What It’s Like To Go Through Customs At Incheon Airport

Cal Chan
9 min readJun 14, 2020

Korean phrase of the day: yeongeo halchul haseyo? Do you speak English?

Day 1.5

When we stepped off the airplane Leon was thoroughly exhausted, as was the entire Chan clan. Minutes before landing he had thrown up the entire flight’s worth of food, for which I was solely responsible to clean, while the plane was literally landing. I was thankful that he threw up on everything but his clothes, because being stuck with a child covered in vomit while going through customs would have been a disaster.

I knew that we were going to have a harder time entering Korea than leaving Seattle, but I wasn’t prepared for just how thorough the Korean government was going to be, in tracing literally everyone who enters their country. A few weeks ago in Itaewon- a popular night club destination for foreigners — several hundreds of people came into contact with, and contacted corona virus from a single partygoer. Within weeks the Korean government contact traced over 45,000 people and completely controlled their second outbreak.

Because we were the last family to leave the plane (thank you Leon), and had to further wait to receive our stroller, when we finally made our way to customs, we had the entire airport to ourselves. Our nanny had flown with us but was missing when we departed. We were going to be in quarantine together, so we knew she didn’t ditch us, but we wondered why she didn’t wait. Perhaps it was because she assumed we were the first ones off the plane, not the last. Or perhaps she knew that my son had just thrown up all over the plane, and wanted to get the fuck away from us for as long as possible prior to quarantine.

The last time I was in Korea, the corridors were filled with people rushing to get to security. The first people I noticed outside of those on billboards were a number of college kids wearing white jumpsuits. I figured they were being overly cautious, but as we walked towards security, I realized these weren’t passengers, they were airport employees. I’ve never seen so few passengers and so many airport employees. There were guards, medical workers, and hundreds of college kids turned military personnel, tasked to guide us through the many steps of entering Korea safely.

Leon in a good mood, during step 1 of 300 to exit customs at ICN

The first step was to have our passports inspected, and our temperature checked. The line was relatively short given how few passengers there were, but the temperature checks were thorough, and we could see we’d be waiting for at least twenty minutes. Luckily, because were traveling with children, they ushered us to the front of the line. If you were from the United States, you were given a special blue badge, which I realized now as an honor reserved for the most suspect passengers. At this point my baby was still asleep in his car seat, and Leon was in good spirits. He has been to Korea several times, and he assumed we’d be through security and in Samchun’s (uncle’s) car in no time. After handing us our special badges, he struck a pose, and asked when he’d see his cousin Haerim. I told him “soon”, I didn’t want to bring him down by telling him we’d be in quarentine for two weeks first of our new life. When we got to the counter, they scanned our foreheads for temperature, and wrote the temperature down on new paperwork which they handed to us to take to the next checkpoint. They also gave us additional instructions, both in English and Korean. We were to wait in another queue, where we were mandated to download a Covid-19 tracking app.

Screenshot of the Covid-19 tracking app. There were also several consent forms we had to check-off built into the app
Screenshot of the Covid-19 tracking app. There were also several consent forms we had to check-off built into the app

The app was designed to help Korea find and contain anyone who has or has been in contact with Covid-19. We had to input all of our information in. Our names, phone numbers, nationality, passport, final destination, and dozens of other data points, including how we were feeling and what our current temperature was. The app was to stay on and track our movements moving forward, and it would be mandatory for us to take our own temperatures twice daily and upload this, alongside any potential symptoms. We complied, and again were ushered to the front of a line that was moving at a snail’s pace. Here we caught up with our nanny, who was at the end of the line. She had clearly not slept on the plane, and wasn’t in the best spirits.

At this checkpoint we received paperwork to fill out, and they checked everyone’s phone to ensure the app was installed and working correctly

This next check point was manned by a dozen military personnel. The boy who was working with us was cordial, and I could tell underneath all his PPE he was well groomed (he had just waxed his eyebrows). He asked to see all of our phones, and verified all of the information on the app matched what the agent at the last checkpoint wrote down, as well as what was in our passports. He then dialed each of our phones to make sure they worked. He also asked if our children had cellphones, because if they did, they’d have to download the app too. During this process he noticed my number was typed wrong (not formatted for Korea), and it had to be corrected. By the time we got through this checkpoint, Leon was getting restless, and started standing on my feet, asking when this was going to be over. I told him soon, because I assumed this was the last step before talking to the customs official.

The boy then handed us a stack of new paperwork to fill out. For each of us, six additional forms to fill out, most of it redundant. One of the forms instructed any Americans that they’d have to stay at government specified locations for two weeks in quarantine, unless accompanied by a family member who was Korean, with a Korean address. My wife said this was standard, and that once I was registered in the system, if I were to come back to Korea I wouldn’t have to quarantine in a Korean jail. The other pieces of paperwork asked us to comply to a number of other rules, and acknowledge that if we failed to comply, the consequences would be dire. We stepped to a counter to fill out each form, and it became obvious that this was going to take awhile.

The lady next to us started to swear, half in English, half in Korean. It looked like she had been working on the forms for several minutes. “Shit, god damnit.” She said, with a sigh. “Oh my god why.” She said again. I looked at my wife and commented that that lady was weird and agro. My wife didn’t hear me, she was flipping through the paper work she was just handed, and looked just as upset. We were to fill out paperwork not just for ourselves, but for our children, each individual required their own documentation. My son at this point had had enough, and started to punch, scratch and kick me. “I want to go home!!!” He yelled, waking up our baby. My wife was the most agitated of all, and I couldn’t help her; most of the forms required her to write things in Korean, like our address in Seoul. “Shit, god damnit.” She said. “oh my god, why…” she said again. I thought that my wife was starting to act a little agro, but I decided against saying anything.

At the next check point, a woman wearing a face shield verified the information on each of the pages, and asked my wife several questions. I could tell my wife was getting more agitated with each additional question, but I wasn’t sure why until finally she asked if I had Leon or Theo’s birth certificates. “Why would I have their birth certifcates?”, I asked. “It’s a new law, we need to prove they’re our kids if you want to stay in Korea.”

We were then pushed to the final check point, reserved just for us, where were told to wait while my wife and I went through every image on our iPhones for anything resembling a birth certificate. Finally a security officer came by, and said we could proceed without birth certificates, if we could provide an additional point of reference. Marriage licenses, tax documents, any of this would do. We had none of it, to the growing frustration of the security agent. I remembered that I had e-mailed myself our joint tax returns from 2017, and pulled it up on my phone. By this point, both my sons were in full on rage, and my eldest decided to dig his teeth into my arm. I yelled, and more security officials came to hover around us. The inspector helping us said that this would suffice for Leon, because he was on the tax return, but not for our baby, who hadn’t been born at the time. We’d need to speak to their version of homeland security.

We were ushered into a small waiting room, there were two police officers working desks fashioned with plexiglass spit shields, both of them wearing masks and gloves. The weird agro lady was there as well, pleading her case with one of the officers as to why she shouldn’t be deported. When she saw Theo, she smiled briefly, then went back to full on rage. My son had stolen my phone at this point, which I was okay with, because it was keeping him from gouging my eyes out. The power of beautiful, HD screens once again bridging the parenting gap.

One of the officers started to dialogue with my wife. I tried to ask what he was saying, but she kept going. Finally, she said “If you can’t provide some proof that these kids are ours, jointly, you’re all going to have to stay in a government facility.”

I snatched my phone from Leon, and he began to scream. My baby started to cry as well. Our nanny was long gone, past security and waiting for us at baggage claim. My phone was at 4%, having been on for the past several hours. “Birthday photos? Will that work?”, no. “Birth photos, of the baby coming of my wife’s uterus and into my arms, is that proof enough?” no. 3%. I wondered if I could photoshop something quickly on my phone, but then I realized I had yet to cancel my medical insurance in the states, and pulled that up to show the police officer. Unfortunately my sons were on my plan, and my wife was on a separate plan. 2%. We decided to go for it anyway, and my wife passed my phone to the officer, and said “this is our joint plan, all of our names are on it.”

The officer looked at my phone for minutes. He went through several menus, trying to find evidence that we were in fact a family. Meanwhile, my son was scratching my back with his razor sharp nails, and my baby was inconsolable. The officer looked at my wife, looked at me, then back at the app. “okay, fine. Just please, get the fuck out of this office with your crying, horrible kids.” Is what I assumed he said.

He handed us our passports back, and ushered us to the elevator.

Down at baggage claim, I realized I no longer had my phone. But when I turned back to get it, the officer was there, and said “have a nice stay.” And handed it to me. We made it, and my phone still had juice, 1% to spare.

Blue stickers for people who could freely leave the airport. I got the other color.
Orange, which meant wait for further instruction

We grabbed our bags and headed for the taxis, but instead we’re greeted by a dozen more military personnel, who asked to see our passports again. We were still wearing the American badges, and we were given special instructions to wait. We traded our badges for a sticker we put on our arms. Finally a man arrived, wearing a suit and no mask, literally the only one not wearing as mask in the entire airport. He looked at me and started to speak Korean. “Yeongeo haseyo?” I asked him. He didn’t answer.

He escorted us out of the airport, and into a van. His arm was broken, so he couldn’t help with the luggage. I smiled, I told him I was good a Tetris, and that I got this. He said nothing.

Note to self: I have to learn Korean, otherwise, the next time I’m back, I’m likely being sent to an internment camp.

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