So, you’re thinking of driving in South Korea. While travelling within cities like Seoul or Busan doesn’t generally require you to drive — the public transport system is generally efficient enough to get you to most places quickly — those who are looking for an alternative way of exploring the country should definitely consider driving.
Apart from allowing you to discover wonderful new cities that are off-the-beaten-track from the regular tourist spots, it also gives you the freedom to move around locations you’d never think of heading to, thanks in part to the shorter travel time and the bigger convenience of moving from one place to another with luggage in tow.
We recently took a week-long road trip in South Korea, and to help first-timers be fully prepared for their road adventure, have pulled together this guide about everything you’d need to know.
What you need to rent a car, and how to rent one
As a tourist, you’ll most likely be renting a car (more on that in a bit) for your road trip. Even so, there are certain requirements that you’ll have to check off before you get into it.
- You have to get an International Driver’s Permit. Apply for it online or head to the office — we prefer doing it in person because the queue is pretty short during off-peak hours, and you can get it done on the same day. It’ll cost S$20 and is valid for one year from the date of issue.
- A valid local driver’s license.
- You have to be at least 21 years of age and have held your local licence for a year. A surcharge may be imposed for drivers under the age of 25.
- A passport for identification .
- A credit card in the driver’s name.
Car rental in South Korea
Now, on to car rental. Some form of trip planning is important, no matter how free-spirited your itinerary is about to be. You can reserve your car online in advance, and is especially important so that you can be sure that there’s a car waiting for you – cars tend to run out during the holiday season at popular locales like Jeju island.
English navigation systems are available on a first-come-first-serve basis. If you don’t have one, don’t fret. Simply plug your phone into the car while using the Naver Maps app, and you’ll do just fine. This is a must-have app while you’re there, as Google Maps doesn’t work as well as Naver Maps in South Korea.
There are different coverage levels for the Collision Damage Waiver (aka car rental insurance) to choose from, but trust us when we say to get the full coverage. We’ve experienced first-hand how useful this is when driving in a foreign country, and it really takes the stress off driving in case of potential damage.
Most reservations sites are in English, and include a pretty comprehensive FAQ section on their website in case you have any queries.
Driving on the road
Unlike Singapore, drivers in Singapore sit on the left side of the car, which means that you’ll have to mirror everything you know about driving on the right: your controls are (generally) switched, and the fastest lane on the right is now the far left lane. If you’re not an experienced driver, we suggest you err on the side of caution and take a pause on weaving in and out of lanes, speeding and tailgating.
Turning right at a red light is usually allowed, but only when no vehicles coming from the left and no pedestrians are crossing. If you see a sign with an arrow to the right and a cross that cancels it out, then, well, you shouldn’t turn then.
Cars here usually give way once you signal on the blinker, so be sure to make it a habit of signalling if you don’t already do so.
Getting through the toll gates
Getting through a toll gate is something you might not be used to, especially since driving from Jurong to Pasir Ris requires us to do nothing on our part except sit behind the wheel.
Driving in South Korea requires you to go through toll gates, which are separated into two kinds. Express lanes and regular lanes. The Express lanes are made specifically for local cars and drivers with a Hi-Pass unit and a Hi-Pass card — it’s unlikely that your rental car will come with both so do avoid these lanes.
Instead, look out for a sign that says 현금, which translates to cash in English. If you encounter one with a red cross below the sign, just head to another 현금 toll gate with a green arrow indicated at the bottom. Don’t be stressed if you can’t differentiate the gates or you can’t find the 현금 sign — Hi-Pass lanes have looming electronic arches over them, with clear blue lines painted into the roadway before you approach so just take note to steer clear of them.
What happens if you don’t pay at the toll gate, or if you forget to take a ticket at the previous one? What if you find yourself going through the Hi-Pass lane by accident and the alarm sounds? Don’t panic; no police car will come chasing by, and you won’t be arrested so please continue your way — it is a highway after all.
All you have to do is simply tell the booth lady at the next toll gate which gate you accidentally passed and she’ll have you pay it there without an additional fine. Your navigation system would have also let you know how much you’re supposed to pay based on your route, so just have the money prepared in advance and you’re good to go.
How to pump petrol at the gas station
How much is gas in South Korea? We averaged about KRW30,000 to KRW35,000 (SGD30 to SGD35) for about half a tank of gas for a Hyundai Avante at a regular petrol station as well as petrol stations at rest stops. The prices differ slightly depending on the provider, but they are generally around this price (accurate as of the time of writing).
Now, on to filling up the gas. As most stations are unmanned (safe for a guy that sits in an office at the side), you’ll have to do most of the legwork yourself. Thankfully, it’s pretty simple. There are only two pumps to choose from: gasoline and diesel.
After selecting gasoline (휘발유) on the screen, it’ll ask you to select much you want to put in before asking for payment. If you want to go for a full tank of gas, be prepared to fork out at least KRW60,000 (SGD60). If your tank doesn’t need that much, they’ll also refund you the difference once you’re done.
Select 현금 if you want to pay by cash, and 신용 카드 if you’d like to pay by card.