Travel Money Guide: South Korea
Sort out your currency and travel card options before your big trip for a stress-free holiday in South Korea.
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South Korea boasts ancient villages, buzzing nightlife and some of Asia's best street food for you to indulge in.
While it's easy to get around South Korea with debit and credit cards, if you want to travel on a budget and indulge in some of Korea's best street eats then it's a good idea to have won (the currency of South Korea) for those smaller purchases.
If South Korea is your main destination then we reckon prepaid travel cards are not the best option. Instead, carry a combination of debit card, credit card and local currency for small purchases.
What should I know about money for South Korea?
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 Australia 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.
Travel money options for South Korea at a glance
|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.
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 Australia. 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.
Bankwest platinum credit cards waive the currency conversion fee; however, avoid withdrawing cash on credit, additional cash advance fees and interest applies and you won't get interest free days. Other perks 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 won (about $10 AUD).
Using debit cards
It's hard to fault the Citibank Plus Transaction Account. You get a Visa debit card to use 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 won't pay extra for currency conversion, you won't pay international ATM fees and Citi don't charge any monthly or account keeping fees. Plus, the best part: Citi has been in the South Korean market since the 60's so there are Citi branches and cash machines all over the country. You can make free ATM withdrawals from Citi ATMs using your Citibank Plus Transaction Account.
- Tip: In Seoul alone there are almost 100 Citi branches and about 40 standalone ATMs.
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 won (approx. $10 AUD).
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. Local Australian and Korean banks do not have fee free partnerships; but you'll find Korean CD machines change the same as ATMs in Australia. If you're a Citi cardholder, you can use your Citi card to withdraw from Citi ATMs in South Korea and you will avoid the local ATM operator fee. There are ATMs throughout Seoul including the at the major airports.
- Tip: Citi are an international financial institution and you won't have a problem using your Australian credit, debit or travel card at a Citi ATM.
Why we recommend 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. All 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 it's 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.
Australians received almost twice as much Korean won for every dollar exchanged in 2012 than 2006. And in recent years, the value of the Korean won relative to the Aussie dollar has settled back to 2006 levels. This represents a drop of about 30 cents to the dollar over the past 4 years. It can be difficult to predict forex rates; however, South Korea has a stable economy and Australians shouldn't be worried about currency fluctuations affecting the bottom line too much while on holiday.
|Year||Exchange Australian Dollar (AUD) to South Korean Won (KRW) ($1 AUD=)|
*Exchange rates are accurate as of 1 January on each year listed above
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Buying currency in Australia
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 $10,000 cash. Cash includes bank notes and traveller's cheques. You can bring up to 8,000,000 Korean won from Australia. This is approximately $10,000 AUD.
You have a few options for picking up won in Australia. 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 such as Travelex.Back to top
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 dollars.
Some of the daily costs for a South Korean holiday
$30 - $70 per night
|2 Star Hotel|
$70 - $150 per night
|5 Star Hotel|
$250 - $600 per night
|Jajangmyeon (traditional noodle dish): $3-4|
Pork Ribs: $5
Bibimbap (traditional Korean rice dish): $7
Korean Royal Court Cuisine: $90
|Museums: free||Guided tour of Seoul and museums|
|Private DMZ Tour|
From $150 p.p.
*Prices are indicative and subject to change
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