Driving in South Korea – what you need to know

What’s your idea of great trip?

Chasing the sunset through charming villages with the wind in your hair? I know that sounds like a motorbike ride, which is not everyone’s cup of tea, but here’s one that no one will not like: a road trip.

Imagine: not having to plan your trip according to train and bus schedules; not having to lug around a 20-kg bag up and down subway stairs; and not standing on the side of the road trying to hail a cab while the rain pours down on you and your tired – and now soggy – feet.

Now imagine being able to visit places like these:

There's much more to see in South Korea outside its major cities. Renting a car and driving is one of the best ways to see offbeat destinations.

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. Don’t forget to pin and bookmark! If you have a question that wasn’t covered in this guide, let me know in the comments or send me an email so I can help you out. And if you know someone who’s planning a trip to South Korea, send them this guide to help them out.

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.

Driving in South Korea – here’s what you need to know

Table of contents

  1. What do I need to drive in South Korea?
  2. How can I rent a car?
  3. How do I get around while driving?
  4. How much would it cost?
  5. More tips for driving around South Korea
  6. All set to drive – now where should I go?

I know it’s a bit of a long read, so I also made a PDF guide you can download and save in your phone – get it here.

What do I need to drive in South Korea?

You MUST have a valid International Driving Permit (IDP) or a valid driver’s license issued in Korea. If you are a foreign traveler, you have to get your IDP in the same country that issued your driver’s license. Always bring your driver’s license with you, as the IDP is only valid when accompanied with a valid license. Also, the full name listed on the IDP and your passport must be identical.

Note that IDPs recognized in 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.

If you don’t have an international driving permit yet, find out how you can get one from your local automobile association BEFORE leaving for your trip. Google “international driving permit + [your country]” and make sure that the website you land on is legitimate.

When you pick up your rental car, make sure to bring your passport for identification purposes. The attendants may make a copy of it, for security reasons. Vehicle rental fees must be paid with the driver’s credit card.

Driver qualifications differ according to the rental company, but generally, for small or medium cars, you must be 21 years old or older with at least one year driving experience.

It’s also smart to pay for insurance. Baseline rates for car rentals usually include basic general insurance, but confirm this when you get your car.  Also, if you plan to drive, you might want to get a travel insurance that covers damages to a rental car as well as damages or bodily harm to a third party caused by an accident while you are driving.

To recap, here’s what you need to drive as a foreigner in South Korea:

  • Check if you’re qualified to rent a car and drive in South Korea – if you’re at least 21 years old, most car rental companies in South Korea will let you get a car.
  • Secure your international driving permit (IDP) from your local automobile association before you go on your trip.
  • Bring your valid license along with you.
  • Bring your passport when you pick up your car.
  • Pay with a credit card that belongs to the driver who will be driving the rental car.

 

How can I rent a car in South Korea?

It’s best to make a reservation online in advance. This is good practice as this not only assures you that you’ll indeed get a car but also allows the rental company to prepare your car and all paperwork involved in advance, so less waiting time for you.

Major car rental companies in South Korea include: AJ Rent-a-car (affiliated with Avis), Lotte Rent-a-car (affiliated with Hertz), Sixt, and Jeju-do Car Rental Business Association. Here is a list of locations where you can pick up and return your car.

I’ve personally booked cars from AJ Rent-a-Car and Sixt Rent-a-car via the Rental Cars online booking platform and had great experiences so far. The staff in both companies were very helpful – despite the language barrier, they managed to teach me how to use the Korean GPS. The cars I got were all in good condition, and in my experience, the charges were upfront (that is, no hidden fees).

You can reserve a car online from any of the major car rental companies listed above via Rental Cars – the online service gives you options from all the rental companies, which allows you to compare prices, car models, and inclusions easily, plus they give you instant confirmation and free cancellation. Plus, they also give deals and discounts for booking through them.

Personally, I always opt to pay for full protection insurance – but this depends on your personal travel insurance’s coverage. Also, don’t forget to reserve a GPS – an English one if it’s available, but a Korean one will do just fine.

How do I get around South Korea while driving?

Using the Korean GPS

One of the reasons I urge you to book your car rental in advance is so you can reserve your English-language GPS. Even then, this is only available in certain car rental locations (usually the ones at the airport), so you’ll have to learn how to use the Korean GPS.

The really nifty thing is that you can use phone numbers for the Korean GPS. Just input the phone number of the place where you want to go and then start your drive. Here’s a guide to using the Korean GPS using phone numbers.

To find the phone numbers of destinations and establishments, you can check out the Korean Travel Organization’s official website – they usually list contact details at the end of each destination’s information page, including a phone number you can use for your GPS.

You’ll also notice that establishments put up their phone numbers in big print over their store facades. Not sure if it’s their primary intention for doing this, but it definitely helps with using the GPS. Whenever I pass by somewhere I’d like to go back to, I take note of any nearby establishment’s phone number and voila – GPS coordinates. You can also find your hotels this way – check for their phone numbers. If you booked online, usually it’s on your confirmation receipt.

I also compiled a handy resource with the help of other travelers and road trippers in South Korea: Useful phone numbers to input into your GPS while driving in South Korea.

But do remember to check if the destination you entered is correct – zoom out of the map by pressing on the [-] button and compare it with another map (listed on the next section).

I have to be honest with you though – probably the hardest thing about driving in South Korea is using the GPS. But once you get the hang of it (that is, you know how to input your destination using the place’s phone number correctly and how to double check that you are indeed headed towards the correct location), the GPS would be your best friend. Personally, I had a love-hate relationship with every Korean GPS I’ve used (kinda like this…) but out of all the maps I’ve used while driving around South Korea, the GPS has always been the most reliable.

Still, I cannot reiterate how important it is to double check that you are going to the location that you actually want to go to (obviously, I’ve inputted the wrong place far too many times). How to do this exactly? You need back-up maps. Read on.

Other maps and navigation apps you can use

Let’s start with the shocker: You cannot use Google Maps for driving in South Korea. (I know, it’s hard to believe, right? You can find out why here.)

But you can use the following:

  • Waze – This app is great for city driving as it will find the best routes based on traffic reports and can also find you a parking space.
  • Mapquest – This is useful for planning out your routes in advance so you have a general idea of how long a drive will take. You can view it on a web browser or download an app.
  • Maps.me – This is a handy offline map you can download before setting off. This is particularly useful if you don’t plan to rent a mobile Wi-Fi. Currently, there are two maps available for South Korea.
  • Apple Maps – If you’re using an iPhone, this is also handy. Just take note that you need an internet connection to use it. Also, in my experience it sometimes gets lost, especially when driving on an overpass or particularly twisty streets. Be warned also that some establishments are tagged with the wrong coordinates (I once ended up on an empty lot while following directions to my hotel – which was actually 15 KM away) – double check with other maps.
  • A printed map – It’s always good to have a print map. Get one online or pick one up from the local bookstore. It’s a real life-saver, especially when all the apps and technology just fail.

Navigating in South Korea can be a bit tricky for non-native speakers, but the good news is, road signs have English translations. When driving long distances and using expressways, use the maps just to make sure you are going the right general direction.

Information on expressways and tolls

If you are 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.

How much does it cost to drive in South Korea?

One of our most important considerations when thinking about driving in South Korea would be the cost. Here are some estimates you can use.

Notes on some assumptions I made: Car rental cost estimates are based on current rates when booking online for a car to be picked up from Incheon. Costs may vary depending on seasonal demand and pick-up and drop-off points. I assumed you will be driving an average of 200 kilometers per day, using 7.5 liters of gasoline per 100 KM. The estimates may be higher or lower, depending on your gas usage. You also need to consider the cost of tolls in expressways, although this wouldn’t inflate the estimates a lot as tolls are surprisingly affordable.

For a more concrete example, I also included the actual costs of my Busan to Jeju road trip, including car ferries and parking fees.

Sample costs of car rental in South Korea

1 day = USD 90

  • Cost of car rental including basic insurance and a GPS unit for one day = USD 70
  • Cost of gas for 200 kilometers = USD 20

3 days = USD 260

  • Cost of car rental including basic insurance and a GPS unit for 3 days = USD 200
  • Cost of gas for 600 kilometers = USD 60

7 days = USD 560

  • Cost of car rental including basic insurance and a GPS unit for 7 days = USD 420
  • Cost of gas for 1,400 kilometers = USD 140

Actual cost of Busan to Jeju road trip, done May 2016

Total = KRW 862,860 (approximately USD 740)

Quick summary of the trip: For 6 days, I drove a total of 1,200 kilometers from Busan to Jeju and back. We passed by cities and villages along the way, reaching up to Haenam at the southwestern tip of the main land, where we stayed overnight. We then drove back east to Wando, where we took the car ferry to Jeju. In Jeju, we mostly stayed first in Seogwipo then in Jeju City, driving to the different sites. We also took a car ferry to Udo Island for a day trip around the island. We then rode the car ferry back to Wando, drove to Busan and around the city for a day before returning our car.

  • Cost of car rental including basic insurance and a GPS unit for 6 days = KRW 480,400 (USD 410)
  • Toll fees = KRW 20,900 (Busan to Haenam to Wando) + KRW 12,100 (Wando to Busan) = KRW 33,000 (USD 18)
  • Car ferry from Wando to Jeju (cost is just for the car, there’s a separate fee for the passengers) = KRW 104,730 (one-way fare) x 2 (for round-trip) = KRW 209,460 (USD 180)
  • Car ferry from Jeju to Udo (this is the round-trip fare both for the car and 2 passengers – the attendant didn’t break down the cost for us) = KRW 36,000 (USD 30)
  • Parking fees = KRW 2,000 (in Udo Island) + KRW 500 (Jeju port) + KRW 10,500 (Nampo district in Busan) = KRW 13,000 (USD 10)
  • Gas for the whole trip (I returned the car with a full tank of gas as part of the rental agreement) = KRW 91,000 (USD 80)

An alternative to this is to fly from Busan to Jeju, then get your car from Jeju. If you’d like to drive for 3 days just in Jeju (including a day trip to Udo Island), an estimate from our trip above would amount to: KRW 321,700 (approximately USD 280).

Not too bad, right? If you’re a group of 4, this would bring your transportation costs to about USD 25 per person per day – and you don’t need to wait around for hours for the Jeju buses or join a tour group.

Everything sounds great! Anything else I need to know?

Here are a few observations and tips I’ve picked up from driving around South Korea as a foreign traveler.

  1. South Korea drives on the right side of the road.
  2. 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.
  3. Don’t drink and drive. I was once stopped before entering an expressway for a random breathalyzer test.
  4. CCTVs are everywhere. If you commit a traffic violation, your rental agency will be charged and they in turn will charge your credit card.
  5. Pull 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Road trip essentials – it’s handy to have a car charger with you as well as a mobile Wi-Fi.

Road trips in South Korea

All set to drive? Here are fun road trips to take around South Korea:

Bottom line: Driving in South Korea is doable, efficient, and fun!

Driving in South Korea is seriously one of the best ways to get around the country. Don’t worry about the language barrier or the infamous Korean GPS – once you get the hang of it, it’s actually easy to communicate with the locals and to use the Korean GPS, even with zero Korean language skills. And if you plan your road trip right, renting a car can even come out cheaper than using the public transportation, especially if you plan to head to lesser known destinations.

Lastly, here’s a handy checklist of everything you need for driving in South Korea:

Checklist – driving in South Korea

Requirements – secure before you travel:

  • Make sure that you are qualified to drive in South Korea. For most rental companies, you must be at least 21 years old and with one year of driving experience
  • Valid driver’s license from your country
  • International driver’s permit obtained from your country’s automobile association
  • Driver’s passport
  • Driver’s credit card

Renting your car:

Driving your rental car:

I hope this gives you all the information you need to venture a road trip in South Korea. If I missed anything, you can ask me in the comments or send me a message and I’ll help you out as best as I can. And if you found this post useful, please bookmark and share with a friend. Happy travels!

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