Essential Apps for Living [or Traveling] in Korea

Three years ago, I wasn’t having that much fun living in Korea. For starters, it took me at least twenty minutes a day to figure out where I was going on the subway and how to get there and probably another thirty minutes extra getting lost and backtracking until I found my way again. The bus system was a confounding mess (still is to be honest) and I only took a choice few when absolutely necessary (still true today). Beyond that there was the trouble of reading and understanding signs, finding my way to destinations and getting to the movie theater hours early or the day before so that I could get decent seats to any movie I wanted to watch.

It was exhausting.

Fortunately, you don’t have to deal with that. Three years ago, the thought of having a smartphone in Korea never entered my mind. My 2G flip phone was keeping me occupied along with my iPod Nano. So thank the big bearded face in the sky because Android and iOS are the greatest thing to happen to Korea since kimchi refrigerator. Whether you’re visiting a friend or here for the long haul, here are the Essential Apps for Living or Traveling in Korea.

I own a Galaxy S (1) so all of my apps are geared towards Android users. Most of these apps or similar ones are available on iOS as well. If you’re using Blackberry or a Windows Phone, good luck because I have no idea what the heck is available on those platforms.

Metroid

Korail prides itself on having a comprehensive and far reaching subway system that is easily accessible. Unfortunately the planners who built the stations, rails and lines were idiots. Half the time subway lines intersect more than once and sometimes they cross but don’t have a station to transfer. Add the fact that the lines are still growing with at least five or six new lines that will be completed in the next five to ten years and you’ve got a mess to deal with. Luckily there’s an app for that. There are quite a few subway apps out there but Metroid updates often, has comprehensive time schedules along with maps and (most importantly) is in either English or Korean. Also the app has a routing function that will tell you where to go and where to transfer if you input a starting point and a destination.

Interestingly enough, old timey 2G flip phones originally came with a Subway Maps “app” pre-installed no matter which carrier you got it from. If you only have space for one on this list, this is it.

Seoul Bus

If the subway system is a mess, then the bus system is is just barely distinguishable. Seoul Bus can give you times, schedules, and current locations if buses. It sounds great but it’s only helpful if you know how to use the bus system in Seoul already mainly because it doesn’t give you map of how to get from A to B.

For example, if you’re trying to head from Times Square to Shindorim Station (quicker by subway than by bus btw) then there is no search function to tell you which bus to take. You have to manually check each of the buses to figure out which bus goes where and then return to the station menu and check another bus. For the most part I use it to highlight buses that I take on a regular basis from my apart to the mall, the market, or to my dog’s vet. If you take a day or two to find and then favorite your regular buses it becomes your best friend.

Google Translate

Here’s my number two pick for a translating app. Google Translate is great as an all purpose translation tool but it isn’t precise and accuracy of the translations is hit and miss (lots of miss). The best dictionary app I’ve found is the native client on Samsung’s Galaxy line of phones. The best translation app is probably Google’s. Either way, this app comes in handy in a bind.

The prerequisite, of course, is that you can at least type in Korean and read at least a little. As far as I can tell, the camera translation function isn’t operating for Kor-Eng or vice versa. I could sit here picking apart why other apps are better but this app is by far the most comfortable to use.

Maps

Now that you can get from A to B, you have find out where B is. While Google Maps is my “go-to-App”, half the time places aren’t listed or they are mapped correctly. In these cases having either Naver Map or Daum Map is key. For the most part the apps operate almost exactly the same but I have to give the upper hand to Naver for having a slightly better interface and a larger user base. This means that whatever you’re searching for, if it’s not on Google Maps then it’s probably on Naver Maps.

Maps

The apps have their own issues, however. The most obvious hurdle is that the apps are in Korean, but once you load it up and take a look, using it isn’t very difficult even if you don’t know exactly what everything says. In comparison with Google Maps, they aren’t as smooth and loading times can be horrendous. Whoever designed the app designed it to be used on WiFi or via 4G. For the rest of us standing outside in the middle of the sidewalk, we’ll have to keep waiting until they release an update or just keep waiting…

Kakao Talk

If you live in Korea and you don’t have this app, then congratulations because you’re the only one. In case you haven’t noticed SMS messaging isn’t free in Korea. Kakao Talk takes care of that nicely, especially is you have unlimited data like me. It allows for easy messaging to my friends and family internationally along with data calls if you link up either through names or phone numbers. Even if you don’t live in Korea, Kakao Talk is a pretty decent option as a replacement messaging app.

The biggest issue with Kakao Talk is that there is no built-in function to save your conversations or anything else if your phone is accidentally wiped. This function was available for a short time but one of the updates seems to have done away with it.

Kakao Story

To be honest I don’t use Kakao Story. I am not really gungho about social networking sites and apps related to them. Most of my cousins, coworkers, my girlfriend, and a few of my friends use this app. This app can be best described as Facebook for your phone all the way down to the cover photo. If you’ve got a lot of local friends or you’re curious, it links with your Kakao Talk friends list and tries to import them over into your Kakao Story. Not essential by any means but definitely an easy way to keep in contact with your friends.

Lotte Cinema/CGV

You know what’s awesome about Korean movie theaters? You can choose your seats.

You know what sucks about Korean movie theaters? By the time you get to the theaters all the good seats have been taken.

Getting to the theater an hour or even two hours before showing isn’t worth the bus fare you’ll pay to get there. Either everything gets done online before you get there or you’re watching from the corner trying to figure out if Daniel Craig has aged badly or if his head really is crooked like that.

movie theatres

The apps work almost identically: you pick a theater and then a move (or vice versa if you like) and then find a time that you want to watch it at. Each showing lists the available number of seats/total number of seats and then asks you to pick your seats. Neither app requires you to register as you can pick a one-time purchase (비회원) and have the tickets or the confirmation number sent to your smartphone.

The only downside is that most of the options are written with English subtitles but when it gets to checkout and payment, the screens switch to Korean which is where Google Translate comes in.

Foursquare

Looking for food recommendations or for a decent mall? Most of the tips and comments are bound to be in Korean but at least the ratings system can give you some insight. And an address. If you can read Korea, the reviews are usually quite telling and the tips are always helpful. Otherwise you can use the “Nearby” function like  I do when I’m hungry and feel up for anything.

Foursquare is used often by a lot of people in Korea, just most of them happen to be Korean. There isn’t any way to separate out the Korean comments from the ones in English without having to read through them.

Root

It isn’t essential but for those of your living in Korea, I would highly recommend the Android Market Enabler. It allows your phone to access the Google Play Market from your phone as if you were living in the US or UK. For the most part it isn’t necessary but Korea doesn’t get all the apps that the US or European markets do. The most glaring of which is the the Google Play Music app which allows you to stream your music library to your phone. Beyond that there are a multitude of apps and services which will work on your phone in Korea even if the apps are blocked. The only prerequisite is that your phone be rooted to do so.

And there you are, 10 Essential Apps and one for extra credit. Each of the pictures is linked to the appropriate app in the Google Play store or you can just search for them yourself on your phone. Either way, good luck and happy travels!

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