How to Use Seoul's Subway System

Seoul's subway system is, in a word, great. I adore the subway. Comparing it to the subways in Toronto, London, Paris, and Cairo (the subways I've used), Seoul's is, by far, my favourite. Without trying to sound like an advertisement, the subway here is extensive, clean, and most importantly, very easy to use. All signs are in Korean and English (and Chinese!) so they're easy to read. Before heading to the platforms, there's plenty of signs listing the big (ie. transfer) stations for each direction. At each platform, big signs tell you what station the train is coming from and what the next station is, just to help you out. And of course, all the signs are colour-coordinated according to subway line. With plenty of maps, it's easy to find your way. Sure, I've mananged to head in the wrong direction once or twice, but that's because sometimes I simply don't pay attention!

Another helpful design is the big colour stripes along the platform walls. Each subway line has a designated colour: light blue, pink, yellow, or purple, for example. Then, each platform at every station has a stripe of that line's colour along the wall. It's particularly beneficial for those looking for a transfer station---riding the light blue line (line #4), it's easy to know when you've arrived at Chungmuro, where you can transfer to the orange line (line 3) because the walls have both orange and light blue stripes along the wall. Even without knowing the station names, you can figure out where to transfer very easily.

Having never lived in a city with a subway before, I'm enjoying the accessibility of having transportation always nearby. Online interactive maps (click "subway map") detail exactly how long it takes to get somewhere, so theoretically riders can always arrive to their destination on-time. My lateness (unfortunately) can't be blamed on the subway. Unless it's between the hours of midnight and 5.30am, when the subway is regrettfully closed, I can pretty much go anywhere, anytime.

But again, having never lived in a city with a subway before, I wondered if there were any rules I may not be aware of. My students are always helpful in providing information about this city. As another project, I had my students tell me the rules of the subway, carefully outling things people "should" do and things people "are not supposed to" do. Here's a sample of the extensive list they came up with:

You should...

  • keep order
  • be considerate of others
  • be careful
  • be thoughtful
  • follow the rule
  • follow the regulations

Good rules, though not limited to the subway.

  • take the subway WITH TICKET!

Obviously this group thought this rule was very important. And yes, you should buy a ticket or use your T-money transit pass to ride the subway. And when rides are 900won (about 90 cents), there's no excuse not to.

using a T-money card to pay for a subway ride (photo credit:

using a T-money card to pay for a subway ride (photo credit:

  • walk

As with swimming pools, it's always best to walk, not run, on the subway.

  • stand behind the yellow line
  • follow the guard line when you are waiting
  • stand in 4 lines
  • go in after people come out

While waiting for the train to arrive, my girls wisely think people should wait behind the yellow line and the protective guardrail. Many stations have doors to keep people away from the tracks, but not all of them yet. Also, platforms are marked with four arrows that indicate riders should wait in four neat lines, two on either side of the door. Ideally, this lets riders exit the train easily, after which the people waiting can enter. I know a few little ajummas (older women) who like to ignore these rules, though, and elbow their way onto the train before everyone's had a chance to get out, shoving all others aside.

  • help the poor
  • give money for poor people
  • leave a seat for the old
  • offer your seat to an old man
  • if there is old people, we should stand up
  • give your seat to old and sick and pregnant

The trains are lively, exciting places, with people coming and going, standing and sitting, walking up and down the aisles. Disabled people find ways to make a little bit of money by walking up and down trains, giving laminated information pages that (I assume, since it's always in Korean) describe their illness and ask for donations. Or, blind people play a quiet song on a tape player and slowly but steadily make their way down the train, holding a small basket for riders to drop coins or bills into.

Above the seats at the ends of each train, there are signs letting people know they should leave these seats for the elderly, disabled, or pregnant. The other seats are available to everyone, but of course it's polite to give your seat to the elderly, disabled, or pregnant there, too. It's a game: players scanning the train for signs that someone's about to stand up, jostling and competing for a newly empty seat, only to give it up to a sweet-looking old man who gets on at the next stop, then starting all over again.

  • be quiet
  • study
  • look at scenery
  • sleep, play game

My students had some ideas of what to do to pass the time. Study? I don't believe it girls. Look at scenery? Definitely. Sleep? I like watching other people sleep, their heads jerking as they suddenly realize how close they are to their seat-neighbour, but I can't say I recommend it. I know a few people who've fallen asleep, only to miss their stop and add hours to their journey. Play games? As long as they don't contradict the "be quiet" rule.

Now for some things you shouldn't do on the subway.

You're not supposed to...

  • commit suicide
  • throw someone on the rails

Both VERY important rules---I'd say they tie for Rule #1: Do not kill yourself or others on the subway.

  • use handicapped people's elevator

From my observations, Seoul is well designed to accomodate blind, deaf, and physically-disabled people. The subway is accessible for everyone, but no doubt it's difficult for disabled people to navigate through the crowds. It's smart to leave the elevators for those who need it.

  • bring their pets such as dogs and not take their dungs

Good idea!

  • talk with people
  • take their own photo in the subway

I think the girls got a little strict with these two rules. Talking, I'd say, should be allowed. While I think Korean's habit of taking self-photos is silly, I don't necessarily think it should be banned.

behaving properly

behaving properly

  • push people around
  • yell
  • smoke
  • throw trash
  • run, jump
  • exercise
  • spit
  • fight
  • say bad word
  • overeat

Good, especially the last one.

  • set your legs apart
  • open your leg
  • spread your newspaper too widely while sitting down
  • have more than one chairs
  • lie down on the chairs

Space is important everywhere in this city, including the subway. Don't take up too much of it.

  • get naked
  • scream
  • singing and dancing
  • drinking alcohol, beer? or something? soju
  • drink alcohol and throw up

I'm not sure what experiences my students have had on the subway, but I'll go ahead and agree with these rules.

  • beg to people
  • sell things
  • buy

It's common to see hawkers on the subway, peddling goods like umbrellas, nylon socks, laundry bins, cucumber peelers, dusters, homemade CDs, and other random goods. I enjoy watching them do their sales pitch, the whole time wondering what's being said. And I'm always surprised when people purchase these things (kitchen tools, umbrellas, and nylon stockings seem to be the most popular goods). My girls, however, think both those buying and selling are breaking the rules of the subway.

  • wear a short skirt
  • lovely situation
  • kiss with your boyfriend
  • touch her's hip!!!
  • leg between leg big NO
  • love behaviour
  • lovely couple
  • love with your partner

Without knowing quite what to call it, my girls certainly got the message across. No PDA, please!

And there it is: dos and don'ts for riding the subway in Seoul. Enjoy the ride!