4 guys walking in Seoul

Essential Things To Know Before Traveling To South Korea

Are you planning a trip to South Korea, but feel overwhelmed with what you need to know? With its unique blend of traditional and modern culture, there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to visiting this diverse country.

This article will give you all the essential information, tips, and tricks for a smooth journey. From cultural customs to finding your way around, it’s good to know what to be aware of before traveling to South Korea.

So let’s dive in and make sure that you’re prepared to go on your South Korean travel adventure.

a red palace in Seoul with a mountain in the background

Key takeaways

  • South Korea has unique local laws and customs. Loud talking on trains is frowned upon, red ink signifies death, and elderly people should be respected.
  • It’s smart to know emergency numbers like local police and your country’s embassy or consulate before you travel to South Korea.
  • In South Korea, there is no tipping culture and it can sometimes be refused by locals. This shows a high level of customer service without any extra incentives.
  • When landing in South Korea, change your money into the Korean won for easy use throughout your stay.
  • It’s very convenient to get a T-Money Card when you arrive, which will allow easy travels around the country including buses, subways, taxis and even some stores.

Important travel advisories for South Korea

Before you start your journey to South Korea, it’s crucial to stay updated with travel advisories.

Be aware of local laws and customs

When traveling in South Korea, respecting local laws and customs is crucial. Activities considered harmless elsewhere might be illegal in this East Asian nation. For instance, you must avoid using red ink as it signifies death or severe criticism.

If you plan on engaging with the elderly during your travels, show full respect since elders hold a significant position in Korean society.

Chatting loudly on trains or metros could annoy fellow travelers and is generally frowned upon by locals. Likewise, tipping isn’t part of the culture unless explicitly stated at touristy spots like hotels.

By being aware of these unique rules and adhering to them, you not only ensure a trouble-free trip but also earn appreciation from natives for honoring their way of life.

Know emergency contact information

It’s wise to store numbers such as the local police and your country’s embassy or consulate in your phone before you leave home. The emergency phone number for South Korea is: 112.

Things to do when you arrive

When your plane touches down in South Korea, it’s time to sort out a couple of things. In no time, you’ll be all set up to explore the vibrant heart of South Korea!

Change your currency

It’s vital to have the local currency on hand as soon as you land in South Korea. There are several spots at the airport where you can exchange your currency. Compare exchange rates and fees before switching your money to get the best deal.

Get a Korean sim card

Stepping off the plane with a Korean sim card is your first ticket to a smooth journey in South Korea. There’s no need to worry about how you’ll navigate or communicate; these cards will have you covered instantly.

The necessity of having a Korean SIM card cannot be overstated. It’s your lifeline for certain activities and services, enabling effortless communication and internet access. Download these useful apps to make your travels here a lot easier.

Pre-ordering is also an efficient way of getting a SIM card in Korea. Not only does it offer convenience, but it also saves time upon arrival at the airport.

Picking up a tourist SIM card at Incheon Airport is another alternative.

Buy a T-Money Card

Once you touch down in South Korea, buy a T-Money Card. This little piece of plastic is your gateway to hassle-free travel within the country.

The T-Metro card allows easy access to buses, subways, and even some taxis, particularly in Seoul. It makes getting around Seoul a lot easier. Numerous affiliated stores across the country accept this card as well.

You can buy a T-Money Card at the airport when you arrive. It makes getting around so much easier. They’re available at the metro station, but also in convenience stores.

holding my T-Money card in Seoul
My own T-Money card

Cultural customs to keep in mind

While in South Korea, there are some cultural customs to be aware of. Perhaps you’re solo traveling in Seoul or you’re visiting South Korea for the first time.

It’s always good to know what to keep in mind when visiting a country with a different culture. For instance, respecting the elderly is crucial and there’s no tipping culture here.

Read on to find out what cultural norms to keep in mind while traveling in this fascinating country.

Respect the elders

In South Korea, the age-old Confucianist traditions command deep respect for elders. It’s customary and crucial to remain polite when having a conversation with elderly individuals.

This cultural nuance flows from an inherent value system that prioritizes wisdom and life experiences over youth and technology, unlike many Western cultures.

If an older person offers you food or drink, gracefully accept it as a sign of your gratitude and respect toward them.

In the subway, don’t sit on the red seats which are designated for pregnant women and older people. Even if they are empty, as this will not be culturally accepted at all.

So while engaging with Koreans, always be mindful of these practices to demonstrate respect for their culture and people.

No tipping culture

In South Korea, you’ll find a unique aspect of their customer service culture – the absence of tipping. This isn’t just at restaurants but extends to cabs, hotels and other services as well.

Often, tips may even be refused by locals! Before you reach for your wallet to reward excellent service with extra cash, keep in mind that gratuity is usually included in the bill.

It’s also normal to not have table service. At most restaurants and cafes you have to order at the counter. You have to collect your order here as well. It’s often presented on a small tray, which you bring back to the counter after you’ve finished.

The no tipping tradition indicates a high level of expected customer service across all sectors – the way business is done without additional incentives.

Still getting used to it? Don’t worry; there’s no rush since understanding cultural norms can take time.

Just enjoy your travel experience without worrying about calculating tips!

basque cheesecake and villa oat latte in Seoul
Basque cheesecake and a vanilla oat latte at E.Chae Coffee: no need to tip.

Avoid using red ink

In South Korea, the choice of ink color holds a significant cultural connotation. The use of red ink when writing is frowned upon due to traditional beliefs associated with death and bad luck.

Even if you’re simply jotting down someone’s name in your travel journal, steer clear of red pens or markers. This comes from an old superstition that scribes would write a person’s name in red just before their death.

So while you may see it as a mere style preference or way to make your notes stand out, locals could interpret it very differently, so it’s best not to use red ink when here.

Be mindful of your volume in public spaces

Public spaces in South Korea are often quiet oases, even in busy cities. This makes it a great destination for introverts and people who appreciate tranquility.

Koreans prize tranquility and peace, so adhering to an unspoken volume control rule can be a significant sign of respect towards locals.

This practice is deeply rooted in their cultural trait known as “nunchi,” where people gauge each other’s moods and adjust behaviors accordingly.

Having conversations with moderate volume not only displays your cultural sensitivity but also contributes positively to the communal atmosphere.

Instead of causing disruptions, try immersing yourself in the shared silence—it’s considered impolite to disturb this tranquil ambiance with loud chatter or burst out laughs.

In the traditional Bukchon Hanok Village, you’ll even see signs that say that you should be quiet to respect the people living there.

So when you’re on public transport or visiting popular landmarks, remember: being quieter helps enhance everyone’s experience—including your own!

In other words: don’t be too loud!

person wearing shirt with no noise please in bukchon hanok village
Bukchon Hanok Village: ”Please Be Quiet”

Jeong (sharing is caring)

The deep-rooted concept of “Jeong” is an untranslatable term loosely meaning affectionate bonding through shared experiences.

Receive and give things with two hands

It’s a sign of respect to receive and give things with two hands. You might think I’m exaggerating, but believe me, you’ll see every local do this. Instead of using two hands, it’s also widely common to put your hand on your other arm like an extension.

Managing your expectations

It’s always important to have realistic expectations. Here you’ll find essential information regarding how to manage your expectations before traveling in South Korea.

Don’t expect a K-Drama love story

Korean dramas, often known as K-Dramas, portray a version of love that can seem dreamy and idealistic. These scripted television shows have set an unexpected standard for real-life relationships in South Korea.

However, once you step on the Korean soil, don’t anticipate your life transforming into a K-Drama love story. In reality, dating culture varies significantly from what these shows depict.

There’s more conservative behavior and people may be more reserved than characters are on screen.

While it’s fun to indulge in K-Dramas’ narratives with their plot twists and romantic fantasies, remember they are just fiction designed for entertainment value not a mirror image of actual Korean society or its personal relations dynamics.

So go ahead – enjoy watching those incredible K-dramas but when visiting South Korea keep your expectations grounded based off genuine cultural practices rather than romanticized scripts!

couple walking hand in hand in forest park Hongdae

Prepare for spiciness in food

Korean cuisine is delicious, but can also be very spicy. I remember thinking that it couldn’t be that bad, but then I bought a meal at a convenience store and had to run to get a glass of water to cool down my mouth.

You’re likely to encounter a symphony of spices, featuring red pepper as the star of many dishes. Tread lightly if you’re not used to spices.

However, these flavors are definitely worth embracing for an authentic culinary adventure in South Korea. One of the best places to try some local Korean street food is the buzzing Gwangjang Market in Seoul.

The spiciness level is often different from what Western palates are used to, so prepare for a spicy experience. If you prefer milder foods, don’t worry; options exist that minimize or eliminate the spiciness altogether.

While eating out, feel free to request less spicy versions of certain recipes.

Woman with vegetables at Gwangjang Market

Stay cautious of cults and spy cameras

In South Korea, be mindful of the ongoing issue known as the “Spycam Plague”. Hidden cameras have been found in toilets, hotels and changing rooms, capturing women in compromising situations for a form of pornography called ‘molka’.

This crisis continues to persist daily with new illegal spy cams being discovered. Don’t let this alarm you too much, but it’s wise to stay aware of your surroundings.

There are ways you can spot such hidden devices; checking corners and fixtures thoroughly or using flashlight reflections can help identify suspicious lenses. There are also certain tools on Amazon to detect these hidden spy cams.

While exploring streets and public squares, remain alert for cults too. You might encounter people insisting on sharing religious philosophies with you or persuading you to attend their gatherings or donate money. These could possibly be representatives of cults popular in South Korea.

It’s advisable not to share personal details without proper validation for your safety.

Be aware of (non)child-friendly places

With one of the lowest birth rates in the world, this may not come as a surprise. There are several places such as restaurants or bars, where kids simply aren’t welcome anymore. 

South Korea is still home to kid-friendly attractions such as Lotte World Adventure, the world’s largest indoor theme park, or museums specially catered towards children such as Gwacheon National Science Museum in Seoul.

You’ll also spot numerous parks where kids can run around and playgrounds in most residential areas.

However, this doesn’t mean all places welcome children. Some traditional restaurants may not be geared towards handling young diners – lacking high chairs or child-friendly menus. Some places don’t accept children at all.

So while South Korea is largely child-friendly, you should always check if your intended destination accommodates children before visiting.

exit at Gyeongbokgung Palace

In conclusion

South Korea is a the perfect combination of rich tradition and rapid modernity, waiting for you to explore. As a traveler, understanding cultural norms and being prepared for your trip can really enhance your journey.

Whether tasting spicy food or navigating the streets with local maps, every adventure in South Korea offers a unique experience.

So pack your bags and let this vibrant country amaze you.

Away with Danae

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