Top 10 Tips for Driving in Korea

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driving in Korea

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Driving in Korea. I never really thought of it until a bunch of expats and myself had to take to the road in order to squeeze a long distance trip into a weekend.

While I hear driving in Seoul is stressful and that drivers can occasionally be a bit speed crazy— in comparison to other countries I’ve been to — driving on the Korean highway isn’t nearly as daunting. Drivers aren’t overtaking cars by hopping into oncoming traffic nor do Korean highways accommodate bicycles, pedicabs or even, cows! In fact, if you’ve ever driven in New York City, then Korea should be a relative breeze.

However, there are things about the Korean highways (and gps devices) that you may want to know about.

On a recent weekend road trip from Daegu to Mt. Seoraksan (a 5-6 hour drive), these are some things I discovered…

10 Things to know before driving in Korea

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1. Koreans drive like Americans

… on the right side of the road.

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2. You should have an “international driver’s permit” or Korean driver’s license to rent or drive.

For foreigners who want to rent or drive a car in Korea, you’ll *need* an international driver’s permit (a kind of paper permit that accompanies your driver’s license). However, this doesn’t automatically guarantee you a car.

Some rental places only accept Korean driver’s licenses!

It’s best to double-check with your car rental dealer in advance.

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3. CCTV is watching  the roads all the time.

Everywhere you go in Korea you’ll find CCTV‘s (surveillance cameras).

Everywhere.

If you’re tempted to speed, you should know that highway surveillance cameras are fairly evenly spaced and in regular intervals.

How regular?

Gauging from this last trip, I’d guesstimate about 3-5 surveillance cameras per mile!

Also, certain stretches of road are clocked. They time you by the duration you’ve taken to finish the drive.

How they record this, I’m not certain, but if you’ve completed a leg of road under the estimated time, you’re ticketed as speeding.

How can you know what the allotted time is?

Get a Korean GPS! (See #7-10)

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4. Highway speed limits are 80-110 km/h.

Before you get to thinking Korean freeways are like the notorious German autobahn (its race speed is a recommended 81mph), remember the kilometer to mile conversion.

Converted, the speed limit is actually 50-75 mph… just like driving on a Los Angeles freeway!
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5. Highway signs are bi-lingual.

Thank God.

Road signs directing you to upcoming exits and off-shoot routes are written in both, Korean and English.
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6. When in doubt, hit the hazards!

Koreans have a special sign they use to warn neighboring drivers of caution ahead- they flash their hazard lights.

If Koreans hit a hard break, they flash their hazards, signaling a strong or last-minute stop.

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Pros & Cons of using the Korean GPS:

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7. Korean cars have entertainment systems

What would Koreans do without TV? I simply don’t know..

Taxis watch them as they drive, buses and trains often have them and every small mom-n-pop shop, salon and restaurant runs them to keep clientele and employees occupied.  I can even watch one, even while waiting in the dentist’s chair!

Thus, it’s a feature of the Korean GPS, playing satellite TV, music and movies.

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8. Just call me the stealthy Speed Racer.

Korea GPS devices detect speed-tracking surveillance cameras!

A useful feature, they’ll tell you to when to slow down to avoid triggering surveillance. Your screen might even flash a bright alarm to inform you of the speed limit you must slow to.

It’s safe to say this feature warrants #3 and #4 close to null, as speeding drivers simply have to hit the brakes when they see the warning.

Korean gps:  the left side of the panel displays alternate destinations and their distance.

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9. You can go anywhere the road(s) takes you, with information at your fingertips.

How far are you from Busan, Seoul or Daegu?

What highways can you take to get there?

Where’s the nearest gas station or rest stop?

The coolest feature:

The gps detects upcoming rest stops and highways and offers you alternate destination routes, in the case you’d like to change your destination city to one that’s closer.

The con of this feature :

While universal icons for landmarks are an aid, names (i.e. city names) are in Korean. Furthermore, it’s a little tricky figuring out how to open or close this feature; and if you can’t close it, your screen will be littered with confusing information.

This brings me to the one big *con* to using the Korean gps…

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10. Does the Korean gps break the language barrier?

Sorry, it would seem not.

I don’t know if there are any Korean gps’s that currently break the language barrier.

If you rent your car from an international dealer, like Hertz or Avis, your gps might come with optional English settings. Otherwise, be advised you might be getting one that speaks and writes in Korean.

My advice? * Take a road map & occasionally refer to the actual highway signs– it’s the only English you’ll see*

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Would you want to be driving in Korea? 

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25 Comments. Leave new

Very good article, really encourage me to keep up with my driving plan in south korea. But if you could, please make a post about how to operate a gas station in seoul. Is it all written in korean? Or there is an attendant/operator that help in the station?
Thanks.

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One thing you should be aware of when driving in South Korea is this: they don’t have the concept of slow and fast lanes. So, every lane is both a slow and a fast lane and therefore if you overtake and then automatically return back into the ‘what you think is a slow lane’ then you could be run over by a speeding bus or truck! you need eyes in the back of your head. Also Korean drivers are not courteous and in fact they are particularly impatient. Taxi’s and buses have some kind of concession to go through a red light, so watch out for that. The traffic lights are all on timers, there are no ultrasonic or radar controlled lights, whether it be traffic or pedestrian lights. Don’t expect a speeding bus or taxi to stop at your green crossing light, you have to be aware of these features when negotiating the Korean roads. I have been driving here since 1985, so take heed.

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did you incur any traffic violations? how did you know about it?

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Thank you for this post it was so useful 😉 Could I know about the costs I should be expecting? Thanks

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What do those of you who have driven in Korea think? Have I missed anything? Yes, making a U turn in the middle of a city street.

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I’ve considered car rental in Jeju this March as one of my stops for my 10-day trip but waived it. Aside from the costs, I might not able to enjoy the sights with my eyes on the road and signs all the time..so might drive scooter instead in Udo Island.:-)

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    @Claire: I’m sure both car and not have it’s perks and drawbacks. I agree with you- although there’s much flexibility and ease with cars, you don’t have the freedom to sit back and enjoy the sightseeing as you would something like the bus or a scooter. Enjoy your trip!

    Reply

I must say that, before going to Korea, you can hire a good guide, who can help you with your current, you stay, also because so that he can inform you and arrange all the things need. But an additional know shared by this articles is really awesome Christine.

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I don’t know why everyone has to always bring up “if you drive in NY you are fine anywhere”…it’s ain’t so bad! Coming from Europe, having driven in Rome (just go,gogo, avanti!), Paris (must-be-a-tourist-ton-cule) and almost everywhere else including speed-limit-less Autobahn with every idiot driving on the left lane (may it be 80 mph (oh-so-slow) or 190mph (get-outa-my-way-NOW))…NY is a piece of cake, just find the right lane to be in, anticipate left and right turn lanes and think of cabs as terrorists that must be eliminated….voila, not so bad!;-)

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    @Katja: LOL. You’re a more global driver than me. When you compare it to Europe (not just L.A.) then yes, I guess you have a point! When I drive in NYC, I can never figure out the rules & it just doesn’t seem to have any. In L.A. you always just drive on the offense. simple. I can’t imagine driving on the autobahn or Paris, yikes. i had to drive in Montreal once and the French names on highway signs threw me… and I had a GPS too. So sad.

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    You guys should totally go to a third world country. The rules are, there aren’t any. You honestly just drive wherever you want at whatever speed you want and I’ll be damned if someone tries to cross a road because I assure you they aren’t getting to the other side all in one piece…

    Reply
      Avatar
      Christine Kaaloa
      November 27, 2015 8:18 am

      You should try crossing a street in Kolkata or Varanasi. I’ve gotten to at least be a pro of that, but that’s probably the craziest i’ve seen of a road. Rickshaws, cows, pedestrians, autorickshaws, cars, workmen carry loads on their head… all crossing and weaving. Strangely, there are less accidents than you’d expect.

      Reply

        I ran across this article all these years later and first I want to say thank you! I’m also planning to rent a car in South Korea and drive and explore. I can read Hangul, although I don’t always understand what I’m reading! But I should be able to recognize city names (I hope).
        But I’m replying here because — yes!! Driving in Algeria, no rules, no lanes, pedestrians everywhere, and shepherds herding their flock along the main highway. Fun times!

        Reply

[…] Living in Seoul never stops surprising me with something new to see, do, taste, or experience. I started blogging to communicate with my family, but I've discovered that writing about my life helps me to pay attention to it, and enjoy it more. If my readers read something I wrote, and also start paying attention to the good stuff, then all the time I spend writing is worthwhile. So a little while ago, Grrrl Traveler rented a car for a five hour road trip, and came back with these ten observations about driving in Korea. […]

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Very interesting. In general principle, I don’t think TVs in vehicles is a very good idea, unless it’s the back seat to keep the kids entertained. However, I would like to see more surveillance cameras trained on intersections in the US. It might make people obey the laws a bit more.

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    @Gray: Exactly and yet it’s so natural here….just as texting is. I saw a young boy near my apt yesterday, riding his bike with one hand and texting with the other. I think he actually had it down…

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    @Gray: Exactly and yet it’s so natural here….just as texting is. I saw a young boy near my apt yesterday, riding his bike with one hand and texting with the other. I think he actually had it down… I’m not sure if I want nearly as much surveillance cams as Kora has. It’s a bit too much. It felt like we were hitting a cam every 2 min.

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Actually, if you’re going to be in Korea for a year or longer, it might just be worth the time to get a Korean license (exchange your US or other nationality for a Korean one). It’s really cheap and valid in 44 other countries. Plus, when you return to the US, or home country, you can get your original license back. It solves the problem. In addition, if you’re going to travel to a country that doesn’t honor the Korean License, you can pick up an International Driver’s Permit here, too.

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    @Steve: Thanks for that tip. I have an International Driver’s Permit but I didn’t think it was that easy to get a Korean license. Giving up my license from home would be hard though. I think it usually involves taking another test, which I’ve been trying to avoid doing. But this might be good info for others. thanks!

    Reply

      You will not give up your home driver’s license. They will keep it first and then once you have a ticket back home, you just need to show them and they will give you back your home driver’s license. Ive done mine. and I was going out of korea in a week, I just show them and they give me back my license as soon as I got my korean driver’s license. They wont take back your korean driver’s license. Its 10 years valid (korean).

      And you will not take any driving test. My experience is just to get authentication from Embassy that my home license is authentic. And thats it. But that depends where your home country is. Check on driver’s license place close to you or you can check thru internet.

      Reply
    Avatar
    ogbui chukwudike uchenna
    January 4, 2018 5:16 pm

    Pls i want to drive in south Korea

    Reply

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