Entering South Korea amid COVID-19

My whole family lives in South Korea and I haven’t met my family and close friends for almost 2 years since I had to cancel my flight to Korea in Feb this year due to the COVID-19 outbreak. My company has been flexible in allowing me to work from South Korea and I am grateful to be working from my homeland until the end of this year.

For anyone who might be interested in entering South Korea during the pandemic, I wanted to share my firsthand experience flying to South Korea.

1. The fastest check-in time ever: Flying from San Francisco International Airport (SFO) to Incheon Airport (ICN), Korea

We flew on an 11:30 pm Korean Air from San Francisco Airport (SFO). When we arrived at SFO, there were barely any people waiting in line to check-in regardless of which class you were flying, and we were finished with our check-in process in less than 10 minutes. A staff member at Korean Air told me the airport has been vacant since the outbreak of the pandemic in March 2020.

Empty SFO

2. The entire trip felt safe: people were staying 6 feet apart from each other at the airport and the airplane was at ~30% capacity.

In line with the emptiness of the SFO, our airplane was at ~30% capacity too. It was a pleasant and comfortable trip as there were a lot of empty seats where I could lie down to sleep. I was able to sleep 5–6 hours during the 13-hour flight and felt well-rested after the trip relative to other flights where I could barely sleep sitting up sandwiched between people on both sides. Everyone is required to wear a face-covering during the entire flight except for eating or drinking. As there were fewer people on board, crew members were more responsive to our requests and our meals were served and cleaned up more promptly than it used to.

Additional note if you are flying Korean Air: try bibimbap which is the signature inflight meal in Korean Air. It is a healthy mixed bowl with stirred minced beef, various namul (a vegetable dish mixed with seasonings, sesame seeds, sesame oil), and gochujang, a spicy chilly-based sauce. I was glad to have bibimbap on my flight back to Korea :)

3. Entering South Korea: downloading the COVID-19 app and getting tested for COVID-19 at a local health center

All incoming Korean nationals and foreigners submitted the quarantine document where people declared which countries they have visited in the past and if they had any symptoms resembling COVID-19 (e.g. fever, dry cough, headache, etc.). We were also required to download the ‘COVID-19’ app. For the entire quarantine period, we are required to enter the current temperature in the app two times (am, pm). After exiting the gate, the staff at the airport guided us on how we can get to our Airbnb.

Specialized cabs to transport people entering South Korea
Cab had a plastic screen guard to separate us from the driver.

After taking a shower and unpacking our luggage, we went to the designated local health center to get tested for COVID-19; this had to be done within 3 days (24 hours for those staying in Seoul). We received the result that we tested negative for COVID-19 in less than 24 hours via text message (it took me about a week to get the COVID-19 test result in the U.S.).

4. Let the quarantine begin: 2-week quarantine is mandatory for all Koreans and foreigners entering Korea

Upon arrival in Korea, Korean nationals and foreigners are required to quarantine for 14 days. Korean nationals may stay with their family with cautions, or those who do not have a place to stay may find a designated government facility or Airbnb at their own cost. We found an Airbnb for my husband, our cat, and I to stay together.

Spotted a sunrise on the way to our Airbnb

South Korea has legislated strict laws toward those who do not comply with the 14-day quarantine. Korean nationals who come outside during the 2-week quarantine may be subject to imprisonment or penalty; and foreigners may be deported to their home countries.

There are various grocery shopping or food delivery apps that make the quarantine a bit easier (though the 2-week quarantine, by nature, is tough). For grocery and eCommerce shopping, I used ‘Coupang’ and was able to get some packages delivered at my doorstep within 24 hours. For food delivery apps, I recommend ‘Baemin’ which has a range of food options.

All in all, my impression of entering Korea has been mainly two-fold:

1/ the entire airplane ride felt safe and at ease, and Korea has built a tight control system that seems to work.

2/ 2-week quarantine is quite dreadful.

I am excited to be meeting my family members and friends who I haven’t met for the past two years after the 2-week quarantine. Two years is a long enough time where my friends gave birth to their first daughters! I am looking forward to the good foods, quality time with family and friends, and spending the Christmas holiday in Korea!

It’s my first time staying indoors for the entire two weeks and today is my 2nd day of quarantine. I am a bit worried about staying indoors for the entire period, but hopefully, the time will go fast and I will be out exploring South Korea in no time (I’m counting the days before I can go outside.)!

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Sujin Park

My long-term vision is to make a positive impact on society, and sharing my learnings via blogs is one of the endeavors to make my vision a reality.