No official vaccinations are required to visit South Korea.
General Availability of Healthcare
Modern medical facilities are widely available in South Korea. However, treatment can be expensive for foreigners and English-speaking doctors can be difficult to find outside the major cities. Contact the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers (IAMAT; tel. 716/754-4883, or in Canada 416/652-0137; www.iamat.org) for lists of local, English-speaking doctors. Medical facilities usually require an upfront deposit or proof of insurance before providing care.
Although it's easy to find over-the-counter medication in South Korea, it doesn't hurt to pack an antidiarrhea drug, just in case. Also, remember to bring any prescription medications with you, since most doctors and pharmacists outside of Seoul do not speak English. If you do run out of a prescription, don't worry. Most major medications are available in the big cities, and Koreans' knowledge of English is much better in reading and writing than in speaking -- if you write down the name of the drug you need, you'll likely get it.
Dietary Red Flags -- Food and water-borne diseases are the most common ailment travelers experience. Take precautions and make sure you bring an antidiarrhea medicine. Children are at a higher risk of getting dehydrated, so make sure they get plenty of fluids.
Drinking tap water in South Korea is not recommended, but all restaurants and even offices and banks offer free filtered or bottled water. You can purchase 500ml bottles of water at convenience stores for W500.
Bugs, Bites & Other Wildlife Concerns -- Although mosquitoes can be fierce in South Korea in the summertime, the risk of contracting malaria is quite low in most of the country. Malaria risk is limited to the areas near the DMZ and rural areas in northern Gyeonggi and Gangwon provinces. Malaria is transmitted by infected mosquitoes, usually between dusk and dawn. Try to remain indoors or in screened-in areas during peak times. If you must be outside, wear a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, and a hat. Be sure to use an insect repellant that contains DEET for any exposed areas of skin. The U.S. CDC recommends chloroquine as the antimalarial drug in South Korea, but check with your doctor before taking any medication.
Respiratory Illnesses -- Air pollution used to be a severe problem in South Korea, but tighter environmental controls have improved the air somewhat. However, in the larger cities, especially Seoul, air pollution is still a major problem. If you have asthma or respiratory issues, travel by subway and avoid long exposures to automobile exhaust.
Sporadically in the springtime, Asian/yellow dust storms from the deserts of Mongolia, northern China, and Kazakhstan kick up dense soil particles that winds carry all the way to South Korea. This wouldn't be such a problem if the dust didn't also carry so much pollution from Chinese industry. If you have a sensitive respiratory system, it's best to stay indoors when these dust storms are severe, since even face masks won't filter out the fine particles.
Avian & Swine Flus -- South Korea experienced its first cases of avian (H5N1) flu at the end of 2003 when 400,000 chickens on a farm were infected. In late 2006, 6,000 chickens on a farm, which lay in the path of migratory birds, died of avian flu. There were several confirmed cases of people contracting the flu, but no confirmed deaths. Still, make sure that any poultry you eat is well cooked.
South Korea confirmed its first cases of swine (H1N1) flu in May 2009 and thousands of cases were reported by the end 2009. There were nine confirmed deaths (mostly elderly and frail patients). By the end of 2009, over nine million people (mostly soldiers, children, medical workers, and the elderly) were given free vaccines.
Take precautionary measures like washing your hands often with soap and water (or use an alcohol-based hand cleaner) and avoiding touching your eyes, mouth, and nose.
Sun/Elements/Extreme Weather Exposure -- Summers are hot and humid in South Korea. If you plan on spending any time outdoors, be sure to bring a hat, sunblock, and sunglasses. Summer is also typhoon season. Although most typhoons lose their strength by the time they make it to the peninsula, some have caused deaths in rare cases. Avoid areas along the coast when there are typhoon warnings.
What to Do If You Get Sick Away from Home
Before leaving home, find out what medical services your health insurance covers. Consider buying extra insurance.
Medical facilities are modern and widely accessible in South Korea. English-speaking doctors are available at hospitals and international clinics in Seoul and other larger cities, but in rural areas they're difficult to find.
If you suffer from a chronic illness, consult your doctor before your departure. Pack prescription medications in your carry-on luggage, and carry them in their original containers, with pharmacy labels. Carry the generic name of prescription medicines. Most medicines are available in South Korea and most pharmacists can read English, but may require a Korean doctor's slip to fill a prescription.
Although the crime rate in South Korea is very low, petty crime (such as pickpocketing) exists in big cities such as Seoul and Busan. As in any city, be aware of your surroundings, don't walk alone at night, and use only official public transport and taxis.
Every so often, political and student riots become violent and have been terminated by the release of tear gas by riot police. Demonstrations are usually held in front of universities, near U.S. Army installations, in front of city halls, and at Seoul Station. If you see police in riot gear or groups of protestors, avoid the area.
Possessing illegal drugs is frowned upon in the country -- so don't do it. Penalties for possession of, use of, or trafficking in illegal drugs in South Korea are severe. Korean authorities scan suspicious postal packages. If convicted, you can expect long jail sentences, heavy fines, and deportation at the end of the sentence.
Check with the U.S. State Department (tel. 888/407-4747 or 202/501-4444; http://travel.state.gov) for last-minute travel warnings before departing.
Dealing with Discrimination
South Korea is a homogeneous country. Koreans can be xenophobic, but they are usually quite friendly. When traveling in South Korea, you may experience some gawking (staring isn't considered particularly rude) or an occasional student wanting to practice his or her English.
Ever since the Korean War, Koreans have had a love-hate relationship with Americans. There have been reports of harassment of Westerners (and fights, especially in bars) in the Hongdae and Sincheon areas of Seoul. Some nightclubs and certain establishments may not let you in if you are a foreigner, if you're not dressed properly, or if you're considered too old.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.