Getting a Korean Driver’s License was thoroughly liberating and allowed me and my wife to see parts of the country that would be nearly impossible without a car. You want one too, right? Well first, you’re going to see my story about a wonderful yet nerve-wracking day at the Korean DMV. Afterwards, I’ll let you know about how you can get your license from scratch as well! Enjoy and thanks for stopping by!
Long Day Begins
My nerves were shot, especially with another night in this terrible mosquito-filled hotel on the line. I sipped on some cold-brew coffee and started getting ready while the day’s final World Cup match played on the TV. A few moments later and I was outside, scanning the streets for a taxi. This was the first cue that my day would be long.
Driving a scooter doesn’t always require a license.. for now.
The trip to this small city near Korea’s southwestern edge had already cost me a day of my otherwise relaxing vacation but honestly, I needed some action. No desires to travel at the moment thanks to a big trip coming in the late summer. Lazy days and scooter rides to the beach filled my time thus far so what ELSE was I going to do?
I’d wanted a car for a while and driving in Korea required first getting a license. My American one had expired so a simple trade-out wasn’t possible. There’d be a series of tests and time wouldn’t be on my side that day.
The taxi pulled up to the office in this not quaint yet inconvenient-to-reach town. Naju is a small city whose massive pears make New Year’s gifts throughout the country. Getting to this tiny town requires either the fortune of living in Seoul (direct buses) or traveling to and transferring through nearby Gwangju.
Falling into the latter, I had the pleasure of spending a vacation day visiting this jewel of a small town. The added pleasure of missing my stop made the journey seem even more hopeless, thanks to a rookie assumption that Naju’s bus terminal would be the final stop.
Source: Google Earth
After walking through the doors of the regional driving office, I was happy to see some of the signs posted in English. I can read and know some words but my Korean ability is more properly suited for situations involving small talk, taxi rides, and restaurants. Also as with other people, alcohol helps. Worst-case scenarios involve times when serious and sober questions are posed with definite answers required. I took a ticket and when my number came up, the lady at the counter’s eyes ballooned at the sight of me.
I knew what was up. She was scrambling to find someone and thankfully, there was ONE employee in the building with a strong-enough command to help me through the entire process. The people at the office were extremely nice and I owe a huge debt to them for making the day better than it could’ve gone.
As the first series of hoops appeared, my determination kicked in. Coffee had done its job. The first step was the most important and the main reason that I had to arrive so early. An hour-long safety training course was an unavoidable obstacle and since I couldn’t find any preparation materials online, maybe attending was a good thing.
Though the entire video was filmed as a Korean quizshow, its slapstick humor was charming if hokey and easy to understand at times. Lots of possible test answers were hidden within and made the video seem important to me. The viewing was seemingly held just for me, as the rest of the audience immediately went to sleep or continued whatever games or conversations taking place on their phones. After the hour was up, I felt ready for the written test, even if my nerves weren’t entirely settled. I had a plan at least.
Being a passenger allows for pictures such as this one. But I want more.
Next was the routine “physical” test which only included a quick eye check. Thank you, glasses. The English-speaking employee stamped my paper to indicate completion of each checkpoint and this time, she told me to go upstairs and take the written test. It would take 40 minutes and as always, she wished me luck. Nerves started to come back.
I handed the paper to someone in the test room and confirmed that my test would be in English. The exam was on a computer and I would have 40 minutes to complete it. No preparation. No studying outside of the video an hour prior. This was crunch time and luckily, I remembered some advice from a coworker: “give the ‘nice’ answer.”
On the Road
So I took the test like a nice driver. Couple that with some common sense and I passed! The coffee had worn off and forced some second-guessing on my part regarding answers but it was over. Onto the next step.
This day was moving faster than expected and I was ready to go. It was just before lunch time and I knew that the country grinds to a halt at 12. My hopes for a speedy conclusion were dashed when I was told that the next challenge wouldn’t come until 1:30. I killed time with some mediocre spicy pork in the basement and knew that two steps remained. First, a test-course driving test and the final step would be an on-road driving test. They seemed to be the most difficult so of course, I poured some more coffee.
I love being a short drive away from this.
The queue time gave me a chance to watch the instructional videos repeat-playing before the test. I had a feeling that this test might not have any English instruction so the videos were a much-needed help. Everything seemed so strict and formal. The tension was building. My name was called, I walked down to the course, and got into one of the “test” cars.
The nerves quickly faded as I completed the test objectives with relative ease. A dash-mounted screen ordered me to operate the windshield wipers, turn signal, and shift the automatic car from “park” to “drive.” I passed the course test and moved on the final phase.
That would be the road test but first, more waiting. More time to think about the final stage and also, more caffeine. A slight yawn at about 3:00 spurred that on and as I didn’t want to drink another drop of coffee, pepsi would do. I slugged that down before being called upon by the tester. Having to wait for this test gave me yet more time to prepare by watching videos playing beforehand.
After another 30 minutes, it was time to start. I checked all points of the car, entered properly, and drove the 5km course like a textbook. Finally, I parallel parked like a glove and was informed that… I passed! I’d be getting my license that day! Success! After all the waiting and challenges, it was over. I graciously thanked the employee who’d helped me throughout the day and started my way back home.
Success! Looking Back.
It was over and my mind could finally rest. No more constant states of awareness. Just relax and get back home. Two bus terminals later and Yeosu could never have seemed so nice to see.
Looking back, I might have some dramatic thoughts about getting a Korean license but the whole process was stressful. Add a language barrier and any official matters can make one’s head bulge with stress. Perhaps that’s all driving offices.
Things to Know
- I recommend you arrive as early as possible. The whole process will almost take an entire day even though I arrived at 8:45 in the morning.
- Be prepared for limited English ability. There was one lady who spoke English and she basically guided me through the whole thing.
- Bring about 100,000 won in cash. You won’t spend all of this but will spend about 75 in scattered fees and will then want to eat some lunch, which there may or may not be a restaurant on the premises.
- Bring passport photos. Up to 5 will be needed throughout the day, for reasons they don’t really explain.
How to Get Your License
(Based on the office in Naju, South Jeolla Province)
- First, you go to a “safety” class where you watch a video for an hour. It’s all in Korean but if you pay attention to it, some answers to the written test lie within. I’ve heard that there are subtitles available but for me, nobody thought to switch them on.
- First you have to register and do a “physical test” where they check your eyes.
- Then there’s the written test, which is on a computer. 40 questions in English. I didn’t really study for it other than following things that were on the safety video. A coworker told me before going that I should always give the “nice driver” answer. If you really need to study, have a Korean or Expat friend find them online. They are readily available and not too difficult to find.
- Next, you have to do the “on course” drivers test which is simple. Just show up early and watch the videos telling you everything to do. That one is easy and really hard to fail. You do things like switching on turn signals and windshield wipers.
- After that, you’ve got the main event. The driving test where you follow a GPS for 5 km with an instructor and partner, who’ll either let you drive first or elect to go first.
- After the test, you get the “okay” on whether or not you passed and then back into the office, where you wait for them to print out your license.
- Get your license and get out! Buses or taxis should be waiting nearby, as they were for me in Naju.
As you can see from my story, this was a caffeine-fueled adventure that gave me the freedom I’d been seeking for a while. Compared to the U.S., getting a license in Korea is much simpler and very fast. What do you think? If you’ve gone for your license, I’d love to hear about your experiences.