Visit to Korea in the COVID Era #1

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Introduction

I have visited Korea over 30 times in the last 45 years. I like the people and the country. My wife has Korean ancestry and still has lots of family over there. In normal times my wife would visit every year for a few months. I would go with her every other year to see the family.

In the old days the trip was simple. Get a ticket, get on the plane, and receive a 90 day visa at Incheon airport. Take the airport bus (limousine) to you destination and then enjoy the visit. In fact, my wife was visiting Korea when COVID broke out and cut her visit short until things sorted themselves out.

Two years later we were still in the States waiting for things to sort themselves out. So we decided to visit and work our way around the COVID restrictions. This is the story of that saga.

Up front I would like to say, my in-laws in Korea are wonderful people who I love dearly. As you will see, the success of my wife’s and my visit is in no small measure due to help and assistance of our family in Korea.

It should also be noted that this story takes place between November 2021 when we decided to go to Korea and my return to the States in January 2022. COVID travel rules and restrictions as well as the local restriction in Korea are constantly changing. The trials and tribulations discussed in this article may have changes and visitors need to do their own research. With that being said, here we go!

Getting There

Once we decided to go, our first step was to get our airplane tickets. We decided to travel separately. The concept was for the wife (who speaks fluent Korean) to head there first.

She could get things set for my arrival and basically do a recon for conditions there so I could make changes if required. In November of 2021 you could get a waiver of the then 14 day quarantine required of all new arrivals. Since I was only going over for a month, spending half of that time in quarantine would be annoying to say the least. So with the help of some useful You tube videos, we worked our way through the quarantine waiver paperwork.

First, you needed to submit numerous documents to include plane tickets, passport data page, family census register (like a birth certificate to show relationship to the people you are visiting in Korea), vaccination card with a certification statement, agreement to the terms of the waiver, a marriage license (in our case), and other information.

The web site at the counsel was marginal. Sometimes it would translate to English, sometimes not. It took numerous tries to submit the information (it pays to have all your documents loaded on your computer in either pdf or jpeg format, under 2 megabytes each, and separate documents).

Using Google Chrome search engine worked better than apple or Microsoft products for us. This process was made more difficult by the fact there was no one to talk to with questions. You had to figure it out on line. We finally got it done and after a few weeks received our quarantine waiver. Two days later, due to the Omicron variant, they canceled the quarantine waiver program and everyone arriving in Korea would have to quarantine for ten days (Change from 14 days when we started).

Then there was the electronic Visa to get. This was a new requirement where anyone going to Korea had to get an electronic visa before departing. You needed to fine the appropriate consular website, enter your passport, where you would stay in Korea, flight information, and pay a 10,000 won ($9.09 U.S. dollar) fee.

The most annoying part was uploading a passport photo. This photo had to be less than 1 Kilobyte in size (7 pixels by 7 pixels or less) or it would not upload. It took some playing around with the computer to make this happen. We received confirmation of the electronic visa rather fast. So we were almost ready to go.

Our last requirement was to get a negative PCR test within 72 hours of departure. This was accomplished at our local health facility. We received our pdf with the negative test results within 24 hours and were sure to print several copies to carry with us. This was a good decision for later on.

My wife has a Korean mobile phone. I do not. Prior to departure she down loaded the Korean tracking app (from the airlines web site link) to her phone. I carry an iPad and I down loaded the same app to my iPad. This app would impact us upon arrival. We arrived at the airport the recommended four hours prior to scheduled departure. Of course the airline personnel had not arrived so we had to cool our heels for an hour before they open the counter. When we finally got to check in the only thing they asked for was for a paper copy of the PCR negative test and of course the passport.

The flight connected with the flight to Incheon through Detroit. Here, my wife had to fill out three forms certifying that she was vaccinated and that she would pay for ten days of quarantine at a government facility if there were any issues with her planned quarantine location at the family residence. The flight to Korea was uneventful except for being masked for 12 hours.

Upon arrival at Incheon you had to proceed through five different stations. First was a temperature check and general inspection of vaccine paperwork. Second was to allow them to get a copy of your PCR test (they actually took a physical copy for their files). Third was where they processed your phone app with your ultimate quarantine location. Since my wife had a active Korean mobile phone she just handed it over to the representative who entered here quarantine address and made sure the app was working properly. The fourth station went over you paperwork to see who you were visiting and that it met the criteria for entering the country.

Lastly, you went to the official immigration station that looked at all your paperwork again (including your electronic visa) before letting you in the country.
After she picked up her bags she was immediately met by health department personnel at the arrival area. Here they discussed transportation options to her quarantine location. She elected to take a taxi that was plexi-glassed and sanitized for her trip home. The cab took her directly home that was her quarantine location. While going through the checks at the airport, she asked the guy processing the quarantine app what would happen if you don’t have a cell phone. She got no good answer; however, the guy did say the app on the iPad was good as well so I felt confident for my upcoming trip.

I followed the wife in about a week. My route was through Atlanta. Here they made you sign forms acknowledging the possibility of a government quarantine location at $150 a day for ten days if you planned quarantine location didn’t work out and that the airline was not responsible plus other forms saying you vaccination record was accurate. The flight was 15 hours in a mask. Not fun. Upon arrival at Incheon I had to go through the same stations my wife did, but, with some different results.

The vaccine check and PCR check were no problem. At the app check station my agent was not very knowledgeable and had trouble entering the quarantine location into the app. He had no issue with the iPad, but, this would prove problematic in the future. At the fourth station the agent asked me for a copy of my quarantine waiver (which I had since I brought every type of paperwork with me). When I gave it to here I asked if they were now valid again and she said no, they are not valid and she shouldn’t have asked for it. We then went through a pile of documents to prove I was visiting my mother in law. So I had to show my marriage license that showed my wife’s English name and Korean name, then the family census register to show her relation to her mother. With all this done I went on to immigration where I had to do it all over again to show I was visiting a relative that allowed for admittance to Korea. Now I was in the country.

I was met by the health department officials who discussed transportation options. The taxis were busy and it would take an hour or so to get one. I know from my wife they were also expensive so I opted for the airport bus. These buses were much less expensive than the taxi but were operating on a reduced schedule. I was sent to a holding area and called forward to be escorted to the bus just prior to departure. I was one of two people in the bus. Upon arrival at my destination city I was met at the drop off location (different from the stop in pre-COVID days) by local health department personnel. They had my name already on their list and immediately directed me to a health department contract taxi that took me to my quarantine location. (The taxi ride was on them. I didn’t pay for that ride.) So now I was at my family’s home to begin by quarantine. We immediately ordered chicken and beer for our traditional arrive in Korea meal. The quarantine had now begun.

To be continued

By William Harlow