South Korea travel guide
About South Korea
South Korea can come across as inscrutable at first glance. It’s a land of stark contrasts and wild contradictions; a place where tradition and technology are equally embraced; where skyscrapers loom over ancient temples; and where the frantic pace of life is offset by the serenity of nature. The country’s unique customs and etiquette can seem like a trap laid for foreigners, but arrive with a smile and a respectful attitude and you will be welcomed with open arms by some of the friendliest folk on the planet.
Koreans are fiercely proud of their country, and with good reason. The Korean peninsula has a storied history and this colourful heritage is woven into the fabric of this land. The capital, Seoul, is home to a number of historic highlights, including the spectacular Joseon-era Gyeongbokgung Palace, “the great south gate” of Namdaemun and the eerie Seodaemun Prison – all tucked away amid gleaming offices, giant shopping centres, world-class restaurants and hipster bars.
The rest of the country is also littered with fortresses, temples and palaces. Visitors will enjoy the grassy burial mounds of ancient kings in Gyeongju, the Seokbulsa Temple in Busan, which has been carved out of a rock, and the infamous demilitarised zone, a biodiverse no-man’s-land separating South and North Korea. It is a scary place, where acres of barbed wire are patrolled by heavily-armed guards on both sides, yet the tension is so trumped up it feels like you’ve stumbled onto a Hollywood film set.
But it's not all about history. When it comes to nature, South Korea is wonderfully diverse, with spectacular national parks, remote sandy beaches, hot spring islands and rugged mountain peaks. Gastronomes are well catered for, too, but you may have to open your mind before your mouth; local specialities include kimchi (pickled cabbage) and makgeolli (rice wine).
South Korea can sometimes seem like the most foreign place on Earth; an unfathomable destination of curious customs, strange food and jarring paradoxes. Ultimately, that’s what makes it so exciting.
99,720 sq km (38,502 sq miles) excluding demilitarised zone.
50,503,933 (UN estimate 2016).
492.5 per sq km.
Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon since 2017.
President Moon Jae-in since 2017.
Last updated: 22 November 2017
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 level of tension on the Korean peninsula remains high due to a series of nuclear and missile tests by the DPRK (North Korea), including two intercontinental ballistic missile tests in July 2017, two nuclear tests in 2016 and a nuclear test on 3 September 2017. There remains a threat of further missile or nuclear tests, which could lead to further instability in the region. The level of tension and the security situation can change with little notice. Tensions usually rise around the time of the regular South Korean-US military exercises, notably those held in March and August. In the past, heightened tensions haven’t affected daily life.
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 South Korean authorities provide advice on responding to civil emergencies, and hold regular nationwide civil emergency exercises. Sirens are sounded, transport stopped and some people are asked to take shelter in metro stations or basements.
Public demonstrations are mostly peaceful and well-policed, but the risk of violence remains. You should take extra care as in any crowded place.
The typhoon season normally runs from June to November. You should monitor the progress of approaching storms and follow the instructions of the local authorities.
Air pollution, including yellow dust pollution, is common in South Korea throughout the year and especially during spring months.
It’s not possible to enter North Korea from South Korea.
Although there is no recent history of terrorism in South Korea, attacks can’t be ruled out.
Around 140,000 British nationals visit South Korea every year. Most visits are trouble-free.
If you’re abroad and you need emergency help from the UK government, contact the nearest British embassy, consulate or high commission.
The Overseas Business Risk service offers information and advice for British companies operating overseas on how to manage political, economic, and business security-related risks.
Safety and security
Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, the Korean peninsula has been divided by a demilitarised zone (DMZ) separating the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea). Peace has been maintained under an armistice agreement. If you’re in the area of the DMZ, you should take extra care and follow the advice of the local authorities.
The level of tension on the Korean peninsula remains high due to a series of nuclear and missile tests by the DPRK (North Korea), including two intercontinental ballistic missile tests in July 2017, two nuclear tests in 2016 and a nuclear test on 3 September 2017. There remains a threat of further missile or nuclear tests, which could lead to further instability in the region. In the past, these haven’t affected daily life, but you should keep in touch with news broadcasts, follow the advice of the local authorities and check this travel advice for any updates.
The level of tension and the security situation can change with little notice. For example, tensions increased after the sinking of the South Korean Navy ship Cheonan and an artillery attack against Yeonpyeong Island in 2010, and also following artillery fire in the DMZ in August 2015. Tensions usually rise around the time of the regular South Korean-US military exercises, notably those held in March and August.
At times of increased tensions, you should make yourself familiar with local procedures and preparations, including civil emergency exercises (see below). You can also stay up to date with our travel advice for South Korea by subscribing to our email alert service to be notified of future updates, and by following our Twitter and Facebook channels.
As part of your own contingency plans, you should make sure you have easy access to your passport and other important documents such as nationality documents and birth and marriage certificates, as well as any essential medication. You can read our crisis overseas page for further information and advice, including sections on what you can do to prepare effectively, what you should do in the event of a crisis abroad, and how we can help you.
Civil emergency exercises and advice
The South Korean authorities sometimes hold civil emergency exercises. Sirens are sounded, transport stopped and some people are asked to take shelter indoors, including in designated metro stations or basements. Shelters in Seoul are marked with a special symbol. Participation by foreign nationals in these exercises isn’t obligatory but you should follow any instructions by local authorities during any exercises.
The South Korean government has developed a smartphone application with civil emergency advice, including shelter locations, different types of alarms, medical facilities and emergency services. Search for ‘emergency ready app’ on Android or Apple app stores.
Crime against foreigners is rare but there are occasional isolated incidents. While most reported crimes are thefts, there have been some rare cases of assaults, including sexual assaults, particularly around bars and nightlife areas.
Take extra care of passports, credit cards and money in crowded areas and be careful in areas visited by foreigners, like Itaewon. Take care when travelling alone at night and only use legitimate taxis or public transport.
For emergency assistance, or to report a crime, call 112 for police (a 24 hour interpretation service is available) and 119 for ambulance and fire.
Public demonstrations in South Korea are mostly peaceful and well-policed, but you should take extra care as in any crowded place.
You’ll need an International Driving Permit to drive in South Korea. Make sure you have fully comprehensive insurance.
Car and motorbike drivers are presumed to be at fault in accidents involving motorcycles or pedestrians. Criminal charges and heavy penalties are common when accidents result in injury, even if guilt is not proved. Watch out for motorcycles travelling at speed on pavements.
Taxi drivers tend to speak little or no English. Although translation services are available, have your destination written in Korean, if possible with a map.
In 2016, there were 4,899 reported road deaths in South Korea. This equates to 9.5 road deaths per 100,000 of population and compares to the UK average of 2.8 road deaths per 100,000 of population in 2015.
Older (non-3G) phones bought outside South Korea will not normally work in the country, and fitting foreign phones with local SIMs (e.g. to avoid roaming fees) is not usually possible.
Although there is no recent history of terrorism in South Korea, attacks can’t be ruled out. You should be aware of the global risk of indiscriminate terrorist attacks, which could be in public areas, including those 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
A serious violation of local laws may lead to a jail or death sentence.
Penalties for possession, use and trafficking of illegal drugs can result in long jail sentences and heavy fines. This applies even to personal use of small amounts of marijuana. British nationals have been detained solely on the basis of drug tests.
Carry some form of identification at all times and make sure your next-of-kin details have been entered into the back of your passport.
Homosexual relationships are not illegal. Younger Koreans are more liberal and gay rights organisations are gaining support. The gay scene, although relatively small, is well established and growing in visibility.
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.
If you have a British Citizen passport you can enter South Korea as a tourist for up to 90 days without a visa. You must also have an onward or return ticket. It’s illegal to work on a tourist visa, whether as a teacher or in any other capacity.
If you have a different type of British nationality, or are travelling for any purpose other than tourism, you should check visa requirements with the Embassy of the Republic of Korea, London.
Your passport should be valid for a minimum period of 3 months from the date of entry into South Korea.
UK Emergency Travel Documents
UK Emergency Travel Documents are accepted for entry, airside transit and exit from South Korea.
Check the website of the Korea Customs Service for information on restricted or prohibited items that may not be brought into the country. If you are in any doubt about the legality of any items - including medications -you should declare them on entry.
British males of Korean origin
If you are a British male of Korean origin whose name appears on the Korean family register, you may be liable for military service even if you are travelling on your British passport.
To get a visa to teach English in South Korea you must have a 3-year university degree. A TEFL qualification alone is not sufficient. If you are found to have obtained a teaching visa by deception, you will be detained and deported. British nationals teaching English in South Korea have sometimes found living and working conditions to be below expectations, and have encountered difficulties getting the correct visas and residence permits. There have also been complaints of breach of contract, confiscation of passports, payment being withheld and inadequate or no medical insurance. Check all terms and conditions of your employment carefully and if possible speak to other teachers from the place where you plan to work before accepting any offer. For those in possession of a work visa all employment changes must be authorised by Korean Immigration.
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.
Medical and dental care in South Korea is usually of a good standard but can be expensive. Staff may not speak English. Make sure you have adequate travel health insurance and accessible funds to cover the cost of any medical treatment abroad and repatriation.
If you need emergency medical assistance during your trip, dial 119 and ask for an ambulance. You should contact your insurance/medical assistance company promptly if you are referred to a medical facility for treatment.
In spring there’s a risk of tick-borne disease across Korea. The national Disease Control and Prevention Centre advise all people taking part in leisure activities on grass to wear long sleeved shirts/tops and trousers.
Air pollution, including yellow dust pollution, is common in South Korea throughout the year and especially during spring months. When the concentration levels of dust particles are high, residents and visitors are advised to stay indoors as much as possible, close windows and drink plenty of water. This is particularly important for the elderly and those with respiratory problems. Follow local media reporting and the Korean Meteorological Service website for the latest advice.
The typhoon season normally runs from June to November. You should monitor the progress of approaching storms on the Korean Meteorological Administration website and follow any advice given by the local authorities.
See our tropical cyclones page for advice about what to do if you are caught up in a typhoon.
The local currency is the South Korean Won. It is almost impossible to change Scottish or Northern Irish bank notes. Credit cards are not always accepted outside major cities. ATMs are widely available, but do not always accept foreign cards. Those with a sign saying ‘Global’ will normally accept foreign cards.
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
We’re no longer asking people to register with us before travel. Our foreign travel checklist and crisis overseas page suggest things you can do before and during foreign travel to plan your trip and stay safe.
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.