Flying During a Pandemic: JFK to Incheon, Seoul

I am a U.S. citizen who recently flew out to Korea to quarantine at my parents’ home. I made this decision because I felt stuck and anxious in New York City, and while the situation in New York is improving, I don’t anticipate things to fully reopen anytime soon this summer. And even if they do, then what? Without a concrete plan for testing and tracing cases, I probably wouldn’t feel totally comfortable going out and about. Korea, on the other hand, has been upheld as a model for being able to vigilantly achieve this, and people are actually wearing masks without issue and cooperating to share their data. Things are open, people are going to malls and amusement parks and cherry blossom festivals, and the curve has managed to stay flat. So maybe you’re in the same boat–or maybe you’re interested in generally knowing what it’s like flying international during these times, and specifically to Korea. I wanted to share my experience here so that you know what to expect.

Before I get into the details, I want to be pretty upfront that Korea is understandably very strict in letting foreigners enter the country. Most short-term foreigners must isolate at a government facility for 14 days at their own expense. If you want to isolate at home with your Korean family members, you have to have specific documents. The airport officials are not just going to take your word for it that you have a personal residence to stay at. It doesn’t matter if your Korean mom and dad are by your side, vouching for you. You specifically need an official family register document, issued by the Korean government, that lists your family members’ names. And if you changed your name, then you need proof that your name used to be the one on the family register. I brought a) my marriage license, which listed my name change, as well as b) my original birth certificate and c) an old passport with my original name. You really do need all of these documents, and even if you have them, it’s not going to be necessarily an easy pass through the airport checkpoints.

May 24, 2020: Took a Via from NYC to JFK Airport. We got to the airport in record time, ~20 minutes. Normally you get in a car, praying you don’t hit traffic, but there was none to speak of. We arrived at Terminal 4, and it was amazing to see how empty it was inside. The only people who were there were ticketed passengers on the few commercial international flights that were operating at that time and day. There was some activity at the Asiana Airlines ticketing counter, but it was very light compared to a pre-covid world. The line to check in was very short and it wasn’t a problem getting my family seated together. The line to get through security was also very short. It probably took us an hour, door-to-door, to get from our house to our gate.

At check-in, the gate agent asked for our passports. I showed him ours, and he then asked if we had any Korean passports. I told him we didn’t, but my mother spoke up and said that she was a Korean citizen and that we were planning to quarantine at her home. He then nodded and went to check in with a manager. He came back and then asked if we had some sort of family document, which we did and I showed him our copy. He couldn’t read Korean and I don’t think he even knew what the family register is supposed to look like, but he said that should be fine.

When we started boarding, the staff took every passenger’s temperature. The plane was about 60% full–the last 6 rows were completely empty, and each row, other than ours since the four of us took up one row, had an empty middle seat. Everyone was wearing a mask. I was curious to see if people would use the bathroom less, because that’s a highly trafficked, high-risk of contamination area, but people were using the bathrooms pretty regularly. Service was pretty good. The flight attendants were nice and patient with everyone.

May 25: After 14 hours, we arrived in Incheon. This was the beginning of the going through the quarantine checks and customs, the hardest part of the journey by far, and one that took 2 hours. My dad, who is a U.S. citizen but a long term Korean resident, breezed through in less than an hour when he arrived a week prior. Our party, on the other hand, had to go through four separate checkpoints.

The first checkpoint was to sort us by foreigners who needed to quarantine at a facility and everyone else. The man saw our U.S. passports and was about to give us blue lanyards and separate us from my mother. However, we told him that we were quarantining all together as a family. After talking to another colleague about whether this was acceptable, he took away the lanyards and had us move on to the next checkpoint.

Here, we had to fill out multiple forms that asked for our personal information, Korean address and signatures that we were agreeing to isolate at home for 14 days. It was a bit taxing to fill out the same information three times for three people. Plus we also had similar forms to fill out on the plane ahead of time, so I must have written my name, birthday, passport # and address 5 times. And then I did this for each one of my children. A lot of writing was involved. They haven’t gone digital with this.

After filling out the forms, two workers helped us download the self-isolation app on our smartphones. Once they confirmed that this was downloaded properly, they allowed us to go to the next checkpoint. This one I guess was to verify that we were family and could actually isolate together. However, even though we showed the woman our family register, she then made us go to the Immigration office so that this team could separately verify that we had the proper documentation to be able to quarantine at home.

This was a frustrating and time-consuming experience. While we technically had the right documents, they didn’t look like the ones the Korean officials had in mind. Which obviously would happen since I was born in America and would have the American equivalent of the Korean documents, and they wouldn’t look the same. For instance, they requested to see my birth certificate, and I showed them mine, but it looked very different from a Korean one, so they spent several minutes assessing it and wondering what to do. They also asked if I had a document verifying my U.S. citizenship, and when I told them I only had my passport, they also looked perplexed. Ultimately they accepted the documents, but just be prepared to explain yourself and be firm but polite that these are the official documents in your country.

At this point, I thought we were done. We got our bags, went through customs, and went through the sliding doors where you can normally see all the people waiting for their family members. But no, there was one final checkpoint where they again asked to verify the family relationship. I understand Korea is trying to be selective about who they should allow into its borders, but verifying this three times seems like overkill. If I could get thoroughly vetted by two different people, was it really necessary to have a third? Just when I thought I was in the clear, the two young military volunteers told me I needed to prove that my children were mine. I almost laughed at this, and we even asked incredulously if they were going to send the two young children by themselves to isolate, and they blankly nodded that yes, it might seem that way. Luckily I had a passport application in my emails saying I was the mother of each child, so we finally made it through.

After that ordeal, you have to take a special bus or taxi that drops you off directly at your residence. We were probably the last passengers in the whole airport at this point since our process took so long. It took another 1.5 hours to get to our home, and then finally our journey ended. My dad told me that when he left the airport, they actually took him to a local testing center and had him get tested before getting dropped off at home. We, on the other hand, were able to just go home. We received a call from our caseworker the next day and he told us to start taking our temperature twice a day. Two days later, we received a call to schedule an in-home covid test session.

So now we’re at home, taking our temperatures with the free thermometers that they sent us and trying to sleep off the fatigue and jet lag. Speaking of which, they delivered full covid health kits for each of us the next day. It came with some masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, a thermometer, cleaning spray and a biohazard trash bag. I was pretty impressed that they were able to send us each a free kit. They also send quarantine visitors a free box of food to hold them over while they isolate. It comes with some pretty good stuff–old school Butter Waffle cookies and Chocopie, bottled water, orange juice, rice and high quality pre-packaged foods like kalbi tang and abalone porridge. It’s not like fresh, organic food, but it’s better than just subsisting on ramen everyday. I ate a samgyetang (chicken ginseng soup) from the box and was pretty impressed by the quality–there were real pieces of whole chicken in there!

And I’m wondering what is funding all of this? I feel like in the States there would be no money for this kind of thing. Also, who is funding all these covid case workers who are monitoring our movements and temperature? Is there an army of temp workers from the unemployed work force that got recruited? Someone is literally monitoring our use of the app in real time, and if something is off, that person calls immediately. For instance, my mom’s location tracker was off, so they called to inform her of that. I took a really long nap and the app told me that I hadn’t moved locations in awhile, which was a cause for concern. South Korea is putting a lot of money and resources behind this for sure, I’m curious to know where it all comes from.

In a nutshell, that’s what happens if you want to isolate at home with your family in Korea. You have to fill out a lot of forms, wait in a lot of lines and show the documents to several different teams. You should prepare to defend yourself and the veracity of your documents because there will be differences in opinion as to whether you brought the right ones. That is the hardest part. You at least have the comfort of knowing you’re in a country that is pretty vigilant about tracking the virus and is doing whatever it takes to make sure that new outbreaks won’t occur. 14 days will require some patience, but when it’s over, I’m looking forward to being outside with a little less fear and anxiety than I’ve been accustomed to.