The Best Manicure of My Life
Before living in Korea, I rarely got my nails done. Rarely. I would go to the nail salon only on special occasions or when I wanted a “spa day” with my friends. However, since living in Korea, I’ve become obsessed with Korean nail art. The designs and the creativity are next level. They’re unlike anything I have personally experienced or seen while living in the U.S.
It’s no exaggeration that the best manicures I’ve ever gotten have been in Korea. Even when I’m in the U.S., all the nail savvy people in my life would still “ooh” and “ahh” in amazement. So, if you’re planning on traveling in South Korea, take this as your sign to add “get my nails done” to your travel itinerary. I promise, you will thank me later.
Hero Image Credit: @hi_taehee
What is Nail Art?
Beyond your typical manicure or pedicure lies nail art. Nail art is the meticulous application of polish, design, stickers, tiny jewels, etc. that turn your nails into a beautiful canvas and work of art. There’s a strong focus on trends, techniques, and special care and attention to the cuticles. Above all else, nail art is a fun, therapeutic, and expressive way to show off your inner style.
The Rise of the Korean Nail Industry
First Nail Salons in Korea
In the late 1980s, in Itaewon, Seoul, the first nail salons in Korea opened. During this period, the majority of these establishments primarily catered to foreign clients. The concept of professional nail care had not yet gained significant traction among the local Korean population.
It wasn’t until the early 2000s and around the 2002 World Cup, that the concept of paying for nail care really took off. The surge in popularity can be attributed to a combination of factors including changing beauty standards and increased exposure to international trends. This shift in the perception of nail care transformed the industry from one primarily sought by foreigners, to a widely embraced and integral aspect of Korean beauty culture.
Breaking Stigma, Breaking Traditions
For years, the traditional shades of painted nails dominated the Korean market. Even as recently as 2010, flashy and colorful nails were often linked to ‘”certain kinds of women,” according to nail artist Cho A-ra in an interview with Korea JoongAng Daily.
It would take a while for social stigma and mindsets to evolve. Sowly, nail art became more accepted and popular, as seen by the increasing number of Korean celebrities and K-Pop groups adopting nail trends to match their wardrobe.
Transition to Gel Nails
With the growing acceptance of more creative, bolder, and colorful nail designs, new polish types and techniques were also introduced. Around 2012, Korean nail salons transitioned from using regular nail polish to gel. Unlike the challenge of regular polish, which easily chips and requires frequent touch ups or reapplications, gel polish provides a more durable and longer-lasting alternative.
Korean Nail Art Today
Today, Korea’s nail industry is steadily growing, both domestically and internationally. According to the Korean Statistical Information Service, the number of nail salons increased from 10,382 in 2016 to 16,464 in 2020. This number continues to grow, which is a testament to the quality and creativity of Korean nail brands, products, and the people who use them.
Gel Nails vs. Acrylic Nails
Korean nail salons hold a strong preference for gel vs. acrylic. While some salons still offer acrylic, it’s relatively hard to come by. It’s possible to find one, but often requires more research and travel to larger cities.
While both soft and hard gel are used in Korea, many shops also prefer to use hard gel. For first timers, it’s important to note that, unlike soft gel which can be worn down using acetone, hard gel needs to be filed off. However, when painted on, hard gel is stronger than soft gel, which keeps your nails from breaking and bending, easily resulting in longer-lasting wear.
High-Quality Gel Nail Polish, Free of Animal Testing
Like any nail polish, gel nail polish can still damage your nails over time. However, Korean gel polishes are specifically formulated to minimize stress on your nails. Many of the top gel nail brands like ICEGEL and Gentle Pink are rid of controversial “toxic” ingredients.
Unlike many of their Western counterparts, Korean gel nail polish is also free of formaldehyde, a preservative recognized by the National Cancer Institute to potentially cause cancer. Animal testing is also illegal in South Korea. This helps ensure that nail polish products are being made cruelty-free making it an ethical option, as well as a healthier one.
In addition to the lack of harmful chemicals, Korean gel nail polishes are known to be highly pigmented and thick. As described in an article from Elle UK, the thicker and more pigmented the polish the less layers of gel are needed with every application. This not only creates shinier and longer lasting coats, but also means you need less polish with every use.
Less Heat Spikes
With fewer layers, Korean nail gel polishes often reduce the painful heat spikes that can occur. According to chemist Jim McConnell, heat spikes are the painful increase of heat on your nails, often the result of too many coats, improper application, and/or the incorrect UV light setting. Unfortunately, sometimes heat spikes are an accidental part of the process, so let your tech know if you start feeling uncomfortable.
Korean Nail Art Trends and Styles
From an interview with Korea JoongAng Daily, nail artist Cho A-ra, notes the historical influence of Japanese nail trends on the Korean scene. Initially, it would take around three years from the trend’s inception to its transition into Korea. However, Cho A-ra mentions that nowadays this gap is steadily decreasing.
Today, Korea stands at the forefront of global nail trends, pioneering trends like the “pixie stone” nails, where tiny crystals fully cover the nail, and the “stamping technique” that impresses patterns onto nails.
As trends evolve, Korean nail artists generally gravitate towards a more clean or creative look, including the use of bold and vibrant colors, 3D designs, and playful aesthetics.
Korean Nail Shapes & Extensions
Thanks to idols like Hwasa (from the K-POP girl group Mamamoo), gel nail extensions are also increasingly popular. While the most popular nail shapes in Korea still include oval (round) and square, idols like Hwasa have also sparked a love for coffin-shaped nails. These shapes can all be achieved with someone’s natural nail, or by adding gel extensions to the nail itself.
Do-it Yourself Home Nail Kits
Korean beauty store chains, such as Olive Young, offer products like “Magic Press”, a pre-made stick-on nail design from Dashing Diva. Sales for home gel kits are also on the rise. Korea JoongAng Daily reports that the popular gel sticker brand Ohora’s sales was eight times higher in the first half of 2020 than the entire sales accumulated in 2019. Now in 2024, Ohora is still leading the way for at-home gel nails thanks to their affordability and range of styles. Already selling successfully overseas in Japan, with the expectation to steadily expand outreach to Southeast Asia, Europe, and Canada.
How to Find and Book an Appointment for Korean Nail Art
Researching Nail Salons
While word of mouth is best, we asked frequent nail art clients how they found nail salons in Korea. In general, most people shared that using apps like Instagram, and Korean apps like Naver Map and KakaoMap were essential to finding the best places.
If you’re already in Korea, we recommend getting your nails done in a big city if it’s your first time. This will provide you with the greatest options in your search and might even help with any language barriers, depending on where you go.
Researching on Instagram
Searching in Korean will increase your viewing options on Instagram. We recommend searching the neighborhood or area you want, and then adding the word “nail” (네일) or “네일샵” (nail shop).
For example: 홍대네일 (Hongdae Nail) or #동명동네일샵 (Dongmyeong-dong Nail Shop). You can also add a hashtag before the Korean and search under the “Tags.” This will generally populate a ton more options and nail salons to explore than simply searching in English.
From here, you can review many different shops and contact them either directly through the Instagram app, or their preferred form of communication. (This is usually the app KakaoTalk, so we recommend downloading this app, as well.)
Researching on Naver Map and KakaoMap
When using Naver Map or KakaoMap, similar advice applies. Search the area you want first on the map, and then search the word “nail” (네일) or “네일샵” (nail shop).
These platforms let you see reviews, access nail salon blogs for more images, occasionally book directly through the app, and receive the occasional discount for booking through these apps. (If you’re booking directly through these apps, a Korean bank account might be necessary for advance payments.)
Follow-up communication will either be through the app itself (you will need an account), or through other communication apps like KakaoTalk. Calling is also an option if you can speak Korean.
How Far in Advance Should You Book
It’s Best to Book Ahead
In Korea, walkins are less common because the nail procedures often last a long time. Popular salons usually book out far in advance. From our survey, Leslie shared that “Appointments are also a must. I have never been able to do a walk-in appointment.”
However, in some cases, others from our survey were lucky and able to squeeze in the day of or a few days before. Which salon you plan on going to and where in Korea will also play a big factor in how far you book an appointment. In general, most people recommend booking an appointment at least 1-2 weeks in advance, with additional weeks or months added for extra popular salons.
Check Social Media for Posted Times
Salons with social media platforms might also post openings and schedules. Whenever I book an appointment, I usually check my nail tech’s available times and dates, and then contact her directly on KakaoTalk. This won’t be the case in every instance, but it’s also a great place to start if you’re not sure.
Occasionally You Might Need to Prepay
It’s important to note that when booking an appointment, you might also have to deposit money to reserve the time before your appointment. In this instance, unless exceptions are made, it will be easier to find a different salon or have an existing Korean bank account to transfer the money from.
General Price Range and Expectations
Pricing will range depending on if you go to a salon that offers monthly nail designs, or allows you to come in with your own vision and art direction. From the nail survey we conducted, average prices ranged from 30,000 – 60,000 KRW (around $22 to $45) for basic and simple designs to 60,000-100,000 KRW (around $45 to $75) for more complicated designs. However, it’s possible to spend well over 120,000 KRW ($90) the more you add on, change, or request.
Avoid Being Overcharged
While reaching out to friends for this article, Grace shared her perspective with me. “In general, I just avoid places that don’t list their prices (i.e., only put pictures of their monthly designs and want you to message them on Kakao for prices). There are SO MANY good nail places in Korea, I personally don’t see any reason to go through that extra step and potentially get quoted a higher price.”
When discussing the price with your nail tech, it’s important to go to places that have their prices and rules clearly marked and stated. If this isn’t available online, then make sure it’s stated in your messages and at the salon. Most Korean salons will charge extra for every addition or deviation in design, so it’s important to expect and understand this going in.
Extensions are Generally More Expensive
Leslie pointed out that, “It’s also important to note that extensions are only recently becoming popular in Korea, so they are a bit more expensive and actually typically cost 10,000 KRW (about $7.50) per nail which was shocking at first, but there are places that have specials on the extensions. You just have to find them.”
What to Do Before Your Appointment
Communicate with Your Nail Tech
After finding a nail salon, you will need to communicate with the nail tech via the app you find their business on, or on other messaging apps like KakaoTalk. When communicating with nail techs Leslie reminds us, “Don’t be scared about a possible language barrier. I have been to so many nail salons and my experiences have thankfully always been positive. They always try to be as patient as they can with the language barrier…”
If you’re unable to speak Korean, translating apps like Papago or Google Translate will come in handy. Through our nail survey, Vontese shared, “Don’t be afraid if you can’t speak Korean as you can have a mini consultation via Kakao talk (with the help of translation apps) beforehand to go over the important details, i.e., cost, design, time etc.”
Lastly, even if your Korean is not perfect, I highly suggest trying your best. As Suds from our nail survey also shared, “If you’re able to, going to the same nail person is a fun way to form a relationship with someone in your community.” From personal experience, I couldn’t agree more!
Pro Tip: Research Design Inspiration
This is probably the best advice I can give you: before your appointment, research nail inspiration and bring in photos. Leslie shares with us this great advice. “I always try to think in advance about what I want for my nails and have pictures on my phone to show them. Things like shape, length, color. If I want to do one of the monthly designs, I always look at them ahead of time and have the design on my phone.”
You will also need to have a general understanding of the skill and techniques your nail tech has before going. It will be important to find design inspiration that you feel confident your nail tech can easily replicate.
How to Find Nail Inspiration
Aside from common go-tos (looking on search engines like Google, using Pinterest, or checking out celebrity inspiration,) looking on Instagram will also come in handy. By using hashtags using Korean words or Konglish, you can find a lot of designs by Korean nail artists. The more you also look at nail art on Instagram, the more recommendations will come into your feeds, thanks to automatically generated algorithms.
Here are some hashtags we recommend, though you can switch out the words with anything you want:
- #네일이달의아트 (Nail Art of the Month)
- #크리스마스네일아트 (Christmas Nail Art)
- #봄네일아트 (Spring Nail Art)
What to Do During Your Appointment
If Needed, Reconfirm the Upfront Costs
From our nail survey, Grace shares that, “(B)efore they actually start touching your nails, ask for a final price check. Most Korean shops charge extra for every small deviation from the original design (an additional stone, gel extension, taping the nail, etc). I’ve been to some really wonderful places that were up-front about how changing the color or design would add X amount, and also been to other places that didn’t disclose.”
This advice is especially the case if you plan on getting your own design done, or if you want deviations from the original designs the tech offers. To avoid any issues or miscommunication, make sure that everything is clearly established and communicated upfront.
Anticipate Appointment Time
When going into your appointment, plan for at least 1.5-2 hours from start to finish (longer if you are taking off existing designs). At the end of your appointment, you might also be asked by the nail tech for a few additional minutes to take photos of your nails.
You can always say no if you’re running short on time. However, budgeting this time into your expected appointment time helps boost advertising and business for the nail salon. It also gives you free and amazing shots of your new nails. Bonus!
General Nail Care Expectations
With a focus on cuticles and general nail care in Korea, it’s often expected that your nail tech will spend extra time making sure your cuticles are nicely trimmed and shaped.
From our survey, Leslie also shares that “…Korean nail shops have your cuticles looking absolutely beautiful, so it takes a bit longer. I have never had so much care done on my nails before… Overall I have had nothing but positive experiences here.”
Aboorva also shared that “…they are very meticulous and detail oriented here, so I’ve always received great nail care! It can also take a long time so be prepared depending on the design.” Get ready to be pampered!
What You Should Know Post-Appointment
How to Make Your Nail Art Last Longer
Korean gel nails can last at least 4-5 weeks with proper care and maintenance, so have a routine of nourishing hands and cuticles. The cuticles especially might get dry, so use nail creams, serums, cuticle oil, and/or masks to keep your nails looking pretty and healthy.
Avoid super hot water and wearing plastic dishwashing gloves. Consider taking vitamins that support nail health and growth, along with a general vitamin-enriched diet to keep your nails looking great until your next appointment.
Removing Your Nail Art in Korea
When taking off your nail art, it’s recommended you go to the same salon. If not, you might be charged additionally if they are a different nail tech’s work or designs. When I’m not getting a new design at my go-to salon, I will request for my nail art to come off along with an additional care routine.
Removing Your Nail Art Outside Korea
If you’re getting your nail art taken off outside of Korea, it’s incredibly important to find a salon that knows how to properly remove your designs, gems, etc. In the U.S., I have been to one salon that was inexperienced with the type of hard gel and number of gemstones that were used in my design. This resulted in an unnecessarily painful and frustrating experience for me.
On the other hand, I had a great experience the second time after doing my research. This time I found a salon that had a similar portfolio or experience level to my nail salon in Korea. This resulted in a pain-free and happy experience for me. So do your research!
Nail Salon Recommendations
Here are a few recommendations from me and a few friends. We recommend you still research our recommendations to make sure they fit your budget, needs, and expectations.
Gonggan Nail (공간네일)
- Multiple Locations in Seoul (see website)
Angtt Nail (앙뜨네일)
- Seoul Seongdong-gu Ddduksam-ro 9-gil 16 301-ho
- 서울 성동구 뚝섬로9길 16 301호
Gang Nailz (갱네일즈)
- Seoul, Yeongdeungpo-gu, Gukhoe-daero 50beon-gil, 20 Sangga-dong 101-1-ho
- 서울 영등포구 국회대로50길 20 상가동 101-1호
For English-friendly nail salons, we recommend the following salons in Seoul:
Drawing Show (드로잉쇼 네일)
- Seoul, Chungu, Namdaemun-ro 60 (Myeondong area)
- 서울 중구 남대문로 60
- Foreigners can book reservations through Instagram DM (@drawing__show)
- Seoul, Mapo-gu Wausan-ro 29, Bar-gil 10, 1st floor
- 서울 마포구 와우산로29바길 10 1층
- Seoul, Gangnam-gu, Seonneung-ro 146gil 45, 1st floor
- 서울 강남구 선릉로146길 45 1층
If you’re traveling outside of Seoul, here are some of our absolute favorites:
Hi Taehee Nail (하이태히네일)
- Gyeongsang-bukdo, Pohang-si, Namgu, Daei-ro 109
- 경북 포항시 남구 대이로 109
Hello My Nail (헬로마이네일)
- Gyeongsang-bukdo, Pohang-si, Bukgu, Changheung-ro 12 beon-gil 10
- 경북 포항시 북구 창흥로12번길 10
Sun Sun Nail and Beauty (순순피부&네일)
- Gyeongsangbuk-do Andong-si Hwangtomaeul 1-gil 6-1
- 경북 안동시 황토마을1길 6-1
Golden Nail Ingye Ssine Park Branch (골든네일 인계씨네파크점)
- Gyeonggi, Suwon-si, Paldalgu, Gwangwang-ro 181 Ssine Park, 136-ho
- 경기 수원시 팔달구 권광로 181 씨네파크 136호
Ramoon Nail (라문네일)
- Chungcheongbuk-do, Cheongju-si, Heungdeok-gu, 2 Sunhwan-ro 1106
- 충북 청주시 흥덕구 2순환로 1106 자이상가 주출입구방향