Your girl got back from a little holiday trip to Italy and flew back to South Korea. Here is a bit of my brain vomit of what I had to prepare, how things went, and the procedures on returning. This is my second time quarantining in South Korea upon return from an overseas trip, and at this rate, I’ll be quite the pro!
Since regulations are always changing with very little notice at the last minute, I continuously keep tabs on local airlines’ websites and local government travel advisories to get a comprehensive view of what to expect. I more or less knew the headache of traveling during a pandemic as I went to the United States in late 2020 to visit family then returned to South Korea to quarantine for 14 days. You can read about that at My Self-Quarantine Experience in South Korea from 2020.
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What I Would Do Differently in 2022
After two international trips in the last two years, I would wait and book my flight at the last minute rather than ahead of time, so I can get a better idea of any last-minute changes that the government will impose. I made the decision to fly again in 2021 after seeing that South Korea removed its quarantine requirements.
Unfortunately, South Korea likes to flip flop on its decisions to live with COVID-19, and though I had initially thought — like everyone else — that South Korea would move towards living with COVID-19. This was obviously not the case as the Omicron variant sent everyone into a frenzy, and South Korea went in full reverse, tightening travel restrictions.
Questions to Ask Yourself
When others ask about whether or not they should take a trip overseas right now, I always ask them the following questions:
- Can you afford travel insurance?
- If you had to quarantine or if you were stranded in a foreign country, do you have enough money to hold you over?
- Would you be able to work remotely or take extra days off from work if you were stranded?
- How is your health?
- Is it worth the trouble?
Why Travel Insurance Is Mandatory
The bigger question is can you not afford travel insurance during a pandemic? I strongly believe at this point, travel insurance is mandatory if you’re planning an overseas trip, so I now budget for it. Traveling without travel insurance may mean that any hospital bills, quarantine costs, and related healthcare costs would be taken solely out of pocket which can easily add up.
No one can say for certain whether or not you’ll be able to dodge COVID-19. And even if it’s a mild case that you catch, you may have to self-isolate in your hotel room for weeks until you test negative in order to fly back home.
However, even with travel insurance, you have to read the fine print, and it’s tricky to find an insurance provider that will cover your needs. Take a close look at the terms and agreement and what medical expenses or quarantine costs are covered.
I took out World Nomads’ travel insurance, and just a few days prior to my flight, Italy got put on the CDC’s “Do Not Travel” (Level 4) list which was one of World Nomads’ coverage exceptions. I was already on my flight to Munich before I received an email back from their customer service team, so it was too late. I figured I still had some medical coverage, so I didn’t complain.
The following quote is the response I received from World Nomads regarding the travel insurance exception:
What I Prepared to Fly to Italy from South Korea
All requirement documents for travel to Italy are outlined on the Italian government website, Ministero della Salute.
Documents Required for Italy:
- Fill out the EU Digital Locator Form online
- Antigen test within 24 hours of arrival to Italy; or PCR test within 72 hours of arrival to Italy
- Proof of vaccination
EU Digital Locator Form
I filled out the EU Digital Locator Form online after I was able to check in to my Lufthansa flight and get my seat assignment. You cannot complete the form without a seat assignment, and since my flight was economy, the seat was not assigned to me until the day before my flight when I checked in online.
Negative Antigen or PCR Test
I needed a negative antigen or PCR test and proof of vaccination to skip the 5-day quarantine in Italy. Germany has its own requirements which are available on the Lufthansa website, however, since I was only transiting through Munich Airport and there was already overlap with Italy, I didn’t worry too much. Lufthansa has a digital document check where you can upload your documents ahead of time to check them for flying. I had already uploaded most of my documents on the Lufthansa app, but you still have to show the documents again when you are dropping off your baggage at the gate at the check-in counter, so I had everything printed and filed in a binder for easy access.
As for the negative COVID-19 test, I had originally booked an antigen test appointment at a clinic in Gangnam from my list, Where to Get a COVID-19 PCR Test in Seoul with English Test Results for Traveling, for the Sunday prior to my flight when an antigen was allowed to be taken 72 hours ahead of time.
Italy gave very short notice that the antigen would only be valid if taken 24 hours ahead of my ARRIVAL time. Since my flight was around 12 to 14 hours, that only gave me ten (10) hours to take the test. I scrambled and booked to take my antigen test at the Incheon Airport testing facility. I arrived a bit early, took the test, waited about 30-40 minutes, and picked up my results. They also sent a PDF version via email.
It would have made more sense for me to have taken the PCR test rather than antigen for Italy since it would have given me extra time to do it in advance, but I didn’t want to pay the extra cost considering how much I spent on this trip. In hindsight, it could have been better as I wouldn’t have to take the test so early in the morning and then spend all day at the airport, so definitely weigh whether it’s worth it in terms of time and money.
Proof of Vaccination (South Korea)
As for proof of vaccination, I printed out my vaccination records from Korea in English from the official and about a month or two prior, applied for an EU green pass via France so that I would have a scannable QR code for use in the European Union.
Proof of Vaccination (European Union)
I did not need the EU Green Pass in addition to my Korean vaccination records in order to board the flight to the EU, however, I applied for it for day-to-day activities during my trip in order to facilitate movement. Italy requires vaccine checks at just about every indoor café, restaurant, public transportation, and museum. I wasn’t certain that my Korean vaccination records would be easily recognized by storeowners and museums.
It was much, much easier to use the Tous Anti Covid app (France) to show a scannable green pass with a QR code to stores and restaurants in Italy. I’ve heard it’s easier to get by with a CDC (US) vaccination card since it is more widely recognized, but since I was vaccinated in South Korea, I decided that one can never be too prepared.
Side note: I’ve heard it’s no longer as easy to get the EU green pass online in France as it once was. I spoke with my boyfriend, a French citizen living overseas, about this as well and he applied to get his vaccination records from Korea recognized by France, and there was a much longer wait time around the holidays. Since he still didn’t get it in time before the flight, he just went to a pharmacy upon arrival to France and got his Tous Anti Covid app QR code by showing his certificate papers.
The last time I checked, you are unable to get a Green Pass (QR) with foreign vaccination records in Italy unless you are an Italian resident or citizen, so it may be in your best interest to see if you can fly into France first if you’re doing a multi-destination trip and stop by a pharmacy in France to convert your foreign vaccination records into an EU Green Pass. Information for applying for the EU Green Pass with foreign vaccination records in France is available at the Ambassade de France en Indonésie et au Timor Oriental and from Santé.fr.
My Departure from Incheon Airport (South Korea)
It took me about 1.5 to 2 hours from Gangnam to Incheon Airport via train. Do you remember those airport buses that ran from Seoul to the airports? Those were a treat! Due to the pandemic, they are still suspended indefinitely.
The Testing Center at Incheon Airport
The Incheon Airport Testing Center was right outside the Incheon Airport Railroad station, next to the parking lot and across from the Terminal. There are two available – East and West. I booked an appointment at the East testing center. If you’re coming from the subway/railroad, walk towards the exits for parking lots and then circle the front of the station facing the passenger terminal.
There will be queues depending on your appointment time and staff will walk you through the procedure as you move from numbered booths. They told me that the antigen could take 1-2 hours but it was done in about 40 minutes. The results were emailed as a password-protected PDF but you can also pick up the test results from the center printed and signed.
Update (06/16/2022): Looking back at this queue, don’t expect it to be this small later in the year or at peak times. I booked the earliest time slot when Omicron just reared its ugly head, so travel was low. Now that the flood gates have opened, so to speak, and the quarantine in Korea has been lifted, I’ve already heard that the lines through disease screening and immigration at Incheon Airport have multiplied. Which brings me to my next recommendation, make sure that you have your Q-code in order — tourists and locals alike. It isn’t required for locals, but now it is important to get through the long lines.
Lufthansa Check-in Counter
At check-in, the Lufthansa staff asked to see the required documentation for my destination country, Italy. I showed them: (1) the EU digital locator form which I has done the day before as I was only issued a seat number 24 hours prior to my flight through online check-in; (2) my complete vaccination records in South Korea.
The Flight to Rome via Munich
The flight itself was uninteresting. It was definitely busier than the flight I took to the states last year where I got away with having an entire row to myself. This time on Lufthansa, they only distanced us by one seat and the entire flight was more or less packed to capacity. You know you’ve been in Korea for too long when airline meals taste way better than some of the local non-Korean cuisines in Seoul. I ordered a lactose intolerant meal in advance and got a lot of grilled veggies, most chicken, salmon, and fresh fruit.
Though the gentleman next to me was very kind, he kept coughing during the flight which left me quite paranoid …
The flight from Incheon to Munich was pretty full, but there were empty seats between passengers for safety. The flight from Munich to Rome, however, was packed like sardines without any seat gaps. If it wasn’t for the masks, I would not think that we were in covid times.
My Arrival at Fiumicino Airport (Rome)
Nobody checked my documents at FCO airport in Rome, Italy, and I was waiting for someone to ask! There were signs posted in the airport, but I’m assuming that because I had all my documents in order at check-in that it wasn’t necessary. Who knows?
Transportation Requirements in Italy
Lufthansa also required KF94 or N95 masks on the plane as well as proof of vaccination or proof of recovery. I knew that Italy also required higher-grade masks on transportation. They will walk around at the airport and the train to ensure that everyone has their EU green pass (or equivalent) and a proper face mask.
I took the Leonardo Express train from the FCO Rome Airport to the Roma Termini station, then walked to my hotel. They checked my green pass (vaccination) and my ticket on board the train. They also checked to make sure that I was wearing a mask.
Keep It Organized
My boyfriend kept laughing that I had a little binder with all my flight information, vaccine paperwork, itinerary, hotel bookings, et cetera. But it does come in handy when you need to show documents x, y, and z at every check-in counter.
What Was Checked and When
The most important documents — vaccination records, Covid-19 test, printed EU digital locator form — were checked by the desk attendant prior to my boarding the flight in Seoul. I had to pass through border control in Germany since it was my first stop in the EU. After arriving in Rome, Italy from Seoul, South Korea via Munich Airport in Germany, I did not receive any further checks in Italy and just passed through to collect my luggage and then jumped on the train to Roma Termini.
The Situation in Italy
Most Italians wore masks indoors and outdoors with the exception of some French and American tourists who were embarrassingly letting their noses hang out or wearing their masks under their chin.
Most bar, cafe, and restaurant staff will ask for your green pass if you’re dining indoors. You may or may not be asked if dining outdoors. All museums will ask for your green pass. All public transportation like trains will ask for your green pass when checking your ticket. As of December 25th, 2021, higher-grade masks like N95 or KF94 masks are required on all transportation, including trains and airlines.
What I Prepared to Return to Korea from Italy
At the time of booking, I thought I could get away with going on a little trip without having to quarantine in South Korea upon return. At the time, the Korean government had announced that we would try to live with COVID-19. Boy, oh, boy. I was wrong to assume that the Korean government wouldn’t backtrack on all decisions as it hastily reimplemented a 10-day quarantine in December and as of writing, extended it until February.
The two most important things you need for traveling to South Korea is:
- PCR Test with negative results
issued 72 hourstaken 48 hours prior to boarding your flight with your name, test type, negative result, the name and location of the testing site, birth date, and your passport number
- Re-entry permit and/or visa
PCR test requirements (Updated on 2022-01-13) for entry into Korea are available on the Embassy of the Republic of Korea to the Republic of Singapore website.
Side note: Check, check, check entry restrictions and requirements for each country, especially South Korea, continuously before flying out. The testing requirements for South Korea have recently changed again — shocking — to all be done — testing and results — within 48 hours of boarding your flight. These things change week to week now. I find that the best source of information is the local air carrier’s website, e.g. Korean Air, as well as the respective government websites.
One of my biggest fears was coming back with a positive test result before flying out to South Korea. If you test positive, you will not be able to board your flight. And if I got covid, recovered, and continued to test positive? It would probably be very complicated to prove it. Again, weigh the risks and keep in mind what your backup plan would be in this very real scenario.
Side note: A friend of a friend ended up stranded in Europe and found her way to a nunnery in Italy last year because of financial issues. I suppose that’s always an option albeit not my ideal situation.
You’ll be able to fill out other required forms like health declaration form, travel record, and so forth on the plane or upon arrival. The flight attendants should pass out forms during the flight to Incheon Airport. If they do not, you’ll get it at Incheon Airport. Considering how long the flight to South Korea is, you’ll have plenty of time to dot your i’s and cross your t’s.
You will also need to apply for a re-entry permit to South Korea if you are a non-citizen, long-term resident of South Korea returning to South Korea after your trip. There are a few exceptions from which I benefitted. F4 visa holders and diplomats do not need to fill out a re-entry permit. However, most long-term residents do need it. From what I’ve heard, you may get denied your re-entry permit if you’re visiting a country that’s not your home country.
Short-term visitors like tourists need to apply for a K-ETA online now even if you normally do not need a visa to South Korea.
PCR Test in Rome, Italy for Travel
I booked an appointment with Synlabs in the historical center of Rome about one month ahead of time. Take note that the PCR test was called a molecular test in Italy and it was expectedly more expensive than the antigen.
I arrived earlier than my appointment and saw a little bit of a line at 8 am, so I took a little walk until it was closer to my appointment time of 9 am. I was able to go in and take my test about 30 minutes earlier. I brought my passport and made sure to write the number on the form provided, along with marking that I needed an English result as well. I paid about 60 euros.
The test itself was surprisingly thorough in the sense that the doctor swabbed my throat, then stuck the swab deeply into one nose, and then wiggled into the deepest crevices of the other nostril. I thought that the doctors in Korea were not so gentle, but I’m realizing that the PCR test in Italy was the most aggressive. The results were available by 8 pm the same night as an online pdf which I asked the hotel lobby staff to print.
Side note: There are new changes to the Korean regulations for PCR testing. As of January 20th, 2022, you would need to get tested 48 hours before departure. I find that the easiest way to keep track of all these regulations to enter South Korea is just to visit the Korean Air website, COVID-19 Update Center.
※ (Previous requirement) The testing result/certificate must have been issued within 72 hours before the date of departure.
→ (New requirement) The testing must have been performed, and a certificate must have been issued, within 48 hours before the departure date.
In Rome, the check-in desk attendant was trying to read and re-read the entry requirements while examining my PCR test results, my vaccination records, and she asked whether or not I had downloaded the self-quarantine app. After arriving at my layover destination of Munich, I had to show the same documents again in order to board the flight. Having been through the quarantine and arrival process in Korea already in late 2020, I knew well not to mess around with the paperwork.
The flight attendants on Lufthansa handed out the necessary paperwork like health declaration, travel declaration, customs document to fill out for Korea at the beginning of the plane ride.
Quarantine in South Korea (Again!)
Transportation from Incheon Airport
The biggest question I had was: can I take public transportation from Incheon Airport if I’m vaccinated? From January 20th, 2022, the answer is no.
Because of the time I had arrived (January 1st, 2022), it was unclear whether or not I was allowed to take public transportation. I asked at the airport, and they laughed and said no. Funny thing was that at the time, I was technically allowed due to being fully vaccinated in South Korea.
Well, they cleared that up days later as the Korean government announced that they would close the loophole, and everyone who has to quarantine — vaccinated or unvaccinated — must take the special COVID-19 designated buses and taxis from Incheon Airport upon arrival from overseas … Which makes complete sense, to be honest. So, after January 20th, you are not allowed to take any public transportation and must only take the specially designated COVID-19 taxis and buses.
Regardless, I was planning on taking a taxi since I went a little overboard on the luggage. I’ve attached a quick look at the the timetable for the COVID-19 bus at Incheon Airport. The times are not ideal, so I would honestly plan to take a COVID-19 taxi to save yourself some headache. The COVID-19 taxi is less than 100,000 KRW if you’re headed into Seoul.
The quarantine bus schedule and quarantine taxi pricing is actually available on the Incheon Airport website (Korean version, not the English language version).
Quarantine Process in South Korea
The quarantine process in Korea will be dependent on a few factors like whether you were vaccinated IN South Korea, hold a long-term resident visa with a place of residence in South Korea, and whether you’re coming from a high-risk country. You can compare it to my 2020 post about quarantining in My Self-Quarantine Experience in South Korea, but it’s more or less the same.
For the sake of keeping things simple, I will only describe my case (fully vaccinated in South Korea, long-term resident):
Arrival in Korea → Show COOV app vaccination records and PCR negative certificate to the quarantine officer → Pass the examination by the Ministry of Justice → Pick up baggage → Pass Customs → Move to residence (no restrictions on using public transportation or normal taxi if you have the vaccination sticker) → Begin quarantine → Take a COVID-19 test at the local public health center within 1 day → Receive results via text the following morning → Record temperature and symptoms twice daily on the quarantine app → Visit a public health center on the 9th day to take another test → Release from quarantine at 12 pm (noon) on the 10th day
If you want the exact dates to get an estimate of when you’ll be released:
- Arrived the morning of January 1st (taxi home)
- Got tested on January 1st at my local public health center (walked) within the first 24 hours
- Received negative test results on January 2nd
- Got tested on January 9th at my local public health center (walked)
- Received negative test results on January 10th
- Released on January 11th (noon)
From what I’ve heard, the procedure will vary depending on what district (gu) you live in. You’re supposed to be contacted by a public health official to monitor you and answer any questions, but this time around, it took a couple of days for someone to reach out to me. In the meantime, I got the number of my local district public health department and called them to ask when I will be out of quarantine and if three tests were required. I used a free translation service (1330) to put me and the public health official on a three-way call to answer my questions in English.
Most of the public health centers will be open on weekdays and holidays if that’s a concern. Just take note of lunch hours as I arrived during their lunch and had to stand outside in the dead of winter for over an hour, waiting for the testing center to reopen. They handed me my “quarantine packet”, but it was a lot more sparse than last year and equally disappointing as you usually only get a bunch of masks and sanitizer with instructions. Your welcome packet will be dependent on the district you live in. Don’t get your hopes up for food or money.
My district only required two tests which was a shame, really. I was looking forward to having to take the third test and strolling out of my apartment and standing outside for a hot minute to absorb some vitamin D and get out of my shoebox apartment.
As usual, when it’s time to be released at noon, you can delete the quarantine app. I was told to throw the orange trash bags like normal this time — last year, I had to schedule a pick-up — and I messaged my case officer just in case to confirm that it was okay to leave.
Tips on Surviving Quarantine in South Korea
It’s ten (10) days quarantine in South Korea now which is less than it was before. Make sure your bills are paid on time and you have any necessities before you go overseas and return because you won’t be able to leave your house. If you have a private balcony or a private backyard, consider yourself lucky.
The first few days you’ll probably be jetlagged, so those are the easiest in my opinion. The tricky thing is just to adjust to a normal sleeping schedule.
I highly recommend to:
- Exercise daily
- Find projects
- Deep clean and organize your apartment or house
- Take Vitamin D to make up for the lack of sunlight
- Call your friends and family frequently
- Tackle your reading or movie lists
It’s really important to move otherwise you’ll start getting physically antsy. Without some form of regular exercise, it’s also hard to fall asleep.
In what’s becoming my quarantine tradition, I ordered another piece of fitness equipment to my apartment on day one of quarantine. I got so sick of my exercise bike during the last 14-day quarantine that I chucked it into the corner of my room and never wanted to touch it again.
I decided to buy a portable treadmill this time from Coupang, and I have to say … It’s kind of great for the price! Do I feel like a hamster in a wheel? Yes. But I am so relieved to be able to move my full body this time. In my last quarantine, I got a bit desperate and started to Google “prison workouts”. If you don’t have access to equipment, try doing bodyweight exercises or look up YouTube fitness workouts.
When it’s time to take those mandatory tests at the local public health center? I recommend walking to them to get a little bit of sunlight and move your feet.
As for food, I had bought some essentials prior to leaving for my trip, so that I would have just enough until I was able to order more. Most delivery services in South Korea will be able to leave your food at your door. I usually wait until they leave and then slide my hand out and pull the food in. Take a look at How to Order Food Delivery in Seoul, Korea in English if you need more suggestions.
If you’re quarantining at home, I recommend finding projects that you’ve been putting off. I regrouted my bathroom, reorganized my closet, and basically cleaned and organized every crevice of my apartment. I even assembled furniture. Here’s your time to do it!
Regarding the trash, as I’ve mentioned previously in My Self-Quarantine Experience in South Korea, there is limited space for removing trash, but you can be quite creative. You can’t leave the premises to throw out the trash, but I designated a tiny cubby in my apartment as trash storage. To avoid the stink, you may also want to freeze perishable trash until the quarantine is over.