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 Korea Tour Card. 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.
Our picks for traveling to South Korea
Our pick for travel credit card
American Express® Gold Card
Finder rating: 4.6/5
Our pick for multi-currency debit card
Finder rating: 4.5/5
Our pick for 0% transaction fee debit card
Finder rating: 4.6/5
What's in this guide?
- Travel card, debit card or credit card?
- These are your options for spending money in South Korea
- Compare travel credit cards
- South Korean currency
- Buying currency in the US
- ATMS in South Korea
- Cash pickup services in South Korea
- What should I budget for my trip to South Korea?
- Exchange rate history
- Our latest travel deals to South Korea
Travel card, debit card or credit card?
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
Using a credit card
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
- Accepted worldwide
- 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
Using a debit card
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
Using a prepaid travel card
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
- Reloadable online
- Korea offers the Korea Travel Card
- Come with lots of fees for loading and reloading, inactivity and ATM withdrawals.
- Your name isn’t printed on the front
- Many won’t load South Korean won
Paying with cash in South Korea
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.
- Greater payment flexibility
- More difficult to manage expenses
- Higher risk of theft
Using traveler’s checks
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.
- Cash at any bank
- Fees for purchasing and cashing checks
- Not accepted by many merchants
- Currency exchange rate varies over time
Compare travel credit cards
South Korean currency
The main banks in South Korea are:
- Shinhan Financial Group
- NongHyup Financial Group
- KB Financial Group
- Hana Financial Group
- Korea Development Bank
- Woori Financial Group
- Industrial Bank of Korea
- BNK Financial Group
- DGB Financial Group
- Kakao Bank
Buying currency in the US
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.
You can always send your money to South Korea ahead of time with a money transfer service and have it waiting to be picked up when you arrive.
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ATMS in South Korea
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
What should I budget for my trip to South Korea?
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
$20–$60 per night
$50–$100 per night
$140–$500 per night
|Meals||Jajangmyeon (traditional noodle dish) and pork ribs|
|Bibimbap (traditional Korean rice dish)|
|Korean Royal Court Cuisine|
|Guided tour of Seoul and museums|
|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.
Our latest travel deals to South Korea
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