Planning a trip to North Korea
The hardest part is deciding that you want to go to North Korea and then convincing your family and friends that you aren't crazy. Be sure to read through my travel experience. Once that's out of the way, we can start the planning stage.
I should note that if you'd like to go during a big national holiday like Liberation Day, you should aim to book months, if not a year in advance. Since flights and trains are limited, they do sell out quick during high season.
You only need three things to go to North Korea:
- Tour package to North Korea
- Round-trip flights to Beijing (or Shanghai)
- Hotels for Beijing (or Shanghai)
There are a few major travel agencies that provide tours to North Korea. You have to sign up for a tour as that is the only way to get a tourist visa, flights to Pyongyang, hotel accommodations, etc. These agencies all work with the same government department so there is very little difference which agency you sign up for aside from price and tour dates.
- Uri Tours - I went with this agency, many flexible tour dates
- Koryo Group - Largest and most expensive
- Young Pioneer Tours - Second largest, many unique tour options such as marathons
I was told by my tour guide that these are the 3 biggest agencies that operate in North Korea. You can do a search on Google for other options. Most of them have the same itineraries, stay at the same hotels, and eat at the same restaurants. You could book a private tour for a bit more and customize your trip depending on what you'd like to do. For many of those tour dates, you could very well be the only group so it could end up being a private tour anyway.
There are two options for getting to North Korea.
- Fly with Air China or Air Koryo, the national carrier of North Korea, to Pyongyang Sunan International Airport (FNJ). For American citizens, flying is your only option. There are daily scheduled departures from Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK) and seasonal flights from Shanghai Pudong International Airport (PVG) and Guangzhou International Airport (CAN) as well. Uri Tours has a flight schedule.
- Train from Beijing through Dandong to Pyongyang. A very popular option is to take the train one way and fly the other. I've met a few people in another tour group from Hong Kong who told me the train was extremely slow, loud, and not very comfortable. They claimed there weren't many sights to see along the way either.
Once you've figured out which agency, tour package, and travel dates, you should contact the agency and complete any paperwork they ask from you. For Uri Tours, the tour and visa application took about 15 minutes to complete. There are questions about why you'd like to visit, what your occupation is, etc. Nothing unexpected.
After you have confirmed your tour, you should figure out how you're going to get to your starting point. Most agencies require that you pick up the visa tourist card the night before, so you would have to overnight in your starting city in China.
(Most citizens don't need a visa to transit through China for stays less than 72 hours.)
Prepare some cash before you get to Pyongyang. There are no ATM's in the country and you will need to buy little things like bottles of water or souvenir with foreign currency. I suggest you bring small bills ($1, $5, $10, etc.) since many shops outside of your hotel will not have change. Most things are sold in USD or pegged to the North Korean Won at 1 USD : 100 KPW. Euros have more favorable rates since they exchange at 1 EUR : 1.33 USD. They also accept Chinese Yuans at 1 USD : 7 CNY.