Want to see Seoul to its fullest? Well, then there’s no escaping having to bite the bullet and master Seoul’s public transportation system. Fortunately, it’s far easier than looking down upon the sprawling capital of Korea would suggest!
In fact, Seoul has one of the best transportation systems in the world. You’ll be absolutely amazed at how easy it is to get from point A to point B once you’ve figured out a few basics.
Ready to get started exploring Seoul? Follow along with this complete guide to getting around Seoul with public transportation…
Seoul public transportation: An introduction
If you’ve scanned through any of the itineraries on Treksplorer you’ll know that I have a soft spot for exploring cities on foot. Seoul is no different, only with a twist: getting to see all of it without hopping on a subway train, bus or taxi would be impossible.
(And with a population over 10 million in the city proper and over 25 million in the metro area, that’s hardly a shocker.)
Fortunately, public transportation in Seoul, like many other big cities in East Asia, is extensive, efficient, and well organized. Scooting between the best tourist attractions in Seoul is hardly a challenge once you’ve figured out how to get around Seoul.
In this guide to getting around Seoul, I cover the three most popular Seoul transportation methods:
Of course, there’s always the possibly of renting a car in Seoul, but I’d strongly caution against it. The traffic in Seoul is notoriously bad, and the drivers here would hardly rank among the world’s most courteous (try crossing the street on foot, and you’ll instantly see what I mean). And that’s without even thinking about the parking situation!
Transportation cards & passes
To save yourself time and hassle when travelling by public transit in Seoul, I’d recommend picking up a transportation (money) card or a pass, even if you’re only planning to spend one day in Seoul.
It’s a convenient way to pay for all your fares on subways and buses without the stress of lining up at ticket counters or machine. Some cards like the T-money Card and Seoul City Pass Plus can even be used in places like convenience stores, bookstores, department stores, vending machines, and pay phones!
There are three main cards/passes worth looking at in Seoul:
- T-money Card: No, it’s not the official credit card of a notorious Korean gangsta rapper. This reloadable card (base fee ₩3,000) can be used to pay for public transportation among many other things. Simply touch the card on the payment sensor upon entering and leaving subway stations and buses. Best of all, when you’re ready to leave Seoul, you can return your card at any metro ticket office to get back the remaining balance (up to ₩20,000).
- Seoul City Pass: A pass for foreign tourists that allows you to ride and bus or subway up to 20 times in a day. You’ll also be able to hop on and off the Seoul City Tour Bus as many times as you’d like. The passes cost ₩15,000,₩25,000, and ₩30,000 for one, two, and three days respectively.
- Seoul City Pass Plus: A card for foreigners that operates just like a T-money Card. It’s reloadable, allowing you to add value to the ₩3,000 base value card as much as you’d like. The bonus over the regular T-money is that the Seoul City Pass Plus offers discounts at various tourist attractions. The card will also work, not only in Seoul, but anywhere in Korea where T-money is accepted including locations as far away as Busan and Jeju.
If there’s any one transportation mode you should master in Seoul it’s the subway. The metro is by far the most convenient way of getting around Seoul.
Subway stations in Seoul are spread far and wide, zipping you between different destinations in central Seoul in a flash. Nearly every place you’d want to see as a traveller in Seoul—and even all the top-rated neighbourhoods in Seoul for travellers—are within a short walk of a subway station. (Check out this Seoul Metro Map to see all the available routes.)
Even if you can’t read or speak Korean, you’ll easily find your way around Seoul on the metro. All the station signs and maps feature romanized names in addition to the Hangul. Even the loud speaker recordings are repeated in both Korean and English.
Seoul subway trains start running at about 5:30am and continue until midnight. It’s relatively cheap, too. A base fare of just ₩1,350 ($1.27) will take you 10 kilometres along the line.
To make your Seoul subway experience as easy as possible, be sure to load up a T-money Card or Seoul City Pass Plus. Simply scan the card at the subway entrance gates and at the exit to have your fare automatically deducted from your card. Another added bonus is that at just ₩1,250 per 10km, it’s also cheaper to pay your fare with a T-money Card.
Before you go thinking that the subway is absolutely perfect something needs to be said: The Seoul metro gets insanely busy in the evening from about 4:30-5pm until 8pm. With the sole exception of Tokyo, Seoul features, by far, the busiest commuter trains you’ll ever find yourself in.
If you’re at all claustrophobic like me, you’ll probably want to completely avoid the metro at this time. (Would be a good time to wash some delectable Korean BBQ down with some soju, no?)
Otherwise, walk to the end of the platforms where you’ll find a little more space. And I do mean only a little.
In the odd situation that the metro won’t do, there’s always the bus. Like the subway, Seoul’s bus system is extensive and cheap. For some routes, getting to your destination might actually be a little faster on a bus than the subway.
The buses are, however, quite a bit more confusing to navigate for foreigners than the metro. Other than at major stops on major routes, bus maps and loud speaker announcements are generally only in Korean.
On top of the language barrier, there’s a whole array of different coloured buses you’ll need to figure out to make sure you’re getting to the right place.
- Blue Buses: Operate the main lines within the entire city of Seoul. Single journey rides cost ₩1,300.
- Green Buses: Branch line buses that do short runs between major stations and other major “blue” bus routes. Prices are the same at ₩1,300.
- Yellow Buses: Operate through the main areas of downtown Seoul. A single journey ticket costs ₩1,200.
- Red Buses: Buses that run to suburban destinations outside of the city limits. Rides cost ₩2,400.
- Night Buses: Regular city routes that operate at night. All night routes are prefixed with an “N.”
To pay for your journey you’ll either need to use exact change or a payment card like T-money, which will also reduce your fare by ₩100 (or ₩50 on red bus routes) and get you a free transfer within 30 minutes.
If you choose to pay with a money card, you’ll need to tap your card upon entering and exiting. Since, unlike subway stations, there’s no turnstile to leave the bus, make very very certain you tap your card when leaving the bus. Otherwise it will continue to charge you and not allow a free transfer.
Taxis in Seoul
Compared to many other cities in the world, taxis in Seoul are relatively inexpensive. For short rides, the convenience and speed of hailing a cab off the street could be worthwhile.
There are two main types of taxis in Seoul to watch out for:
- Ilban (Regular) Taxis: The most common type of taxi, distinguished by its silver, orange, blue or white colour and the “Taxi” sign on the roof. These generally cost between ₩2,800 and ₩3,000 for the first two kilometres and ₩100 for every 144 metres (or 41 seconds) thereafter. Regular taxis increase fares by about 20% after midnight until about dawn.
- Mobeum (Deluxe) Taxis: Distinguished from regular taxis by its black colour and yellow stripe. Prices are slightly higher at between ₩3,200 and₩5,000 for the first three kilometres and ₩200 every 144 metres. These deluxe taxis are generally more comfortable and offer extras like payment by credit cards, receipts, and no nighttime surcharges.
One good tip to keep in mind with taxis in Seoul is that most taxi drivers will not speak English. It’s a smart idea to have your destination address written in hangul (or at least romanized Korean) to hand to the driver to get where you need to go.
Although tipping in Korea isn’t common, it’s not a bad idea to round off your fare and allow the driver to keep the change as a small tip.