Without a doubt, 2020 has thrown many of us some unexpected curveballs. Amidst living through a pandemic, fighting social injustice, and everything in between, I also recently faced a personal crisis that led to a last-minute emergency trip to South Korea, my birth country. Normally planning a trip to Korea would be a straightforward experience, but this time, I knew it would be far from normal (what is normal anymore?). Besides having to book an international 13-hour flight for the upcoming weekend, which I have never done before, a quick Google search revealed just the tip of the ever-so-complicated and strict process that South Korea puts on their international arrivals to maintain the safety of their people.
Never have I ever thought I’d be the one writing about this experience first-hand, but here we are. And it was quite the journey, let me tell you that.
One lesson I learned from researching about the international arrival protocols in South Korea during COVID-19 was that your arrivals experience will be situational. You can prepare as much as you can, but should also be prepared for surprises. The arrival process experience will vary based on your reason for travel, your final destination, whether you have family relations in the country, whether you have the proper documents on hand with you, amongst other varying criteria. Based on where you fall under, you may end up in a government facility, or you may not. One thing that all incoming travelers have in common though, is that they are required to go through a strict, monitored, self-isolation for 14 days (with the rare exception of certain visa holders who test negative upon arrival). For our situation specifically, we had family of direct lineage (of which by Korea’s definition, does not include siblings or aunts/uncles) living in Korea and we luckily had the proper documents with us to prove that, so in the end we were able to stay in a relative’s empty home in Daegu as opposed to a government facility where each of us would have to pay $1,400 for an isolated stay.
Our journey began at SFO. The airport was eerily quiet at 9pm as expected, except for one unfortunate kiosk with lines looped around multiple times. To our luck, yup, that was ours. Though everyone in line was wearing a mask or two, with most even in face shields or goggles, it was still a bit nerve wracking to think that this crowd of people will be packed inside my flight for 13 hours, especially after having self-quarantined in isolation for the past few months. Soon enough, I found out our flight is not yet at full capacity, but that flights haven’t been this full in a while — reason being, a lot of travelers to China are now using this flight as a stopover since a lot of the direct flights there have been cancelled.
At the kiosk, they also had us download this quarantine app that we’ll need to be using in Korea to get our locations tracked and to log in our symptoms daily. More on the quarantining experience in another article.
The TSA process at SFO was more or less similar to how it was before, except that everyone was keeping their distance, wearing a mask, and there were smells of sanitizers everywhere. And, of course, a lot less people. What did surprise me though was what I saw at my gate near boarding; right when the boarding announcements were called, as if it was a known protocol that I somehow missed, fellow travelers around us started whipping out hazmat suits left and right and pulling them on before they got in line. And no, I didn’t think to come prepared with one. And yes, this is in addition to their layers of masks and face shields or goggles. All I had on me were a mask and a face shield we were lucky enough to find earlier in the day, but that aside, I felt quite safe seeing that folks on this flight took the safety protocols seriously. And luckily enough for me, the back of the plane (where my seat was) was empty enough so that we could easily spread out and take over a row of our own once the gate closed. As far as I was aware, everyone near me kept their protective gears on for the entire duration of the flight, with the exception of meal times when everyone ate quickly and silently and kept their masks on in between. They had us fill in additional forms before landing than what I was used to, including ones on our current health conditions, our final destination, and consent to keep track of our locations for two weeks. The overall experience of the flight itself was otherwise quite smooth, and once again, it was nice to see that everyone took the COVID-19 protocols seriously (if not more seriously than we did). And for the record, keeping a mask on for the durations of the overseas flight was absolutely manageable.
Arriving at ICN
Arrivals was the part of the overall journey I was most unsure about, since it was extremely situational based on what we had researched and there were a lot of conflicting information I found online. My family had separated quite early on during this process as expected, due to our differing citizenship statuses. In any case, at the end, it was thankfully quite a smooth and quick arrival process for us all. Here were things that really helped, looking in hindsight:
- Having the correct documents that display family relations to those in Korea, if relevant— if there is a family member of direct lineage that you’d potentially like to stay with, you absolutely need the Family Relations Certificate on you.
- The time we arrived, 3:30am, which made for a generally quiet airport. Plus, our flight was the only arriving flight at the time.
- Our main point of contact in Korea (in our case, it was a family member) being awake and available to answer phone calls promptly from the airport workers to verify our relations. Of course, this needed communicating and coordinating with beforehand.
- Having the address of our final destination/desired quarantine location and our POC’s phone number on hand, or better yet, memorized — it was one we had to write multiple times over on many forms.
As a US citizen arriving into the Incheon International Airport without any visa, with potential eligibility to self-quarantine at a family member’s home, and for the purpose of visiting family, I had the following stations to pass through at arrivals:
- Station 1 — immigrations, including checking the passport and fingerprint scanning. Temperature checking was also completed here.
- Station 2 — filling out more forms, mainly to write down our final destination/quarantine address and main POC in country. Checking to see that we downloaded and set up the quarantine app on our phones. Signing more consent forms for the mandatory 14-day quarantine. Receiving some instructional sheets about the quarantine.
- Station 3 — an airport worker gives a phone call to our main POC. This POC will be contacted by the Korean government/public health workers whenever we cannot be reached.
- Station 4 — I was pulled out and directed to a separate room where they checked the family relations document and confirmed our eligibility to quarantine at our family member’s home.
Once past the last station, we were free to go to baggage claim to pick up our luggage. I’d say it took us approximately 45 minutes in total to get to this point from de-boarding.
At the arrivals gate, the airport workers greeted us in hazmat suits, masks, and face coverings. It’s worth noting that at this point, we weren’t just free to leave on our own — we were stopped and asked where our final destination is, and based on that, were personally escorted to the designated and blocked-off waiting area. In our case, it was the waiting area for a bus that would take us to a nearby train station.
It’s also worth noting that without proper documents or an already-designated place to stay for the duration of quarantine, folks may be escorted to a local government facility at this point for their COVID testing followed by a 14-day self-quarantine. Although this experience isn’t one I can speak to personally, we were made aware that the stay at a government facility (usually hotels) costs $100 per night per person, totaling up to $1,400 for the entire duration of quarantine. It comes with three meals a day delivered to your doorstep, since you’ll be unable leave your room.
Traveling to Final Destination
This was the point when I learned international arrivals are very closely monitored, and most of the times, personally escorted from the ICN airport down to their final destination of quarantine, regardless of where that may be in the country. In our instance, our final destination was in Daegu, which was a bus ride followed by another couple hours on the train. This particular bus to the train station was packed only with people coming from international arrivals. Per COVID guidelines, we were asked to load and unload our own luggages into the trunk space. We were also advised to keep our masks on and to avoid talking to prevent the spreading of droplets where possible.
An hour of a deadly silent bus ride later, we arrived to the train station, where once again, we weren’t allowed to go about our own ways. Our entire bus group was escorted to a special waiting area of the station just for international arrivals to purchase our tickets and to wait for our train. Every time a train arrived, there was a government worker who gathered the international travelers and escorted them down to the corresponding decks. Later I learned that the way they track and differentiate international arrivals from regular travelers on the train is that each train, regardless of destination, has two cars at the end of the trains that are designated specifically and only for international arrivals. Other travelers cannot go into the international arrivals cars, and vice versa. We were completely isolated from other non-international travelers.
At each train stop, there would be small group of government workers waiting right outside our cars to escort the international travelers from that point on. It was no different for our stop in Daegu. Once we were greeted by our local government workers — geared again in hazmat suits and PPE — at the train deck, our small group was escorted to the local outdoor COVID testing site for our coronavirus testing. While it was only a short couple blocks walk from the train station escorted by a few government workers, this was the first moment we were surrounded by other non-international travelers, in Korea.
COVID testing went by seamlessly at our testing location. Upon arrival, we (along with all of our belongings) were immediately sprayed down with very fine disinfectant mists, then we proceeded to fill out forms indicating our exact address and symptoms. We were then directed right outside a small, phone-booth looking station with two arm holes, with a health worker inside the phone-booth-station. I would hand the worker inside the station the testing kit with swabs, in which they would pick up through the arm holes and conduct the test on me. I couldn’t sneak in pictures at this time, but here is a picture of the booths I found online:
The testing itself involved one throat swab and one nose swab, both of which I felt went much deeper in, and for longer, than when I had been tested back home in California. For those who had gotten these tests done in the past, it’s extremely uncomfortable and this time was no different.
After the test, we were greeted by our designated taxi driver (who I believe has been appointment by the government as a part of this overall arrivals process) who would drive us to our final destination where we would be quarantined. We were once again sprayed down, along with our belongings, before entering the taxi van. The government would cover 30% of the cost of the drive, and we would cover the rest. Our driver was extremely kind, accommodating, and patient with us. And upon arrival at our final destination, he left us with something along the lines of “please stay healthy, and thank you for helping keep this country safe with us”.
Before our travels here, I had heard of the immaculate process Korea had put in place for those traveling into the country, but this experience went beyond my expectations. I was so thoroughly impressed at how they handled the overall experience for us international travelers with kindness, professionalism, and most of all, with all our safety on top of mind. So even though I had to do what everyone said not to do during the pandemic, there weren’t a lot of moments when I felt like I was being exposed to too many people in an unsafe way. In fact, I felt much safer during this entire 17+ hour trip than I did when I took a ten-minute walk across downtown San Jose the other weekend to pick up some dinner on a busy night (why it was even busy in the first place is beyond me). Everyone around me had at least a mask on, if not more protective gears. Precautions were being taken extremely seriously. Everyone complied to the rules for the benefit of the greater good, and messages of “togetherness” — fighting this crisis together— could be seen everywhere. The entire world (US, I’m looking at you) needs to learn from this country, and I’m not just saying this because Korea is my birth country. Even though COVID and life had put myself in this situation with added complexities to overseas travel, I couldn’t have wished for a better country to travel to during this time. Korea, you’ve done it again.