It’s always good to do some research before traveling to another country, and part of that process involves figuring out how you’re going to navigate while there. As intimidating as it may seem, I’ve narrowed down five applications outside of the common Google scope that will make things easier if you’re planning on visiting South Korea.
Papago (네이버 파파고) is a translation application that is owned by Naver, a Korean corporation. Unlike other translation apps, Papago can translate speech, text, and images for its users. When I first moved, sometimes I was a bit lazy about having to type out phrases I didn’t understand on menus or signs, so I would just take a picture, highlight the text, and have the app translate it for me. Though doing it this way doesn’t always give the most accurate results, it’s still pretty useful. I’ve found that Google Translate is pretty bad as far as translating goes for Korean, so I solely use this app for quick translations when I need it. Quick tip though: translation apps are best for short phrases or words. I wouldn’t go typing a full-length paragraph or anything and expect locals to understand. I also want to give a small shout-out of sorts to Naver Dictionary, which is another fantastic choice for translation, though I would attribute this one as leaning more towards academic translation. I solely use this when it comes to studying because it gives you idioms, sentence examples, and multiple meanings, while Papago typically will give you the translation you are most likely looking for.
2. Kakao Maps
Since Google Maps is not supported in Korea, you need to download a map application. I’ve heard of some people trying to use Google Maps once they are here and it’s really just super inaccurate and frustrating when trying to update your location so I just wouldn’t even try. It’s in your best interest to download a Korean mapping application. After trying a few other navigation applications, I finally settled on Kakao Maps. I know a lot of people will make a case for Naver Maps, but I’ve never really been a fan of it because it doesn’t always give you street names, and it doesn’t seem to be as updated as Kakao Maps (sometimes it will give you names of restaurants that don’t exist in that space anymore). Maybe the one downside of Kakao Maps is it is entirely in Hangul, but you can type things in romanized Korean and it will still give you the correct location (for instance typing Bukchon Hanok, instead of 북촌한옥 will still take you to the same place). If you go to the settings section in the app, you can actually change the in-app buttons to English, (한국 –>영어) though the search results will still come out in Hangul (but if you select, it will pin your location in real time, so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding places). Another great thing about this app is when it gives you directions, similar to Google Maps, it will give you the ETA depending on whether you are walking or taking a different form of transportation. Since Kakao is an integral part of Korean SNS, it gives you accurate times for the buses and subways as well.
3. Kakao Metro
There are quite a few subway applications you can find in the app store, this one just happens to be the one I prefer to use. When you first open the application it will look a little intimidating (especially if you’ve never used the subway before), but I can attest to the fact that the Seoul subway system is actually much more simple than it looks. It’s organized really well and there are signs everywhere so you can’t miss your stop. The announcements for each stop are also said in English, Korean, Chinese, and Japanese, and there are screens located in each car that have the stop posted for you alerting you when you are approaching (in all the above languages). If you don’t have time to learn Korean, then this app is available in English, so no having to worry about translating on the go! You just type in the station you are currently at, then choose the station you want to go to, and voila! It gives you real-time departure and arrival times (the Seoul metro is very efficient, always on time), and the transfer lines.
There is another application as well called Kakao Bus if you are thinking that you will be using the buses too. I didn’t use the buses when I first got to Seoul, but actually sometimes prefer them to the subway. If you are planning to take trips hiking outside of the city, then definitely download the app, but if you are planning on staying pretty close to the city center, then I don’t think it’s all that necessary.
4. Kakao Talk
When you first arrive in Korea, you may want to opt for getting a SIM card (which is easily available at one of the kiosks when you come out of baggage claim), but, because Korea has one of the fastest Wifi networks in the world (and I mean seriously, it really does – you can get Wifi literally anywhere – on the street, on the subway, out in the middle of nowhere practically) you probably don’t need to get a SIM. When I first got to Korea, I was traveling for about a month or so before I got a Korean phone number, and honestly, I was completely fine. But, that was because I had Kakao Talk.
Kakao is probably the most popular applications in Korea. People don’t use text here like in the States, and pretty much rely solely on using Kakao Talk for messaging (if you watch Korean dramas you may have already seen it, or heard the infamous “ka-
5. Mango Plate
So you’ve landed in Korea, figured out the subway, found your accommodation, and you’re all ready to go out and find something to eat. It can be overwhelming walking around looking for a restaurant or a cafe to go to, especially if you can’t read Korean and you aren’t exactly sure what the pictures of food displayed outside of shops are. Similar to Yelp, Mango Plate is a food application almost entirely in English that has pictures, reviews, and menus available of restaurants and cafes in your area. While you can search for food on Kakao Maps, sometimes I just like to scroll through Mango Plate and get a better idea of what I want to eat based on the area I’m going to be in. There are filters you can sift through too, based on location, price limit, and type of food. The highest rated restaurants will be located towards the top, and once it gets a feel for the kind of places you search for, I’ve noticed that it pops up with recommendations when I’m in certain areas and open up the application.
Bonus: Naver Webtoon
Webtoons are really popular in Korea (kind of like Japanese Manga, but better in my opinion), with a wide variety of genres from horror to romance available online in different applications. I get really bored on the subway, especially when you are commuting sometimes up to an hour getting from one side of the city to the other, so I like to have a few things to do whether that be listening to a podcast, reading a book, or reading a webtoon. A few of my favorites are “Bastard” (horror/thriller; completed), “Cheese in the Trap” (drama/slice of life; on-going), and currently, “True Beauty” (drama/romance; on-going). There is an English version of this application available only through download in the U.S. (if you download the application in Korea, you will get the Korean version) that has most titles available, though the incomplete webtoons have the translated episodes come out on later dates so they are a bit behind. If you are looking for something to do while you’re going from one place to another, this is an entertaining option – also they are available to download so you don’t have to worry about being able to connect to Wifi (without a Korean number, I’ve noticed wifi is harder to connect to in the subway). Also, if you want to work on your Korean, reading webtoons is a great way to practice!
That’s everything I have for applications you will definitely need if you are planning a trip to South Korea. I hope these recommendations come in handy!