Things to know before you visit Korea
Most of us know that Korea is big on fashion, beauty, and music. But common knowledge aside, how much do you really know about their culture and way of life?
With borders increasingly opening up, more travellers have been eyeing plane tickets to Korea. Our article on 20 things you should know about Korea will give you a clearer idea on what you should expect, should you wish to visit the country soon.
Table of Contents
- Things to know before you visit Korea
- 1. Card payment is usually preferred to cash
- 2. Forbidden seats on trains & buses
- 3. Look out for pink badges on public transport
- 4. Beware of strangers approaching you
- 5. Make reservations in advance
- 6. Use two hands when you’re giving & receiving something
- 7. Top up your transportation cards at convenience stores
- 8. Some restaurants require you to take your shoes off
- 9. Look for call bells in Korean restaurants
- 10. Be fast or be last
- 11. Many cafes provide decaf coffee
- 12. Bring along a grocery bag wherever you go
- 13. Kakao Map & Naver Map supremacy
- 14. Use “ahjussi” & “ahjumma” sparingly
- 15. Couples & PDA everywhere
- 16. Take recycling & food disposal seriously
- 17. Heads-up all parents, there are no kids zones
- 18. Spitting on streets is a common sight
- 19. Sneaking meals into the cinema?
- 20. Don’t lift your rice bowl while eating
- Things to know before booking your flight to Korea
1. Card payment is usually preferred to cash
Video adapted from: @novenii
Card payment supremacy is a thing in Korea because it’s quick and convenient. Here’s a hint: refer to point #10.
Taxis, cafes, tourist attractions – you name it. It’s challenging to look for a place that doesn’t accept card payment.
But if complications such as credit card admin fees and terrible exchange rates worry you, fret not – paying in cash isn’t actually a problem in Korea!
Although card payment is more common, we encourage you to keep some cash on you. This is primarily for two reasons: transportation cards and street food vendors.
You can only use cash to top up transportation cards in Korea. Also, most street food vendors prefer cash to card payments. So if you want that fish cake soup and spicy rice cake, make sure there’s at least KRW10,000 (~USD8.28) on you.
2. Forbidden seats on trains & buses
Image credit: @gu____9
In Korea, you hardly see young people sitting on priority seats on public transport.
In fact, it’s frowned upon when individuals who don’t fall under the category of the elderly, physically disadvantaged, passengers with infants, and the sick, sit on priority seats.
When you’re on a bus, these reserved seats can be spotted easily as they are colour coded. Pink seats are designated for pregnant women, while yellow seats are for the elderly, those carrying infants, or people who aren’t able-bodied.
3. Look out for pink badges on public transport
Pregnant women first
Image credit: @maison_aube
Giving up your seat for the ones who need it more should be common sense.
But sometimes, it can be difficult to spot pregnant women as their tummy may not show as much, especially in the early stages of their pregnancy.
If you ever see a pink badge on a woman’s bag or purse in public transport, it indicates that she’s pregnant.
Although there are designated seats in pink on trains and buses for pregnant women, inconsiderate passengers who take up the space still exist.
Next time you spot a passenger with this badge, it’s a sign that you should give your seat up for her and the baby!
4. Beware of strangers approaching you
Video adapted from: The Swoon
Since young, we’ve learnt that talking to strangers is bad because we live in a dangerous world.
In Korea, you have to pay extra heed to this advice because of the growing number of religious cults.
You can be approached by them anywhere and anytime. The scariest part? They look just like one of us.
These religious cults don’t approach you in a group because that would be intimidating. Rather, they’re usually found in pairs or alone.
But take note that there’s no fixed pattern to identifying who belongs to a religious cult. Truth be told, it’s difficult to discern them from strangers who’re merely asking for directions.
These people may go out of their way to speak to you in English, Chinese, Japanese, or other foreign languages, just so they can engage in a conversation with you. Creepy, we know.
Typically, people from religious cults will break the ice by asking you for directions or to fill up a survey form.
In any case, do not give your personal information, such as name, age, and contact information.
5. Make reservations in advance
Queuing for bagels in Korea
Image credit: @pentax_mj
Hot places, especially for restaurants and cafes, only grant access to those who are patient and willing to wait.
This is because the waiting time is unbelievably long. There are times when the waiting time can last for two to three hours! Hence, it helps if you make a reservation in advance.
You should visit the Instagram page of the establishment to check if they accept reservations.
Alternatively, if you know of any Koreans around you, turn to them to see if the place accepts Naver reservations.
6. Use two hands when you’re giving & receiving something
Video credit: Cassianandor
A basic yet useful rule of thumb: always use two hands in Korea.
Using only one hand to give or receive something, especially when the other party is older than you, is deemed impudent.
Instead, use your right hand to give or receive while using your left hand to gently hold your right wrist. You can do this when you receive a receipt from the cashier or when you’re passing the menu back to the server.
The two-hand rule also applies when you shake hands with a stranger. Typically, Koreans use their right hand to shake the other’s hand, whereas the left is used to hold the right wrist.
You don’t have to do this when you’re shaking hands with someone of a younger age, but it’s seen as courteous to do so.
7. Top up your transportation cards at convenience stores
Image credit: @myfriendbraum_
Did you know that you can easily top up your transportation card at any convenience store in Korea?
T-money, also known as the de facto transportation card in Korea, can be bought at convenience stores for KRW2,500 (~USD2.06). They even come in adorable designs such as Kakao Friends and BT21.
The most common convenience store chains in Korea are GS25, CU, 7Eleven, and Ministop.
If there are no train stations in your area, all you have to do is find the nearest convenience store, go to the counter, pass your transportation card to the cashier, and let them know how much you’d like to top up.
You can say “Man-won choong-jeon-hae ju-se-yo”, which simply means “Please top up KRW10,000 (~USD8.28).”
The top-up value can be as low as KRW1,000 (~USD0.83), so fret not if you’re short on cash.
8. Some restaurants require you to take your shoes off
Image credit: @luv____cherry
Sitting cross-legged on a cushion in a restaurant may seem strange to some, but it’s part of traditional Korean customs.
It’s no longer as common these days since sitting on chairs is preferred to sitting on the floor. Yet, looking for restaurants with floor seating isn’t difficult in Korea.
Before stepping onto the floor seating area, remember to take off your shoes.
Being bare-footed helps to ensure that the floor doesn’t get dirty, and it also helps with sitting cross-legged in a comfortable manner.
Usually, there will be a shoe rack for you to place your shoes. Otherwise, you can simply arrange them on the floor neatly so that others don’t trip on your shoes and fall.
9. Look for call bells in Korean restaurants
Image credit: @goodbuysell_syscall
If you’re having a meal at a Korean restaurant, don’t forget to make use of call bells!
Most restaurants that serve Korean food have a bell on every table. You can usually find it on the edge of the table, or at times, underneath.
This is an efficient way to ask for help without having to shout in a noisy restaurant or raise your hand in a sea of customers.
When you press the call bell, your table number will be displayed on a screen. This allows the workers to cater to your needs ASAP.
When you want to order more food or foot the bill, just look for the call bell and press it.
10. Be fast or be last
Video credit: The Hyeon Story
When we say Koreans live a fast-paced lifestyle, we mean fast and furious fast.
Don’t be surprised if strangers push you on trains or if bus drivers don’t wait for you to settle down on your seat before driving off.
The “ppalli ppalli” culture, which translates to “hurry hurry”, may come across as a shock to those visiting Korea for the first time.
Being fast is often seen as being efficient, and that’s true in some ways. In Korea, you get the fastest internet speed, and food is delivered to your doorstep before you even realise it.
However, the Janus-faced culture of “be fast or be last” also means that if you don’t catch up, you’ll be left behind.
11. Many cafes provide decaf coffee
Image credit: @s.hmoon
Koreans are serious about getting their daily dose of caffeine. You can easily spot university students holding a huge cup of iced Americano on the streets, and it’s likely that cafe-hopping will be part of your itinerary.
But everything should be ingested in moderation, and that includes caffeine.
Most coffee shops provide a decaf option for those who are sensitive to caffeine. This means that you don’t have to worry about your caffeine intake when you hop from one cafe to another.
You can easily spot coffee chain stores such as Hollys Coffee and Ediya Coffee wherever you go. Not only are these places highly accessible, but they also provide a decaf option at an affordable price.
12. Bring along a grocery bag wherever you go
Image credit: @_productstorage
In 2019, the Ministry of Environment banned the free use of plastic bags at large supermarket chains, department stores, shopping malls, and grocery stores larger than 165 square metres.
Those who forget to bring a grocery bag out must pay KRW500 (~USD0.41) for each plastic bag at the checkout.
Also, disposable roll bags in stores shouldn’t be used to store your groceries.
You can only use the roll bags to store loose fruits, soil-covered vegetables, and leakable items such as tofu and ice cream.
Items such as pre-packed fish, meat, vegetables, and fruits shouldn’t be stored in the disposable roll bags.
It is recommended that you bring a grocery bag wherever you go because you never know when it will come in handy. Also, it will save you some cash!
Find out more about how to shop plastic-free in Korea:
Video credit: Arirang News
Image credit: @kimchimaninseoul
In Korea, Naver Map and Kakao Map reign supreme over Google Maps. Fortunately for those who can’t read Korean, both map apps are available in English!
What’s more, Kakao Map recommends local hot spots and allows you to discover places around your immediate vicinity.
There’s even a “theme map” to help you personalise locations according to different themes such as bookstores, pet-friendly cafes, and jazz bars.
You can even check on your friend’s or family member’s current location in real time, just in case they lose their way.
14. Use “ahjussi” & “ahjumma” sparingly
Image credit: CJ E&M
You would have heard the terms “ahjussi” and “ahjumma” being used in Korean dramas or even variety shows.
While these terms are not exactly derogatory, they should be used sparingly as they can sound rude, depending on the context.
For example, strangers who are embroiled in an argument tend to use ahjussi and ahjumma to address each other.
When you’re in a restaurant and a person of an older age is serving you, use “i-mo” (aunt) instead of ahjumma, and “sajang-nim” (a general title to address business owners) instead of ahjussi.
Next time you need a side dish refill or an extra pair of utensils, simply raise your hand and say i-mo or sa-jang-nim!
15. Couples & PDA everywhere
Video credit: @Sannykimura
If you’re uncomfortable with PDA, we apologise in advance.
You’d be surprised by the number of couples you’ll meet as you travel around Korea. Perhaps the Korean dramas you’ve been watching are not always overdramatising the country’s culture of romance.
After all, there are several romantic holidays celebrated in the land of lovebirds.
Occasionally, you might spot couples posing for photos in front of a tripod against a pretty background. There’s no shame in bringing your tripod around if you plan to visit Korea with your significant other and want to have pretty photos as a keepsake!
16. Take recycling & food disposal seriously
Image credit: @sinkleader.official
In Korea, general trash disposal is separated from food waste disposal.
For those planning to stay in an apartment complex, take note that recycling of food waste is mandatory in Korea.
There are two types of trash bags you should know of. The one in yellow is meant for food disposal, while the one in white is meant for general waste. You can easily purchase these at convenience stores and supermarkets.
At the end of each day, make sure to store your food waste in the yellow bag. When the bag is filled, throw it in the food waste bin located in your apartment complex.
It’s important to note that not every type of food waste is meant for disposal. For instance, fruit seeds, fish bones and clam shells belong to the general waste category.
It may seem like a hassle to abide by the recycling instructions, but it’s an integral part of Korean culture nonetheless.
17. Heads-up all parents, there are no kids zones
Image credit: @daseossudgarag
The term “no kids zone” first surfaced in 2014. This sparked a heated debate as the freedom of children was in conflict with the freedom of grown-up customers.
Children under the age of 13 are denied entry into places with a “no kids zone” sign.
“No kids zone” signs, alternatively called “kids-free zones”, are usually found in restaurants and cafes.
With increasing complaints that kids create disturbance and noise, “no kids zones” began as a way for businesses to maintain a serene atmosphere for customers.
Besides restaurants and cafes, some of the most common places that restrict the entrance of kids include cinemas and even supermarkets.
Hence, travellers who are visiting Korea with their children are encouraged to do prior research before visiting such places.
18. Spitting on streets is a common sight
Video credit: Tenor
Behind a veneer of glitz and glamour lies streets covered with spit. Yeah, we know it’s distasteful.
Although spitting in public spaces is a punishable offence with a fine of up to KRW100,000 (~USD82.10), it’s still a common sight in Korea.
But ever since the pandemic hit, people have been more cautious of contaminated airborne participles and droplets.
Also, wearing our masks means that the frequency of spitting on streets has been decreased. And yet, it’s hard to break a habit, let alone a social habit.
19. Sneaking meals into the cinema?
Pizza and beer combination *chefs kiss*
Image credit: @cgv_korea
Did you know that you’re allowed to bring your own food to Korean cinemas? Surprisingly, this is not common knowledge, even among the locals.
In 2008, the Korea Fair Trade Commission permitted patrons to bring their own food into cinemas such as CGV, Megabox, and Lotte Cinema.
It’s already been 14 years since this practice was put in place, but there are many who continue to sneak their own food into the cinema.
CGV and Megabox allow you to bring in most foods, unless the pungent smell brings discomfort to others.
But bringing your own food into the cinema may not be necessary as Korean cinemas provide snacks and dishes that are on the next level.
From caramel popcorn and churros to butter squid and beer, you’d be spoilt for choice.
20. Don’t lift your rice bowl while eating
Image credit: @0225_hyoseon
If you’re visiting Korea for the first time, dining etiquette or table manners may not be something you would look up.
However, it’s always nice when travellers are culturally sensitive to minute details. So here are some things you should know before you eat at a Korean restaurant.
Avoid lifting your rice or soup bowl while having your meal. Instead, ensure that bowls are placed on the dining table at all times throughout your meal.
Additionally, eating rice with your spoon is preferred to using a pair of chopsticks. Although many youths in Korea pay less attention to this dining etiquette, we still encourage you to eat rice with a spoon, while side dishes are eaten with chopsticks.
If you want to learn more about Korean dining etiquette, click on the video below:
Video credit: 재외동포재단 스터디코리안
Things to know before booking your flight to Korea
Like any other country, Korea isn’t a picture-perfect place. Perhaps it’s the influence of mass media that makes us susceptible to creating an ideal image of Korea in our minds.
In any case, we hope this article has opened your eyes to a deeper understanding of Korea and its culture. Bon voyage!
Also check out:
- 10 Korean Drama Filming Locations To Visit
- 6 Romantic Holidays Celebrated By Couples In Korea
- 6 Best Cities In South Korea To Visit Besides Seoul And Busan
- 8 Theme Parks In Korea To Check Out Besides Lotte World & Everland
- 8 Types Of Kimchi You Must Know Before Your Next Visit To A Korean Restaurant
Cover image adapted from: @daseossudgarag and @myfriendbraum_
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