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. It's even 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 fairly 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 travel within them. Larger cities boast modern subway networks, which are another convenient way of commuting. Expats will also be able to use both inter- and inner-city bus services. Expats can purchase T-money, which can be used on all forms of public transport, or Cashbee cards to save money on their travelling expenses.
In addition to extensive subway networks within most 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. That said, 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's also a high-speed express train (KTX and SRT) from Seoul to Busan via Daegu, Dondaegu and other smaller towns. These trains travel from one end of the country to the other in just over three 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 bank 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 by train, and it's 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 distances with fewer stops.
Large cities such as Seoul, Busan, Gwangju, Daejeon, Daegu and Incheon have their own subway systems. Outside Seoul's established, extensive system, expats may sometimes struggle to use the subway to get to the outer reaches of their city. In some cases, expats may need to use a bus or taxi for the final leg of their journey.
Taxis in South Korea
Taxis are plentiful in South Korea, especially in the cities, but drivers are unlikely to speak English. It's 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. To overcome the language barrier, expats can search for a taxi designated as an international taxi, where the driver will be able to speak one or more foreign languages.
A local app-based ride-hailing service called Kakao Taxi operates in South Korea. It allows expats to order a taxi service to their exact address. After initially failing to launch in South Korea, Uber has made a comeback and operates exclusively in Seoul. Many expats prefer using rideshare apps as they allow for automatic card billing as well as greater control over their routes. They also make the language barrier much easier to overcome.
Driving in South Korea
Due to the extensive public transport system, it's possible to get around the country without owning or driving a car. Still, 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's worth in larger cities such as Seoul, even though traffic is not as chaotic as in many other Asian capitals.
Vehicles can be hired from any number of international car hire companies, which have offices at airports and in cities. Foreigners can also buy new or used cars as long as they have a Residence Card. Newly purchased cars need to be registered within 15 days. Buying a car is a popular option for expats with children or those living in the country long term.
Those possessing a Residence Card 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. Busan International Airport is another popular airport for international travellers and is well connected to the city by subway, buses and taxis.
Although it's 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. There are also 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.