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.
President Yoon Suk-yeol since 2022.
Han Duck-soo since 2022.
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.
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 South Korea set and enforce entry rules. If you’re not sure how these requirements apply to you, contact the South Korean Embassy in the UK.
There are no COVID-19 testing or vaccination requirements for travellers entering South Korea.
Passport validity requirements
If you are visiting as a tourist for up to 90 days, your passport must have an ‘expiry date’ after the date you are leaving South Korea.
If you are entering South Korea on a long-term visa, your passport should have an ‘expiry date’ at least 6 months after the date you arrive.
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 do not need a visa to visit South Korea as a tourist for up to 90 days. You must 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 are travelling for any purpose other than short-term business or tourism, check visa requirements with the South Korean Embassy in the UK.
For those in South Korea on a work visa, all employment changes must be authorised by Korean Immigration.
Re-entry permits for long-term visa holders
Most foreign nationals in South Korea on long-term visas are allowed to re-enter South Korea within one year of departure without the need for a re-entry permit. Check with the Korea Immigration Service.
If you are resident and intend to spend more than a year outside of South Korea, in most cases, you must apply for a multiple re-entry permit via the Hi Korea website before departure. If you require a re-entry permit, engage early with the immigration authorities and apply for a re-entry permit at least 4 working days ahead of any planned travel.
Visas for working as an English teacher
To get a visa to teach English in South Korea, you must have a 3-year university degree. A Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) qualification alone is not enough. If you are found to have 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 their expectation or have had difficulties getting the correct visas and residence permits. Some also report more serious problems such as breach of contract, confiscation of passport, payment being withheld and inadequate insurance.
Check all terms and conditions of your employment carefully. If possible, speak to other teachers from the place where you plan to work before accepting any offer. If you are in South Korea and in need of assistance, you should contact British Embassy in Seoul.
At least 8 weeks before your trip, check the vaccinations and certificates you need in TravelHealthPro’s South Korea guide.
There are strict rules about goods you can take into or out of South Korea. You must declare anything that may be prohibited or subject to tax or duty.
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. Stay aware of your surroundings 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 South Korea
Although there’s no recent history of terrorism in South Korea, attacks cannot be ruled out.
The level of tension and the security situation on the Korean Peninsula can change with little notice. Tensions can rise after missile tests by North Korea and 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, which will be reported on news broadcasts.
The demilitarised zone (DMZ) separates North Korea and South 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.
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.
Public demonstrations in South Korea are common. These gatherings are mostly peaceful and well-policed. Be aware that under Korean law, it is illegal for foreign nationals to take part in political activities when in the country.
Civil emergency exercises and advice
South Korean authorities sometimes hold civil emergency exercises. You’ll hear sirens to mark the start the exercise. All vehicles must stop and sometimes people will have to descend into designated metro stations or basements. You do not need to participate but do follow any instructions from officials during these exercises.
As part of your own contingency planning, 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. Consider saving the contact details for the embassy so that you can access them quickly if needed. Make sure to share your contact details with your family and friends.
Crime against foreigners is rare but there are occasional thefts. Take extra care of passports, credit cards and money in crowded areas and in areas visited by foreigners, such as Itaewon.
While most reported crimes are thefts, there have been cases of assault, including sexual assault, particularly around bars and nightlife areas. Take care when travelling alone at night and only use legitimate taxis or public transport.
Laws and cultural differences
Carry some form of identification at all times and make sure you’ve written the emergency contact details in the back of your passport.
Illegal drugs and prison sentences
If you’re convicted of possession, use or trafficking of illegal drugs you can face a long jail sentence 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.
If you are planning to drive in South Korea, see information on driving abroad and read the Korea Tourism Organization’s driving in Korea guidance. The guide lists driving regulations and other legal requirements you need to be aware of.
You’ll need to have both the 1949 international driving permit (IDP) and your UK driving licence with you in the car when you drive in South Korea. You cannot buy an IDP outside the UK, so get one before you travel. You can buy an IDP in person from some UK post offices – find your nearest post office branch that offers this service.
The police take the position that car and motorbike drivers are at fault in accidents involving cyclists or pedestrians. If you injure someone in an accident, you are likely to face criminal charges and heavy penalties, even if guilt is not proved.
The legal limit for alcohol in South Korea is less than half the limit in England, and penalties for drink-driving include prison and fines.
Taxi drivers tend to speak little or no English. It is helpful to have your destination written in Korean – if possible with a map.
Extreme weather and natural disasters
If there is a natural disaster, or the threat of one, the South Korean government will publish updates in Korean and English to the Natural Disaster Safety Portal.
Find out what you can do to prepare for and respond to extreme weather and natural hazards.
The typhoon season normally runs from June to November. You should monitor the progress of approaching storms with the Korea Meteorological Administration or call 131 in Korea to get an accurate weather forecast in English. Always follow any advice given by the local authorities.
Flooding and landslides
South Korea has heavy rainfall across the country during the summer rainy season, usually in June and July. Torrential rain may cause flooding near rivers and creeks, including in built-up areas. Flash floods are common in areas downstream from large reservoirs or rivers, even after relatively short periods of intense rainfall. Landslides are possible in hilly and mountainous areas.
You should monitor forecasts for heavy rainfall with the Korea Meteorological Administration and follow any advice given by the local authorities.
Strong earthquakes are unusual in South Korea but do happen. Most earthquakes in South Korea are relatively weak. The Korea Meteorological Administration publishes information on earthquakes.
Read up on the any guidance from local authorities on safety procedures in an earthquake and check the safety tips from the Seoul Metropolitan Government.
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.
Emergency medical number
Call 119 and ask for an ambulance.
Contact your insurance company promptly if you’re referred to a medical facility for treatment.
Vaccinations and health risks
At least 8 weeks before your trip check:
- the latest information on vaccinations and health risks in TravelHealthPro’s South Korea guide
- where to get vaccines and whether you have to pay on the NHS travel vaccinations page
Tick bites, and tick-borne encephalitis, are a risk throughout South Korea. Read more about avoiding tick and insect bites on TravelHealthPro.
Air pollution, including yellow dust pollution, is common, especially during spring months. Follow local media reporting and check the Korean Meteorological Administration website. On days when concentrations are high, most residents will stay indoors or use face masks outside. It’s also important to drink plenty of water.
The legal status and regulation of some medicines prescribed or bought in the UK can be different in other countries.
South Korean customs authorities allow you to bring small amounts of medication for your personal use, if it is kept in carry-on baggage. Take an English language prescription from your doctor at home for both your prescription drugs and non-prescription medicines. Consult the website of the South Korean Ministry of Food and Drug Safety before you travel to South Korea.
The NHS has information on whether you can take your medicine abroad.
Healthcare facilities in South Korea
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 to stay in a South Korean hospital, particularly if your condition is severe, the hospital may ask you to bring a guardian or ‘bohoja’ to assist you with basic care needs such as trips to the bathroom, washing and exercise. It is possible to find agencies who will provide a caregiver or ‘ganbyungin’ for a fee, but these caregivers generally do not speak English. If you know that you may need to enter a Korean hospital, you should try to organise a guardian such as a friend or relative in advance.
FCDO has a list of English-speaking doctors in South Korea.
There is also guidance on healthcare if you’re living in South Korea.
If you are travelling to South Korea for elective treatment, such as cosmetic surgery or a dental procedure, consider that no medical procedure is risk-free. Make sure that your travel health insurance covers complications that may arise and repatriation to the UK if required.
COVID-19 healthcare in South Korea
If you think you might have COVID-19 while in South Korea, contact the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency on 1339 (support is available in English).
You can buy antigen tests at pharmacies or get a PCR test for a fee at most hospitals .
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.
Emergency services in South Korea
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 English-speaking lawyers, funeral directors and translators and interpreters in South Korea
- dealing with a death in South Korea
- being arrested or imprisoned in South 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 South Korea and you need emergency help from the UK government, contact the British Embassy in Seoul.
You can also 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)
Risk information for British companies
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.