Driving in South Korea is a fun way to discover the country. The country’s cities are exciting and a great start to your adventures, of course, but to really get a sense of South Korea, you have to venture to its small quaint towns and have a taste of its amazing countryside.
While it is possible to go around South Korea using public transportation, driving around is a lot more convenient and fun. It definitely saves you travel time and if you plan your trip right, it can even save you money. Plus: it’s a lot easier to do than you think – even if you don’t speak their language.
Here are my tips for renting a car and driving in South Korea.
How to drive in South Korea
- Requirements for driving in South Korea
- Renting a car
- Road rules and driving safety
- Navigating / using the Korean GPS
- Costs of driving a rental car in South Korea
- Plan your trip – top tips for travel to South Korea
Checklist: Here’s what you need to rent a car and drive as a tourist in South Korea
- You must be at least 21 years old
- Valid local driver’s license
- Valid International Driving Permit following the Geneva convention or the Vienna convention
- Passport for identification
- Credit card in driver’s name
Age requirements – To rent a car, you must be at least 21 years old and have held your local license for 1 year. If you’re under 25, rental car companies may add a young driver surcharge.
License requirements – If you plan to drive in South Korea for a short time as a tourist (less than one year), a valid International Driving Permit accompanied by your valid local driver’s license is enough. Make sure to apply for an International Driving Permit from your country’s licensing office before your trip. Note that the International Driving Permit is only valid when accompanied by a valid local license (that is, the permit expires when your local license expires). Also note that IDPs recognized in South Korea are only those issued by member states of the Geneva convention or the Vienna convention – click the links to see which one your country is using.
Other documents – Most rental car companies in South Korea would require you to present your passport and a credit card under your name when picking up the rental car. They might authorize a deposit on your credit card to cover for any damages.
Reserve a car online – It’s best to reserve your rental car online in advance. You can run out of cars especially in busy holiday destinations like Jeju if you don’t reserve a car, and reserving in advance also allows the rental car company to prepare your car and all paperwork involved so you don’t have to wait for long.
Add-ons – Through the online platform, you can also request for add-ons like a comprehensive rental insurance, GPS unit, and child seats, if necessary.
One-way rentals – Some rental car companies allow one-way rentals. This means you can pick-up your car from one city and drop it off in another. This can be a good option if you’re flying in and out of two different cities.
Here is a list of locations where you can pick up and return your car. Click on the city where you plan to go and enter your trip details to get a quotation or reserve a car. You can also plug in your travel destinations and dates below for a quick quote. RentalCars works with South Korea’s leading and most reputable car rental companies, so you’re assured of quality cars and service. Their simple online booking platform also allows you to compare prices, car models, and inclusions easily, plus they give you instant confirmation, free cancellation, and big deals and discounts.
South Korea drives on the right side of the road.
Speed limits – Here are the normal speed limits for driving in South Korea:
- Expressways – Varies from 100-120 km/hr
- Open roads – 80 km/hr
- City – Varies from 60-80 km/hr
Watch out for speed cameras in motorways.
Priority / right of way – There are no clear rules regarding priority or right of way when approaching an intersection without traffic lights, so approach intersections with caution and assume the other driver wants to go first.
Children – Children under 6 years old must use a car seat.
Seatbelts – All passengers must wear a seatbelt.
In case of car breakdown or accidents – Make sure to note down your rental car or insurance company’s emergency number. In case of an accident involving any kind of injury, you must wait on the site until the police comes. 119 connects you to the fire brigade and ambulance while 112 is the emergency number for the police.
Tolls – If you’re driving long distances, you will likely use the expressways. Expressway tolls can be paid using cash, major credit cards, or a Hi-Pass card.
When approaching a toll gate, there are two types of lanes in the expressways: the blue lane is for cars that come with an On Board Unit (OBU), which is a gadget that automates the toll charging so cars can pass the tolls without having to stop. The other lanes are for cars without this unit.
So far, all my rentals didn’t have the OBU. If yours don’t have it either, remember to not use the blue lane and stop at the toll gates to get your ticket (at the entrance) and pay for it (at the exit).
Here are just a couple of expressway glitches I experienced:
- I made a mistake in one entry toll gate and went through the blue lane, despite not having the OBU. As such, I didn’t get an entry ticket.
- One entry toll gate didn’t give me a card – not sure if I pressed the wrong button or they ran out of cards.
In both cases, I just took note of the name of my entry gate and then on exit, I briefly explained my mistake and told the attendant where I entered. They called what I assumed was a control center then told me the amount I had to pay. They didn’t give me any hassle at all. The price I paid was also the same as the price written on my GPS, so I don’t think I was fined for my mistakes.
Parking – In cities, look for car parks near shopping malls and tourist destinations. Do not park anywhere that is not clearly marked as a parking space, as you can receive a fine for parking violations.
Don’t when driving – Don’t drink and drive (police conduct random checks and the maximum legal concentration is 0.05% Blood Alcohol Level), don’t drive on a bus lane, don’t use a mobile phone while driving (a hands-free set is okay).
Other things to note when driving
Here are a few other observations and tips I’ve picked up from driving around South Korea as a foreign traveler.
- Hazard lights mean “watch out!” I noticed that whenever there’s something peculiar on the road ahead, like an accident or a car suddenly swerving or even just a truck stopped on the shoulder, the drivers will use their hazard lights. They also do this when they have to make a hard brake, sort of like an extra alert to the driver behind them.
- Don’t drink and drive. I was once stopped before entering an expressway for a random breathalyzer test.
- CCTVs are everywhere. If you commit a traffic violation, your rental agency will be charged and they in turn will charge your credit card.
- Roll down your window when someone’s trying to assist you so they can see you’re not Korean and that you probably can’t understand what they’re saying.
- Despite the language barrier, it’s surprisingly easy to find your way around South Korea. From personal experience, 100% of people I’ve had to ask for directions, buy a ticket from, follow instructions from, and basically interact with while driving have been helpful and accommodating beyond expectations.
- Downsides to driving in South Korea: Cities like Seoul and Busan can be congested – allot extra time for traffic jams. Parking is also expensive in cities. In touristy areas like Jeju, rental companies run out of cars especially during peak season, so it’s best to reserve it in advance.
Additional information from Jaehyeok Choi about hazard lights. It can also mean:
- “Thank you for your concession”
- “I’m sorry.”
- “Be careful (in case of a road accident or dangerous situation
- “When strong braking is required”
- “Fire truck, ambulance is moving”
- “An emergency patient is on board”
Also check the comments below for other readers’ experiences driving in South Korea.
Here are useful apps and tools for navigating in South Korea
- Korean GPS you can get with a rental car – you’ll find instructions on how to use it below
- Naver Maps – Android, iPhone
Also useful to have on your road trip
When booking your car online, you can reserve a GPS device with your car. You can request for an English-language GPS device (this is available sometimes). Unfortunately, most of the time, the car rental company will only have a Korean GPS. Not to worry! You can easily learn to use it with this guide.
How to use the Korean GPS using phone numbers
First, you’ll need to find the phone numbers of destinations and establishments you want to drive to. You can check the Korean Travel Organization’s official website, where you can find phone numbers of tourist destinations at the end of the information pages. I also compiled a handy list here.
You’ll also notice that shops and restaurants put up their phone numbers in big print over their store facades. You can also find your hotels this way – check for their phone numbers. If you booked online, usually it’s on your confirmation receipt.
Once you have the phone number of the place you want to drive to, follow this guide.
Text on infographic:
Quick guide – How to use the Korean GPS
- On the main interface, click the tab that says: 길찾기 (Translation: Get directions)
- Select the phone icon: 전화번호검색 (Translation: Search phone number)
- Key in the destination phone number
- Confirm your destination by pressing this button: 바로탐색 (Translation: Quick navigation)
- Wait for your route then press the button to begin driving: 안내시작 (Translation: Guide start)
IMPORTANT REMINDER: Before you begin to drive, make sure to check if the destination you entered into the GPS is correct. Zoom out of the map by pressing on the [-] button and compare with another map. Sometimes listed phone numbers can give wrong locations.
Here’s how much it costs to go on a 3-day road trip in South Korea based on 2018 prices and estimates.
Rental car – Small and medium cars cost USD 200-240 for 3 days. Large cars, luxury cars, and SUVs cost USD 300-450 for 3 days. This already includes unlimited mileage, theft protection, and collision damage waiver, and free cancellation and changes. Check here for real-time quotes for your travel dates.
Gas – Estimating 600 KM over 3 days, gas could cost you up to USD 70.
Tolls – Toll fees are minimal and depend on the road used and distance. Even driving long distances, you won’t spend more than USD 30 for the whole trip. There are no tolled roads in Jeju.
Parking – Parking rates vary from USD 0.50-3.00 in tourist destinations. Parking in cities can be much more expensive, up to USD 5/hour.
Getting there – You can get into South Korea through multiple airports – search for the best flights here. When booking your car, take advantage of one-way rentals and check if dropping off your car to a location different than your pick-up can make your itinerary smoother and more convenient.
Travel essentials and things to pre-book – Get a mobile internet to easily stay connected while in South Korea. If you’re planning to visit some of the popular sights in the cities, you’d want to get tickets in advance to skip the lines.
Best road trips in South Korea
Ready to plan your road trip? Check these out for ideas and inspiration:
See South Korea’s best fall spots in this road trip itinerary. While cities are good to visit during the fall, the best foliage can be found in the countryside.
We all love to see a burst of pink during spring – here’s where to drive to enjoy South Korea’s beautiful cherry blossoms.
When in Seoul or Busan, don’t miss a road trip to Gyeongju, the country’s ancient capital.
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I hope this gives you all the information you need to venture a road trip in South Korea. Have fun!
First published – January 31, 2017
Last updated – October 31, 2018 – updated information on costs and car rentals