Social Customs

  • Always be ready to greet people with a cheerful “Annyeonghaseyo” and thank them with “Kamsahamnida
  • Bow when greeting people; the more important they are, the deeper you should bow. Any kind of service staff, grocery clerks, restaurant staff, etc. should be acknowledged with at least an intentional nod of the head.
  • Avoid blowing your nose in public, as this is seen as quite rude.
  • When giving or receiving anything, hold the item with two hands, not one.
  • Do not dress in any tops that are low-cut, sleeveless, or with bare shoulders (even in hot weather). Koreans always wear clothes with a high neckline or layer with scarves, jackets, etc.

Technology

  • In order to power your laptop, razor, or any other gadgets you brought along, you will need a plug adapter to convert their European Type E/F outlets to traditional North American outlets. This adapter worked great for us. Some web sites also note that you may find Type C (“Europlug”) outlets in South Korea, although we did not run across any. (In that case, you would need to use this adapter instead.)
  • Google Maps provides the only accurate maps we could find for reaching destinations in Seoul. The South Korean address system is somewhat convoluted, and other mapping sites (we tried Bing and MapQuest) failed horribly at guiding us. If you’re traveling with a tablet, use the Google Maps app for iOS or Android (not just the maps.google.com web site) for best results, as it will cache maps so that you can scroll and zoom even when you’re on the road. And even if you’re not able to read/type Hangeul (the Korean alphabet), nearly all street signs offer romanized words using the English alphabet that make it easy to identify them.
  • In busy city areas, it’s never hard to find free wifi connection points. Seoul is hailed as the world’s most well-connected city.
  • This, however, does not mean that your American smartphone will offer decent cell service, as South Korea has its own proprietary cell networks. If you will be needing reliable cell phone service while in country, you can rent a phone upon your arrival. Airport booths offer rentals of cell phones from their three primary providers: Korea Telecom, LG U Plus, and SK Telecom. If you want to use your own phone, check with your provider to see what kind of service you can expect while you’re in South Korea. (Our “Global Roaming” with Verizon was very unpredictable and expensive.)
  • If you’re willing to forgo cell availability and rely on wifi Internet access, Skype works great for communicating with video or audio chats.
  • Don’t expect regular access to streaming online video services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, or Hulu. This content is blocked from South Korea due to legal regulations, so bring your own DVDs if you’ll have time to kill. (Strangely, it’s nearly impossible to find movies for sale in their typical shopping centers. In our travels we didn’t find a single store offering movies for purchase; not to mention the fact that Korean movies would require a region-free DVD player to watch.)
  • If you are desperate for access to web sites which typically block access from South Korean users, you may be able to circumvent the policy using a DNS masking service like Unlocator or connecting through a corporate VPN account. No guarantees, though!

Food

  • When arriving at a restaurant, don’t be surprised if you’re not greeted at the door or shown to a table. Most establishments expect you to seat yourself, and the wait staff won’t attend to you until you’ve done so.
  • Likewise, you’ll usually be paying by walking up to the register yourself before leaving the restaurant. (Don’t offer your credit card to the wait staff.)
  • Tipping your waiter is not a standard practice and can actually be offensive in Korean culture.
  • If you need a fork, restaurants can usually provide one if you ask for a “Poh-kuh” – but don’t be surprised if your lack of chopstick ability turns you into the butt of a few good-humored jokes by the wait staff. (“They’re not laughing at you, they’re laughing with you… right…”)
  • Did we mention not blowing your nose in public? Really, really avoid this at restaurants. (If the kimchi is so hot it makes your nose run, be as subtle as you can.)
  • If your food is served in a bowl, know that it’s highly offensive to leave your utensils (fork/chopsticks) sticking straight up in the bowl, as it represents the symbol of the tombstone in some Asian cultures.