North Korea is certainly not a vacation destination for those looking to relax and take a break from their regular life. In fact, many other countries generally advise not to visit due to the risks and limitations that occur under their current communist regime. However, a small amount of people -- around 4,000 to 6,000 Westerners, to be exact -- are known to still try traveling to the restricted country every year. While North Korea does have a tourism industry, it looks very different from many other countries. If you plan on visiting, here are some things you absolutely need to know in order to stay safe and enjoy your trip.
If your passport is from the United States, you're out of luck. Since 2017, the United States Department of State have forbidden Americans from traveling to North Korea due to safety concerns. There was a time they were allowed though, albeit with heavy restrictions. The current ban will reportedly last until August 31, 2019, so perhaps the U.S. Department of State will re-evaluate at that date. If you're really determined, you can apply for a Special Validation passport that will allow you to take one trip under special circumstances. Remember, even if your passport is from a different country, you will still require a visa and will not be able to enter on your passport alone -- no exceptions.
Many people think that international calls and internet access aren't available, but this isn't actually the case. Tourists can obtain a prepaid SIM card, and those in the country for business may be able to get on the internet through the 3G network if they work out permissions with officials beforehand. Some hotels might also have limited internet. There is a strong chance, however, that your calls and internet activity will be monitored. Use caution when it comes to the things you say or the websites you visit. Any discussions that seem disrespectful to North Korea or its leader can land you in hot water.
As you can probably guess, you aren't allowed to wander around the country on your own. Those who are allowed to enter North Korea must come as a part of an official tour group. As a part of a tour group, all outings and excursions are pre-planned. You can't leave your hotel or leave any of the areas that aren't already established for your tour without being accompanied by your tour guide.
Tour guides tend to be bilingual and will likely be able to speak to you in your mother tongue, depending on what travel agency or tourist company you use. They should be able to answer your questions or assist you with any language-barrier issues. Please follow their instructions, as any trouble you get into will result in consequences for your tour guide as well.
You can't bring any religious, pornographic, or political materials into the country. Absolutely under no circumstances should you attempt to smuggle something in or out of the country, even if you think you have an air-tight plan to do so. Consequences can be dire, and it simply isn't worth it to make such a risk. If any material you plan to take gives you pause or could be considered questionable, err on the side of caution and leave it behind. You'll thank yourself in the long run!
As a security precaution, your tour guide or another official will take away your passport upon entry into the country. They'll hold on to it for at least a couple of days if not the entire duration of your stay. They will eventually return it to you, however. Some people have recounted their cell phones being temporarily confiscated too, although this doesn't appear to be the norm. Still, it's best to prepare for this being a possibility as well. If you listen to the rules and stay out of trouble, your belongings will typically be returned to you with no issue.
Do not try to travel to North Korea in hopes of "educating" the locals. Probing them about their thoughts on their government and way of life is not only disrespectful, but puts both of your lives at risk. This does not mean you can't interact with locals at all, however.
North Koreans may be more closed-off than you're used to, but rumor has it that celebrations involving food and drink can make a native more chatty. Try to plan to go to the country during a nationwide holiday or event, where many people will be in good spirits.
Many national monuments are likely to be on your tour. Whenever you are at one of these monuments, it is customary to pay respects by bowing. There are also many statues of leaders both past and present, and your tour guide will instruct you to bow to these as well. Whether you agree with the policies of North Korea and its leaders or not, paying respect is non-negotiable. Refusing to do so is considered deeply offensive and can get you into a load of trouble with the government.
Use caution when taking photos. Your tour guide may allow you to take some, but may have to look them over to veto them. Anything that depicts North Korea in a bad light -- such as a picture of an impoverished area -- is forbidden. In some instances, cameras can be confiscated. Be careful with your camera and only pull it out if you are explicitly given permission. It's never a bad idea to ask your tour guide permission first to receive clear consent.
Occasionally, you may experience a power outage. In fact, before current leader Kim Jong Un came to power, locals would sometimes go months without electricity. Now, Kim Jong Un is more lenient when it comes to the use of electricity and even allows street lights to stay on at night, giving North Korea somewhat of a night life. Still, electricity is definitely limited in comparison to other countries. Prepare for the possibility of the power being out for hours.
As a tourist, you are forbidden from using the local currency (the North Korean Won). The exchange of Euros or Chinese Yuan is permitted, however. Some locations even accept U.S. dollars. There are no ATM's or money exchange stations in the country, so you need to make extra sure you are bringing enough money with you on your trip beforehand. Do some research on money conversions and typical prices of food and drink in North Korea before traveling there.