Things to Know Before Traveling to South Korea

Gyeongbokgung palace in Seoul, Korean traditional architecture
Gyeongbokgung palace in Seoul, Korean traditional architecture | Photo by KS KYUNG on Unsplash
Mimsie Ladner

Traveling to South Korea for the first time? Get the most out of your visit by brushing up on Korean culture with these useful travel tips.

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The Korean Alphabet is Easy as A-B-C

Hangul (which translates to “great script”) is the official alphabet of the Korean language. Unlike Chinese, it’s phonetic, meaning it’s made up of letters that can be sounded out rather than characters that have to be memorized. At first sight, the script may come across as incomprehensible, but the alphabet itself is actually quite easy to learn. For some, it can be mastered in just a day. Knowing the alphabet will make traveling in Korea much easier, even if you don’t speak Korean, as you’ll be able to recognize food names on menus and destinations on street signs.

Transportation is Efficient and Inexpensive

A subway bridge in Seoul, South Korea that travels over the Han River

Thanks to the country’s amazing public transportation system, it’s incredibly easy (and cheap) to get around. When you arrive, pick up a T-Money card, which can be used on public buses and subways in several different metropolitan cities. It also saves travelers the hassle of purchasing single journey subway tickets for every ride, and provides discounts on rides during transfers. Taxis are just about everywhere and fares, which are calculated based on time and distance, are inexpensive. Avoid black or “deluxe” taxis, which charge a premium for reportedly better services.

It’s Okay to Shout at Your Server

At restaurants in Korea, servers will let you eat you meal without interruption, until you call them over to let them know that you need something, like second servings of galbi or another bottle of beer. This can be done in two ways. First, you can shout “Yogiyo!” which mean’s, “I’m here!” Or, at some places, you can simply push the call button, a convenient summoning device built right into the table. When you’re ready to pay, take your bill (which is usually left on the table) straight to the counter.

Tipping isn’t Necessary

Restaurant in Seoul, South Korea

Despite the generally good service provided at restaurants (and everywhere, really), tipping is not required or expected. Cab drivers, hairdressers, porters and bellboys are certainly grateful for tips, but the culture is simply not practiced among Koreans. If you do decide to tip, the amount is entirely up to you.

Public Bathrooms Can be a Bit Confusing

Even though many public bathrooms boast Western-style toilets, it’s not uncommon to come across the squatty potty. When using it, make sure the tips of your shoes line up with the front of the porcelain to avoid unwanted splashing. Other toilets might be equipped with a remote control like operating system that has the ability to initiate a bidet or warm the toilet seat. In some older buildings, the toilet paper dispenser is located on the outside of the restroom entrance, so be sure to take enough before going into the stall. Toss used toilet paper into a trash bin rather than flushing it, as the toilet may get clogged.

South Korea is One of the Safest Countries in the World, but…

Policeman in Seoul, South Korea

South Korea has one of the lowest crime rates in the modern world. While its metropolitan areas are not free of petty thieves, con artists and drunken brawlers, they remain mostly safe at any hour of the day so long as you remain vigilant of your surroundings and keep a low profile.

That said, it should be noted that some of the country’s legal adjudications are, at times, unfairly biased against international visitors and residents. Should a Korean accost you at a bar, walk away. If you hit him back, you might find yourself incarcerated, as the law is likely to side with the Korean nearly every time.

Wear Shower Shoes

It should be noted that many Korean bathrooms do not have a bathtub or enclosed shower. Instead, there is a shower head attached the wall of the same room. While this helps to economize space, it can create a bit of a mess, so communal shower shoes are often available in places like budget hotels. If you’re weird about sharing shoes with strangers, be sure to bring a pair of your own.

There’s No Such Thing as Personal Space

Streets in Seoul, South Korea

With a population of over 25 million, there is simply no room for personal space in Seoul, or any other Korean metropolis. As a result, pushing and shoving are not uncommon. If anything, they’re the norm, and not seen as rude gestures. So if you happen to find yourself being elbowed in the subway or pushed while you’re waiting in line for the bathroom, don’t take it personally.

Gifts Equate to Graciousness

The exchange of gifts is an important part of Korean life – both in personal and business relationships – and is closely linked to showing respect, maintaining harmony and being courteous. If you are invited to someone’s home, it is customary to bring a small gift, such as flowers or a bottle of wine, to show your graciousness. Gifts are given with two hands, and are never opened in front of the giver.

Confucius Rules the Land

Elderly couple in Seoul, South Korea

South Korea is a vibrant, modern, highly technological state. Despite this, the nation still revolves around traditional customs and values, including Confucianism, a system that promotes social harmony and governs all the interactions – however small they may be – between families, friends, colleagues and even strangers. Newcomers may not recognize the subtleties of the ancient structure, but can quickly learn the basics. Speak politely to elders (the Korean language has a specific honorific speech just for this), always accept when offered a shot of soju, and wait for your boss to eat first before digging into dinner.

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