As a foreigner that has been in Korea for over a year and a half, I have had my fair share of mishaps and decided to use my experience to list 10 apps that have helped and still help me through these recurring uncomfortable situations.
Seoul is a fantastic city with delicious food to eat, beautiful places to visit, and fun things to do, but navigating and making plans in a foreign country can be a nightmare, especially when you don’t speak the language. As a mobile-driven society, Korea has developed an impressive number of amazing apps that make my life so much easier on a daily basis. I have grown very dependent on my phone as I rely on so many apps to find my way or get a ride home, discover the best restaurant around, make myself understood, or even call a friend.
Here are 10 apps that will definitely be useful for people that are planning on coming to Korea, no matter the length of the stay. So get your phones loaded and ready!
Note: All apps are free and can be found in the Apple Store or Android Market (Play Store)
KakaoTalk is an absolute must-have. Ask any foreigners living in Seoul, and you will discover that KakaoTalk is the epicenter of their social lives. Everyone and anyone has this app in Korea, as it is the go-to messaging service for smartphone users in the country. It is an outstanding app that allows you to text, make free calls, and send pictures or videos. Why spend money on credits when Kakao is free and only requires an Internet connection? You can rely on the flawless Wi-Fi coverage in Korea to help you save both time and money. Koreans use “group chatrooms” to communicate with their coworkers or families all at once, but it is also an obvious time-saver when making plans with your friends.
You can also “befriend” companies on KakaoTalk and get deals, coupons, and exclusive information on future sales. Plus, they offer a mind-blowing choice of emoticons that will save you tons of words.
2. Naver Map
Naver is to Koreans what Google is to North Americans and Europeans. Naver has the monopoly on the country’s interactive map applications. It is more detailed than Google Maps and comes with an extra option that allows you to download the maps beforehand if you know you won’t have access to the internet. Google and Naver can also be complementary, as if you cannot find what you are looking for on Google, you can try on Naver, and vice versa.
It is straightforward and very intuitive and will be your best friend during your stay in Korea, especially if you are like me and are not good with directions. Reference points are written in Korean, so even if you cannot speak Korean, being able to read the language is a must.
This handy map has been my #1 tool for getting around. It helps me navigate through the 18 lines of the Seoul Subway and guides me through every step of my itinerary. Just tap on your starting station and destination, and it will give you the quickest route and even tell you what car number to stand at for the quickest transfers when necessary. I personally use the schedule function the most, as it gives the departure and arrival times of all trains so you never get taken by surprise. And icing on the cake: it is available in English and works offline! “I took the wrong train” will no longer be an acceptable excuse.
Sometimes, you find yourself much closer to a bus stop than to a subway station. Personally, I love taking the bus as it allows you to look at scenery while being much more relaxing than the forever-packed subway.
Search any bus number or any stop to get all the information you need. This app will tell you the location and route of every bus, as well as the estimated arrival time at your bus stop. Very convenient, although I wish it worked like the Jihachul app which plans your full itinerary with just the starting and ending points. Hopefully that upgrade will come soon. Naver Map is great for bus itineraries but does not offer information as detailed as KakaoBus. Try them both and form your own opinion!
Korail will take you anywhere in Korea in no time for little money. If you are planning on touring the country, the best option is to get a Korail Pass, which is a special ticket for an unlimited number of travels in a certain time period. The pass comes with occasional discounts on accommodations and tourist attractions to help you do more with less money!
Unfortunately, the app is exclusively in Korean. That’s okay, though, because it is fairly intuitive, and you can easily find people to help book tickets in advance, especially if you stay in guesthouses or traveler’s hotels with English-speaking staff.
6. Kakao Taxi
The Korean taxi system is hands down one of the best in the world. It is cheap, fast, and convenient, and is a perfect complement to the subway system, especially during the wee hours of the morning when the subway doesn’t run (roughly between 12 and 5 am). But you can often find yourself unable to find a taxi for whatever reason. KakaoTaxi has you covered for those situations, no matter where you are in Korea. It is quick, safe, and easy to use. The app will request a cab that will be dispatched as soon as you set your location and destination. KakaoTaxi is the safest option, since it only works with domestically licensed and registered drivers. Plus, the plate of the taxi you are riding is registered in the app, and you can send KakaoTalk notifications to friends detailing your trip and estimated arrival. I have had a very positive experience as a user, and I found the drivers to be nicer than the average Korean taxi drivers.
7. Visit Korea
Visit Korea is a very convenient and well-thought out app from the Korean Tourism Office. It takes the Korean Tourism Organization website (the first Google result whenever you search for tourist related information in Korea) and compacts it into an app. It is available in English and includes information about exchange rates, popular things to do and see, contact numbers, and special promotions. It also provides weather updates as well as route maps on how to get to places the quickest. It will save you time, especially if you are a newcomer in Korea.
Whether you are a food lover in general or new to Korean food, this app is perfect for you. There is a free version, but the paid one is much better and is worth every penny, as it basically works like a food dictionary with pictures of food offered by every restaurant that delivers around you.
The best feature is the “category sorter” that you can use to find the perfect food to fit your mood. You can choose between Korean, Western, Japanese, Mexican and many others. You can also read recommendations and reviews for every restaurant. Plus, there is no delivery charge. A must!
I could not go into food apps without mentioning Wingspoon. Choosing where to eat is always a tough decision, especially if you are a foreigner in Korea. You can browse Naver’s database by city or area or search what kind of food you want to eat and see what’s around. If you are craving Samgyetang in Jongro, it will tell you exactly where to go and why, thanks to their amazing review feature. It only comes in Korean but is very intuitive, and a basic knowledge of Korean will suffice. You can also use a Korean translator, which brings me to my next and last app suggestion.
10. Naver Dictionary
We have all tried the easy way, a.k.a. Google Translate. It is helpful at times, sure, but also dangerous. It just throws at you ONE of the possibilities, and you have no way of knowing if that word means what it is supposed to mean in the context you are using. And trust me, this is a problem.
With the Naver Dictionary, you can type anything in Korean or English and choose the result that is closest to your situation. You will also get synonyms and antonyms to make your search even easier. But the very best feature, the one that makes Google Translate the bad choice, is contextual examples. You get tons of sentences with the word being used in different contexts. It is amazing, and most of results also have audio, which is very useful for newcomers and tourists.
It is definitely the best English-Korean dictionary around, especially for people who are trying to learn Korean.
I hope this guide was helpful, and I wish you all a great stay in Korea!