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.
Prime minister Kim Tok-hun since 2020.
The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) provides advice about risks of travel to help British nationals make informed decisions. Find out more about FCDO travel advice.
FCDO advises against all but essential travel to North Korea
Your travel insurance could be invalidated if you travel against FCDO advice. Consular support is also severely limited where FCDO advises against travel.
North Korea’s borders are currently closed, but few British people visit when they are open. 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.
The North Korean authorities have reportedly detained some foreign nationals and denied them access to consular support.
While daily life in the capital city Pyongyang may appear calm, the security situation can change quickly with no advance warning about possible actions by the authorities. This poses significant risks to British visitors and residents.
Follow the political and security situation very closely and stay in touch with your host organisation or tour operator.
Current incidents and risks
No entry into North Korea is permitted while COVID-19 border restrictions remain in place. The North Korean government continues to temporarily suspend all passenger routes into and out of North Korea. The British Embassy in Pyongyang is temporarily closed due to these restrictions. This means you cannot get consular support from within North Korea.
You cannot enter or leave North Korea through the border with South Korea without special permission.
The level of tension on the Korean peninsula has remained high since 2017 when North Korea began a series of nuclear and missile tests.
A halt in nuclear testing and ballistic missile tests, announced in April 2018, came to an end in May 2019. Testing of ballistic missiles has taken place frequently since 2019.
Before you travel
No travel can be guaranteed safe. Read all the advice in this guide as well as support for British nationals abroad which includes:
- advice on preparing for travel abroad and reducing risks
- information for women, LGBT+ and disabled travellers
If you choose to travel, research your destinations and get appropriate travel insurance. Insurance should cover your itinerary, planned activities and expenses in an emergency.
This advice reflects the UK government’s understanding of current rules for people travelling on a full ‘British citizen’ passport from the UK, for the most common types of travel.
The authorities in North Korea set and enforce entry rules. If you’re not sure how these requirements apply to you, contact the Embassy of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in London by email at email@example.com, or by telephone on 020 8992 4965 .
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 usually only possible for business travellers.
No entry into North Korea is permitted whilst COVID-19 border restrictions remain in place.
Passport validity requirements
Your passport should be valid for the proposed duration of your stay. No additional period of validity beyond this is required.
Check with your travel provider that your passport and other travel documents meet requirements. Renew your passport if you need to.
You will be denied entry if you do not have a valid travel document or try to use a passport that has been reported lost or stolen.
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 by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by telephone on 020 8992 4965.
Applying for a visa
Visa application enquires should be made directly to the embassy.
At least 8 weeks before your trip, check the vaccinations and certificates you need in TravelHealthPro’s North Korea guide.
Registration with the authorities
You must register with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs if your visit is for more than 24 hours. Most hotels will automatically complete this process on your behalf.
Some hotels may insist on full cash payment in advance when you check in.
You must leave any Global Positioning System technology with North Korean customs. You can collect your devices when you leave North Korea.
You can bring a foreign mobile phone into the country, but you must register it at the border. You can only use it with a North Korean SIM card.
Avoid bringing books or other written material in the Korean language, including anything with religious content. Consider carefully any films or television programmes that you bring into the country, either on DVD or on data storage devices. Any literature or media deemed to have an anti-government message or deemed subversive or pornographic by the authorities in North Korea risk confiscation, with severe penalties including imprisonment as a result.
There have also been cases of travel guides being confiscated at the airport on arrival; they are usually returned on departure.
Taking money into North Korea
Shops and restaurants list prices in the local currency (North Korean won) but usually charge foreigners in foreign currency. They convert the won price using official exchange rates.
The euro and US dollar are the most widely accepted currencies, although some places accept Chinese yuan.
It is illegal to import and export the local currency. There are no restrictions on importing and exporting foreign currency, but you must declare it at customs. Credit cards and travellers cheques are not accepted.
There is a high threat of terrorist attack globally affecting UK interests and British nationals, including from groups and individuals who view the UK and British nationals as targets. You should remain vigilant at all times.
UK Counter Terrorism Policing has information and advice on staying safe abroad and what to do in the event of a terrorist attack. Find out how to reduce your risk from terrorism while abroad.
Terrorism in North Korea
Although there’s no recent history of terrorism in North Korea, attacks cannot be ruled out.
The level of tension on the Korean peninsula has remained high since 2017 when North Korea began a series of nuclear and missile tests. A halt in nuclear testing and ballistic missile tests, announced in April 2018, came to an end in May 2019, when the North and South Korean governments temporarily restored direct contact. North Korea and the United States also restored contact at this time.
North Korea resumed missile tests in 2019, after the breakdown of the Hanoi Summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un. North Korea has tested ballistic missiles frequently since 2019.
In the past, similar periods of diplomatic engagement have not lasted. This has led to further missile or nuclear tests and a return to instability in the region. Tensions usually rise around the time of South Korean-US military exercises, often held in the spring and autumn.
Crime against foreigners in North Korea is rare. Take sensible precautions to protect your belongings.
Levels of fire safety awareness may be low. You may wish to check hotel fire procedures or consult your tour operator.
Laws and cultural differences
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 or unspecified grounds, including 4 US citizens and 1 Canadian. Some have faced public trials.
In 2016 a US national was sentenced to 15 years hard labour after a conviction for crimes against the state. He was found to have attempted to steal a political banner from the staff quarters of a tourist hotel. When he was released in 2017, he was in a coma and died soon after his return to the US.
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.
Using cameras and binoculars
Ask permission before taking photographs. Avoid taking photographs of North Korean officials or guarded buildings.
Although there’s no specific legislation outlawing same sex relationships in North Korea, these are considered unacceptable by the authorities.
Read more advice for LGBT+ travellers.
Travel outside Pyongyang
Foreigners living in Pyongyang are usually able to travel within the city, but will often require permission for travel outside Pyongyang.
Travel for visitors within North Korea is severely restricted. Whether you are visiting on business or as a tourist, a guide will almost always accompany you. The guide will decide where you can go. It is your guide’s responsibility to get permission to travel outside Pyongyang. Military checkpoints at the entry and exit to all towns usually include ID checks.
In 2008 guards shot and killed a South Korean tourist who strayed into a restricted military area. Remain in permitted areas and move away immediately if asked to do so by North Korean officials.
You can get taxis from hotels or outside department stores, but they will be reluctant to take you without a local guide or interpreter. Foreigners are not generally allowed on public transport.
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. You should take extra care when driving, as roads are often of poor quality with frequent hazards, and pedestrian road safety awareness is low.
See more information on driving abroad.
Most travellers enter North Korea on direct flights from Beijing to Pyongyang operated by the North Korean national airline Air Koryo or Air China.
The UK Air Safety List (ASL) has banned Air Koryo from operating commercial air services to the UK, with the exception of 2 Tupolev Tu204 aircraft. The Department for Transport maintains the list, based on advice from the UK Civil Aviation Authority.
Incidents reported in July 2016 and May 2017 involving Air Koryo flights highlight the lack of official information about Air Koryo’s safety record and standards.
Extreme weather and natural disasters
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.
Before you travel check that:
- your destination can provide the healthcare you may need
- you have appropriate travel insurance for local treatment or unexpected medical evacuation
This is particularly important if you have a health condition or are pregnant.
Vaccinations and health risks
At least 8 weeks before your trip check:
- the latest information on vaccinations and health risks in TravelHealthPro’s North Korea guide
- where to get vaccines and whether you have to pay on the NHS travel vaccinations page
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. Tuberculosis is also common.
The legal status and regulation of some medicines prescribed or bought in the UK can be different in other countries.
The NHS has information on whether you can take your medicine abroad.
Healthcare facilities in North Korea
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.
Travel and mental health
The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) cannot provide tailored advice for individual trips. Read this travel advice and carry out your own research before deciding whether to travel.
Contact your travel provider and insurer
Contact your travel provider and your insurer if you are involved in a serious incident or emergency abroad. They will tell you if they can help and what you need to do.
Refunds and changes to travel
For refunds or changes to travel, contact your travel provider. You may also be able to make a claim through insurance. However, insurers usually require you to talk to your travel provider first.
Find out more about changing or cancelling travel plans, including:
- where to get advice if you are in a dispute with a provider
- how to access previous versions of travel advice to support a claim
Support from FCDO
FCDO has guidance on staying safe and what to do if you need help or support abroad, including:
- finding help and services in North Korea
- getting help if you’re a victim of crime
- what to do if you’re in hospital
- if you’re affected by a crisis, such as a terrorist attack
Help abroad in an emergency
If you’re in North Korea and you need emergency help from the UK government, you can contact FCDO online.
FCDO in London
You can call FCDO in London if you need urgent help because something has happened to a friend or relative abroad.
Telephone: 020 7008 5000 (24 hours)