English guide to getting gas in Korea and some Korea driving tips

Here is a step-by-step guide in English to filling up your car with gasoline / petrol in Korea.

Pumps in Korea. Image: 백만기의 아름다운은퇴연구소

Previously (well into the 2010 era) nearly all gas stations in Korea were attended. You rolled down your window, told the guy how much you want, and he filled it up for you. Today nearly all stations are self-serve now and you pay at the pump like most American gas stations. 

So if you're visiting Korea and renting a car, it can be daunting if you don't read Korean. Most pumps currently don't show multi-lingual options, although most pumps do take foreign issued credit cards (more on that below). 

But follow this guide and you will be fine. I went through and took pictures of every single screen the pump showed me during a recent fill-up and I'll explain what's happening on each screen. The particular styles of the screens (and sometimes the order) might be different depending on the pump, but they all follow this same basic process. Just follow along and you'll be fine. 

Note: After these screenshots, I'll include some general tips for driving in Korea.

Here we go.

Getting gas in South Korea

(A guide to refueling your car, not a guide to eating unpleasant fermented dishes)

1. Welcome screen

Welcome! This is the start screen. You'll see some variation of it everywhere. 
It will have a big button labeled 시작하기 ("Start"). You know what to do. Push the button.

2. Anti-static pad

It will ask you to touch the anti-static pad somewhere (see next picture) on the pump machine. This is to reduce the risk of static electricity buildup sparking a fire. Find the pad, press your hand against it, and then press the big button there, labeled 계속하기 ("Continue").

Here is what the anti-static pad looked like on the crappy old pump I was using. A newer pump will have a nice shiny big green button looking thing. The point is it will probably be big and green and have some kind of hand symbol. It doesn't shock you, it doesn't depress in. You just touch it. That's it. It won't even really know if you touched it or not so you can be cheeky and press Continue anyway if you're feeling dangerous. 

3. Choose fuel type

Probably the most important step.
Green is always diesel. 
Yellow is always normal unleaded gasoline. 

GREEN = diesel = 경유
YELLOW = gasoline/petrol = 휘발유

Here's a little memory trick: 
Die-sel is 2 syllables in both English and Korean (gyung-yoo), 
Gas-o-line is 3 (hwee-bal-yoo).

4. Choose payment type

Here it gets tricky because different pumps may do this in a different order. I often get asked about my point card first. But this time, I got asked about payment type first. 

Here's a tip: If you see 1 big button labeled 없음, you're on the screen where it's asking for a point card. If you had one, you'd slide it in. But you don't, so hit that 없음 ("don't have one") button to proceed.

 Now, if you see multiple big button options like the image above, it's probably for choosing payment type.

It's hard to see, but in the list above there is: 
현금 (cash), 
신용카드 (credit card), 
GS & Point (redeeming your customer points), and 
모바일쿠폰 (mobile coupon). 

As a visitor, you'll probably want to choose 신용카드 (credit card) every time. 

Don't worry; the pump will likely accept foreign credit cards. Some require the IC chip (the little metal computer chip type thing on one side of the card) so you stick your card in, chip first. But older pumps will have the magnetic strip "slider" style. Some have both. 

5. Choose amount

When you see a bunch of numbers in rows, it's asking how much you want to fill up. 

You can choose: 
a specific amount (10,000 won, 20,000 won, 30,000 won...), 
or 금액,리터 입력하기 (enter a specific money/liter amount), 
or 가득주유 (fill it up).

For me, I usually just put a certain amount of money, usually 30,000 won (~$30). 

Why? Well for one, telling it to "fill up" usually just puts a large charge on my credit card, and then a refund for the balance when the pump is done. Bothersome. Also I don't like driving around on a full tank all the time. I figure all that extra gasoline weight in the tank is just weighing me down and reducing gas mileage. Not like I'll be heading into the outback with no hope of filling up again for days and days. Plus I like the ritual of filling up. it's a good chance to throw out all the McDrive wrappers from my car. 
Depending on your car, 3만원 ($30) should be enough to take you anywhere, 5만원 to 7만원 should fill you up, and 100만원 you must be driving a truck or something. Note that these prices make sense at time of posting. I'm not responsible for higher prices later. And of course if you tell it you want 60,000 won but the tank only takes 40,000 worth it will refund you the difference. 

6. Point card

Here it's asking if I have a membership loyalty card. If you're just visiting, you don't. So press whatever button is labeled 없음 (Don't have it). 

7. Insert credit card

Until now we haven't used our card yet. Now we're ready. If you're using your IC (integrated chip, i.e. "chip and pin") type card, go ahead and stick that thing right into the slot. You will leave it stuck in there for the remainder of the fuel-up. Don't take it out! 

If you're using the old magnetic swipe method, swipe it now. 

Here's the extremely high tech pump I was using. I'm joking but some are flash and all touch screen, some are old school and just mostly touchscreen. Notice this one has a swipe stripe reader on the left, IC card slot on the right. I'm using the slot. If you're curious, that thing in the middle is for scanning barcodes (for vouchers?) and the thing on the right with the red writing is for inserting cash. 

8. Reading credit card & confirmation

It's reading my credit card. Please wait. 

It's checking if this is correct. I want 50,000 won worth of gas, right? It looks good so I'm going to push the darker 확인 ("Confirm") button. 

For some reason it's reading my card again. Please wait. 

9. Fueling up

We did it! It's time to fill up. Take the yellow handle (for gasoline) and start pumping. 

Pumps in Korea. Image: 백만기의 아름다운은퇴연구소

Generally speaking, all gas pumps in Korea are color-coded. Yellow handled pumps are for normal regular unleaded gasoline (labeled 휘발유) and blue or green handles are for diesel (labelled 경유).

When it's done, of course the gas will shut off. Now it's telling me to replace the nozzle back to the pump. 

And don't forget to screw your gas cap back on. 

10. Finishing up

We're almost done. Now it's printing my receipt. Please wait. 

Please take my card and receipt. 

You cannot miss this step because a loud doorbell sound will start ringing over and over and you will have no idea what's going on. Relax. It's trying to remind you not to forget your card. Though I have no idea why of all sounds it's a doorbell sound. I hate this sound. It is so loud. DING DONG. DING DONG. DING DONG. TAKE YOUR CARD DUMBASS. DING DONG.

I didn't withdraw my card fast enough, because I was taking these pictures. The pump is angry at me and demanding that I remove my card. Balli, balli, you dumb foreigner. Move on.

And there you go. 

Paying at a manned gas station

While writing this post, I realized that you might accidentally pull into a full-service station without realizing it. There aren't that many around today, but they still exist. If you do, don't panic. The attendant will simply run out and expect you to roll down your window.

Oh no. You didn't expect this. You're freaking out and having a panic attack. What do you do? 

Gas station attendant standing-by. Image: Money Today

Relax. It's insanely easy.
  1. Shut off your engine, pull the gas tank cover release valve, and roll down your window. 
  2. The man will ask you one single question, every time, always: "How much?" Don't worry if you are a total tourist and can't speak Korean at all. It doesn't matter. He's not asking you about your tire pressure or the weather. He will only ever say, "How much?"
  3. Greet him with a friendly annyeong-hasaeyo! and then simply tell him how much, in money amount, you want. For example, if you want $40, just say sa-man-won jusaeyo. Want $30? sam-man-won jusaeyo. Or just gesture with your 3 or 4 fingers, or type it on your phone calculator or something. 
  4. He will go start the pump.
  5. While he's doing that, prepare your credit card.
  6. While it's pumping in, he will come back to your window to ask for your credit card. Just give it to him. 
  7. He'll punch in the transaction.
  8. When the gas is done, he'll replace the pump, and hand you back your credit card. And if you're really lucky, he'll also hand you a pack of travel tissues, because you're his best friend. Just kidding, he gives those to all his customers. Don't act like you're special. 
  9. Take the card and the tissues and give a hearty kam-sa-hamnida!  and drive away. 
  10. Breathe a sigh of relief. You did it.
Seriously, I've filled up at manned pumps multiple times. Sometimes, in some areas, that's the only one around. Out of at least 30 different manned pump fill-ups, every single time has gone like this. He's not there for small talk. He's there to get the job done. 

If you still prefer to do it yourself, it's not hard to find the self-service types. They will all have the English word "SELF" prominently written on both the pumps and the overhead signs:

"Self" sign on gas station pumps in Korea. Google Image search screenshot

"Self" signs on gas station shelters. Google Image screenshot

Other driving and refueling tips

Photo by Tranmautritam from Pexels

Here are a couple of other things I've been asked about before.

How do I find a gas station?

Gas stations are called 주유소 (pronounced jew-you-so). You can search this term on any map app. I recommend Naver Map [iOS / Android] as it has an English interface, English navigation (great for driving), and detailed coverage. Search here or here. You can also use Google but you may get fewer results. Search here or here.  

How can I use turn-by-turn navigation in Korea?

A quick note about navigation apps:
  • Many rental cars come with a built-in navigation service, though it probably will not have English support.
  • Google Maps Navigation does not work in South Korea. At all.
  • Naver Map is your best alternative, as it can offer on-screen and voice navigation all in English. See an example of it in use in my other post here
  • Kakao Map also now has English navigation and works in my opinion just as good as Naver. See some examples of it too. On-screen directions will be in Korean, but the imagery is pretty obvious and the turn-by-turn voice prompts are in English.
  • Waze also works, but will be less accurate.
  • Apple Maps works, but again, less accurate

When I say "less accurate" I mean that they may have fewer specific locations/business listings. But they can make do. They tend to direct you on more major roads and occasionally don't have smaller roads in their databases. 

For me the main sticking point with Waze/Apple Maps is that you have to just "follow the line" that visually guides you along the roadway, which can be a little tricky if you're driving at high speed and are not already familiar with the roads and intersections. It will be more challenging to get in the correct lanes and sometimes they will suggest moves (like "Make a U-turn at the next intersection") that are not any longer allowed by traffic rules in that location. So you'll have to be vigilant about ensuring that the directions are accurate to real-world conditions. With Naver Map or Kakao Map it's an overall smoother experience. 

Use the phone number

If you really do not know Korean hangul at all, here's a life-saving tip. 

If your car has a built-in navigation system, or you're using a map app like Naver, it can be hard/awkward to input your destination in hangul if you aren't familiar with it. So, find the destination's listing first on your smartphone in whatever you're comfortable with. Google search, business card you have, whatever. Locate the business phone number. 

Most in-car navigation systems can search by that number. For example, the Ramada in Jeju has a business phone of 064-729-8100 if you search on Naver, or 064-759-8831 on Google. Just type either of these numbers in the car navigation's search box and see if the Ramada comes up. Tap it and begin directions. Easy. 

In the above example, I just pasted the above phone number in to the search box in my navigation app. It found the right listing "Ramada Jeju" and all I need to do it tap the right-most option under the little picture (where you see the icon of the car with the arrow inside) to start turn-by-turn navigation. Simple!

Which gas station should I use? Are they all the same? 

Each corporation gives the same basic gas. Some popular ones include SK Energy, GS Caltex, S-Oil, etc. I usually go to an SK near my place just because it's a few won cheaper and I get a free car wash sometimes. 

Different stations will have different posted prices, even from the same company. I usually see about a 200won/liter difference in prices. Assuming you're filling up a 30 liter tank, that's a 6,000 won (~$6) price difference, or $10 difference in a 50L tank. So shop around a bit if you want. There are websites and apps but your car navigation system can probably show you prices of local fueling stations without you having to drive around. Look for a little gas pump icon on the screen. 

There are also a few stations around that are not self-serve. In those, you just park by the pump and the attendant will come to your window, asking how much fuel you want. You can hand over your card or just pay him with cash, and he'll fill up the tank for you. I remember one station right by the National Assembly building like this. It's usually a bit more expensive. But those are rarities these days. 

However, often alongside normal gasoline/petrol stations, there are LPG stations that look nearly identical. So look at this question:

I see some stations for Gasoline and some for LPG, what's the difference? 

Visitors whose home countries don't offer routine LPG sometimes get confused and pull their car into the wrong type of station. Not all locations that look like gas stations are normal gas stations. In a normal car, you want a normal gas/diesel station, called 주유소 in Korean (pronounced jew-you-so). 

They look like this:

Gas stations (주유소) in South Korea
Gas stations (주유소) in South Korea

The other kind are stations for cars that run on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). This is not the same gas you put in your car. Unless you are sure you car uses LPG, do not go here. These are usually called LPG충전소 in Korean (pronounced LPG choong-juhn-so). 

They look like this. Notice they look very similar to normal gas stations but have the letters LPG prominently written on them:

LPG stations (LPG충전소) in South Korea
LPG stations (LPG충전소) in South Korea

Can I pay for gas with my foreign-issued credit card?

Yes. If your card doesn't have the IC chip (most do these days), you might have to find an older pump that has one of the magnetic swipe readers (most still do), but if your card works at the restaurants and shops, it will work at the pump. [Make sure your bank knows you're going abroad or they may block the transactions.]

Here is how a gas pump transaction looked on my USA online banking website. As a test I used my American bank credit card to put 10,000 won of gas in the tank. No issues at all. 

Which type of gas should I put? Does Korea have "premium" unleaded?

There's usually not the distinction of Regular Unleaded / Plus / Premium that you see so often in the USA. 

A few places will offer higher octane gas, known as  "고급휘발유" (go-geup-hway-bal-yoo) but that's pretty rare in my experience. I did come across one such pump the other day. It's the red handle here. You can see in the screen (which is asking which type of gas you want) that the on-screen button is red too. The button colors conveniently match the order and color of the handles. You can also see that it's 150won/liter more expensive when I took this picture. 

Otherwise if you are driving some kind of premium car that needs high octane fuel, there are octane boosters you can add to the tank yourself. 

But normally you'll see just the two handles, Unleaded and Diesel. Again, regular unleaded gasoline is always the yellow-handle pump, and diesel is always the green/blue pump. 

It's my first time driving in Korea. What traffic rules I should be aware of?

Driving in Korea is basically the same as driving in any major city. People will cut you off and drive like maniacs. Embrace it. Accept it as part of life. And leave a little space between you and other cars while ignoring the frequent angry honking. In an accident situation, hardly anyone is legally 100% at fault here, with school zones being a common exception sometimes. If you're renting a car, ask if it comes with a blackbox (video recording device, aka dash cam). These are called just the English words "black box" in Korean. These are extremely common and routine for all drivers.

Right on red?

Turning right on a red light is allowed, but make sure no one is in the crosswalk as you make your turn. Often the pedestrian light is green and kids run out of all kinds of blind corners. Just wait until the pedestrian light is fully red before making your right-on-red turn. The car behind you will honk. That's his problem, not yours. Relax. 

Unprotected left turns?

Maybe one of the biggest differences is Unprotected Left Turns, called 비보호 (bee-bow-ho). Unlike many areas of the USA, a plain green light does not imply you may turn left when there's no oncoming traffic. 

The default for all Korean intersections is that left turns are Protected (i.e. left turns get their own green left-arrow light). If you don't see a green arrow pointing left, don't turn. Wait for your arrow, no matter what else is going on. 

However, the unprotected left turn is allowed if you see the 비보호 sign. It looks like this:

비보호, unprotected left turn sign
비보호, unprotected left turn sign

If you see that sign, you can turn left on a plain green light when the coast is clear and no cars are oncoming. If the light is red, do not turn no matter what. You'd be surprised how many Koreans think 비보호 implies "Oh I can just turn left whenever I want, it's a biboho!" Wrong. 

Oh no, police are following me with their flashing lights on. Do I need to pull over?

Probably not. You may encounter police cruising with their flashing lights on. That's normal and routine. Police here do this simply to draw attention to their presence. It is not an indication that you need to pull over. 

In the very rare case that you do need to pull over, the policeman will make it very clear with hand gestures pointing from you to the ground. Source: my own experience. [That's a story for another time.] If in traffic, they will make a loud "pull over" announcement and do a few of the WHOOP WHOOOPs of the siren. Be aware that most patrol policemen will not be great at English, but that sometimes works to your advantage. 

Have fun!

Driving really opens up your chances to experience "real" Korea. The public transportation options are great, but whether you're dragging a family with you or just want the freedom to make your own schedule, driving here can be a fun way to explore so much of the real Korea, and the Korean highway system is truly world class. Not to mention the rest stops, oh the rest stops! Worthy of a stop just for the experience. I have a fantasy of someday doing a blog cataloging my visits at various Korean rest stops. Someday.

Finally, you may be interested in these other posts about driving in Korea:

Good luck and see you on the road. 


Zedsonata said…
Just a small addition to selecting the amount, you don't have to press 가득주유 to fill up your tank. You can press the maximum amount your tank can take. Example there is no way my car from dead empty to full will take more than 80000won. So if I press 80, and it fills up to 73000won, then this is what your bank transactions will look like :-


So for this transaction to work properly you would need to have 153000won on your card if you were using a debit card.
Sam Nordberg said…
I usually notice a fairly immediate charge for the full price like you mentioned, then a refund amount for what I didn't end up using. Truth be told I almost never fill up my tank either way so I'm not completely sure how much it even holds. Maybe 60,000 at current prices or so. But I usually just toss in 30,000 to get to just over halfway.
Unknown said…
Thank you so much for writing this. Explained everything in detail.
Jamie said…
Thanks so much for this guide!
Unknown said…
Great post, got me through my first fill up
xIn said…
Thank you for taking the time to document this in detail with pics. It's a great help! The witty writing brought quite few chuckles as well XD
Sam Nordberg said…
Glad this helped you, folks.