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Everything You Need To Know About Travel To North Korea In 2024

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4 months ago

I travelled to North Korea just before the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, which means I was one of the last foreign travelers to have visited North Korea before its borders were shut.

The latest reports suggest that foreign tourist travel to North Korea will reopen in early 2024. Air Koryo has resumed services between Pyongyang and Beijing which might suggest a reopening to tourists as well. We’ve written this article to make sure that you’re prepared for any potential trips to North Korea should the borders reopen soon.

North Korea Billboard stone Kim Il Sung Kim Jong Il Park

Having said that, you should know that no foreign tourist has traveled to North Korea since January 2020. This means that information on travel to North Korea is dated and travel to North Korea may look very different once borders reopen.

Can I travel to North Korea as a tourist?

As at the time of writing, no.

North Korea’s borders are shut as the country’s COVID-19 border restrictions remain in place. No foreigner tourists are allowed to travel to North Korea. Before the pandemic, most foreigners were able to obtain tourist visas for North Korea through organized group tours.

Can I travel to North Korea as an American?

Notably, Americans are currently banned from travelling to North Korea under U.S. law. This has been the case since 2017 following the imprisonment and later death of Otto Warmbier. So even if North Korea opens up its borders, Americans still can’t travel there.

Monument to the Party Founding North Korea Workers' Party of Korea socialism communism
The Monument to the Party Founding in Pyongyang

Travel tip: If you’re a dual citizen of the U.S., you can travel to North Korea on your other passport. However, you cannot travel to North Korea on a South Korean passport.

Will tourism to North Korea start again in 2024?

There are rumors circulating in the travel community that North Korea will reopen its borders in early 2024. This is on the basis that China decided to begin issuing tourist visas again in 2023, so North Korea would follow suit.

Pyongyang metro people exiting
The famous Pyongyang metro

Some companies offering group tours to North Korea have started accepting bookings again. If you book one of these, note that at the time of writing that these tours can’t go ahead, and they are simply accepting bookings on the basis of the possibility that borders may reopen soon.

As with anything to do with North Korea, nobody knows until it happens because it’s virtually impossible to get information from inside the country. We’re keeping ourselves up to date on the potential border reopening, so we’ll make sure to update you through our newsletter.

Inside Pyongyang Metro with schoolchildren ascending the staircase

One thing that everybody agrees on is that, when North Korea reopens to westerners, tourist travel in North Korea will look very different to pre-pandemic tourist travel.

COVID-19 will likely be used as a reason to further restrict interactions between foreigners and locals on the ground.

How do I get a tourist visa for North Korea?

As above, it’s currently not possible to get a tourist visa for North Korea. Before the pandemic, you would need to apply for a visa through the embassy of North Korea in China. You would also need to pick up your visa from an embassy official in China. This would mean you would also need a Chinese visa.

north korea tourist card
Visitors to North Korea are issued ‘Tourist Cards’

In any case, as you can only visit North Korea with a tour group, your tour agency would likely handle the process of applying for your visa.

Can I get travel insurance for North Korea?

We aren’t aware of any Western travel insurance provider which covers travel to North Korea. Once travel to North Korea resumes, travel insurance for North Korea would usually be available through Chinese travel insurers.

North Korean countryside slogan man on bicycle
The North Korean countryside on the road to Nampho with communist slogans

Your credit card travel insurance will definitely not include North Korea either. It’s likely that your tour agency will arrange your travel insurance in any case.

Can I travel solo to North Korea?

Tourists of all nationalities must be on an organized tour when traveling in North Korea. But that doesn’t mean you can’t tell your tour guide where you want to go. And there are places that they might not think to take you.

North Korean wedding man woman climbing stairs mountain Korean traditional dress
A North Korean couple walking up stairs on a mountain.

If you happen to hold a Cuban passport, you may be able to apply for an independent travel visa for North Korea as long as you have a sponsor. No Western tourist has been able to enter North Korea since 2020 so it’s unclear whether this will be possible once the borders reopen.

You also can’t roam freely in North Korea. Your tour group will always include local guides and minders. The only place you could roam freely was within your hotel; otherwise, you had to have a guide with you at all times.

pyongyang metro
Inside the mysterious Pyongyang metro

It is also technically illegal to speak to North Koreans without authorization. Doing so can be seen as spying.

If I get into trouble in North Korea, who will help me?

Virtually all Western countries advise against travel to North Korea. This is because they can’t provide direct consular assistance to their nationals in North Korea. Before the pandemic, many Western countries provided limited consular assistance for their nationals in North Korea through the Swedish embassy as the ‘protecting power’, but this has not yet resumed.

dmz north korea south korea border south korean building joint security area
Joint Security Area at the DMZ separating the north and south with the South Korean building in the background

It’s worth saying that very few foreigners have actually been detained in North Korea. If it happens, it usually coincides with a flare-up in political tensions.

Ultimately, it’s not really in the interests of North Korea to detain tourists, but that’s not to say that you should risk something unwise like bring a religious text into the country.

Can I take Korean-language content like South Korean books or films into North Korea?

This would be very unwise.

North Korean officials will have trouble reading materials written in foreign languages, and they won’t be concerned about whether such materials could be subversive because they’re inaccessible to North Koreans.

Arch of Reunification sculptures North Korea South Korea border
The Arch of Reunification (aspirational, of course).

However, materials written in Korean will be heavily scrutinized by North Koreans officials if you’re caught with them. Although it wasn’t the case that bags were checked upon entry to North Korea, if officials do decide to check your bags and they see something written in Korean, it will raise eyebrows. It will more than likely be confiscated, but at worst you could be detained.

How do I pay for things in North Korea?

You might be surprised to know that the answer is in euros, U.S. dollars and Chinese yuan. Before the pandemic, the euro was the best foreign currency to bring to North Korea. It’s likely that it will be the Chinese yuan going forward.

North Korea Pyongyang Ryugyong Hotel
Pyongyang’s famous Ryugyong Hotel

North Korea is sealed off from the rest of the world, so you won’t be able to use any foreign cards like a VISA or Mastercard.

There’s also no way to get foreign currency in North Korea like a foreign-currency ATM.

The only thing you can do is bring foreign currency with you. Shops that are intended for foreigners like souvenir stores will accept foreign currency as foreigners are not permitted to use the North Korean won. Expect to get change back in Chinese yuan.

books for sale in Chinese in North Korea about Kim Jong Un
Books for sale about Kim Jong Un.

Travel tip: Chinese yuan, euro and U.S. dollars coins aren’t accepted in North Korea. You’ll need clean notes.

Virtually all organizations offering tours in North Korea will include the cost of your accommodation and food for the whole tour. But some forget to tell you that you’ll still need foreign currency for anything else.

If you are traveling with U.S. dollars, make sure your notes are printed after 2011 and preferably with the blue strips!

Arch of Triumph North Korea
Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang (it’s bigger than the Arc de Triomphe in Paris!)

You’ll want to bring foreign currency to pay for drinks at your hotel and to buy some incredible souvenirs including books. A good rule of thumb is US$50 per day that you’ll be there. I ran out of money which was upsetting because I wanted to buy a lot more but I didn’t know to bring more money.

Is it safe to travel to North Korea?

Absolutely. There isn’t really any risk of kidnapping, theft, robbery or terrorism that you might have to consider in your travels to many countries in Latin America or Africa. The honest truth is that North Korea appears and feels quite calm on the ground. And there are so many interesting things about North Korea which make travel there particularly exciting.

Traffic lady North Korea road
One of North Korea’s famous traffic ladies keeping the peace on the road.

Issues only really arise for foreigners when diplomatic tensions are high, such as immediately after the breakdown of the Hanoi Summit between then-president Donald Trump and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. There are cases of foreigners being detained on fabricated charges as a reaction to these diplomatic tensions, but otherwise North Korea is calm.

Can I take photos and record videos in North Korea?

Yes (although it’s unclear how rules will be enforced when travel reopens).

There will be certain events, buildings and people you will be asked not to take photos of, and you should make sure to listen to that. Otherwise, your tour guides are generally happy for you to take photos and record videos of anything.

When I travelled to North Korea, I was a host on a Taiwanese 7 pm variety television program. The producers asked me to record videos in Chinese while I was in North Korea of the most fascinating sites. I was a bit worried about doing this because I would be speaking a language that the tour guides didn’t understand so I thought they might flag it to the authorities and I could be questioned.

Mansudae Grand Monument workers' party of Korea
The Grand Monument at Mansu Hill in Pyongyang.

In the end, I recorded videos in Chinese everywhere (the tour guides even helped me record!) and it was fine. I made sure not to say anything that would seem critical. At best, I just explained where we were and what was in the video.

Many years ago (maybe over a decade), potential travelers to North Korea were told they couldn’t take certain types of photographs. We weren’t restricted in the types and number of photos we could take, but this might not continue to be the case once travel reopens.

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