How To: Bus & Subway (Public Transportation)
I am from a city that has its own public transportation, so I was used to taking public transportation and getting on and off buses. However, I don't rely on it in my city as I have a car, and public transportation can be a little dangerous in my area. So, coming to South Korea and primarily traveling via bus was a bit of a shock for me. Unfortunately, before coming to Korea, I did not do any due diligence on how to work the public transportation system.
To travel South Korea's extensive metro system, you will first need to buy a T-Money card. These cards can be found at convenience stores such as CU, E-Mart, and 7-Eleven. I ended up getting mine at a CU close to SK Global House.
First, you ask the clerk at the convenience store for a T-Money card; they will either give you one or let you pick a card design you want. I don't remember exactly how much the card cost, but I feel it was about somewhere between 5,000-10,000 won. So you buy the card, but how do you get money on it? Well, you NEED to have cash (Korean Won) with you in order to fill it. You cannot pay with a card, physical USD, or via an app. You MUST have the cash to fill it. After buying the card, you will put your T-Money card on the card reader, where you typically tap your debit or credit card. You give your won to the cashier, and it will be loaded. I typically put any amount from 10,000-50,000 won on it at a time. The public transportation is very clean and efficient.
***Each bus/subway trip usually is about 1,200-2,000 won per ride.***
In order to find out which bus and/or subway to take and where to get on and off, you will need to download Kakao Maps or Naver Maps. I do not recommend Google Maps as it is not a popularly used app and is not configured specifically for the Korean metro systems. On Kakao, you can also order a Kakao Taxi.
With your new navigating apps, you will put in your current location and where you will be going. The apps will then show you different buses and/or subway trains to take to get to your destination. You will walk to the bus stop or subway station and wait for your transportation mode. You will need your T-Money card.
BUS: When your bus gets there, you will get in the bus on the front end; right when you walk in by the driver, there will be a machine that you will need to tap your T-Money card on. It will say "thank you" or a message of sorts and show how much is withdrawn from your card and how much you have left on it. After you get on and tap your card, you will see handles you can hold onto from dropping down from the ceiling as well as seats you can sit in. You can stand and hold anywhere, or you can sit as well. Please note that there are pink seats on buses and subways that you should avoid sitting in. Those are reserved for pregnant people, disabled, injured, or elderly people. Sometimes there are seats that are yellow or have a yellow tag on the wall next to the seat that is for those as well. So look before you sit! The bus will announce the next stop it arrives in Korean and English, so be on the lookout and listen for the announcements. When you get to your stop, you will get out at the exit at the back of the bus and hit your T-Money card to signify that you are off the bus so that you won't be charged for extra distance covered. It is important to know that Korean society is very fast-paced, so people often stand by the exit before the bus stops at their stop so they can get off very fast. Public transportation is also quiet. People do not generally talk, so be curious about talking and your volume!!! Open food and drink are not welcome on the bus. As of the day, I'm making this post on May 23, 2023, masks are not required on any form of transportation.
Subway: Similarly to the bus, you will need your T-Money card. Use your mapping app to find the nearest subway station. Go into the subway station (underground) and follow the signs or look at the maps to find where you need to go and which direction or side of the subway you need to be on. Follow the arrows and use your T-Money to get through the gate. You will go down and wait for your subway car to arrive, and then you will get on the subway. Just like the bus, you can sit or stand. At the ends of each car, seats are reserved for pregnant people, disabled, injured, elderly, and sometimes strollers, so please do not sit there! There will be announcements of the stops in Korean, English, and sometimes Japanese. It will also tell which side you need to get off either on the right or left. Again, people get on and off quickly, so be aware of that. Similarly, the subway is usually quiet too, and people don't typically talk! When you get out at your stop, go out the exit and hit your T-Money card again to signify you are out and won't get charged for an extra distance that you didn't travel.
This is a ton of information, so I am sorry about that, but I hope this can help someone avoid some awkward interactions or confusion!