Visitors to South Korea come in all stripes. One thing all of them have in common is the need to exchange currency. Any seasoned backpacker, tourist, or businessperson has to make use of local currency at some point in their stay. Often, the most common choices, usually due to time constraints, access, and proximity, are airport kiosks, banks, and ATM’s. Though convenient, all three of these options charge a sizable fee through fixed exchange rates. While there are various places to exchange currency while visiting South Korea, the best place to get a good rate is Myeongdong, a neighborhood of central Seoul.
Myeongdong is a top tourist spot, and also happens to have many places to exchange money. Both the area around Myeongdong station exit 5 and the Hoehyeon Underground Shopping Mall have numerous little storefronts that will exchange American dollars, Japanese yen, Chinese yuan, euros, Australian dollars, Korean won, and other currencies. Usually, each currency exchange business will have signage that has either a dollar sign or a Japanese yen sign on it. The stores’ signs should also have phrases written in English like “Money Exchange.”
Rates differ at each business, but at least a few shops will give something close to the current rate without fees. It differs from a bank, which will exchange at a fixed rate that doesn’t match the actual current market prices. In other words, if the Korean won is trading at 1,160 won to the dollar according to the forex markets, the vendor might offer a rate that is near identical to the current rate. In a hypothetical situation, the shop might offer 1, 159 won to the dollar. As a result, the best deals exchanging currency in Korea can be found in Myeongdong. It goes without saying that prospective visitors should still pay close attention, be up to date on the current market rates, and have an idea of how much they are willing to sell their currency for before making a transaction.
Itaewon also has places to exchange currency that are similar to the shops in Myeongdong. Across from the Hamilton Hotel, there are a few shops on a side street. They can be found by going out of exit 3 at Itaewon station and turning right. Visitors should go past the Olive Young and once reaching the CU Mart, turn left. The side street is ahead and there should be a few currency exchange shops.
South Korean banks such as Shinhan, KB, Woori, Nonghyup, and others exchange currency at fixed exchange rates. Each bank usually has an electronic sign that lists current buy and sell rates for currencies. The buy rate is the rate the bank will buy the currency for from customers, and the sell rate is the rate the bank will sell the currency to customers for. All of the banks require foreign nationals to bring a passport for identification purposes.
Like banks, ATM’s are not the best idea while looking to save money due to the higher exchange rates involved. Sometimes, the person making the transaction gets hit with fees from their domestic bank, in addition to the higher exchange rates. On the other hand, using an ATM is safe and hassle-free, and it is a good option if one is pressed for time.
Many of the kiosks at the airport have high fixed rates, and actually can change the rate without notice. Airport kiosks are helpful if one is cashless, but otherwise, the higher fixed rates and the lack of regulation compared to banks or ATM’s means that they are best to be avoided for those who are more conscious of saving money when getting local cash.
David Kute has an appreciation for Seoul’s distinct neighborhoods. From Dongdaemun’s market stalls to Hongdae’s rock music venues, the city continues to fascinate him. After spending many years living and working in Seoul and South Korea, he started the blog Rooftop on the Hanok. The blog is a place to share information as well as explore facets of life on the Korean peninsula. He enjoys writing fiction and playing basketball when he’s not researching or writing Rooftop on the Hanok posts.