10 Essential Things to Know Before Visiting South Korea

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Gwanghwamun and haechi statue in Seoul

South Korea is one of my favorite countries to visit, and not just because it’s my second home. South Korea offers visitors a fantastic blend of city and nature, modern and traditional, with a unique history and culture.

I recently returned to Korea as a tourist, and figured the things I’m rediscovering would be useful for other visitors to South Korea to know, especially first-time tourists.

South Korea is not really that different from other countries for tourists. Even so, there are a few things to know before visiting South Korea.

This post will go over 10 important things to know before visiting South Korea, including very practical knowledge and tips for planning and navigating your trip to Korea.

1. English is not everywhere

The first thing you should know about South Korea is that they speak Korean. Most things will be exclusively in Korean, with a bit of English peppered in.

Many Koreans do speak varying levels of English, especially in Seoul and other large cities and among younger people. But don’t assume that everyone will.

Many places will have signs and menus only in Korean, but you will be able to find plenty of restaurants and cafes with menus in English to eat at.

If museums have information in another language besides Korean, it will be English (and then Japanese or Chinese). Sometimes you can find brochures in Spanish, German, French, Vietnamese, Russian, Thai, or a handful of other languages, but it varies.

Of course, your visit to Korea would be much easier if you could read Korean (even if you can’t speak it). If you want to have a bit of fun before your trip, teach yourself to read hangul, the Korean alphabet.

It may look daunting, but it’s actually pretty easy to learn. You can probably pick it up in a day if you work at. This will make navigating a lot easier, even if you read slowly.

There are a lot of free resources to learn hangul out there if you decide to learn it for fun.

2. Have cash for recharging your transportation card

Overall, South Korea is a very technology-forward country. There are robots at Incheon Airport that literally guide you to your destination. Their internet is terrifically fast. The Wi-Fi connections on the actual subway trains are fantastic.

A glaring exception to this? Buying or recharging your T-money card, the main card used for the subway and buses (like London’s Oyster card).

You can buy a T-money card at some subway stations, as well as at any convenience store. You can recharge them at any subway station or any convenience store. But these processes can only be done via cash.

How to get a T-money card is one of the most important things to know before visiting South Korea

Ticket and transportation card machines in a Seoul subway station

So have some cash on you to buy and recharge your T-money card, if you plan on getting one.

There are also Cashbee cards, but they’re less prevalent and also can’t be used in some areas of Gyeongsangnam-do.

3. You can transfer for free on public transportation

The public transportation system in Seoul and the surrounding province (Gyeonggi-do) is nothing short of amazing. You can get anywhere pretty easily and cheaply.

Another fantastic feature of the public transportation system in Korea is the fact that you can transfer between buses or the subway and the bus free of charge, if you transfer within 30 minutes (or 60 minutes if it’s between 9 PM and 7 AM).

You can do this up to 4 times a day. This doesn’t count if you transfer to the same number bus, or if you exit and re-enter the same subway station.

Transfers between subway lines are also free in general.

So if you have to transfer or switch between modes of transportation to reach your destination, don’t fear – you won’t pay extra (if it’s within that 30 minute window).

4. Get to know the features of Korean bathrooms

A lot of these features of Korean bathrooms are common in other countries, but you may not have encountered all of them. And if you travel Korea long enough, you’ll definitely encounter a few of these.

The biggest thing is that in many bathrooms, you should NOT throw your toilet paper in the toilet. This can clog things up.

So you should throw your toilet paper in the trash can in the bathroom stall. These bathrooms usually have a sign up stating this, but often only in Korea.

So how can you tell what to do? Generally, these bathrooms will have sizable trash cans in them, often piled with toilet paper. If you don’t see any trash can at all in the stall (just the feminine hygiene product bin on the wall in women’s bathrooms), there is a good chance that you can put your toilet paper in the toilet.

In many public bathrooms that the government maintains (like at parks and in subway stations), it’s safe to put toilet paper in the toilet. When I first went to Korea, that wasn’t really the case, but they have since intentionally transitioned away from the overflowing-cans-of-used-toilet-paper situation.

If you don’t see any toilet paper rolls in the bathroom stalls, look for a dispenser outside of the stalls in the main part of the bathroom. This is pretty rare, but I mention it in case you do encounter it (especially during an emergency).

Sometimes the soap available at the sink is a bar of soap on a rod attached to the wall. I can’t say I love this soap setup, especially since it’s more common. Sometimes bathrooms run out of soap too.

Examples: trash can for toilet paper and soap on a stick

So during your visit to Korea, you almost certainly want to carry around hand sanitizer for the times your soap situation is dicey or non-existent. And you might want to carry around tissues or wipes in case there isn’t any toilet paper.

Also, sometimes bathrooms have a mix of sitting toilets and squatting toilets (or only squat toilets, but that’s pretty rare). And some bathrooms have advanced toilets (aka bidets), with features to rinse and even dry your nether regions.

5. Beware of motorbikes

Korea is full of motorbikes, making many of their food and package deliveries. Because many of the drivers are making deliveries, they’re trying to get to their destination – and fast.

This includes taking shortcuts down alleyways and even down sidewalks. On more than one occasion, I’ve been waiting at the crosswalk to cross, and there has been a guy on a motorbike waiting to cross too.

Usually the motorbikes don’t hit people, but just be aware of your location in relation to them, especially when walking down side roads and alleys.

Honestly, watch out for cars too, especially down side roads but also when crossing the street at crosswalks. I got hit by a car in 2019 when legally crossing at a crosswalk (8 cranial stitches, but no concussion).

6. Research the weather when choosing your travel dates

South Korea has four distinct, mostly lovely seasons. The scenery is also beautiful throughout the year, whether you’re in the cities or out in nature.

But a few notes on the different seasons. Summer is very hot, like usually in the mid-80s to the mid-90s Fahrenheit/29-35 degrees Celsius. This may not be super hot for some people, but it’s also extremely humid.

Basically just existing outside in Korea, especially in July and August, is a sweaty affair.

July is also monsoon season. This means more often than not, it’s at least overcast, and it might rain on and off throughout the day. July and August see the most precipitation of the year.

Despite the weather, summer is still a great time to visit Korea, as there are so many activities, events, and festivals. South Korea also has some spectacular beaches for a true summer getaway.

The spring and fall are wonderful times to visit Korea. The weather is a lot more mild and pleasant. In spring, you can see the flowers blooming across the country (like the cherry blossoms in Seoul and the cherry blossoms in Jinhae).

However, spring can see a lot of yellow dust and pollution, so just be ready for that if you visit then.

In fall, trees everywhere morph the country into a dreamy rainbow landscape, especially in the mountains (like Seoraksan National Park in fall).

As for winter, coming from the snowy Midwest in the United States, winters in Korea are pretty mild for me. It doesn’t snow that much, and even when it snows a bit, it doesn’t tend to stick (at least around Seoul).

The temperatures generally get to a high of around the mid-20s to mid-30s Fahrenheit/-4 to 2ish degrees Celsius, dropping to maybe 14 degrees Fahrenheit/-10 degrees Celsius as the low.

7. Korean map apps are your best friend

So Google Maps is available in Korea, but not the best. It often can’t show you walking nor driving routes.

Instead, it’s better to download and use Naver Map or KakaoMap, both of which have English options. Just a word of warning, there still may be some bits in both apps (particularly place names) that are only in Korean.

You may find it more helpful to use some combination of Google Maps and a Korean map app.

If you’d like an app specific to one form of transportation, there is KakaoMetro or Subway Korea for the subway systems in Seoul, Busan, Daegu, Gwangju, and Daejeon. Then there is KakaoBus for bus systems across the country.

8. Carefully research food and restaurants if you have dietary restrictions

Korean cuisine is full of meat- and seafood-heavy foods, sauces, and broths. This includes the multitude of side dishes served alongside Korean food.

So if you’re vegetarian/vegan, eat halal or kosher, or otherwise don’t/can’t consume some types of meat or seafood, you’ll need to be aware of what is typically in Korean dishes.

An obstacle to this is that most restaurants won’t list the ingredients of a dish on the menu. Sometimes a menu might list some ingredients, but not all of them (like not mentioning shrimp as an ingredient but it’s clearly on the picture in the menu).

This is also an issue for people with food allergies, intolerances, and so on. If you want to know what is in a particular dish, you probably just have to ask.

In addition, ingredient substitutions or removals are not always common. Dietary alternatives (e.g. plant-based alternatives, milk alternatives) have only starting gaining steam.

For example, even though many Koreans can’t digest dairy very well, on my last visit to Korea in 2019, any kind of milk alternative was virtually absent from supermarkets (aside from some soy milk brands) and almost completely absent from cafes.

But things are definitely getting better. You can easily find almond milk and oat milk at the supermarkets. Many of the cafes I’ve visited in 2022 have had oat milk as an option on their menus.

Basically, if you have dietary restrictions for any reason (allergies, intolerances, religion, personal reasons), just make sure you do research on the major dishes before you visit.

It’s not that you won’t be able to eat anything, even if you’re vegan (actually Korean temple food is generally vegan!). You can definitely find a variety of cuisines in Seoul and other cities.

It’s just that depending on your diet, finding suitable places to eat might be a bit trickier and require some research in advance.

9. Learn how to navigate Korean restaurants

Restaurants in South Korea are pretty much just like everywhere else, but here are a few tips on navigating them.

Korean servers don’t really come to check up on you like they might in other countries (especially the United States). If you need something from them (like another carafe of water), you have two options.

First, many tables have a button located somewhere on top. You can press that button and it’ll signal to the servers that you need something.

But if there is no button, you’ll have to flag down a server yourself. In South Korea, the typical way to do this is to shout “저기요” (jeogiyo; or roughly “joh-gee-yoh”). When I do this, I also kinda raise my hand near my head (like I’m waving at someone) so they can see who called out.

If you are not given any utensils and there aren’t any located in a container on top of the table, they will be located in one of two places. First, check for a drawer around the sides of your table. I’ve seen this more at barbecue restaurants.

Barring that, you probably have to go get them yourself from a central location in the restaurant. This isn’t super common but it isn’t totally rare either.

Utensil drawer and call button at a Korean restaurant

Utensil drawer and a call button on top of a table

In terms of payment, there are three things to know. First, there is no tipping in Korean restaurants. Next, you generally go up to pay at the counter; they won’t come to you.

Finally, everything is typically grouped together on the same receipt (and sometimes you won’t be given a receipt before you pay). So you’ll have to tell the cashier how much each person wants to pay.

You can also tell the cashier “따로따로요” (daro-daro-yo; “dah-roh dah-roh yoh”) to split the check evenly between everyone.

10. Korean convenience stores are amazing

Like convenience stores in other Asian countries, the convenience stores around South Korea are high quality.

What makes that so? For one, they’re everywhere. And they have a bit of everything. Both hot and cold drinks, snacks, ramyeon (Korean ramen), alcohol, toiletries, pantyhose, bandages, and more.

So if you are in dire need of something in the middle of Korea, try a convenience store. You’ll even find them in rural areas, by beaches, et cetera.

A shelf of miscellaneous items you may need in a Korean convenience store

Various items available in a Korean convenience store

If you’re a snack or ramyeon connoisseur, Korean convenience stores will be paradise to you. One whole shelf in each store is always dedicated to just rameyon.

Many convenience stores also have a small area with a few seats where you can sit and eat ramyeon (they have hot water there to make it!). Some even have tables and chairs outside, so you can enjoy your food and drinks there when the weather is nice.

So be on the lookout for convenience stores like GS25, CU, Emart 24, 7-11, and Mini Stop.

There are also cafes everywhere if you’d like to hang out somewhere with a bit more atmosphere.

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