Planning to travel to Korea soon or have you just moved here? Then have I got an article for you… Check out “Everything You Need to Know Before Traveling to Korea“ and hear about the things you will need to understand for a smooth trip.
- Korean Etiquette
- Public Transportation
- The Language Barrier
- Living Expenses
- Shopping in Korea
- The Weather
- Air Pollution and Face Masks
- Safety and Health Care
- Internet and Phone Plans
- Korean Food
1. Korean Etiquette
In Korean Society, manners play an important role and as an outsider, it is important to make an effort to understand the rules if you want to make friends and truly experience all that this amazing culture has to offer.
This is easier said than done however, as there are a number of differences regarding polite behavior that non-Koreans may not be aware of. In this section, I will talk about some of the things I have learned but please know there are likely many more that I am forgetting or simply haven’t learned yet.
Lets start with transportation and then move through the various categories that you might experience while in Korea. In other countries, riding in a bus or train or even a taxi may be perceived as a perfect time to have a conversation with your neighbor or friend but here in Korea it is considered rude to talk while traveling on public transportation. Additionally, respecting one’s elders is very important here and if an older person comes on the bus and there are no seats available, it is polite to allow them to take your seat. In fact, there are designated seats on busses where this is required. Yellow seats are reserved for those who are pregnant, with children or those who have mobility issues.
The main rule to remember while shopping is that it is considered rude to hand money to the cashier with only one hand or to set your credit card or money on the counter. When offering something to someone in Korean culture, one should use two hands. This rule is one that I sometimes struggle with and I constantly have to remind myself. The good news is that the rule seems to be evolving as now it is acceptable to simply touch part of your second hand to any area of your arm. This should be done when giving or receiving as is shown above, my husband is touching is wrist while the cashier is touching his elbow area.
When visiting someone’s house and even some businesses, you should remove your outdoor shoes. Sometimes you will have slippers to wear, sometimes not. Regardless, entering a building with your shoes on can be considered very disrespectful. Also, it is customary to greet someone with a small bow and when shaking hands, two hands should be used. Finally, when chatting together, avoid pointing as it is considered to be very rude.
When dining out there are a number of rules you should be aware of. As I mentioned earlier, in Korea, it is important to be considerate to your elders and this is something you must consider while dining. If the person is older or is your boss at work, you should defer to them when at the table. In other words, allow them to start before you begin to eat or drink.
When drinking, it is considered rude to fill your own glass, so please fill the glasses for others at the table. Furthermore, when passing the glass back or passing anything for that matter, use two hands. With beverages, the second hand should form a bowl under the beverage to avoid spilling.
Do not use your spoon and chop Sticks at the same time. Chop sticks are for dishes while the spoon is appropriate for rice and soup. Additionally, do not stab food with your chopsticks and do not leave your chopsticks sticking up out of your food as this is something done when someone passes away.
For more information on Korean Etiquette please click on the following link: https://culturalatlas.sbs.com.au/south-korean-culture/south-korean-culture-etiquette
2. Public Transportation
Overall, Korea has one of the best public transportation systems in the world and unlike the US, you can travel fairy efficiently without owning an automobile. While it may be a bit intimidating to take your first bus ride, subway ride or train ride, once you do you will realize how easy it really is. Below I will discuss some things that you should know when taking public transportation while you are in Korea.
For this article, I will start with the bus system and go one by one and discuss the most important things to know when traveling here. First, if you take any public transport you must pay unless you fall into some special categories like age that will not be discussed in this article. To pay for any public system, you can use what is known as a T-Money Card (see picture below), your credit card or sometimes cash.
I suggest the T- money card because some may not be able to handle a cash exchange and it is very simple to buy. To purchase a T-Money card, try your local corner store (711, CU, Emart 24 etc…) they should have the cards there and you can load them there with funds as well. Keep in mind that you may need cash to load the cards as they will not allow you to use credit cards for this type of transaction. The good news is that once loaded they can be used for busses, subways, taxis and even in stores, restaurants and event venues… Just look for the T Money Logo.
For more information about T-Money Cards check out the following website: https://inmykorea.com/t-money-card-korean-transportation-card/#How_Can_I_Recharge_The_T-Money_Card
For information on traveling with your pets, try the following link: https://janiceslifestyle.com/2023/02/17/traveling-with-your-pets-in-korea/
Taking the Bus
Taking the bus can be one of the more affordable ways to get around in Korea. When taking a bus there are a number of things you should know. First, the busses can be different colors and each color helps you identify its purpose. Blue busses travel the major roadways, green busses travel on smaller roads between larger stops and subway stations, finally red busses travel out from the center of town to the suburbs.
When you get on the bus, as we stated above, talking should be kept to a minimum and cell phone conversations are frowned upon. If you are too loud, you will be asked to stop talking. When entering the bus you can pay with cash to the driver or by using your T money card or certain credit cards that have the correct chips. If you use a T money card or a credit card, be sure to use it on your way out as well because this will automatically apply a discount to your next fare if you take another bus or subway.
When trying to determine what bus to take, there are several options, you can review the maps at the bus stop to see where each bus goes, you can use an app like KakaoBus or you can use a map or location app like Google maps or Naver to determine which bus number you should take.
Once you know what bus you need, there is normally a sign at the bus stop that will tell you when the bus will arrive. Typically, busses run very frequently and the wait is not too long, but times may vary depending on where you are going. You can see this in the picture below.
For more information please click on the following link: https://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/TRP/TP_ENG_5_1.jsp
Taking the Subway
Subways can be a fast and easy way to get from one part of town to another. While driving can be convenient, the traffic can be difficult at times, but the subway doesn’t have that problem. It runs on a tight schedule and is very consistent.
Here in Daejeon the subway is fairly easy to figure out and there is only one loop. Simply go into the tunnel, pay at the gate with a T-Money card or credit card, go down the stairs and look at the map above the doors. Find your current location (in red) and the location you want to go and be sure the arrow is pointing that direction. If not, go to the opposite side. If you are concerned, you can count the number of stops between or you can look at the map in the train or just listen for your stop.
While Daejeon’s subway system is pretty straight forward and easy to use, Seoul is a bit more complicated and there are a number of apps you can use to find your way. I prefer KakaoMetro but everyone you talk to will have a favorite. The premise is the same however, and once you determine where you want to go, find it on the map above the door, determine where you are now and be sure the arrow is going the right way.
Finally, it is important to remember that the subway like the bus is considered a quiet zone and talking should be kept to a minimum. Also, it is considered polite to give up your seat for someone that may have difficulty standing.
For more information regarding subway travel click on the following link: https://adventurekorea.com/master-the-subways-in-seoul/
Taking the Train
Korea was famous for its train system long before “Train to Busan” became a hit export because it is designed to meet whatever your need may be as a traveler. Need convenience and speed, Try the KTX or SRT trains, Less concerned about time and more concerned about your budget? Then the Mugunghwa train may be a better fit… Are you somewhere in the middle? How about the ITX, its cheaper than KTX and the SRT but faster than the Mugunghwa.
In addition to a variety of options, the train is also quite easy to use and very reasonable regarding the cost per trip regardless of your choice. To purchase a ticket, one can use an app through your smart phone, a kiosk at the station, or make the purchase at the counter. The personnel at the ticket counter typically speak English well and are happy assist you when making a purchase. In addition, most train stations have an information booth that can provide assistance to you in English as well.
Once you have purchased your ticket, be sure to identify what gate your train is leaving from. Often, the ticket agent will write it on the ticket for you, but if not, you can check the main display to see what gate you need to use. The display will show in both English and Korean, so just wait a moment if you are confused. The display will also tell you if the train is running late or on-time. Korean trains are very punctual so do not be late getting to your track or you may miss your train. Remember the time on your ticket is when the train is scheduled to leave, not arrive, so plan accordingly.
Once you know your track, now you should check for what car you will be on and what seat. That information is located on your ticket. In the picture below I have highlighted the seat number in yellow and the car number in blue. When approaching the track stairs, there will be a sign that tells you which train cars will be on which side of the stairs. Additionally, the train car will be displayed both on the wall and marked on the ground. The train drivers are very precise and will usually arrive within a foot or so of the ground marker.
If you miss your train, go to the ticket window or information booth and they will help you. Also, if there are no seats available, ask for standing room tickets, there is an area between each car next to the baggage where you can stand and there are even two fold down seats available if it is not too crowded.
Once on the train, immediately inside the door there will be a place for your luggage, if your bag is small, it can also be stored over your seat. Additionally, some trains have receptacles to charge your phone and laptop. Internet is also typically available on all public transport as well.
As with the bus and subway, talking during the ride with your seat mate or on your phone is frowned upon. If you must take a call, you should move to the space in-between the cars (standing room) and away from other passengers. Also, this is the area where the bathrooms typically are located, but there is usually a diagram on the back of the seat that tells you where all the restrooms and all emergency materials can be found.
Now that you have your ticket, know rules for riding, and know how to find the restroom, the last thing you need to know is when to get off. Well, for this the trains are well designed. An announcement will be made regarding stops in several languages including Korean, Japanese and English. Also. in the center aisle, you will see a display that will tell you the next stop, though it displays other public messages as well. Just wait and it will tell you where the next stop will be.
For more information regarding taking a train in Korea, click on the following link: https://info.korail.com/infoeng/selectBbsNttList.do?bbsNo=507&key=1287
Taking a Taxi
Aside from the mass transportation systems in Korea, the taxi system is also very convenient. Unlike the US and the Philippines, Uber, and other ride sharing apps do not operate in Korea as they do elsewhere. You can utilize Uber Black and Uber Taxi, but they must adhere to local rules regarding the vehicle and driver. This has led to the emergence of Kakao Taxi among other potential alternatives here.
As a foreigner, I love using Kakao taxi to get around, because I can type in the address or business name and get exactly where I want to go. When hailing a taxi the old fashion way, the language barrier can make things difficult and you must understand that miscommunications can happen. My husband and I have been dropped off in some pretty unusual places due to this problem. Thankfully, we look at this as an excuse to explore new parts of the city, however, if you are in a rush, it can be frustrating.
Kakao Taxi solves this problem though. To use it, simply download the app on your phone and then, press the taxi icon. There are also other options like Black, which is a deluxe style taxi service and Pet, which allows you to reserve a pet friendly taxi (see earlier article). Once on the app, you will be asked to input your current location and the destination you are traveling to. Your current destination should be displayed on the map using the Geo-locate feature on the app. In the box provided, type in the destination you wish to travel to. It will usually work in English, but if it does not show up, look up the destination you want to travel to on google and then copy the address and try pasting that. Usually that is enough to find the place on the app.
I recommend that you add your payment info to the app as this can be convenient. Sometimes there are not many taxis available at your location, but if you have the autopay selected, it will allow you to use the Kakao Blue option which may work in those situations.
Don’t have a Korean cell phone for an app, no problem. Simply hail a cab the old fashioned way. Well almost the old fashioned way, there are a few things you should know for this as well. First, which cab should I hail? Cabs in Korea use a colored light system to tell you if they are available. Look for a red light in the front window to see if the car is accepting passengers. If there is no light, the cab is likely occupied. If the light is green or blue, the cab is not taking fares at the moment, Blue means not picking up while green means reserved.
Once you find a taxi displaying a red light, you must now hail it correctly. In Korea, it can be considered insulting to show someone the palm of your hand. For that reason, when hailing a taxi, one should stand on the sidewalk and extend your arm palm down. This will tell the taxi you are waiting for pick up.
Once you are in the cab, the driver may or may not speak or even understand English well. For this reason, I suggest you have the name and address of the location you wish to travel ready for the driver in Korean or at least have a picture of the location if it is well know. Also, it may be a good idea to learn the Korean name for some of the more famous locations in your area and you can use this to help you tell the driver where to go. Lastly, if this fails, is there a name in English that may be associated with the location. Before we learned the name for train station or Yeog (pronounced Yoke) which means station, I would simply tell the driver KTX… Everyone know that mean train.
For more information on taking a taxi in Korea click on the following link: https://centers.ibs.re.kr/html/living_en/transport/taxi-finding.html
3. The Language Barrier
If you are traveling to Korea from a different country, chances are that you do not speak Korean or Hangul as it is known here. If you are from an English speaking country, many Koreans have taken English classes in school, however, that does not mean that they will be willing to speak English. You should be prepared to have to solve potential language issues if you are not fluent in Korean. One popular way to overcome the language barrier is to use an app.
The 2 most popular apps that I use are Google Translate and Papago. Why 2 apps you say? Well, I have found that each has its own specialty; Google Translate works very well when it come to things like official documents, while Papago works better when communicating with people. Both apps have camara options that allow for instant translation and this can be very helpful.
For your computer, I would recommend that you install Google Translate as a chrome extension. This will allow you to translate your screen to the language of your choice. Just google search “google translate extension” and install. Once installed, click on the puzzle piece icon (it looks like a Thor’s Hammer to me) and select the language you prefer. It really works well.
Finally, if you plan to stay in Korea, you may want to learn the language. There are many options available for this as well. If you simply want some conversational words, there are a number of videos on YouTube that can help. If you want to learn on your own, I suggest Rosetta stone, I have a few friends that have used this software and really liked it. Finally, if you are like me and do better in a classroom setting you can sign up for free lessons at local government centers.
For government provided language lessons, please click the following link: https://dic.or.kr/en/sub03/menu_01_03_01_1.html?ckattempt=1
4. Living Expenses
One thing people often ask me about is the cost of living here in Korea. My answer is that somethings are more affordable than others. When it comes to cost of living items, where you come from will definitely impact how you perceive the costs here in Korea. For me, had I arrived directly from my home in the Philippines, I would probably consider the expenses to be pretty high. However, after spending time in the US, my opinion has changed accordingly.
The US can be very expensive to live in. Rent, utilities, and insurance (medical and car) can be really costly, but food, and merchandise seems to be cheaper in America. On the other hand, here in Korea, the cost of rent, utilities and health care are significantly cheaper, but food and shopping can be very expensive. It is all a matter of what you deem important, but I like that the things you absolutely need are cheaper here, although, if I am being honest, I definitely miss the sales you find shopping back in the US.
So let’s talk about how things work here:
Rent and housing
While rent is cheap here, you often need to come up with a fairly large down payment. This is known as the Jeonse system. This system allows the tenant to put a rather large down payment on the rental property, usually 50-70% of the value of the property and potentially forego rent. The owner makes money from the interest on the deposit. At the end of the lease, usually a two year period, the tenant can either extend for two more years, or leave receiving all of their Jeonse (key money) back. If you do not have a lot of money to put down, typically you can opt for a smaller deposit and pay more rent each month. Still, overall, it seems to be much more affordable than in the US. Please note however, that in larger cities, rent can still be quite expensive.
For more information click on the following link: https://asiasociety.org/korea/renting-house-south-korea-jeonse
Water, electricity and gas are all supplied via the government here in Korea, and for this reason, the cost is significantly less than in many other countries that may have capitalist systems. Overall, you can expect to pay less than $100 US dollars a month.
For more information see the following link: https://koreabyme.com/guide-to-utility-bills-in-korea/
See section below, health costs here are part of a single payer option and are relatively inexpensive when compared to a place like the United States. The doctors all have very good training and the level of health care in Korea is high.
Food and Merchandise
This is where the cost of living increases and I discuss this a little further down the list. Pricing for clothing and other manufactured products can be quite high and there are few sales to be found. The good news is that you can find plenty of second hand shops if you look for them and local markets are great options for groceries. If you stay with local foods you really can eat well for a low cost, however, if you try to get food from home it will cost you. For me, I love my Filipino soy sauce, but it is nearly 10x the cost of the local soy sauce.
As I mentioned above, shopping in Korea can be quite expensive. One option is to utilize a service like Amazon and have items shipped in. Please note that this does not always work. Some items do not ship here and others may have steep delivery charges. It is worth a look however and we have made many purchases online over the past few years.
For my husband, shopping online is a must as he takes a large size for clothing and shoes. If your shoe size is 11 or higher it can be difficult to find shoes, for my husband who wears shoes that are bigger than a US size 12, it is simply impossible to find anything. If you are traveling here, please make a note and plan accordingly.
There are also items that can be hard to find here. Deodorant is something you should pack because there are few options available. Over the counter medicine can also be difficult to find here. They do have Tylenol, but in small packs, if you use them, you may want to bring a supply. Holiday decorations are also very limited if you decorate. Also, English books, though this can be solved with an e-reader.
6. The Weather
So Korea is a four season country and the temperature can range from 0 – 100 degrees Fahrenheit depending on the season. This means you will need appropriate clothing for all weather types including a good warm coat, gloves and a hat. Dress appropriately and the weather is less of an issue. Also, if you have not driven or walked in the snow, know that speed kills, you may think you are fine, but stopping on a slippery surface is easier said than done.
In the Springtime, pollen can be a problem for those who experience allergies. Prior to arriving in Korea, I had not experienced this problem firsthand, but here in Korea, for a week or two I can have some difficulty with my sinuses and itchy eyes. It is no fun… Others I know get it much worse though and if you are like this, see a doctor or pharmacist to get the appropriate medication for YOUR symptoms.
Summertime can also be quite hot and humid and understanding how to wear loose clothing that shades you from the sun but allows your skin to breathe is important. While walking around the streets, you may see people using umbrellas to protect themselves from the sun and most street corners provide large umbrellas for shade while you wait to cross..
Furthermore, Korea also experiences Monsoon season which tends to run from mid June to the end of July depending on the year. During this period it is wise to always have an umbrella. Lastly, Korea can experience Tropical Cyclones called Typhoons and these can hit the coastal areas but may also go inland up the peninsula causing severe flooding. Know what areas that are more susceptible to this type of hazard wherever you are located, and pay close attention to emergency broadcasts that are sent to your phone.
My favorite time of year here is the Fall though. The colors can be absolutely amazing and the opportunity for pictures can make any walk just a little bit more fun. I enjoy trying to figure out how to creatively capture the season in unique and unusual ways. This time of year is great for sweaters and is perfect for dog walking. Lucy, my 12-year old beagle always has just a little bit more pep in her step during the Fall season.
7. Air Quality and Face Masks
Like the trains and “Train to Busan”, face masks were popular in Korea long before COVID-19 hit our planet. First, one of the disadvantages of living in Korea is the air quality. While normally the air is fresh and wonderful, we do experience significant periods of downright dangerous air quality.
This is often blamed on neighboring countries but South Korea has been a producer of air pollutants as well. Thankfully, they have made incredible progress moving towards green energy and it is really beginning to make a difference. However, when checking the weather, be sure to note if the air quality is hazardous and consider masking up during these periods.
In addition to air quality, many people have found that the masks can make you considerably warmer during winter time and I am sure I will maintain the habit when it is cold outside even though it is no longer required.
8. Safety and Healthcare
There are very few countries safer than South Korea which ranks 43rd overall in the world. In fact, one of my first weeks here, my husband dropped his wallet in a taxi and the driver returned it to a police station and a police officer brought it to our home. I frequently walk my dog Lucie by myself and have never felt nervous here. This is one of the things we love most about Korea.
In addition to the low crime rate, healthcare is also both affordable and competent. It still amazes me when I get a bill after a doctors visit or have to pay for a prescription. It is always incredibly low. My husband had a procedure done here recently that in the US would have cost thousands of dollars even with insurance and it was less than $75 US dollars here.
That does not mean everything is perfect mind you. In fact I often worry about the language issues and how I would explain an unexpected emergency condition to a doctor or paramedic if I had to by myself. Thankfully, many hospitals have translators to help foreigners and this has made me much more comfortable. I still worry a little about this though.
The good thing is that Korea has a 119 system that is similar to the 911 system in the US. The operators are trained to connect to a translator to help for several languages including English and reports are that the system works very efficiently.
For more information regarding the 119 service check out the following link: https://blog.southofseoul.net/important-numbers-119-emergency-services/#119_For_Those_with_No_Korean_Language_Ability
9. Phone and Internet Service
So, for phone and internet service, there are a few things you should be aware of. If you are travelling here to Korea and want to keep using your cell phone, be sure you know the policy of your cell provider prior to leaving your country. Some providers like AT&T in the US require you to unlock your phone before you leave the country. They will not allow you to unlock it from outside the US. This can cause problems if you plan on using your phone here.
You can buy a prepaid phone in Korea, buy I suggest you purchase it at the airport prior to leaving, it is much harder to set up this type of account without a residency card in Korea. As for a monthly plan, it is all but impossible to set this up without your residency card (ARC) and it usually takes a few weeks for you to get this. Finally, when you get your ARC card, I strongly suggest you use a monthly service because it helps when conducting banking or other official functions that require proof of ID. Here in Korea, your phone is often the way you prove that you are who you say you are.
As for internet service, if you live in a big city, you may have access to free WI FI but this can be spotty while at your home. Many businesses, however, provide free Wi Fi for their customers and you can store the passwords as you go to them. At some point you will likely have pretty good coverage while walking around with your phone, but it can cause problems if you are say, on a call using an app and your phone tries to switch to another stronger Wi Fi signal.
Overall Internet service is not very expensive here and you can lower your bill by pairing it with your phone service. There are also inexpensive pay per plans you can purchase pretty easily. Regardless, there are plenty of affordable option for you to choose from.
Lastly, television and entertainment, if you are looking for movie options from your home country there are a number of choices. You can purchase TV with your phone and internet, I actually just use Netflix, Disney and Amazon Prime for TV. There were options that allowed free access to US TV channels but these are unreliable. If you want live TV, try YouTube or Sling which have options that are pretty affordable as well.
10. Korean Food
Korea has a very rich culinary history with roots that go back thousands of years. Families pass down recipes for generations as a way to keep the memory of loved ones alive for the next generation. With the growing popularity of Korean culture that we see happening around the globe regarding television and movies with hits like Train to Busan, Parasite, Squid Games and a number of other K-Dramas now available on streaming services like Netflix, it was only natural that the country’s culinary scene would also begin to gain international prominence.
Consequently, many who now travel to Korea have tried Korean cuisine in their own country, but their understanding of what Korean flavors actually are may be tainted by the tendency of restaurants to alter recipes to best meet the taste profiles of their current guests. This alteration may result in people having unrealistic expectations regarding the food they find here on the Peninsula.
Korean cuisine is typically based on several flavor profiles including Goso (A Nutty or Beanie Taste), Garlic, Spicy Pepper, and Fermented Flavors. Most dishes are founded with these flavor profiles. Another difference I have found between food in my home country of the Philippines as well as the food I have experienced in the US and Korean food is an underlying sweetness to savory dishes.
Many entrees that are served here seem to be a bit sweeter than I had previously been used to. When this is unexpected, it could alter your enjoyment of the food you are trying so be aware that this is just another another part of Korean cuisine. That being said, there are some incredible dishes to be found here regardless of what city you live in.
If this is something that troubles you, do not worry, there are a wide variety of cuisines available for your dining pleasure, especially if you live in one of the larger cities. Simply explore the neighborhoods around you and to see what is available. Most areas will have Indian, Vietnamese, Thai, and of course a variety of Western options as well.
Coming from the US? There are also a large number of franchises available from the States for your dining pleasure. Popular fast food options include Burger King, McDonalds, KFC, and there are even rumors of Popeyes making a comeback in the area soon. Looking for your favorite Pizza? Dominos, Pizza Hut and Papa Johns are usually available also. How about sandwiches? Subway and Quiznos are here as well.
Looking for more casual dining choices? TGIF, and Outback have many locations in Korea and we even found a PF Chang in Daegu if you crave American style Asian food. I am sure I am missing a few, but as you can see, there are a number of choices available.
The one catch is price, while eating out is pretty affordable when compared to many Western countries, eating foreign food tends to be more expensive, For this reason, I have made an effort to find some local staples that I love and tend to stick to those for my daily needs and then go to more international options when I need a change of pace.
For more information regarding available food options, specially here in Daejeon, check out my next post on my favorite places to eat.
So those are all of the things I wish I knew when I first arrived, I hope you find them useful. I am sure I missed plenty of things that you may experience, please add a comment below for what you have learned. I will continue to write articles like this every few week and try to go into more detail about some of these topics, but for now, at least you have a place to start. If you like this article, please consider subscribing, hit like and comment in the spaces provided below… Thanks again and Happy Reading!