So you decided to venture out of your comfort zone and travel abroad in 2021! It can be intimidating—at least it was for me when I came to Korea—and difficult to find up-to-date information about entering while in the midst of a pandemic. But that's what I'm here for! Your guinea pig who went through the process without knowing what to "truly" expect! So let me break it down for you.
If you're a US citizen or a country under the visa waiver program, (check here), you are allotted a certain number of days to travel without a visa, aka a tourist visa. As a US citizen, you are allowed in Korea for up to 90 days. This is the visa I've entered under.
However, here's the catch. Online you may come across information about the Korea K-ETA which is the online tourist visa application process. Currently, this is optional for travelers until September 2021—where there will be a cost of ₩10,000 or about $9 but until then it's free—when it will be required to submit your information to be accepted into the country. But here's the thing, I was accepted and made sure to print out my visa acceptance papers but when I gave them to the immigration desk they, 1. Didn't know what they were and had to call about them, and 2. they first thought I came into the country without a visa. The look of fear for my well-being on the immigration officer's face is still stuck in my mind.
So here's my recommendation for travelers heading to Korea before September 2021 on a tourist visa. Do the application and print it off for immigration even though you "technically" don't have to have it yet. It saves a lot of hassle and honestly I'm not sure they're allowing anyone in right now without having this prepared beforehand just based on the immigration officer's initial reaction.
As for other visa types, I don't have a lot of knowledge about them but if you're traveling on a work or student visa this year it'll probably be a little saner when entering the country.
Just remember, no matter where you're flying from, you must have a negative COVID-19 PCR test within 72 hours of your flight in order to board.
While you're on the plane to Korea, stewards will give you a small stack of papers that have to be filled out for immigration. These papers include; health declaration form, travel record form, customs form, and a travel identity form (I forget what this is called).
Each form needs essentially the same information. Full name, date of birth, employment, passport number, flight number, address of the place you'll be staying in Korea, and a Korean phone number (can be of the place you'll be staying or an acquaintance).
The travel record requires you to list the countries you've been to in the last 21 days. This includes your flight path. On your health declaration form, you must answer questions regarding COVID-19 such as any symptoms you have. The customs form is for anything you must declare in your baggage and the travel form is like an identity card with the same information as I've addressed above.
If you don't get in perfect, don't worry. There will be people upon arrival who will help you make sure it's accurate.
The Full Immigration Process
When I tell you this was an experience... I'm not kidding.
With the government in Korea still taking full caution with incoming travelers due to COVID-19—as other countries probably should be—it was a daunting experience that was honestly pretty stressful.
After arriving and disembarking my plane, I kid you not when I say that there was hardly anyone arriving at the airport. The lines were COMPLETELY empty! But that wasn't the stressful part for me... Let me break it down.
Your first stop is for your immigration papers to be checked and changed if necessary. A kind lady helped me fix mine before sending me forward for my health check. Here I gave a woman my passport and documents before she took my temp at my neck and then in both ears.
Now here's where the stressful part came in for me. When she checked my temp, I had a mild fever. Which, when you're 19 and traveling alone to a country for the first time during the COID-19 pandemic, I was borderline ready to break down.
I was sent to another booth where a man and woman had to ask me an assortment of questions like; Have you been in contact with anyone who had COVID symptoms? Could you be pregnant? Have you had any recent procedures or surgeries? Have you taken any medication recently? Are you vaccinated? And so on the questions came.
My answers went like; "Not that I'm aware of", "Not possible at all" (which had them breaking out in laughter), "Yes, I had to have a mole removed", "Yes, I took nausea medicine because of the plane motion", and "Yes, I have the Pfizer vaccine."
The good thing was both people were super kind and helpful, even saying "No matter what we'll take care of you" to comfort me. In the end, I was sent on my way with a "Good news, you're free to go," which was a huge relief. After spending a few days in quarantine so far, I'm pretty sure the mild fever was due to stress, travel, and PMS.
Once past all that I then made my way to the foreign immigration line, which again was empty. I was the only one left to get through. And this is how it went:
Two people waited at the entrance to ensure you had the quarantine app downloaded before entering the line. They will provide the QR code if you haven't downloaded it already.
Reaching the end of the line I came to rows of tables filled with two workers at each, (which there were a lot considering how empty the airport was of foreigners and natives alike) Here you give them your papers to confirm your Visa status, they ask more questions, and they even call the Korean number you provided.
Once finished with them, they send you to a counter with gates controlled to allow you in and out. Here a woman took my information and entered it into her computer, asking if I would be quarantining in the government facility or on my own and having me sign papers. I didn't realize—and I'm still unsure if you really can on a tourist visa—that self-quarantine was an option. However, as I had already planned on the government facility that's what I told her.
From here she handed me over to an Immigration officer—which I believe is a section of the police as she was in a police uniform. It was a lot of the same questions and scanning my papers and passport, but here they asked if and how I can pay the quarantine costs of ₩2,100,000 or about $1880 and also took my picture and index finger fingerprints. Here I signed even more papers before being allowed to leave.
Once released and given my entry clearance from the immigration officer, I was allowed to get my baggage.
On my way out I exchanged money and passed through customs which was really just giving them my customs slip and nothing more. I was surprised that there was no security I needed to go through but after my long travels, I didn't mind.
Past customs, I was directed to a table handling the people who would be quarantined in the government facility. I gave them my information yet again before being asked to wait 15 minutes. This was a great time to finally call my family.
After the 15 minutes were up, I was led to another waiting area where it was guarded by a bunch of police officers. I had to give my passport and papers yet again before allowed in. Really this area was just a makeshift set up with benches for anyone headed to the government facility. Here I waited with only 4 other people for at least an hour before the bus finally showed up. It's safe to say at this point I was exhausted but I was in and that's all that mattered.
Keep in mind that this was my personal experience, I didn't get a chance to see anyone else go through but I do think it's a decent guide as to what to expect upon your arrival in Korea.
A few other things to expect that I noticed on my way through the airport. One, there is a ton of construction going on so it threw me off a bit but was easy enough to get around as most of it was on the tarmac. There was a lot at the baggage claim as well, but it wasn't much of a nuisance. And two, what I finally realized once in the final waiting area was that the majority of the staff at the airport right now are from the military academy or police department. It seemed excessive—but maybe the airport is busier on other days—and also intimidating at times because, in step 2 mentioned above, it was like 15+ guys all waiting for me to decide which booth to go to. And as exhausted as I was, I was completely thrown off since I was the sole person in line.
Government Quarantine Facility
If you're entering Korea anytime soon you'll most likely have to quarantine for 2 weeks in a government facility. Here's what to expect based on my experience.
*In recent news, it has just been released by the Korean Government that travelers fully vaccinated overseas will be exempt from quarantine starting July 2021 on an application basis, which is also determined by the reason for the visit. Find the full article, here.
After boarding the bus, we drove for an hour from Incheon to Seoul (which was spectacular to see and had me in complete awe). They took me and probably 20 some other people to a 4-star hotel in Myeong-dong, Seoul. And this was the process:
Each person was sat at a desk with 3 things. Your dinner for the evening, a box filled with a mask, hand sanitizer, thermometer, and paperwork to be filled out and read.
The paperwork was simple—similar things to what you wrote on the immigration papers. Name, DOB, passport #, flight #, etc. You only had to fill out one page and sign it. The rest of the papers were instructions for us to take with us.
Then hotel workers came around to take our papers, double-check that we had the quarantine app set up (which most of us had the wrong app as there is one for the government facility daily check-up and one for a home self-check-up, but the airport people did not specify or realize I had the wrong one. But it was no big deal to download and change on the hotel wifi.)
From here, one by one they called us up to pay for our stay. When I had been at the airport they had to make sure I could pay ₩2,100,000 (about $1880) but I was happily surprised when it came out to be ₩1,680,000 (about $1500) since I had heard they were raising the cost of quarantine. So saving almost $400 was truly a blessing.
Given my room key, I went up with my luggage and took a well-needed shower (at this point I had been traveling for around 35 hours).
About an hour later, a knock sounded at my door for my first COVID-19 test which is done free of charge at the beginning and end of our stay.
Now I just have to make it through these 2 weeks in my hotel room.
I was really excited when I got to my room since everything was—and still is—very surreal.
Here at my hotel, I have a small but comfortable room for the 2 weeks of my quarantine. I have a beautiful bathroom with marble counters, plenty of mirrors, a Hinoki tub (which is a Japanese cedar tub), and a shower with both a removable shower head and a rain shower head. My bed is huge, a queen and twin pushed up next to each other but with strangely only one pillow but while laying down it faces a large flat-screen TV. I have a beautiful view of Myeong-dong though there is a lot of construction going on in the area—but my room is completely quiet unless I open the window. My room also has a desk and bench-like table which is where they put all the supplies for my stay.
These supplies included: 6 2Liters of water, extra tissues and toilet paper, lots of paper cups, alcohol spray, coffee and tea bags with sugar packs, and 30 orange hazard bags for my waste. In the bathroom, they provided shampoo, conditioner, body wash, hand soap, a shower cap, toothbrush, toothpaste, hairdryer, and towels. Slippers, traditional in Korea, were also provided in the shoe closet at the entrance.
Every day around 8 am, 12 pm, and 5 pm, they announce our meals are ready to take which is one of the only times we can step slightly out of our rooms. The meals are places in a designated basket next to our doors in a plastic bag. Meals can either be normal, vegetarian, or halal, but those are the only available options.
Just after breakfast, they announce that we must put our garbage out the front of our door, making the bag as small as possible. This is the only other time we can step out slightly.
*Side note, it is honestly pretty strange—and my friend said it sounded like a dystopian novel—hearing the voice come over in my room and announce our meals and garbage time. But they do say it in Korean, English, Mandarin, and Japanese.
Things To Bring With You for Quarantine
If you've been keeping up with others sharing their Korea quarantine experience they've most likely shared that it's a good idea to bring snacks in your suitcase. So these are the things I've brought with me as a little piece of home and also for the munchies: KIND Clusters, beef jerky, one vegan mac n cheese, 2 instant oatmeals in a cup, KIND protein bars, nut assortment, Arizona green tea and honey mix packs.
As for anything else to bring, I'd suggest things to keep you busy during your 2-week stay.
Libby is great for library books if you have a library card (I mooch off my grandma's). I brought an artist journal for both sketching and watercolor. Netflix or any other streaming platform is also great to pass time. If you can and like to, find friends with who you can play games over the internet. I will also be working out and doing my yoga and pilates as much as possible in the small space. And most importantly, you can take the time to rest up. Because resting is also productive.
Personally, I also have projects related to my writing and content creating that I will be working on while I'm in quarantine. Stay tuned in the next few weeks for that but for a while, it will remain pretty lowkey until everything is in place!
I will be keeping my blog updated on any useful information I come across on my experience in Korea, but for now, I hope this information helps make your travels here a lot less stressful than mine.
Follow me on Instagram @sade.louise and TikTok @sade.louisee to stay even more updated about my trip!
Here's to traveling and new experiences!
Best of Luck,