Transport and Driving in South Korea
Given its compact size and advanced infrastructure, expats should have few problems when it comes to transport in South Korea. The country is well connected by road and rail networks, and it is possible to travel between major cities on cheap domestic flights. For most expats, especially those living in major cities, owning a car and driving in South Korea is unnecessary since getting around with public transport is generally easy.
Public transport in South Korea
South Korea’s public transport system is comprehensive and well organised. One of the most popular ways of getting around is the railway network, which connects the country’s major cities and is also an effective way to get around within them. Larger cities boast modern subway networks which are another popular way of commuting, while expats will also be able to use both inter- and inner-city bus services.
In addition to extensive subway networks within all of the major cities, South Korea as a whole is well connected by rail. Travelling through the country by train is possible on Korail, the national rail service, which has been upgraded and extended in recent years, although it remains a more practical option for travel between major cities, as access to rural areas is limited. The line from Seoul to Busan via Daegu and Dondaegu is the most travelled.
There is also a high-speed express train (KTX) from Seoul to Busan via Daegu, Dondaegu and other smaller towns which travels from one end of the country to the other in just over two hours. A second high-speed line runs between Seoul and Gwangju.
Both the KTX and Korail train services are easy to use. There are self-service ticket kiosks that accept cash or credit cards, most stations are signposted in both Korean and English, and station staff often speak basic English.
An extensive bus service connects all South Korean cities. Travelling by bus in South Korea is cheaper than travelling by train, and more practical if travelling to a more rural area. There are a number of intercity bus options, as well as express buses which travel long distance with fewer stops.
Large cities such as Seoul, Busan, Gwangju, Daejeon, Daegu and Incheon have their own subway systems. Although, outside of Seoul's established, extensive system, expats may sometimes struggle to use the subway to get to the outer reaches of the city they live in, and may need to use a bus or taxi for the final leg of their journey.
Taxis are plentiful in South Korea, especially in the cities. Drivers are unlikely to speak English and may get lost when travelling beyond the areas that they're most familiar with. It is a good idea for foreigners to have a Korean friend or colleague write down their destination in Korean to show the driver, or to carry a business card with the Korean address of a nearby hotel or business.
A local app-based rideshare service called Kakao Taxi operates in South Korea and it allows expats to order a taxi service to their exact address. Many expats prefer using rideshare apps as they allow for automatic credit card billing as well as a greater control over their route.
Driving in South Korea
It is possible to get around the country without owning or driving a car due to its extensive public transport system. However, foreigners can drive in South Korea on an International Driver’s Permit and, as an additional benefit, major road signs are in both Korean and English.
Driving can be a more convenient way of exploring the countryside but may be more trouble than it is worth in larger, more congested cities such as Seoul - even though traffic is not as chaotic as it is in many other Asian capitals.
Vehicles can be hired from any number of international car hire companies, which have offices at the airports and in cities. Foreigners can also buy new or used cars as long as they are in possession of an Alien Registration Card (ARC). Newly purchased cars need to be registered within 15 days.
Those in possession of an ARC can also exchange their driving licence for a Korean one if their home country recognises South Korean licences. Their licence is returned to them when they leave the country.
Air travel in South Korea
Most travellers arrive in South Korea at Incheon International Airport, which is connected to Seoul by train. Although it is possible to travel from one end of the country to the other by road or rail in a few hours, there are domestic flights between cities on South Korea’s two main airlines, Korean Air and Asiana, as well as low-cost airlines Jeju Air and T'way Airlines.
It is also possible to catch a ferry to the island of Jeju in the south, but much easier to fly. There are commuter flights between Seoul and Busan, and travelling on these flights with low-cost airlines is often cheaper than travelling by express train.