The three letters that define much of the world's wireless capabilities are GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications). In the U.S., T-Mobile and AT&T Wireless use this quasi-universal system; in Canada, Microcell and some Rogers customers are GSM, and all Europeans and most Australians use GSM. Unfortunately, South Korean cellphone carriers use a different, highly specialized system, called CDMA, which is not compatible with GSM technology. Of special note, South Korea just began sales of iPhones at the end of 2009, and there are high hopes that compatibility issues will be diminished with incoming foreign phones.
For now, if you have a GSM mobile phone, you can rent a "SIM-compatible" handset from KTF and insert your phone's SIM card into the rental phone. KTF will charge you a cheaper rental fee (W1,300) per day and you'll be billed any roaming charges directly from your home cellphone carrier.
Call your wireless operator and ask to get the code to "unlock" your phone and to activate international roaming on your account. Some American and Canadian cellphone companies offer a loaner phone that has CDMA technology. Note that international roaming charges can be exorbitant, from $1 to $5 per minute.
For many, renting a phone is a better option. North Americans can rent one before leaving home from InTouch USA (tel. 800/872-7626; www.intouchglobal.com) or RoadPost (tel. 888/290-1606 or 905/272-5665; www.roadpost.com). For advice on whether your phone will work overseas, call InTouch at tel. 703/222-7161 from 9am to 4pm EST, or go to http://intouchglobal.com/travel.htm.
Two companies rent cellphones in South Korea. For both, you must reserve online (http://english.tour2korea.com) before you arrive. South Korea manufactures some of the best cellphones in the world and you will be amazed at the clarity of the calls and the availability of service around the country.
SK Telecom has a customer center at Incheon Airport (tel. 02/1566-2011; 24 hr.) on the first floor of the passenger terminal between exits 6 and 7. They also have a location at the Gimpo Airport (tel. 02/1566-2011; daily 7am-11pm) on the first floor of the international terminal on the opposite side of the arrival gates. Their location at Busan's Gimhae Airport (tel. 02/1566-2011; daily 7am-9:30pm) is on the first floor of the international terminal, across from the departure gates. You need to provide a credit card for deposit and your fee will be due when you return the phone, which you can do at any of the SK Telecom's three airport locations.
You can also rent a mobile phone from KTF Global Roaming Centers, which has more locations than SK Telecom. At Incheon Airport (tel. 02/2190-1180; 24 hr.), they're on the first floor of the passenger terminal between exits 10 and 11. At Busan's Gimhae Airport (tel. 02/2190-1180; daily 9am-9pm), you can find them on the first floor of the arrival hall, right next to the information desk. They also have a location at Busan International Port (tel. 02/1588-0608; daily 7am-7pm) on the first floor, near the check-in counter. In Jeju City, they have an office at Jeju KTF Members Plaza (on the first floor of Sung Woo B/D, Leedo-2-dong, Jeju City; tel. 064/711-8016; weekdays 9am-6pm, closed holidays). Their Gwangju Airport location (tel. 064/1588-0608; daily 7am-8pm) is on the second floor, near the departure gates.
Phones from either company cost W3,000 per day to rent (W2,000 if you sign up as a T2K member for free at http://english.visitkorea.or.kr). Domestic calls cost W100 per 10 seconds and international rates vary. All fees do not include the 10% VAT.
Buying a phone can be economically attractive, as many nations have cheap prepaid phone systems. Once you arrive at your destination, stop by a local cellphone shop and get the cheapest package; you'll probably pay less than W100 for a phone and a starter calling card. Local calls may be as low as W30 per minute.
Without Your Own Computer -- Internet service is offered in public places such as airports, train stations, and bus terminals in South Korea. PC bahngs (PC rooms), where you can rent an Internet-connected PC, usually populated by gaming enthusiasts (that is, young, nerdy males), and Internet cafes are easy to find throughout the country. Many PC bahngs are open 24 hours and some have snack bars that offer beverages, noodles, and other food. Just look for the letters PC around town. Most of them are on higher floors in commercial buildings.
Many love motels, especially in metropolitan areas, offer high-speed Internet access with an in-room computer. Just be sure to ask for an Internet room when you check in.
To find cybercafes in your destination, check www.cybercafe.com and www.world66.com/netcafeguide.
With Your Own Computer -- South Korea's Internet connectivity is legendary as it leads the world in Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity) hot spots. However, the plethora of hot spots doesn't mean that they're friendly to travelers. Many high-end hotels, resorts, airports, cafes, and retailers offer free high-speed Wi-Fi access or charge a small fee for usage. Most laptops sold today have built-in wireless capability. To find public Wi-Fi hot spots at your destination, go to www.jiwire.com; its Hotspot Finder holds the world's largest directory of public wireless hot spots. Since the majority of Wi-Fi hot spots are owned by previously government-controlled Korea Telecom (KT), it's best to get a prepaid Wi-Fi card, available at the KT Plaza at Incheon Airport (in the middle of the second floor; daily 7am-8pm). Prepaid cards come in W3,000 and W12,000 denominations and expire after a few months. The former is good for 60 minutes of access within a 24-hour period, while the latter allows unlimited access. For dial-up access, most business-class hotels throughout the world offer dataports for laptop modems, and most hotels in South Korea offer free or low-cost, high-speed Internet access.
Bring a connection kit of the right power and phone adapters, a spare phone cord, and a spare Ethernet network cable -- or find out if your hotel supplies them. Most of South Korea is on a 220-volt, 60-cycle system (the plugs with two round prongs), but a few major hotels have 110-volt, 60-cycle systems. Be sure you have the right adapter before plugging in your computer. The universal adapter is virtually impossible to find once you're in South Korea, but they may have some at E-Mart (Korea's Wal-Mart) or the Electronic Market.
The South Korean government censors certain types of websites, including pornography and political sites. Generally, though, you shouldn't have any trouble accessing content online.
To call South Korea:
1. Dial the international access code: 011 from the U.S.; 00 from the U.K., Ireland, or New Zealand; or 0011 from Australia.
2. Dial the country code 82.
3. Dial the city code (2 for Seoul, 51 for Busan) and then the number.
For example, if you are calling KTO Tourist Information Center in Seoul from the U.K., you would dial 00-82-2-729-9497. Phone numbers in South Korea are either seven or eight digits long (not including the area code).
To make international calls: First dial 001, 002, or 008 and then the country code (U.S. or Canada 1, U.K. 44, Ireland 353, Australia 61, New Zealand 64). Next, dial the area code and number. For example, if you wanted to call the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., you would dial 001-1-202-588-7800. The numbers to dial out for mobile phone carriers vary (for example, 00345, 00365, 00388, 00700, 00727, 00766, and 00770). If you're renting a Korean cellphone, find out the international dialing number from your mobile phone company.
For directory assistance: Dial tel. 114 if you're looking for a number inside the country (tel. 0077 for an international operator). You can also call the Korea Travel Phone (tel. 1330).
For operator assistance: If you need operator assistance, dial tel. 0077 if you're trying to make an international call and tel. 114 if you want to call a number in South Korea.
Toll-free numbers: Numbers beginning with 800 within South Korea are toll-free, but calling a 1-800 number in the States from South Korea is not toll-free. In fact, it costs the same as an overseas call.
There are three kinds of public phones in South Korea -- ones that take coins, phone cards, and credit cards. Coin phones will give you change, but only up to W100 coins. Telephone cards can be purchased in small shops near phone booths, convenience stores, or banks and can be used for both local and international calls. Cards come in denominations of W2,000, W3,000, W5,000, or W10,000. A local call costs W70 for 3 minutes, with intercity and long-distance calls costing considerably more. Credit card phones allow you to use your credit card instead of a phone card.
Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP)
If you have Web access while traveling, you might consider a broadband-based telephone service (in technical terms, Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP) such as Skype (www.skype.com) or Vonage (www.vonage.com), which allows you to make free international calls if you use their services from your laptop or in a cybercafe. The people you're calling must also use the service for it to work (or otherwise there is an additional charge); check the sites for details. You can also use iChat or AIM to use a webcam to talk to anyone in the world.