Learn More: Visitor Entry Permit
Required Documents to Apply
Traveling to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is not for the faint of heart. In fact, it's often impossible to access. The United States has prohibited travel to US passport holders to North Korea. Since 2017, three American citizens have been detained without an apparent reason - one even died after being in a coma. In total, only about 1500 people visit every year, mostly out of curiosity and witnessing the 'last frontier' of the Cold War.
As you can imagine, all nationalities must apply for a visa to enter the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The visa is issued only if the trip is planned well in advanced and the authorities give the green light. The requirements can change overnight without a heads-up, leaving your travel plans delayed and often cancelled. The trip can be organized only through a travel agency and you must be with a tour guide at all times. There is the option of exploring the country independently, but even then, you are still required to be accompanied by an escort.
In some cases, an interview with North Korea’s embassy is necessary, but this is often simply to confirm your identity and profession. In most cases, these interviews are friendly - just don't say you're a journalist or work for the CIA! Approval is given a day or two before your departure. Contrary to popular belief, refusals are not very common, so long as the trip is well planned and follows their rules.
**NOTE: If you are suspected of being a journalist - whether you are or aren't - you need to obtain a special permit. Be careful with your camera and phone, because you can face imprisonment if you are caught taking unauthorized photos.
Strangely, most tourists who visit the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea do not experience any problems. As long as you follow the rules on where to go and how to behave, your trip won't end behind bars or in the grave. Before you decide to apply for a visa, you need to acknowledge the fact that you are relinquishing essentially all freedom of movement and behavior. Again, note that the consequences for rule-breaking can be severe - the best case scenario is merely deportation, a fine, or lengthy/complicated diplomatic procedures.
Everything from routes, accommodation, and food are provided by the travel agency. The agency will also take care of transportation during your trip. You will travel by bus. The tour can last up to 5 days and cannot depart from your itinerary in any way.
The official and most spoken language used in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is Korean. The tour guides often speak decent English - some may even know German, Russian, Spanish, and Mandarin Chinese. You should not interact with the locals under any unauthorized circumstances. Your best chance of interacting with citizens is if your trip takes coincides with a national holiday. Other than that, we recommend that you do not endanger yourself, the person, or their extended family by speaking to you.
A trip to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is challenging, tedious, and restrictive, but as long you are aware of the rules and regulations, you are sure to have a memorable trip. Good luck.
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Frequently Asked Questions
Learn more about North Korea tourism
Making the decision to travel to North Korea should not be taken lightly. If you do decide to travel there for tourism purposes, prepare to face severe limitations. You can book a holiday in North Korea as part of a guided tour since independent travel is not possible. American citizens are banned from visiting North Korea, and if you do want to go, you must get approval from the US State Department. At the same time, keep in mind that if you are eligible for an ESTA and you have been to North Korea before, the ESTA will be denied, and you must go to the nearest US embassy or consulate to apply for a visa.
Basically, traveling to North Korea is possible under severe restrictions. You cannot visit what you want when you want, you do not enjoy freedom of expression, and your behavior must fall under the North Korean standards. If you fail to comply with the strict rules of North Korea, the punishment may include imprisonment, torture, and even death. So, if you really want to go to North Korea, make sure that you are prepared for it.
As you can imagine, the entry requirements in North Korea are pretty strict. The country’s visa policy allows only Chinese nationals who want to visit Tongnim City to enter North Korea without a visa. All other nationalities must apply for one. An authorization from a travel agency registered with the State General Bureau of Tourist Guidance must be obtained as well.
When it comes to tourism, do not think that you can explore North Korea like any other country. All tours are organized by a local or government travel agency, and it is they who decide what you can and cannot see. A guide will be in your presence from the moment you leave the hotel. And that is not all they do. They are also in charge of inspecting all the photos you take, and all the pictures that do not meet a certain standard will be deleted. The point is to portray North Korea in the best possible light. There is no point in arguing with a guide about your pictures, so if you do not wish to have any problems, it is best you just listen to them. It is also advised to agree with your guide because any uncomfortable questions about the political regime in North Korea can end up in evasive answers, or even worse, interrogation.
When in doubt about the places where you can take pictures, you should always ask first. But not all guides are the same. Some of them are more relaxed than others, and you may be allowed to photograph what others refuse. You will not know until you are on the tour. If you think that a particular subject would be embarrassing for North Korea, it is best to not take the photo at all.
What we can tell you right from the start is that you are prohibited from taking any pictures of the military personnel. At times, it would seem impossible for you to take a photo of a site without capturing some officers, but in that case, you should ask your guide if you are allowed to take out your camera.
Keep in mind that if you go inside the Friendship Exhibition, where you can see on display gifts sent from all around the world to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, you are not allowed to take any photos at all. The same rule applies if you go to Kumsusan Memorial Place.
If you want to do some sightseeing, there is not a whole lot you can see. There are several war memorials that you can visit, as well as monuments erected to honor the Great Leader and the Workers Party of North Korea. You will find a few museums too, but they are mostly filled with statues and monuments related to the war.
What is important to remember when visiting North Korea is that the general idea is that Americans are the ones to blame for the Korean War. You should never say anything that may disagree with that. It will get you into trouble, as well as create problems for your guide. Remember that the two Koreas are still at war, with merely a cease-fire in place.
Panmunjom is called the ‘peace village,’ and you are free to take photos there as you like. This location is the home of the world’s third tallest flagpole.
Another thing you should expect is that while you are on your tour to museums and monuments, you will be bombarded with propaganda. Most of them are harmless and tell the stories about what Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-Il did for their great nation. However, you will hear things that are downright ridiculous and amusing. Under no circumstance should you laugh or make funny faces. You must at least give the appearance that you take everything seriously. After all, we all know that North Koreans did not put a man on the sun. You should just listen, keep a straight face, and move on.
Just like there is not much to see in North Korea, there is not much you can actually do either. However, as funny as it may sound, North Korea does have three amusement parks. Two of them are out of order because of the lack of electricity and interest, but the third is operational and may provide a little bit of fun while in North Korea. The rides are quite modern, and they are not dangerous. At least according to North Korean standards.
The official language in North Korea is Korean, but the guides speak reasonably good English. They will translate everything for you.
One thing that you should know before interacting with the locals is that you may get them in trouble for no reason. If you travel to North Korea during the holidays, you may have a chance to chat with one or two, but they are taught that foreigners are usually up to no good, and they will avoid talking to you because they do not want trouble. You should respect that and move along.
North Korea is not a country you want to visit unless you are well prepared for it. There are a lot of rules in place, and not following them can get you in a lot of trouble. If that happens, keep in mind that diplomatic affairs are not something you can rely on in North Korea, and nobody may actually know that you need help. The best course of action is to follow the rules and mind your own business. Unless you are willing to do that, you should not travel to North Korea.