This guide will help you understand or remember Korean customs to ensure respectful interactions so you can travel with confidence and ease in South Korea’s capital.

Seoul is a captivating city that blends centuries of tradition and contemporary innovations.

To fully immerse in its charm, you must traverse this city with cultural sensitivity by being mindful of Korean etiquette.

Whether you’re a first-time or frequent Seoul traveler, you must always follow the travel etiquette to avoid embarrassing mistakes and offending locals. Understanding Korean manners and traditions can also transform a simple visit into a meaningful experience.

Travel etiquette in Seoul
Here are the travel etiquette in Seoul you must always observe:

Learn basic Korean, particularly formal phrases and sentences
You shouldn’t expect people in Seoul to speak English. Although it’s the capital, and English is part of the education, fluency is not guaranteed.

Many locals will try their best, while some English-speaking Koreans are sometimes nervous about their fluency when interacting with foreigners.

Learning basic Korean, particularly formal phrases and sentences, helps bridge these language barriers. Formal phrases and sentences are essential to address the locals politely.

Examples of formal Korean words and sentences include:

  • Ann-yeong Ha-se-yo (Hello)
  • A-ra-sseo-yo (I understand)
  • Ban-gap-seum-ni-da (Nice to meet you)
  • Kam-sa-ham-ni-da (Thank you)
  • Joe-song-ham-ni-da (I’m sorry)
  • Shil-lye-ham-ni-da (Excuse me)
  • Cheon-man-eh-yo (You’re welcome)
  • Ne (Yes)
  • A-nim-ni-da (No)
  • Kwaen-chan-seum-ni-da (It’s okay)
  • Jal-mo-reum-ni-da (I don’t know)
  • Eol-ma-ye-yo? (How much is it?)
  • Do-wa-ju-se-yo / Jam-kkan-do-wa-ju-shi-ge-seo-yo? (Please help me / Can you help me?)
  • Seong-ham-i eo-tteo-ke doe-se-yo? (What’s your name?)
  • Yeong-eo-reul hal-jul ha-sim-ni-kka? (Do you speak English?)
  • Jeo-nun Han-guk-eo-reul jo-geum-ba-kke mot-ham-ni-da (I’m not fluent in Korean)

Be mindful of your manners on public transport
Koreans generally prefer quiet rides on public transport. They keep their voices low when they converse. At the same time, they usually wait until the ride’s over before making phone calls.

While foreigners tend to have more tolerance for loudness, it is considered rude in Korean culture. When you talk loudly with friends or on the phone, someone might tell you, “You’re too loud.”

For these reasons, you should stay quiet during rides. But if necessary, talk with your friends or loved ones softly so you won’t disturb other commuters.

Other public transport etiquette in Seoul include:


  • Enter from the sides, exit from the middle
  • Don’t eat inside the train
  • Stay on the right of the escalators because the left side is for people who are in a rush


  • Enter the front, exit by the back
  • Don’t bring food and drinks
  • Be ready to get off as soon as the bus stops by walking towards the exit when you’re near

It would be best if you also respected priority seats that are exclusive to pregnant women, people with disabilities, and older adults. You may sit on these bus seats, but you should give these seats to people who need them. However, most people avoid sitting on priority seats on subways.

Take off your shoes when visiting someone’s home
Wearing shoes inside homes is considered rude in Korea. It is also disrespectful because it brings outside dirt.

Korean residences have small areas for shoe removal upon entering. You can easily recognize them because they’re lower than the rest of the floors. Take your shoes off in these areas before stepping inside.

This etiquette is also a rule in many traditional restaurants that provide floor-sitting dining.

Let the eldest guests sit first
When dining out with seniors or older adults, you must wait for them to sit first. You should stand near the table and wait for them to arrive. Arriving ahead of older adults is better because you can show your enthusiasm by waiting.

Seniors typically sit in the central area while the members spread out to the sides. As a sign of respect, you may be offered a place in the center beside the senior members.

Seniors will then be served with the food first. Everyone seated must wait for them to eat. At the same time, you should help others before helping yourself.

Accept and give gifts using both hands
You must use both hands when giving and accepting gifts because one hand is considered rude. Alternatively, you can use your right hand to receive while holding your right wrist with your left hand.

The same etiquette applies to handshakes and drinking.

  • Handshakes – Shake a person’s hands using both hands. You should also politely bow, regardless of whether they show the gesture first
  • Drinking – When pouring someone’s alcohol, you should also use both hands. Remember that you shouldn’t pour your own drink. You will pour someone else’s, and they will return the favor

Image by Paul Flatten on Unsplash

Don’t write people’s names in red ink
Red ink was used to write the names of the dead on family registers in Korea. It’s a historical practice associated with superstitions, which Koreans still observe today.

As such, writing a person’s name in red ink—especially when they’re still alive—is believed to bring death to the person or cause them to suffer from misfortune or illness.

When signing documents or giving gifts with notes, it’s best to use black ink as it is considered a neutral color.

Avoid assuming you can call people by their first names.

Avoid calling Koreans by their first names unless you have a kinship or casual relationship. Koreans generally use polite speech when addressing people based on age and social relationships.

Koreans add “-ssi” after the full names in Korean – [surname] [name] Essential travel etiquette you must observe when in Seoul. For example, Choi Minho-ssi (Mr. Minho Choi). Meanwhile, Minho-ssi (Mr. Minho) for casual conversations.

It’s disrespectful to address anyone by their family name alone, with or without titles.
“-Ssi” is generally for anyone of the same age and social status, while “-Nim” is more formal and professional.

Addressing based on occupation – e.g., Sonsaeng-nim (Teacher), Kyosu-nim (Professor).

Koreans may also have social names, business names, school names, married names, English names, and baptismal names. They will usually tell you which name to refer them to.

Don’t blow your nose in public
For many, hearing someone constantly sniffing and inhaling is annoying. While these noises aren’t offensive for Koreans, blowing the nose is.

It would be best not to blow your nose publicly or at dining tables. It’s best to excuse yourself and head to a nearby restroom if necessary.

Show appreciation before eating
Before eating, Koreans say, “Jal-meok-ge-sseum-ni-da” (I will eat well). This remark is their way of thanking the people who made and brought their food or invited them to a meal.

Although uncommon in fast food chains and modern restaurants, you should show the same appreciation when dining at local restaurants and Korean households.

After eating, you should also say “Jal-meok-geo-sseum-ni-da” (I ate well).

Avoid letting your chopsticks stand upright
When eating, you shouldn’t stick your chopsticks upright on your food. This vertical position is considered a symbol of death and bad luck.

You must lay your chopsticks horizontally on the bowl or beside it. Also, hold your chopsticks and spoon in different hands.

Saying no is considered rude
In Korea, saying no when someone asks you to do something is considered impolite. For instance, refusing can leave a negative impression when someone invites you to their house or an event.

However, this doesn’t necessarily mean you must agree to everything. It’s best to show consideration before turning down the offers.

Clean as you go
Cleaning up your tables after eating at restaurants and cafes is standard in Korea. Restaurants and cafes usually have return areas or separate counters for trash. As such, you should observe the “Clean As You Go” principle in these self-service diners.

However, if the place offers a table service, organizing the plates and glasses and cleaning the table with tissues or wet wipes would suffice.

Other things to remember before traveling to Seoul
Besides learning travel etiquette, here are some tips to guide your trip, especially if you’re a first-timer in Seoul.

Purchase a local SIM card and a Tmoney card
While many establishments offer free Wi-Fi, a local SIM card ensures you remain connected. You can order prepaid SIM cards from network providers like KT and SKT and pick them up once you arrive at Incheon Airport. You can also purchase one from convenience stores.

Meanwhile, Tmoney cards are reloadable travel cards that cover all public transport in Seoul. You can also buy one and load it with money in convenience stores.

Choose accommodations based on your desired destinations
You should book accommodations in places that match your interests and preferred activities. For instance, choose a lodging in Itaewon to enjoy nightlife and multi-cultural experiences.

For food lovers and shopaholics, Myeongdong and Dongdaemun are ideal. Insadong is for art and history enthusiasts, while Hongdae is best for karaoke, buskers, and pop-up art shows.

Use the Kakao T app for late-night travels.

Subways close by midnight in Seoul. They will resume services at 5:30 in the morning. For this reason, installing apps like Kakao T is essential for finding routes and taxis for late-night travels.

If you plan to travel before your flight back home but don’t want to extend your checkout time, store your belongings in a secure luggage storage in Seoul. This way, you can enjoy the capital one last time without heavy and uncomfortable bags.

Install Korean navigation and translation apps
Installing Korean navigation apps like KakaoMap and Subway Korea is ideal for finding accurate locations. These apps can also provide nearby and popular spots.

Downloading Papago is also helpful for conversations. You can even use it to scan images with complex Korean texts and quickly translate them.

Foster genuine connections by respecting traditions
Understanding and observing travel etiquette in Seoul—and other places—shows your character and respect for different cultures. It also shows your mindfulness and willingness to learn and grow. This way, you can foster genuine connections with the locals, ultimately enriching the experience.


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