I remember the first time I travelled on the Seoul Subway system. Well, er...more like I remember walking in circles, transferring at random stations in hope of having a sudden epiphany about where to go, and finding myself on escalators going deeper and deeper underground beginning to believe my chances at seeing daylight again were slim. Fast forward to today and I can ride the subway relatively stress free. I look back and laugh at how ridiculously unprepared I was. Ha amateur. As someone who cannot smoothly navigate the subway system in my own country, I have no idea why I thought doing so in a completely different language would have been any easier. But it is; if you know how. Here is all you need to know about the Seoul Metro system broken down into four steps.
1: The Subway Card.
You will not be going anywhere near a subway if you have no means of entering a platform. You have two options. Option 1: You can purchase a day ticket. (Best for people who have a few hours/a day trip to Seoul on a one off) Option 2: a subway card which you can top up any time you need to.
I recommend the subway rechargeable card. I personally have no patience for the day tickets. You need to figure out what Subway Lines you will be using. I like to be able to change my plans, and so a rechargeable card means I can hop on and off the subway lines as I please without having to worry about if my ticket covers that line or not. So where do you buy this rechargeable card? Most convenience stores have them but you can also purchase them down in the subway.
You’ll need the T-Money Vending machine. There are language options making it incredibly easy to purchase one. These machines take cash and there will be no money on the card once you’ve purchased it therefore you’re also going to have to top it up after purchasing one. You can use the same machine to do it or alternatively the reloading machines, (picture 2) these are everywhere for any time you need to do so. Again convenience stores will be able to top up for you too. Now you’re good to go! But…where do you go?
I’m going to say this now, the subway is much easier if you have an app to do most of the work for you. If you wish to wander the platforms with a paper copy of the hundreds of stations and lines then go ahead I applaud you for your patience. But apps all the way!
I use this app as it’s as simple as you can get. I don’t need to use wifi to run it, I can type my destination and location in English, it gives me the amount of stations, transfers, line numbers and an estimated time of travel. It also has a 'simple' or 'fast' option depending if I'm in a hurry or just really enjoy a good subway transfer.
Some apps will also give you extra features such as notifying you when a train is approaching or which carriage is best to sit in (in correlation to the station stairs and exits if you need a fast escape once you’ve arrived. Think, James bond villains and people who badly overslept) Another app I’d recommend for general travel is either Naver Maps and Kakao Maps:
(Left to right: Seoul Subway map, NAVER App, KAKAO App)
Google Maps is useless in Korea. It will not work. It shall take you nowhere! Naver maps if Korea’s equivalent and is also in English! Kakao maps will work in English but will also give directions in Korean so you need to know your Hangul if you plan to use this. I use both; Kakao maps has occasionally been more accurate (in my opinion) but both will get you to your destination hassle free! These apps are also useful for if you need to get to a subway station, or from a subway station to a tourist spot. They will also calculate your subway route for you like the apps above, and give you an appropriate station exit number when you arrive at your destination. Subways can have up to 14 or so exits, knowing which one you need is important otherwise you’ll waste time trying to figure out where you are once you've surfaced. Prior planning is key!
3: On the move
Once you’ve figured out via the app where you are going take a look around at the station. Signs directing you to platforms are everywhere. Each line is a different colour, therefore if you need to get onto Line 4, the blue line, then follow the blue signs. Follow the colors! To enter a platform, hold your subway card above the blue box on the entrance and exit machines. It will beep and the screen will flash how much it’s charging you and how much money is on your card. (rather quickly mind, best keep those eyes peeled!)
If it does not beep and you walk forwards you’ll find yourself stuck behind a barrier that has swung forwards and punched you in the gut. 'Try again' it laughs mockingly. Go back and check your card has enough funds. If you’ve used your card before on the subway or a bus, it's possible you’ve not ‘tapped out’ properly somewhere else. Then, reach over to a machine that people are using to exit and 'tap out' and then try and tap back in again. This generally works. If that still does not work then there are usually small information offices and staff nearby to offer assistance. Some transfer stations will request you scan your card again, It’s likely you’re changing zones on your epic mission to...somewhere. This does not charge your card again it's just keeping track of the route and distance you are travelling so when you tap out it can charge you suitably. (Subway prices: Base price of 1,250 for the first 10 km. For each additional 5 km it's 100 won more)
As I mentioned previously, signs are very useful especially in terms of finding your way onto the correct platform. The pictures above are examples of the different signs you will see. Some will tell you which side of the platform to board dependent on your destination. Signs on the platforms will show you the stations so you can check where you're due to transfer or if you'd like to check the amount of stops between you and your destination. Once you’ve reached your destination then do it all again! Find and follow the way out signs, tap out using your subway card and exit.
4: Subway Culture.
Some things to be aware of so you can travel like a local!
1: There are 10 Million people in Seoul. Korean people are quite used to being one in many and when it comes to crowds they are not afraid to be in each others spaces in order to get to where they need to be. Therefore you will be pushed. And they will not apologise for bashing you with their limbs or bags. It's the way it is so don't take it too personally! With that many people it's guaranteed you're going to bump into someone and aint nobody got time to keep apologizing! (Apparently)
Also learn to emergency stop. People will just suddenly stop walking. Avoid a collision and swerve! TIP: If someone is in your way and you’d like to ask them to move you can say: '잠시만요 [ jam-shi-man-yo ]' aka 'Excuse me.' You may also hear people say this to you. It’s much politer than pushing and a good Korean language tip to remember.
2: Where you sit on the subway is important. Do not sit in the seat for pregnant ladies unless you are a pregnant lady. Are you elderly or disabled? No? Then don't sit in those seats. You can't miss them, you know the ones with signs above or next to them. Even if no one is sitting there leave those seats empty... unless you want the death glare. 3: The subway opens at 6am and closes at 11pm. Parts of the day will become very busy. If it’s peak time you maybe a part of the game ‘how many people can we fit in this subway cart.’It's a great game. 4: If you're a foreigner you'll probably be stared at. Politely ignore it. Or if not, start a staring contest, give them a flirty wink, grin manically...you know make a friend. Because that's how you make friends...right?
5: Escalators. Right is righty! Left is if you want to be mowed down by a determined human being. If you like to run up escalators, the left side is for you. I like to chill on the right side. 6: An obvious one: Wait for those exiting the subway before you step on. You'll notice people will make 2 orderly lines on either side of the carriage doors with space for those leaving to get by before filing in like it's a school assembly. And that’s it! You’re now a subway pro. If you'd like to see a visual explanation on the basics of how to use the subway in Seoul check out my video here!
Congratulations on the expat level up and happy travelling!