Drive in South Korea: A Complete Foreigner’s Guide

by John Buckley
June 17, 2024


South Korea has a remarkably affordable and well-run public transportation network, making it relatively easy to get around without a car, especially in the major cities.

However, whether you are traveling in South Korea for a short time or living there long-term, having the ability to drive a car can make traveling around the country much easier.

It opens up difficult-to-access parts of the country and allows you to explore much deeper and get off-the-beaten-path.

You may not be aware that you are allowed to drive in South Korea as a foreigner, or you may simply face trepidation about the prospect of driving in a country where you don’t know the laws or language.

Fear not. I’m here to assure you that it is easier than you may think, and if you’ve got a steady hand at the wheel, you shouldn’t face any issues.

I lived in South Korea from 2007 to 2020 without a car, proving that you can get by just fine without one, and I have no incentive to encourage you to do otherwise.

However, during the early COVID years, I found my bank account suddenly more robust than it had previously been when I was frequently spending on overseas travel.

Because we weren’t really allowed to leave the country for awhile, I wanted to be able to get out of the house and travel around Korea without having to sit on a crowded bus or train with other people living through our shared zombie apocalypse.

So I exchanged my American driver’s license and bought a used car. I’ll explain that process below.

Driving in South Korea as a foreigner can be an adventure.
Time to hit the (not so) open roads of South Korea

I haven’t looked back since and am now in the process of shopping for a second car. If figuring out how to do any of these things sounds intriguing, I encourage you to keep reading.

Even if they don’t, I’m no Jack Kerouac, but I’ll try to include some fun tales from life on the road in South Korea.

License Requirements to Drive in South Korea

To legally drive in South Korea as a foreigner, understanding the driver’s license requirements is crucial if you don’t want to find yourself starring in one of those foreign prison shows on Netflix.

I’m joking, I think.

Short-Term Visitors

In South Korea, the driver’s license requirements vary depending on your visa status. For short-term visitors, such as tourists, you can drive with an International Driving Permit (IDP) for up to one year. This means you can rent a car in South Korea without needing an actual Korean license.

So, if you’re just going to be visiting South Korea for a short time or are a wayward traveler in Asia and want to be able to drive while on your trip, I recommend that you research and secure an IDP from your home country before you leave.

You can do this from abroad, but I’m sure it’s much less of a hassle from the comfort of your home country.

Long-Term Foreign Korea Residents

For long-term foreign residents of South Korea, like yours truly, you’re going to want to get an actual Korean driver’s license.

This process involves a few more steps and will take up a chunk of your time, but it isn’t overly complicated.

In most cases, you can simply exchange your foreign driver’s license into a South Korean one. I say in “most cases” because there is a list of “recognized countries” from which their citizens are allowed to do this.

Fortunately, most countries are on the list. This article lists them all and explains the process in pretty simple terms.

If you’re from Oregon or Idaho, bad news: you’ll need to take a simple written test for some reason. Most of my family now lives in Idaho, but I still qualify as a Colorado resident!

The process of exchanging (more on what that means later) your license involves submitting your valid foreign license, along with a Korean translation, to your local driver’s license examination office.

About that Korean translation, I’m just going to be honest. I don’t exactly remember what I did for that (I’ve had my Korean license for about 4 years now). I have a vague recollection of it being kind of a pain in the butt.

I’m not going to assume that everyone reading this is an American citizen, but since I am one, here’s a link to the instructions from the US Embassy.

You’ll likely have to contact your country’s embassy in Seoul to have this done. It’s probably going to be a bit of a hassle, but if, like Andy Dufresne, you’ve come this far, you might as well keep going.

Long-Term Foreign Resident without a Valid Home License

There’s a third category where you either never had a driver’s license in your home country or you did, but it has expired.

In this case, you will need to go the route that a Korean citizen would have to take, which is to pass a written exam and take a driving test at your local driver’s license office.

I don’t have any experience with this, so I’m not going to delve into it. I just know that it’s possible and that they have an English version of the written test. I’ve heard you can also request a driving instructor who speaks basic English.

I have a friend who went this route, and just like back home, you may have to study and take the test several times before you pass (as he did).

Since I had a valid Colorado driver’s license, I obviously went with the option to just exchange my license for a South Korean license.

The only test I had to take was a simple eye exam administered within the DMV.

I’m pretty sure it’s not called the DMV in Korea (not to be confused with the DMZ), but for the sake of simplicity, it means “Department of Motor Vehicles” in the United States.

I may refer to the Korean counterpart as such, but you’ll probably want to seek out the official name of the nearest office before you head out, lest you end up on a border tour with a lot of machine guns pointed in your direction.

For the most part, it was a pretty simple process, and I’m sometimes amazed that I’m allowed to drive around at will without fully comprehending all of the laws of the road.

Let’s just keep that between you and me, though.

A License Exchange Means Just That

Something that is important to note is that when I say I exchanged my Colorado driver’s license for a Korean license, they actually took my Colorado license away from me and filed it away in a little box!

I’m not sure why, in this day and age, a digital scan or a photocopy doesn’t suffice, but you should expect to be without your home country’s driver’s license for awhile.

You can, however, go back and re-exchange your licenses, but please be aware that DMV workers are a unique breed of pencil-pushing antagonists who may try to aggravate you just for sport, no matter what country you are in.

The first time I returned home to Colorado, rightfully wanting to have my American ID with me, I had to go to battle with the Dwight Schrute of the Daegu DMV.

Dwight Schrute from NBC's The Office

The article that I linked above states that you can simply return to the Korean DMV office when you’re leaving and present them with a flight itinerary proving that you are leaving, and they’ll happily give you your license back.

Not so fast. My Korean Dwight informed me that the printed flight itinerary I presented was not the required e-ticket and refused to give me my license back.

He wasn’t going to budge with logic or sweet talk.

What in the heck is an e-ticket, you may ask? To this day, I still don’t know. It’s apparently something that some Korean airlines issue.

I, however, was flying on Delta, which had been booked on Expedia. Thus, I arrived armed with my printed Expedia itinerary and receipt.

I also had a Delta phone app that showed my ticket, my reservation number, my seat assignment, and any other information that any sane individual would take as proof that I would be ‘leaving on jet plane‘ the following day.

I was not dealing with a sane individual, however, and we battled it out for roughly 3 hours over whether or not I was trying to pull the scam of the century by trying to get my own driver’s license back.

My wife was on the phone in tears. I had reached the point of flagrantly throwing English profanity around carelessly, and Dwight’s co-workers were starting to take notice.

Finally, after one of these co-workers assured him that my documents were actually in line with “policy“, he ultimately shoved both my American and Korean driver’s licenses under the little window and implored me ‘to never come back‘.

That was one promise I was happy to keep, especially since I now have both licenses firmly in my possession.

The Korean license is valid for 10 years, so hopefully either Dwight or myself will have moved on by then!

On the Road in South Korea: Things to Know

When driving in South Korea, you should be aware of and follow the laws just as you would in any other country.

Generally speaking, the rules of the road are what you would expect and generally in accord with international standards.

In Korea, you should drive on the right side of the road, as in left vs. right, not right vs. wrong.

In Japan, they drive on the left side. Mainland China drives on the right, while Hong Kong and Macau drive on the left. Confused yet? Good, me too.

Seat belts are mandatory for all passengers, and the legal blood alcohol limit is 0.03%. That’s not very high, so beware!

One of my beefs with Korean policing is that they tend to let cameras and citizen reporting do most of their work for them.

Not so with drinking and driving. Roadside checkpoints are quite common, so don’t be tempted to get behind the wheel. Getting a DUI is bad enough in any country, but dealing with the repercussions in a foreign country is definitely not worth it.

Violating traffic laws can result in fines, license suspensions, or even deportation.

Speed Limits on Korean Roads

Just like in any other country, speed limits vary depending on the type of road.

It is important to note that speeds and distances are measured in kilometers (not miles), so my American friends will have to adjust.

Additionally, if you are using a navigation system (as I’m sure you are), you’ll have to get used to approaching distances being measured in meters.

I’ve been driving over here for about 4 years now, and I still get a bit flustered when it tells me I need to turn left in something like 78 meters. America!

On the highway, the fastest posted limits are 110 km/h, which is about 70 mph. Other general speed limits are as follows:

110 km/h (100 km/h in urban areas)

80 km/h on two, or more, lane roads

60 km/h on one-lane roads

50 km/h on urban roads or rural roads

30 km/h in residential areas

School Zones

Be aware that school zones are always marked at 30 km/h, which is only about 18 mph, and they almost always have a speed camera overhead.

I learned this the hard way when I moved my house and didn’t realize a school zone was on my new path to work. Tickets arrive in the mail, though it takes some time.

I had about 10 ($30–$50) tickets mailed to me before I realized what was happening and slowed down in that area.

Lesson learned the hard way.

If you’re reading this blog because you’re visiting Jeju Island with plans to rent a car, be advised that there are school zones (with cameras) all over the island!

However, the same applies to all of South Korea, and they tend to sneak up on you.

Road Signs: Do I Need to Know Korean?

The simple answer is: not really. Directional road signs are almost always written in both Korean and English.

Stop signs don’t have the English word “stop” written on them, but the shape and color are pretty universal. If you don’t know what a stop sign looks like, you probably shouldn’t be on the road anyway.

I would be a hypocrite to cast judgement on anyone’s Korean ability, but I would suggest you be able to at least read the language. Any ability to read and speak Korean can only help, but you can generally get by without it.

Let’s be honest, navigation systems and apps do all of the heavy lifting these days anyway, so find one that you feel comfortable using.

Emergency Situations

After a car accident in South Korea, you should:

  • Stop: If you caused the accident, stop immediately, even if the victim isn’t injured.
  • Help: If the victim is injured, help them.
  • Exchange information: Provide your name, phone number, and address to the victim or police so they can contact you later. You should also exchange insurance information with the other driver(s).
  • Gather evidence: Take down the details of any other passengers or witnesses to the accident.
  • Seek medical attention. If you or anyone else is injured, get adequate treatment first. Even if you think your injuries aren’t serious, you should still plan to see a doctor within 48 hours.
  • Report the accident: Call the police at 112 and report the accident to your insurance company. When the police arrive, you can help fill out an application to confirm the facts of the accident.

My advice, first and foremost, is to drive overly cautiously and to avoid getting into an accident at all costs.

I know that may be too simplistic. However, in all honesty, I have no idea how the scene would play out with a foreigner involved, and I don’t intend to find out.

Here’s why I am determined to avoid an accident:

You are not supposed to move your vehicle out of traffic if you get into an accident.

This seems insane to me, but if you’re in an accident, you are actually supposed to stop your car exactly where the accident happened. You should then get out, take pictures, and discuss with the other accident participant who was at fault until authorities arrive.

Keep in mind that even if you can speak some measure of Korean, you won’t have the upper hand in the discussion.

Luckily, pretty much all cars in Korea these days come equipped with black box video recorders, which should ultimately help determine who was at fault.

Korea isn’t an overly litigious society, but when it comes to things like car accidents and other altercations, there is a system of financial retribution, and small injuries suddenly become causes for hospitalization.

As a result, foreigners can easily be taken advantage of without a proper support system.

If you find yourself in that situation, I recommend you seek expert legal counsel, or at least find a Korean who has your back.

South Korea Driving Tips & Annoyances

I considered devoting an entire section to a list of my driving grievances, but if I’m honest with myself, most of them are just gripes about city driving in general.

I grew up in a ski resort town in Colorado with no stop lights and a general communal, laid-back attitude towards sharing the road with my fellow humans.

I’m aware that this attitude doesn’t exist in reality anymore and that most city drivers have a survival of the fittest nature intended to get them home as quickly as possible.

However, there are a few issues that go beyond simple annoyances that you should be aware of when driving in Korea.

I’ll admit, these might be a bit ‘old men shouting at the clouds‘ in nature.

  • 초보 (Cho Bo) Drivers: Many cars in Korea have this sticker on the back window of the car. This indicates that the driver is a beginner and you should proceed with caution. This is not a problem in and of itself, but see the next tip.
  • Inconsistent Driving Speeds: Few drivers on the highway seem to drive the posted speed limit. Either they channel their inner F1 driver and drive at insane speeds or drive 20 km/h slower than the posted limit. There is not a lot in between, which can cause some dangerous situations.
  • Hazardous Parking: This is the one that drives me the craziest. It is very common on a major 2- or 3-lane city street to block off an entire lane by parking on the side of the road with your hazard lights on. Whether to run in for a cup of coffee or to stop to wait for a friend or family member, this seems to just be generally tolerated in Korea. Hazard lights apparently mean I know I’m doing something wrong, but I’ve got my hazards on, so I’m immune. It drives me absolutely bonkers, and yet it doesn’t seem to be policed in the slightest. To me, it is extremely selfish, not to mention very dangerous.
  • Narrow Side Streets: A lot of side streets and neighborhood roads have street-side parking. I’m not complaining on this one, but you should exercise patience when driving and allow other cars to pass. It can get chaotic, but it usually works itself out.

Mastering the Art of Parking in South Korea

Whatever minor gripes I had in the previous section about some of the drivers in South Korea, I’ve really got to applaud their parking abilities.

As previously mentioned, a lot of the residential streets are crowded and allow street parking. Cars get expertly squeezed into the narrowest of spaces.

Speaking of narrow spaces, that is another thing you should be aware of, especially if you are looking to purchase a vehicle. You might want to forgo the pickup truck of your dreams over here.

Most parking spaces (even in parking lots) are narrower than you would find in, say, Idaho, where my family lives, where it seems nearly everyone drives the biggest truck imaginable.

In Korea, cars get packed tightly together, and people have generally mastered the art of exiting their cars without dinging the car door next to them. It’s fine art, but it mostly seems to work.

There is an episode of The Simpsons where, as a prank at school, Bart paints all of the parking spaces one foot closer together.

That’s just kind of how parking is in South Korea.

Back it Up, Back It In

Have you ever had a hill you’re willing to die on where you actually know you’re wrong?

This is mine.

Koreans will almost always choose to back into parking spots rather than park front-end first.

Having grown up in a small American town, maybe I was just taught wrong, but backing into a parking spot seems to require so much more time, effort, and skill, and I refuse to do it.

I once innocuously commented about this on TikTok, and I was quickly informed that “this is the correct way to park” and was lambasted by commenters from around the world for my ignorance on proper parking methods.

So be it. I’m too old to change.

This, of course, is not a life-or-death issue, but I find it intriguing. If you live in South Korea, look around the next time you’re in a parking lot. I assure you, 95%+ of the cars will be backed into their parking spots.

And if you’re ever walking through a Costco parking lot in Daegu and see a sole, lonely car proudly parked frontend-first, wait around and say hello to me.

Benefits of Exploring South Korea by Car

As stated earlier, South Korea has a robust public transportation network, making travel without a car much easier than in some other countries.

That said, no public transportation system will ever be able to grant you the personal freedom and flexibility that come with owning or renting a car.

I’m not a car salesman, but I’ll offer a few insights on how my experience in Korea has improved since deciding to buy a car.

Dog-Friendly Travel

I mentioned earlier that my decision to buy a car came early in the pandemic. It was no coincidence, that around this time, I also adopted a border collie.

Those were wacky times.

I love the freedom that comes with owning a car, but perhaps no one has benefited more from my decision to buy a car than my border collie, Winnie.

Winnie tagging along on our pre-wedding photo shoot.
Border Collie, Winnie, enjoying a car ride in South Korea
My border collie asleep in the car, South Korea

This dog is living her best life and goes on near-daily adventures to mountains, beaches, swimming pools, and dog-friendly cafés in rural areas.

Speaking of those dog-friendly cafés, Koreans love their café culture, and there is a whole segment of this culture devoted to places for dog owners to relax with their dogs in tote.

My favorites among these cafés are often completely off the beaten path and generally leave me wondering how on Earth my wife found out about them.

You see, though I’m certain my wife has never read a single word I’ve written here, Korea has it’s own cadre of bloggers who direct people to all of the trendiest places.

Many of these are completely off-the-grid. Which ties me back into the benefits of having a car in South Korea. The bus or train system can get you to and from most of the “must-see” places in South Korea.

However, I’ve been here a long time, and I don’t need to visit Itaewon, Hongdae, or Haeundae Beach with any urgency anymore. If you’re just visiting, though, I highly recommend you don’t miss them.

I started this blog as a space to explore outdoor adventure in Korea and Asia (Colorado Saram means Colorado person). As such, I prefer to get out into the countryside, into nature, and to explore off the beaten path.

Outdoor Dog Cafe in South Korea
Middle-of-Nowhere, South Korea

Expanding Ski and Holiday Adventures

I mentioned earlier that my wife, dog and I used my car to travel by ferry to Jeju Island on a 5-day island road trip. It was awesome.

One of the other areas where having a car has greatly benefited my life in Korea is as a skier.

Korea shouldn’t be at the top of your list of places to ski worldwide, but if you live here or are visiting, it is definitely a good time.

I’ll be honest, in my 15+ years of living here, there were entire ski seasons that past without me strapping on the skis one time. That was a tough pill to swallow for someone who was skiing 100+ days a season prior to moving here.

The reason was that going skiing in Korea generally requires signing up for a ski package, which is actually great fun, and I don’t want to discourage them at all. However, after I had joined a few of them early on in my time in Korea, the novelty kind of wore off.

However, when I bought my car, I rediscovered my passion for skiing and made it a priority to take several trips a season. Last season, we took three ski-specific overnight ski trips, and a complete recap and review of these resorts is forthcoming.

Now, those roughly 10 ski days in a season are a far cry from my days as a Vail local, but I’ve enjoyed bringing skiing back into my life and watching my wife take to the slopes with reckless abandon as an eager beginner who has vastly improved in a short time.

Owning a car in South Korea made ski trips a lot easier
In the parking lot at Pyeongchang Ski Resort, Gangwon Province
Beginner Lucy, takes to slopes at Muju Deogyusan Resort
A new ‘Colorado Saram’ takes to the slopes at Muju Resort, Jeolla Province

These have been just a few examples of how owning or renting a vehicle has opened up unique travel opportunities in South Korea.

I could go on and on, but I think you get the point. If you haven’t, please stay tuned, or even subscribe.

I intend to continue writing and delving into life and travel in South Korea from the perspective of a ‘Colorado Saram‘.

How to Rent a Vehicle in South Korea

As long as you meet all of the requirements listed below, you should be able to rent a car in South Korea without issue.

If you’ve fully embraced the Korean language and lifestyle or have a Korean to help you, SoCar is an app that many Koreans use, and it’s quite convenient. The car can even be dropped off at your home or hotel.

Before we purchased a car, my wife used SoCar several times to book several small road trips, but I’ll be honest, I wouldn’t be able to navigate it’s use on my own.

For the rest of us, I recommend using Booking.com or Expedia for familiarity and ease of use. Through them, you can connect to whichever rental agency you prefer and process it just as you would back home.

As an affiliate partner of both programs, I may earn a commission at no extra cost to you.


  • To rent a car, you must be:
    • Over 21 years old (or over 26 for luxury cars, SUVs, or vans).
    • Hold one of the following:
      • International Driver’s Permit (IDP) (except Chinese, Taiwanese, and Indonesian IDPs).
      • Korean driving license.
      • USFK (United States Forces Korea) driver’s license.
    • Have at least 1 year of driving experience.

Types of Insurance

  • Mandatory Liability Insurance:
    • Covers liability for bodily injury or property damage to others.
  • Voluntary Liability Insurance:
    • Provides additional coverage beyond mandatory liability insurance.
  • Comprehensive Insurance:
    • Offers broader coverage, including damage to your own vehicle.

Claim Process

  • In case of an accident:
    • Gather the following documents:
      • Claim form (available in English from the insurance company).
      • Insurance certificate.
      • Alien registration card (if applicable).
      • Police report.
      • Car registration documents.
      • Driving license.

Remember to review the rental agency’s terms and conditions thoroughly.

How to Buy a Vehicle in South Korea

I am in the process of buying another used car at the time of writing, so I intend to return with an update.

Browsing for Cars

What I can tell you right now is that if you are interested in looking around, the website I recommend and have personally been using most is encar.com.

If you’re not fluent in Korea, I suggest you visit the site using Chrome as your browser, as Google Translate automatically translates everything into English (or whatever language your Google settings are set to).

The homepage does not fully translate for some reason, so you will first have to look at the top for 국산 (made in Korea) or 수입 (foreign cars).

Once you navigate to one of those options, all of the other pages and available car information will be translated into English.

On the left side of the page, you will see options to narrow down your search by: make/model, model year, distance driven, price, region, and more.

You don’t need to customize all search fields, but the first one you’ll want to narrow down is region, as that will only show you cars in the city that you live in.

I also find setting a low and high range for price and distance helpful. Doing this will show only cars in the range that you select.

I then spend time looking through different car makes and models that I’m interested in. For example, you could select Hyundai, and it would show you all of the Hyundai cars available in your region. You can further narrow it down by selecting Tuscan, for example, and it will only show you the Tuscans.

That process can obviously be replicated for any type of car you are interested in.

There is another website you may want to check, Kcar, although I’ve found the Chrome translation on that site to be less reliable than with Encar.

Buying a Car

Once you have narrowed down your choices, you’ll then need to actually go to the address that will be provided on the car listing.

Car Shopping in South Korea
Car Shopping in South Korea

I hate giving this advice, but I’m going to give it anyway. You should bring a helpful Korean with you, or at least someone who is nearly fluent in Korean.

The classroom Korean you speak well enough to order at restaurants or bars may not be enough to get through the entire car-buying process, and it is not likely the car salesman speaks much better English than your Korean.

Hidden Fees

If you’ve ever purchased a car in any other country, you know that the price a car is listed at is rarely the final price.

On the Encar website, when you are on an individual car listing, you can click on the Total Cost Calculator (located below the pictures of the car). Using this, you can get a pretty good idea of the cost of the car and how you can break up payments into monthly installments.

For my first car, I was able to pay the total amount without the need for payments. I was unsure whether a foreigner would be allowed to go the payment route, as that is technically a loan.

However, just last week, one of the dealers informed my wife that a new car could be put under my name for a payment plan.

There is one more factor to consider in determining the price of a car, and that is car insurance.

In Korea, in my experience, you are supposed to make one big yearly car insurance payment, which is likely to add an additional $1,000+ to the final bill.

You are allowed, however, to put this on a credit card and then split that into monthly payments, which is what I did in subsequent years after paying the first year altogether on the day I purchased my car.

Conclusion: Drive Safely and Explore South Korea

When it comes to driving in South Korea, it is crucial to remember three key principles: drive safely, respectfully, and responsibly. As a foreigner navigating the roads of Korea, obtaining a driver’s license is the first step towards exploring the country with freedom and flexibility.

Driving in South Korea can be a unique experience, with its own set of challenges and rewards. Understanding what to expect on the road is essential to ensuring a smooth journey. From bustling city streets to serene countryside roads, each environment comes with its own nuances and driving etiquettes.

One of the general annoyances you might encounter while driving in South Korea is heavy traffic, especially during peak hours. Patience and vigilance are paramount as you navigate through congested roads. It is important to remain calm and composed to ensure your safety and the safety of others on the road.

Safety precautions should always be a top priority when driving in South Korea. Adhering to speed limits, wearing seat belts, and avoiding distractions while driving are non-negotiable rules that every driver should follow. By being proactive and cautious, you can mitigate potential risks and enjoy a safe driving experience in Korea.

Owning a car in South Korea opens up a world of possibilities for customization and exploration. It allows you to travel off the beaten path, discover hidden gems, and create unforgettable memories. For pet owners like myself, having a car means the freedom to travel with furry companions such as my beloved border collie.

In conclusion, driving in South Korea offers a blend of adventure and responsibility. By driving safely, respectfully, and responsibly, you can navigate the roads with confidence and make the most of your travel experiences in this vibrant country.

Remember, the journey is just as important as the destination when exploring the beautiful landscapes and cultural treasures of South Korea.

Happy Driving!

Border Collie on a ski road trip in South Korea
Border Collie, Winnie, on a ski road trip in South Korea


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Border Collie Life in South Korea

John Buckley

Welcome to Colorado Saram!

I grew up in the famous ski resort town of Vail, but now live in Daegu, South Korea, with my wife Lucy and dog, Winnie.

I continue to live and value the Colorado lifestyle, but do so while following my passion for international travel in Asia and beyond.

I write about international skiing, hiking, outdoor adventure, dog-friendly travel, travel gear, and more.

I hope you'll find this content helpful and entertaining.

Please don't hesitate to reach out if you have any questions, or click subscribe to get periodic updates as a Colorado Saram!