Memos from Asia

Detailed Guide to Riding the Subway in Seoul

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It can surely feel intimidating to ride the subway for the first time in Seoul, especially when you are from an area that does not have subway stations.

Crowded subway station, Seoul, Korea

Inside view of the Metropolitan Subway in Seoul, one of the most heavily used underground systems in the world in Seoul.

With the over-crowded subway steps, signs pointing in 5 different directions in a foreign language, color-coordinated subway lines, and people rushing to get to the next destination, it can be scary to even attempt to ride the subway around Seoul. With so many people hustling and bustling to get on the subway to work, it may be tempting to give up and take a taxi instead.

Incheon Express Railroad, South Korea – 27 July 2019: Passengers arrive at the airport by train.

Don’t worry! This guide will help you with everything you need to know about riding the subway alone in Seoul, from directions, tickets to taking the correct subway lines.

Tickets and T-Money Cards

Generally, people buy subway tickets and transportation cards called T Money Cards to get around Seoul and other major cities.

T-Money Cards are used on public buses, taxis, subways, and are usually sold in the subway ticket vending machines found near the entrances of a subway rail line. Plain T-Money cards can be bought for W2,500 (around 2 USD).

There are cards with cute characters such as Kakao characters, Pokemon, and even BTS, and these are sold for W4,500 (around 4USD). Some are rarer than others, and they are available only for a limited time, so keep your eyes out for the special characters that you want to purchase.

T-Money character cards, Seoul, South Korea

How to buy tickets and recharge your T-Money cards at the ticket vending machines

T-Money cards can be bought at the vending machines and at stores. They are for sale in most convenience stores such as C U, subway convenience stores, and retail centers. They are conveniently located near the subway stations.

(C U convenience store, Seoul, Korea)

You can also charge your T-Money cards at any subway ticket vending machines in any subway stop. You recharge as much as you want, and it works the same way as a subway ticket.

T-Money recharge machine, Seoul, Korea

Subway tickets will only work one time, and the price will be reflected by choosing the destination you need to get to in Seoul. If, for example, you are going from Jam-sil to Gang-nam and it is W2500, then you would need to press the button for the destination with the cost underneath the city. This process is also in English, so you do not have to worry about not being able to read the machine.

(Subway tickets, Seoul, Korea)

The T-Money cards are usually charged once, and you can get to any location around Seoul until you run out of money on the card. If you put 10,000 Won, you can most likely get to 3 round trip destinations or more. This is why everyone in Korea uses the transportation card.

Using the T-Money cards on the taxis and buses are also very convenient. You scan the card at the destination on a taxi to pay, and you can scan the card once on the bus when entering, and once when you exit to get a discount.

If you are buying a one time ticket, make sure to insert the ticket into the recharging machine to get your 500Won back. This is a method of recycling, where people can give back their tickets for money back.

Recycling machine, Seoul, Korea

If the machine is not working or you need help with your purchase, there is an attendant at the ticket information booth nearby.

Entering the subway line entrance with the t-money cards or tickets

There is a subway entrance gate for every subway line, where you can insert your ticket and get it back as you enter once the metal bars go down. The T-money cards are scanned at the same gate. The cards are convenient to use because you do not have to take it out of your wallet when you scan the card. Make sure to hold onto your subway tickets and do not throw it away. You will need to re-scan it at your destination.

Sometimes, technical errors occur, and there will be a red X with the bars that will block you from entering. This either means that you are low on funds in your card, or there is some technical error. The attendant will help you in the booth on the right-hand side.

Subway gate, Seoul, Korea

Subway lines

The Seoul Metropolitan Subway is very convenient and easy to use once you understand the system and get used to riding it a few times. All you need to know is the color of the main subway lines, the direction that your subway is going, and the destination.

The subway lines are divided from 1-9 lines, plus 4 extra lines. The 4 extra lines are not used very often and are not in the major metropolitan areas. The 4th extra line is the line to get to the Incheon Airport, which is a completely separate train from the metropolitan subway.

Seoul Subway route map in Seoul, South Korea.

If you need to get to the airport, make sure that the train you are taking is the correct train. There is an express train and a regular train that arrives during specific time intervals. You can also line up behind the yellow lines while waiting for these trains.

The lines 1-9 are the major lines and are color coordinated into colors such as red, green, blue, etc. Maps are available at the information centers and are very useful to know which direction you need to go to.

(Subway lines, Seoul, Korea)

When leaving for your destination, make sure you know which color your line is, and another important step to know is the direction you need to go. A lot of people accidentally take the reverse direction, which makes them get off and purchase another ticket to go back the other way. When you get to the stairs, there are two sets of stairs on the left and the right.

These are usually the different directions for the subways in which you need to take. Make sure that the next stop reflects the direction you need to take to get on the correct subway.
There will be huge signs that will help you go to the correct subway.

Signs that point you to the correct direction on subway, Seoul, Korea

For example, when you are taking the green line to Jamsil from Sports Complex, make sure you take the direction of Jamsilsanae and not Jamsilnaru. These streets are very similar and are often mistaken for each other. The signs will always read the next stop on the colored line in the direction the subway is traveling.

(Subway green line route, Seoul, Korea)

There are subway trains called Express on all of these subway lines, and will be in the color red when you get to the subway stop.

The express is much faster so it is much better to take this instead of the regular one. However, a downside is that this train will most likely be packed with people during rush hour. It is common to see people pouring out of the subway and not being able to move at all inside the trains during rush hours.

The subway automatic voice system will tell people to get off and get on if you need to change color lines. Make sure to pay attention so that you can get off at the correct spot to change to a different colored line. If you are needing to take the yellow line from the green line, you must get off and change to a completely different subway line.

There are also exits when you exit the subway station. The exit numbers will point to where you need to exit, and these are the numbers where people usually meet in Korea. Your friend in Korea may say, “Let’s meet at Hongdae exit 9,” and they will meet you directly in front of the exit.

Exit numbers on subway signs, Seoul, Korea

Some safety tips

Even though there will be safety hazard signs in the subway and near the subway doors, one can never be too careful. Foreigners and tourists can be unfamiliar with Korean subways, so it is best to keep an eye out at all times while boarding the trains.

Yangpyeong, Korea – July 3, 2020: Yangsu station platform screen door

There have been a number of subway accidents before the glass doors were installed on Korean subways. A lot of accidents happened where people fell off onto the train tracks while waiting to board the train, and many have lost their lives or were severely injured.

Even though the installation of glass panes have prevented many accidents, there was still a case where a worker got stuck between the glass pane and the subway and was killed.

Glass panes in a subway station, Seoul, Korea

Therefore, always make sure to watch your step while boarding the subway. The glass pane will open first and then the door at times, so make sure to wait until the doors are completely opened. When waiting for the subway, stand behind the yellow line.

Seoul, Korea – April 10, 2017: Oksu station platform screen door with a passenger

When standing inside the subway, try not to stay too close to the door. It is best to stay inside on a seat or holding one of the safety bars while standing in the subway.

During rush hour, there are a lot of people who will try to board fast and will push you inside. Keep your balance and try to watch your step at all times. It is best to wait for the next train if the train is way too packed for safety reasons.

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  1. this is great. I am gonna use this guide when we can travel to Asia

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