Low fees travel card plus a sign-up bonus
The currency of the Republic of Korea is the won (₩). Despite South Korea’s status as a modern economy at the forefront of the latest technological advancements, you’re going to need cash on your trip. Unfortunately, withdrawing cash in South Korea isn’t as straightforward as it is at home.
There are some clear standout travel money products you can use in South Korea that are going to deliver genuine savings and stretch your travel budget. Among the most intriguing of these are digital banking apps, such as Starling, Revolut and N26, which are a great option for travellers due to their flat transaction and withdrawal fees and mobile, international nature.
Overall, they’re a flexible, affordable choice. But they’re not the only option out there – use this guide to compare these products and discover the advantages and disadvantages to using different types of travel money on your trip.
Low fees travel card plus a sign-up bonus
Fee free spending & customer service
Great rates abroad and cashback
A Visa debit card can be used for over-the-counter purchases and ATM withdrawals where Visa is accepted, which is everywhere you can pay with your card in South Korea. You can get debit cards where you don’t have to pay extra for currency conversion, international ATM withdrawal fees and don’t charge any monthly or account-keeping fees.
Digital banking apps, which often will come with a debit card, work in almost exactly the same way. The main differences are that banking apps will often not charge any transaction or withdrawal fees and can be managed remotely from your phone.
Visa, Mastercard and American Express credit cards can be used in South Korea. Some of these cards are cheaper to use than others. Start your comparison by looking at the cards that waive currency conversion charges. This allows you to use your credit card in South Korea to make purchases for roughly the same price as in the UK. The card scheme (Visa, Mastercard etc.) exchange rate applies, which is pretty close to the market rate and a touch better than the travel card exchange rate.
Avoid withdrawing cash on credit. Additional cash advance fees and interest apply and you won’t get interest-free days. Other perks can include complimentary international travel insurance when you charge the cost of your air ticket to your credit card and purchase protection insurance.
There are only a small handful of travel cards that let you hold South Korean won. Use a travel card to spend in South Korea and you’ll incur the travel card currency conversion fee, which is higher than what’s charged on credit and debit cards. There are a limited number of travel cards that do not charge for currency conversion; however, these cards will charge for international ATM withdrawals. The ATM withdrawal fee is comparable to what you’ll pay using most debit and credit cards (some credit and debit card providers waive the international ATM fee), but when you factor in card issue fees, reload fees and inactivity fees, a travel card can end up costing you more than if you took a travel-friendly debit or credit card. You may still want to consider travel prepaid cards if you are visiting other countries whose currencies are covered.
Traveller’s cheques 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 traveller’s cheque is security. Only you can cash your traveller’s cheques and they can be replaced if lost or stolen. Credit cards, debit cards and travel cards have the same features. Your bank will give you your money back if you’re the victim of card fraud and an emergency replacement card can be sent to you anywhere in the world in a few days.
Although card payments are the norm in South Korea, street food, small restaurants and some public transport are cash only – some merchants also won’t take cards for purchases under KRW₩10,000 (approx. GBP£6 – £7)
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 9am to 4pm Monday to Saturday.
There are 2 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 ATM 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. Local ATM operator fees will apply.
South Korea is pricey compared to budget destinations in the region such as Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, but cheaper than other developed countries such as Japan or Australia. As with all overseas trips, South Korea can be as cheap or expensive as you like. It all depends on how you eat, where you stay and what you do. Eating like a local offers savings as staple food such as rice and meats are inexpensive, and there are plenty of cafeterias and eateries (cash only) where you can dine for a couple of pounds. One British pound is worth roughly KRW₩1,500.
£15 – £40 per night
£40 – £90 per night
£150 – £350 per night
|Jajangmyeon (traditional noodle dish): £1.50 – £2.50|
Pork Ribs: £3
Bibimbap (traditional Korean rice dish): £4
Korean Royal Court Cuisine: £50
|Museums: free||Guided tour of Seoul and museums|
|Private DMZ Tour|
From £90 p.p.
*Prices are indicative and subject to change
You can use your Visa or Mastercard branded credit card, debit card or travel money card almost everywhere in South Korean cities, but rural areas are a different story. In fact, you’ll find that South Korea is ahead of the UK when it comes to mobile payments. Young Koreans have taken up contactless and mobile technology in droves and you won’t have issues finding places where you can use your cards. Having said this, you will still need cash. For example, a lot of the cheaper restaurants are cash only. You’ll need to factor in ATM withdrawal fees in your comparison of travel money products if you want to do like the locals. You won’t have to worry about withdrawal fees if you opt for a banking app such as Revolut or Starling, though. These work in much the same way as conventional bank accounts and come with a debit card authorised by Visa or Mastercard that can be “topped up” from your mobile phone.
|Travel money option||Pros||Considerations|
|Debit cards for travel|
|Prepaid travel money cards|
|Credit cards for travel|
This table is a general summary of the travel money products in the market. Features and benefits can vary between cards.
On his last trip to South Korea, Peter visited Seoul for 1 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 7 New Wonders of Nature.
Where could you use your cards?
Peter says card acceptance was much the same as at home. He says he can remember using his card in convenience stores, supermarkets, restaurants, hotels, train stations and even vending machines.
What about using ATMs?
As he couldn't find any ATMs on Jeju Island, which he says was mainly cash only, he withdrew a large sum in Seoul before he left (KRW₩300,000).
What travel money tips do you have for South Korea?
Peter says that if he didn't have his travel debit card, he would have purchased a Korean T Money Card. The T Money Card 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.
* This is a fictional, but realistic, example.
There are no restrictions on the amount of foreign currency you can bring to Korea. But you must make a customs declaration if you’re bringing more than the equivalent of US$10,000 cash. Cash includes banknotes and traveller’s cheques. You can bring up to 8,000,000 Korean won from the UK. This is approximately £5,000.
You have a few options for picking up won in the UK. Your bank will be able to sell you cash, you can pick it up at a branch or you can use a foreign exchange specialist.
You must take more than one way to access your travel funds to Korea. Take a credit card and debit card combination so you know you won’t be caught without cash. A credit card can be used for big-ticket purchases and to pay for online bookings and a debit card can be used to make over-the-counter purchases and withdraw cash. Most credit cards offer interest-free days too, so if you manage your account correctly, you can use your credit card for interest-free purchases between statement periods.
Korean culture punches above its weight on the world stage, which is probably why it’s one of the most visited countries in Asia. Compare travel money options before you leave so you can make the right choices and save on paying unnecessary bank fees.
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