening hours are such that almost everything you need is likely to be available when you require it. Most shops and almost all restaurants are open daily, often until late, as are tourist information offices. A quite incredible number of establishments are open 24/7, including convenience stores, saunas, internet cafés and some of the busier shops and restaurants. Post offices (Mon–Fri 9am–6pm) and banks (Mon–Fri 9.30am–4pm) keep more sensible hours.
Until recently, the country was one of the few in the world to have a six-day working week; though this has been officially altered to five, the changes haven’t filtered through to all workers, and Korea’s place at the top of the world’s “average hours worked per year” table has not been affected. The number of national holidays has fallen, however, in an attempt to make up the slack, and as most of the country’s population are forced to take their holiday at the same times, there can be chaos on the roads and rails. Three of the biggest holidays – Lunar New Year, Buddha’s birthday and Chuseok – are based on the lunar calendar, and have no fixed dates.
Living in one of the world’s most important fonts of mobile phone technology, Koreans may deem passé what qualifies as cutting-edge elsewhere. Getting hold of a phone while you’re in the country is easy – there are 24-hour rental booths at Incheon Airport. If you’re going to be in Korea for a while, you may care to buy a secondhand mobile phone – these can be as cheap as W15,000, and the pace of change means that even high-quality units may be available for knock-down prices; the best places to look are shopping districts, electrical stores or underground malls – just look for a glassed-off bank of phones. After purchase you’ll need to register with a major service provider – KTF and SK Telecom are two of the biggest chains, and so ubiquitous that the nearest store is likely to be within walking distance. Registration is free (bring your passport), and you can top up pay-as-you-go accounts in increments of W10,000. Despite the prevalence of mobile phones, you’ll still see payphones on every major street; these ageing units only take coins, so you’ll have to pump in change at a furious pace to avoid the deafening squawks that signal the end of your call-time.
Korea’s international dialling code is t82.When dialling from abroad, omit the initial zero from the area codes.
Photography is a national obsession in Korea – at tourist sights around the country, locals feed their cameras as they would hungry pets. Most internet cafés are kitted out for the transfer of digital images from memory cards.
A mountainous country with four distinct seasons, pulsating cities and a temple around every corner, Korea should keep your camera-finger busy; if you want a personal shot, few locals will mind being photographed, though of course it’s polite to ask first. One serious no-no is to go snap-happy on a tour of the DMZ – this can, and has, landed tourists in trouble. You may also see temple-keepers and monks poised at the ready to admonish would-be photographers of sacrosanct areas.
Most visitors who want to splash their cash do so in Seoul, which has some fantastic shopping opportunities, including the trinket shops on Insadonggil, the underground EXPO mall, the brand-name flagship stores in Apgujeong, and the colossal markets of Dongdaemun and Namdaemun.
Studying in Korea
Korea has long been a popular place for the study of martial arts, while the country’s ever-stronger ties with global business are also prompting many to gain a competitive advantage by studying the Korean language. It’s also one of the world’s great archery hotbeds, though courses here are not for amateurs and teachers demand substantial time and effort from their charges.
Courses at the institutes run by many of the larger universities vary in terms of price, study time, skill level and accommodation. Most of the year-long courses are in Seoul and start in March – apply in good time. There’s a good list at wenglish.visitkorea.or.kr, while information on study visas and how to apply for them can be found on the Ministry of Education’s website (wwww.studyinkorea.go.kr). There are private institutes dotted around Seoul and other major cities – wenglish.seoul.go.kr has a list of safe recommendations in the capital, while other official city websites are the best places to look for institutes elsewhere.
If you’re working in Korea, you may not have time for intensive study; if so, it’s worth looking into the government-funded courses run by a few major cities, some of which are so cheap that their price is barely an issue. Many people opt for an even higher degree of informality and take language lessons from friends or colleagues, but with so few English speakers around, just living in Korea can be all the practice you need.
Martial arts classes
Finding classes for the most popular styles (including taekwondo, hapkido and geomdo) isn’t hard, but very few classes cater for foreigners – it’s best to go hunting on the expat circuit. The obvious exception is Seoul; here, popular introductory taekwondo courses take place at Gyeonghuigung palace. Those looking for something more advanced should seek advice from their home country’s own taekwondo federation.
Many temples offer teaching and templestay programmes for around W50,000 per night – a wonderful opportunity to see the “Land of Morning Calm” at its most serene (as long as you can stand the early mornings). Some temples are able to provide English-language instruction, and some not – see weng.templestay.com for more details.
The Korean peninsula shares a time zone with Japan – one hour ahead of China, nine hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time, seven hours ahead of South Africa, fourteen hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time in the US or Montreal in Canada, and one hour behind Sydney. Daylight Saving hours are not observed, so though noon in London will be 9pm in Seoul for much of the year, the difference drops to eight hours during British Summer Time.
The Korean tourist authorities churn out a commendable number of English-language maps, pamphlets and books, most of which are handed out at information booths – you’ll be able to find one in every city, usually outside the train or bus stations. Not all of these are staffed with an English-speaker, but you’ll be able to get 24-hour assistance and advice on the dedicated tourist information line – dial t1330 and you’ll be put through to helpful call-centre staff who speak a number of languages and can advise on transport, sights, accommodation, theatre ticket prices and much more. If calling from a mobile phone or abroad, you’ll also need to put in a regional prefix – to reach Seoul, for example, dial t02/1330. The official Korean tourist website (wenglish.visitkorea.or.kr) is quite useful, and most cities and provinces have sites of their own.
Travelling with children
Korea is a country with high standards of health and hygiene, low levels of crime and plenty to see and do – bringing children of any age should pose no special problems. Changing facilities are most common in Seoul – department stores are good places to head – though few restaurants have highchairs, and baby food labelled in English is almost non-existent. A few hotels provide a babysitting service, though those in need can ask their concierge for a newspaper with babysitter adverts. Every city has cinemas, theme parks and a zoo or two to keep children amused; Everland and Seoul Land are the two most popular escapes from Seoul, while there are a number of interesting museums in the capital itself. Note that some restaurants – especially those serving galbi, a self-barbecued meat – have hot-plates or charcoal in the centre of the table, which poses an obvious danger to little hands, and in a country where it’s perfectly normal for cars to drive on the pavements, you may want to exercise a little more caution than normal when walking around town.
Travellers with disabilities
Despite its First World status, Korea can be filed under “developing countries” as far as disabled accessibility is concerned, and with rushing traffic and crowded streets, it’s never going to be the easiest destination to get around. Until recently, very little attention was paid to those with disabilities, but things are changing. Streets are being made more wheelchair-friendly, and many subway and train stations have been fitted with lifts. Almost all motels and tourist hotels have these, too, though occasionally you’ll come across an entrance that hasn’t been built with wheelchairs in mind. Some museums and tourist attractions will be able to provide a helper if necessary, but wherever you are, willing Koreans will jump at the chance to help travellers in obvious need of assistance.
Working in Korea
There are two main types of foreigner in Korea: English teachers and American soldiers. Other jobs are hard to come by, though today’s Korea is becoming ever more prominent in global business, with the resulting foreign contingent gradually permeating Seoul’s army of suits. It’s still fairly easy to land a teaching job, though to do this legally a degree certificate is nigh-on essential; wages are good, and Korea is a popular port of call for those wishing to pay off their student loan quickly while seeing a bit of the world. The cost of living, though rising, is still below that in most English-speaking countries.
With the number of teaching jobs on offer, it’s quite possible to handpick a city or province of your choice. Seoul is an obvious target and the easiest place from which to escape into Western pleasures if necessary, though note that a hefty proportion of positions listed as being in the capital are actually in uninteresting satellite cities such as Bundang, Anyang or Ilsan, all a long journey from central Seoul – try to find the nearest subway station to your prospective position on a map if possible. Those who head to provincial cities such as Daejeon, Mokpo or Busan generally seem to have a better time of things, and emerge with a truer appreciation of the country, as well as better Korean language skills. There are also those who arrive with a specific purpose in mind – surfers dig Jeju and the east coast, for example, while others choose to immerse themselves in the culture by staying in the smallest possible town.
Uncomplicated entry requirements, low tax and decent pay cheques make Korea one of the most popular stops on the English-teaching circuit. Demand for native speakers is high and still growing; English-teaching qualifications are far from essential, and all that is usually required is a degree certificate, and a copy of your passport – many people have been taken on by a Korean school without so much as a telephone interview. Most new entrants start off by teaching kids at a language school (hagwon). Some of the bigger companies are ECC, YBM and Pagoda, and most pay around W2,000,000 per month, though even for people doing the same job at the same school this may vary depending on nationality and gender – Canadian women usually get the most, British gents the least. After a year or two, many teachers are sick of kids and puny holiday allowances (typically less than two weeks per year), and make their way to a university teaching post; pay is usually lower and responsibilities higher than at a hagwon, though the holiday allowances (as much as five months per year) are hard to resist. Most teachers give their bank balance a nudge in the right direction by offering private lessons on the side – an illegal practice, but largely tolerated unless you start organizing them for others. To land a full-time job from outside Korea you’ll have to go online, and it’s still the best option if you’re already in Korea – popular sites include Dave’s ESL Café (wwww.eslcafe.com) and HiTeacher (whiteacher.com), though a thorough web search will yield more.
One of the most regular hagwon-related complaints is the long hours many teachers have to work – figure on up to 30 per week. This may include Saturdays, or be spread quite liberally across the day from 9am to 9pm – try to find jobs with “no split shift” if possible. Questionable school policies also come in for stick; for example, teachers are often expected to be present at the school for show even if they have no lessons on. Real scare stories are ten-a-penny, too – every teacher knows an unfortunate fellow-foreigner whose school suddenly closed, the manager having ridden off into the sunset with a pay cheque or two. This said, most schools are reputable; you can typically expect them to organize free accommodation, and to do the legwork with your visa application. Some countries operate Working Holiday visa schemes with Korea, but others will need a full working visa to be legally employed; those unable to collect this in their home country are usually given a plane ticket and directions for a quick visa-run to Japan (the closest embassy is in Fukuoka).
Korean public holidays
Sinjeong (New Year’s Day) Jan 1
Seoul celebrates New Year in much the same fashion as Western countries, with huge crowds gathering around City Hall.
Seollal (Lunar New Year)Usually early Feb
One of the most important holidays on the calendar, Lunar New Year sees Koreans flock to their home towns for a three-day holiday of relaxed celebration, and many businesses close up.
Independence Movement Day March 1
Children’s Day May 5
Koreans make an even bigger fuss over their kids than usual on this national holiday – expect parks, zoos and amusement parks to be jam-packed.
Memorial Day June 6
Little more than a day off for most Koreans, this day honours those who fell in battle, and is best observed in the National Cemetery.
Constitution Day July 17
Independence Day Aug 15
The country becomes a sea of Korean flags on this holiday celebrating the end of Japanese rule in 1945.
Chuseok Late Sept or early Oct
One of the biggest events in the Korean calendar is this three-day national holiday, similar to Thanksgiving; families head to their home towns to venerate their ancestors in low-key ceremonies, and eat a special crescent-shaped rice-cake.
National Foundation Day Oct 3
Celebrates the 2333 BC birth of Dangun, the legendary founder of the Korean nation. Shamanist celebrations take place at shrines around Seoul, with the most important on Inwangsan mountain.
Christmas Day Dec 25
Every evening looks like Christmas in neon-drenched Seoul, but on this occasion Santa Haraboji (Grandpa Santa) finally arrives.