Looking for Korea travel tips for your upcoming trip to South Korea? Lucky you!
South Korea is one of the most beautiful countries on earth. It’s geography includes mountains, valleys, rice paddies and cosmopolitan cities all nestled between miles of uninterrupted sandy coastline. You’ll find spicy soups and incredible cooked meat as well as a culture that has maintained it’s history while bee-lining for the future. Historical sites, Buddhist monasteries, and some of the top technology companies in the world all call this incredible country home.
South Korea is on the forefront of tourism and their global position is only getting stronger. If you find yourself one of the lucky ones coming to visit this diverse country then here are some tips you must know before traveling to Korea!
Here are the top Korea travel tips from an American who lived there for two years:
1. Movies are shown in English
All movies are in English with Korean subtitles at theaters, unless specially labeled. Kid’s movies are the exception, though. They are easier to dub (especially cartoons) so they initially release in Korean. You’ll have to wait a little while past the release date to watch a kid’s movie in English, but then the showings are about half and half.
2. You Could Need a Korean Credit Card
One of our biggest Korea travel tips is to understand that buying stuff online with a credit card is not easy. If you’re moving to Korea for an extended period of time get a Korean credit card quickly! Many websites only accept Korean credit cards, which makes purchasing theater tickets, hotel rooms, or products a huge hassle for non-Korean speaking foreigners.
3. Download these Korea apps to make your travel easier
Google won’t work as reliably in Korea as you’re probably used to. You should still try to search for basic things to get an idea of what might be available, but it’s word is not law here. Google maps, for example, doesn’t show any routes around many large areas!
- Kakao Talk: messaging app frequently used by Koreans
- Kakao Map: navigation app for walking directions
- Mango Plate: review app to find restaurants
4. You CAN drink the water
Public water passes more sanitation test than most other developed countries, which makes it some of the best drinking water in the world. This hasn’t always been the case though, so Koreans are still used to drinking filtered water. Public water stations with giant water containers are popular, and you’ll be given a tall reusable bottle of filtered water when you sit down at a restaurant. This is all cultural though, not a necessity.
It’s easy to find bottled water for those who prefer it, but just know that you won’t get sick if you drink straight from the tap, either.
5. You Buy Your Trash Bags, Which Means There is a Lot of Public Trash
In Korea citizens purchase special trash bags from the grocery store or convenience stores.
- White: Inorganic trash
- Yellow: Organic (food) trash
- Recycling is placed in a designated compartment provided to your building
These bags are kept behind the cashier next to the cash register because they can get expensive and are prone to theft.
Since you have to buy your own garbage bags public places are pretty stingy about letting you throw your trash away. They want to use the limited bag space for their stuff. You’ll also notice places separating customer’s food from trash and condensing each as much as possible to maximize space in their trash bags. The best example of all of this is Myeongdong food market in Seoul. When walking around you’ll see each stall will have a stack of used paper plates or bowls from people who order a snack and eat in front of the stall. If you don’t finish your food at it’s stall you’ll run the risk of carrying the plate from it around with you for the rest of the night: there are very few public trash cans and other stalls won’t let you use theirs!
This is also one reason there are trash mounds on many street corners. Since trash bags are expensive and trash cans are rare, it’s easier for people to drop their random trash item in public than to take it home and put it in their own bin.
That’s a lot of info just about the trash habits of Koreans, but it’s an interesting dynamic which causes a lot of difficulties for tourists!
6. Korea Stinks
When I told friends we were in Seoul one replied,
“I worked as an English teacher there for 2 years. It’s such a great city, but it smells!”
She was so right. I had had the same thought and, knowing I wasn’t alone, brought it up to my husband who was also back after having previously lived in Seoul. He agreed and we started to notice the smell everywhere.
Unlike other big cities the scent isn’t just food or sewage. Cities tend to have a unique scent to them which can be traced to one particular source, but not Korea. The country smells (especially Seoul) and it’s a source you can’t quite put your finger on.
Street food vendors used to be much more common than they are today, but were largely relocated to designated market areas in the last decade to cut down on Seoul’s pigeon problem. People who have been to Seoul before and after this decree swears it smells better than it did in the food vendor days, but it’s still pretty awful.
7. Most Meals Come with Banchan
When eating at a Korean restaurant you’ll be served many small side dishes after you order. Called banchan (pon-chun) these side dishes are usually in odd-numbers and could consist of a variety of items. Kimchi is the most common, but also chili-spiced radish, dried fish squares, bean sprouts, tofu, black beans, anchovies, chili-spiced cucumbers, sweet pickle slices, cabbage and mayonnaise salad, sweet radish, etc.
Banchan are awesome! They taste great (you’ll soon develop favorites and get excited when a restaurant serves it) and add a lot of variety to your meal. If you’re having bibimbap, which is a soft, warm, rice dish, it’s nice to break with a crunchy radish or piece of kimchi, for example!
Since they’re served soon after ordering banchan are also great to curb immediate hunger. I wasn’t able to tell if Koreans wait to eat banchan until they have their main course, but it wasn’t uncommon for us to ask for seconds of a certain banchan before our meal arrived.
Banchan are thirdly wonderful if you’re dining with kids. Our 6-year-old would eat sweet radish, dried fish, tofu, and a few others with a side of rice as his entire meal. Boom.
The downside of banchan is that all of those little dishes take up a lot of space. Especially considering that many Korean restaurants only have tables with a cooking surface in the middle. Another downside is that you may not like most of the banchan you get one day, and it’s not appetizing to stare at a food you dislike while trying to enjoy your meal.
8. Beware of Slippery Chopsticks
Korea is an Asian country which uses chopsticks for every meal. You’ll find them in a basket on your table or tucked away in a hidden drawer underneath (those hidden compartments are seriously cool, BTW). But believe it or not, not all chopsticks are created equal!
The chopsticks most commonly used in Korea are metal. This means they are hard to hold and food is likely to slip right out. They’ve made things a bit easier by making most chopsticks rectangular. At least that way you can grip food between the corners of each chopstick!
Seasoned chopstick users can still find themselves at the mercy of the slippery metal Korean chopsticks, so consider yourself warned.
9. Auto-Open Door Buttons
It’s common for public businesses to have sliding glass doors with auto-open buttons instead of handles. If you aren’t used to looking for the button you may expect the door to be motion sensored, then confused when it doesn’t open for you. If you don’t see a handle and the door doesn’t open within seconds then look for a long, black rectangle. There will be a button and some words in Korean on it.
Push that and the door will open right up!
Or walk into a glass wall thinking it’s opened. If you want to be like me.
10. Using a Taxi in Korea
Korea doesn’t use Uber, so if you don’t want to use public transportation you’ll need to call a taxi.
It’s easy to call a taxi from the side of the road, as you would in any other country. You’ll recognize the silver cars by their uniformity and the green Taxi hump on the roof. Once a driver stops you can either try your Korean or show him a location on your phone to direct him where to take you.
Taxis start with 3,000 won on their clock. This may seem like a riding fee, but it’s not. The ride will not start to charge money until the 3,000w has already been used up either by time spent in the car or by distance driven. It’s actually pretty fun to play the guessing game of how far you can get on the original 3,000w!
Taking taxis short distance is ideal, since they can be much faster than the subway or bus and would cost the same as a one-way fare for 2 people, anyway.
11. Cars will not stop for tourists
They’ll do their best to drive around you, but when that walk sign turns red you need to watch out!
12. Koreans love children
This is one of the most frequently said things by tourists, and it’s true. If you have a child under 10 with you you can get away with murder in Korea! People will give up seats on the train, will give you food and candy, and stop to talk to you on the street. And if your kid is blonde? Forget it. Expect to be inundated!
This can be hard for American tourists to understand, since we are used to strangers respecting personal space. While Koreans respect space, too, they just don’t believe children are their own person yet.
Related: How to Spend 2 Days in Busan
13. Tipping isn’t necessary
Unlike the United States, a fair wage is added into the employee salary without it depending on tips for service. While a tip is always appreciated in the service industry, it’s certainly not necessary and not considered rude to hold out.
14. There’s no centralized air
South Korea experienced an unprecedented heat wave in 2018. This heat wave led to deaths and hospitalizations because the infrastructure is not equipped to handle high temperatures. Buildings don’t use a central air conditioning system, so specific rooms rely on individual fans.
It was even commonly believed that breathing near a fan would suck your own air away, so many of the population try not to use room fans at all.
15. Koreans are willing to do just about anything for their health
Including physical activity, eating foods they hate (hello, Sea Cucumber!), and public bath house routines.
Some of their health routines can be really fun and may even be beneficial, but you can expect an older Korean to publicly shame you for drinking water while eating or any number of other things they think you are doing which could cause you harm. Learn to take their health advice with a grain of salt and just move on if don’t agree. It’s not worth trying to argue.
16. Koreans are obsessed with beauty
South Korea has one of the highest rates of plastic surgery in the world and is well-know for beauty products. K-Beauty has become a world wide phenomenon, so you should take this opportunity to look into some of their products! Beauty stores are some of the most common businesses in cities. They are employed with men and women ready to pounce on anyone who enters with free beauty advice and samples. It can be a bit overwhelming, but also helpful.
Even if you aren’t interested in your own beauty treatments please respect that others are. You’ll see different shades of hair, lots of makeup, and fashion-forward clothing to reflect how important image is to Koreans.
17. Public Transportation is easy in Seoul
Most travelers will find themselves in Seoul, Korea’s booming capital. Seoul has a lot to offer, and you’ll love it if that’s where you end up.
If you find yourself in Seoul the public transportation is really simple to use. Buy a metro card at any convenience store and add money to it on the spot. You’ll need cash to pay for the card at a convenience store and also to renew it via an automatic machine in the train station.
Once you’re in the train station the line and direction you need are simple to figure out. There are subway maps around the station, and each line is given both a color and a number. Follow the color to find the right train. Each train car is set up with a screen which warns passengers of the upcoming stops. The announcement is made in Korean and English, so just keep an eye on the screen and you’ll know when to leave.
Unfortunately the system is not available all over Korea! Some train lines can take you to Incheon or Busan, but you’ll need to rent a car to visit more remote areas.
18. Korea uses Western toilets- Yay!
While many Asian countries use floor-level squat potties, Korea is much more advanced in it’s bathroom technology. Not only do they use Western sit-down toilets, they also often have bidets available. Korea has taken a note from Japan to take good care of their undercarriage, and Koreans take pride in their bathroom routines!
19. They Use All-in-one Shower/ Bathrooms
You might be surprised to walk into a Seoul hotel room or AirBnB in South Korea and see that there is no bathtub and that the shower head isn’t separated from the rest of the bathroom. This isn’t always the case, but it’s definitely the most common scenario.
Bathrooms will have a shower head and waist-level nozzle for cleaning your entire body or just your feet. The shower is typically against one corner opposite the toilet. You should protect toilet paper while showering, as water will spray everywhere! This is strange to get to used to at first, but it’s kind of nice to have a whole lot of room to shower!
20. You’ll be Offered Shower Shoes and House Slippers
It is considered rude and dirty to wear street shoes indoors. It’s common in Korea to place your shoes outside the door of a business or home. Some may even provide slippers or flip flops to be used by guests inside. This keeps the floors free of outside debris and shows a level of respect to your host.
Since most showers spray into the entire bathroom you will also typically find a pair of shower shoes at the door to the bathroom. These plastic shoes are meant to keep you free from stepping in water. Don’t catch yourself wearing them while in the shower, though, or else your safety shoes will become wet!
21. Convenience Stores are Everywhere
Americans are used to stepping in to a gas station to pick up a pack of gum or milk, and you can do the same thing at a convenience store while travelling in South Korea.
GS25, 7-Eleven, and CU are the main convenience stores you’ll find in Korea. They are typically small and only carry the essentials. They’ll be in strip malls, street corners, and train stations.
Our favorite thing from these Korean convenience stores is their bag drinks:
- Look for a wire rack of brightly-colored bags of different flavored fruit juice or coffee
- Nearby is a cooler with two different sized sealed cups full of ice: Large and Small.
- Pick your drink bag and your ice cup and buy both from the cash register
- After buying rip open the bag and ice cup and pour the drink in
- There will be a counter with trash cans for this drink trash
Convenience stores are also full of pretty tasty pre-packaged meals. You’ll find sausage on a stick, sushi or kimbap triangles, bento meals, and cups of Ramen noodles. They’ll even have a microwave! Many patrons buy and cook their meals on the spot. Some stores will even have portable tables!
22. Ramen is totally different in Korea
Forget everything you know about the cheap Maruchan Ramen Noodles when you come to Korea. Their packs of dried ramen noodles are still cheap, but much much better!
The most famous Korean ramen is Shin Black. It’s a spicy ramen which comes with three flavor packets of sauce, powder, and dried veggies. Everything from the broth to the noodles and the extras is completely different from those in America. The taste is phenomenal and, with the addition of some canned tuna or a fried egg, ramen becomes a very respectful meal!
Korea is a wonderful place with so much to offer. You’ll love it! With these Korea travel tips you’ll arrive prepared!
The O’Briens sold everything in 2017 to travel the world full-time. They work online as digital nomads to fund their travels, and homeschool their son along the way. Follow them on Instagram and YouTube for a glimpse into what it’s like to travel full-time as a family!