Words and shots by Matthew C. Crawford
Until the Korea Tourism Organization finds a way to screen the Siberian winds, I don’t believe that justification will be needed for extra-peninsular activities this season. Winter’s cold weather is one of the best reasons all year to take advantage of Korea’s geopolitical position. If you book in advance, you can secure cheap tickets for Thailand, Japan, and the Philippines, and there are more than 20 other destinations within striking distance of the Korean peninsula—but it is essential to procure the necessary visas in advance for many Asian countries.
While I haven’t visited all of the countries mentioned in this article, I have certainly worn down my shoes on a great many visa-hunting expeditions. Most of these expeditions were routine, but they have included spectacular failures, like at the Russian embassy in Ulan Bator, and splendidly surreal situations like a personal visa interview with an ambassador to a country I knew nothing about. It is my hope that the information provided here will help you save some time and money, and will lower your chances of experiencing visa rage in the upcoming weeks of wind and snow.
Free Entry Visas
Whatever kind of passport you hold, you probably won’t need a visa for the following ten countries and territories: Japan, Thailand, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong, Macau, and the Maldives. These tourist-friendly lands want to encourage visitors, so your arrival in one of these tremendous ten will be a liberating experience as long as your passport is valid for at six months and has space for some stamps.
Almost as pleasant is the pay-on-arrival policies of Indonesia and Nepal. At Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta Airport you’ll need to pay US $25 in cash while at Tribhuvan Airport in Kathmandu you’ll be paying $25 for 15 days or $40 for 30 days. Don’t forget to bring two passport-size photos with you to Nepal and a writing implement.
A visa to East Timor would difficult to obtain in Seoul because there is no embassy. Fortunately, you can buy a visa at the airport in Dili for US $30.
Not so long ago, Sri Lanka ranked among the glorious ten countries that offer a free visa on arrival, but it now requires an “ETA”—not an “estimated time of arrival”, but a pseudo-visa termed an “Electronic Travel Authorization”. ETAs cost US $20 and can be paid for online with a credit card (www.eta.gov.lk/slvisa).
The following visas are challenging in that they require you to visit a travel agent or—saving money but not time—to visit an embassy, consulate, or visa processing center in person.
Since 2007, the China Embassy has not been issuing visas to individual supplicants. If you’re willing to bargain, a good option is to use one of the 32 licensed hole-in-the-wall travel agents in the alley outside the embassy’s gates. On the day I visited, the most assertive and helpful tout was from Geumjin Travel Agency
(금진 여행사; 02-318-8815). Her rates were W60,000 for Canadians and W210,000 for Americans, while another agency offered W55,000 for Australians. You may bring a picture or have one taken for you nearby. The embassy is a short walk from the Namsan cable car station, approachable from Myeong-dong Station, exit 2.
India, the land of outsourcing, has outsourced its visa processing to BLS Service. Though the procedure is quite exhaustive, you should be able to keep your wits if only applying for a single-entry visa. You can begin by filling out the “Online Indian Visa Form,” available at indianvisaonline.gov.in/visa. When you visit the center (at 37-3 Hannam-dong) bring two pictures that are exactly 2 X 2 inches (5.08 X 5.08 cm). Also bring two copies of the front and back of your alien registration card and two copies of the picture page of your passport. Finally, complete the “Foreigner Registration” and “Tourist Notice” forms, both downloadable at www.blsindiavisa.kr. The center is open from 9 am to 12:30 pm on weekdays, but if you have my luck you’ll visit on one of the 17 Indian holidays when the center is closed. Processing fees range from W89,000 to W121,000 (depending on country of origin).
A visit to the Russia Visa Application Center, managed by VFS Global, suggests that the gloom and vitriol of the Russian visa experience may be a thing of the past. Located in Room 2203 on the 22nd floor of Olive Tower in Namdaemun, the center is open on weekdays from 9 am to 3 pm. The “Visa Application” form is still quite exhaustive (see question 31, pertaining to “nuclear, biological or chemical activities”), but the letter of invitation need not be a cause of distress. C & J Travel Agency (02-771-0460) can provide this letter in just one day for W40,000. Prepare to bring one photo and to pay between W105,000 to W180,000 (again depending on country of origin). A second visa center is located in Busan (see www.vfsglobal.com/Russia/SouthKorea).
The Honorary Consulate of Mongolia (주한 몽골 명예 대사관), where visas are granted, is far removed from the actually embassy in Hannam-dong. The consulate is a short walk from Shinyongsan Station: head west for several blocks until you reach the six-level blue and grey building named Shinsegi Handeok (신세기 한덕). The quiet and minimally staffed consulate on the fifth floor opens from 10 to 12 am and 1:30 to 4 pm. Americans rejoice! You do not even need a visa. Everyone else: expect to pay W48,000 and provide a 3 X 4 cm photo. Forms are available at the website (www.mongolvisa.org) if you click on “01. 비자 발급 안내.”
On the day I visited the Royal Embassy of Cambodia, the flag was lowered to half mast in commemoration of King Sihanouk’s death. Feeling like an intruder in a house of mourning, I was relieved to find a reception desk on the first floor. A Cambodia visa is not at all difficult to apply for: just bring a photo, a copy of the first page of your passport, and W30,000 in cash. The embassy is just off of Embassy Street (대사관료) in Itaewon, in the lane across from the Hannam-dong Post Office. It is open from 9 to 12 am.
The embassy of Vietnam is tucked away on a quiet hillside street lined with gingko trees in northern Seoul. Though the location is undeniably pleasant—and has a stunning view of Mt. Inwang—123 Bukcheon Street (북천로) is a considerable walk from Anguk Station. Upon entering the compound, open from 9 am to 12:30 pm and 2 to 5:30 pm, you’ll notice a strange white building with three “rooms”. Avoid rooms #2 and #3 and enter Room #4, the “Document Receiving Room”. If you’ve brought a color photo and W84,000 in cash, you may fill out and submit the form. Do this well in advance of your trip because the visa takes seven working days to process.
Even more pleasant and relaxing than the Cambodia and Myanmar embassies, the embassy of Laos gives free visas. Enter the side street next to the Laos Ambassador’s Residence on Embassy Street (657-9 Hannam-dong), and take a right after three blocks. After you have been admitted, proceed to the door marked “사무실” on the first floor. Open from 9 to 11:30 am, all you need to bring is your passport and one photo (3 X 4 cm).
There is a very laidback atmosphere at the Myanmar Embassy, but to submit and receive documents you must pass them through the bars of a metal gate. The embassy is located next to the Hannam Elementary School at 723-1 Hannam-dong, and is open to receive applications from 9:30 to 12:00 am. The kindly staff confirmed that tourist visas are not yet being granted upon arrival in the former capital of Yangon. This means you’ll need to bring two color photos (3.5 X 4.5 cm); a flight schedule that includes a return flight; an itinerary outlining activities, dates, and hotel names in Myanmar; a copy of your alien registration card; and W25,000.
Located near Gwanghwamun, proceed one block east from the Jongno District Office (종로구청) to reach the Papua New Guinea embassy at Room 201 of the bizarrely named Doosan We’ve Pavilion Building (두산 위브 파빌리온). This small but tastefully decorated embassy is open from 9 to 11 am on weekdays. Forms are provided, but you will need to bring one color photo, evidence of a return ticket, and the W52,000 fee.
The Bangladesh Embassy is a ten minute walk from Noksapyeong Station, situated in the winding alley across from the Capital Hotel. Relative to the size of its population, Bangladesh is probably the least touristed country in the world. There are reasons for this. Not only is a letter of invitation required, but you’ll also need a copy of the first nine pages of your Bangladeshi friend’s passport. The Hotel Pacific in Dhaka has granted letters of invitation in the past and may still be able to help. You’ll also need to photocopy both sides of your alien registration card; supply two photos (37 X 37 mm); pay W36,000; and display a ticket, itinerary, and tour plan.
Extremely Challenging Visas
Bhutan has a consulate in Seoul but this consulate does not have the authority to issue visas. A first step to visiting Bhutan would be to contact a reputable travel agent in Kathmandu, Nepal.
To visit the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea the best bet is going through Beijing-based Koryo Tours, which will arrange your $80 visa as part of a tour package (www.koryogroup.com).
Matthew Crawford has lived in South Korea for six years intermittently. He has accumulated thousands of travel miles visiting cities, mountains, and islands with abandon, yet somehow procrastinating year after year on doing a temple stay. Perhaps this fall—, the beginning of year seven—, he will finally give it a try.