For those of you who don’t know, I am an expat living in Seoul, South Korea. I’ve been here for about a year and a half now, and I decided to fly back home to the United States during the Chuseok holidays in September 2020. I did a lot of research regarding quarantine restrictions in Everything I Know About Travel Restrictions in South Korea in 2020. When I returned to South Korea in October, I went through the dreaded two-week quarantine at home in my apartment in Seoul. Here is what happened!
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Flight from Seoul to Boston
Getting to Incheon Airport from Seoul
My typical, go-to airport buses from Seoul, South Korea weren’t running during the COVID-19 crisis of 2020, so I took the subway from my apartment in Gangnam to Incheon Airport. You can still take a taxi to Incheon Airport, fortunately.
When I got to Incheon Airport, it was almost completely deserted. They checked my temperature before the flight, and the flight itself was also very empty. Everyone was able to get their own row. Flight attendants wore goggles and face masks. Passengers were also required to wear face masks.
Quarantine Procedures in Boston, Massachusetts
When I arrived at Logan Airport to Terminal E, the airport staff checked to make sure that I filled out the Online Traveler Form to confirm that I would get tested for COVID-19 or stay quarantined for 14 days. Honestly, compared to Korea, the attention to safety was underwhelming, but I expected as much. All I got for follow-up was a text message every day reminding me to stay quarantined or take the test.
On the other hand, a friend of a friend ran off to Rhode Island, thinking that he wouldn’t get caught for re-entering the state without quarantining. He was caught and fined.
Traveling in the United States
Three weeks flew by fast. I stayed with my friends and family, laughed, cried, shucked Island Creek Oysters at home in quarantine, re-visited my favorite museums, and danced around living rooms.
The first week in Boston, we relied heavily on ordering cooking at home and wine from Drizly. My best friend barely left the house since the beginning of the pandemic in the United States. She had already lost a friend and an uncle to COVID-19, and she assessed the risks and let me stay with her regardless. I felt grateful to be back home with the ones I loved the most.
The situation in the States wasn’t actually as bad as I imagined. I spent most of my time in Brooklyn, Manhattan, New Jersey, and Boston — avoiding all public transportation and crowded places. Restaurants in Boston had dividers to separate guests and required timed reservations. Entry to museums was also timed and had to be reserved online.
Manhattan was empty. We walked the Brooklyn Bridge from my friend’s apartment in Carroll Gardens to get our steps in daily. Despite the pandemic, everyone just felt happy to be alive.
Flight from Boston to Seoul
Fortunately, traveling in 2020 during COVID-19 wasn’t as horrific as I imagined. I flew round-trip from Boston to Seoul via Delta/Korean Air. The flight back to Korea was empty again. The middle seats were all blocked off, and since there weren’t a lot of people on the flight, I sprawled out in yoga-esque positions that probably weirded out the flight attendants — but certainly nothing they haven’t seen before. Everyone on the flight wore masks and had their temperature taken before boarding. Two meals were served as normal.
During the flight, the airline attendants also handed us the necessary paperwork to fill out prior to arrival. I remembered to download the Quarantine Protection Safety App prior to boarding my flight and was prepared with any necessary documents proving my residence and visa status.
Since I hold an F4 visa, I didn’t have to go through a whole rigmarole like other visa-holders like a doctor’s note prior to my flight saying that I had no coronavirus symptoms or apply for a re-entry permit.
Read more: Everything I Know About Travel Restrictions in South Korea in 2020 where you can read about specific rules, immigration issues, and quarantine restrictions that Korea has implemented for travelers coming to South Korea.
My Experience at Incheon Airport
Self-Quarantine App for South Korea
Once I arrived at Incheon Airport, there were tables set up to prepare me for quarantine. At the first table, they checked to make sure that the self-quarantine app was downloaded and functioning. They showed me how to enter my twice-daily temperature readings and inputted my first reading.
At the second table, they checked my quarantine address and verified that my phone number worked. I’ve heard KakaoTalk is an alternative if you don’t have a working Korean phone number and have to rely on WiFi only. Since my address was printed on my resident card and I switched my SIM card back to my Korean phone number, it was all very straight-forward.
Transportation from Incheon Airport
After leaving the baggage claim area, I was ushered to choose my transportation. They placed an orange sticker on my shoulder as I walked through. There were designated COVID-19 taxis and buses. After the long flight and the baggage I accumulated, I chose to go by taxi. The cost of the taxi was 85,000 KRW to my apartment in Seoul, and it included a drop-off to the local Public Health Center where I would get tested for the coronavirus. The taxi driver patiently waited for me to complete my test and then dropped me off at my apartment.
I was also assigned a public health official to check on me during my quarantine and answer any questions I may have — including testing information and my release date. She called me when I was in the taxi en route to Seoul, and she was able to speak in English.
COVID-19 Testing in South Korea
At Seocho-Gu Public Health Center, they handed me a quarantine kit which included waterproof temperature stickers, two giant trash bags, hand sanitizer, K94 face masks, cleaning spray, and tomato growing mix.
I didn’t receive the infamous food package courtesy of the Korean government, unfortunately, as I’ve heard it’s dependent on region, and well, it’s very likely that the budget for that is limited. Most people in Seoul have reported the same.
COVID-19 Test Result
I received my negative COVID-19 test results in Korean via SMS the day after my test. I used Google Translate to confirm it was indeed negative. I still had to follow through to the end of quarantine in case symptoms would appear later.
Quarantining at My Apartment in South Korea
Food in Quarantine
I stocked up on my favorite snacks from Trader Joe’s in the US as well to chomp on until I get my first food delivery. I ordered food delivery off of Coupang Eats, requesting the food to be left right outside my door. When the delivery man left, I pawed one hand out of my door and grabbed the food quickly.
READ MORE: How to Order Food Delivery in Seoul where you can read about ordering food while under quarantine in South Korea. If you’re quarantining at home for 14 days, you can still have food delivered to your doorstep.
Exercise During Quarantine
I bought a compact indoor bike before I left for the United States, so that I could workout during my 14-day quarantine. I woke up early every morning and rode all day long until my legs gave out. I did jumping jacks. I did YouTube workout videos. I did pilates on my bed. I paced around my tiny apartment. I bought heavy dumbbells. It felt like a Martha Stewart-level prison cell.
Trash during Quarantine
Since the Korean government only supplied me with two big garbage bags, I asked my friend to drop off more garbage bags right outside my door since I would be accumulating a lot of trash during these long days. I kept the trash in a little cubby in my apartment, so it would be out of sight.
More Testing During Quarantine
I asked the assigned public health official whether or not she knew if I had to take another coronavirus test before my quarantine ended, but she said that it would be required if I was a medical institution worker, student, worker in school, person who came in contact with someone who was confirmed positive, 65 years old or older, then I would have to get another test. Since none of those things applied to me, I was in the clear.
The End of Quarantine in South Korea
The day before quarantine was scheduled to finish, I heard a knock on my door. It was local health officials checking to see if I was still inside. They requested to see a government ID. I was wearing a very short bathrobe and scrambled to put my mask on. I was almost at the finish line!
At noon sharp on the last day of quarantine, I was allowed to delete the app and was asked to schedule a pick up of the two hazard orange trash bags that they had supplied me. Since I would be at work the next day, I left the bags outside my room for pickup. The rest of the trash, I threw out normally.
When I walked outside for the first time in 14 days, I was a bit dizzy from being isolated for so long but incredibly relieved. I also had a bit of a quarantine belly as I wasn’t used to being so sedentary for two weeks, and my friends fattened me up pretty well during my trip to the States. Being back in Seoul felt fresh to me again, and I was happy to have survived the trip.
It will be a long time before the quarantine procedures end in South Korea, and rightfully so, as we’ve been allowed certain freedoms here that do not exist elsewhere in the world. As long as coronavirus exists and no vaccine is in sight, I doubt Korea will let go of these restrictions in order to protect its people. Sadly, that also means I won’t be traveling internationally again for a long time, so I have to make peace with mini-trips around the country if I want to appease the travel bug inside of me.