South Korea is a modern and cosmopolitan country, with exciting culture and food. What’s the best way to pay for your travel in South Korea? Use credit.
According to the Bank of Korea, only about 20% of financial transactions in Korea are made with cash. Between credit card, debit cards and the popular T-money cards, the South Korean central bank has an ambitious goal of being cashless by 2020.
We’ll help you navigate the best cards to bring and help save you money on fees.
South Korean T-money
South Korea uses the T-money card to streamline payments for buses, taxis and the subway. They recently extended those payments for retail and restaurants, making it the most popular way to pay your way in South Korea.
Like a debit card, it’s connected to your bank and makes automatic withdrawals each time you make a payment. You can use the T-money card on your smartphone, making payments as easy as a tap of your phone.
From 2016–2018. South Korea is promoting travel with it’s KoreaTourCard. For less than $4, it’s offered to tourists for all the benefits of the T-money card, but with additional discounts to tourist attractions and shopping.
You can use your Visa or Mastercard and travel money card almost everywhere in South Korea. While you can use debit cards to make purchases, not all ATMs accept foreign cards. Always look for the word “Global” on ATMs before you try it.
Mobile payments are wildly popular with the youth in South Korea. So, load your credit cards onto your smartphones and leave your credit cards back at the hotel when you go out in big cities. That said, always carry a bit of cash on you for tips or smaller restaurants and street food.
These are your options for spending money in South Korea
Visa, Mastercard and American Express credit cards are accepted throughout much of South Korea. You want to find cards that will waive the foreign transaction fees, offer travel benefits and insurance to get the most from your spending. You’ll find that Visa and Mastercard use their own exchange rates that are close to the market rate, and better than the rate offered on most prepaid travel cards.
Tip: Some South Korean merchants won’t accept a credit card payment for transactions under 10,000 won (about $10 AUD).
Major credit cards widely accepted
Protected by PIN & chip
Interest-free days when you pay your account in full
Some cards offer travel benefits
Emergency card replacement
Fees and interest for cash withdrawal
Many cards charge 3% currency conversion fees
ATM machines are out of service after 11:00PM
Some merchants do not accept payments for transactions under 10,000 won
A debit card is a good way to access your cash while in South Korea, though be aware that not all ATMs accept foreign debit cards. Look for the “Global” sign on machines that will take your cards. Also, many ATM machines shut down after 11 p.m.
A debit card is a good choice if you want to avoid racking up debt and carrying a balance on your credit cards. It’s best if you can find a card that waives international teller fees.
Tip: A debit card can be used to shop over the counter, online and for ATM withdrawals in South Korea.
Use at stores and hotels, online and ATMs
Protected by PIN & chip
Spending your own money means avoiding interest charges
No access to cash advances
Only ATMs with the “global” sign accept foreign cards
Though many of the travel cards you find on the market will carry South Korean won, South Korea has its own travel card. Buy the Korean travel card for less than $4 and get discounts on museums and shopping, covered by travel insurance and pay for food, travel and entertainment.
It’s sold at convenience stores and can be bought in denominations of 100,000, 200,000, 300,000 and 500,000. You pay the value of the card (4000 won) and reload it with any amount you specify at a subway machine or convenience store. Although when you reload, you’ll have to use cash rather than your credit card.
Tip: Travelers can purchase prepaid travel card online before their trip and use the mobile app version of the card on their phone.
Can hold multiple currencies.
Protected by PIN & chip
Emergency card replacement and backup cards
Korea offers the Korea Travel Card
Come with lots of fees for loading and reloading, inactivity and ATM withdrawals.
Although card payments are the norm in South Korea, street food, small restaurants and some public transport only accept cash — some merchants also won’t take cards for purchases under 10,000 won: about $10.
You can make withdrawals at Cash Dispenser Machines or visit an exchange office or bank to get foreign currency changed when you arrive in South Korea. Banks are open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays.
Traveler’s checks once had a place — in a money belt tucked under your shirt. Today, this travel money product is a hassle to buy, carry and cash. The main benefit of a traveler’s check is security because only you can cash your traveler’s checks and they can be replaced if lost or stolen.
However, credit cards, debit cards and travel cards have taken over from traveler’s checks. Your bank will give you your money back if you’re the victim of card fraud.
The import and export of local currency is allowed up to KRW 8,000,000, or about $7,000 USD. Be sure to declare any incoming money greater than $10,000, including traveler’s checks. And you can’t take out more than you bring in.
There are two types of ATMs in South Korea, those that accept foreign cards and those that don’t — cash dispenser (CD) machines generally accept international cards. If you insert your card into an ATM and it gives you an error message, you’ll need to search for another machine.
Look for the “Global” logo on the front of the ATM and select the English option before you insert your credit, debit or travel card. These types of ATMs are common in public places such as bus and train stations, and are out of service after 11 p.m.
Local ATM operator fees will apply. You’ll save on each withdrawal if you find a debit card that waives foreign transaction fees.
Cash pickup services in South Korea
Disclaimer: Exchange rates change often. Confirm the total cost with the provider before transferring money.
What should I budget for my trip to South Korea?
South Korea can be considered expensive compared to budget destinations like Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. But you’ll find it less pricey than other developed countries like Japan.
Expect to spend up to $50 daily if you’re traveling on a tight budget. If you loosen those purse straps, you can find yourself spending up to $100 to $300 a day.
Average cost of travel in South Korea
Travel money options for South Korea at a glance
Hostel $20–$60 per night
2-Star Hotel $50–$100 per night
5-Star Hotel $140–$500 per night
Jajangmyeon (traditional noodle dish) and pork ribs $3-$5
Bibimbap (traditional Korean rice dish) $7
Korean Royal Court Cuisine $70
Guided tour of Seoul and museums $30
Private DMZ Tour $150 or more
*Prices are indicative and subject to change
Exchange rate history
South Korea is one of the fastest-growing global economies and the fourth-largest economy in Asia. Remarkably it was able to rise from one of the world’s poorest countries to a highly developed nation in only one generation.
Historically, the US dollar has been stronger against the won. Over the past decade, the USD has generally been worth between 1,000 and 1,200 KRW.
Case study: Peter’s trip to Seoul
On his last trip to South Korea, Peter visited Seoul for one week before heading to Hong Kong. While in Seoul, he took a flight from Gimpo International Airport (Western Seoul) to Jeju Island so he could see the Seongsan Sunrise Peak, one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature.
What travel money tips do you have for South Korea? Peter purchased a Korean travel or T-money card to make payments easier. It can be used to pay for goods and services at most Korean merchants. What’s more, Peter says you can get a discount when you use the T-money Card to pay for public transport.
Kyle Morgan is a writer and editor for Finder who has worked for the USA Today network and Relix magazine, among other publications. He can be found writing about everything from the latest car loan stats to tips on saving money when traveling overseas. He lives in Asbury Park, where he loves exploring new places and sipping on hoppy beer. Oh, and he doesn't discriminate against buffalo wings — grilled or fried are just fine.
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