Driving in Korea, Part 1

September 12, 2014

I briefly shared my car-buying experience in a previous post. I've had my car for three months now, so I'll go a bit deeper into how to buy a car and how to get a Korean license. I'll share my experience of what makes driving in Korea different from driving in Canada in a second post.

Buying a Car

Step 1: Look around.
Before buying my car, I had a look at the options that were available to me and which matched my needs/budget/things. The best way to do this was to look online. I used two websites: Encar (English) and 몰던카 (Korean). By perusing these websites regularly, I got a feel for what was available, what I wanted, as well as the reasonable price.

Step 2: Find the means.
Once I had a general idea of what I wanted, I had to figure out how to actually find what I wanted. The options for expats tend to be between buying from a fellow foreigner or finding a dealer/third-party. I opted for the latter; not necessarily as a conscious decision, but I just happened to meet a dealer as I was wandering around a used car lot. He didn't speak English, so I have to thank my auntie endlessly for her help (as always). If you buy from a foreigner, you have the benefit of them speaking English, but you don't necessarily have the ease of processing the Korean paperwork involved. I also find that cars sold by foreigners can be old and over-priced.

Step 3: Official things.
After finding the car you want, there's paperwork (ownership and insurance). This alone would be enough for me to recommend going through a Korean car dealer. Because I worked with a dealer, I honestly have no insight as to what was involved. He helped me shop around for insurance quotes, processed the paperwork, and I just had to sign the papers. On top of all this, he took the car to a mechanic nearby to ensure it was in good condition before signing the papers. 

Step 4: After buying.
Now for the fun part! Make your car yours (and safe)! Find a local service centre which caters to the make of your car to have it inspected. Having your car serviced in Korea is pretty cheap. I took my car in for a once-over which ended up costing me $110 and involved an oil change, the replacement of the surge tank (?) under the hood, and some wiring repairs behind the dashboard. Korea is also home to cute car accessories such as phone number plates (which I will explain in my next post) and other adorable accessories.

Getting a License

In terms of licensing, there are a few options. Please keep in mind that I'm Canadian and the process is slightly different depending where you're from.

International License
Before coming to Korea, I got an international license (which can be done at CAA by filling out a form and paying $20). This was a super easy process, but the license is only valid for one year and can only be processed in the country where you are licensed (although it can be done from Korea with help from a friend at home).

Exchanging a foreign license for a Korean license
Because my international license was about to expire, I decided to go for this option. By exchanging my foreign license for a Korean one, I wouldn't need to renew it every year and it's much cheaper in the long run.

The first step in exchanging my license was to go to Seoul to get a certificate from the Canadian Embassy (캐나다 대사관) stating that my Canadian drivers's license was valid. To do this, I went to the embassy (with my Canadian license, alien registration card, and passport), filled out a form, paid $50 (they only accept credit card), and I was out in 20 minutes.

My next step was to head to the licensing office located inside the Seoul Global Centre which was a short, 20 minute walk from the embassy. Once there, I was directed to the 5th floor where I found the single, small desk which processes licenses.

What you need: Embassy certificate, Canadian license, passport, alien registration card, 3 passport photos.

After filling out some forms, I was directed to the nearest hospital (which was literally across the street) in order to get a basic physical exam. This process was a lot less scary than I had anticipated; it required only a vision test and a visit with a physician who signed a piece of paper confirming that I had the body parts required to operate a vehicle. The hospital was freakishly efficient with nurses pointing me toward which numbered area I was to go to next. In the end, it took about 15 minutes and 8,000 won.

With my medical forms in hand, I headed back to the licensing booth in the Seoul Global Center. My forms were processed, I paid 7,500 won, and had my card in-hand within 5 minutes.
This license is valid for 10 years and is class 2 (which allows you to drive passenger vehicles, vans with less than 10 passengers, freight trucks less than 4 tons, special vehicles less than 3.5 tons, and motorized bikes under 125cc).

Exchanging my license meant that I had to surrender my Canadian license. If I want to get the Canadian license back, I have to return to the Seoul Global Centre with my passport, alien registration card, Korean license, and airline ticket. This must be done within 3 years or they toss it. As I understand it, you don't have to re-surrender your Korean license to get your Canadian one back. I don't completely understand the point of the process, but it is what it is.

Getting a Korean license
There is also the option of getting a Korean Driver's License from scratch (Thank you to my friend, Winnie, for sharing her experience!).

A perk of this option is that it can be done more conveniently at more places than just Seoul. Find the list of examination offices here. A non-perk is that it involves a bit more than just paperwork.

You should visit a KoROAD Examination Office as early in the day as possible. Bring your passport, Alien Registration Card, 3 passport photos and a bit of cash. Once there, you will fill out an application (which is available in English) and then watch an educational video (which has English subtitles). You will also need to complete a medical aka vision test.

The first test is a computer-based, written test which will assess your basic knowledge of how to operate and drive a vehicle. The English can be difficult to understand, but a pass is 60%. Once these initial steps are completed, you will need to schedule your first of two road tests. These can either be completed that same day (if there are spots available) or another day, but need to be completed within a year of the written test.

The next step is to take the Driving Course test. This will assess your skills in operating the vehicle both while stationary and in-motion. For this test, you are alone in the car with a GPS instructing you (possibly in English) how to operate the vehicle.

After the Driving Course test, you will sign up for the On-Road test. For this test, you are taken out into the streets with an instructor and possibly one other person who will do the test as well. This will test the entirety of your driving abilities; lane changes, parallel parking, etc.

Altogether, this option costs around $60 which makes it comparable to exchanging a foreign license. This license also permits you with the same qualifications as if you were to exchange your foreign license (it's valid for 10 years and is class 2).

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