North Korea - 8 Things to Know Before You Go

More people are becoming fascinated with the idea of traveling to North Korea. But what is it like to travel there? Here’s what you need to know to have a safe and enjoyable time.

Photo © GettyImages/narvikk

A note on travel insurance: While we can’t offer travel insurance policies for North Korea, we strongly encourage travelers to find a travel insurer. Some tour operators might organise this for you, but in case they do not, research carefully. You may not have access to medical care and other essential services while in North Korea.

1. Political Situation

Since the end of the Korean war in 1953, the Korean Peninsula has been divided by a demilitarised zone (DMZ), separating the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea, DPKR) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea).

Despite a peace agreement, the two Koreas are still technically at war and relations remain tense despite the inter-Korean summit in April 2018 when North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un met with South Korea's President Moon Jae-in in the joint security area. This was the first time since the Korean War that a North Korean leader had set foot in South Korea.

North Korea (DPRK) is a communist state; so it's safe to assume that you will be under surveillance. North Korean government security personnel may closely monitor the activities and conversations of visitors. Hotel rooms and phones may be monitored however if a local authority wants to know something, they will generally ask.

Not much is known about North Korea's internal politics due to the country's reclusive nature. Although the internet is available to visitors, and some international TV is available in hotels used by visitors, that access may be curtailed in a crisis. Situations such as internal political instability, protests and/or a rise in tensions on the Korean Peninsula could occur, which means you may get little or no information about this from the local media or authorities.

View of Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) from North Korean side. Photo credit: GettyImages - George Pachantouris

2. Tourism in North Korea

This is a country were total obedience to the state is the norm. There is no "dissension" in North Korea, and travelers must abide by this if they intend to travel there.

Tourism in North Korea is unlike anything you will have experienced. Travel throughout the country is mostly done via guided tour with international and local guides. It’s a good way to meet other travelers and being in a guided tour can be useful should you need any help.

If you choose not to travel with a tour group, you will still need the services of a local guide, and won’t be able to leave your hotel, sightsee or travel on public transport without one. Defying these regulations will result in punishment for you and your guide.

It’s important to note that not all countries have consular presence or an embassy in North Korea so if you are not prepared to accept limitations on your movements and behavior don’t travel to North Korea as diplomatic assistance may be limited or non-existent.

3. Prohibited Items

The following items are prohibited in North Korea:

  • Religious material
  • Pornographic material
  • Political material
  • Travel guides may be confiscated upon arrival but returned on departure.

Contrary to popular belief, you can bring in your laptop, tablet, camera and cell phone. Even though telecommunications are tightly controlled in North Korea, you can purchase a local SIM to make and receive calls, SMS, MMS and surf the net however the rates are high and your calls may be monitored.

A station on the Pyongyang - North Korea Metro. Photo credit: GettyImages - Nick Ledger

4. Visas for North Korea

To enter North Korea, most visitors will arrive from China and must have a visa to enter. This must be obtained prior to arrival (it’s best to have your tour finalised at least a month in advance, this gives some space in case of delays.) Tour groups specialising in North Korea travel will be able help you sort through the quagmire of complex and ever-changing regulations.

There are some nationalities that aren’t permitted entry to North Korea including South Koreans and Malaysians. In 2017, the US government announced that its citizens were banned from entering North Korea. This ban has been extended to 31 August 2019.

5. Traveling Around

When you arrive in North Korea, your guide will take your passport and keep it. This is just a routine procedure. Make sure your passport looks decent and is valid.

DPRK border officials will sometimes confiscate visitors' cell phones upon arrival, returning the phone only upon departure.

Always follow the rules of your tour as failing to do so can place you and your guide at risk. He/she will be subjected to severe penalties, for assisting your "espionage".

You can talk to local people but the language barrier and lack of freedom of speech can stifle conversation. Locals can also be unsure of visitors. Tour companies make efforts for travelers to experience the local culture and interact with locals.

If you happen to be in North Korea during a national day or festival event, locals tend to be more at ease. Like in any culture, celebration, good food and beverages always help break the ice.

Grand Monument of the Dear Leaders in Pyongyang, North Korea. Photo credit: GettyImages - Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us

6. Lese Majeste

Most, if not all, tour groups are asked to solemnly bow and lay flowers on one or two occasions in front of statues of Kim Il Sung when visiting monuments of national importance. Always act in a respectful manner around images or monuments of the North Korean leader and keep any negative thoughts or opinions to yourself.

It's a criminal offense in North Korea to show disrespect to the country's current and former leaders. Anyone violating the laws of North Korea, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested, or imprisoned.

It's also a good idea to avoid talking about politics and religion.

7. Local Laws

Espionage

Any unauthorized activities can and will be seen as an attempt at espionage.

If you travel unescorted, authorities will see these actions as attempted espionage. Always stay with a guide and never do anything to draw attention to yourself by local authorities.

Currency

International visitors are not allowed to use the local currency (North Korean Won) so bring Euros or Chinese Yuan. Experienced North Korea tour operator Young Pioneer Tours recommends the Yuan as it’s the easiest to get change from. Some places will also accept USD however it’s best to check with your tour guide before exchanging. As there are no ATMs or foreign exchange bureaus in North Korea, you will need to bring enough cash for your entire trip and make sure the bills are clean and new.

Photography

Don’t take photos unless you have permission to do so. North Korean government authorities may view taking unauthorized pictures as espionage, and could confiscate cameras, film and/or detain the photographer. This includes photographs of airports, government buildings, military infrastructure, transport hubs or anything which isn’t considered a tourism location.

Photographing scenes of poverty or other situations that may cause a negative impression of the DPRK may also result in confiscation.

Ask permission from your guide before taking photographs in the DPRK, including of officials, soldiers or other people.

Drones are definitely a no-go.

LGBTQ

While same sex relationships aren’t illegal in North Korea, authorities generally don’t accept them. It’s important for LGBTQ travelers to remain discreet at all times.

Kim Il-Sung's Museum of Gifts. Photo credit: GettyImages - Narvikk

8. Crime

You are unlikely to be affected by any serious crime in North Korea, whether you are traveling in a tour group or independently with a guide. The worst you can expect is petty theft, particularly at Pyongyang airport and in local markets. As always, you should exercise care, be aware of your surroundings and ensure personal belongings are secure. Just because your movements are tightly choreographed doesn’t mean you should get too complacent.

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52 Comments

  • Nobody said

    Wow

    Even though these rules are helpful,

    I really don't want to go there. AT ALL.

  • James Dosh said

    I'm very excited about my up coming trip to North Korea. I will pay my respects to the dear leader.

  • Jack Poleski said

    Thank you for this wonderful article as well as all the insightful and vital information it provided. I'm wondering what it would be like to live in such a tightly controlled culture. One thing surely fascinated me; safety and the concept of lack of street crime. Something undoubtedly which results from severe punishment and strict monitoring not mention the fear of torture and imprisonment.

  • M said

    It really is not that serious as it seem from this article...... but yeah,obey the rules.

  • Jef Choo said

    I been to North Korea last Dec 2016. It pretty safe to travel as the 2 guides will look after you thru out the trip. Just obey the guide told you and pay great respect to the leaders. North Korea is a clean country and with beautiful colourful building at Pyongyang. The guides are very friendly and they try their best to fullfill your request. There are many souvenirs you can buy and many shops at the interest places. Is a memories experience in North Korea that make you excitement everyday.

  • Lance said

    Why on earth would you want to ?

    Oh dear, now the NK, will be hacking me

    Sick of his bullshit, wants a war, lets give it




  • Kevin said

    Strangely enough, weed is completely legal in DPRK (don't believe me? google it). And who's the ones with the controlling government?

  • Anshuman said

    Very helpful article...would definately love to visit this unique country :)

  • Nella Rogers said

    After reading this I have an urge to do an Ozzy Osborn on a statue of Kim I'll Jong!!!

  • Michael robson said

    Hey, l want to visit just to see the new fireworks show... l hear its going to be bigger than Sydney!!!

  • Mike Litoris said

    I hear they are building a few new golf courses there and Donald Trump is going to help them create the bunkers. Can just see Kim running around like the gofer in Caddyshack!!

  • Aoutanka Roy said

    Will never such a horrible country, do you think its a tour during which you are not allowed to do shopping and not allowed to eat by your choice.


    " MERA BHARAT MAHAAN"

  • Sarah connor said

    Lol caddyshack!!!! Remeber the gopher survived!

  • Tillerson said

    Each day we postpone military intervention his Arsenal grows stronger.

  • Kelly said

    With a professional experience of law, especially International Politics. I will advise everyone. Please DO NOT travel to North Korea. You will see a "manicured" area ONLY.

    The political situation RIGHT NOW, is the worse. AMERICANS are valuable AS LEVERAGE and to be use as HUMAN SHIELDS.

    The tourist is subject to their will. You will be VERY LUCKY if you get the plane back home.
    This is NOT THE TIME to visit such a place, where human rights DO NOT EXIST.

  • Potus said

    South Korea wants THAAD out??? Wont chamge US policy on Kim getting ICBMS , wouldn't being flying to Seoul either at the moment.

  • Overlord said

    2nd Carrier to the Peninsula - Defcon 2- then game on.

  • Lisa Lane said

    Never would I allow this dictator monster rule over me As an American Citizen I believe Nk could use a cocktail of platinum and uranium.maybe a repeat of Hirishimo

  • Kim Junkinthetrunk said

    Someone please help me understand why anyone would want a "cultural experience" if all that money will go directly into the pocket of the oppressive machine and not the people?

  • Kristin said

    As an influential travel website, you should renege all positive sentiments you have expressed about NK and remove any and all posts promoting tourism there. Promoting travel to this country is irresponsible and negligent. As a travel influencer, you should take this opportunity to do the exact opposite and inform people that it is NOT OKAY to risk their own lives and support the Kim Jong Un regime. The treatment of Otto Warmbier was disgraceful and unforgivable. Otto's father spoke of how Otto was lured to NK by tour groups promoting safe, fun trips and claiming no one has ever gotten hurt — it's totally safe. And look what happened! You should not be promoting and sugar-coating North Korea. Not anymore. You are encouraging people to turn a blind eye at the atrocities the regime is committing against not only it's own people, but also citizens of other countries including the US. That is disgraceful. Please I beg you to do the right thing.

  • Person said

    @Lisa Lane
    Seriously? Hiroshima? Are you that effing dumb? Please think about the innocent lives that were cost because of stupid Americans doing something they strongly should not have done. It's absolutely insane that you would even want innocent lives gone all because of NK's government. Please educate yourself and have some human decency.

    @Kristin
    Otto's death was very unfortunate and something that should NOT have happened. BUT Otto should have done some serious internet background before visiting a 'fun' country beforehand. it should be common sense to visit another country's background before visiting it, just in case something we do casually in our home country is seen as disrespect in their own. Please remember that we come from free countries (Canada, US, UK (maybe)) and stuff we do on a regular could be something that is not regular in another country. They won't change their ways if you do something wrong in their country. Every country has their own laws and rules.
    This brings up the next topic about Otto. He purposely violated NK. He purposely broke their rules, and he knew that there were consequences. It's his own fault that he did this, all for a dare? Seriously? It was truly stupid of him to do that and because of this, everyone should take into consideration of doing some serious background info on countries they've never visited before.

    Otto's death was truly horrible, but what happened to him was sort of coming, considering he committed a crime. People like James Franco should feel relieved that the movie 'The Interview' is something NK's leader's are looking at lightly. It could have been revenge on their part? Who knows..

  • Jordy said

    To those saying Otto purposely violated NK laws are wrong. The North Korean regime doesn´t care if you actually committed a crime or not. If they wish to detain you they will. If they wish to detain an american tourist to use as leverage they will. The regime will purposefully torture a person into confession. This confession will then be used as the press release as to why this particular person is held in custody. Custody meaning 9 out of 10 times you´ll spent the rest of your life in a labor camp similar to those of the Nazi regime. Consider every piece of information that´s coming from North Korean officials to be entirely false and manipulated. It´s sad that in this day and age such brutalities still happen.

    My sincere condolences to the family & friends of Otto Warmbier.

    Rest in Peace

  • Anastasia said

    I can completely understand why people would want to visit North K. I personally want to visit North K myself. Curiosity does get the best of us. There's just something about this place that really grabs certain people's attention. Perhaps is the way North Koreans live? Going to North Korea is very risky, you're practically committing suicide, but if you follow the rules and don't do anything foolish that can get you killed, then all is good. We all know North Korea is a country full of lies, but that won't stop hundreds of people from going and visiting.

  • Jon said

    Sunny day on the 20th page 4 line 7

  • PhilSylvester said

    Kritin,
    to call this article "promoting" tourism is a big stretch. I thought we were making it abundantly clear that it is a place of totalitarian control and not somewhere to be enjoyed. I cannot find one "positive sentiment" expressed in the article. For you to construe it as otherwise baffles me.

    What happened to Otto is indeed a terrible, tragic thing. The article, although first published a couple of years before those events, was intended to warn others who may have contemplated visiting NK that it is a dangerous place.

    Still, it is entirely a matter for other people to decide if they want to or should visit regardless of the risks and impositions we have highlighted - for us to dictate to them that they MUST not go smacks of the same mind control and totalitarianism we are railing against.

  • Scott said

    I wouldn't leave there alive, I don't care to pay respect to dictators.

  • john said

    The country needs a revolution from its people.

  • Silent Night said

    Camp Carroll families notified of Airlift 10/21/17

  • Aranta said

    Trump Visiting Asia? Biggest smokescreen in history, pre emptive strike imminent.

  • Char said

    So someone explain why the British aren’t allowed to visit? That doesn’t make sense that everywhere else seems to be allowed however we get shut out? Shame as I’d love to visit this country

  • Anamika said

    Hey! what the fuck is this? Monarchy is still running in this country. All these rules to defend the monarchy. Let the people live a freed life over there.

  • Anahona said

    Did DDR way back in the 80's, only difference with this is where you can and cannot go and how controlled that is for NK. If you want to be a smart arsed western try it, you wont last very long. It can be an insightful experience even if it is a sanitised view of the country.

  • George said

    It is not fair for the rest of us sulking about dictators , the world powers that be rescue our brothers and sisters of North KOrea, the world will be a better place to live in

  • Mia said

    I wish i could afford to go.
    Here is usa we are so ignorant about north korea and most westerners think usa is better than nk.
    Well they have Hunan rights! They are given food water shelter and clothing.
    In usa none of these are human rights.
    Nk is beautiful and clean. Usa is dirty polluted and gross.they respect their leader, we distain ours.
    Just because you dont understand their culture it doesn't mean they are "weird" or crazy etc.

    I wish usa treated our vets with loyalty and respect like nk does.
    If you visit usa you won't have 2 guides keeping you safe!
    I wish people would stop believing the lies about nk and let them be
    Usa has a bigger military- spends billions on said military and its not in defense.if youre country was threatened from all sides you'd want to be prepared to fight back.
    Such ugly comments on here from Americans, look at our country and faults instead of judging theirs

  • memeboy said

    honestly NK sounds pretty nice (well some parts do) but it's just the dictatorship and the control that puts me off

  • Alex Duncan said

    The main reason I want to go to go to NK is to get ahold of copies of Squirrel and Hedgehog, wondering if I can have it shipped?

  • Alec said

    I have been there many of the times in my whole life to enjoy my holidays and always spent lovely time there. Now my Uncle also has a plan to go there to enjoy some time with his few fellows. I hope so that it will be a really good time for them and they will come back with many pleasant memories.

  • Spek said

    when you need peaceful at most, be there...less cars, people are obedient, free from internet, TV, media etc..just enjoy human touch

  • josh said

    Know that the Korean War is over, did the rules change in any way?

  • josh said

    Now

  • Cindy said

    Hi,
    If I travel to North Korea on business, will i be able do access funds from my U.S. account?

  • Reece Reece 3 said

    Korea is a beautiful country

  • Sandra said

    It is because of the leadership and it's regime that the fascination to visit NK exists. Reading of guides showing you around and where you are not permitted reminded me of a friend of mum's who visited Russia in the 60's or 70's, she said you are never alone, always with a guide and only see what they want you to see. She had started walking down a side street and was quickly led back to the group. Reading through the comments, I don't understand some of them, the advice about visiting NK is helpful to me about what to expect if visiting there - if you have a problem with this and disagree strongly on having your every movement monitored, then don't go there. Honestly, no-one's twisting your arm!

  • Nath said

    I want to. Would like to get there before MacDonalds and Starbuck. That would really stuff up the scenery.

  • Prakash said

    Well said !
    This article is just increasing my curiosity about visiting North Korea.
    Narration is awesome..

  • Celia said

    North Korea is too crazy, Mexico is as crazy as I'll go.

  • Tim H said

    When I was in the Navy many years ago, we were told before disembarking in a foreign country to respect the laws and customs of the country. North Korea is no different. If you want to visit, obey the rules. I would love to be able to visit North Korea someday. It would be a once in a lifetime opportunity.

  • anjela weiss said

    If you have been brought up to respect the culture of other people then you will not have a problem. If you think it funny to come to America and stand outside the White House and burn flags then see how security reacts-No you won't be tortured but why disrespect any culture?
    I think it would be hard for someone from a free country to go and see humans being so controlled. As others have said, why bother going?
    But in the end, NOTHING bad will happen to you in North Korea if you follow the guide and respect what their culture holds sacred. If you find being disrespectful is fun then stay at home. You know the rules and they do warn you before you go.

  • Liam ____ ___ said

    I would like to visit NK, but I have a problem... My grandfather was a CIA operative and three of my aunt/uncles work (in some way) for the CIA. Does NK do extensive (or not so extensive) background checks? Would me having a history with the CIA hamper my ability to visit?


    Also Otto Warmbier removed a propaganda poster from the fifth floor of the yangacto (not sure if I'm spelling it right) hotel, a floor which was repeatedly stressed as a 'no go' zone (it was found in his luggage) which was an illegal act. (This is the same as if someone sneaked into the White House and took DT's pen. Yeah, sneaking into a place which you have REPEATEDLY told NOT to go is illegal, and even if what you took was of no importance. You're still gonna get arrested (The punishment was quite harsh, though))

  • Maverick said

    Reading through these comments is absurd.

    As an American, I would love the opportunity to visit this country. It is very different from ours and almost like another world that you would not get to experience anywhere else.

    It's just that...a unique experience that can only be had there. I feel as though a lot of the closed minded, mis-guided, and sadly mis-spelled comments are authored by narrow headed baby boomer types.

    These people are not a threat to America, relax.

  • Fitzgerald D Hanover said

    North Korea is off the map for me. I am not curious about any beautiful country. I am sure the city must be delightful.

  • Eve Hunt said

    Excellent read, I just passed this onto a friend who was doing a little research on that. And he actually bought me lunch since I found it for him smile So let me rephrase that: Thanks for lunch!
    Regards

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