North Korea Travel Guide: How to Visit Pyongyang as a Tourist
North Korea is one of the most secretive and mysterious countries in the world, yet before Covid-19 struck, the nation had also begun opening its arms to tourism.
This is how Jordan Simons visited Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, for 3 days as a tourist in December 2019.
UPDATE: This information was correct as of December 2019, however, because of the recent Covid-19 pandemic, the situation may now be different. Please scroll to the bottom of the article for the latest information.
Table of Contents
What do you need to know about North Korea before you go?
Here’s everything you need to know about travelling to North Korea:
How to book a tour to North Korea
Tourism in North Korea is unlike anywhere else on the planet, so it’s important to know what to expect before you go. Once you’ve crossed the border, your every move will be monitored and controlled by your local guides, and everything they allow you to do has been pre-authorised by the North Korean government. You’ll be on a strict itinerary, which means you can only go where they allow you to go. We can’t stress this enough, but if you step out of line, then you could get into some serious trouble.
Still interested? Ok then.. this is how you can arrange a trip to North Korea.
Read more: 9 Facts About North Korea (That You Haven’t Heard Before)
The first thing you need to know is that you are required to go through a specialised tour company. There are a few of them out there and they have varying itineraries and price points. The main operators currently are Koryo Tours, Lupine Travel and Young Pioneer Tours.
I went through Young Pioneer Tours, as it was recommended by a couple of friends of mine that had been previously. They have various options depending on your budget and time. Since I was short on time and was doing this as an add-on to my Great Wall of China Marathon trip, I opted for their 3-day Ultra Budget tour, which at the time of writing cost 495 Euros.
How to get a North Korea visa: The Chinese Visa Comes First
The tour I booked was overland via a train from China, which meant that I needed to get a multiple or double-entry China visa. You could either meet the group in Beijing or the weird border town of Dandong. I opted for the latter and covered the eery experience in the below YouTube video.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get the correct Chinese visa. We needed to get a double entry (to enable us to get the train back across the border) but something went wrong and they only gave me a single-entry China visa. I was told after that this is a common problem and it’s a much better idea to get a visa agent to handle it than put in the application yourself.
I had to pay an extra 400 euros to fly out of Pyongyang back to Beijing instead, in order to get the transit visa on arrival when landing back in China. It was my fault really; they advised me to get the Chinese visa through an agent and I ignored that advice to save costs! I went directly to the Chinese visa office in Bangkok, which apparently rarely gives out multiple entry visas – especially relating to travel to North Korea. You live, you learn!
There are also tours that do not require a double-entry China visa, as they fly in and out of Pyongyang. This allows you to qualify for a Chinese transit visa on the way there and back. This might be worth it for you depending on the length of the trip, the itinerary and the overall costs.
The North Korea Visa Guide
Ok so that’s the Chinese visa side of the process explained, but how about getting the North Korean visa? For me, Young Pioneer Tours arranged everything for my North Korea visa. All I had to do was fill out some forms and send a copy of my passport over email. This is standard practice for tour companies and they handle every part of the process (and that’s included in the cost of the tour).
So roughly a month before the trip, I sent a photocopy of my passport and filled out a form and that was genuinely it. Easy!
All I had to do next was meet them at the meeting point in Dandong China and they had the North Korea visa card ready for me. Compared to securing a Chinese visa, getting a North Korean visa is simple!
How can US Citizens get a North Korean visa?
Currently, most nationalities from around the world are able to get a North Korean visa, with the exception of people travelling on a US passport.
On 1st September 2017, the US enacted a travel ban on all US citizens travelling to NK. This was in response to the death of Otto Warmbier, who had fallen into a coma while imprisoned in North Korea and died soon after being returned back to his home country.
Because of this, all tour companies decided not to accept anyone travelling on a US passport.
Now I won’t beat around the bush. There are always inherent dangers when travelling to North Korea. It’s still not exactly clear what happened with Otto Warmbier, and I don’t feel I’m qualified to talk about it really, but just understand that this is a reality. It’s something that happened and it’s well worth being aware of before you think about visiting the country. DO YOUR RESEARCH. Most importantly: FOLLOW THE RULES when you’re in North Korea (something Otto Warmbier failed to do).
However, if you are a US citizen with dual citizenship and you have a second passport, you could travel at your own risk.
How long should you visit North Korea?
I went for 3 days but if I’m honest, I wish I had gone longer. The only reason I didn’t book a longer tour is that I was planning to be on another trip straight after and so had a conflict of dates. Unfortunately, that other trip didn’t work out, but that’s a story for another day!
I only had limited time, so I did the 3-day ultra-budget tour option. It meant that I got to see the limited highlights of Pyongyang but if I were you, I would do at least a week inside the country to really gain an insight into what North Korea has to offer – especially as you venture outside the capital on longer tours.
The longer tours enable you to see more of the North Korean countryside, visit the DMZ with South Korea and in many cases, interact with the local people in a more intimate way.
What can you take into North Korea?
If you are travelling to North Korea there are a few things you shouldn’t take with you, and please look up the list in full before going. Examples are religious texts, North Korean history books, guide books, any pornographic material and cameras with GPS ability (including drones).
As it happens, I was told you can get away with the GPS function on cameras (as most of our smartphones have it anyway). Just don’t be too obvious about it and do this at your own risk. Most people chose to leave their laptops and drones in their hostels or hotels back in China.
You are free to take photos and videos of most things – and are actively encouraged by the tour guides (after all, they only take you to where they want you to go!) – with the exception of military sites, military personnel and construction sites. This is also the case in many other countries, however, they are particularly strict on this matter and will go through your camera to delete photos and videos if you are caught.
Is North Korea safe to visit?
In terms of your safety within the country, I don’t believe I’ve ever been somewhere that has felt this safe – hear me out.
The main reason I’m saying that is that there is almost zero crime on a personal level. Theft, for example, is very unlikely to happen to a foreigner. I had no problem leaving my camera and lens in one carriage of the train while I was in the next.
While I completely understand that this is because the thief would receive the harshest of punishments and likely be treated in a very inhumane manner, I believe it’s a fact that is worth pointing out.
You’re also on a tour all the time with two North Korean guides, so there’s very little chance that anyone would target your tour group for any crime.
This obviously does not endorse your safety on a political level, as there is always a chance that North Korea could suddenly change its policy and hold you as a prisoner or worse. This is a reality and is definitely something that should be considered.
To make this clear, this article is just about how I visited North Korea as a tourist and my own personal experience. I am not saying that you SHOULD go there and obviously there are real risks involved.
For example, the GOV UK website advises against ALL but essential travel to North Korea. I’m not exactly sure what essential travel would be, but that’s the official advice.
The main thing I would say as well is that if you do go, just follow the advice of your guides. Here are some simple rules to follow:
- Do not make childish jokes about their idealogy or their leaders
- Do not wander away from the group and ignore the guidance you’ve been given.
- Follow the laws of their country while you’re there, the same as you would in any other country.
Can you still travel to North Korea after the Covid-19 outbreak?
North Korea was one of the first countries to close its borders after the Coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China. They did this in February 2020, roughly a month before other countries around the world closed their own.
Experts have said that they made this move because they could not handle an outbreak within their own country due to insufficient hospitals and medical care. As it stands, they have also banned all foreign visitors from coming into the country in the near future.
While this may change over time, we do not expect the borders to be open to foreign visitors any time soon. I would suggest finding the latest news on North Korean travel on the Young Pioneer blog or Facebook page – https://www.youngpioneertours.com/blogs/
Check back in the future if you’re interested in learning more and please ask any questions you have about travelling to North Korea in the comments below.
As always, thanks for reading.
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