Travel to South Korea is on the rise, with over 13 million international tourists arriving in 2015. Most of those travelers take the short flight from neighboring Japan, China, and other places in East Asia. Western travelers who aren't in country for military service, business, or to teach English are still somewhat of a novelty.
Traveling in South Korea can be a unique and rewarding experience that feels removed from the usual stops along the Banana Pancake Trail in Asia.
If you're already on your way to one of the well-trodden places on the trail, many of the cheapest flights to Southeast Asia from the United States pass through Seoul. With a little planning, it's easy enough to tack on an interesting stopover in a new country! Chances are, you'll enjoy what you see and want to come back.
What to Expect When Traveling to South Korea
- Great Food: Korean bibimbap with some spicy kimchi is one of those "different" tastes that you'll miss — and crave — usually when it's the most inaccessible.
- A Tech-Savvy Culture: South Korea boasts the world's fastest internet speeds. There are more mobile phones than people, a cyberwar is continuously being waged with North Korea, and yes, robots are a thing.
- Crowds: South Korea's population density is high, with roughly 1,113 people per square mile. As of 2016, Seoul and the surrounding metropolitan area were home to over 25 million people with nearly 10 million in the city proper. Don't expect a lot of privacy or elbow room in Seoul.
- Compulsory Military: All South Korean males between the ages of 18 and 35 are required to serve in the military. South Korea ranks second in the world for the number of soldiers per capita. The country ranked first? You guessed it: North Korea. Close to 30,000 U.S. soldiers stationed in South Korea help to even the odds.
South Korea Visa Requirements
American citizens can enter and stay in South Korea for 90 days (free) without first applying for a visa. If you remain in South Korea for more than 90 days, you must visit a consulate and apply for an Alien Registration Card.
People wishing to teach English in South Korea must apply for an E-2 visa before arriving. Applicants must pass an HIV test and submit a copy of their academic diplomas and transcripts. Visa rules can and do often change. Check the South Korea embassy website for the latest before you arrive.
South Korea Travel Customs
Travelers can bring up to $400 worth of goods into South Korea without paying duties or taxes. This includes one liter of alcohol, 200 cigarettes or 250 grams of tobacco products. You need to be at least 19 years old to be in possession of tobacco.
All food items and plant/agricultural materials are prohibited; avoid bringing sunflower seeds, peanuts, or other snacks from the flight.
Just to be safe, carry a copy of your prescription, a medical passport, or a doctor's note for all prescription drugs that you bring inside of South Korea.
The Best Time to Travel to South Korea
The monsoon season in South Korea runs from June to September. Typhoons and hurricanes can disrupt travel between May and November. Know what to do in the event of destructive weather. July and August are by far the wettest months in South Korea.
Winters in Seoul can be especially bitter; temperatures often dip well below 19 F in January! The ideal time for travel to South Korea is in the cooler fall months after temperatures have dropped and the rain has stopped.
South Korea Holidays
South Korea has five National Celebration Days, four of which are patriotic events. The fifth, Hangul Day, celebrates the Korean alphabet. As with all big holidays in Asia, plan accordingly to better enjoy the festivities.
In addition to Christmas, New Year's Day, and Korean New Year (Lunar New Year; three days typically beginning the same day as Chinese New Year) travel to South Korea may be affected during these public holidays:
- March 1: Independence Movement Day
- June 6: Memorial Day
- August 15: Liberation Day
- October 3: National Foundation Day
Korea also celebrates Buddha's Birthday and Chuseok (the harvest festival). Both are based on the lunar calendar; dates change annually. Chuseok is usually around the same time as the autumn equinox in September, or less frequently, early October.
Currency in South Korea
South Korea uses the won (KRW). The symbol appears as a “W” with two horizontal lines drawn through ( ￦ ).
Banknotes are typically seen in denominations of 1,000; 5,000; 10,000; and 50,000; although older, smaller bills are still in circulation. Coins are available in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, and 500 won.
Don't get scammed while changing money! Check the current exchange rate before you arrive in South Korea.
Travel to South Korea From the United States
Excellent deals for flights to Seoul are usually easy to find, particularly from Los Angeles and New York.
Korean Air is a great airline, consistently among the top 20 airlines in the world, and is also one of the original founders of the SkyTeam alliance. Juicy SkyMiles will rain in abundance after that flight from LAX to Seoul!
The Language Barrier
Although lots of residents in Seoul speak English, many signs, travel-booking websites, and services are only available in the Korean alphabet. Remember, there's a national holiday celebrating the alphabet! The good news is that Seoul maintains a hotline to help travelers with translation and language issues.
Contact the Seoul Global Centre by calling 02-1688-0120, or simply dial 120 from within Korea. The SGC is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.
The Korea Tourism Organization
The Korea Tourism Organization, or KTO, (dial +82-2-1330) can answer questions and help with your planning for South Korea travel.
The KTO helpline is open 24 hours, 365 days a year.