To get a driver's license in Korea, you need to complete three different stages of driving. The first stage is the theory test, where you complete an online exam that tests your knowledge on the basics of car functions, various traffic laws, identifying road signs, and situations where you need to use the information around you to make the safest decision as a driver. They're all multiple- choice questions that are randomly picked from a question bank of 1000 questions. You need to get over 60% in order to pass. I passed with a solid 72%.
Once you've passed the first test, you get to be in a car! It's a car that is connected to the 'driver's academy' obstacle course. Though the structure and set up may be different from place to place, but the requirements are: being able to follow traffic light instructions, make left and right turns using the correct signal lights, go up a hill, stop, then get over it without sliding back too much, parking, increasing the speed then slowing down in a short period of time, all the while making sure you're not going over the lanes. You have one shot and this and a machine connected to the car decides whether or not you're doing it right. One little mistake and you have to wait three to five days before reapplying to do the obstacle course. You need 70% to pass, but I passed with an impressive 100%!!
When you're done with the obstacle course, you need to get behind the wheels and go out into the actual roads where there are cars all around you. It might sound kind of scary, being thrusted into the real thing after just a few days of getting used to being the driver (for me it was just one day of driving). But there's always someone beside you who can handle unforeseen situations when you can't, so that takes away the worries a little. You have to train for at least 6 hours before being able to take the final test. During these hours, you'll repeat four courses (A, B, C, and D) that might come up in the actual test.
My practice hours were spent in pouring rain. My mom got pretty worried about me driving in the rain when it was my first time ever being behind the wheels in an open road. It really was not the best condition to learn driving, but the instructor I had didn't go easy on me. We were driving at 70-80 km/h, and my mom even tried to follow me in a taxi but the taxi lost me because I was going so fast. Now, every time it rains, I have the urge to drive.
Once the time comes, an inspector sits besides you and there is one other person in the car as a witness. This is to ensure fairplay on both the driver and the inspector. Then a program randomly picks a course for you to drive. These courses are vastly different depending on what driver's academy you go to, but the basics of mine were: two lane changes, U-turn, making sure to follow the specified speed, and using the signal lights correctly.
I was allocated Course C for my first round. I say first round, because when I finished all the hard parts and was on my way back to the finishing point, I got excited at a downhill and went over the speed limit. The maximum speed was 80 km/h, but I stepped on it a little too much and my car was going at 83 km/h. Catching the speed is what the machine connected to the car does, so the even the inspector couldn't be leniant with me. As soon as I reached 83, the car signalled that my test was over and that I was disqualified. I was grumpy the whole day knowing that I could have done it in one go, but I also thought it was a good opportunity for me to get settled and not get too cocky with all the progress I've been making. I mean, let's be realistic -- I had only started driving two days ago! It made sense that there were some things that I didn't get used to, yet.
After 4 days, I could reapply to take the test. I did two more hours of practice because I knew I would have forgotten some things during the time I rested from driving. But thankfully, it all came back to me pretty quickly. The inspector must have thought I was a good driver anyway, because he kept asking me to do things out of the blue. For example, there was a truck that was going at a decent speed (it was a 70km/h road and the truck was going at a steady 60 km/h). Usually, beginner drivers on their tests are allowed to just follow the cars in front of them if they're not going at a painstakingly slow pace. But the instructor demanded that I overtake the truck! He even added that if I don't overtake the truck in 5 seconds, he'll disqualify me. I don't know how I did it, but it happened! And even with that panic-inducing episode, I managed to get to the finishline. You need a 70% to pass the test, and I got an 86%, which is apparently quite rare!
For me, the whole process took me 5 days because I had to re-do the last test. But it's quite common for people to finish it in under a week and get their license. My friends and I all chose to do it in Jeju because it's known to have the easiest driving course when out in the open road. If I wanted to drive in Seoul, I would probably need to sign up for a teacher to help me practice navigating the busy streets.
Although the procedure looks slightly different if you're opting in for Type 1 (which allows you to drive buses and bigger trucks and cars), the three stages are the same for everyone. My mom and my grandma didn't have to do the last part, which is driving in the open road, but I found that the most fun part out of all of them. I was glad that it was included.
After getting the seal of approval saying that I passed all the tests, I went straight to the driver's license center to get my license. I realized that there was an option for an English version of my license that could be used as a valid ID in many of the states in the US as well as other countries. Even though it didn't work in Philadelphia, I wanted to use it as my ID instead of my passport. It came out in less than 10 minutes, and I got very giddy over it.
I hope that gives you an idea of what it's like to get a driver's license in Korea! I definitely had a lot of fun getting to drive for the first time in my life. Getting a license was much easier than I thought, too. Perhaps you'll see me driving down the roads, one day!