The currency used is the South Korean Won. Notes come in denominations of W1000, W5000 and W10000 and the coins in use are W1, W5, W10, W50, W100 and W500. You should note, however, that W1 and W5 coins are extremely rare and are usually only found in banks.
The language spoken is Korean but you should be able to find somebody who speaks English in the major tourist areas as well as the bigger towns and cities because it is the secondary language of South Korea.
Korea’s climate is a continental one which means that winter is dry and cold and lasts from December to March while summer is hot and humid and lasts from June to September. Changes between seasons are swift too and take place in April and October so if you are travelling at this time of year you really do need to take this into account. The wettest months are between June and September where the country receives 70% of its annual rainfall and the natives can expect at least one typhoon every year. Average temperatures in the capital are between –9 and 0 degrees Celsius in January and between 22 and 31 degrees Celsius in August.
South Korea lies nine hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time.
Government offices open between 9.00am and 6.00pm from March to October and between 9.00am and 5.00pm from November to February. They open between 9.00am and 1.00pm on Saturday all year round. Banks are open between 9.30am and 4.30pm from Monday to Friday and between 9.30am and 1.30pm on Saturdays. Both are required by law to close on Sundays and all national holidays. Bigger department stores open between 10.30am and 7.30pm including Sundays but do close for one day during the week depending on the location. Finally, smaller shops open early and close late on a daily basis.
Most of the country has now converted to 220 Volts AC, 60Hz but in some older buildings you may still find 110 Volts. To tell the difference check the outlets first – the 110V are flat two pins while the 220V are round two pins.
Most goods and services in South Korea are subject to a standard value added tax of 10%. This will be included in the price so you don’t have to worry about being charged extra on top of the price quoted.
Visitors from most countries will not require a visa to visit South Korea for a period of less than thirty days. You will need to have an outward ticket and a passport which is valid for a period of no less than six months after your arrival date. It is also worth noting that this is all that is required by countries who do need a visa if they have already been issued with a visa by the US, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand or Japanese governments.
If you intend to stay for longer than thirty days the best thing to do is contact the embassy in your home country because it can become quite confusing. For example South Korea has an agreement with all West European nationals whereby they will be granted a ninety-day permit with the exception of Italians and Portuguese who can stay for sixty days. Nationals of Israel, Mexico, New Zealand, Singapore and Thailand also qualify for the ninety-day permit. Nationals of all other countries will need a visa if you intend staying for a period in excess of thirty days and you should also note that tourist visas are very rarely extended so if you wish to work or study or stay for a period longer than your visa permits, you should also contact the Korean embassy in your home country.
The main tourist offices in South Korea are Korean National Tourism Offices (KNTO. They produce excellent information in their booklets, brochures and maps which can be picked up in any branch and you will find the main offices at the three international airports - Seoul, Busan and Jejudo- and in Seoul city centre. As well as this you will find smaller offices in almost every town and city in the country. Most are located in the city or town hall but some of the offices in more remote locations might not have as much information or an English speaker. Where this is the case, however, you can call the free country wide number 080 757 2000 where you are guaranteed to find somebody who can help you with any queries you might have.
The country code for South Korea is 82 so if you are calling from abroad you need to dial your international code followed by 82, the local area code without the first 0 and the local number. The same instructions apply when you are making an international call from within the country but you will need to use the relevant outgoing code depending on where you are calling – these are 001, 002, 008 so you should check this out before travelling.
When it comes to public phones, there are four different types in South Korea – grey credit card and coin phones, blue coin phones, grey coin phones and grey card phones. All can be used for local and long distance calls but you will need to find a card phone to make international calls. Local calls cost W50 for three minutes while long distance are considerably more expensive but if you can make these after 9.00pm or on Sunday you will save 30% on your charges.
The blue telephones accept both W10 and W100 coins while grey coin phones accept W10, W50 and W100 and you will not receive change or credit from either. Telephone cards come in denominations of W3000, W5000 and W10000 and can be purchased in shops which are near telephone booths or in banks.
When making international calls you should also try to do so between 9.00pm and 8.00am where you will receive a discount of between 30 and 50%. If you are using the 002 international access code you will receive a further 1% discount and 008 you will receive another 5-6% discount on what you have already received. Finally, for operator assisted and collect calls dial 00797.
Up until recently tipping was virtually unheard off but the western custom is becoming more frequent. Nevertheless, it is still quite uncommon and at no time is it essential. In restaurants where a service charge of between 10% and 15% has already been included, you should only tip if you really think it’s necessary. If a service charge has not been added a tip equivalent to a service charge is adequate. You don’t need to tip taxi drivers but many people tell them to keep any small change or will tip about 10% if they receive help with luggage. It is worth noting once again, however, that at no time is tipping compulsory, it is entirely at your own discretion.
It is worth noting what the public holidays are before you travel to a country as the majority of businesses, banks and shops usually shut for the day. In South Korea they take place on January 1st, February 4th – 6th, March 1st, April 5th, May 5th and 11th, June 6th, July 17th, August 15th, September 11 – 13th, October 3rd and December 25th. Finally, it is a good idea to check the particular area too as certain towns and cities also shut down during special events.