If you are new to Seoul, probably the first thing you will want to do is familiarize yourself with the subway system. But fear not! It’s very easy to use and does not require you to know any Korean whatsoever (although I’d still recommend having some knowledge up your sleeve).
I come from a suburban-leaning towards rural area in the U.S. where we lack all forms of public transportation, so you can imagine that I was very nervous on figuring out how to get around. On top of that, I came alone and my plane touched down two and a half weeks before school started, meaning that it was all up to me to figure out how to use it. Fortunately, I had two Korean friends pick me up from the airport and guide me to my first destination. I picked up a few tips from them and my experience that I’d like to share.
1. Jihachul. First and foremost, there is an application for the Seoul subway that is available on most OS’s. You can find it by typing ‘jihachul’ into the search window of the app store. This app is handy as it not only gives you a map, but allows you to select your beginning and destination in order to see the time it takes and number of stops you will pass through. It also provides you train departure times, which is helpful when you need to catch the last train. It also operates offline, so you don’t have to worry about wifi or data availability. (There is another version of this for the Seoul bus system as well, but I will describe it in another post.)
2. Subways are just like airports. No, you aren’t flying anywhere or running from terminal to terminal (that is unless you are trying to catch a quick transfer). However, that is not what I am getting at. Subways are like airports as in they are well marked. All you have to do is follow the signs and it will guide you step by step through the transfer, platform, or exit. The signs are written in both Korean and English so there is no necessity to know how to read Korean if you don’t want to—but I definitely recommend learning at least how to read because it will make your time in Korea a lot more enjoyable.
3. 5 minute rule. Generally speaking, a subway train will come about every 5-10 minutes depending on where you are at. The inner circle (line 2) runs more trains through than the far branch of, say, line 5. Even so, the train system is quick and efficient and does not require you to plan your schedule around it.
4. Subway cards. There are many types of card that you can use for the subway and bus system. These include (but aren’t limited to) Pop Cards, Korean Debit Cards, Korean Credit Cards, and some Student/Work ID’s. Anything with T-Money compatibility will work in the subway. You can get at Pop or T-Money card at any convenience store (if you land at Incheon International Airport, they usually have a huge stock of them). They don’t cost hardly anything and you can add the balance when you buy it. If you need to recharge your card, there is always a line of self-recharge machines by the gates to the platform that take your cash and fill it onto your card. However, if you can’t find these or they are under maintenance then you can go to the convenience stores down in the subway (or on the streets) and ask for a recharge. Just give them the card and the cash you want to put on and they cashier will help recharge your card.
5. Subway charge. A single subway ride on the Seoul system starts at 1050W up to 10 kilometres. You pay additional 100 won every 5 kilometres up to 40 km, and 100 won every 10 km after 40 km. You can also transfer to another form of public transportation (for instance, a bus) without paying the base charge again if you manage to transfer within 30 minutes normally (this time varies) up to 4 times. The base costs of the means of transportation are not always the same, so the maximum cost applies. Therefore, if you transfer from the subway (1,050 won base fee) to a city bus which belongs to Gyeonggi-do (1,100 won base fee) you will be charged 50 won when you get on the bus, and you will pay additional cost based on the total travel distance when you get off. It may seem confusing, but it is actually rather quite simple and painless overall.
6. Timing (can be) key. Of course, like any other major city, there is rush hour. If you try to get on line 1 or 2 around 8am in the morning or 6-7pm at night, you’re in for some fun. In Seoul, there are no conductors to push you into the car like packing peanuts, but most Seoulites are not afraid to pack in nice and tight. If you have claustrophobia, don’t go during rush hours. It’s not worth it. Also worth noting is that the subway opens at about 6am and closes at midnight (standard buses also stop running at this time). If you miss the last train, there are other options such as the Night Owl Bus or taxis, but they are more expensive, of course.
Whether you are here for a few days or for months, chances are you will use the subway system at one point or another. Hopefully, these six tips will ease any worries and prepare you for an amazing time in Seoul!
오늘의 표현 (Today’s Expression):
여기서 잠실역까지 얼마나 걸려요?
yeo-gi-seo jam-sil-yeok-gga-ji eol-ma-na geol-leo-yo?
How long does it take to get from here to Jamsil Station?
역 (yeok) – station
지하철(ji-ha-cheol) — subway train
호산 (ho-san) — subway line
입구 (ip-gu) — entrance
줄구 (jul-gu) – exit