Seoul (서울), capital of South Korea, has an efficient, extensive public transport system that’s used by over 10 million local residents – and tourists like you and me. This includes the Seoul Metropolitan Subway (Seoul Metro), as well as frequent, well-run public buses and regional rail/bus services.
I’m going to explain how you can use public transport for getting into Seoul, getting around Seoul, and getting to other places in South Korea from Seoul. If you have a question that’s not answered here, leave a comment so I can help you out and improve this guide!
Before Arrival: what you need to know
If you’ve been checking Seoul out on Google Maps, you’ll realize that you can’t interact with the map by clicking on subway stations or bus stops. Due to national security laws, Google Maps for South Korea is static and public transport directions are unreliable (driving directions are completely unavailable on Google Maps.)
Hence, to plan your rides around Seoul, I recommend using these:
- Interactive Seoul subway map by Seoul Metro, which shows travel times and fares (requires Flash)
- Subway navigation app: there are several out there but I use KakaoMetro (Android/iPhone)
- Citymapper for trip planning and next train/bus timings. Citymapper beats competitors like Moovit as when you search for places (e.g. “Starfield Coex Mall”), Citymapper’s result is in English, while Moovit shows “스타필드 코엑스몰” – which, if you can’t read Hangeul, is pretty much useless. Citymapper even offers “Subway Only” and “Cold Safe” navigation routes!
The top attractions in Seoul are served by the Seoul subway and you’re likely to use only that, without ever setting foot on a public bus (seriously, there are 447 stations just on the main lines 1-9!) Nonetheless, I’ve included information about using public buses too.
While you’re planning your trip, check out the best places to stay in Seoul.
On Arrival: the T-Money Card
Incheon International Airport (ICN) is South Korea’s main international airport and you’re most likely to land here when visiting South Korea. The first thing you should do upon arrival is to get your fare card: the T-Money card.
What is T-Money? T-Money is a contactless, reloadable farecard used for public transport in Seoul, as well as nearly all other cities. There are also accessories like phone charms or keychains with the T-Money chip embedded in them!
What can T-Money be used for? Apart from being a public transport fare card, T-Money can also be used to pay for taxi fares and purchases at convenience stores, cafes, and fast food outlets like McDonalds.
Where can I buy T-Money cards? T-Money is most easily purchased at convenience stores or metro stations (Price: KRW 2,500). At Incheon Airport, try the GS25 convenience stores in the arrival hall. You can buy the T-Money card using a credit card, but all reloads must be paid for with cash whether you top-up at convenience stores or in subway stations.
Can T-Money be shared? No. Each traveler needs their own card for the Seoul subway, although the card can be shared when taking public buses.
Does the T-Money card expire? T-Money does not expire, so there’s no need to refund them if you’ll be visiting South Korea again! However, if you have a T-Money card from before 2014, you’ll want to get a new one: a new “One Card All Pass” system was introduced in 2014 that makes T-Money usable on express/intercity buses, toll booths, railroad stations, and public transport in other cities outside Seoul.
Do I have to use T-Money? Single-trip Seoul subway tickets are available for purchase at all stations, and cash is accepted on buses, but your fare will cost more. Trust me, you’ll be using T-Money and the subway very frequently in Seoul!
Getting from Incheon Airport to Seoul: the AREX
The AREX (Airport Railroad Express) is the metro line connecting Incheon airport to Seoul. There are two train services available: Express and Commuter.
- Express service (currently KRW 8,000): 43 minutes. Travels non-stop between the airport and the Seoul Station, with comfy seats. Buy your ticket online with Klook to get a 19% discount.
- Commuter service (KRW 4,150): 60 minutes. Stops at all stations, terminating at Seoul Station.
The AREX makes a good tutorial for using the Seoul subway. Here are some basics to prep you when you arrive all bleary-eyed at Incheon Airport subway station:
- Tap in/out at the station gantries to enter or exit each station.
- The Seoul subway has a distance-based fare structure, with a basic fare of KRW 1,250 and no peak/off-peak fare differences.
- Announcements for the next station are made in Korean and English (+Japanese, Mandarin at central stations). In-train LED marquees display the station names – and which side the doors will open – in English and Korean.
Getting around Seoul: taking the Seoul subway
The Seoul metro system actually comprises both above-ground and underground stops, but in the downtown region almost all stations are underground. When it comes to accessibility, the Seoul subway isn’t super wheelchair-friendly: many older station exits only have stairs and escalators, so check in advance which exits have elevators or wheelchair lifts.
As you can tell from this map, the many subway lines and station exits can make your head spin. I highly recommend you download the apps mentioned earlier.
- Sometimes, the distance between one line and another at the same station can be a few hundred metres – you don’t want to end up at the wrong exits or transfer to the wrong lines!
- For many subway stations in Seoul, the platforms are on either side of the tracks and you’ll need to check that you’re going down to the right direction platform.
- Some lines have split terminus stops. If you’re traveling somewhere along a split, make sure you board a train going to the correct terminus.
- The apps with real-time navigation will indicate whether you should board the train.
- Fun fact: you’ll hear lots of music in the Seoul subway.At the station, you’ll a a trumpet fanfare or xylophone tune when the train is arriving (opposite directions). In the train, you’ll hear a traditional tune when approaching a transfer station.
Check out this video below to see what it’s like riding the subway in Seoul!
Getting around Seoul: taking public buses
Seoul’s public buses use color-coded livery for different types of buses: blue (trunk bus; base fare KRW 1,200), green (feeder bus; base fare KRW 1,200), red (express bus; base fare KRW 2,300), and yellow (loop bus; base fare KRW 1,100).
- Take a photo of the bus route map at the bus stop (to count stops) and know what the stop name looks like in Korean, so you can press the bell in advance.
- If you use Citymapper, it’ll show your route on a map, bus arrival times, as well as the number of stops you’ll need to pass!
It’s highly unlikely that you’ll need to take a bus in Seoul, but if you do, enjoy the ride!
Seoul public transport etiquette & safety
When getting around Seoul in trains and buses, take note of the following:
- When using escalators, stand on the right and move on the left.
- Koreans will push and squeeze in a crowded train/bus, especially during peak hours. The small personal space is just a cultural trait; don’t take this as a sign of rudeness.
- Passengers will keep to themselves, not making much noise, and you won’t see busking in the trains. I have, however, observed a woman putting on a full face of makeup on the train!
- Priority seats at the ends of train cabins are meant for the elderly, pregnant, and handicapped. Try not to sit there.
- There are no women-only cars, but as a woman I’ve never felt physically unsafe in the trains.
- Often, standing passengers will place their bags on the rails above seats. Whether you do that or keep your bag on you, use common sense to prevent pickpocketing.
Should you get a Seoul subway pass or tourist pass?
In Seoul, there are so many subway passes offering special privileges and discounts to tourists that choosing the right one for you can be quite a headache. Here I’ve shortlisted four popular Seoul tourist passes for you; I left out passes that were not T-Money – those still work for public transport in Seoul, but may not be valid in other cities or retail merchants.
From KRW 15,000 (1-7 days) Gives you up to 20 free rides a day on Seoul subway lines 1-9, blue and green buses, and the AREX commuter service (arrival/departure from ICN). Pretty good deal if you take at least 8 rides a day.
Discover Seoul Pass
KRW 39,900/55,000 On a whirlwind tour of Seoul? This pass lets you visit Seoul’s most famous palaces, museums, and landmarks for free within 24-48 hours. Personally, I don’t like the rush. Learn more
Korea Tour Card
KRW 4,000 I find this to be the best Seoul travel pass for tourists – it doesn’t cost much more than a standard T-Money card, yet comes bundled with plenty of discounts for attractions and tours!
KRW 50,000 This card actually comes pre-loaded with KRW 46,000 that you can use for 10% off airport limousine bus rides. Besides that, there’s nothing really special about it.
Traveling from Seoul to other places in South Korea
While visitors to South Korea tend to lavish their attention on Seoul, there’s a lot to see and do around all of South Korea – from viewing cherry blossoms to hiking (Koreans’ national pastime), staying in temples, and learning about folk culture.
The best part? Getting around South Korea is a breeze. Thanks to the KTX high-speed rail network, getting from Seoul to Busan in the southeast takes just over two hours. This map shows the rail lines in South Korea; you can purchase single-trip tickets or get the Korail Pass, which allows you to take unlimited train journeys for the duration of the pass. (Tip: get your Korail Pass cheaper at Klook.)
For destinations not accessible by rail, there’s no lack of express buses (click the top-right link to choose English) and intercity buses to take you wherever you want to go. You can even pay for your tickets using…wait for it…T-Money!
Remember: your T-Money card can be used for the subway in other cities like Busan, Daegu, and Incheon, as well as all buses in Gangwon-do (Gangwon province). Happy travels!
I hope this post answers all your questions on how to get around Seoul using public transport! What else would you like to know about exploring Seoul?
More posts on South Korea
Getting to South Korea
Spring (cherry blossoms peak in April) and autumn (fall foliage peak in November) are the best times to visit South Korea. Winter in can be fun for skiing/scenery, but is bitterly cold.
Arrivals to Seoul are typically via Incheon International Airport (ICN).