Seokguram Grotto, South Korea
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Seokguram Grotto, South Korea

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South Korea Travel Guide

Key Facts
Area

99,720 sq km (38,502 sq miles) excluding demilitarised zone.

Population

50,503,933 (UN estimate 2016).

Population density

492.5 per sq km.

Capital

Seoul.

Government

Republic.

Head of state

President Yoon Suk-yeol since 2022.

Head of government

Han Duck-soo since 2022.

Electricity

220 volts AC, 60Hz. European-style plugs with two round pins are used.

South Korea can come across as inscrutable at first glance. It’s a land of stark contrasts and wild contradictions; a place where tradition and technology are equally embraced; where skyscrapers loom over ancient temples; and where the frantic pace of life is offset by the serenity of nature. The country’s unique customs and etiquette can seem like a trap laid for foreigners, but arrive with a smile and a respectful attitude and you will be welcomed with open arms by some of the friendliest folk on the planet.

Koreans are fiercely proud of their country, and with good reason. The Korean peninsula has a storied history and this colourful heritage is woven into the fabric of this land. The capital, Seoul, is home to a number of historic highlights, including the spectacular Joseon-era Gyeongbokgung Palace, “the great south gate” of Namdaemun and the eerie Seodaemun Prison – all tucked away amid gleaming offices, giant shopping centres, world-class restaurants and hipster bars.

The rest of the country is also littered with fortresses, temples and palaces. Visitors will enjoy the grassy burial mounds of ancient kings in Gyeongju, the Seokbulsa Temple in Busan, which has been carved out of a rock, and the infamous demilitarised zone, a biodiverse no-man’s-land separating South and North Korea. It is a scary place, where acres of barbed wire are patrolled by heavily-armed guards on both sides, yet the tension is so trumped up it feels like you’ve stumbled onto a Hollywood film set.

But it's not all about history. When it comes to nature, South Korea is wonderfully diverse, with spectacular national parks, remote sandy beaches, hot spring islands and rugged mountain peaks. Gastronomes are well catered for, too, but you may have to open your mind before your mouth; local specialities include kimchi (pickled cabbage) and makgeolli (rice wine).

South Korea can sometimes seem like the most foreign place on Earth; an unfathomable destination of curious customs, strange food and jarring paradoxes. Ultimately, that’s what makes it so exciting.

Travel Advice

Coronavirus travel health

Check the latest information on risk from COVID-19 for South Korea on the TravelHealthPro website.

See the TravelHealthPro website for further advice on travel abroad and reducing spread of respiratory viruses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

You should contact local authorities for information on testing facilities. Tests are also available at Incheon Airport’s COVID-19 Testing Center and at Gimhae Airport (Busan) and Jeju Airport COVID19 Testing Centers. Test results can be issued in English from the Incheon Airport COVID-19 Testing Center and from some private hospitals.

International travel

Korean Air and Asiana run direct flights between London and Seoul, but at the request of Heathrow Airport both airlines announced temporary suspensions of ticket sales for flights departing from London in summer 2022. You should check with the airline before you book and before you travel.

Entry and borders

See Entry requirements to find out what you will need to do when you arrive in South Korea.

Travelling from and returning to the UK

Check what you must do to travel abroad and return to England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

If you plan to pass through another country to return to the UK, check the travel advice for the country you’re transiting.

Be prepared for your plans to change

No travel is risk-free during COVID-19. Countries may further restrict travel or bring in new rules at short notice, for example due to a new COVID-19 variant. Check with your travel company or airline for any transport changes which may delay your journey home.

If you test positive for COVID-19, you may need to enter a quarantine facility or hospital for seven days. This could cause a significant delay to your travel plans. See Testing positive for COVID-19 below.

If you are travelling to South Korea, plan ahead and make sure you:

  • can access enough money to cover unexpected COVID-19-related costs
  • understand what your insurance will cover
  • can make arrangements to extend your stay and be away for longer than planned

Testing positive for COVID-19

If you think you might have COVID-19 while in South Korea, you should self-isolate immediately and contact the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency on 1339 for guidance (support is available in English). Locations where you can receive a free test are common in most cities. If you are eligible to receive a PCR test, you will usually receive your results via text message within 1-2 days. If you are not eligible to receive a PCR test, you will receive an antigen test which provides results within approximately 30 minutes.

If you test positive for COVID-19, you must comply with self-quarantine and treatment instructions issued by the Korean authorities. The Korean authorities have made clear that if you have no or mild symptoms you will generally be eligible for quarantine and treatment at home, unless you are unable to sufficiently isolate from others. If the Korean authorities judge it necessary, you will be moved to a quarantine centre or a hospital/treatment centre. There is currently no charge for quarantine centre stays or for medical care in a hospital/treatment centre as long as you have not violated any quarantine measures. Fully vaccinated individuals will generally need to quarantine (whether at home or in a facility) for seven days. Korean health authorities generally have broad discretion to apply the rules as they see fit. You may face additional costs from your travel provider if you have to rearrange your travel.

Anyone displaying symptoms or returning a positive test result for COVID-19 must comply with self-quarantine and treatment instructions issued by the Korean authorities.

Public spaces and services

Face masks are compulsory indoors and on public transport. Failure to wear a mask can result in a fine of up to 100,000 Korean Won (£62).

For full details of the current restrictions and requirements you should check the South Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) and Ministry of Health and Welfare websites (English). You can find information on any local variations in COVID-19 restrictions and requirements on metropolitan and provincial government websites as follows:

Healthcare in South Korea

Make sure you have up to date, comprehensive health insurance.

Visit our overview of medical treatment in South Korea.

Your emotional and mental wellbeing is important. Read guidance on how to look after your mental wellbeing and mental health

View Health for further details on healthcare in South Korea.

The Seoul Municipal Government website (English) also provides a list of the COVID-19 screening facilities in the Seoul city area.

If you are in South Korea, you can dial 1339 for the South Korean authorities’ telephone helpline that provides information in English regarding COVID-19 issues.

Demonstrating your COVID-19 vaccination status in South Korea

You can demonstrate your COVID-19 vaccination status in South Korea using the COOV app on your smartphone (if you have a Korean SIM card) or using an equivalent paper certificate issued by a Korean Community Health Centre. Your vaccine pass will only be valid for six months from your most recent dose of vaccine. The Q-Code received through the Quarantine COVID19 Defence (Q-Code) system when entering South Korea will not be accepted as proof of vaccination status for other purposes.

If you were vaccinated outside of South Korea you can bring your ID and proof of vaccination to your local Community Health Centre to register your vaccination; you can then use the COOV app (if you have a Korean SIM card) and receive the paper certificate. Local Community Health Centres will accept the UK’s proof of COVID-19 recovery and vaccination record for this purpose. Your NHS appointment card from vaccination centres is not designed to be used as proof of vaccination and should not be used to demonstrate your vaccine status.

You can also contact the KDCA by phone from South Korea on 1339 (English language support is available) for advice on how to register your vaccination details.

The UK’s proof of COVID-19 recovery and vaccination record is not officially accepted inside South Korea for purposes other than registering your vaccination with the Korean authorities.

Finance

For information on financial support you can access whilst abroad, visit our financial assistance guidance.

Help and support

If you need urgent consular assistance, contact your nearest British embassy, high commission or consulate. All telephone numbers are available 24/7.

Further information

Further advice and details on confirmed cases can be found on the Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare website in English and Korean. South Korea’s Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) also provides daily updates in English and in Korean.

Political situation

The level of tension and the security situation on the Korean Peninsula can change with little notice. Tensions can rise following missile tests by North Korea and during the regular South Korean-US military exercises, which take place throughout the year. You should follow the advice of local authorities and keep up to date with developments, including via news broadcasts and this travel advice.

Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, the Korean Peninsula has been divided by a demilitarised zone (DMZ) separating the DPRK and the Republic of Korea. Peace has been maintained under an armistice agreement but no formal peace treaty has ever been signed. If you’re in the area of the DMZ, you should exercise caution and follow the advice of the local authorities.

Contingency planning

At times of increased tensions, you should make yourself familiar with local procedures and preparations, including civil emergency exercises and advice (see below). You can also stay up to date with our travel advice for South Korea by subscribing to our email alert service to be notified of future updates, and by following our Twitter and Facebook channels.

As part of your own contingency plans, you should make sure you have easy access to your passport and other important documents such as nationality documents and birth and marriage certificates, as well as any essential medication. Consider saving the phone and email contact details for the Embassy so that you can access them quickly if needed. Make sure to share your own contact details with your family and friends, including your phone number, email address, postal address, employer details, and social media accounts. You can read our crisis overseas page for further information and advice, including sections on what you can do to prepare effectively, what you should do in the event of a crisis abroad, and how we can help you.

If the situation were to deteriorate, the British Embassy would pass on information via this travel advice page and via Embassy Facebook and Twitter feeds.

You should always seek assistance from the South Korean emergency services if you are in danger.

Civil emergency exercises and advice

The South Korean authorities sometimes hold civil emergency exercises. Sirens are sounded, transport stopped and some people are asked to take shelter indoors, including in designated metro stations or basements. Shelters in Seoul are marked with a special symbol. Participation by foreign nationals in these exercises isn’t obligatory but you should follow any instructions by local authorities during any exercises.

The South Korean government has developed a smartphone application with civil emergency advice, including shelter locations, different types of alarms, medical facilities and emergency services. Search for ‘emergency ready app’ on Android or Apple app stores.

Crime

Crime against foreigners is rare but there are occasional isolated incidents. While most reported crimes are thefts, there have been cases of assaults, including sexual assaults, particularly around bars and nightlife areas. You should remain vigilant and take sensible precautions.

Take extra care of passports, credit cards and money in crowded areas and be careful in areas visited by foreigners, such as Itaewon. Take care when travelling alone at night and only use legitimate taxis or public transport.

For emergency assistance, or to report a crime, call 112 for police (a 24 hour interpretation service is available) and 119 for ambulance and fire.

Demonstrations

Public demonstrations in South Korea are common. These gatherings are mostly peaceful and well-policed, but you should take extra care as in any crowded place. You should also be aware that under Korean law, foreign nationals are prohibited from engaging in political activities in South Korea.

Road travel

Under Korean traffic law the maximum blood alcohol content threshold permitted when driving or in charge of a vehicle is 0.03%. This differs to the legal threshold in the UK, which is 0.035%.

All passengers in vehicles must wear seat belts including in rear seats. City buses that are not fitted with seat belts are exempt from this regulation. Government COVID-19 procedures include mandatory wearing of masks in public areas and on all public transport.

Drivers are required to take precautionary measures when parking on hills/slopes (such as placing stops behind each wheel, or turning the steering wheel to ensure that the front wheels of the vehicle are angled towards the kerb).

Further information can be found in the Korean Road Traffic Act, though there is currently no official English translation. If you need additional advice, contact the Korean police authority.

You’ll need an International Driving Permit to drive in South Korea. Make sure you have fully comprehensive insurance.

Car and motorbike drivers are presumed to be at fault in accidents involving bicycles or pedestrians. Criminal charges and heavy penalties are common when accidents result in injury, even if guilt is not proved. Watch out for motorcycles travelling at speed on pavements.

Taxi drivers tend to speak little or no English. Although translation services are available, have your destination written in Korean, if possible with a map.

In 2020 there were 3,081 road deaths in South Korea (source: Department for Transport, RAS52001). This equates to 60 road deaths per million population and compares to 23 road deaths per million population in the UK in 2020.

Although there is no recent history of terrorism in South Korea, attacks can’t be ruled out.

UK Counter Terrorism Policing has information and advice on staying safe abroad and what to do in the event of a terrorist attack. Find out more about the global threat from terrorism.

You should be aware of the global risk of indiscriminate terrorist attacks, which could be in public areas, including those visited by foreigners.

There’s a heightened threat of terrorist attack globally against UK interests and British nationals, from groups or individuals motivated by the conflict in Iraq and Syria. You should be vigilant at this time.

A serious violation of local laws may lead to a jail or death sentence.

Penalties for possession, use and trafficking of illegal drugs can result in long jail sentences and heavy fines. This applies even to personal use of small amounts of marijuana. British nationals have been detained solely on the basis of drug tests.

Carry some form of identification at all times and make sure your next-of-kin details have been entered into the back of your passport.

Same-sex relationships are not illegal and LGBT rights organisations are steadily gaining support. The LGBT community is well established and growing in visibility. See our information and advice page for the LGBT community before you travel.

In South Korea, ‘Student Discount’ rates for goods and services apply only to individuals under 19 years of age. Unlike the UK, this discount rate does not usually apply to university students.

This page has information on travelling to the Republic of Korea (South Korea).

This page reflects the UK government’s understanding of current rules for people travelling on a full ‘British Citizen’ passport from the UK, for the most common types of travel.

The authorities in South Korea set and enforce entry rules. The Embassy of the Republic of Korea in London maintains a list of Notices describing the latest updates to South Korean entry requirements, including COVID-19-related regulations.

All travellers

Covid-19 Testing and Q-Code

On arrival in South Korea, you need to submit a questionnaire on your health condition. The South Korean government encourages all arrivals to log this information in the Quarantine COVID19 Defence (Q-Code) system prior to travel. Paper-based alternatives can be used instead but may result in a slower arrivals process.

Travellers arriving in South Korea do not need to provide a negative pre-departure COVID-19 test certificate, and as of 1 October 2022 are not required to take a COVID-19 test on arrival. If you have COVID-19 symptoms and would like to take a COVID-19 test within three days of entering Korea, you can receive a free PCR test at a local health centre. You should call 1339 from inside Korea (English language support is available) for more information.

Quarantine requirements

There is no quarantine requirement for entry to South Korea.

Data collection

Make sure you have with you a mobile telephone with the roaming function enabled, and/or the telephone number of a friend, relative or contact who can update the authorities on your state of health, if required. A hotel telephone number will not be accepted.

If you’re fully vaccinated

There are no special provisions for vaccinated individuals. Vaccinated travellers should follow the rules for ‘All travellers’ above.

If you’re not fully vaccinated

There are no special provisions for unvaccinated individuals. Unvaccinated travellers should follow the rules for ‘All travellers’ above.

If you’ve had COVID-19 in the past year

If you have recently recovered from COVID-19, you should bring with you an official note from your doctor detailing when you tested positive, what treatment you received and/or what isolation you observed. If you test positive or inconclusive while in Korea, officials will consider this information when deciding how to proceed. Korean health officials have broad discretion in deciding what precautions are required.

Children and young people

Children aged 17 and under can follow the rules for ‘All travellers’ to enter South Korea.

If you’re transiting through South Korea

Transiting is when you pass through one country on the way to your final destination.

All transit passengers receive a temperature check on arrival in Korea. Symptomatic individuals will be subject to a COVID-19 test and hospitalisation if found positive. Passengers who do not show symptoms and/or test negative may continue their journey.

Transit passengers at Seoul Incheon Airport require a ticket/boarding pass for their onward flight to their final destination. They should confirm with the airline(s) before departure that their bags have been checked through to their final destination (as transit passengers are not able to collect and re-check in baggage on arrival in Incheon Airport).

Transit hotels are available in both Terminals 1 and 2 at Incheon Airport. Layovers in South Korea (i.e. passing through immigration to enter South Korea during a long gap between flights) are possible but you will need to satisfy the regular entry requirements.

Check your passport and travel documents before you travel

Passport validity

For those entering South Korea with a long-term visa, your passport should be valid for a minimum period of 6 months from the date of entry into South Korea. For short-term visitors applying for a Korea Electronic Travel Authorization (K-ETA) to enter South Korea without a visa (see ‘Visas and K-ETA’ below), there is no requirement for a minimum period of passport validity. However, your passport should be valid for the duration of your entire stay in South Korea.

All foreigners living in South Korea are required to report any changes in their passport information (such as when receiving a new passport) either online using the Korean Immigration Office website or by visiting a local immigration office in South Korea. For further information, call the Korean Immigration Contact Centre (Tel: +82 1345).

Check with your travel provider to make sure your passport and other travel documents meet their requirements.

Visas

Visas and K-ETA

If you have a British Citizen passport you can enter South Korea as a tourist for up to 90 days without a visa. You must also have an onward or return ticket. It’s illegal to work on a tourist visa, whether as a teacher or in any other capacity.

You must be in possession of a Korea Electronic Travel Authorization (K-ETA) to enter Korea visa-free. You should apply for the K-ETA at least 72 hours before boarding your flight and it will be valid for two years from the date of approval. There is a small, non-refundable charge. Visit the official K-ETA website for more information and to apply.

If you have a different type of British nationality, or are travelling for any purpose other than tourism, you should check visa requirements with the Embassy of the Republic of Korea in London.

Long-term visa holders: re-entry permits

Foreign nationals residing in South Korea on most long-term visa types are allowed to re-enter South Korea within 1 year of departure without the need for a re-entry permit. For further information on re-entry permit exemption eligibility, call the Korean Immigration Contact Centre (Tel: 1345) or see the list of official announcements.

Foreign residents who intend to spend more than a year outside of South Korea should, in most cases, apply for a multiple re-entry permit via the HiKorea website before departure. If you require a re-entry permit, you should engage early with the Immigration Authorities and apply for a re-entry permit in good time – at least four working days – ahead of any planned travel.

Visas for working as an English teacher

To get a visa to teach English in South Korea, you must have a 3-year university degree. A TEFL qualification alone is not sufficient. If you are found to have obtained a teaching visa by deception, you will be detained and deported.

British nationals teaching English in South Korea have sometimes found living and working conditions to be below expectations, and have encountered difficulties getting the correct visas and residence permits. There have also been complaints of breach of contract, confiscation of passports, payment being withheld and inadequate or no medical insurance. Check all terms and conditions of your employment carefully and if possible speak to other teachers from the place where you plan to work before accepting any offer. If you are in South Korea and in need of assistance, you should contact British Embassy Seoul.

For those in possession of a work visa, all employment changes must be authorised by Korean Immigration.

British males of Korean origin

If you are a British male of Korean origin whose name appears on the Korean family register, you may be liable for military service even if you are travelling on your British passport.

UK Emergency Travel Documents

UK Emergency Travel Documents are accepted for entry, airside transit and exit from South Korea.

Customs declarations

Check the website of the Korea Customs Service for information on restricted or prohibited items that may not be brought into the country. If you are in any doubt about the legality of any items - including medications - you should declare them on entry.

South Korean customs authorities allow you to bring small amounts of medication for your personal use, provided that it is kept in carry-on baggage. It is advised to take an English language prescription from your doctor at home for both your prescription drugs and non-prescription medicines. It is also a good idea to consult the website of the South Korean Ministry of Food and Drug Safety before you travel to South Korea.

If you have a health condition, or you are pregnant, you may need specialist healthcare abroad. Check whether your destination country can provide the healthcare you may need and ensure you have appropriate travel insurance for unexpected medical evacuation or local treatment.

See the Coronavirus travel health and Healthcare sections in the Coronavirus page for COVID-19 health information.

At least 8 weeks before your trip, check the latest country-specific health advice from the National Travel Health Network and Centre (NaTHNaC) on the TravelHealthPro website. Each country-specific page has information on vaccine recommendations, any current health risks or outbreaks, and factsheets with information on staying healthy abroad. Guidance is also available from NHS (Scotland) on the FitForTravel website.

General information on travel vaccinations and a travel health checklist is available on the NHS website. You may then wish to contact your health adviser or pharmacy for advice on other preventive measures and managing any pre-existing medical conditions while you’re abroad.

While travel can be enjoyable, it can sometimes be challenging. There are clear links between mental and physical health, so looking after yourself during travel and when abroad is important. Information on travelling with mental health conditions is available in our guidance page. Further information is also available from the National Travel Health Network and Centre (NaTHNaC).

Medical treatment

If you need emergency medical assistance during your trip, dial 119 and ask for an ambulance. You should contact your insurance/medical assistance company promptly if you are referred to a medical facility for treatment.

Medical and dental care in South Korea is usually of a good standard but can be expensive. Staff may not speak English. Make sure you have adequate travel health insurance and accessible funds to cover the cost of any medical treatment abroad and repatriation.

If you are travelling to South Korea for an elective treatment, you should bear in mind that no medical procedure is risk-free. Make sure that your travel health insurance covers complications that may arise and repatriation to the UK if required.

If you need to stay in a South Korean hospital, particularly if your condition is severe, the hospital may ask you to bring a “bohoja” or “guardian” who can assist you with basic care needs such as trips to the bathroom, washing, and walking around for exercise. Relatives and friends may serve in this capacity. It is possible to find agencies who will provide a “ganbyungin” or “caregiver” for a fee, but these caregivers generally do not speak English. If you know that you may need to enter a Korean hospital, you should try to organise a guardian in advance.

Visit our overview of medical treatment in South Korea for more information.

Health risks

In spring there’s a risk of tick-borne disease across Korea. The national Disease Control and Prevention Centre advise all people taking part in leisure activities on grass to wear long sleeved shirts/tops and trousers.

Air pollution, including yellow dust pollution, is common in South Korea throughout the year and especially during spring months. When the concentration levels of dust particles are high, residents and visitors are advised to stay indoors as much as possible, close windows and drink plenty of water. This is particularly important for the elderly and those with respiratory problems. Follow local media reporting and the Korean Meteorological Service website for the latest advice.

Typhoons

The typhoon season normally runs from June to November. You should monitor the progress of approaching storms on the Korea Meteorological Administration website and follow any advice given by the local authorities or you can call 131 in Korea to get an accurate weather forecast in English.   

See our tropical cyclones page for advice about what to do if you are caught up in a typhoon.

Earthquakes

Strong earthquakes are unusual in South Korea but not unheard of. Most earthquakes in South Korea are relatively weak (between 2.0 and 5.0 on the Richter scale). Information on earthquakes is published on the Korea Meteorological Administration website.

You should familiarise yourself with any guidance from your local authorities on safety procedures in the event of an earthquake. To learn more about what to do in case of an earthquake, check the safety tips from the Seoul Metropolitan Government.

The local currency is the South Korean Won. It is almost impossible to change Scottish or Northern Irish bank notes. Credit cards are not always accepted outside major cities. ATMs are widely available, but do not always accept foreign cards. Those with a sign saying ‘Global’ will normally accept foreign cards.

If you’re abroad and you need emergency help from the UK government, contact the nearest British embassy, consulate or high commission. If you need urgent help because something has happened to a friend or relative abroad, contact the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) in London on 020 7008 5000 (24 hours).

Foreign travel checklist

Read our foreign travel checklist to help you plan for your trip abroad and stay safe while you’re there.

Travel safety

The FCDO travel advice helps you make your own decisions about foreign travel. Your safety is our main concern, but we can’t provide tailored advice for individual trips. If you’re concerned about whether or not it’s safe for you to travel, you should read the travel advice for the country or territory you’re travelling to, together with information from other sources you’ve identified, before making your own decision on whether to travel. Only you can decide whether it’s safe for you to travel.

When we judge the level of risk to British nationals in a particular place has become unacceptably high, we’ll state on the travel advice page for that country or territory that we advise against all or all but essential travel. Read more about how the FCDO assesses and categorises risk in foreign travel advice.

Our crisis overseas page suggests additional things you can do before and during foreign travel to help you stay safe.

Refunds and cancellations

If you wish to cancel or change a holiday that you’ve booked, you should contact your travel company. The question of refunds and cancellations is a matter for you and your travel company. Travel companies make their own decisions about whether or not to offer customers a refund. Many of them use our travel advice to help them reach these decisions, but we do not instruct travel companies on when they can or can’t offer a refund to their customers.

For more information about your rights if you wish to cancel a holiday, visit the Citizen’s Advice Bureau website. For help resolving problems with a flight booking, visit the website of the Civil Aviation Authority. For questions about travel insurance, contact your insurance provider and if you’re not happy with their response, you can complain to the Financial Ombudsman Service.

Registering your travel details with us

We’re no longer asking people to register with us before travel. Our foreign travel checklist and crisis overseas page suggest things you can do before and during foreign travel to plan your trip and stay safe.

Previous versions of FCDO travel advice

If you’re looking for a previous version of the FCDO travel advice, visit the National Archives website. Versions prior to 2 September 2020 will be archived as FCO travel advice. If you can’t find the page you’re looking for there, send the Travel Advice team a request.

Further help

If you’re a British national and you have a question about travelling abroad that isn’t covered in our foreign travel advice or elsewhere on GOV.UK, you can submit an enquiry, or contact us on Twitter or Facebook. We’re not able to provide tailored advice for specific trips.

Visa and passport information is updated regularly and is correct at the time of publishing. You should verify critical travel information independently with the relevant embassy before you travel.