Foreign travel advice

South Korea

Summary

Around 140,000 British nationals visit South Korea every year. Most visits are trouble-free.

A revised Korean Traffic Law came into effect on 25 June 2019.

The level of tension on the Korean Peninsula grew considerably in 2017 due to a series of North Korean nuclear and missile tests. On 21 April 2018, North Korea announced a halt to nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile testing.

Since the start of 2018, there has been renewed direct contact between the North and South Korean governments, and between North Korea and the United States. On 12 June 2018, US President Donald Trump met North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore. In a joint statement, North Korea reaffirmed its previous commitment to denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. The Panmunjom Declaration signed at an inter-Korean summit on 27 April 2018, included a number of other commitments to build inter-Korean ties and reduce military tensions. A second summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un, in Hanoi on 27 to 28 February 2019, ended without agreement. A further meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un took place on 30 June 2019 at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates the two Koreas, in which the two agreed that working-level negotiations would resume within weeks. In the past, periods of diplomatic engagement have failed to be sustained. This has led to further missile or nuclear tests by North Korea and a return to instability in the region. The level of tension and the security situation can therefore still change with little notice. Tensions usually rise around the time of South Korean-US military exercises. 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.

The typhoon season normally runs from June to November. Korean authorities have advised citizens in Seoul to remain indoors on Saturday 7 September due to strong winds from Typhoon Ling Ling’s passage near the Korean Peninsula. You should check with local authorities or the Korean Meteorological Agency website for any further advice or updates.

Public demonstrations are mostly peaceful and well-policed, but the risk of violence remains. You should take extra care as in any crowded place.

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.

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

Political situation

Tensions increased throughout 2017 due to the number of missile launches carried out by North Korea and the threat of further missile or nuclear tests. There were 2 nuclear tests in 2016 and one in 2017, a series of ballistic missile tests in 2016 and 2017, 2 intercontinental ballistic missile tests in July 2017 and one in November 2017. On 21 April 2018, North Korea announced a halt to nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile testing. In early May 2019, the DPRK launched a series of short and close range ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan.

Since the start of 2018 there has been a renewed contact between the North and South Korean governments, and North Korea and the United States. The two Koreas competed under a unified flag at the 2018 Winter Olympics, exchanged high-level delegations for the opening and closing ceremonies, and held three inter-Korean leaders’ summit in April, May and September 2018. The Panmunjom Declaration, signed at the first summit, confirmed the common goal of realising, through complete denuclearisation, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. Both countries also pledged to agree a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War, alongside a number of other commitments to build inter-Korean ties, reduce military tensions and establish a peace regime.

On 12 June 2018, US President Donald Trump met North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore. Their summit was the first ever meeting between a sitting US President and North Korean leader. In a joint statement, North Korea reaffirmed the commitment it made on 27 April to work towards complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. The US and North Korea also committed to establish new US-North Korea relations, to join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean peninsula, and to recover the remains of prisoners of war and those missing in action from the Korean War, and repatriate any remains already identified. The two leaders held a second summit in Hanoi on 27 to 28 February 2019. The meeting broke up without agreement. A further meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un took place on 30 June 2019 at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates the two Koreas, in which the two agreed that working-level negotiations would resume within weeks.

However, the level of tension on the Korean Peninsula can change with little notice. Tensions increased after the sinking of the South Korean Navy Shipo Cheonan and an artillery attack against Yeonpyeong Island in 2010; when North Korea carried out 2 missile tests in 2012; and after nuclear tests in 2013, 2016, and 2017. Tensions can also rise during the regular South Korean-US military exercises, which take place throughout the year. You should follow the advice of local authorities and keep up to date with developments, including via news broadcasts and this travel advice.

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 but no formal peace treaty has ever been signed. If you’re in the area of the DMZ, you should exercise caution and follow the advice of the local authorities.

Contingency planning

At times of increased tensions, you should make yourself familiar with local procedures and preparations, including civil emergency exercises and advice (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.

If the situation were to deteriorate, the British Embassy would pass information via this travel advice page and via Embassy Facebook and Twitter feeds.

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

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.

Demonstrations

Public demonstrations in South Korea are common. These gatherings are mostly peaceful and well-policed, but you should take extra care as in any crowded place. You should also be aware that under Korean law, foreign nationals are prohibited from engaging in political activities in South Korea.

Road travel

Changes to Korean traffic law came into effect on 25 June 2019. These changes lowered the maximum blood alcohol content threshold permitted when driving or in charge of a vehicle to 0.03% (from 0.05%). This change differs to the legal threshold in the UK, which is 0.035%.

All passengers in vehicles must wear seat belts including in rear seats. City buses that are not fitted with seat belts are exempt from this regulation.

Drivers are required to take precautionary measures when parking on hills/slopes (such as placing stops behind each wheel, or turning the steering wheel to ensure that the front wheels of the vehicle are angled towards the kerb).

Further information can be found in the Korean Road Traffic Act, though there is currently no English translation. If you need additional advice, contact the Korean police authority.

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 2018, there were 3,781 reported road deaths in South Korea. This equates to 7.3 road deaths per 100,000 of population and compares to the UK average of 2.8 road deaths per 100,000 of population in 2018.

Mobile telephones

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.

Terrorism

Although there is no recent history of terrorism in South Korea, attacks can’t be ruled out.

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 more about the global threat from terrorism.

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.

Local laws and customs

Changes to Korean traffic law came into effect on 25 June 2019.

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.

Same-sex relationships are not illegal. Younger Koreans are more liberal and LGBT rights organisations are gaining support. The gay scene, although relatively small, is well established and growing in visibility. See our information and advice page for the LGBT community before you travel.

In South Korea, ‘Student Discount’ rates for goods and services applies only to individuals under 19 years of age. Unlike the UK, this discount rate does not usually apply to university students.

Entry requirements

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.

Visas

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.

Passport validity

Your passport should be valid for a minimum period of 3 months from the date of entry into South Korea.

All foreigners living in South Korea are required to report any changes in their passport information (such as when receiving a new passport) either online using the Korean Immigration Office website or by visiting a local immigration office in South Korea. For further information, call the Korean Immigration Contact Centre (Tel: +82 1345).

UK Emergency Travel Documents

UK Emergency Travel Documents are accepted for entry, airside transit and exit from South Korea.

Customs declarations

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.

South Korean customs authorities allow you to bring small amounts of medication for your personal use, provided that it is kept in carry-on baggage. It is advised to take an English language prescription from your doctor at home for both your prescription drugs and non-prescription medicines. It is also a good idea to consult the website of the South Korean Ministry of Food and Drug Safety before you travel to South Korea.

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.

Employment

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.

Health

At least 8 weeks before your trip, check the latest country-specific health advice from the National Travel Health Network and Centre (NaTHNaC) on the TravelHealthPro website. Each country-specific page has information on vaccine recommendations, any current health risks or outbreaks, and factsheets with information on staying healthy abroad. Guidance is also available from NHS (Scotland) on the FitForTravel website.

General information on travel vaccinations and a travel health checklist is available on the NHS website. You may then wish to contact your health adviser or pharmacy for advice on other preventive measures and managing any pre-existing medical conditions while you’re abroad.

South Korean customs authorities allow you to bring small amounts of medication for your personal use, provided that it is kept in carry-on baggage. It is advised to take an English language prescription from your doctor at home for both your prescription drugs and non-prescription medicines. It is also a good idea to consult the website of the South Korean Ministry of Food and Drug Safety before you travel to South Korea.

While travel can be enjoyable, it can sometimes be challenging. There are clear links between mental and physical health, so looking after yourself during travel and when abroad is important. Information on travelling with mental health conditions is available in our guidance page. Further information is also available from the National Travel Health Network and Centre (NaTHNaC).

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.

Natural disasters

Typhoons

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 or you can call 131 in Korea to get an accurate weather forecast in English.   

See our tropical cyclones page for advice about what to do if you are caught up in a typhoon.

Money

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.

Travel safety

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 looking for a previous version of the FCO travel advice, visit the National Archives website. If you can’t find the page you’re looking for there, send the Travel Advice team a request.

Further help

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.