December 6, 2023

Can I Travel Without Cash Only With Credit Card in Korea?

Smart Tips

When traveling abroad, it's common to run into issues with currency and payment methods. Fortunately, in Korea, many businesses accept credit cards, and the use of credit cards has become established as a convenient payment method. However, as a foreign traveler, you may still encounter difficulties when it comes to purchasing public transportation or paying for goods and services without cash. In this article, we will introduce some solutions to tackle these issues.

​​As for me, I prefer using credit cards over cash due to the inconvenience of carrying cash and constantly dealing with change. Counting the correct amount and selecting the proper note can be confusing and time-consuming. However, by using credit cards or other payment alternatives, I can free myself from these issues and enjoy a stress-free travel experience.

Credit Card Usage in Korea

Since 1999, the Korean government has encouraged businesses to accept credit cards, including small restaurants and stores, to improve economic transparency. As a result, credit card usage in Korea has become very common, with many people opting to use credit cards instead of cash. In addition to the convenience of not having to carry cash or receive change, buyers can receive income tax deductions, which has further increased the use of credit cards. With credit cards, people can even make purchases of less than one dollar, such as chewing gum.

Samsung Pay: A Convenient Payment Option

Samsung Pay is a mobile payment app that is widely accepted in Korea. It adopts both magnetic system and NFC, making it convenient for payment. If you have a Samsung phone, you can easily download the app and register your credit card. Samsung Pay is accepted at a wide range of retailers, including restaurants, stores, and transportation providers.

One of the unique features of Samsung Pay is its compatibility with magnetic stripe payment terminals. This means that you can use Samsung Pay at retailers that don't have NFC payment terminals. Simply hold your phone near the magnetic stripe reader, and Samsung Pay will transmit the payment information using a technology called Magnetic Secure Transmission (MST).

Apple Pay: Limited Acceptance in Korea

As of March 2023, Apple Pay is available in Korea. However, most local retailers use magnetic secure transmission technology, which is not compatible with Apple Pay's near-field communication (NFC) technology. Currently, NFC technology is only applied to a limited number of large franchise outlets such as McDonald's, Starbucks, Ediya Coffee, and Lotte Hi-Mart. According to industry insiders, less than 10 percent of 2.9 million stores with card readers use NFC technology in Korea. So it is not recommended.

Public Transportation

While credit cards are widely accepted in Korea, as a foreign traveler, you'll find some nuances in using them for public transportation. For taxis, you can conveniently pay with your credit card. However, for buses and subways, you will need a separate transportation card. The mobile KOREA TOUR CARD offers a seamless solution for this. By utilizing the NFC function of your smartphone, users can not only cover their public transportation fares on buses and subways but also make purchases at various outlets like Starbucks, McDonald's, and convenience stores. After downloading the app, you can easily top up and manage your card using your credit or debit card for hassle-free travel and shopping experiences in Korea.

Please refer to this link for more information while you might not belong to the countries of service. 

If you are unable to charge the Mobile KOREA TOUR CARD with your credit card due to service limitations, your final option is to purchase a physical KOREA TOUR CARD. These cards are connected with T-Money, the main transaction system for public transportation, and can be purchased for KRW 4,000 at various locations such as airports, major convenience store branches, vending machines in subways, banks, and more. Up to KRW 500,000 (around $400) can be loaded onto the card, but only Korean Won is accepted. To receive a refund, simply visit any major convenience store branch nationwide, a T-Money service center at a subway station (Station office), or Tmoney Town. Once charged, the KOREA TOUR CARD can be used like a credit card.

It's worth noting that you can also directly purchase a T-Money card instead of a KOREA TOUR CARD. However, I recommend using the KOREA TOUR CARD as it comes with additional benefits, such as a 50% discount on renting a hanbok at tourist attractions for taking pictures, and other discounts.

To keep track of the remaining balance on your KOREA TOUR CARD or T-Money card, you can download various apps available on the Play Store. These apps help you check the exact amount of money left on your card, so you can fully spend the charged amount or request a refund without any hassle.

When it comes to the question of how much to charge onto your transportation card, it really depends on your spending habits. However, I recommend charging $100 or less (around 100,000 won) onto your card to minimize the risk of loss. Once lost, you cannot receive a refund, as the service center cannot check the amount charged due to the absence of the physical card.

Tips for Using Payment Methods in Korea
  • Check with your credit card company before your trip to make sure your card will work in Korea.
  • Keep your transportation card topped up to avoid having to refill it frequently.
  • Keep some cash on hand for street vendors and small market stalls.
  • Shop around for the best exchange rate when exchanging currency.

In conclusion, if you want to avoid the stress of carrying cash and the risk of losing it, I highly recommend using credit cards, Samsung Pay, and transportation cards like the KOREA TOUR CARD. However, it's still a good idea to keep some cash on hand for certain situations. By preparing in advance and familiarizing yourself with the different payment options available, you can enjoy a smooth and hassle-free trip to Korea. Whether you're dining at a restaurant, shopping in a mall, or taking public transportation, make sure to choose the payment method that works best for you and your travel needs. Personally, I don't use cash myself and only rely on Samsung Pay with a registered credit card while living in Korea, and I haven't experienced any inconvenience.

If you've found this exploration of Korea's advanced payment landscape insightful, you'll definitely want to read the second part of our series. We dive deeper into the innovative WOWPASS system, a game-changer for travelers in Korea. Click here to continue your journey into seamless and secure travel payments!

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If you're curious about how to breeze through the departure process in just 10 minutes, click on the article below:

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If you're interested in indulging in a multitude of complimentary programs offered by Incheon Airport before your departure, be sure to delve into the article below:

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