Sunday, May 19, 2013

Driving In Korea - updated 5/26/2013

Looking for Info?
 Come here looking for info? Here's pretty much all the info you'll need! This info is up-to-date as of May 26th, 2013. Enjoy the Links:

1. Korea4Expats - Driver's License page
My favorite website for info on Korea. Absolutely fantastic and extensive.
2 Korea's Driver's License Authority
Korea's website with info on testing locations and requirements - in English. 
3. FREE Driver's Classes for Foreigners (Blog Post)
A fellow blogger from Korea posted info on free driver's classes for foreigners. Also, I recommend checking out her blog, which showcases a different style but is similarly interesting.

Scooter? Motorcycle? Nope.

 At the beginning of 2013, when it was settled that I'd be living further from my work, I decided to buy my own transportation. Originally, I decided on a scooter or motorcycle, but thanks to a friend, a great opportunity to buy a car landed on my lap. I took it. 

My friend told me that he knows many very experienced riders of scooters and motorcycles, and that all of them have been involved in accidents in Seoul. In addition to my having never driven a motorcycle or scooter, and Seoul not being the greatest place to learn, he noted I wouldn't be able to drive in the rain or snow, which is at LEAST a third of the days in the year.

One of my coworkers also told me about quite a few accidents he has been in.

An American Getting a Korean Driver's License

I've been driving for 15 years, since I was a sophomore in high school. As the youngest in my family, I always had an old car to drive and I took advantage of that. Sometimes the cars were automatic, and sometimes they were manual. I loved shifting, grew up 45 minutes outside of Chicago, and drove there in all variations of weather. In fact, I won't bother listing my long resume of driving experiences. They are extensive.

I have a valid Illinois Driver's License that won't expire for many years... but to drive in Korea, another license is required. An International Driver's License, which is valid for only 1 year, can only be obtained outside of Korea, so that wasn't an option.

If you are Canadian, you can go to the Korean Driver's License Examination Office and give them your license, take a written test, and they will just give you the Korean License. When you leave Korea, you have to go back there and give them your Korean License to get your old one back.

Sadly, for Americans, it can be different! And worse yet, it's different depending on which state you're from! At the time of writing this blog post, Americans from the following states don't have to take a written test and can just trade their licenses for a Korean one: Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Texas, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and West Virginia.

As you can see, I'm one of the UNluckys! And as of January 2013, Korea demands that I get an Apostille to show that my driver's license is real and not a fake!

Many Americans have never needed to learn what an Apostille is, but may be familiar with a notary. An Apostille is like a notary, but is an official golden stamp from the government of a state or country.

Basically, I had two choices:

1. Send my license and info to the Illinois State government office and wait several weeks for all of it to go through, costing lots of time and a bit of money.

2. Get my Korean Driver's License the same way any Korean person would, by taking the written test, taking the driving course test, and then taking the open road driving test.

To save time and money, I chose option 2 since I had a couple weeks of vacation.

Step 1) Written Exam

The written driver's exam is taken on a computer. You're asked maybe 40 or so questions, and you have to choose the best answer(s). You can buy a DVD to study for the exam, if you want. I didn't. Maybe I was too proud of my driving experience.

The actual exam wasn't difficult, and I passed my first time (by the skin of my teeth) - but the rumors proved true. The hardest part of the written exam was understanding what the question was trying to ask you. The questions were not in native English format, and they were very hard to understand! I read a lot of the questions many, many times before answering.

Step 2) The Driving Course

The driving course frustrated me, a bit... mostly because I didn't do enough research before trying it. I failed the first time. Here's what happened:

I walked down a hill to the driving course which was a large oval road with 8 cars on it facing counter clockwise, 4 on each side of the straight. One side was for manual tests, the other for automatic.

It was my turn, and the guy told me to get in. I followed basic procedure of adjusting seat and mirrors, and starting the car. There was a computer on the dashboard in the center of the car with English instructions on what I should be doing. The computer told me to drive in a straight line and not to exceed 20kph. I did that. Suddenly, the car's computer started yelling at me and telling me "Danger! Danger!" I was shocked, and I stopped the car, then idled forward a little bit, trying to figure out if I had already blown the test.

It turned out that they were trying to simulate a situation where I needed to stop immediately and put on my hazard lights. After that, the test was basically over... but since I didn't do that, they failed me.

It was literally a simple 5 minute test, and I failed, so I had to sign up for a new test in a couple days. Frustrating!

When I went inside, I talked to the lady and asked how I could study for this exam... and she pointed to the back, where they had driving simulators! The simulators were EXACTLY the same as the course test I had just taken! So when the Korean students get into the real car for the test, there are zero surprises for them. (Even more frustrating to me...)

You can see the simulators in the background, here.

Step 3) On-Road Driving Exam

The on-road driving exam also isn't hard if you're an experienced driver, and it's pretty high tech. The instructor sits next to you in the passenger seat, and a sophisticated computer system monitors how you handle the car. Whatever the computer can't monitor, the instructor notices.

There are about 4 possible local driving courses which take an average of 20 minutes to complete. When you get in the car, the instructor pushes a button and the computer randomly selects your course, then the test begins. If you pass, you can get your license the same day.

Buying a Car

So my friend put me in touch with somebody, and I ended up buying a car. Luckily, I bought it from someone very trustworthy who I was connected with through my church. This car was bought from a used car dealer in Korea for about 1.4 million won (a little less than $1,400), and I bought it from him for about 1.0 million won (a little less than $1,000).

It's a 1997 Hyundai Accent. It is OLD, but only had 117,000km on it and runs well. I named him Brownie. He's in pretty good condition, and has quite a weak engine (1.5L, 4 Cyl, 5-gear manual).

Before buying it, I talked with my Korean girlfriend. She has never really driven a car apart from getting her license, so we come from extremely different backgrounds. She began by giving me a list of warnings about buying a car this old, and went so far as to tell me that I need to consider buying a Black Box for it!

As an American, I was blown a way by this. "A Black Box?!" I asked. You mean the kind they have on airplanes in case of a crash?! Indeed, that's the kind. Apparently, all new cars in Korea have them (elsewhere, I dunno!).

In Korea, you don't have to keep renewing your license plate. My license plate is the same as the one that came with the car when I bought it!

But you MUST have insurance for the vehicle before you register it. Here is my insurance company, which I highly recommend. It's definitely the cheapest, and I was able to add my house-mate to the insurance for no additional cost, since he can drive manual. Mine cost about 650,000won (roughly $650) for the year, and it was only that expensive because it is my first year driving in Korea. After the first year, I'm told it will go down to nearly half that cost.

Injury SCANDALS: Black Box Explanation

When I bought the car, the previous owner warned me and told a story about the driving scandals that happen here. Basically, because insurance is required, I was told that pedestrians will jump at your car and fake an injury. He said this has happened when outside of Seoul at one of the rest stops (Korean Rest Area = 휴게소; "hyoo-gay-so").

Later, my girlfriend confirmed this scandal, which she said is a new kind of crime in Korea. She then informed me that this is why black boxes have become more popular and affordable in Korea, because the camera catches these crimes and the driver has evidence.

Seoul Driving: Scary? Crazy? Dangerous?

My style of driving is quite aggressive because driving in and out of Chicago has trained me to be this way. In Korea, I feel the freedom to drive this way. First, because my car is old, so if another car bumps me, it certainly won't be the end of the world if my car gets a scratch. Second, there are so many aggressive taxis on the road, here.

I would like to tell foreigners who drive in Korea not to be afraid. It's really not that bad - but you need to approach this adventure with the right mind.

Here are rules that I think are good to follow:

1) Follow Korean Examples -
If you see a taxi do something, just remember they make a living from driving around the city, so they probably have done it many times. It's pretty safe to assume you can imitate their actions.

2) Don't Turn Left on a Green Light - In Korea, at least in Seoul, you'll always have a green arrow. Wait for it. You can't turn left on a green light.

3) Go the speed of Traffic - Same rule in Chicago. If everyone around you is speeding, speed. It can be more dangerous going too slow and having everyone honk and get angry and try to pass you.

4) Don't Drive in the Far Right Lane - Don't drive in the far right lane unless you're going to be very alert to cars pulling over and stopping. Especially, taxis do this often.

5) Use Your Hazard Lights - Drivers in Korea are taught that if you have to slow down or stop, suddenly, your first and immediate reaction should be to punch on your hazard lights. Do it. Korean drivers are very responsive to this. If you need to pull over or turn around or slow down in an abnormal place, flip them on.

6) Parking - It's pretty much okay to park anywhere you want. ALWAYS have your phone number on the inside front windshield of your car so people can call you if there's a problem. Korean police give tickets if they feel your parking is a problem, or if they get complaints. But otherwise, you're fine. General rules are: Don't block roads and other important things.7) Stay in your lane? SORT of - I will say, "STAY IN YOUR LANE" - but I will EMPHASIZE that my use of the word "LANE" is strictly defined by the cars that are in front of you and behind you! It is NOT defined by the white lines. 

I could go on and on about this... but I've come to notice a few things. 

Here are some 
Observations I've Made:

1) Lanes Don't Align - The reason I said in #7 above that I define a "lane" as the line of cars in front of you and behind you is because I have driven through TOO many intersections in seoul where you're driving nicely in a lane, and you cross an intersection, then suddenly you find yourself between two lanes. They simply don't line-up from one side of the intersection to the other! Sometimes, one of the lanes just disappears! SO... basically, just do your best. Follow the car in front of you.

2) Drivers Run Red Lights - Cars often treat red lights as stop signs. A car will stop, then slowly idle through the light, and keep on their way. They do this when they know there are no traffic cameras, police, or pedestrians.

3) Motorcycle MAYHEM - 
Motorcycles are not treated as cars, in Korea. They are basically like vigilante vehicles that weave in and out of and between cars. They'll drive on the lane dividers. They'll drive against traffic. They'll drive on the sidewalks. They'll drive on the crosswalks. They'll basically do whatever they want. You must beware of them and drive cautiously around them. Use your blinker... and check before opening your doors!

4) Climbing Lane - I recently took a car trip to the east coast of Korea. My old car went up and down hills. While going up, something called a "climbing lane" would appear. Now, I'm from FLAT Illinois, in USA, so I had no idea about these... but I learned very quickly. This lane is for cars, like mine, that don't have the engine power to climb the hill fast. So you should jump in this lane.

5) Jagged White Lane Lines - Several times, I have been driving, and suddenly the white lane lines turned into zigzags, like teeth. I guessed it means I should slow down and be careful... and that's right. It means you're passing a popular pedestrian crossing area. It looks something like this picture.

2) Korean Cops - There aren't very many police cars driving around, and I have never see anyone get pulled over for speeding. Don't expect to run into any trouble with the local law enforcement. Road rules are mostly regulated with cameras, it seems... although cops DO give a lot of parking tickets!

That's about it for observations. Other than that, there isn't much else for American drivers to beware of. The rules of the road are pretty much the same.

I've been having LOTS of fun driving in Korea. It's just like driving in any major city, and perhaps safer than others, in my experience. I'm getting to feel more comfortable with every passing day, like the streets of Seoul are my home streets.


  1. Thanks for this. I'm gonna get my Korean License so I can drive on my trip to Jeju. You mentioned about certain states not having to do the written test. Does that apply for getting the apostille as well? I'm from Michigan so if i still have to get the apostille, I think I'm gonna try it your way.

    1. Hey DomHyo,

      I DO know that certain states have a reciprocal agreement with Korea so that the respective licenses are fully valid. Those from Washington State can drive in Korea, and Korean people can drive in Washington State. So, Korea will not require an apostille for ALL Driver's Licenses.

      I went to the Gangnam-gu driving authority and they have a very convenient window for English Speakers. A woman there will be able to answer all questions easily. And the paperwork for anything you want to do is there and very quick and easy to fill out. Also - photo booths are EVERYWHERE, nearby, and are cheap. So there's really no need to prepare anything before going there.

      I recommend making a stop into one of the Driving Authority places and getting all paperwork and info there after you arrive. If you do need to get a Korean License, arrive in the morning and you can get at least 3 steps out of the way (health check, safety class which is super boring and which I understood virtually none of, and written test).

      You can find info and locations of all Driver's License Authority centers here:

      And you can get further English Help at the Seoul Global Center:

      I recommend getting info from these two sources because they will always be most up-to-date and reliable. Frankly, the info keeps changing.

      Cheers. Enjoy your Jeju Trip!

  2. There are those that actually taught themselves how to drive as soon as they had a chance and there are those that could not trust their instincts and had to go to driving school. driving instructor