North Korea travel guide
About North Korea
Perhaps the world's most insular, provocative and challenging country, North Korea is hardly the archetype of an alluring holiday destination. Yet more and more foreigners are signing up for tours of the socialist state. The reason? There's simply nowhere else on Earth quite like it.
North Korea – or the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) – is a totalitarian socialist state with an elaborate cult of personality built around the Kim dynasty.
Its isolation and ideology means that independent travel is impossible. Instead, there are a number foreign agencies that offer tours of the country with government-approved guides, regaling sightseers with propaganda-skewed tales of local history, while steering them clear of interaction with the general public.
All approved tours begin and end in the country's capital, Pyongyang. A city of more than 2.5 million inhabitants, the long working hours and strict curfew can often make it appear empty – yet there's an abundance of socialist sites for the foreign visitor to enjoy.
Highlights include the flame-topped Juche Tower (a monument to the state's socialist ideology), the Mansudae Grand Monument (bronze statues of former leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il) and USS Pueblo (an American ship captured in 1968 and now on permanent display).
Beyond the capital most excursions include visits to Myohyang-san (a mountain with a palace carved into it), Panmunjom (the tense military border between North and South Korea) and Mangyongdae (a North Korean village said to be the birthplace of Kim Il-sung).
And then there's the food. Sharing a culinary heritage with South Korea, the North boasts a similar smorgasbord of delicacies, offering visitors an authentic taste of this most inauthentic of countries.
North Korea might not be the most easygoing destination, but if you can accept its tyrannical leadership and take everything you are told with a pinch of salt, there are plenty of incredible experiences to be had in the world's most mysterious country.
120,538 sq km (45,540 sq miles).
25,281,327 (UN estimate 2016).
207.3 per sq km.
First Chairman Kim Jong-un since 2011.
Premier Pak Pong-ju since 2013.
Last updated: 22 February 2018
The travel advice summary below is provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK. 'We' refers to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. For their full travel advice, visit www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advises against all but essential travel to North Korea (DPRK).
The level of tension on the Korean peninsula remains high due to a series of North Korean nuclear and missile tests, including two intercontinental ballistic missile tests in July 2017 and one in November 2017, two nuclear tests in 2016 and one in September 2017.
Since the start of 2018 there has been a renewal of direct contact between the North and South Korean governments. But there remains a threat of further missile or nuclear tests, which could lead to further instability in the region. Tensions usually rise around the time of the regular South Korean-US military exercises, notably those held in March and August.
While daily life in the capital city Pyongyang may appear calm, the security situation in North Korea can change with little notice and with no advance warning of possible actions by the North Korean authorities. This poses significant risks to British visitors and residents.
You should follow the political and security situation very closely and stay in touch with your host organisation or tour operator.
If you’re living in North Korea or decide to travel there independently, you should inform the British Embassy in Pyongyang about your travel plans before, or on arrival.
Our foreign travel checklist and crisis overseas page suggest things you can do before and during foreign travel to plan effectively and stay safe. You can also sign up to our email alert service to be notified about future updates to this travel advice.
The British Embassy Pyongyang can currently provide some consular assistance to British visitors to Pyongyang, but only limited assistance to those visiting parts of the country outside the capital. This is due to restricted access. In the event of instability or a worsening of the security situation, the ability of the British Embassy to provide consular assistance could be significantly reduced.
Some foreign nationals have reportedly not been granted access to consular support when detained in North Korea.
Very few British people visit North Korea and those that do are usually part of an organised tour. If you decide to visit North Korea, follow the advice of your tour group and the local authorities. Failure to do so could put your personal safety at risk and lead to a severe punishment from the local authorities.
Offences that would be considered trivial in other countries can incur very severe penalties in North Korea, particularly actions the authorities deem to be disrespectful towards the North Korean leadership or government.
Flooding is common in the rainy season (July to August).
Although there’s no recent history of terrorism in North Korea, attacks can’t be ruled out.
Safety and security
Crime against foreigners in North Korea is rare. Take sensible precautions to protect your belongings.
An incident at a hotel in Pyongyang in June 2015 highlighted a culture of low safety awareness. You may wish to check hotel fire procedures or consult your tour operator.
Tourists can normally only travel to North Korea as part of an organised tour. Independent travellers will need a sponsor and permission from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. This is normally only possible for business travellers.
Travel within the country is severely restricted. Whether you are visiting on business or as a tourist, you will almost always be accompanied by a guide and will only be allowed to go where your guide is content for you to go. For travel outside Pyongyang, it is your guide’s responsibility to get the necessary permissions. Military checkpoints at the entry and exit to all towns usually include ID checks.
In 2008 a South Korean tourist who strayed into a restricted military area was shot dead. Take care to remain in permitted areas and move away immediately if asked to do so by North Korean officials.
Foreigners living in Pyongyang are usually able to travel freely within the city, but permission is often required for travel outside Pyongyang.
You can’t enter or leave North Korea through the border with South Korea without special permission.
It isn’t possible to travel directly to South Korea from North Korea, unless you are making an official visit to the Kaesong Industrial Complex.
Taxis are sometimes available from hotels or outside department stores, but they will be reluctant to take you without a local guide or interpreter.
International Driving Permits are not valid in North Korea. Foreigners living in North Korea must get a local driving licence by passing a local driving test.
The domestic network is small, equipment is old and trains are subject to delays because of electricity shortages. There is a rail service between Pyongyang and Beijing via Sinuiju/Dandong (North Korean and Chinese border towns) 4 times a week, and a daily service between Pyongyang and Dandong. Delays are frequent and facilities on board are basic.
Most travellers enter North Korea on direct flights from Beijing to Pyongyang operated by Air Koryo, the North Korean national airline.
All aircraft operated by Air Koryo, with the exception of two Tupolev Tu204, have been refused permission to operate services to the EU because they do not meet international safety standards. Incidents reported in July 2016 and May 2017 involving Air Koryo flights highlight the lack of official information regarding Air Koryo’s safety record and standards.
Air Koryo is still used by some members of Pyongyang’s international community, including businesspeople, diplomats and international organisations. Foreign and Commonwealth Office staff only use Air Koryo to enter or leave the DPRK in unforeseen or emergency situations where other air or rail options are unavailable. Air Koryo is used for travel within DPRK only where there is a strong operational need.
Tensions increased throughout 2017 due to the number of missile launches carried out by DPRK and the threat of further missile or nuclear tests. There were 2 nuclear tests in 2016 and 1 in 2017, a series of ballistic missile tests in 2016 and 2017, 2 intercontinental ballistic missile tests in July 2017 and 1 in November 2017. Tensions can also rise during the regular South Korean-US military exercises, which take place throughout the year.
Since the start of 2018 there has been a renewal of direct contact between the North and South Korean governments, including a high level North Korean delegation visiting South Korea for the opening of the Winter Olympics. However, the level of tension on the Korean peninsula can change with little notice. Tensions increased after the sinking of the South Korean Navy Ship Cheonan and an artillery attack against Yeonpyeong Island in 2010; when the DPRK carried out 2 missile tests in 2012; and after nuclear tests in 2013, 2016 and 2017.
Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, the Korean peninsula has been divided by a demilitarised zone (DMZ) separating the DPRK and the Republic of Korea. Peace has been maintained under an armistice agreement. If you’re in the area of the DMZ, you should exercise caution and follow the advice of the local authorities.
Although there’s no recent history of terrorism in North Korea, attacks can’t be ruled out. You should be aware of the global risk of indiscriminate terrorist attacks, which could be against civilian targets, including places visited by foreigners.
There’s a heightened threat of terrorist attack globally against UK interests and British nationals from groups or individuals motivated by the conflict in Iraq and Syria. You should be vigilant at this time.
Find out more about the global threat from terrorism, how to minimise your risk and what to do in the event of a terrorist attack.
Local laws and customs
Insults or jokes about the North Korean political system and its leadership are severely frowned upon. Foreigners have sometimes found themselves in trouble for not paying what was deemed to be a sufficient level of respect – including not treating images of the leader with care.
In recent years, the North Korean authorities have arrested some visitors on various grounds, including 4 US citizens and 1 Canadian. Some individuals have been publicly put on trial by the DPRK.
Some foreign nationals have reportedly not been granted access to consular support when detained in the DPRK.
On 16 March 2016 a US national was sentenced to 15 years hard labour after a conviction for crimes against the state. He was alleged to have attempted to steal a political slogan from the staff quarters of a main tourist hotel. On 13 June 2017, he was released and returned to the US in a coma. He died on 19 June 2017.
On 7 May 2017, a US national was arrested for an unknown offence. On 22 April 2017, a US national was arrested at Pyongyang airport for an unspecified hostile act.
Although there’s no specific legislation outlawing homosexuality in North Korea, same-sex relationships are considered unacceptable by the authorities. See our information and advice page for the LGBT community before you travel.
Any technology incorporating Global Positioning Systems must be left with North Korean customs on entry into the country and collected on departure. Foreign mobile phones can be brought into the country but must be registered at the airport. They can only be used in North Korea by purchasing a North Korean SIM card.
Avoid bringing books or other written material in the Korean language, including anything with religious content. Any literature deemed subversive or pornographic by the DPRK authorities risk being confiscated. There have been recent cases of travel guides being confiscated at the airport on arrival; they are usually returned on departure.
Consider carefully any films or television programmes that you bring into the country, either on DVD or on data storage devices. Those deemed to have an anti-DPRK government message may be confiscated and you may face detention as a result.
Tipping is officially frowned upon, but is increasingly expected by some hotel staff.
Always carry some form of identification. Hotels will want passports for registration, but these can usually be reclaimed quickly.
Ask permission before taking photographs. Avoid taking photographs of North Korean officials or guarded buildings.
The information on this page covers the most common types of travel and reflects the UK government’s understanding of the rules currently in place. Unless otherwise stated, this information is for travellers using a full ‘British Citizen’ passport.
The authorities in the country or territory you’re travelling to are responsible for setting and enforcing the rules for entry. If you’re unclear about any aspect of the entry requirements, or you need further reassurance, you’ll need to contact the embassy, high commission or consulate of the country or territory you’re travelling to.
You should also consider checking with your transport provider or travel company to make sure your passport and other travel documents meet their requirements.
You will need a visa to enter North Korea. For further information contact the Embassy of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in London.
You must register with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs if your visit is for more than twenty-four hours. Most hotels will automatically complete this process on your behalf.
Your passport should be valid for the proposed duration of your stay. No additional period of validity beyond this is required.
UK Emergency Travel Documents
UK Emergency Travel Documents (ETDs) are accepted for entry and exit from DPRK through China. You may be required to show a police report indicating how you lost your full passport.
If your ETD has been issued in DPRK, you will need an exit visa from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before you can travel out of the country. This process can take up to 5 working days. ETDs are not produced in DPRK; therefore it may take the British Embassy 7 working days to obtain one from the British Consulate in neighbouring China.
Yellow fever certificate requirements
Check whether you need a yellow fever certificate by visiting the National Travel Health Network and Centre’s TravelHealthPro website.
Travelling with children
Single parents or other adults travelling alone with children should be aware that some countries need documentary evidence of parental responsibility before allowing lone parents to enter the country, or in some cases, before permitting the children to leave the country. British government staff based in North Korea are not allowed to be accompanied by their children because of the limited medical facilities within North Korea.
Visit your health professional at least 4 to 6 weeks before your trip to check whether you need any vaccinations or other preventive measures. Country specific information and advice is published by the National Travel Health Network and Centre on the TravelHealthPro website and by NHS (Scotland) on the fitfortravel website. Useful information and advice about healthcare abroad is also available on the NHS Choices website.
Health facilities in North Korea are poor. Standards of clinical hygiene in hospitals are low. Anaesthetics are sometimes unavailable. Evacuation is likely to be necessary for serious illness or injury. Avoid surgery if at all possible. Facilities for dental treatment are also poor.
Make sure you take sufficient supplies of any medication that you may need. Most foreign-manufactured medicines aren’t available. Even when they are, they’re sometimes out of date and inappropriately prescribed. Local medical supplies, including oriental medicines exist, but can also be limited.
Make sure you have adequate travel health insurance and accessible funds to cover the cost of any medical treatment abroad and repatriation. If you’re participating in any sporting activities like running, skiing or cycling, make sure this is covered in your insurance
Japanese encephalitis occurs in North Korea, especially during the summer. Cholera also occurs and all water is a potential health risk. You should drink or use only boiled or bottled water and avoid ice in drinks.
Flooding is common in the rainy season (July to August). This can disrupt travel especially to rural areas. Check that routes are passable before setting out on long journeys.
While prices are listed in local currency foreigners usually pay in foreign currency and shops and restaurants catering to foreigners will convert the Won price into foreign currency using the official exchange rate.
The Euro and US Dollar are the most widely accepted currencies, although Chinese RMB is accepted in some places. The import and export of local currency is prohibited. Import and export of foreign currency is unrestricted, but subject to declaration on arrival. Credit cards and travellers’ cheques are not accepted. Some hotels may insist on full payment in advance when checking in.
Travel advice help and support
If you’re abroad and you need emergency help from the UK government, contact the nearest British embassy, consulate or high commission. If you need urgent help because something has happened to a friend or relative abroad, contact the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in London on 020 7008 1500 (24 hours).
Foreign travel checklist
Read our foreign travel checklist to help you plan for your trip abroad and stay safe while you’re there.
The FCO travel advice helps you make your own decisions about foreign travel. Your safety is our main concern, but we can’t provide tailored advice for individual trips. If you’re concerned about whether or not it’s safe for you to travel, you should read the travel advice for the country or territory you’re travelling to, together with information from other sources you’ve identified, before making your own decision on whether to travel. Only you can decide whether it’s safe for you to travel.
When we judge the level of risk to British nationals in a particular place has become unacceptably high, we’ll state on the travel advice page for that country or territory that we advise against all or all but essential travel. Read more about how the FCO assesses and categorises risk in foreign travel advice.
Our crisis overseas page suggests additional things you can do before and during foreign travel to help you stay safe.
Refunds and cancellations
If you wish to cancel or change a holiday that you’ve booked, you should contact your travel company. The question of refunds and cancellations is a matter for you and your travel company. Travel companies make their own decisions about whether or not to offer customers a refund. Many of them use our travel advice to help them reach these decisions, but we do not instruct travel companies on when they can or can’t offer a refund to their customers.
For more information about your rights if you wish to cancel a holiday, visit the Citizen’s Advice Bureau website. For help resolving problems with a flight booking, visit the website of the Civil Aviation Authority. For questions about travel insurance, contact your insurance provider and if you’re not happy with their response, you can complain to the Financial Ombudsman Service.
Registering your travel details with us
If you’re living in North Korea or decide to travel there independently, you should inform the British Embassy in Pyongyang about your travel plans before, or on arrival.
Previous versions of FCO travel advice
If you’re a British national and you have a question about travelling abroad that isn’t covered in our foreign travel advice or elsewhere on GOV.UK, you can submit an enquiry. We’re not able to provide tailored advice for specific trips.