Money & Shopping
The currency of South Korea is the South Korean Won (KRW, ₩), written 원 in Hangul. The won tends to hover around ₩1,000 to the US dollar (₩1,095 as of February 2015), although there can be significant fluctuations.
Bills come in denominations of ₩1,000 (blue), ₩5,000 (red), ₩10,000 (green) and ₩ 50,000 (yellow). The ₩50,000 is very practical if you need to carry around a reasonable amount of cash, however it can be hard to use on goods or services with a value of less than ₩10,000. The ₩50,000 can be hard to find and often only provided by ATM's that display a picture of the yellow note on the outside.
₩100,000 "checks" are frequently used, and some of the checks go up to ₩10,000,000 in value. These checks are privately issued by banks and can be used instead of cash for larger purchases, such as hotel rooms.
Coins mainly come in denominations of ₩10, ₩50, ₩100 and ₩500. Very rare ₩1 and ₩5 coins do exist. Generally speaking it is rare to buy anything valued less than ₩100.
Banking & Payment
- Credit card acceptance at shops, hotels and other businesses on the other hand is very good, and all but the very cheapest restaurants and motels will accept Visa and MasterCard. Even small purchases such as ₩4,000 for a coffee are OK. This works well since credit cards have good exchange rates, however if you are using a foreign card then you should ensure with your bank that there isn't a fee for this foreign transaction.
- ATMs are ubiquitous, although using a foreign card with them is rather hit and miss, except for foreign bank ATMs like Citibank. There are however many special Global ATMs around which accept foreign cards. They can generally be found at Shinhan/Jeju Bank, airports, in areas frequented by foreigners, in major cities, some subway stations, and in many Family Mart convenience stores - most of the time indicated by the "Foreign Cards" button on the screen. Nevertheless, be sure to have a second source of money like cash before heading to the countryside where foreign cards are less likely to be accepted. Some banks, such as Citibank, have a fee of ₩3,500 for foreign cards.
- T-Money card are an alternative source of payment accepted widely, especially for transport. In Seoul you can buy this card at most subway stations and many newspaper kiosks near subway entrances, as well as convenience stores (7/11, CU, GS25). The card itself costs ₩3,000 and cash can be loaded with credit as often as you like. You can get back your credit in cash afterward, less a ₩500 a return fee. When entering and leaving the bus/subway in Seoul, place the card on the reader. Be aware that on buses especially in the countryside only placing it once when entering is sufficient, otherwise you will get charged twice - just observe what the local people are doing. Using this card will save you ₩100 per journey on Seoul's transport system, and it does account for changes between subway, (airport) train and bus for up to 30 min, i.e. instead of paying each single trip, a smaller amount or 0 is deducted the second and third time and so on, depending on the distance. Typically for most travelers staying less than 2 weeks in Korea or Seoul, purchasing this card may not be cheaper but consider: it can be used countrywide for taxi fares, buses, storage lockers, pay phones, (convenience) stores, restaurants and most transport systems. There also exist other cards, especially outside of Seoul and topping up T-Money can be a problem there, but at Shinhan/Jeju Bank (remember the logo) it should always be possible. You may need to ask the local cashier for help due to the Korean-only menus/buttons.
- Bank account If you plan on staying in South Korea for a longer time, you'll probably want to set up a local account at a Korean bank such as Woori Bank, which can then be used at the bank's ATMs throughout the country. (Even some non local accounts can do this, e.g. Woori Bank accounts setup in China come with an ATM card that can be used with all its ATMs in South Korea.) Many banks will even allow you to open an account on a tourist visa, though the services you will be able to access will often be very limited. Some of the larger banks may have English-speaking staff on hand at their major branches.
South Korea is fairly expensive compared to most Asian countries, but is a little cheaper compared to other modern developed countries such as Japan and most Western countries. A frugal backpacker who enjoys eating, living and traveling Korean-style can easily squeeze by on under ₩60,000 per day, but if you want top-class hotels and Western food even ₩200,000/day will not suffice. Seoul is more expensive than the rest of the country, and has been particularly expensive in recent years competing in many ways with Tokyo, but this has eased since the financial crisis.
Tipping is not expected anywhere in South Korea and is not practiced by Koreans. It could be considered an insult between Koreans as it is regarded as giving someone charity, although people generally know of American tipping culture and would be understanding of a foreigner doing this.
Many hotels and a few tourist restaurants add 10% service charge on their bills. Bellhops, hotel maids, taxi drivers and bars frequented by Westerners will not reject any tips that you care to hand out.
Restaurants sometimes provide complimentary food or drinks to customers as a sign of generosity or to reward customer loyalty. Colloquially, this is known as "service".
At certain retail outlets with a "Tax Free Shopping" or a "Tax Refund Shopping" sign, you can obtain a voucher and get a large percentage of your taxes refunded. When you leave South Korea, go to customs and have it stamped then go to the "Global Refund Korea" or "Korea Tax Refund" counters near the duty-free shops. However to get a refund you must leave within 3 months of purchase.
Bargaining is common at outdoor markets and applies to everything they may have to offer. However stating a monetary amount would be a mistake. Normally what you would say is ssage juseyo (싸게 주세요). That means "cheaper, please." Doing this once or twice would suffice. The drawback is you will rarely be discounted more than a few dollars.
- Ginseng: Korea is the ginseng (인삼 insam) capital of the world. Widely considered to have medicinal properties, it can be found in special mountain areas throughout Korea. A thick black paste made from ginseng is popular, as is ginseng tea and various other products. There are many grades of ginseng, with the best grades potentially fetching millions of US dollars at auctions. A good place to check out the different types of ginseng would be Gyeongdong Herbal Medicine Market in Seoul.
- Traditional items: Visitors looking for things to bring home can find a wide variety of choices. You can find a blue-jade celadon from the Goryeo Dynasty, handmade traditional costumes, paper kites and ceramic pieces that depict human emotions in their designs at the numerous markets and souvenir shops. Insadong in Seoul would be the first place to shop around. After a while one store might start to look like every other store but chances are you'll find what you need.
- Fashion: Keeping up with the latest trends, shoppers and boutique owners alike flock the streets and markets every weekend. Centered largely in Seoul with popular places such as Dongdaemun, Mok dong Rodeo Street and Myeong dong, fashion centers can be divided into two large categories; markets and department stores. Markets are affordable and each shop will have trendy similar type clothing that appeal to the masses. Also, be aware that you cannot try on most tops. So better to know your size before shopping there. Though department stores will have areas or floors that have discounted items, they are considered overpriced and catering mostly to an older, wealthier crowd.
- Antiques: For all things considered antique, such as furniture, calligraphic works, ceramics and books, you can go to Jangangpyeong Antique Market in Seoul. Be careful, as items over 50 years old cannot leave the country. Check with the Art and Antique Assessment Office at +82-32-740-2921.
- Electronics: They are widely available, especially in larger cities like Seoul and Busan. South Korea has most of the latest gadgets available in most Western countries, and much more. In fact, when it comes to consumer technology, South Korea is probably second only to Japan. However, you would probably have to contend with having the instruction booklets and functions being written in Korean.
- K-Pop: South Korea launched the hallyu("Korean wave") phenomenon that took East Asia by storm at the beginning of the 21st century, so you might want to buy the latest Korean music CD's by popular K-pop singers and groups - and discover some of the less known. Most music is now consumed as digital downloads, but there are still some music shops selling CD's to be found. And if you want to see them live, there is of course no better place for that than South Korea.
- K-Drama: Korean drama is massively popular in Asia and a boxed DVD set of a drama will certainly last you many rainy afternoons. Do check that the DVD set has subtitles in your language. Outside of Korea you could likely buy the same Korean drama dubbed in another Asian language such as Cantonese or Mandarin. However, drama serials and movies sold in South Korea are for the Korean market and usually do not have subtitles. In addition, South Korea is in DVD region 3 so the discs bought here would work well in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, but may not be playable by players bought in North America, Europe, mainland China, Japan or Australia. If you wish to buy, ensure that your DVD player can support it. Note that CD's and DVD's are not particularly popular anymore in South Korea, the younger generation having moved onto digital downloads some time ago.