Friday, January 14, 2022

Leaving and returning to Korea during COVID

I thought I would write out my experience of leaving and re-entering Korea over the past two months, as it might be helpful to people since information is often spotty and unreliable. 

Caveats: Some of this information may no longer apply: I applied for a re-entry visa in late November 2021; got a PCR test to leave Korea December 19, 2021, and re-entered Korea on January 9, 2022.

Getting a re-entry visa:

When I applied for a re-entry visa, the application form actually included an incorrect (outdated) document (“재입국 전 진단 및 진단서 제출 동의서 (CONSENT FOR MEDICAL EXAMINATION AND SUBMISSION OF DIAGNOSIS BEFORE RE-ENTRY)”). This may have since been corrected.

It should be easy enough to find the re-entry permit application on the main page of the hikorea site. You can apply online anytime up to 4 days before you leave. 

You’ll need documents from here; scroll down to “재입국 허가 관련” section near the bottom. There are three documents. You likely shouldn’t need the first translation document if your PCR test (before you return to Korea) is in English. You will need to submit the other two documents as part of your application. You need to print them out, sign them, scan them, and attach them: 

번역확인서 Certificate of Translation 
재입국허가 신청 사유서 Application For Reentry Permit 

Paying, of course, was frustrating, and took me several tries and about 30 minutes. This advice should make things go faster. You click on your bank to pay by card. I had no app for my bank on my computer, but it gives you the option of paying without an app. I then used the option to verify with my Kakao account – not Kakao Pay; you simply sign into Kakao, it sends a message to your Kakao account on your phone, you click it, and are good to go. As always, there are repeated calls for the same information, but eventually the process worked. 

You will eventually receive approval for your re-entry visa by email. 

Getting a PCR test before leaving Korea: 

I’m not sure how many places do pre-flight PCR tests; I went to the National Health Center near Dongdaemun Design Plaza (and ran into a friend who lives in northwestern Jongno-gu, which suggests these test centers are few and far between). 

At the National Health Center, the testing center is behind the main building, not far from the funeral home. It is open for registration at 8:30 am, and testing starts at 9 am. There is a limited number of tests they do daily, so you should show up as early as possible. 

You need to bring your passport, and it cost me about 142,000 won. After registering, I left my credit card (and maybe passport) at the payment window, waited in a heated tent for the testing to start, then lined up and got the test, then picked up my card and receipt from the payment window. They text message you the next day (about 24 hours after your test) and tell you the test certificate is ready, and you return and pick it up on the first floor of the main hospital building. 

Update: a friend on Facebook adds, "PCR with results in English: I was happy to find that the ENT clinic just by my office does them. I'm sure many others do too. It was KRW110,000 with the result coming the next morning."

Returning to Korea:

You know, I’d figured Canada’s quarantine and testing procedures at Pearson Airport in Toronto would be a hassle, especially arriving just before Christmas with Omicron starting to blow up, but I was wrong. It was all very efficient, and the one omission of information (that I should call a certain number within two days) was solved when I got an automated call from the health authorities instead. 

Returning to Korea, on the other hand… 

Getting the PCR test in Canada to return was easy enough, though as of today Korea has reduced the timing of the test from 72 hours before departure to 48 hours before departure (still a PCR test; effective January 20). 
Arriving at Incheon Airport:

Upon arrival at the airport, I needed to submit a customs form, a yellow health form, and a white health form. The latter was not given to us on the plane, so people were scrambling to fill it out on a few small tables. The tables are located at the first hurdle, where an officer makes sure you have the white and yellow forms, your proof of vaccination, printed PCR test, and passport ready. 

Then you move a bit further and line up for the next hurdle, where your documents are looked at and your health forms and PCR test paper collected, and you are given a sheet explaining quarantine procedures.* 
Note that the white health form and other signs had QR codes for the quarantine app or indicated that you needed to have the app installed when you reached the above hurdle. This is not true; the app isn’t needed at the airport at all (at least in my case). 
Next you move to immigration, or “immigration part 1”. Your documents are looked at, you sign a form or two, receive some documents (like ‘Notice of Quarantine’ and ‘Restriction order on the scope of activities’) and the officer puts stickers on your passport reading ‘PCR 제출자’ and ‘국내 예방접종완료자’ (‘submitted PCR test’ and ‘fully vaccinated in Korea’). [I don't know what happens to people vaccinated outside Korea.]

Then you back out of the immigration booth and walk over to another set of immigration booths for “immigration part 2,” in which your passport and Alien Registration Card are examined and your fingerprints and photo are taken, as usual, and you’re sent through to get your luggage. 

Upon leaving customs after turning in your customs form, someone will look at your passport. With the two stickers on my passport, I was allowed to leave the airport.

The sheet explaining quarantine procedures* mentioned above stated that we were not to take public transportation home. To make a long story short, with those two stickers on my passport, I was able to take the subway or a bus (though airport bus service to the closest location to my house was not operating). At the AREX gates, a worker examined my passport, saw the stickers, and waved me through. However, as it was reported today, this will change as of January 20, and presumably arrivals will have to take either special taxis or buses (special KTX trains were also described on signs at the airport):
The health authorities decided to ban all entrants' use of ordinary public transportation upon arrival and tighten rules on the proof of negative COVID-19 test results to stem the inflow of the virus. The measures will go into effect on Jan. 20.
Hopefully the airport will make these things much clearer when the rules change.

Dealing the the app:

The incorrect information about public transportation was not the only such mistake. The QR codes on the white health form for the quarantine app took me to a broken Google Play Store link or, after downloading an “App store” installer, opened a Kakao map (?). I searched on Google Play for the app, found one alternately titled “Quarantine” or "Self Check", entered my information, and submitted a self health check. Good to go! But I wasn’t. This app is not the right one, and I don't understand why it's still on Google Play:

Needless to say, there is no point in installing the app until you talk to the case officer assigned to you. They will give you their code, which you need to enter as the last step before it is fully installed and ready to go. For Android users, the app you need to install is, on Google Play, the 자가격리자 안전보호 앱. 

The English name is "Self-quarantine Safety Protection," but searching for that (or anything else like "Korea quarantine app") turns up the wrong app as the first result.

[I'll spare the details, but needless to say, my inability to access the correct app led to great frustration for me and my case officer, someone so obtuse that the person he tasked with translating for me all but yelled at him in exasperation...]

The correct app has several language options when you begin installation. At one point it gives two options, one being something like ‘resident in Korea’ and ‘overseas…’ something. You want the ‘resident’ one, as it is the only one which gives the option to enter the case officer’s code (which is the final registration step). 

As per the instructions on the information sheet I was given, I called my local health center the next morning after I arrived and told them I was quarantining. (Since I’ve had to quarantine before, I was already in their system.) I was told to get tested ASAP. 

It is entirely possible that you don’t actually need to call – I’m sure my information was sent from the airport to the local health office and a case officer assigned. He eventually called me, gave me the code, and gave me instructions. When I got my negative result the next day, I forwarded the text message to my case officer’s cell phone. 

Eventually someone from the health office will visit you and give you a document with the exact time of your release from quarantine and a request to visit the health center the day before my release. I also received masks, a big spray bottle of disinfectant, regular and bio-hazard garbage bags and other things not really applicable to someone living alone – these things are really meant for people living with others. No instructions were given regarding the use of these things.

The app sucks your phone battery due to its location tracking function, and it alerts you if you have not used your phone for two hours. 

(I’ve gotten 13 notifications now that I’m outside of my quarantine place, despite never leaving, leading once to a call from my case officer – moving my phone further away from the wall seems to have stopped this.) (Or not, I just got my 14th notification a moment ago when I checked my phone.)

It also says that motion tracking is only in effect from 8am to 9pm, though this means you only get warnings that you haven’t used your phone during that time period. As well, it’s not really true – I was woken one morning at 7:40 by a ‘you are outside of quarantine place’ warning. 

You are expected to enter a self-health check on the app at least two times a day. At 4:30 every afternoon I get an automated call asking me yes or no questions about my health. (You are asked to confirm your name and then asked if you have a fever, cough, or sore throat, and then you are told to wash your hands and “wear a mask in public.” Because Quarantine offers so many chances to go out in public.)

I'm currently halfway through my quarantine period, and will update here if there are any new surprises.

Update: A friend on Facebook adds, "Changing quarantine place: arriving expats are supposed to quarantine at home but then there's a risk of infecting other family members. We put our son in an AirBnB and brought him home 2 days later after the result of the first PCR. This worked fine. I informed the Jongno Health Center when we moved him and they changed the address on their records. To play safe, I went there in person to tell them. The people there were really nice (I'd been there before to find out if it was possible, so they kind of knew me by then)."