Traveling to South Korea During COVID-19

Cynthia Kim
Jul 27, 2020 · 10 min read
Photo by Morning Brew on Unsplash

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.

Pre-Trip Learnings

Trip Departure

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 Flight

Arriving at ICN

  • 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.
Long line, which went by fairly quickly once the line split into transfers and arrivals.

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:

  1. Station 1 — immigrations, including checking the passport and fingerprint scanning. Temperature checking was also completed here.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Incheon International Airport — International Arrivals Area

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

Packed bus, where were were advised to keep our masks on and refrain from talking.

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:

COVID-19 testing “phone booths” to maintain the safety of everyone involved. Image courtesy of Google.

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”.

Final Thoughts

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Cynthia Kim

Written by

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

Cynthia Kim

Written by

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

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