Editor’s note: This post is a second of three reviews of my recent travels to Korea. Check out the first post of the series to learn more about what it’s like to fly transpacific during the coronavirus!
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The pandemic has upended nearly every aspect of our daily lives — that’s no secret.
It’s especially true for travel, with flight schedules being slashed and many travelers now being subjected to quarantines if they arrive from other countries.
For me, the latter held true. In my years of coming in and out of South Korea, where I was born, I never had to undergo anything like what I just went through. Requirements to pass a health screening and quarantine upon arrival are new obstacles to crossing borders. My recent experience reminding me just how coronavirus radically changed our once-globalized world.
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So, what was it like?
That’s probably a question a lot of people are wondering these days as many countries impose similar requirements for inbound travelers. I’m sharing my experience to give our readers a sense of what to expect.
What was it like?
I found it mostly painless, but the self-quarantine wasn’t without its challenges. Scarier than the quarantine requirement itself was failing my temperature check upon arrival to Seoul’s Incheon Airport (ICN) and being escorted by soldiers and public health officials to an official government quarantine location.
It all turned out okay – my COVID test came back negative and I’ve made it through the 14-day quarantine. But read on if you’re curious to see more details of my experience.
And, please note that since I have resident status in South Korea, I was able to avail myself of a self-quarantine option that’s not available to most Americans traveling to the country. For more on that, scroll down to the very bottom of this post for a more detailed view of what foreigners without resident status can expect when arriving to South Korea.
Arriving, Testing and Isolating at Incheon Airport
As I was walking to the immigration stands at Seoul’s Incheon Airport (ICN) after my long Delta flight from Seattle (SEA), I felt a little bit hot.
Maybe it was because I was wearing a jacket and long pants while lugging a heavy suitcase. Perhaps it was because Seoul is usually humid around mid-July — and, indeed, the air was moist as I arrived during a rain storm.
But the last thing that came to mind was the possibility that I might be sick. I spent nearly three months cooped up inside my room prior to departure from the U.S., doing my best to isolate during the pandemic. I made sure to be as hygienic as possible and — just to be extra cautious — I even paid more money just to give myself some space on my flights by booking a Comfort+ seat on my Delta itinerary from Phoenix to Seoul.
Was it possible that all of that was not enough? That was a particularly worrying possibility since I was arriving to South Korea amid a global pandemic and concerns about admitting overseas visitors, especially when coming from a global hotspot like the United States.
I made it to Incheon airport’s quarantine stands, where a temperature check was required for arriving overseas visitors. Then came the jolt: My temperature scan showed a temperature of 38.2 degrees Celsius — or about 100 Fahrenheit). Officials ran three checks on me to rule out an aberrant high temperature, but there was no such luck.I failed the temperature screening.
Next, a staff member gave me a lanyard that indicated my “symptomatic” status and redirected me to a health station just a couple of feet away.
Related: TPG’s ultimate coronavirus checklist
When I got there, several doctors were behind plexiglass stands. They recorded my information on a form.
Then, airport workers in protective gear took my passport, gave me a new N-95 mask and gloves to wear and pointed me to an isolation stand. I remained there for about 40 minutes, resting and filling out more paperwork. I later realized that the purpose of this seemed to be to have me wait until most of the flights from North America had arrived — presumably neither I nor any of the other isolating passengers would accidentally come into contact with other travelers.
While waiting in the isolation area, I had to verify my self-quarantining address with the Korean soldiers.
Normally, foreign visitors to South Korea would not be allowed this step and would automatically be directed to a government facility. But — under the premise that I was healthy — I had permission to self-quarantine as I have legal status in the country. I was planning to do so at an Airbnb, which certain regions in Korea have begun to approve because of overflow at government-run facilities. To do so, I was required to rent out an entire place where I could guarantee I would not have to share common spaces with any other individuals.
Still, I was warned that the Korean government can give extra scrutiny to those who say they’ll self-quarantine at Airbnbs. (And, again, this option is not available to most foreign visitors.)
I had been told by my residence’s owner to be prepared for the possibility of tough questions from government officials and that I should have my Airbnb documentation ready for inspection. Follow-up requests were to be expected, I was told, and I should be prepared.
Thankfully — and I’m not sure if this was because I was initially considered symptomatic — the soldier who ran this step with me only asked if I had a valid Korean cell phone number and what my address would be when I was cleared to self-quarantine. Either way, I considered myself lucky. I’ve heard multiple anecdotes that the process often is much more intense than what I had gone through.
Soldiers then escorted a group of us down to the airfield apron outside the terminal, where several testing facilities were installed. They conducted a quick coronavirus nasal swab test (which didn’t hurt as I had expected it to) and we were quickly escorted back inside our isolation area, where they told us to pack up our bags.
Immigration and customs would have been quick had it not been for a fellow passenger whose bags Delta had lost en route. This slowed down the process as an airline official came to confer with the public health personnel accompanying us, presumably to sort out the bag situation.
As the process wore on, part of me wondered if I could just go back to the States! I needed to be here, but crossing borders right now sure did feel complicated. Eventually we were cleared to move on to the next step of the process.
Sneak Peek of Government Quarantine in Korea
So, how did the government quarantine process work?
It started off by having us exit to the main airport lobby, where we were then taken directly to a corner of the airport where we would not come into contact with anyone. We waited until buses from the National Fire Agency arrived to take us to our government facility, where we would stay until our test results came back.
I had heard conflicting stories about the kinds of facilities we might be sent to. Again, I think I came out on the lucky side of things here. As it turned out for me, the Korean government rented out an entire Best Western Premier near Incheon Airport. Where you get sent depends on capacity, and isolating passengers could get sent to isolate at a different facility – there are no guarantees.
For me, though, the Best Western Premier seemed like a solid option — at least compared to what I had heard some of the other possibilities were — and I was glad this is where I was sent.
Upon arrival, I went through another check-in process run by public health officials and soldiers. They reconfirmed my personal information and my phone number, so that I could easily be contacted. That went relatively quickly, then I received dinner and went off to my room. Just to give you a sense on how long all these steps took, my Delta flight from Seattle arrived at 4:15 p.m. local time; I arrived in my room around 8 p.m. — so about four hours from landing to hotel.
The hotel room was really nice and spacious, especially given that I was traveling by myself. It had most of the amenities that a normal hotel room would have, minus a coffee pot and a stocked refrigerator. I was given two water bottles, and I was able to ask the lobby to send more.
Dinner for the night?
That was a nice, hearty convenience-store bibimbap, which had the typical rice, veggies, meat and the spicy gochujang paste (hidden underneath the container that had the veggies). TPG reviewers love this meal, calling it one of the must-haves if ever going on Korean Air’s business class. Obviously, the meal you’ll get in business class will be much nicer than what you can get at a convenience store — which is what I had.
After failing the temperature check, I thought I might be in for an extended stay at the hotel. But the government was quick those who tested negative out of the hotel and on their way. I was informed of my COVID test results via a 5 a.m. call from the hotel lobby, with the caller adding that I had one hour to pack up and vacate. Under normal circumstances, I would have had to pay for my stay — but because I was only there until I got my results back, there was no charge. (You would have to pay for a full, 14-day quarantine).
Next up: the Airbnb that I had originally selected and pre-paid for my self-quarantine.
Self-quarantining at an Airbnb
After leaving the Best Western Premier, National Fire Service buses took me back to Incheon Airport’s Terminal 1 along with other passengers who received negative results.
Upon arrival at the airport, police officers lined us up to give orange stickers that indicated we were planning to self-quarantine.
Also coming from the same hotel were passengers who did not qualify to self-quarantine, meaning they only had short-term visas or no visas at all. Those visitors got back on the same buses to be taken to a different government facility where they would resume their 14-day quarantine.
While back at the airport, most areas were off-limits to us as part of the effort to keep us in a sterile bubble. But, with permission from a police officer, I was able to quickly grab something to eat and drink at a convenience store.
I took all my luggage and went to the counters for those heading to Seoul. Because Seoul is relatively close to the airport, I had multiple transportation options. I could take either a special bus or a government-approved taxi, both designated for individuals coming from abroad who needed to self-quarantine. Under pre-pandemic circumstances, I would have taken the Airport Express train into the city, but that was not permitted as I had to minimize contact with other people.
If you’re traveling to regions beyond Seoul, the process becomes a little bit more complicated. For example, if I were to go to Busan — which is roughly 200 miles away from the airport — I’d first have to take a government-designated shuttle to Gwangmyeong Station, where I’d then take an approved KTX (Korea’s high speed rail) that has designated rail cars reserved exclusively for those arriving form overseas destinations. Afterwards, I would have had to take another coronavirus test in case I had contracted the virus while traveling, and then I would be taken home to begin the 14-day self-quarantine there.
One interesting side note to the experience applies to those living in Jeju Island, sometimes referred to as Korea’s Hawaii. They win the prize for the most complicated and expensive arrival process. After landing at Incheon, they’re taken by a disinfected taxi to Seoul’s Gimpo Airport — a closer-in airport that’s roughly equivalent to LaGuardia for New York — and then must go on a flight where three rows of seating surrounding the passenger would be emptied for social distancing. Afterwards, they would need to undergo another round of testing.
Seoul requires a test upon entering the city as well, but because I was tested at the airport the previous day, I was exempted from that requirement. So instead, my government-approved taxi took me straight to my Airbnb where I just recently finished my self-quarantine.
Until then, I wasn’t able to leave my room for 14 days and had to use an app to report my body temperature and any possible symptoms I noticed. I could, however, order delivery food — as long as I paid in advance and received all deliveries to my door, so that I wouldn’t have to leave my Airbnb residence.
It used to be that Seoul sent out a massive care package with all sorts of food items, but that ended in late May. Some regions are still delivering such packages for those coming from abroad. However, the government did send me a health-kit package that included biohazard waste disposal bags, masks, hand sanitizers and disposable thermometers.
Don’t get me wrong; the government didn’t have to send me anything. I’m grateful for everything that I’ve gotten, which I think has only elevated my quarantining experience — whether inside a government facility or at my own Airbnb.
This entire process, I felt, was really complicated. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t necessary given the realities of the pandemic.
None of it is ideal and it’s unfortunate that crossing international borders has become extremely difficult. Nowadays, even crossing state borders has become a daunting challenge in the U.S. as authorities struggle to get a grip on the pandemic.
In a country as dense as Korea, catching coronavirus should be a lot easier than in the United States — yet the opposite has become true. While the government has taken steps to develop an impressive contact tracing system that has helped greatly, it’s the citizens who contributed greatly to making a safe environment by wearing masks and actively practicing social distancing.
That being said, my experience has confirmed for me, once again, that people should not ignore the power of masks. It might be cumbersome and annoying to wear this thin sheet on a hot, summer day — but that sheet can delay or speed up how quickly we are able to get back to running our normal lives.
Stay tuned for my last story in this series, in which I review what flying and traveling were like from my experiences in late March and mid-July.
Extra: Process for MOST International Arrivals at ICN
The experience I described above is not the experience that most international visitors will get when coming to South Korea during the pandemic.
Unless you have long-term visa, you will not be able to choose your own self-quarantine option like I did. Instead, you will have to quarantine at location overseen by the government.
While I did not personally undergo this process described below, this is what most international arrivals to South Korea could expect when arriving to the country. (This information was accurate as of July.)
- You will go through the quarantine stands, where staff members from the Ministry of Health and Welfare check your body temperature and ask if you have any COVID related symptoms and medications that you may have consumed. At this point, they will also check if you have downloaded relevant apps for the 14-day quarantine depending on the staff member.
- Assuming that you are considered non-symptomatic, you proceed to stands (depending on your legal status in Korea) where a soldier of the Korean Army will check for your self-quarantine eligibility. For most foreigners without a specific visa, you will get documentation for the mandatory 14-day government quarantine; if you disagree to any portions of the government quarantine, you may be asked to leave the country. App status may be checked again in this stage.
- Travelers undergoing government quarantine may be asked to group together afterwards to prevent anyone defecting, overseen by either a public health official or a police officer who will escort through the following steps.
- You will go through passport checks and submit relevant immigration forms, just as you would have done before the pandemic. Afterwards, you pick up your luggage and go through customs.
- After exiting to the main lobby, police officers (if they haven’t already) may separate those who are self-quarantining and are going to a government facility. At this time, the National Fire Agency provides buses for those undergoing government quarantine.
- Upon arrival at the government-run facility, public health officials and soldiers in the Korean Army will go through a “check-in” process with you. At this point, you will pay 2.1 million KRW (roughly $1,760, depending on the prevailing currency exchange rate) per person. All meals and coronavirus testing conducted during this time will be covered with this payment.
Featured photo by Brian Kim / The Points Guy