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Driving in Korea: All you need to know ( cheap cars, rules, insurance,…)

Here we will share all you need to know about renting a car and driving in Korea.

It is only when you start driving in Korea that you can soak up the real atmosphere of the country. Don’t get us wrong, we absolutely loved Seoul. The city is truly a unique mix of modern and cultural influences. But if it hadn’t been for our rental car, we would have missed so many other places in the country.

Destinations that all contributed to our view of the country.

South Korea is much more than Seoul and the other major cities where you can get quickly and easily by train.

Get ready to explore the less-touristy spots of this rugged gem.

Driving in South Korea is not difficult at all.

We explain everything you need to know here.

There is a really good chance that this post contains affiliate links. If you click one of them, we may receive a small commission (for which we are deeply grateful) at no extra cost to you.

In a hurry?

If you don’t have time to read the full post, here is a list of the best rental car companies in South Korea:

Rentalcars.com: Here you can quickly and easily compare the prices of different rental companies. Booking via Rentalcars is very easy. It’s a very intuitive website and you can see all the important things at a glance, such as the car details, the number of miles included (usually unlimited), the included insurance, and the cancellation conditions.

QEEQ: This is a Hong Kong-based company with support offices around the world in, amongst others, the United States and the United Kingdom. They have been around for many years but only in 2020 rebranded to their current name. Being Hong Kong-based, they have strong ties with local Asian car rental companies and offer very competitive rates in South Korea, amongst others. The website can be compared to Rentalcars. You will find all the required information and, just like with Rentalcars, you can take out a full insurance package at the time of renting. Unfortunately, their website has some poor English on certain pages, but the company is legit. You can read QEEQ reviews here.

Klook: Those who have traveled to Asia before have certainly already come across Klook. The company was founded in Hong Kong in 2014 and has in no time become a reference in the Asian Travel Industry. Klook is mostly known as an excellent website to book activities and entrance tickets but you can also book car rentals on their site. They work together with dozens of brands, including well-known international players like Hertz, Avis, and Alamo. You can read Klook reviews here.

Namdaemun gate in Seoul

Renting a car in South Korea

Do I need a car in South Korea

Seoul, Busan, and other major cities are relatively well-connected by train but several areas of the country have no service at all. Just take a look at the railway map and you will notice several blank spots.

This means you will have to rely on your rental car if you want to explore these regions.

The good news is that driving in South Korea is relaxed.

Should you self-drive in South Korea

The best thing about renting a car is that it will give you more freedom and independence during your stay in this country.

We are fully in favor of a self-drive vacation. You’re the master of your own agenda, there are no set times to head to the station and you can sleep in if you want.

With your own car, you have more freedom.

As an example, the train would be a viable option to go from Seoul to Busan.

This route is serviced by Korea’s high-speed train.

Still, you can add a few stops with your rental car that ensure that it is not only about the destination but the complete journey.

There are many options such as the Sangdang Sanseong Fortress, Korea’s Independence Hall, or the Andong Hahoe Folk Village.

On a wide boulevard in Seoul, finding your way in the capital will be challenging without a GPS

Can you rent a car at your destination?

Car rental companies have offices in all major cities and airports.

You will find international household names such as Hertz and Avis, along with local companies such as Lotte and AJ car.

International brands cooperate with local companies.

We rented from Avis which turned out to be the same as AJ rent-a-car.

Lotte, the largest Korean car rental company, is the local agent for Hertz.

They are fluent in English in the airport locations but the knowledge of English in the downtown locations is not that good.

It is best to arrange your rental in advance. Prices will almost certainly be higher if you wait until your arrival and try to arrange a rental car on the spot.

Good sites to compare rental prices in one go are the ever-popular rentalcars.com as well as the lesser-known site qeeq.com. The latter is a Hong Kong-based company with support offices around the world in, amongst others, the United States and the United Kingdom. Lastly, Klook, the all-encompassing Asian travel website, also offers rental cars.

Don’t trust Klook or Qeeq because you’ve never heard of him? Here are their reviews on Trustpilot:
QEEQ reviews and Klook reviews.

Car rental in Seoul

Seoul has an amazing subway network and you certainly won’t need a car to explore the city. Having a car in the city has more disadvantages than advantages.

Read Also:

If you arrive in Seoul and you will spend a few days in the capital before starting your South Korean road trip we advise renting a car in one of the downtown locations.

There are numerous offices scattered throughout the city.

As already mentioned, our experience is that English is not always mastered very well in these offices.

If you have trouble communicating with the staff you can always use Google Translate or, as we eventually did, call the airport office and use them as a translator.

If you rent a car at the airport, keep in mind that there are 2 international airports in Seoul, Gimpo and Incheon.

Check prices and availability:

Rentalcars

QEEQ

Check prices on Klook:
Klook

Car rental in Busan

Busan is South Korea’s second-largest city and despite its already vast size, it is still growing fast.

Busan has a metro network but this only covers a small part of the city.

Several tourists sights, such as the breathtaking Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, are not easily accessible by public transport.

Read Also:

Here you can find our different Busan itineraries:

Wondering where to stay while visiting Busan, check out these posts:

In Busan, you will find rental offices in both the city and the airport.

Because of the less extensive public transport, we recommend that you rent the car at the airport.

Check prices and availability:

Rentalcars

QEEQ

Check prices on Klook:
Klook

Car rental in Jeju

Jeju island is one of the highlights of South Korea but it is not what I would call a hidden gem.

It receives hordes of visitors every year and it is also very popular among Koreans.

There’s limited public transport on the island so you will either need to join organized excursions or rent a car to tour the island.

Because of the high demand for cars, certainly during the peak seasons, you should book your car well in advance.

All car rental companies are situated at Jeju airport.

Here are more rental locations in South Korea.

Check prices and availability:

Rentalcars

QEEQ

Check prices on Klook:
Klook

Our rental car in South Korea
Our rental car: the blue pieces of foam are there so you can’t damage other cars when opening the doors

Car rental insurance in Korea

Unless this is your first time renting a car you’re probably familiar with how these insurances work.

South Korea is no different in that CDW and other insurance are also offered on top of your standard rental price.

CDW

CDW is the abbreviation for Collision Damage Waiver, it is not offered by default. Without a CDW you will be responsible for the total cost of the damage to the car.

Some companies offer different CDW packages with different deductibles. With a cheap (basic) CDW you usually still have a high deductible whereas the top-end package offers zero excess.

There are several ways to take out a CDW.

  1. When you rent the car directly from the rental company, you can also underwrite their insurance. The advantage of having insurance with the company you’re renting from is that you will never be charged for more than the excess.
  2. When using a price aggregator site such as Rentalcars, QEEQ, or Klook, you can also get insurance from them. (Klook does not always offer this) In the event of damage, the car rental company will then charge your credit card for the damage and you will need to file a claim with Rentalcars or QEEQ to be reimbursed according to the insurance you have with them. CDW plans from Rentalcars and QEEQ are almost always significantly cheaper. They can be half the price of what you would pay when taking the same insurance from a rental company.
  3. A third option is to get insurance from a third party. Several insurance companies offer car hire insurances that you can take out for a single trip or a full year. Make sure to read the fine print to check that your car rental will be covered by their policy. How matters are handled in the event of damage will depend on the rental company and the insurance company. Sometimes it goes through you, but sometimes matters can also be handled directly between the rental company and the insurance company.
  4. Lastly, some premium credit cards come with car rental insurance. It can therefore be useful to check whether you still need extra insurance. Always carefully read your contract. These policies often come with many exceptions and some credit cards offer insurance that only covers an excess, so you will need to take out a basic CDW, whereas others can act as primary insurance.
While driving in Korea you come accross South Korea's beautiful countryside.
With a rental car, you can explore South Korea’s beautiful countryside.

Additional insurances

A CDW only covers the damages to your own car.

In case of an accident where you damage someone else’s property, you will be held reliable to cover these costs.

SLI

This is what an SLI is for. SLI stands for Supplemental Liability Insurance. Sometimes this is also referred to as TPL (Third Party Liability).

Very often your domestic car insurance also covers the liability for driving abroad. So check this first before taking out an additional SLI.

Depending on the car rental company, damage to certain parts of the car, typically the windshield and the tires, will not be included in the CDW.

Again, it comes down to reading the fine print.

If there are matters not covered by the CDW, the car rental company offers additional optional insurance to insure them.

They can offer peace of mind but you need to consider if it’s worth paying extra for them.

PAI and PEC

Lastly, there is PAI and PEC. PAI stands for Personal Accident Insurance and covers you (the driver) and other passengers in the event of an accident, including in the worst-case scenario, death.

Personal Effects Coverage (PEC) covers the damage or loss of valuables in your car. (e.g. in case of burglary)

Both PAI and PEC are also optional and sometimes they can only be underwritten combined.

There is a chance that you already have similar coverage through your existing insurance policies or credit cards.

If this is not the case and you are considering taking out this insurance, be sure to read the details of the cover.

Often a lot is excluded and the amount of coverage is on the low side.

A busy pedestrian crossing in Seoul

Which car to rent in South Korea

South Korea has two car brands, Kia and Hyundai, and they thrive very well in South Korea.

Both these manufacturers together own over 80% of the car market. More than likely, your rental car will therefore be one of these brands.

Manual transmission cars exist in South Korea but it is a very small minority. Most cars you will find are automatic.

Even though South Korea is generally a safe destination, when renting a car, I would still choose a model where you can store the luggage completely in the trunk so that it is out of sight.

Other than that, there isn’t really anything to consider.

The roads in South Korea are wide and they are in excellent condition. In our experience, the cars you receive are also in good condition.

Where to rent a car in South Korea

Due to the high number of rental companies, it is a good idea to use a comparison site.

This will make it easier to compare the prices of the different companies.

In our experience, the websites of the local companies are also less user-friendly for foreigners.

The SK Rent-a-car website does not load and for some reason, you can rent from Lotte for a maximum of 2 months in the future.

You don’t have these problems with comparison.

The cars can be rented at all airports and there are offices in the country’s major cities.

Here’s an overview of all the locations you can rent from.

See all car rental locations:

Rentalcars

QEEQ

Should you rent a car from the airport?

Renting a car from the airport may be the most comfortable option.

As soon as you have collected your bags you can immediately put them in the car and head to your hotel.

You don’t have to drag your luggage on public transport and you don’t have to pay for a taxi.

On the other hand, renting at the airport is more expensive because of the so-called airport surcharge. This is an extra fee that is charged by car rental offices at airports.

As already said above, if you arrive in Seoul and are going to stay here for a few days to explore the city, you don’t need a car yet. The car would be collecting dust in the hotel’s garage and you would need to pay parking fees for a car you don’t need.

In that case, we advise you to consider whether it would not be more interesting to take the train from the airport to your hotel and to pick up your car at a city location when you actually start the road trip.

The same is not true for Busan. This vast city has many tourist sights that are not as easily reached with public transit. A car comes in handy in Busan.

The Diamond Bridge in Busan

Rules for renting a car in Korea

Almost everyone will be able to rent a car in South Korea.

Here are the requirements.

Legal age for driving in Korea

The legal age for driving in South Korea is 18 but the minimum age to rent a car in South Korea is 21.

Some companies may handle a higher minimum age for certain models but the widely accepted minimum age for small to mid-sized cars is 21.

It is a good idea to check the requirements carefully if you are under 30 or over 65.

Drivers aged under 30 or over 65 may be barred from driving certain vehicles or may need to pay an additional young driver fee or senior driver fee.

We can’t mention specific ages as these vary between rental companies.

Driving experience

With driving experience, one looks at how long one has already had a driver’s license.

For most cars, it is enough to have your driver’s license for 1 year, but for some rentals, you may need at least 3 years of driving experience.

License requirements

An International Driver’s permit (IDP) is obligatory when driving in Korea with an international license.

The IDP is a translation of your local license and you should request this from your local authorities. Everybody needs this unless you have a Korean Driving license.

You will need to provide it along with your official driver’s license when you pick up your car.

The IDP needs to be issued by a country that has ratified the Vienna or Geneva convention. (click the links to see the list of countries)

car keys valet

Credit Card

When collecting the car you will also need to provide a credit card.

The credit card needs to be in the driver’s name and it is advised to use a card where the number and name are embossed.

Some rental companies in South Korea don’t accept cards where these details are just printed on the card.

At the time of pick-up, the amount of the excess will be blocked on this card.

What if I don’t have a credit card

Some companies may allow you to book a car without a credit card as long as you take out their full insurance.

Instead of blocking the excess on the credit card, they will charge you for the full cost of the car including the premium insurance package at pick-up.

When searching for cars you can filter out the results where you will be able to use a debit card.

On the rentalcars.com website, the filter is called “Payment cards at pick-up”.

When using Qeeq you will see a filter called “Security Deposit”. These filters might not be shown when there are no companies that accept debit cards.

Using debit cards is usually a bad deal and we recommend using a credit card whenever possible.

Passport

Your passport is required as proof of identification.

The name in the passport must match the name on the credit card.

South Korea - suspension bridge
One thing is for sure: during your road trip you will encounter many suspension bridges like this one

FAQ you may have about renting a car in Korea

Is renting a car in Korea expensive

When writing this article a 1-week rental of a large car (Hyundai Elantara) was about 300USD. This price includes unlimited mileage and basic CDW.

Knowing that rents in the US and Europe are currently going through the roof, prices in South Korea are not that bad.

Considering the freedom you get in return and the money you would otherwise spend on train tickets, we think renting a car is a good deal.

Possible extra charges when you rent a car in Korea

Tolls

South Korea has many toll roads, most major highways have tolls.

While you can avoid these tolls, it will cost you a lot of time.

If you want to travel efficiently between cities it is best to use these turnpikes, they are not that expensive. Here we explain how these toll roads work.

If you plan your route in Naver you can see exactly how much toll it would cost.

Fuel

Like everywhere else in the world, fuel has also become more expensive in South Korea.

Fuel is usually about 50% more expensive than what you would pay for it in the United States.

At the time of writing the gasoline price was 1.672$/litre. ( 6.329$/gallon)

The Gangnam district in Seoul

Parking

We found that Koreans were addicted to their cars and would use them for every move.

They would also try to park their car as close as possible to their destination and would rather drive in circles trying to find a parking spot than park their car a little further.

As a result, most attractions have a relatively large parking but even then, at peak times, the parking may fill up. The parking lots of popular attractions are usually payable. Either with a ticket machine or with parking attendants.

You may also find free street parking near these attractions, but pay close attention to the signage.

Don’t just park anywhere on the street because you may get a ticket. If no other cars are parked there, it probably means it is not allowed.

Once you leave big cities like Seoul and Busan the parking rules are less strict but in these bigger cities, it is hard to find a parking spot along the street.

In the capital, you should be able to find parking garages that charge around 3-4USD/hour.

Many will be more expensive so you will need to compare.

It is best however to use public transport in Seoul, the car will be more of a headache than an asset.

Additional driver fees

It’s possible to add an additional driver to the contract (usually up to 3 drivers in total)£.

Some car rental companies do not charge for a 2nd driver but some do. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to find out if there will be a fee and how much.

If there’s information regarding the additional drivers you should find this in “Important information – Included in the rental price” on rentalcars.com or “Important Information – Full Rental Terms and Conditions” on Qeeq. When renting from Klook you can go through the Terms&Conditons (shown during the second step of the reservation process) to find this information.

Last time we checked there were no fees for additional drivers with Hertz, Avis, and SK Rent A Car.

Very often, even if there is a fee, it doesn’t apply to spouses.

If you plan to include an additional driver in the contract, this person must also have their driver’s license, IDP and passport with them at the time of pick-up.

In addition, he must also meet the rental conditions (driving experience and age).

Driving in Busan, South Korea
Driving in Busan

One-way car rentals vs drop-off fee

Sometimes a one-way rental can be interesting, but due to the high drop-off fees, it is usually better to return the car to the same car rental office.

Drop-off fees are automatically included and separately shown when using Rentalcars and Qeeq.

You can simulate a rental to see how high the fee would be.

GPS

It is recommended to have some kind of navigation system in South Korea.

Almost all road signs are in Korean and English but even then finding your way will be so much easier with a GPS.

You can opt to pay extra for a car with a built-in GPS or you can use a free app like Naver. More about this and other apps further down.

If you have a car with built-in navigation, ask the staff to set the language to English.  Trying to do this yourself will turn-out to be quite the challenge….

Infant & Child car seats

Infant and or child car seats are obliged by law for all children under the age of 6.

You can usually add these when you’re making your booking.

Driving in Korea with a US license

The United States has underwritten the Geneva convention. US residents can use their local driving license in South Korea in combination with an International Driving Permit (IDP).

In the USA these permits are issued by the American Automobile Association (AAA).

The American Automobile Touring Alliance (AATA) has ceased issuing these permits.

Driving in Korea with a Canadian license

Canada has underwritten the Geneva convention. Canadians can use their driving license in South Korea but need to get an International Driving Permit (IDP).

These permits can be obtained at CAA stores across Canada. You don’t need to be a member of CAA to get an IDP.

Driving in Korea with a UK license

The United Kingdom has underwritten the Vienna convention. As a result, UK residents can use their driving license in South Korea in combination with an International Driving Permit (IDP).

The IDP can be obtained at the postal office.

Is driving in Korea hard?

Driving in Korea was far easier than we had expected.

The roads are in excellent condition and with the help of a GPS, it is easy to find your destination.

Koreans tend to drive too fast but their driving style is courteous towards other road users. The car is still king though. Don’t expect drivers to stop at pedestrian crossings.

There is a lot of CCTV coverage everywhere. Koreans seem to know exactly where all the speed traps are but as a tourist, you should stick to the traffic rules at all times if you don’t want to end up with speeding fines.

The traffic regulations are comparable to those in other countries. We’ll go into it further later.

South Korea GPS
A Korean GPS (photo credits: HS You)

Driving in Korea tips

How to use a Korean GPS

Your car may have a built-in navigation system, but our experience is that apps like Waze work better than the systems provided by the carmakers themselves.

However, there is 1 problem, Google Maps and Waze, two products that we are familiar with worldwide, do not work in South Korea.

However, there are some very good local alternatives. If you are familiar with Waze or Google Maps, they are also intuitive to use.

Naver is an all-in-one online platform that could be compared to a South-Korean version of Google. Naver is omnipresent in the life of Koreans and many locals use the search engine and their maps.

The website is only in Korean but the app is available in English. (available for Android and iPhone)

Maps.me

Maps.me is an app that offers offline maps for several destinations worldwide.

It also works in South Korea. The app is available for Android and iPhone.

The advantage of maps.me over Naver is that maps.me uses offline maps.

You don’t need a data connection (and a local sim) for the navigation to work.

Waze

We know that other websites state that Waze works in South Korea.

However, our experience is different. We tried this, but the system got completely confused while driving and sent us back to where we came from.

Your mileage may vary, you can always try to use Waze but we recommend having a backup plan in case you do.

Your car’s GPS

When using your car’s GPS, it will be easiest to use the telephone numbers of your destinations. This way you don’t have to worry about the Korean alphabet.

The phone numbers of hotels and tourist destinations can be found on Google when you look up the place.

Don’t just blindly trust this system though.

Always double-check the destination on another map to make sure that you found the right address.

A police car in Seoul

Driving rules

Here are some key elements of South Korea’s traffic regulations. For some, we also indicate how the South Koreans deal with it.

  • Driving is on the right-hand side of the road
  • All passengers, in the front as well as in the back of the car, need to wear their seatbelts
  • A car seat is obligatory for children under the age of 6
  • Mobile phones cannot be used while driving, only hands-free calls are allowed
  • Passing is allowed on both sides

Traffic lights

Right turns are allowed at a red light after coming to a complete stop. (unless there is a traffic sign that explicitly prohibits it)

Most intersections have a separate green arrow for turning left. You must wait for this green arrow to make a left turn.

Few people will stop when the traffic lights turn yellow and it’s not uncommon for Koreans to run through red lights, certainly after dark.

We recommend that you always be alert when approaching an intersection but don’t brake abruptly when the light turns yellow as you risk being rear-ended as most Koreans will certainly not expect this.

South Korea - driving intersection
You have to wait for the green arrow before you turn left

Hazard lights

Koreans really love the hazard lights on their car and use them on many occasions.

Most often they are used for what they’re intended to, warning fellow drivers of a hazard on the road.

It’s also common to activate your hazard lights if you make a sudden and abrupt stop.

Other uses of hazard lights are when you want to thank a fellow driver or when you want to apologize because you made an unfortunate maneuver that got another driver in trouble.

Pedestrian crossings

The car is still king in South Korea.

Koreans will not start crossing a road if they see that cars are coming, not even at pedestrian crossings. They don’t expect drivers to stop for them.

You don’t have to feel bad for not stopping for pedestrians, If you do stop, first check that no other car is driving close behind you as this driver may not expect you to stop.

South Korea - speed enforcement
Speed cameras are mostly indicated in advance

Speed limits

Motorways: 80 to 100 kph (sometimes 120 kph)

Departemental roads with 4 or more lanes: 80 kph

Departemental roads with 2 lanes: 60 to 80 kph

Town & city zones: mostly 60 kph but 80 kph on main roads

School zones: 30 kph

There are plenty of speed traps and even more other initiatives to raise awareness among Koreans.

We came across fake police cars made out of cardboard and tunnels where police sirens could be heard complete with lighting effects.

Apparently, the situation has already improved, but speeding is still a problem in Korea.

Koreans know exactly where the speed traps are and tend to drive faster than the speed limit only to brake when they approach one.

There are fixed speed cameras, agents with speed guns, and road sections where they measure your average speed over an extended distance. Most checkpoints and average speed zones are announced by traffic signs and they can also be seen in the GPS systems.

Mobile traffic checkpoints are not announced but they can be seen in the GPS system if somebody has shared them.

We recommend obeying the speed limits even if all Koreans seem to ignore them.

Bus Lanes

Bus lanes can be recognized by the blue lines. They need to be kept free for buses on weekdays from 7 AM to 7 PM and on Saturdays between 7 AM and 3 PM.

Drinking & driving

Drunken driving is a serious offense and comes with hefty fines and a driving ban of 100 days. If you’re in an accident this can become a lifetime ban.

You’re considered intoxicated if your blood shows an alcohol level of over 0.05%.

Traffic Signs

A more or less complete overview of all traffic signs can be found on the website of South Korea’s Road Traffic Authority. (this is a HTTP website and it will probably be flagged as insecure by your browser)

South Korea - Hi Pass lane
The Hi-Pass lane for the tolls (Image courtesy: hi-pass)

Tolls

Tolls are common in South Korea.

Officially it’s possible to pay toll fees with credit cards but in our experience, you shouldn’t expect foreign credit cards to be accepted.

We tried our Visa, Mastercard, and American Express and neither of them worked.

At toll stations, you will find express lanes marked in blue that you can use if you have a Hi-Pass card.

To use Hi-Pass you need to have both an onboard unit and the Hi-Pass card.

It is possible that your rental car has a unit but it will probably not come with a card unless you ask this at pick-up and pay extra for it.

If you don’t have the hi-pass card you should avoid the blue lanes and pick any of the other toll booths where you will either get a card that shows where you entered the highway or will have to pay.

Toll booths can be either manned or automatic.

We didn’t encounter any automatic ones so it seems that the majority are manned.

Make sure you always have cash in case your credit cards, like ours, are not accepted.

What can go wrong at the toll booths

  • Some (modern?) toll booths at the entrance of the highways no longer provide a card if you have a Hi-Pass device. Even if your device does not have a Hi-Pass card.

If that happens you can write down the name of the entry gate and provide it to the agent when you leave the highway. In some cases, it may not even be necessary because they can also find this in their system. However, it doesn’t hurt to write it down just in case.

  • You accidentally go through the hi-pass line but you don’t have a hi-pass card.

Take note of the toll gate that you missed as well as the toll you should have paid (you can find this in Naver). It’s also a good idea to inform your car rental company.

In our experience, the car rental companies don’t make a big deal of it. They will get a bill for the amount you owe and will forward this bill to you. We didn’t have to pay any surcharges or fines, only the tolls.

Local SIM card

If you will be using Naver it’s advised to get a local SIM card. Its alternative, Maps.me, doesn’t require a data connection because it stores all maps locally.

We do however recommend a local SIM card because it allows you to use several other local useful apps such as the Seoul Metro app that we also used extensively.

Conclusion

We hope that these tips will encourage you to rent a car and explore all the nice sites that South Korea has to offer. If you are looking for more South Korean travel posts, check out our Korean travel guide.

A car really allows you to discover places that you otherwise wouldn’t see.

Have a great trip!