Travel Money Guide: South Korea

Organising your travel money to South Korea doesn’t have to be tricky. Use this guide to compare your options and find out everything you need to know about the local currency.

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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.

Compare travel money services

Data indicated here is updated regularly
Name Product Can you get cash? Do you get a free card? Can you load money on an app?
WeSwap
WeSwap has everything you need when it comes to travel money. It offers a debit card and app, or if you prefer cash you can get that too. Signing up takes a few minutes and the card arrives in 3-5 days.
Starling Bank
Starling offers a debit card and app (you can't get travel cash). Starling charges zero fees for spending abroad and the app enables you to lock the card if you lose it while you're on holiday. Also doubles up as a UK current account.
Caxton
Caxton's currency card allows you to hold multiple currencies in one place. You can use it worldwide and won't be charged any ATM fees. All of that can be controlled from the Caxton app.
No 1. Currency
No. 1 Currency allows you to get travel cash delivered straight to your door, or you can pick it up in store. You can also sell leftover cash back to No.1 Currency.
Currensea
Currensea allows you to link your travel money card to your everyday bank account. Get your card now and control all your spendings with the Currensea app.
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Compare up to 4 providers

Data indicated here is updated regularly
Name Product Foreign ATM withdrawals Foreign transactions fee Card cost Delivery speed
Starling Bank
Free
No fees
Free
Between 3-5 working days
Everything you get from a current account, but with new features for mobile living. (E.g. Goals for saving, spending catgorisation, interest on your balances)
WeSwap
Withdrawals of £200/$200/€200 or more – free
smaller withdrawals – a charge of £1.50 per withdrawal

No transaction fees (if you spend in one of the 18 wallet currencies)
Free
Between 3-5 working days in the UK, or within 10 days if you live outside the UK
Tandem (Credit Card)
No ATM fees. However you'll be charged interest from the day you withdraw cash.
No fees
Free
-
Tandem's credit card doesn't charge fees on purchases abroad, leaving you with more money for your travels.
Loot
Two free cash withdrawals per month, £1 thereafter
No fees
Free
-
App-based current account that keeps you on top of your spending. You can set goals and Loot will help you get there.
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How much won do I need to bring to South Korea?

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 ₩1500 KRW.

Some of the daily costs for a South Korean holiday

CheapMidrangeExpensive
sleepHostel
£15 – £40 per night
2 Star Hotel
£40 – £90 per night
5 Star Hotel
£150 – £350 per night
Jajangmyeon (traditional noodle dish): £1.50 – £2.50
Pork Ribs: £3
Eating out
Bibimbap (traditional Korean rice dish): £4
Eating out
Korean Royal Court Cuisine: £50
cameraMuseums: freeGuided tour of Seoul and museums
£25 p.p.
Private DMZ Tour
From £90 p.p.

*Prices are indicative and subject to change

Travel card, debit card or credit card?

You can use your Visa or Mastercard branded credit card, debit card or travel money card almost everywhere in South Korean cities — 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 need cash too, for example a lot of the cheaper restaurants are cash only. You’ll need to factor in ATM withdrawal fees to 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 do, coming with a debit card authorised by Visa or Mastercard which can be “topped up” from your mobile phone.

Travel money options for South Korea at a glance

Travel money optionProsConsiderations
Debit cards for travel
  • Can get free ATM withdrawals, no currency conversion and monthly or account keeping fees
  • Only some ATM’s will accept foreign debit cards
Prepaid travel money cards
  • Locked-in exchange rates
  • No currency conversion fee and international ATM withdrawal fees on some cards
  • Fees to consider such as local ATM, initial load, reload and inactivity fees
  • Does not let you hold South Korean won
  • Incur higher currency conversion fees
  • Charges international ATM withdrawals
Credit cards for travel
  • Accepted everywhere
  • Some cards are cheaper in Korea
  • Contactless payment terminals are common
  • Overseas ATM fees and currency conversion fees
  • ATM machines are out of service after 11:00PM
  • Some merchants do not accept payments for transactions under ₩10,000 KRW
Traveller’s cheques
  • Acceptance
  • Security
  • Emergency replacement if lost or stolen
  • Money back guarantee if you’re a victim of fraud
  • Hassle to buy, carry and cash
Cash
  • Greater payment flexibility
  • Convenience
  • More difficult to manage expenses
  • Higher risk of theft

This table is a general summary of the travel money products in the market. Features and benefits can vary between cards.

How travel cards, credit cards and debit cards work in South Korea

Here’s how the different travel money products are going to work in South Korea.

Using credit cards

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 which waive currency conversion charges. This allows you to use your credit card in South Korea to make purchases for roughly the same price as the UK. The card scheme (Visa, Mastercard etc.) exchange rate applies, it’s 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 applies 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.

  • Tip: Some South Korean merchants won’t accept a credit card payment for transactions under ₩10,000 KRW (about £6 – £7 GBP).

Using debit cards

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.

Using prepaid travel cards

There are no travel cards which 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 which 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. In saying so, you may still want to consider travel prepaid cards if you are visiting other countries whose currencies are covered.

Using traveller’s cheques

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.

Paying with cash in South Korea

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 ₩10,000 KRW (approx. £6 – £7 GBP)

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.

ATM withdrawals in South Korea

There are two types of ATMs in South Korea, those which accept foreign cards and those which 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.

krw-notes

Finding cash and ATMs in South Korea

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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 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 didn’t 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 (₩300,000 KRW).

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.

Buying currency in the UK

There are no restrictions to 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 $10,000 USD 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.

Why you’ll need a combination of travel money options.

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 is 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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