A Visitor’s Guide to South Korean Customs and Etiquette

south korean etiquette

International tourists from across the globe are drawn to South Korea by its rich heritage and traditions, many of which are quite different from what travelers are used to back home.

Because of this, foreigners should familiarize themselves with key aspects of South Korean etiquette. Doing so will help prevent cultural misunderstandings which may cause offense.

In this article, travelers can find out what is considered rude in South Korea and what should be avoided when conducting international business.

Is it Rude to Tip in South Korea?

Unlike in most western nations, it is not customary to tip in South Korea. Tips are not expected and in some cases, especially away from the major cities, may be refused.

The belief in South Korea is that clients are already paying for good service, and therefore an additional amount is not necessary.

As this is in contrast to what many foreigners are used to in their home country, it is important to become familiar with some general guidelines:

Leaving tips at South Korean restaurants

Tipping at the end of a meal in a South Korean restaurant is not usual. Some establishments may even refuse to accept the gratuity. Rather than leaving money, diners can show their appreciation for good service by being kind and thankful towards waiting staff.

Some restaurants, especially those in areas with large numbers of tourists, leave a jar for tips on the counter. In this case, a little extra can be left but is again not mandatory.

Do South Korean taxi drivers expect a tip?

When taking a taxi, formal tipping is not standard practice. Card payment is increasingly common and in this case, extras should not be left.

If paying by cash, satisfied passengers can tell the driver to keep the change.

Tipping hotel staff in South Korea

Again, leaving a tip at a hotel is not common and may be refused. The same applies to spas.

In the main tourist areas and large cities such as Seoul, staff are accustomed to western travelers and, although a tip will not be expected, it is unlikely to cause offense.

Being thankful and polite towards hotel staff in South Korea is a better way to demonstrate gratitude.

Is it Rude to Walk and Eat in South Korea?

The Asian nation is famous for its cuisine, tourists in the country can enjoy traditional South Korean food including Kimchi and Pajeon. Diners should be aware of the etiquette and customs attached to meal times, including the use of chopsticks for most dishes.

It is not considered appropriate for adults to eat whilst walking. If purchasing food from a street vendor, it is better to find somewhere to sit nearby or eat on the spot.

Other food and eating etiquette in South Korea

As well as not snacking whilst on the move, the following should be considered when dining in South Korea:

  • Eating with the fingers is seen as bad manners
  • Chopsticks should be laid over the bowl when finished rather than stood upright
  • The eldest person at the table will be served first, everyone else should wait for them to start
  • When dining in company, pouring your own drink is often frowned upon

Korean Culture Dos and Don’ts

Not only is learning about South Korean customs and etiquette the best way to show respect towards the local population, but it is also a great way to get an insight into the country’s culture.

Tourists in South Korea should do the following:

  • Respect the elders as this is a key value in South Korea
  • Give and receive objects with both hands
  • Remove shoes when entering a South Korean home
  • Use a person’s title when addressing them for the first time
  • Greet others with a slight bow and dip of the head or handshake with both hands

Foreigners in South Korea are advised to avoid the following:

  • Physical contact, touching strangers
  • Pointing with one finger, instead use the whole hand
  • Using red ink as this is only used to write the names of people who have died
  • Leaving a hat on to go indoors
  • Wearing revealing clothing, especially outside of major cities

Foreigners conducting international business activities in South Korea should be aware that what is considered acceptable in other countries, may be frowned upon by Koreans.

To show, and receive, the respect of South Korean business associates the following behavior should be adopted:

  • Be punctual: if being late is unavoidable, apologize sincerely
  • Give and receive business cards using both hands
  • Accept tea when offered during a business meeting
  • Listen to what others have to say without interrupting

It is also important to be aware of the hierarchical structure of South Korean companies. Age, position, and connections are all of great significance.

In addition, Korean business is generally competitive, there is a sense of urgency and negotiations are fast-paced, so it’s good to be prepared.

South Korean Laws Most Commonly Broken by Tourists

Whilst it is advisable to follow South Korean etiquette, as explained above, not doing so isn’t illegal.

There are, however, some laws that are unknown to tourists and regularly broken. To prevent issues with the authorities, international visitors should abide by local regulations.

Smoking is banned in many areas throughout South Korea

One policy that foreigners should be aware of is that smoking is prohibited in public spaces including certain streets and tourist areas.

There has been a crackdown on smoking in recent years and it is becoming an increasingly rare sight throughout the country. If it is not clear whether it is permitted in a particular place, it’s better not to smoke.

Overstaying the South Korean Visa will be penalized

Travelers should not stay past the validity period of their South Korea visa. Anyone with an invalid South Korea visa will be prevented from leaving the country until a fine has been paid.

Financial penalties accumulate daily and foreigners may face issues gaining access to the country in the future.

Drivers should be aware of the blood alcohol limit in South Korea

Visitors may not know that, in 2019, the maximum blood alcohol content (BAC) was reduced to 0.03%. This is lower than many western countries such as the US which has a limit of 0.08%.

If driving in South Korea extra care should be taken. To avoid any problems with the law, abstain from drinking completely before getting behind the wheel.