Tourism was a fast-expanding sector in South Korea until the pandemic put a halt to international travel. As vaccination campaigns roll out around the world, however, the Korean Government has decided to bet on the future and launch a new electronic visa waiver. The electronic authorization is expected to promote visa-free travel to the country as well as enhancing border security.
The new visa waiver is called K-ETA (Korean Electronic Travel Authorization). The South Korea K-ETA trial program starts in May and will run for 4 months. At its end in September 2021, all foreign tourists who can now enter Korea without a visa will have to obtain a K-ETA to visit the country.
Since the K-ETA is not a traditional visa, it does not affect your current visa-free status. It is just an electronic registration.
At the moment, the K-ETA trial includes citizens of 21 countries around the world. The US, the UK, Mexico, and Barbados are among the countries featured on the list. When the trial ends in September 2021, the K-ETA will become available to all visa-free nationalities, including all EU citizens. Registering with the K-ETA online system will be a mandatory requirement to enter Korea.
Until now, nationals of 112 countries have been able to visit South Korea without a visa. Some could stay for longer (up to 6 months for Canadians), others could enjoy shorter trips (1 month for visitors from countries like Albania, Honduras, and Botswana.) Even those who needed a visa had access to options like the Working Holiday Visa (visa H-1) that allows young foreigners on a budget to find employment in Korea to support their travels.
The Korean visa-free entry policy reaped its fruits — in 2019, over 17 million foreign tourists made their way to Korea. Most of them came from China, Japan, and Taiwan, but American and Russian holidaymakers were also on the frequent flyer list.
In fact, tourism supports 1.4 million Korean jobs, accounting for about 5% of the total employment in the country. The World Travel and Tourism Council estimates that international tourists inject about KRW 26.5 billion into the local economy. And before COVID-19, the sector’s numbers were steadily on the rise.
Unfortunately, tourism has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. With travel bans and special health requirements enforced around the world, business has been bad for over a year now. To protect the health of Korean residents, the Government had to temporarily suspend visa-free agreements and exchange programs, effectively making international leisure travel near-impossible during the health crisis.
However, while these temporary measures were in place, the wheels were in motion behind the scenes, and Korea’s intention was always to return to visa-free travel as swiftly as possible and even to improve existing tools and systems.
That is why the K-ETA is intended to work on two fronts. On one hand, visa-free document checks are expected to become easier and more hassle-free for tourists. Since the K-ETA visa waiver will be linked to the traveler’s passport electronically, Korean authorities are hoping to reduce waiting times and queues at the airport. Moreover, holidaymakers will be able to plan ahead and fill out the K-ETA request online in minutes. The application is designed to be fast and straightforward.
On the other hand, the electronic program also aims at centralizing and streamlining border security processes. Thanks to pre-travel electronic registration, the Korean authorities will have better control over visa-free movement across the country’s borders. So even though embassy screening will not be required, the centralized system will know who’s entering the national territory and when. The Government hopes that this will make the country safer not only for South Korean citizens but also for visitors who will be better protected against international crimes like trafficking and identity theft.
Obtaining a K-ETA visa waiver will be quick and easy and if you are among the eligible nationals, you won’t have to worry about leaving the house — the whole process will be completed online. All you have to do is fill out an online form, upload your passport, and pack your bags. And if that was not enough, the electronic authorization remains valid for two years and lets you enter the country as many times as you wish. So the next time you want to taste some real Kimchi, you will not have to apply for the K-ETA again.