Taking your pet home from South Korea

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One of the most stressful parts of our move (for me) was making sure that Mittens could come to America with us.

Mittens, our cat, was born on the roof of a building on Camp Henry in Daegu, South Korea. At least, that is where someone found her and her brothers and sisters. Said person brought her to the Camp Walker vet, who nursed them for a few weeks before adopting them out to families on post. It just so happened that we were in the market for a cat when I saw a posting that the vet had free kittens available.

That was three years ago. Clarissa was two and Mittens was less than two months old when she came to live with us. They have grown up together like sisters. Mittens sleeps in Clarissa’s bed every night. Though we still haven’t seen how she manages to jump to the top bunk on her own.

In the fall, I knew we would be heading back to America sometime in 2019. I began researching the process of what it takes to bring a cat from South Korea to America. It’s actually not as difficult as I thought it was going to be. I joined a facebook group by one of the pet shippers, thinking it would help me to know what to do. And to a certain extent, it did. But it also really stressed me out because he would post horror stories about how pets were denied boarding for silly little things (and bigger things) and he had to rescue the pets and ship them home later.

The difficult thing about military or GS life overseas is that you don’t always know where you are going until right before you leave. Some places require more preparation than others. For example, to go to Japan, your pet needs a FAVN test 6 months before you leave Korea or your pet will be in quarantine until the end of the 6 months when the pet arrives in Japan. Hawaii requires a similar schedule. To go to Europe (the EU), you need 3 months of FAVN or your pet can’t even enter the country. But to go from South Korea to mainland USA, your cat just needs a health certificate and a current rabies shot.

Our DEROS (date of estimated return from overseas) was April 30 and we had no idea where we were going by January 1. I knew we were going to America, but that could mean Hawaii and so I decided to get Mittens updated on her rabies shot early so that she would have two rabies shots and would be able to receive the FAVN test immediately if we found out we were going to Hawaii.

I was relieved to find out in February that we had a tentative offer for a job in the Washington, DC area because it meant that Mittens didn’t need the FAVN test. We could also take a direct flight from Incheon (Seoul) to Dulles (Washington DC) which would make life easier for the humans and the cat.

Right before we left, Tim heard about a different pet shipper that someone from work had used with good results. Once we finally had orders, I decided to talk to her. Gina was wonderful! She advised me to book the Delta flight with Korean Air code share because Korean Air is excellent with pets and doesn’t have a flight time limit (Delta normally only allows pets on flights under 12 hours). Doing this, Mittens was able to be on our flight as excess baggage instead of manifest cargo. Her treatment was pretty much the same. However, we only had to pay the airline $200 instead of paying a pet shipper between $1500-$2000.

Once our flight was booked, I was supposed to call a phone number to book Mittens on my flight. My phone would not call the Korean number for some reason and when I called the American number, I was on hold so long the phone call hung up on me. So Gina called them for me on her phone to book her spot on the flight. Then I had to take Mittens to the vet less than 10 days before our flight in order to get a health certificate. You don’t want to do it 10 days out because if your flight is delayed for any reason, you will have to start over. Then within 3 days of your flight, you need to visit the quarantine office to get a special health certificate from them.

That part was pretty stressful for me. I knew Mittens was healthy and her rabies vaccine was current. But the vet wasn’t available until the Friday afternoon before we left. Tim sold our car that morning, so I had to bring Clarissa and Mittens from Osan to Humphreys by taxi. And for some reason our taxi driver refused to actually go onto Camp Humphreys. So he brought me to the main gate and we had to switch taxis to get to the vet. The vet was done with Mittens and handed me a health certificate within 15 minutes. I then called another taxi. This guy didn’t speak any English and couldn’t figure out where I was supposed to go, even after I talked to dispatch. So after driving around for a bit, I made him bring me to where Tim was on Camp Humphreys so we could go together. Once the guy figured out how far we needed to go, he refused to take us.

We then went to the USO, where the lady at the front desk translated the address into Hangul for me with directions. She advised us to take a taxi from off post because they were usually willing to go farther. So we called another taxi to take us from One Stop to the front gate. Then, we got into a new taxi who was happy to take us to the Quarantine Office at the Port of Pyeongtaek. This guy didn’t have amazing English either, but our translated copy of the address made it super easy for him to know where we needed to go.

After we arrived at the building, we asked him to wait for us so that we would have a taxi back to our hotel at Osan. We walked in to the building and took the elevator to the fourth floor. From the elevator, take a left and go through the double doors. I presented the worker with my health certificate, rabies certificate, and flight information and filled out a form. In about 10 minutes, he handed me a health certificate for the Quarantine officers at both the Korean and American airport. I was instructed to bring Mittens to this place, but the worker didn’t look at her, just the paperwork. The taxi driver then took us back to Osan Main Gate so we could get to our hotel.

The next hurdle was to get to the airport. Osan offers a bus from the air base to Incheon Airport. However, pets are not allowed on the bus. I tried talking to a pet taxi, but he wasn’t convinced that he could carry the three of us, our luggage, and Mittens in his van. It was the same crazy price to just send Mittens with him as to send all three of us with our luggage.  The day before we needed to go to our airport hotel, a friend of Tim’s offered to drive us to the airport hotel in his van. We fit comfortably in his huge Japanese van and had great conversation along the way.

At the airport, I was worried that there would be a problem with our paperwork or that they would say Mittens didn’t have a spot on the flight (because of all the things I read on the other shipper guy’s facebook page). Gina assured me that Mittens should be fine, but if for some reason they denied her on the flight, she would send one of her workers to get Mittens and she would ship her to me later in the week. So I at least had a back up plan going into the morning of the flight.

When we checked in for our flight (you can’t do online check in with a pet), I told the check in lady that we had a cat. She asked for my rabies certificate and health certificate. I then had to put Mittens on the conveyor belt for her to attach paperwork and stickers to. Her crate had metal screws and a water bottle attached. There were puppy pads at the bottom of her crate to absorb any messes and make her more comfortable. I also had to write Live Animal with arrows (like this side up) on the crate and attach some cat food to the outside of her crate.

Then the check in lady called someone who came to get Mittens in her crate and put her on a cart. They immediately took her to our plane to load her into the cargo area (the other pet shipper guy said they just fling the crates with the luggage and you never know what will happen). After we finished checking in our suitcases, she gave me a note to pay the $200 at a different counter to pay for Mittens.

After our flight, at US Customs, the border patrol agent asked us about Mittens. He just wanted to see her current rabies certificate and didn’t care about her health certificate at all. From what I was reading, health certificates are required by many airlines but rabies certificates are all the USA requires to enter the mainland. We then went to pick up our suitcases and saw that they had put Mittens off to the side in a different section. We showed them that our baggage tag matched Mittens sticker and they let us take her. That was it.

Please note that to bring your pet from the United States to South Korea, the requirements are completely different. This post explains the process we used to bring our cat from South Korea to the United States in May of 2019.