January 22, 2018

While traveling, it is always important to know how to get around, especially when abroad. Knowing where you are can save you the hassle of getting on a bus going the wrong direction or knowing whether a cab ride to the other end of town will take 15 minutes or 50 minutes.

Travelers in South Korea face difficulties as two of the most popular navigation apps, Google Maps and Apple Maps, do not provide adequate coverage due to strict national security laws. Google and Apple disable all navigation features throughout the country, exception for the Seoul metro system. Customers are able to zoom and pan the map but selecting locations on the map does not return data the same way it does in other countries. No location names are identified when a location is clicked, just the approximate address and coordinates.

Google Maps legally challenged the South Korean government on its stance and asked for more information in 2016. South Korea prevents the exporting of government-supplied map data. Official concerns arise from the longstanding tensions with North Korea and the desire to prevent updated geospatial information, particularly infrastructure, from being improperly accessed.  The South Korean government was unconvinced that foreign companies, particularly Google, could maintain the needed security when the data being accessed would be housed on overseas servers that are not in compliance with South Korean law. 

There are other options available to travelers in South Korea. Naver is South Korea’s largest search engine and is the most popular navigation tool. Naver’s 지 도(ji do) is a map and navigation tool very similar to its Google and Apple counterparts. However, the tool is only in Korean and searches must be inputted in Hangul (the Korean alphabet, as opposed to Korean words written with Latin letters). Search results will be returned in Korean.  This may sound daunting and unusable, but internet tools can help translate search keywords and results. A recent update to the Naver Android application supports English, Mandarin, and Japanese.  This update is expected to hit iOS devices on Friday January 26th.

If you enjoy taking public transit, there are several applications available to help with on-the-fly navigation. One of the most popular English apps is Kakao Metro. This application is particularly useful for offline users as it downloads maps and additional information.

Spare yourself wasted time and headaches, try some of these tips:

  • Save the names of important locations, such as your hotel, in Hangul on your phone. This way you can copy and paste in the search bar as needed or show it to a native language speaker to help you find your way.
  • Save a few location words in Hangul for reference when looking at results. For example:    
    • Street 거리
    • Store 저장
    • Restaurant 레스토랑
    • Hotel 호텔
    • City 시
  • If your phone service is limited, send yourself an email with Hangul notes before leaving and use the hotel’s computer terminals. 
  • Try a browser plugin that allows you to highlight the Hangul text and translate it right on the page, like the Google Translate Chrome extension.

Do not let the lack of information provided to Google Maps and Apple Maps prevent you from comfortably navigating South Korea.  These technological shortcuts and suggestions are to assist travelers but are not the only options on the market.  All travelers are encouraged to explore the tools available to them on the internet and app stores to find what works best for them.