Modern and fast-paced, South Korea is becoming more and more on the radar for tourists and expats alike. South Korea is the 6th most visited country in Asia, and it’s not hard to see why -- between delicious food, a bustling nightlife, and terrain ranging from rugged mountains to sandy beaches, South Korea seems to have it all. Add in the low cost of living, and you have an attractive destination for visitors looking for a vacation or a new home.
Whether you’re just making a quick visit, or looking to make South Korea your new home, understanding its currency is an important step. Below you’ll find a comprehensive guide to money in South Korea: what it is, how to spend it and how to manage it.
South Korea’s currency is the South Korean won.
|Characteristics of the South Korean won (KRW)|
|Names and Nicknames||₩|
|Symbols & abbreviations||KRW|
|1 KRW||One South Korean won is divided into 100 jeon. The Jeon is no longer used for everyday transactions, and only appears in foreign exchange rates.|
|KRW coins||Coins are available in denominations of ₩1, ₩5, ₩10, ₩50, and ₩100. ₩1 and ₩5 coins are rarely used and difficult to find, as prices are rounded to the nearest ₩10.|
|KRW banknotes||KRW banknotes are available for ₩1,000; ₩5,000; ₩10,000; and ₩50,000|
South Korean won is the only reliable currency in South Korea. Some places, especially in larger cities, will accept US dollars, but change will generally be given in won.
Exchanging money in South Korea is fairly straightforward and follows the same rules you'd expect exchanging money in any foreign country.
Finding a fair exchange service can be difficult, though the following options are typically your best bet for getting a good deal:
- Your bank
- A local bank ATM in South Korea
- Exchange kiosks in cities
- Travel FX
While your home bank or a local South Korean ATM typically will offer lower exchange rates, there’s still a cost. Exchange kiosks and online exchange services will charge you for your transaction via exchange rates that are poorer than the exact exchange rate you can find online.
Regardless of where you decide to exchange your money, you should do you research about how the exchange service you use makes its money. While many services advertise no fees, they’re making a profit by marking up the exchange rate and keeping the difference for themselves.
That means that if you Google the exact exchange rate for KRW and your home currency, you’ll be able to find out what your money is actually worth. But banks and exchange services will offer you less than that, and keep the difference for themselves. Find a fair rate by using an online currency converter so you know exactly how much your money's worth and can compare that to what the bank or exchange service offers you.
Whether it’s better to exchange money before you leave home always depends on what currency you’re exchanging, but most banks in the US, UK, Australia and Europe will not have won on hand and will charge a 5-10 percent fee, plus a delivery fee for ordering the currency. You’re generally better off waiting until you get to South Korea to exchange any money.
ATMs and exchange kiosks are extremely common in South Korea. Exchanges will have their rates displayed, and it’s good to compare rates before committing to a service, as kiosks can have very different rates even on the same street or in the same neighborhood. ATMs usually have the best exchange rates, but can charge fees. Your bank may also charge you a foreign conversion fee for using an offshore ATM.
If you withdraw your cash from an ATM, you probably won’t need to worry about damaged banknotes. But if you get it from a bank or exchange service, make sure the money they give you is in good condition.
Some South Korean merchants will refuse to accept damaged bills. That means that less reputable exchange services may try to take advantage of you by giving you their damaged notes, effectively offloading valueless currency and leaving you high and dry.
If you’re lucky enough to have a friend or relative in South Korea who doesn’t mind letting you piggyback on their bank account, you’ll get the best possible rates by withdrawing cash from a local account.
Another option is a TransferWise Borderless account, which will allow you to hold and manage money in a number of global currencies, including South Korean won. And by fall 2017, Borderless account holders will also be able to get consumer debit cards to use when they travel.
These days, travellers cheques are essentially obsolete and typically offer very poor exchange rate compared to other methods of getting local currency. You’re better off using your own credit or debit card at local ATMs, rather than getting travellers cheques.
South Koreans are avid credit card users (the average South Korean has five credit cards, compared to the US average of two per person), which means it’s easy for travelers to use plastic in the country, as well. Visa, MasterCard, Maestro and Cirrus are accepted in most shops and restaurants. Many high end restaurants and hotels accept American Express. There’s always the chance that smaller eateries and souvenir shops will only accept cash, so it’s a good practice to ask first, or always carry a small amount of cash just in case.
It may seem like a helpful service when ATMs and card readers offer to charge you in your home currency, saving you from having to do the math of the conversion yourself. What’s more likely, however, is that it’s a Dynamic Currency Conversion (DCC) scam, which means the bank is making up its own exchange rate, charging you at that rate, and keeping a healthy profit for itself. Always choose to be charged in the local currency to avoid this — even though you’ll have to do the math, it’ll save you money with every transaction.
If your card gets shut down for suspicious activity while you’re traveling in a very different time zone from your home bank, it could be hours before you can have a working credit or debit card again. That’s why it’s so important to let your bank know you’re traveling before you leave. Tell them where you’re going and how long you’ll be there.
ATMs are extremely common in South Korean cities, and you should be able to find one without help just by taking a walk. However, if you’re looking for a specific ATM, try these resources:
Remember, while ATMs often offer the best exchange rates, that benefit will be lost if you choose to complete your transaction in your home currency instead of KRW.
A number of international banks have branches in South Korea, so checking online or talking to a teller before you go could be beneficial to see if your bank operates in the country. Otherwise, there are a number of local and government-run banks that offer a wide array of services.
If you find your bank doesn’t operate in South Korea, you may want to check out one of these popular retail banks:
The largest privately owned bank in South Korea, GDB Financial Group offers a wide variety of investment and banking services.
KDB is a fully state owned bank that specializes in investment and international banking.
If you’re looking specifically for international banks, there are many available in South Korea, including:
As you can see, banking, spending and money management are fairly simple and straightforward in South Korea. Still, it never hurts to research, and knowledge is power when it comes to protecting your money in a foreign country. Enjoy your stay in South Korea!
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