Tips on using highway toll gates in Korea

Here's my personal guide to passing through toll gates here in Korea. This post will focus on normal drivers who may be new to the country and therefore will likely want to pay tolls with cash, credit card, or transport card. 



Thus this guide will overlook the "Hi-Pass" lanes, which let you speed through toll gates without stopping. These special lanes depend on a special transponder installed in your car, usually on the windshield, and special payment methods. I have an entirely seperate post all about using the Hi-Pass system if you prefer: Tips on installing and using Hi-Pass payment cards and terminal devices in Korea

But for this post, I will focus exclusively on standard cash toll gates. 

So here we go.


Using toll gates in Korea


Background


If you drive in South Korea, you will find an excellent national highway / expressway system. I've been here a number of years and am always impressed by the quality of roadway and road services here. And renting or borrowing a car is a fantastic way to see more of this beautiful country than just the crowded and sprawling metropolis. No complains against the subway system or KTX, but driving a car yourself is just a completely different (and for my money more authentic) experience. I really want to encourage everyone, if possible, to hit the road themselves.

But of course if you travel at all outside (or even within) the capital region, you'll need to pass through expressways that include toll gates. This guide is for total newbies who may have never gone through a toll gate here (or back home either) and would like to know what to expect. 

So here we go.

Approaching a toll gate


Road signs indicating approaching toll gate and approximate lane positions

When a toll gate is approaching, you will see signage those above. Upcoming toll gates are clearly marked in English on signs, and if you're using a GPS navigation system commonly built into cars here, or a local mapping app like Naver Map or Kakao Map, it will include a toll gate (often marked "TG") in your directions. 

Since I'm focusing on normal drivers without a Hi-Pass, let's assume you want to pay cash. 

You can see in the signs above that the Hi-Pass lanes (the blue signs) will be on the left side of the roadway, and standard lanes to the right. This is generally true, but in fact in an arrangement of say 10 lanes, you will often see them arranged something like:

H - H - H - C - C - H - H - C - C - C

(H = Hi-Pass, C = cash)

So don't panic. Stay near the middle or the right side of the roadway on approach to toll gates. This will make it much easier to get into the correct standard (non Hi-Pass) lane. 

It can be stressful as you approach the gate especially if you're not familiar. You best bet to is keep your eye on and signage referencing 현금. This means "cash" in Korean and you will want to follow that word. It will be prominantly shown on the approach signage, and directly above any standard toll gate lane but not above Hi-Pass lanes. Memorize at least these Korean characters. Kind of looks like a guy in his car rolling down his window and handing over his cash, right? Follow him and you'll never be wrong. He will lead you to the standard lanes that are often manned. 


Seriously, write it down. Put it on a sticky note on your windshield. This will save you a big headache when you approach the toll gate and panic because you suddenly realize you don't know which lane to go to, traffic is packed yet still fast moving, people are honking, it's hot, etc. Just follow the 현금 sign (often blue directly above the gate, confusingly) like that star the 3 Wise Men followed. 

Two cash lanes (현금) between two Hi-Pass lanes

Here's a great example you can visually see. The cash (and credit card) lanes are always clearly marked in large blue 현금 signs above the gate. When in doubt, follow those signs. They are the most clear indication of where you ought to go, and can be seen upon approach. 

So slow down as you approach, scan for the big blue 현금 sign, and proceed carefully to that lane. Cars will be stopping in that lane and other traffic may be switching lanes near you to get into (or avoid) these lanes. 

The signs will also have green arrows below them indicating (surprise!) the gate is active. If not, a red X will appear. Just move to the next 현금 lane. There will always be one. 

In the picture above, you can see two 현금 lanes in the middle, along with two Hi-Pass lanes on the sides. This is likely the lane configuration I mentioned above. When in doubt, get all the way to the right. The right-most lane will always be cash / credit card. You can always merge back over later.

Hi-Pass arches sandwiched between cash (현금) lanes

Here's another view. You can clearly see the blue labeled 현금 signs, 3 of them on the sides there, 2 on the left and 1 on the right. 

The middle 3 lanes are Hi-Pass lanes. How can you tell? 
  1. Hi-Pass lanes themselves are painted blue
    Hi-Pass lanes will have clear blue lines painted into the roadway, starting a ways back from the gate itself. This gives you time and opportunity to get out of them (or into them) from a distance before getting right up to the gate. 

  2. Hi-Pass lanes have electronic arches over them
    See those orange (and white) arches with LED signs over the lanes? Those are part of the Hi-Pass reader system. They make a radio-frequency field that interacts with the transponder in your car. You, paying cash, don't want to go through those. Avoid them if possible (but don't panic if you can't. More on that in a second). The arches may loom over single lanes, or be one giant arch that spans 4 or 5 lanes. They usually appear right before the toll gate structure itself and may continue into it.  

Another view of Hi-Pass lanes. Note the blue roadway paint and electronic arches. The warning sign on the left just says the lane is not for heavy trucks. 


Now be aware that at some toll gates, the 현금 lanes are not clearly labeled. In fact take a look at this picture:

What type of lane is this? You know, you clever minx.

No clear cash-lane signs to be seen. What to do? Don't panic. In this case, take a look at the obvious Hi-Pass lane there: 
  • Blue lines on the roadway? Check. 
  • Electronic arches with LED signs above? Check.
Yup, it's a Hi-Pass lane. In this toll gate example, the lane to the immediate left of the blue-pained lane is a regular (cash and card) lane. So in this situation, simply avoid the blue Hi-Pass lanes. Tricky because this is one example I found where the 현금 sign is missing. But personally I don't recall ever seeing a gate where this sign was missing. Just something to be aware of. 

By the way, if you are using something like Naver Map or Kakao Map as your navigation, you can specify whether you have a Hi-Pass installed in your car and it will help to indicate the right lanes for you. It also takes this into account when explaining the total toll fees associated with a route. That setting looks like this:


Now your navigation can show you as you approach the toll gate which lanes are for Hi-Pass:


In this example, there are 16 different lanes here at the gate. Now of course the entire roadway doesn't keep a 16-lane arrangement. The lanes (probably 3 or 4 lanes) will fan out on approach to the gate into 16, and merge back together after the gate. So be careful merging back together after passing the gate. Some idiots won't pay attention and cut you off. Don't take it personally. 

Lanes 1, 2, 3, 4, 14, 15, 16 are Hi-Pass lanes here according to the app. So you will shoot for the middle lanes here, 5-13. Though be aware probably not all of those 9 middle lanes will be open. But some will be, and will be regular non Hi-Pass lanes.

Back to the signage, there are usually 3 types of payment listed on signs, both the signs on the approach to the tollgate and on the gateway itself:


  • 하이패스 - Hi-Pass
    Lanes exclusively for the Hi-Pass system, with no stopping and just general slowing while passing through the radio-frequency gate. 

  • 전자카드 - Electronic card
    There are kiosks (manned or unmanned) for tap-and-go payment type cards. Most credit cards with an integrated IC chip (including those issued abroad) will work here. I've used my American-issued bank Visa card, and it works fine. The Hi-Pass card itself can work too, if for some reason you don't have the transponder device with it or just prefer tapping the card manually. Korean transit cards like T-money, CashBee, etc work too. This "tap and go" method is the method I used for years until finally getting a Hi-Pass just recently. I'll show more how to do this below.

  • 현금 - Cash
    These kiosks can be manned or unmanned. Some toll gates only take cash or electronic card; no Hi-Pass accepted (the drive-through devices I mean; the cards themselves can still be used). Cash-only acceptance gates are often city-run toll gates rather than national highway corporation gates. On the highways however, booths often have workers collecting tolls and giving change. Or unmanned kiosks will require a card beep or deposit of exact change. 

The toll gate experience itself


Let's assume you got into the correct lane. Now what? 

As you approach, the kiosk will look something like this. 

Common highway toll gate booth, with worker at the window and payment tap points outside

Those 3 dirty white pads lined up vertically are the payment contact pads for tapping your T-money card, credit card, or Hi-Pass card. Yes, you can also pay with a Hi-Pass payment card this way if your terminal transponder (the card reader device mounted in your car) somehow isn't working. 

All 3 pads are the same. They're just arranged at different heights to accommodate high trucks, busses, etc. 

If you have an electronic payment card (my USA-issued Visa card worked fine), you can just tap it, wait for the beep, and go on through. You don't really have to say anything at all to the worker except maybe a friendly hello or a seductive wink. Tap it and go. That's what she said.  

Here's another view:

Common Korean toll gate booth

Some payment terminals, especially at unnamed kiosks, will look like this:

Unmanned kiosk payment pad

This type will allow tap-and-go "beeping in" to pay, or insert the card IC-chip first, or even slide the old stye magnetic strip way. 

Using a card of some kind is by far the easiest way and probably everybody, even tourists, will now have an appropriate credit card. If not, especially as a tourist, just use the T-money card you bought at the subway station or convenience store. 

You can also pay with NFC based payment services from your smartphone. Apple Pay might work (haven't tried it, though it does work at certain NFC receivers like those in McDonalds), but payment apps from Samsung Pay, Kakao Pay (Android version), and LG Pay explicitly work:



If you are paying cash, just give it to the nice lady in the booth.

But wait, just how much is the toll?

Knowing the toll price in Korea


One of the easiest ways to know your toll is to research ahead of time, which can be done simply online in Naver Map or Kakao Map. Take a look:

A trip in mapping app shows expected toll prices

Notice the data item for 통행료: 2,500원
You got it, that's the total toll fee for this trip. So have five 500원 coins ready to go and you'll be fine. 

And the best part is, if you keep your smartphone navigation (and many car built-in GPS navi systems) going on the trip, it will alert you at the toll gate approach with the correct toll. 

In the image below, it shows that the toll gate (TG) is approaching in 390m, and that the fee (요금) will be 800 won. Perfect. Have those coins (or a 1,000 won note) ready to hand over to the nice lady. 

Sample app screenshot showing approaching toll gate, toll fee, and lane layouts

By the way, did you catch that the Hi-Pass lanes appeared in blue at the bottom? So hit up lanes 5, 6, 7 or 8 for best results with cash or credit card. 

Otherwise, toll prices are displayed on a sign as you approach the gate, but I find it almost impossible to even notice the sign, much less read it clearly. It looks like this:

Standard toll prices sign example

The different prices are for different types of cars. Generally, small cars pay less than big cars (this is measured by weight, not by physical size exactly). The "lighter" the car, the less payment. In the list above you see 4 types:
  • 경차 (compact cars, think Kia Morning or Matiz) - 4,000 won
  • 소형차 (small cars, think Hyundai Accent, smaller SUVs, etc) - 8,000 won
  • 중형차 (mid-size cars, think Sonata, K5, larger SUV, etc.) - 13,600 won
  • 대형차 (full size cars, think Mercedes, Genesis, etc) - 17,7000 won
There are other payments for busses, large trucks, etc, but I will assume you are a tourist or visitor driving a rented car and not stealing a cement truck (known as "remicons" in Korea, for Ready-Mix-Concrete) or something. 

Since you probably can't read the sign, just pull up to the window. The lady will tell you how much your toll is. But you may not hear or understand her. So just look at the LED display up near the front of your vehicle. It will look like this:

Toll payment sign while passing the gate

Here, your toll fee (요금) was 1,710 won. 

The other number is the remaining balance (잔액) on the card. This was probably a Hi-Pass lane and the successful payment was displayed on the screen as he passed through, but normal cash or card manned kiosks have these too. 

Special "ticketed" (통행권) toll gates


The majority of toll gates on the highways will be like the ones I've shown you above. But there are some, usually located in smaller or more rural areas, that work a little bit differently. In all those above, you pay your toll right then and there, at the gate (or, you don't, by accident, which I'll talk about later). 

But some, if you don't use the Hi-Pass lane, will simply have a kiosk with a paper ticket hanging out of it. It looks like this:

Highway passage ticket kiosk

You can see the 통행권 sign on the kiosk, and an image of a grabbing hand. And you'll see there's no payment pad on it. There is just a large button, or else a literal paper ticket just hanging out of it. 

Let's pull up to it and take a look:

Ticket dispenser on the kiosk

"Take ticket" written in English. I guess you can figure this out. Grab the ticket that's sticking out. Again each black dispenser on the kiosk is the same, only for different car heights. If there's no ticket showing, push the button to make one come out. Just grab the ticket and lay it aside. You'll need it later. Take ticket and drive on through.  

This is simply to mark the time/location when/where you entered the highway. Later on, when you exit the highway, you will go through a more normal-looking toll gate. Hand this ticket to the lady; she'll scan it and tell you how much your toll is (the toll will also appear on the LED display). 

Your toll is based on how much distance you drove on this way, so it's important that they know where you entered at.

There are also unmanned versions of the toll gates where you can input the ticket itself into the machine and then pay the displayed toll with card or cash:

Highway passage ticket receptacle machines

Lost your ticket? Forgot to grab one?


Don't panic. This is pretty normal. The best thing to do in this case is simply tell the lady what happened. You might need some Korean skill for this, but also some "I am idiot, I no ticket" gesturing could be enough. She may ask you "OK, where did you enter at?" and you're supposed to say the highway entrance name. Do you know it? Probably not. Again, gesture that you are stupid. She will just look up your car license plate in her computer, or she will get on the phone and call headquarters and ask "I got a dumb foreigner here, license plate blah blah blah, where did he get on?" and she'll punch in the correct info and your toll price will appear. 

If you are super paranoid about dealing with a human being in this situation, here's my unofficial advice: just avoid her completely and instead speed past the gate through the Hi-Pass lane (if there is one). You can deal with the payment later. Korean Highway Authority is extremely generous about unpaid tolls. You can always go back and take care of it at a Highway office, at an unmanned kiosk, online, or just wait to get a ticket mailed to your address (for the correct price; no penalty attached if you don't do this regularly). 

Which brings us to the next topic.

Paying unpaid tolls and/or accidentally entering Hi-Pass lanes


If you accidentally find yourself going through the Hi-Pass lane without a Hi-Pass payment device, don't worry and don't panic. This really isn't a big deal. Yes, the alarm will sound as you speed through, but just ignore it. No barrier will fall down to trap you. No SWAT team will appear to bring you in. No police car will start chasing you. You don't need to stop once you're going through the Hi-Pass lane. In fact, don't. You're not supposed to. Just proceed on through. Seriously.

This is extremely common. Either people end up in the wrong lane, or their Hi-Pass payment is empty, or not working, or they're just too damn busy to bother stopping for the toll. It happens. And the highway authority is very understanding and generous. 

So what to do? There are a variety of solutions to get in the right.

  1. Tell them at the next toll gate
    If it happened just before now, and there's another gate up ahead, stop at the next toll gate and tell the lady in the booth which gate you accidentally passed through. As I mentioned above, they can look this up easily if you forgot the name. Just give your license plate number. They'll tell you your toll with no penalty. Happened awhile ago? I've found that I can tell the lady that last week I went in the wrong lane, I want to pay my old toll, and again she'll run my plate and find the charge, and I can pay right there at the toll gate booth in cash or credit card.

  2. Wait for a bill to be mailed to you
    If you don't pay the toll within a certain period of time, they will send a bill to the address of the car owner's registration. Don't worry, there's usually no penalty fee added. It will be just the normal toll fee. It will give you an option of payment methods then, including a virtual account you can transfer money to. I've heard there is a certain "grace period" (4-10 times a year) amount of times they allow you to do this before penalty fees start kicking in. 

  3. Wait to get the payment text message
    If your car registration has an associated phone number, the owner may get a text message or Kakao Talk message from the highway authority that is essentially a mobile toll bill. Pay it within 10 days and you'll be fine. See a picture of that below.

  4. Convenience stores
    Technically you can do this at certain kiosks at convenience stores, but there's an ID verification procedure needed which a tourist or visitor likely won't be able to do anyway. 

  5. Online
    Foreigners who are registered in Korea (with ARC and phone number) can log-in to the Hi-Pass website to pay tolls at https://www.hipass.co.kr/comm/lginpg.do but I doubt a tourist/visitor will have the correct domestic registration to activate it. You can also try checking https://www.excard.co.kr/board/FaqDetail.do but again, you'll need to make a log-in which requires ID verification.

  6. High Pass center
    Usually just after the toll gate, there is an office building with either real staff or an unmanned kiosk. You can check you balance, outstanding unpaid tolls, sign up for Hi-Pass, etc. All you need is your license plate number in most cases. A nice option if you're on the road but want to take your time. The last time I went to these kiosks it was all in Korean but that may have changed now. They are known as 하이패스 센터 바깥에는 무인수납기 and look like ATMs. See pictures below.

  7. Just pay the car owner
    If you're a tourist on a rental car, I'm sure the rental car agency would have a word with you about unpaid tolls before you return home. Don't think you can get away easily. They will likely know immediately when a toll is (or remains) unpaid so may decide to keep or charge your credit card when you return the vehicle. Whether you can pay them directly and let them deal with it, since the car is registered in their name, I have no idea. Couldn't hurt to ask. If it's a personal car, just pull a runner, but consider that sooner or later the person to whom the car is registered is going to get a bill for that toll. There is no escape for that person. So do the right thing and give them some cash. It's not hard for them to take care of it for you, and like I said, the system is extremely generous.

Unmanned Hi-Pass office, right after a toll gate, with payment kiosk inside

Hi-Pass payment card recharging and unpaid toll searching/payment kisok 

Same type of kiosk


Sample toll "bill" sent via KakaoTalk or SMS

Final thoughts


Hopefully this helps people to feel confident to get out there and off the beaten path a little bit. There are so many little hidden gem places all over South Korea that are only really accessible by car, and with such a great highway and roadway system here, I really encourage anybody to get out there and try it. 

And if you do, you might find some of these other posts handy:



Sources for imagery and info:

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