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Moving to Seoul

As the political, cultural, financial and educational hub of the country, it's hardly surprising that Seoul is the most popular choice for expats moving to South Korea.

A buzzing metropolis situated on the Han River, Seoul combines fast-paced, high-technology living against a rich historical background of palaces, fortress walls, royal shrines and single-storey wooden hanok houses. At the same time, the city is the birthplace of K-Pop and the epicentre of the Korean Wave, exporting the country's culture around the globe.

Living in Seoul as an expat

Seoul is South Korea's major business hub and produces about a fifth of the country's gross domestic product. Many expats working in the city find jobs working in information technology, electronics and finance, especially as Seoul is home to major corporations such as Kia, Hyundai, Samsung and LG Electronics. It's also the centre of the English teaching industry, another popular avenue of expat employment.  

With a wide range of accommodation options and quality healthcare, expats will have all the essential amenities to make their stay as safe and comfortable as possible. The options for public transport in Seoul are also vast and efficient, and taxis are numerous and cheap.

The lifestyle in Seoul is extremely diverse as the city provides a range of activities to appeal to shoppers, nightlife hoppers, sports enthusiasts and art lovers. There are huge shopping malls throughout the city as well as a large selection of both local and international restaurants.

Cost of living in Seoul

The cost of living in the South Korean capital is high. That said, salaries are competitive and employment contracts often cover the cost of accommodation and schooling, saving expats a lot of money. Transport, locally manufactured goods and Korean food are generally extremely affordable, while foreign foodstuffs and commodities are expensive. 

Expat families and children

South Korea is a child-friendly nation and Seoul is no exception. There are plenty of international schools in the city, with curricula ranging from American and Japanese to the International Baccalaureate. Tutoring is also a large industry in South Korea and expat parents will therefore not struggle to find school support for their children, should they need it. 

Climate in Seoul

Seoul has a humid continental climate, with dry, cold, snowy winters and hot, wet summers. The mild autumn and spring seasons are short and give way to extreme temperatures on either end of the spectrum, depending on the season. 

Although Seoul's big city reputation can be intimidating to some, it has a cultural charm that can endear even those people who are uncomfortable in cosmopolitan urban environments. The contrast between parks, rivers, mountains, teahouses and tall, modern skyscrapers uniquely form to create a city rich in experiences.   

Pros and cons of moving to Seoul

As with any city, there are pros and cons to moving to Seoul, but expats who make an effort to learn about and assimilate to the Korean culture will start to feel at home in the city. 

Seoul’s city motto is 'the Soul of Asia' and, once moving here, or even visiting, it's easy to see why people fall in love with this mega city. 


Accommodation in Seoul

For most expats, their Korean employers will arrange housing for them, ideally in areas and suburbs that are popular with expats. These apartments will often be fully furnished.

+ PRO: Creature comforts

South Korean apartments will often come with a washing machine, gas range, floor heating and air conditioning. This is especially true of newer buildings. Older buildings may not have these 'extras', but will at least have floor heating installed. Korean buildings are also very safe. Even though the crime rate in South Korea is already very low, most Seoul apartments will require a gate/front door key or combination as well as the individual door key/combination.

- CON: Expensive

Typically, the down-payment on a rental is excessively expensive. Korean renters will almost always charge 'key money'. Key money functions as a security deposit, but will often amount to the purchasing price of a property. That said, it's possible to find apartments with low key-money payments in foreigner-heavy areas.


Lifestyle in Seoul

+ PRO: Friendly locals

South Korea is one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries in the world, leading to foreigners being a rare sight. Despite this, native residents of Seoul are more used to seeing foreigners than residents of other South Korean cities and are generally quite ready to help foreigners feel welcome in the city. 

+ PRO: Large variety of activities to meet any interest

As Seoul is so massive, the different districts have all been encouraged to nurture own, unique identities. Consequently, every district has its own personality and presents its own lifestyle pursuits. Seoul is also surrounded by a mountain range to the north and many mountains blot the city landscape, so outdoorsy types will easily find activities to suit their needs.

+ PRO: Large and welcoming expat community

Making new friends in Seoul is easy, as the city hosts a large and friendly expat community. This community hosts frequent events that are easily found on Facebook or the various English news outlets and blogs. 

- CON: Extreme winters and summers

Winters in Seoul are severely cold, while summers feel extremely hot. Korea prides itself on the vividness of its four seasons, but autumn and spring will normally each only last a few weeks before extreme temperatures on either side of the spectrum become apparent.


Safety in Seoul

+ PRO: Low crime rates

Guns are illegal for civilians in South Korea and aren't easy to come by on the black market. Petty theft is also extremely rare. Although walking alone at night is definitely a possibility in Seoul, expats should still be aware of their surroundings and act with common sense. 

- CON: Reckless driving

Bending the law is extremely common among Seoul motorists. Scooter drivers will often take to the sidewalks when roads are congested and drivers might also run red lights if they think that they can get away with it. Drunk driving is also common. Pedestrians should keep to the sidewalk and be very careful when crossing any streets.


Working and doing business in Seoul

+ PRO: Wealth of opportunities

The English as a Second Language (ESL) industry is massive in Seoul and schools are always looking for new teachers, especially around February and August, the prime hiring times for teachers.

- CON: Lack of non-teaching positions

Without knowledge of Korean and a good deal of experience in a specific field, it’s difficult to find positions in Seoul outside of the education sector. There are positions available in the tourism industry but, again, these are few and far between.


Culture shock in Seoul

+ PRO: Korean alphabet

Unlike other Asian languages, the standard Korean alphabet has been intuitively developed and is quick to learn. The shapes of the letters are the shapes a person's mouth makes when saying them. Each group of shapes is actually just a syllable, combining the different letter sounds.

- CON: Communication problems

The Korean language, particularly grammar, can be difficult to learn, and the way Koreans communicate meaning verbally with one another can feel different from how Korean is initially learnt. 

- CON: Hierarchical culture

Respect for one’s elders is hugely important in Korean culture, and some elders take full advantage of this. Their behaviour could be seen as rude to outsiders, but in South Korea it’s normal.


Cost of living in Seoul

+ PRO: Absolutely no need for a car

The public transport system in Seoul is fast, efficient, cheap, safe, and clean. The price of gas is very high and the roads are congested with the thousands of cheap taxis that make personal cars even less necessary. 

+ PRO: Diverse, cheap, good food

Eating in restaurants, as long as they are Korean-style cuisine, is cheaper than cooking at home. Due to the relative isolation of the Korean peninsula, Korean cuisine is also extremely diverse. 

- CON: Expensive groceries

Western-style products are much more expensive than Korean ones. Moreover, without knowledge of Korean, it’s difficult to navigate Korean products and cooking methods. Produce availability is also more dependent on the seasons. 


Education and schools in Seoul

+ Pro: Good schools

Seoul is home to plenty of public and international schools that all teach a high standard of education. While majority of expats send their children to international schools due to the language of instruction at public schools being Korean, expats can rest assured that their child will be well educated no matter which school they attend. 

- CON: High-pressure education culture

Koreans take education very seriously. Those born outside of Seoul will work their entire lives to have the chance to go to university in the city and those already in Seoul will do whatever it takes to stay there. Students, starting at a young age, often go to after-school academies (hagwon), which focus on various subjects. High school students are under tremendous amounts of pressure to achieve good grades and make it into a prestigious university either in Seoul or the USA.


Healthcare in Seoul

+ PRO: Accessible and affordable healthcare

Korea has a universal healthcare system which expats working in South Korea can make use of. The universal healthcare will cover up to 50 percent of health care costs and most employer-provided insurances will then cover 25 percent on top of that.

+ PRO: Access to English-speaking medical professionals

Many doctors in Seoul are considered the best in their fields. And one will rarely get to the top of any field in Korea without the ability to speak at least intermediate English. 

- CON: Not many international clinics

Despite most doctors speaking English, there are only a few options for facilities where all the medical staff, including nurses and administrative workers, speak English. Although there are international clinics, appointments are difficult to secure, especially during flu season. 

Working in Seoul

As the capital of one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, Seoul is a fast-paced, cutting-edge city with a highly desirable working environment. Working in Seoul can be difficult as competition for jobs in the city centre is fierce, but becomes a little less so in some of its outlying suburbs.

Despite occupying less than one percent of the country’s surface area, Seoul generates a huge proportion of the its gross domestic product (GDP). 


Job market in Seoul

Many of the core industries in Seoul are concentrated in the manufacturing sector in fields such as information and communications technology, electronics, food and beverage production, and publishing. The city is home to the headquarters of major corporations such as Samsung, LG, the Hyundai Group and Jinro, which produces its own brand of soju, a local drink that has consistently ranked as the highest selling spirit alcohol in the world. 

The majority of jobs available to English-speaking foreigners tend to involve either teaching English or working for the US Army. Expats who are interested in non-teaching jobs in South Korea generally need to have postgraduate education and experience in a highly specialised field to be seriously considered. Otherwise, they will be directly competing with the local workforce. 

Outside of teaching, most expats with jobs in Seoul work in the service sector and the electronics, automobile, and chemical industries. More often than not, the difference between being employed or not depends on who a candidate knows, just as much as it does on their qualifications and experience. 

For those that do find employment, many of the biggest companies in Seoul insist that their managerial staff be able to speak English. As a result, doing business in Seoul is fairly straightforward as the language is less of an impediment. That said, there are certain rules of etiquette and social customs that should be researched before attempting to climb the Korean corporate ladder.


Finding a job in Seoul

Most expats find a job before relocating, as this is often a necessary condition of receiving a work visa and because Korean employers often provide key support, such as helping expats find accommodation.  

Many expats find employment through the many job portals available online. The high number of expats wanting to teach in Korea has resulted in a large number of recruitment companies which organise placements on behalf of private schools, of which there are many in Seoul.


Work culture in Seoul

Traditional social practices and etiquette still have an important role in South Korean business. If expatriate businesspeople want to be accepted by their colleagues, they need to display an awareness of these and a willingness to engage in the social codes that are at the foundation of business culture in South Korea.

While South Korea's place in the global business circuit has made changes to the way that business is generally conducted in the country, there is still an elaborate system of hierarchy that imbues business culture that is based on position, age, prestige and, to an extent, gender.

For Koreans, the idea of 'saving face' is less about preserving oneself and more about saving others from embarrassment, especially those of a higher social or professional ranking. For this reason, expats shouldn't expect a direct negative answer from Korean people if they can’t help or don’t know. In doing so, an individual maintains their own honour and dignity.

Koreans need to be able to trust the people they are doing business with and social relationships are directly linked to business success. For this reason, prospective business partners spend a lot of time getting to know each other. Dinner invitations, after dinner drinks and karaoke are also likely to feature at some point and should not be turned down.


Teaching English in Seoul

A steady stream of English-speaking foreigners make their way to the country each year in search of financial, professional and cultural gain. By far the most popular source of income for these expats is teaching English in South Korea

English teaching jobs have traditionally been fairly easy to obtain for expats from countries such as the UK, the US, Canada and South Africa, as long as they meet a few basic requirements. That said, in recent years the Korean government has been cracking down on the foreigners teaching English illegally or without the proper visa. Competition, especially for placements in schools based in Seoul, has also increased and requirements have become slightly more stringent.

Most expats secure a job in Seoul from overseas before they arrive, and often the employer applies for a work permit on their behalf.

Accommodation in Seoul

As South Korea's economic powerhouse, Seoul has a wide range of accommodation options available. Few expats buy property, but renting property in South Korea can be considerably more complicated than doing so in Western countries. As a result, employers often organise accommodation close to their offices on behalf of their foreign employees.

Most accommodation in Seoul often comes in the form of towering apartment blocks. These tend to consist of four to eight apartment buildings which are clustered together. Most will have small communal playgrounds or recreational areas along with parking facilities.


Types of accommodation in Seoul

While the apartment is by far the most common type of housing in Seoul, there are other options for expats to consider.

Serviced apartments

These are a good option for expats staying in Seoul for a short amount of time. They are usually furnished and offer services like cleaning and a foyer concierge, and amenities such as a swimming pool and gym. These are usually quite expensive compared to non-serviced apartments. 

Officetels

An officetel is a unit within a high-rise building that houses both office and residential space. These apartments are usually furnished and are quite popular with young expats and students. 

Private houses

A private house is ideal for an expat family, but unfortunately, these are extremely rare in a city like Seoul. Expats living on the outskirts of the city might, however, be lucky enough to find one. 


Finding accommodation in Seoul

It might be difficult for expats whose employers haven’t arranged housing for them to find a place to live in Seoul. There are, however, some useful tools available to assist expats in their search for the perfect accommodation. Local English-language newspapers such as the Korea Times and The Korean Herald usually contain property listings. Alternatively, listings can be found through online property portals and expat social media groups. It’s also a good idea to check the advertising boards in apartment buildings for listed vacancies.

Visiting estate agents directly is also a good place to start as they will be privy to a wide selection of availabilities. Although many estate agents may not speak English, there are some estate agencies which specialise in the expat market, which minimises language barrier issues.


Renting accommodation in Seoul

Renting an apartment in Seoul requires a lot of time, energy and usually a helpful Korean-speaking colleague or friend to handle negotiations and lease agreements.

Leases

Typically, rental leases in Seoul are signed for a one-year term. Renters have to give at least three months’ notice if they want to move out.

Deposits

Korean landlords use a "key money" system which is similar to a deposit, except that key money usually consists of a huge amount and the more key money that a tenant pays to their landlord, the lower their monthly rent will be.

Key money is paid into a separate account and the original amount is returned to the tenant at the end of their lease, while the landlord gets to keep the interest generated over that period.

Utilities

Utilities aren't typically included in the monthly rent, so expats will need to budget extra for this. Bills can be paid via bank transfer at the bank, ATM or through a mobile app or even at some convenience stores.

Areas and suburbs in Seoul

The best places to live in Seoul

Seoul is divided up into districts known as gu, which are further separated into neighbourhoods known as dong. If an area has the suffix '-gu' it is a larger area made up of various dong. If the name has '-dong' at the end of it, then it refers to a specific neighbourhood within a gu.

Split in two by the Han River which runs through the city, there are various areas and suburbs in Seoul that are suitable for expats. Some of the newer, more expensive suburbs can be found south of the Han River. This includes Gangnam and Apgujeong, which are popular with young professionals.

Expats have traditionally settled north of the river in central areas such as Itaewon, Yongsan and Hannam-dong. Many diplomats and their families have also made their homes north of the river. Expats will most likely choose their suburb based on its proximity to their workplace or their children’s schools.

Most areas in Seoul are connected to the city centre by its efficient train and bus services, so expats who need to commute will be able to do so easily. 


Areas south of the Han River

Areas south of the Han River

Areas in Seoul south of the Han River are becoming increasingly popular with expats, especially young professionals. 

Gangnam-gu

Gangnam-gu is a popular district that has a large foreign community and is also home to many Koreans. The area has an abundance of apartment complexes and numerous studio apartments that are popular with the young and affluent. It has a central built-up area with many offices, bars and restaurants, and boasts some of the most expensive real estate in the country.

Despite the relatively high prices, Gangnam is a popular area for English teachers to live since it offers easy access to transport as well as some of the best schools in Seoul.

Daechi-dong is one of the more residential areas in Gangnam-gu and is popular with expats who prefer a quieter lifestyle that isn't too far from the hustle and bustle of the city. 

Apgujeong-dong

This affluent area contains many upmarket shops and restaurants. Apgujeong Rodeo Street is one of the best shopping streets in Seoul. This area has good access to public transport and is another ideal choice for young professional expats. 


Areas north of the Han River

Areas North of the Han River

Although expats have traditionally settled in areas north of the Han River in Seoul, the expat community has increasingly found itself settling in all areas of Seoul. Despite this, some areas north of the Han River still remain more popular with expats than others, and Itaewon, Hannam-dong and Ichon-dong are the areas with some of the largest expat communities. 

Itaewon-dong

Itaewon-dong is close to the US Army Base in Seoul which has resulted in the neighbourhood being filled with Western restaurants, shops and English-language services and amenities. This neighbourhood has one of the largest expat communities in South Korea. 

Itaewon-dong is a hilly region with a range of affordable accommodation options available. Expats can choose between apartments, villas and large houses with gardens. The area also has good access to public transport and a variety of excellent schools.

Haebangchon-dong

This is another popular expat area, mainly because it's close to Itaewon-dong and the US Army Base. Many English language teachers settle in Haebangchon-dong and the community is quite multicultural. 

Ichon-dong 

Ichon-dong in Yongsan-gu is known as "Little Tokyo" and has a large community of Japanese expats. There are many authentic Japanese restaurants in this area. There is also an abundance of apartment complexes, making it a convenient place to look for accommodation. 

Hannam-dong

Hannam-dong is a popular residential area for diplomats to settle. It's close to the expat hub of Itaewon and is made up of the UN Village and a residential neighbourhood. Hannam-dong is quite exclusive and the houses are large and luxurious. The accommodation in the area consists mainly of free-standing homes, but some apartments are also available. Hannam-dong is only 45 minutes away from the Seoul International School and there are two English pre-schools in the neighbourhood. There is also a school bus service to most of the international schools in the area.

The UN Village is an exclusive compound within Hannam-dong that is patrolled by security guards. The accommodation is luxurious and is close to the German International School. 

Seodaemun-gu

Seodaemun-gu is a residential area that is close to many of Seoul’s universities, making it a popular district for students and professors. There are also a large number of international schools in the area, which is a big draw for many expats. Seodaemun-gu is surrounded by mountains and is therefore a great place for expats who enjoy the outdoors. 

Bangbae-dong

Bangbae-dong is an area popular with French expats because of its close proximity to the French School. There are many accommodation options available in this neighbourhood and it's close to shopping centres and the subway. 

Seongbuk-dong 

Seongbuk-dong is an affluent suburb where expats can find large, spacious homes. The suburb is relatively close to the city centre, making it convenient for expats who need to commute into the city. Although the suburb is great for expats with families, it isn't as well connected to the public transport network as other areas in Seoul are. As such, expats who live in Seongbuk-dong might need to invest in a car. 

Yonhi-dong 

Although the area can feel isolated, there are many large and beautiful houses and convenient shopping areas in Yonhi-dong, as well as open areas for children to play in. Accommodation in Yonhi-dong is less expensive than in areas such as Hannam-dong and Itaewon-dong, and the Seoul Foreign School and the British School are nearby.

Healthcare in Seoul

The standard of healthcare in Seoul is equal to that of most Western cities. Many of the city's hospitals and international clinics have English-speaking staff and high-quality medical services.

South Korea's National Health Insurance programme is a compulsory social insurance system that covers the whole population. Foreigners are required to register for the national scheme if they've lived in the country for six months. 

Doctors and specialists will claim most of the costs of a consultation from the NHI, and expats will have to pay only a portion of the cost. Prescription medication and traditional medicine (including acupuncture) are also covered, and will therefore also incur small costs.

Although they can't be found attached to hospitals, pharmacies in Seoul are plentiful and easy to find throughout the city. While 24-hour pharmacies are rare, there are many pharmacies that are open from 7am to 11pm.

Unlike many Western countries that use the medical cross symbol, Korean pharmacies, called yak-guk, are usually indicated by the yak symbol prominently displayed at the front of the store.


Hospitals in Seoul

Apart from Western-style hospitals, there is also a wide range of Eastern medicine hospitals that cater to those who wish to relieve their symptoms through more holistic practices such as acupuncture. Many of the universities in Seoul have hospitals attached and there are a number of private clinics as well.

Some of the most reputable hospitals in Seoul include:

Asan Medical Center

Websitewww.eng.amc.seoul.kr
Address: 88 Olympic-ro 43-gil, Songpa-gu

Jaseng Hospital of Korean Medicine

Websitewww.jaseng.net
Address: 536, Gangnam-daero, Gangnam-gu

Gangnam St Mary’s Hospital

Websitewww.cmcseoul.or.kr
Address: 222 Banpo-Daero, Seocho-gu

Samsung Medical Center

Websitewww.samsunghospital.com
Address: 81 Irwon-Ro, Gangnam-gu

Seoul National University Hospital

Websitewww.snuh.org
Address: 101, Daehak-Ro, Jongno-gu

Severance Hospital

Website: www.sev.severance.healthcare
Address: 50-1, Yonsei-Ro, Seodaemun-gu 

Education and Schools in Seoul

Schools in Seoul are excellent and famed for their academic rigour. Although the fees are extremely high, most expats choose to send their children to international schools as the language of instruction in public schools is Korean, and because many expats find Korean teaching approaches to be too strict. 


Public schools in Seoul

Expats moving to Seoul rarely send their children to public schools. The Korean education system is praised for the results its students consistently produce, but very few Westerners would subject their children to the high pressured and singularly focused approach adopted by Korean public schools. Another reason for this is that Korean is the language of instruction in public schools.

Attending primary and middle school is compulsory, but high school attendance is not. In-line with this, public schooling up to the end of middle school is provided for free but parents must pay for high school attendance. 

Children usually start kindergarten at the age of three or four and then start primary school at the age of six. Students in South Korea finish school after grade 12 at the age of 18. Primary education lasts for six years followed by three years of middle school and three years of high school. 


International schools in Seoul

Expats moving to Seoul with children might find that international school fees are their greatest expense. As a result of Seoul's medium-sized diplomatic community and significant American army population, there is a wide range of international schools to choose from, many of which follow either the International Baccalaureate or the American curriculum. 

Most expats send their children to international schools to retain some continuity in their lives, but they should be aware that the South Korean culture of putting great importance on academic achievement does spill over into Seoul’s international schools to some extent. Because of this, expat children might feel more pressure to excel academically than they did in their home countries. There is also a culture of maintaining the utmost respect towards teachers which might be an adjustment for children from more relaxed teaching environments.

Expats sending their children to international schools in Seoul should explore their options as soon as possible, as schools may have long waiting lists. Expat children might also have to be interviewed before they are accepted into an international school.


Special-needs education in Seoul

By law, children in South Korea cannot be refused admission or discriminated against by any school because of disabilities. Education is also free for children with physical and intellectual disabilities from the ages of five to 18 in South Korea. 

There are 29 special-needs schools in Seoul, but many children with disabilities attend mainstream schools. Students who spend a lot of time in hospital can also study online while receiving medical treatment.

For a child to attend a school for special needs, they must first be registered as a child with a disability at their local district office. Parents can then apply at the school of their choice.

Not all international schools in Seoul cater for children with special educational needs, and expat parents should therefore check with the relevant school.


Tutoring in Seoul

Tutors can be useful for expat children transitioning into a new school environment, and can be hired for anything from general assistance with school subjects to helping maintain a child's mother tongue or helping them to learn Korean. Differences in education systems may result in expat children being behind in some areas of their new curriculum, and tutors are an excellent way to catch up.

Tutoring in South Korea is a huge industry, so expats will have plenty of choices. Expats should research different options thoroughly before deciding on a tutor. Tutoring can be done one-on-one, through online classes and videos, or by attending a hagwon (private after school academy). Many schools will have a list of tutors or hagwons they can recommend.

International schools in Seoul

Seoul is home to a sizeable diplomatic community as well as a significant population of US Army personnel and their accompanying families. To meet the demands of educating their children, there is a wide range of international schools in Seoul. Because of the large US expat community, a number of these schools follow the American curriculum. That said, there are also schools following British, French and German curricula, to name a few.

Expat parents should research and apply to international schools well in advance. Space is limited at these schools, so competition for admission is fierce. International schools are also notoriously expensive and expats will need to figure this into their cost of living. On a positive note, these schools usually have small classes which ensures children get individual attention. The standard of education is also typically high. 

Below is a list of prominent international schools in Seoul.


International schools in Seoul

Asia Pacific International School 

Gender: Co-educational 
Curriculum: American 
Ages: 3 to 18 
Website: www.apis.org

Dwight School Seoul

Gender: Co-educational
Curriculum: International Baccalaureate
Ages: 3 to 18
Website: www.dwight.or.kr

ECLC International Kindergarten

Gender: Co-educational
Curriculum: International Early Years Curriculum
Ages: 2 to 6
Website: www.eclcseoul.com

Kids of the Nations International School

Gender: Co-educational
Curriculum: Montessori
Ages: 2 to 7
Website: www.koniskorea.com

The Korea Kent Foreign School

Gender: Co-educational
Curriculum: International Baccalaureate
Ages: 5 to 18
Website: www.kkfs.org

The Korea International School

Gender: Co-educational
Curriculum: American
Ages: 3 to 18
Website: www.kis.or.kr

The Namsan International Kindergarten

Gender: Co-educational
Curriculum: International Baccalaureate
Ages: 2 to 6
Website: www.nikseoul.org

Yongsan International School of Seoul

Gender: Co-educational
Curriculum: American
Ages: 5 to 18
Website: www.yisseoul.org

Lifestyle in Seoul

A vibrant, bustling atmosphere pervades every aspect of life in Seoul. Whether an experienced employee in one of the city's embassies or a young teacher in search of new experiences, the Korean capital accommodates almost anybody regardless of their taste in music, shopping or sport.


Shopping in Seoul

Whether on the lookout for budget buys or designer labels, there are many shopping districts in Seoul. Areas such as Myeong-dong and Dongdaemun house large assortments of international brands and reasonably priced boutiques. The more upmarket Gangnam District and Apgujeong have huge department stores and a number of restaurants. 

Another area with notable shopping options is Itaewon. Popular with US servicemen stationed in South Korea, the area boasts a variety of shops, restaurants, tailors and designer products largely aimed at a Western market. 

Technophiles will be in their element in Seoul, as it has some of the largest electronics markets in Asia.

For general grocery shopping, there are a few stores such as Costco which provide Western goods. The area of Itaewon is home to other stores that provide Western favourites, as well as some English bookstores.


Nightlife and entertainment in Seoul

Itaewon is a popular area for restaurants, bars and nightclubs and the areas around Hongik University in Sinchon, as well as the Gangnam District, are other fun locales to spend an evening in.

Korean restaurants are found on every city block but anyone looking for a traditional Korean dining experience should head to Insadong. Even expats with unadventurous palates, but who are willing to experiment, will find something to enjoy.  

Street performers and independent theatres can be found in the areas around Hyehwa and the Hansung University. There are also numerous annual festivals happening in Seoul, as well as the international film festivals held in both Busan and Jeonju.


Outdoor activities and sports in Seoul

Expats will find a fair amount of outdoor activities in Seoul. Many residents choose to get their fresh air along the Han River, which cuts through the middle of the city. At various spots along the river, expats will be able to find picnic spots, basketball courts and bicycle hire stations, which also offer tandem bikes for couples.

The Seoul Grand Park and Zoo are easily accessed by subway and make for a great day out for the family, offering a combination of exotic animals, plants, an amusement park and cable car. 

The Seoul Forest is also a major attraction, occupying a massive tract of land in the middle of the city. The area has developed from being royal hunting grounds, a military inspection facility and golf course, to housing several naturally themed parks in one area. Visitors have the opportunity to see local fauna and flora, go bird watching or enjoy themselves at the Hangang River Waterside Park.

The mountains that surround Seoul are some of the most beautiful in the country, and hiking is a popular Korean pastime. The Gwanaksan, Achasan and Bukhansan Mountains are all a convenient subway ride away and offer spectacular views of the city.

Active expats can also enjoy a variety of social clubs and facilities all over the city. Prominent among these is the Korea Social Sports, which facilitates unisex football (soccer) and kickball leagues at different experience levels.

Weekend Breaks in Seoul

Expats just arriving in Seoul may struggle to see why someone would want to leave the city. With such a variety of trendy cafés, shows, eateries, and cultural events, Seoul can certainly keep any expat satisfied.

That said, the thrill of exploring local neighbourhoods may subside after a while. Expats could find themselves needing a break from the crowded streets and air pollution that comes with living in the city.

Luckily, heading out of Seoul for the weekend is easier than ever due to South Korea's many transportation options. The country is well connected with buses, trains, and high-speed trains, making it possible for visitors to cross the country in as little as three-and-a-half hours. Without much effort, expats can visit beaches, traditional cities, or even Japan. 


Weekend breaks from Seoul

Busan

As the second largest Korean city, Busan is a popular weekend destination for many expats. The city is known for its beaches, seafood markets and cultural villages. Being in the south, Busan also boasts great weather.

Those travelling on a budget can get to Busan by taking an inter-city bus. There are various buses to choose from with the most expensive being the ‘premium buses’. That said, even the most expensive bus ticket is still cheaper than the high-speed trains. Buses typically depart from Gyeongbu Bus Terminal and the trip takes about five hours, with stops along the way.

Top expat destinations in Busan include Gwangalli and Haeundae beach, with the aquarium at Haeundae beach being a great spot for expats travelling with children. Expats looking for cultural experiences can visit Haedong Yonggungsa, the only seaside temple in Korea, and Gamcheon cultural village. Food-driven travellers should definitely stop at the Gukje Market for a true taste of Korean street food, or the Jagalchi Market to experience seafood Korean style.

Gyeongju

Expats hoping to learn about South Korean history will find the ancient capital, Gyeongju, fascinating. A day trip to Gyeongju will allow expats to learn about the cultures and traditions of the ancient Silla Kingdom, as well as it being a great getaway for those wanting to unwind and escape the skyscrapers and noise of the larger South Korean cities.

The town’s historic area was designated a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site in 2000 and has since been referred to as “the museum without walls”. Some of the top sites in Gyeongju include the Donggung palace, Wolji pond, Gyochon Hanok Village, and Bulguksa temple. While Gyeongju is easy to navigate on foot or bicycle, sites that are further away can be accessed by taxi or by taking a local bus. 

While in Gyeongju, expats can sleep in traditional houses or rooms called Hanok, and it is also the perfect place to book a photoshoot while wearing Hanbok (traditional Korean dress).

 Jeonju

Jeonju is the birthplace of the traditional dish bibimbap that is made with beef, rice and seasonal vegetables. Jeonju is particularly famous for its raw beef bibimbap. In 2012, the city was designated a UNESCO City of Gastronomy. Aside from food, however, Jeonju also has many historic sites to see.

The main attractions in Jeonju are mostly situated in one area, making the city manageable by foot. To reach Jeonju, however, the fastest but most expensive way to travel is by taking the KTX high-speed train from Seoul. Alternatively, expats who aren't in a rush also have the option of travelling by bus, which will take just under three hours.

Japan

A trip to Japan is definitely one of the most popular travel options for expats in Seoul. This is especially true for long weekends or extended public holidays such as Chuseok (the annual harvest festival that usually takes place in September or October). 

What makes travelling to Japan so easy is the fact that many expats won’t need a visa. Expats from the UK, USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia are entitled to 90 days visa free and will get their passport stamped on arrival. It is advisable for expats to double-check whether or not they would need a visa before planning this trip.

One popular Japanese city that is easily accessible from South Korea is Fukuoka. Flights from Seoul to Fukuoka take about an hour and a half and can be relatively cheap. Expats who have more time on their hands or who live in the southern provinces, however, should consider taking a ferry. The ferry from Busan to Fukuoka takes around three hours, is cheaper than flying and is a unique adventure.

Fukuoka is known for its parks, shrines and castles. There are also many shopping options and a robot museum.

See and Do in Seoul

The people of Seoul have seamlessly married their ancient traditions with their desire to live in one of the most technologically advanced and modern cities in the world. Consequently, there are almost limitless opportunities for any kind of person looking for things to see and do in Seoul.


Recommended attractions in Seoul

The ancient city wall and gates

If expats want to explore Seoul's history, a hike along the old city wall is an excellent way to get a history lesson and some truly amazing views of the city. The wall snakes along the mountains around Seoul and impresses upon expats how strategically and well defended the city was in ancient times. 

The four great city gates of Seoul (Sukjeongmun, Heunginjimun, Sungnyemun, and Sungnyemun) have all been lovingly preserved. Originally, Seoul was a completely closed off city and could only be entered or exited either through one of these four main gates or through four of the smaller, lesser gates. This walk offers views of the city that can’t be found anywhere else.

The Great Palaces of Seoul

Korean palaces contain some of the most unique architecture in the world. Ancient Korean design ensured that palaces complemented the surrounding nature but, due to Korea being controlled at different times by both China and Japan, the marriage of Chinese, Japanese and Korean palace styles has created something wholly unique. 

There are five different palaces (Gyeongbokgung, Changgyeonggung, Changdeokgung, Deoksugung and Gyeonghuigung) in Seoul. Each of them was constructed during different eras in Korean history, with each exhibiting varied styles of Korean architecture.

Namsangol and Bukchon Hanok villages

The two largest Hanok villages are Bukchon and Namsangol. They are traditionally styled residential areas, have been either constructed or preserved in order to give both Koreans and visitors a sense of what life was like in old Seoul. Bukchon gives a feel of the ancient city with winding streets, small businesses and still functioning homes. Namsangol is more of a museum to showcase the rural aspects of Korean life and is surrounded by a serene park.

Bukhansan and Namsan Mountains

Every weekend the subways of Seoul are filled with middle-aged Koreans flocking to one of the many mountains surrounding the city. Bukhansan mountain is extremely popular, with the widest variety of hiking trails and views. A hike up Namsan is also extremely doable and offers spectacular views of the city.  

Hangang Park

There's no better place to people-watch than in Seoul’s parks. The largest, Hangang Park, runs the entire length of the Han River on both sides. Though sorely in need of more trees, it's excellent for a picnic, a game of Frisbee or just relaxing and watching people walk by.

National Museum of Korea

The National Museum of Korea is the largest museum in Seoul. It houses a combination of traditional art and history, and regularly hosts international exhibits. Traditional Korean art is wholly unique to the peninsula, and the museum is curated to provide an art history lesson for those unfamiliar with Korean art.

Leeum Art Museum

The Leeum Art Museum is the most architecturally striking museum in Seoul. It boasts a diverse collection of ancient Korean pottery as well as modern installations and sculptures. 

Samcheong-dong

The largest concentration of galleries in Seoul can be found in Samcheong-dong. The modern galleries of this area provide a wonderful overview of modern Korean art. Expats could easily spend an entire day walking through this neighbourhood, popping in and out of galleries and cafes. This is one of the reasons why the unique neighbourhood is a popular dating spot for young and trendy Koreans.

What's On in Seoul

Seoul is a vibrant cultural hub that hosts a plethora of cultural festivals as well as world-class performing arts and creative events throughout the year. That said, expats shouldn't restrict themselves to the Korean capital, as South Korea's compact size and excellent public transport network mean that visitors can explore the rest of the country with relative ease.

Other large cities such as Busan and Incheon are only a few hours away by express train, and also host a number of festivals and events throughout the year.


Annual events in Seoul

New Year Festival (January/February)

A three-day festival celebrating the lunar new year, also called Seollal, is hosted by the National Folk Museum of Korea in Seoul every year. In a bid to give the festival more international appeal, the museum hosts live performances, instrument demonstrations, traditional outfits and food from around the world for visitors to sample.

Cherry Blossom Festivals (April)

Cherry and other fruit trees bloom in March and April. Many towns across the country celebrate the coming of spring by holding flower festivals. The Seokcheon Lake Cherry Blossom Festival, Yeouido Spring Flower Festival and Icheon Baeksa Sansuyu Blossom Festival are all held in mid-April and are within easy reach of Seoul. Together, they attract millions of tourists each year.

Lotus Lantern Festival (May)

According to Buddhist beliefs, the lighting of the lotus-shaped lantern symbolises a desire or commitment to doing good deeds. Held every May on the weekend closest to Buddha's birthday, this festival takes place in downtown Seoul and sees many live performances, food stalls, arts and crafts tents, and a parade of thousands of elaborate lanterns – some small, some enormous, some in motion and some even breathing fire.

Seoul International New Media Festival (July/August)

The Seoul International New Media Festival (NeMaf) is Korea's leading film festival. Since its inception in 2000, it has continued to celebrate independent and experimental films while pushing the boundaries between film and art.

Seoul Fringe Festival (August)

The biggest independent performing arts festival in Korea, the Seoul Fringe Festival sees two weeks of voluntary performances by participating artists. The aim is to offer an alternative to mainstream popular Korean culture by challenging traditional boundaries and creating a platform for discussion and exploration.

Seoul Street Arts Festival (October)

The Seoul Street Arts Festival is the biggest street festival in the city, attracting around a million visitors every year. The festival is a favourite with locals and tourists alike and sees a variety of live performances, concerts and other activities take place over the course of four to five days.

Seoul International Fireworks Festival (October)

This multimedia fireworks display is held every year in October on the banks of the Han River. Fireworks are set to spectacular displays of music and lasers, with displays orchestrated by Korean fireworks experts and international professionals, all set against the backdrop of the Seoul skyline. Attendance is free and the festivities are within walking distance of the subway.

Seoul Drum Festival (October)

The Seoul Drum Festival features displays of drums, performances, a parade, workshops and markets. The highlight is an international percussion competition, where professionals and amateurs gather to showcase drum skills with a variety of instruments, styles and genres.

Frequently Asked Questions about Seoul

Expats moving to Seoul usually have many questions, often about what to expect from life in their new home. Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about living in Seoul.

How bad is the pollution in Seoul?

Seoul, like most Asian cities, has its fair share of pollution. Many South Koreans wear face masks to protect themselves from pollution and potential illness. During spring, clouds of yellow dust settle over Seoul. It's strongly advised that everyone going outdoors wears a face mask. Yellow dust originates in China and contains a number of industrial pollutants as well as fine soil particles. The Seoul Metropolitan Government does make a concerted effort to keep the city green.

Is public transport available 24 hours a day?

While there are some forms of transport available in Seoul, the subway and regular public bus system close at midnight or just after. The 'Owl Busses' then take over from 1am to 4am. These buses only drive eight routes, however, and those needing to go elsewhere may need to consider taking a taxi. Metered taxis are always available and many of the drivers understand some English. They are cheap for short trips but can be expensive over a longer distance. Ubers have also recently returned to Seoul and expats can therefore also order an Uber to get them wherever they need to go in the city. 

Is it easy to get out of Seoul for a weekend?

South Korea has an extensive road and rail network which makes it easy to get out of the city. There are many mountain parks a few hours from Seoul, which have well-maintained facilities and hiking trails. All of the smaller towns in Korea have relatively inexpensive accommodation and a host of Korean restaurants to choose from. Travelling to some of the very small villages will require some knowledge of spoken and written Korean, but locals are typically friendly and are always willing to help.

What is Seoul like for children?

Although Seoul is a significantly large city, it's a fun place for children. There are lots of public parks with playground equipment. There also are ample cinemas and amusement park areas such as Lotte World. Korean culture values children and locals often dote on Western kids. As such, Seoul is a very child-friendly city and it is a safe place to raise a family. 

There are also plenty of public and international schools in the city. Expats generally choose to send their children to international schools, as the language of instruction at public schools is Korean. There are many American and International Baccalaureate curriculum schools, as well as some Japanese and Chinese schools in the city. These schools come at a high cost but expats may be able to negotiate a school allowance into their contract. 

Getting Around in Seoul

The best way of getting around in Seoul is by using public transport. Although the city isn't as congested as Shanghai or Bangkok, it has its fair share of traffic jams that cause significant delays.

The extensive subway system in Seoul means that there's usually a subway stop within a 10-minute walk of any destination, and its public buses are also an efficient way to get around. Street signs and subway signs in Seoul are usually written in both English and Korean. 


Public transport in Seoul

Expats will easily be able to take advantage of integrated public transit in Seoul. Commuters are able to get almost anywhere in the city using the subway and buses. They're also able to take advantage of initiatives such as the rechargeable T-money card, which offers lower rates than purchasing single-ticket rides and can be used on Seoul's metro and bus systems.

Metro

The subway system in Seoul is extensive, clean and efficient, and can be used to get around most of the city. Passengers need a subway or T-money card to use the system, which can be bought at subway stations and some stores.

Buses

In addition to the subway, there is an extensive public bus system in Seoul. Buses are colour-coordinated depending on their circuit: green buses travel only around their own neighbourhoods, blue buses go between neighbourhoods across town, yellow buses do short circuits around tourist areas and red buses go to different cities. Passengers pay when they get onto the bus with their T-money cards.


Taxis in Seoul

There are two types of taxis in Seoul. Black taxis with a yellow sign are luxury taxis that are more expensive than regular cabs but which provide a better service. Silver taxis are regular taxis and are cheaper. Most drivers don't speak English, so it's a good idea to have a Korean friend or colleague write the destination down in Korean to show the driver. 

Some taxis advertise a free call-in interpretation service which English-speaking passengers can use to establish a fare before they go or to explain where they want to go. It's also sometimes possible to use a T-money card to pay for a trip if the passenger remembers to swipe it at the start and end of the journey. 

Alternatively, local app-based ride-hailing service called Kakao Taxi allows expats to order a taxi service to their exact address. Many expats prefer using this and similar apps as they allow for automatic credit card billing as well as greater control over their route. Expats will need a basic understanding of Korean or know their destination in Korean to use this app.

After a previous banning, Uber has recently returned to Seoul and expats can therefore also use the Uber app to get around the city.


Driving in Seoul

Many expats find that owning a car in South Korea is unnecessary or even best avoided – especially if they don't plan to do much travelling in the countryside.

There are plenty of car rental companies, including well-known international names, that expats can use if wanting to take a trip out of the city by private car. For inner-city travel, however, parking is often difficult to find and navigating the heavy traffic can be troublesome.


Walking in Seoul

Although Seoul is large and densely populated, there is usually a subway stop within a 10-minute walk of anywhere an expat might want to go within the city. As a result, it's possible to navigate the city through a combination of walking and riding the subway. 

The city itself occupies a relatively large area, making it impossible to cover more than a tiny portion of it on foot. The networks of roads and back alleys can also be confusing to travel through, so it's best for walking expats to orientate themselves by taking note of major landmarks.