It may not be at the top of your list of things to worry about in Korea, but knowing where to use card vs. cash can be very helpful in avoiding awkward situations. Coming from the United States, I never really thought twice about using my credit card or debit card. In Korea, however, there are many small businesses that have a minimum amount that you need to spend to use a card, and some places do not take cards at all. Here is a brief guide on what to use, and where to use it.
Convenience Stores: The big convenience store chains usually have a rule that you must spend a minimum of 1,000 won if you want to use a card. In my experience this rule is often overlooked. For smaller convenience stores, or “mom and pop” types of shops, they will enforce that rule more. This is because they have to pay a fee for the card transaction service; the bigger chains can afford to lose a little money here and there, but the smaller shops do not have that ability. Grocery stores follow the same principle.
Taxis: Most, if not all, taxis accept cards. The base taxi fare in the Sejong area is 2,800 won, which is enough to cover the transaction fee they have to pay. This is wonderful, because the last thing you want to worry about when leaving a car in the rain is trying to pocket awkward change.
Gimbap Shops: These shops are renowned for being cheap and delicious places to eat. You can order anything from their wide menus without breaking the bank. The cheapest thing on the menu is usually the simple gimbap for about 1,000 won. We’ve heard that they may charge a little extra (100-200 won) to make up for the transaction fee. Try to spend 2,000 won minimum at these shops if you want to use a card.
Shijang (traditional Market): The shijang is a long street that is usually covered to protect it from rain; in the street there are many vendors selling everything from fruit to blankets. The market has tons of vendors and most of them do not have an indoor shop. If you buy something on the street you will almost certainly be expected to pay in cash. If you find a shop that is in a building you might be able to pay with a card. The butchers usually accept cards since they often have a four-walled shop.
One note on debit cards (this may also apply to credit cards): Between 12:00am and 1:00am there may be a period of time where you cannot use your card. This is because the banks are doing something with the information and it cannot be accessed. Between 12:00am and 1:00am Nonghyup Bank cards are inaccessible, but other banks times may be different.
This is the simple guide. Aside from this information, the best tip we can give is to always carry a 10,000 won note in your wallet or phone case. That way, even if your card doesn’t work you will be able to buy some simple things.