Here we provide some basic information about public transport in Korea. Bus and subway are the official public transport methods. The service is very convenient and effective in the major cities. The majority of destinations within a city can be reached by public transport. As an addition, taxis are very useful for less well-accessible places.
The public transport system and the high amount of taxis makes car ownership obsolete. The vast majority of rides in Seoul is done by public transport or taxi: 37% by subway, 28% by bus and 7% by taxi.
Paying for Transportation
Public transport users have the following options to pay for a ride:
- Pay in Cash
This option is only available for buses in Korea. Directly at boarding the bus you put the cash in the money collector and the driver gives you the change. The destination isn’t important.
- Single-Trip Tickets
Only for the metro it is possible to buy a single-ride at a vending machine inside the subway station. The language of the vending machine can be changed to English, Japanese or Chinese. There is a 500 KRW deposit on the single-trip cards. Don’t forget to return the card at a so-called “Deposit Refund Device” to receive the deposit. They are usually right next to the vending machines in subway stations.
- Rechargeable Transportation Card
The transportation card system exists since 1996. Korea was the first country in the world that introduced such a system. It is the most convenient, cheapest and fastest way to pay for public transport.
The most popular transportation card is the T-Money card. It can be used in all major Korean cities. You can pay buses, subways and taxis with the T-Money card. Convenient stores accept T-Money as a payment method, too.
A T-Money card costs 2,500 KRW. It saves you 100 KRW per trip and gives you free transfer between public transport modes. So a T-Money card pays off if you are using public transport three times and have a transfer each time. Secondly, it saves you a lot of time as you don’t have to buy a single-trip ticket every time.
Important: You have to tap the T-Money card when you get on AND then again when you get off the bus. Otherwise, you’ll have to pay the double basic fare the next time you use your T-Money card.
You can get the card at convenience stores and street kiosks. A kiosk that sells T-Money has a sign on it:
It is also possible to recharge the T-money card at selling stores or at ticket recharging machines in subway stations.
Refund of T-Money balance of less than 20,000 KRW is possible at every location that sells T-Money cards. However, a service fee of 500 KRW is kept. For a refund with a card that has more than 20,000 KRW you have to visit the headquarters of Korea Smart Card. You may find more information on the T-Money card system on the Korea Smart Card website.
An alternative way to use T-Money is with a smartphone. Korean smart phones have an integrated NFC chip and pre-installed apps (different app for each carrier: KT’s Android App, LG U+ Android App & SKT’s Android App). Unfortunately, the apps are only in Korean.
T-Money isn’t the only transportation card in Korea. There are a couple of similar cards, such as Cash Bee, Top Pass, Senspass and Hanpay. However, the other cards can’t be used in many cities. Many Koreans use a credit card with an integrated NFC chip. The big advantage is that the card doesn’t have to be recharged. The credit card owner gets billed at the end of the month. As far as we know, foreign residents aren’t able to receive this service.
Alternative for Tourists: M-Pass
For tourists who visit Seoul for a couple of days and plan to use public transportation multiple times per day, the M-Pass can save you some money. The M-Pass is basically a T-Money card that can be used for a certain amount of days. The following passes exist:
1-day pass: 10,000 KRW
2-day pass: 18,000 KRW
3-day pass: 25,500 KRW
5-day pass: 42,500 KRW
7-day pass: 59,500 KRW
The maximum of usage is 20 times per day. The M-Pass can be only bought at the I-Tour Seoul Centers (first floor, exit 5 and 10) at the Incheon International Airport. A normal bus or subway ride costs 1,200 and 1,250 KRW, respectively. So the M-Pass pays off if you use public transport 9 times per day.
How to transfer?
As it was mentioned above, it is possible to transfer for free with a transportation card. There are certain conditions to get a free transfer:
- the time between tapping the cards at getting off and getting on the next type is limited to 30 min (the time limit is 60 min between 9 pm and 7 am)
- a maximum of five transfers is allowed
- it isn’t allowed to transfer to the same bus number or subway station
A lot of money can be saved by doing free transfers.
Operating Hours of Public Transportation
Public transport in Korea doesn’t operate 24/7. Seoul’s buses operate from 4 am and the last bus leaves the depot at 11 pm. Subway begins a little bit later: You can get on the first subway trains at around 5:30 am and the last subway operates until 1 am at night. This is the rule of thumb. Be sure to check the schedules for your city, your metro line or bus number through some of the apps that we introduced.
Navigate Through Korea
The most popular map service Google Maps has a lot of limitations in Korea. In most of the cases it will work fine but if you can read a little bit Korea, services like Naver Map (Android & iOS) and Daum Maps (Android & iOS) provide more transport information and more correct data. It doesn’t only allow you to search for addresses, it also shows point of interests like banks, accommodations, gas stations, convenient stores, hospitals and so on.
For Korean subway systems, phone applications like Jihachul (Android & iOS) or Smarter Subway (Android & iOS) are very helpful. SeoulBus (Android & iOS) has information about buses in the capital area.