How to Ride the Seoul Subway Like a Local: Etiquette and Tips

If you’re traveling to Korea, you will most likely find yourself using the Seoul Subway system. It’s fast, cheap and convenient. But before you hop on that train, you should read this post so you know the subway etiquette in Korea!

Don’t Sit in the Priority Seating (Stank Eye Warning!)

So maybe you decided to go hiking at Bukhan Mountain and you’re on your way back. You’re sweaty, stinky and most of all tired, but all the seats are taken – all except for the priority seats at the end of the subway cars. You might be tempted to sit there, but you shouldn’t. Here’s a little secret… it’s a death trap! Well… culturally at least. Korean people really don’t like it when non-pregnant, non-elderly, uninjured people sit there. Even when the Seoul subways are extra full, people will avoid sitting there because they want to make sure that people who actually need those seats can sit down easily. Also, they are afraid of Korean stank eye. Scary!

Tip 1: These seats are also reserved for little children as well.
Tip 2: Koreans usually don’t sit there, and think “I’ll just get up when someone comes.” Leaving those seats empty is normal protocol. Try to do the same :)

Give Up Your Seat To Be Awesome!

If you’re sitting in the middle seats, you’re totally ok to just sit and watch that last episode of Gossip Girls on your smart phone. No one will say anything, and they shouldn’t! But… if you want to be an awesome Seoul subway rider, you should give up your seat for those that need it more than you do. That means pregnant women, the elderly, injured people, and in Korea… children! One of the awesome things about Korean culture is that it’s focused on helping each other, and the subways are really excellent places to see this in action. Help out a Korean that needs a seat, and the mayor of Seoul might just give you the totally unofficial “Seoul Awesome Subway Rider Award”! Yay!

Language tip: 앉으세요 (anjeuseyo) – Please sit.

Be a Righty on the Escalators

Have you ever been frustrated by slow walkers? You know… those people that are always in your way and have no idea that you’re trying to get past them? Don’t be that person. Nothing’s more frustrating than congested foot traffic, and the escalators found at the Seoul subway stations are excellent places to be locked behind a Korean couple that have no idea that 32 people are waiting to walk ahead of them! If you’re not planning on walking up the escalators, stay to the right and let everyone walk past you on the left. Some people in Korea forget to do it, but keep in mind that it’s what you’re supposed to do. Also, you’re supposed to give a high five to everyone that passes you by! “Come’on ajumma, high-five!”

Tip: 잠시만요 (jamsimanyo) – excuse me

Be Cool with Pushing and Shoving

For whatever reason, a lot of Korean people don’t say excuse me on the subways. Maybe it’s their aversion of talking to strangers in Korea. But instead of a polite little “excuse me” from someone about to get off, you might just get a forearm shiver to your lower back. That’s mostly the older Korean people who are probably humming Ludacris’ Move B—- when they’re shoving people out the way. The younger people though, tend to be just as annoyed as you!

What can you do about it? Be cool homie! When you’re getting off, you can of course, say “excuse me” (see language tip below), and people will move away just the same. You have the option of shoving everyone right back too. But if you’re reading this… you’re cool! So stay cool, friends ;)

Language tip:
잠시만요 (jamsimanyo) – excuse me.
내릴게요 (naerilgeyo) – I’m getting off.

Seoul Subway Do’s and Don’ts – Stuff You Already Know (or Should!)

Sometimes, people can forget some common subway etiquette that is translatable nearly every where in the world (Koreans and foreigners alike!). But we’re going to play the common sense police just in case ;). Here are some common subway etiquettes for riding the subway in Korea:

1. Talk at normal decible levels – that goes for phones and super hilarious jokes.
2. Sit on seats (wow, can’t believe we just wrote that!). Unless you want to make the Korean news like these guys.
3. There are plenty of trains. Try not to hold doors.
4. Seats are for people. Put your bags up on top.
5. Sleeping is ok, just don’t make the subway your bed ;)

Got any other local Seoul subway tips? Share with us in the comments section!

About Keith

Keith Kim is a Korean-American living in Seoul, Korea. He likes espresso shots, photography art and he loves his Playstation 3. He started seoulistic.com as a hobby site, and is now in the process of turning it into a full-time business. Wish him luck! Check out his blog for an uncensored view on entrepreneurship, dating and life in Korea. Personal Blog: gyopokeith.com Facebook: facebook.com/gyopokeithkim Twitter: @gyopokeith Youtube: "Gyopokeith e-mail me anytime at: gyopokeith [at] gmail.com

33 comments

  1. An excellent article and sorely needed. Interestingly, I’ve observed almost the exact same social rules in Japan on both trains and buses. Most of its probably common-sense really but easy to forget in a car-culture if you know what I mean.

  2. Yes! Japan and Korea have very similar public transportation etiquettes. But I can tell you, NYC is a bit different :P

  3. Righty

    Escalator tip is incorrect.

    Whilst Metro 9 and the provincial networks seem free of rules (being privately/seperately owned), the Seoul City and Korail-owned lines 1 through 8 regularly have large signs in Korean posted all over the shot reminding you to block both lanes and never walk. Nowadays, its a civic pride thing (Seoul’s sparkling escalator culture or somesuch) but the rule harkens back to the earlier days of the network to reduce uneven pressure on the mechanics.

  4. You’re right righty! (haha)
    But eventho the signs say don’t do it, I see it everyday at ALL subway stations. So that’s why I included the tip. Might not be what the government wants, but it’s what Korean people do ;)

  5. Okay..that escalator last tip so far was the most hilarious! Come on who would actually high-5 a total stranger?! And I know Koreans can get abit intimidated by English-speaking like us. Yup been there, done that. But I do wish to go again!! Feels like home there~♥

  6. If we see (non-qualifying) expats sitting in the priority seats, should we say something? Or just join in the stank-eye?

  7. I think it’s up to you! Most people probably won’t say anything, but if there’s a person that really needs the seat, a suggestion is always nice :)

  8. Gabriel

    I really enjoyed the tips!! I like a lot the korean culture, as soon as possible I’ll make a visit!
    Cngrats 4 the website, it’s helping a lot!!
    CYA!

  9. Miem

    oh this article reminded me of my own experiences travelling in Korea~ i did some of the good stuffs listed back then~ IM PROUD OF MYSELF~ ^___^

  10. Wiwik

    I like the tips about the right and left at the escalator. I was in Seoul last fall and forgot about that rule…no wonder I get grumpy look from some business suit guy, who looked in a hurry.. and I was there standing on the right side of the escalator…then I said, oopsss

    Love the website!!

  11. Thanks all! Great you’re liking the tips and the site! :)

  12. Umut

    Its same in Turkey , too…

  13. Andre

    Another one for “Be Awesome” section: if you see an empty seat next to you on one side and and a girl (sitting on another side) talks to her boyfriend/mom/friend/you-name-it who is standing – move to the empty seat and expect and polite “Thank you”

  14. Nice one Andre! ;)

  15. Angel

    When I was in Korea last year I didn’t sit in the priority seats for fear of doing something wrong (even when the whole car was next to empty). But during my stay I saw a lot of Korean teens and people in their 20’s who sat in those seats.

  16. Eva

    Sat in the priority seat once….. BAD MEMORIES. =_= Don’t ever sit there, really… Those ahjussis were close to actually killing me with their stares!

  17. AJ

    OMG remembered sitting on those priority seats from seoul to incheon subway and i was wondering why people are staring weirdly at me LOL. realized later what i had done, it’s really a bad experience..

  18. drcute

    OMG i cant believe that that that!!!
    i just saw the pic in last paragraph 2nd point !
    how can this foreigners sit on floor and playing cards n drinking!its really illegal and disturbing thing!
    i think they know korean rules and just they wana be rebel law-rule breakers!!!
    but this action showing how they have light personality!!!
    hey guys! its not ur livingroom..its a public transportation
    aiguuuuuuuu

  19. wobee

    I sat at the priority seat twice! LOL

    first time was intentional, i mean an ahjumma invited me to sit so i sat beside her.

    the 2nd one was accidental, i was so tired during the day’s tour so when i got on the train i sat at the nearest empty seat.

    i don’t remember experiencing the stank eye, or maybe i just didn’t noticed :D

  20. Swee

    Thanks for this post. I have to bear in mind when I am in Seoul to stand to the right of the escalator. In Spore, it is the opposite, stand on left side and walk on right.

  21. unkichikun

    Remember,
    none of the rules above apply to ajumma and ajussi, they rule the subway and can do exactly.as.they.want.
    talking loudly, pushing you, sleeping on your shoulder, etc…

  22. Hema

    Literally just found this site and can’t get enough of it. This post is especially hilarious and I’m glad I’m not the only one that sings to that Ludacris song in my head although I always say excuse me.
    Good job Keith :)