Quarantine in Korea

After traveling to Korea during the ongoing Corona pandemic, the journey was not over yet. It did not feel like I had arrived in Seoul, because I needed to undergo the mandatory quarantine. This is another personal account describing my experience of spending quarantine in Korea.

Quarantine certificate received at the airport

Quarantine in Korea means that you are not allowed to leave the house or your room (depending on where you do quarantine). You are supposed to stay indoors and avoid contact with other people at all times. In other words, you cannot go outside to do exercises, take a walk, buy food or meet anyone. You need to isolate yourself.

At present, 14 days of quarantine are mandatory for all incoming travelers to South Korea, foreigners as well as Korean citizens.* The entire quarantine process needs to be completed even if the Corona test is negative. Cases in which people did not quarantine for 14 days have had negative effects on the health of the general public, which led the government to establish a strict regime of monitoring all people. Travelers need to go through various health screenings and pledge to abide by the new regulations upon entering the country. Transgressions are threatened with punishment, such as fines as high as 10 million KRW (approx. 8,500 USD), 1 year of prison, revocation of visa and deportation (foreigners), or stricter monitoring measures such as wearing of a location-tracking wristband and quarantine in a supervised facility.

Where do you spend quarantine in Korea?

There are two options of quarantine in South Korea: One option is spending quarantine in a supervised facility (시설격리), which is a government-designated location (e.g. a hotel) and the costs for accommodation are paid at one’s own expense. [There are various reports of short-term visitors and foreign tourists who have spent quarantine in such a facility.] Anyone who has a permanent address in Korea, such as Korean citizens or foreigners who stay for a longer period of time (e.g. exchange students, foreign residents) can do the so-called home quarantine (자가격리). Needless to say, private accommodation is paid by oneself as well. For people who spend the mandatory quarantine at home while living together with others (family, spouse, flat mates), additional health guidelines apply.

Regarding my situation, I spent quarantine “at home” and lived by myself.** My quarantine location was a small flat with a size of 10-13 square meters (3-4 평; 108-140 square feet), featuring one room, a cooking corner and a small restroom. It was equipped with an air conditioner, floor heating, fridge and cooking utensils – overall, a typical low-budget accommodation for young people who live alone in Seoul.

What happened after the Covid test? How do you get the Corona test results?

Test results from Health Center

When I arrived in Seoul, I was transported to the Corona testing station at my district’s health center, before I was brought to my quarantine location. It was some time in the afternoon, when samples from my throat and nose had been taken. It would take one or two days for the samples to be analysed, they said, and I would be notified as soon as possible. Already by the next morning, the results had been sent to my cellphone as a text message: Negative.

The rest of the message contained the information that regardless of the test being negative, everyone is supposed to remain in quarantine for 14 days. This is because the Coronavirus is known to have an incubation period of up to 14 days. So in case I had caught the virus on my journey to Korea, it would not have been traceable on the day of the test and might surface later. [Spoiler: I stayed healthy all throughout quarantine and had not been infected during the trip.]

How are you controlled during quarantine? What kind of surveillance methods are used?

If you read the first part of this travel report to South Korea in times of Covid-19, you will know that there were two mobile apps which were required upon entering the country: One is called “Self-Diagnosis Mobile App” and the other “Self-Quarantine Protection App”. [One application is operated by South Korea’s Ministry of Health and Welfare (보건복지부) and did not let me take screenshots, so I cannot share any visual material of it.]

Both apps were constantly activated on my phone. While one was in English, the other one was in Korean; and each could collect information about my current health status. Every day, I needed to enter data about how I was feeling into one of the apps. There were four questions about possible symptoms and body temperature. Whenever I hadn’t submitted my answers yet, then the apps reminded me with an alarm sound as well as a pop-up window on my phone screen. Sometimes, I was required to respond to the so-called “self-checks” more than once a day.

In addition to that, the apps were constantly tracking my location: An alarm went off at random times, telling me that I had not moved my phone for a while, and I needed to confirm I was in the room by pressing buttons on the app. This was to ensure that people did not secretly go outside, while leaving their phone at home to avoid being tracked.

The quarantine and self-check apps also provided information about guidelines on how to behave during quarantine and general precautions to inhibit the spread of the Coronavirus. There was also the phone number of a contact person at the local health center, the Covid-19 emergency hotline (1339) and a KakaoTalk*** chat room for help and information.

Besides, I received a couple of phone calls from the health center. During one of those phone calls, I was informed that I would receive a package with hygiene products. So a couple of days after my quarantine had begun, a bag containing the announced hygiene kit was delivered directly to my door. It featured one bottle of disinfectant spray, two tubes of hand sanitizer, a box filled with masks, one thermometer and two trash bags for hazardous waste. People in quarantine are supposed to collect garbage in the designated orange bags and keep it until quarantine is over to avoid exposing others to potentially infectious material. The rest of the contents seemed like a welcome package with basic equipment for living in Korea – in particular now, since the number of Corona cases was suddenly rising.

Life during quarantine – inside

What about food?” Is the question most people (not only family and concerned friends) asked first. So let me answer this question with priority.

While previously, people received care packages from the government, this was not in practice anymore when I was in quarantine (August 2020). If you spend quarantine in a private home, you have to take care of food by yourself. You can do so by ordering food online and get it delivered to your quarantine location. One of modern South Korea’s characteristics is that it has developed a big system of food delivery – years prior to the Corona pandemic! Accordingly, you can order anything from groceries to entire meals and snacks, including Korean street food, pizza, Chinese noodles, bread, salads and ice cream. [For those, who are worried about food during quarantine at a facility, there is some additional advice regarding Korean communication at the bottom of this post. 👇]

There are many mobile apps and homepages offering food delivery services. Just to name a few common and popular food delivery apps [disclaimer: this site is not sponsored], there are for example Baemin (배달의 민족), Coupang (쿠팡) and Yogiyo (요기요). Many supermarkets (e.g. Gmarket, emart, Homeplus) have a home shopping option, too. You can also contact a restaurant or bakery directly if they have a delivery option on their homepage or Instagram account. Some (vegan) businesses in Korea, in fact, operate by taking orders online only and don’t have an actual walk-in store! [There will be an extra post about vegan businesses with delivery service in the future!]

Peanut “helping” unbox a delivery of vegan cakes

What exactly did you eat? For me, food was not too much of a big concern. There was storable food in the cupboard and fridge, and I had brought some essentials [e.g. beans and chocolate] with me. In addition to that, some of my friends thankfully brought or sent me fresh vegetables and fruit, tofu as well as sweet treats. [More on food can be found here.] To be quite honest, I did not have much of an appetite without being able to be as active as usual.

What do you do during quarantine? From friends who had already completed their quarantine in Korea, I had heard that they found it “very very boring“. Yet, I never felt bored during quarantine. I hardly ever watch TV (also no K-dramas), I don’t play computer games anymore (since teenage years). So what made time pass for me? Actively doing things! I cleaned the flat and did physical exercises, while listening to music and radio shows. I played with my quarantine buddy, Peanut [boy, do I have many photos and videos of her now…], or participated in online lectures and conversations with friends and family. I wrote, read, studied, worked on my computer. And I slept a lot. At the beginning, I needed to adjust to the time difference anyways, so sleeping was important.

What I did experience, however, was feeling claustrophobic at times. [I’m used to moving around and being physically active. Normally, I do not spend a single day inside, so being stuck at home was quite challenging.] I am very grateful for the people who (knowingly or not knowingly) supported me during this time. Also, having Peanut around was a distraction and a comforting blessing. I am aware that in general, anxiety and social claustrophobia have been observed in increased amounts since the outbreak of this global Covid pandemic.

Our need for attachment is deep-rooted. Being held is as important as food. We seek out the people we value, particularly when we are stressed. When faced with existential threat as we are now, we depend on our loved ones and worry about those who are isolated.  

Stephen Blumenthal: “Coronavirus and social claustrophobia: the new psychological frontier in The Telegraph, 15 April 2020.

Life during quarantine – outside

Since I was supposed to isolate myself and not leave my room, I wasn’t able to experience much of the life outside. The window as well as the screens of phone and computer were literally my only “window to the world”. At the beginning, it was raining mostly, because the Monsoon was late and long this year. [Three weeks of continuous rain in total!] Then, there were heat waves, followed by a typhoon. [Typhoon season actually begins in August!]

Multiple times a day, my phone went off because of urgent notifications from the government. “Be careful, torrential rain is expected! High risk of landslides. Do not go near rivers or mountain creeks.” “Scorching heat during the day. Elderly people shall avoid going outside.”

In addition to that, another kind of emergency message notified me about the life behind the door: “A Corona patient has been in your area. You can find details about the places they visited online. Please be aware and watch out for symptoms.” Emergency alerts like these are sent out as text messages to all cellphones in the respective area. Korean citizens and foreigners receive messages that correspond to their individual location. Since my last visit to Korea in 2019, the occasional warnings about environmental risks have been expanded immensely by dangerous situations due to the spread of the virus.

How does the quarantine end? What happens when quarantine is over?

Depending on the quarantine location and individual circumstances, the final process seems to vary. For instance, one friend of mine who had spent quarantine in Gangnam-gu was required to return to the health center and get a confirmation. Another friend, who lived in Gwanak-gu like me, needed to wait until noon of the 15th day and then left quarantine. Simply follow the instructions you receive from the authorities; call them when in doubt.

I had arrived in Korea on a Saturday in August 2020. The mandatory quarantine would last 14 days and I was to be released on the 15th day. So my quarantine started on a Saturday and ended on a Saturday. Eventually, I left my quarantine location after 12 PM on the 15th day. The quarantine apps on my phone were still tracking my location and they kept reminding me to enter information about possible symptoms. Two days later, there was finally a notification saying that since quarantine was over I was now allowed to de-install the apps.

Apart from that, I received a text message from my district’s cleaning service, in which they announced that they would collect my trash on the next working day (Monday). Accordingly, I placed the special waste bags used during quarantine in front of the house – the place, where people normally leave garbage. There was even a phone call in the morning of that day, telling me that staff had arrived and I could now go downstairs to dispose of the garbage. My guess is that this was to make sure that nobody could touch the possibly dangerous substances.

After all, this concluded my period of 14 days in quarantine. I was free to spend time outside. Yet, all other health measurements as advised from the Korean authorities are still enforced: Wear a mask in public, avoid going outside if possible, do not visit crowded places, keep doing social distancing, disinfect hands and surfaces regularly… Let’s explore living in Korea under the new circumstances!

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👇 Additional info for people with dietary restrictions 👇

What about food if you spend quarantine in a facility?

People who are short-term visitors in Korea may wonder what to eat during quarantine in a government-designated facility. Particularly if you follow a vegan, vegetarian, halal or kosher diet, or you have allergies, you may be worried about the food you receive during quarantine.

It’s best knowing how to communicate your needs to the authorities. In case, they do not understand English, try communicating in Korean! Here are a couple of important Korean sentences:

  • “I cannot eat meat, seafood, eggs and dairy.”
    저는 고기🥩, 해산물🐟, 계란🥚이나 유제품🥛 못먹어요.
    Jeoneun gogi🥩, haesanmul🐟, gyeran🥚-ina yujepum🥛 motmeogeoyo.
  • “I do not eat any animal products because I am vegetarian / vegan.”
    제가 채식주의자라서 동물성 재료 안먹어요.
    Jega chaesik-ju-uija raseo dongmulseong jaeryo ammeogeoyo.
  • “I am allergic against ____ [find food vocabulary here]”
    저는 ______ 알레르기가 있어요.
    Jeoneun ______ alereugiga isseoyo.

These are the essentials, but it’s possible that more explanation is necessary. (The concept of veganism or vegetarianism is not known to everyone in Korea, yet.) You can find other useful expressions and additional vocabulary relating to food on this page.

Judging from reports (e.g. Facebook group “Vegan Korea“), it can be difficult to customize food provided in the facilities. You may have a choice between a vegetarian option (chaesik 채식) and a raw vegan option. Bringing your own food just in case (e.g. vegan protein powder) seems to be advisable.

Screenshot from Facebook. Private images reproduced with permission.

Hope this information is helpful. If you have any questions, feel free to comment below or send me a message! 🤗💚

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Additional notes from the author

*) Exceptions: Diplomats and government officials on duty, as well as people with a waiver from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are exempted from the mandatory quarantine and their health is monitored in a different way.

**) I was fortunate to have the rabbit Peanut for company. However, she is responsible for the holes in the papers and leaflets pictured here.

***) KakaoTalk is South Korea’s most prominent instant messenger program. Besides chatting, it is used for money transfers, sending gifts, news etc.

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