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Moving to South Korea

Expats moving to South Korea will discover a fiercely competitive modern country that is still steeped in ancient history and tradition. As the home of tech giants such as Samsung and LG Electronics, South Korea has a tech-centric economy. Fittingly, the country consistently ranks as having the fastest internet in the world, ahead of both Hong Kong and Japan. Not only is this useful for doing business in South Korea, but it also helps expats keep in touch with family and friends back home.

Most foreigners find employment teaching English in Korean schools or working in electronics, finance, IT and production. Many expats also move to Seoul, the country's capital, its most densely populated city and the chief industrial centre. Of the estimated 51 million people who call South Korea home, around 25 million live in the Seoul Metropolitan Area. As with many Asian cities, it's dominated by high-rise buildings and apartment blocks. Between all the high-tech, modern buildings, however, is an interesting array of temples, palaces and museums, all conveniently connected by Seoul’s efficient subway system.

The extensive road, rail and ferry transport systems in South Korea connect its nine provinces. Similar to Japan’s bullet train, the KTX and SRT connect Seoul, Daejeon, Daegu and Busan – the cities most popular with expats – and enables passengers to hurtle from Seoul in the north to Busan in the south in about three hours. 

The healthcare system in South Korea is as advanced as its transport network. The country is at the forefront of medical research and constantly strives to push the boundaries of medical knowledge. Similarly, the standard of education in South Korea is also high, with a number of foreign language and international schools in Seoul and other major cities, as well as in some smaller towns. Living standards are also high and, although accommodation is expensive, the cost of living is reasonable. 

South Korean cuisine is very different from Asian foods that expats are often familiar with and may initially challenge their palates. Perseverance is crucial, however, since there are many regional delicacies worth sampling, although Western food is also readily available in larger cities.

South Koreans enjoy entertainment, and the country's nightlife is fantastic, especially in the larger cities. There are a number of cultural festivals celebrated throughout the year and the country has a bustling music scene that frequently attracts international stars.

Politically, South Korea does not enjoy a good relationship with its neighbour, North Korea. However, this rarely affects ordinary people going about their daily business.

Despite certain challenges, Korean culture is intriguing and rewards deeper understanding. South Korea is an incredibly safe country with low crime rates, and expats can expect a warm welcome from locals and other foreigners. 


Fast facts

Population: Over 51 million 

Capital city: Seoul (also largest city)

Neighbouring countries: North Korea, Japan and China

Geography: The country shares a border with North Korea to the north. It's separated from China by the Yellow Sea to the east, and Japan by the Sea of Japan. 

Political system: Presidential constitutional republic

Major religions: Christianity, Buddhism, but largely secular

Main languages: Korean (Hangul). English is not widely spoken.

Money: The South Korean Won (KRW), divided into 100 jeon. The banking system in South Korea is modern and efficient and ATMs can be found almost anywhere. 

Tipping: It isn't usual to tip in South Korea. Top restaurants and luxury hotels sometimes add a service charge of 10 percent to the bill.

Time: GMT +9

Electricity: 220 volts, 60Hz. 'Type C' and 'type F' rounded, two-pin plugs are used. Adapters are widely available at the airport and city convenience stores.

Internet domain: .kr

International dialling code: +82

Emergency contacts: 112 (police), 1345 (foreigner information service), 119 (fire and ambulance)

Transport and driving: Cars drive on the right. South Korea has a reliable and efficient transport system, with buses and taxis in all cities, and metro stations in the main cities. 

Weather in South Korea

South Koreans pride themselves on their country’s very distinctive and beautiful four seasons. The country has a continental climate of very cold, dry winters and very humid, hot summers, with short, mild spring and autumn months in between.

Summers tend to be rainy at first with high humidity levels towards the middle of the season. Summer generally arrives suddenly in late June and ends in September. This season is marked by warm, moist winds from the Pacific. The monsoon season also begins in June and runs until July. While South Korea doesn't experience extreme monsoons like those in Southeast Asia, southern South Korea does experience a lot of rain during this time.

Autumn, from late September through to November, is spectacularly beautiful in the mountainous areas as leaves turn vivid shades of red, orange and gold. The season lasts longer for southern cities like Busan than it does in the north.

Starting in December, winters tend to be quite harsh, particularly as one moves further north. Temperatures drop to below freezing, with icy winds blowing across the country from Siberia. The north, especially in Seoul and in the mountains, experiences snowfall, while the milder south coast rarely does. 

Spring occurs in late March and early April and is considered the most pleasant time to visit the country. As in neighbouring Japan, South Korea hosts cherry blossom festivals each spring. These blooms attract visitors from across the country.

 
 

Embassy Contacts for South Korea

South Korean embassies

  • South Korean Embassy, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 939 5600

  • South Korean Embassy, London, United Kingdom: +44 20 7227 5500

  • South Korean Embassy, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 244 5010

  • South Korean Embassy, Canberra, Australia: +61 2 6270 4100

  • South Korean Embassy, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 12 460 2508

  • South Korean Embassy, Dublin, Ireland: +353 1 660 8800

  • South Korean Embassy, Wellington, New Zealand: +64 4 473 9073


Foreign embassies in South Korea

  • United States Embassy, Seoul: +82 2 397 4114

  • British Embassy, Seoul: +82 2 3210 5500

  • Canadian Embassy, Seoul: +82 2 3783 6000

  • Australian Embassy, Seoul: +82 2 2003 0100

  • South African Embassy, Seoul: +82 2 2007 5900

  • Irish Embassy, Seoul: +82 2 721 7200

  • New Zealand Embassy, Seoul: +82 2 3701 7700

Public Holidays in South Korea

 

2020

2021

New Year’s Day

1 January

1 January

Seollal

24-27 February

11-13 February

Independence Movement Day

1 March

1 March

Children's Day

5 May

5 May

Buddha's Birthday

30 April

19 May

Memorial Day

6 June

6 June

Liberation Day

15 August

15 August

Chuseok

30 September - 2 October

20-22 September

National Foundation Day

3 October

3 October

Hangeul Day

9 October

9 October

Christmas Day

25 December

25 December

Safety in South Korea

Most expatriates find South Korea to be a very safe country. The main threats to personal safety that expats will come across are either related to the weather or petty crimes such as pickpocketing in crowded marketplaces.

Generally, the risk of terrorism in South Korea is considered low, although tensions between North and South Korea mean that foreign residents should keep up to date with the political situation by following news media.

Local laws for some crimes may be harsher than Western expats may be used to. For example, any car accident involving a motorcyclist or pedestrian that is injured could see the driver prosecuted, even if they weren’t at fault.

Expats should especially take care when driving around South Korea's cities as motorcycles, scooters and pedestrians can behave erratically.

As it's likely that expats will need to undergo a medical check on arrival if they plan to work in South Korea, it is important to keep in mind that drug use or possession isn't tolerated and the results of a drug test could result in detainment or deportation. 


Crime in South Korea

The crime rate in South Korea is low, although there are incidents of bag-snatching, pickpocketing and petty theft in larger cities such as Seoul and Busan. As with any major city, there are some areas which are considered unsafe at certain times, although for the most part cities such as Seoul are safer than large American cities.

Expats should follow normal safety precautions such as locking doors, being aware of personal belongings in crowded areas and tourist hotspots, avoiding walking alone at night through isolated areas, and only using reputable taxi companies.


Women in South Korea

In general, South Korea is extremely safe for female expats. It is even possible to walk around late at night without feeling scared. However, inappropriate touching and comments are a reality.

It's not uncommon for Korean men to follow expat women around, especially when they've been drinking. There have also been cases of men exposing themselves to women on subways or buses or touching women inappropriately. In most cases, these men will back off when ignored or if they're firmly told to stop. The South Korean police are also helpful with these situations and are usually more than happy to escort women home if they're feeling uncomfortable.


Natural disasters in South Korea

June to November is monsoon season in South Korea. Although monsoons in Korea aren't as bad as they are in some other Asian countries, schools and businesses sometimes close due to the severity of approaching storms, but this is generally restricted to southern parts of the country. Expats visiting the country during the monsoon season should monitor weather reports from news media and stay indoors if advised to do so.

Though South Korea isn't known for earthquakes, the southern part of the country has had a few minor ones in recent years.


Political tensions between South Korea and North Korea

There is a long-standing political stand-off between the two halves of the Korean Peninsula. Although tensions are occasionally inflamed, in reality, there's little chance of the situation escalating to the point that it affects expatriates. Expats should keep abreast of the political situation by following the news media, just to be on the safe side.

Expats who intend to live, study or work in South Korea are also advised to register with their country's closest embassy.


Emergency telephone numbers in South Korea

Emergency response is swift and call centres usually have someone on staff who can speak some English.

  • Police: 112

  • Foreigner emergency information service: 1345

  • Ambulance and fire: 119

Working in South Korea

One of the four Asian Tigers along with Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, the Republic of Korea is unique in that it's globally recognised as both a developed and an emerging market. The fourth-largest economy in Asia, it's home to companies of international stature.

Although it's known for being one of the world’s largest exporters of cars, smartphones and ships, most expats working in South Korea do so as English teachers at one of its public schools or privately run institutions known as hagwons.

Most expat job opportunities can be found in major cities and industrial zones such as Seoul, Busan and Incheon. While speaking Korean isn't required for teaching English, expats who are interested in higher-level corporate jobs will have an advantage if they can speak the local language as well as other Asian languages, particularly Mandarin or Japanese.

Most companies in South Korea offer good relocation packages to their employees. Benefits often include a furnished apartment or a generous housing allowance, flights home each year and a thirteenth cheque. Expats hired from overseas can generally expect airfare reimbursements but those hired from within the country may not get this benefit.


Job market in South Korea

With massive local brands such as Hyundai, Kia, LG and Samsung, it is easy to understand why such a small country has such a large economy. Aside from teaching English, large numbers of expats also work for the US Armed Forces, with a growing number of foreigners in high-level management, information and communications technology, and engineering.

Some of the largest employers in South Korea are in fields such as electronics, biotechnology, microchip production, shipbuilding, chemical production, steelmaking and automobile manufacturing. It also has a respectable financial services industry, with the Shinhan Financial Group especially prominent among these.


Working in rural South Korea

With high competition in the larger cities, many expats look for employment in the Korean countryside, especially in the teaching industry. This usually proves to be a completely different experience from, for instance, working in Seoul.

While the countryside is often more beautiful and less congested, amenities aren't as widely available and the language barrier tends to be more pronounced for non-Korean speakers.  


Finding a job in South Korea

Most expats find a job before relocating and finding employment through the many job portals available online is the most common way of doing this. 

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. This means that expats may not be aware of exactly who they will be employed by, which may be an issue as some schools are more reputable than others.

Otherwise, expats looking for employment in South Korea can search through job listings in English language publications such as the Korea Herald and The Korea Times

Expats should also be warned that work permit regulations can and often do change, meaning that information sources should be carefully considered and compared to the latest official information. Finding a job from inside South Korea often becomes complicated, and expats should note that while visa runs do happen, they are in fact illegal. 

Doing Business in South Korea

Korean society is more homogeneous than most and, as a result, foreign investors and expat employees wanting to do business in South Korea are expected to adjust and conform.

According to The World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings for 2020, South Korea came fifth out of 190 countries. It scored particularly highly on enforcing contracts (2nd), getting electricity (2nd), and resolving insolvency (11th). In the categories of getting credit and registering property, the country fell outside of the top 30.

While most expats wanting to work in South Korea do not start a business or need to register property, they still have challenges to address. This includes overcoming the language barrier, adapting to the nuances of local business culture and avoiding social faux pas that could make the difference between success and failure in the Korean business world.


Fast facts

Business hours

Officially 9am to 6pm, Monday to Friday. Legislation has limited the maximum working week to 52 hours, but it's still common for employees to work for longer hours than this.

Business language

Korean but English is often spoken at a senior level. Translators can be hired, if necessary. 

Dress

Koreans take dressing well seriously and modesty and subtlety are values that inform business dress. Wearing a suit is almost always a safe choice for men. Women should avoid wearing revealing clothing.

Gifts

Gift-giving is common practice. Gifts should be given and received with both hands and should not be opened in the presence of the giver. If someone receives a gift, they should reciprocate with a gift of similar value. Gifts are best wrapped in bright colours and not dark colours or red. Avoid giving expensive gifts as the receiver will feel obliged to reciprocate. Gifts in sets of four, knives or scissors should also be avoided as these are seen as symbols of death.

Gender equality

Although gender relations are becoming more equitable, men still dominate the Korean workplace. Foreign businesswomen are expected to behave in an elegant, refined and 'feminine' manner.

Greetings

Men in South Korea often greet each other with a slight bow accompanied by a handshake. Supporting the right forearm with the left hand is seen as a sign of respect. Some Korean women may not shake hands with Western men, while Western women often do offer their hand to Korean men.


Business culture in South Korea

Traditional social practices and etiquette still have an important role in South Korean business. Personal relationships, hierarchy and saving face are all major factors in the Korean work environment. 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.

Meetings

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. Expats should not be surprised if no business is discussed at their first meeting and should not try to rush things along. Despite this, workers are expected to be on time for meetings and social engagements.

Social situations

Dinner invitations, after dinner drinks and karaoke are also likely to feature at some point and should not be turned down. At occasions such as these, it's common for people to fill each other’s drinks. It's considered bad manners for someone to refuse a drink if their glass is empty. The way to get around this is to leave a bit at the bottom of the glass. Korean hosts always appreciates a spirited karaoke performance, regardless of how good their voice is.

Names

Names in South Korea work in reverse to the West. A person’s family name comes first, followed by a two-part given name. The first of these given names is given to all family members of a single generation, while the second is the individual’s given name. For example, if a man's family name is Park and first name is Min-Jun, he would be called Park Min-Jun.

Saving face

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. In doing so and by controlling their emotions, an individual maintains their own honour and dignity.

This affects business dealings in tangible ways. For instance, disagreements are rarely solved by direct confrontation while rejection is rarely delivered through a simple 'no'. Instead, rejections may be communicated through delays and ambiguous answers such as 'maybe later'.

Hierarchy

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.

Exchanging business cards

Business people in South Korea usually exchange business cards when they meet for the first time. So, it's important for expats who are new to the country to have a large enough supply of their personal business cards. These should contain the expat’s job title, with an accompanying Korean translation printed on one side. When exchanging cards, they should be both given and received with both hands. 


Dos and don’ts of business in South Korea

  • Do expect Koreans to ask personal questions, as they are showing polite interest

  • Do give an enthusiastic performance at karaoke bars

  • Do protest slightly when paid a compliment

  • Do be prepared for negotiations to take time

  • Don't talk about politics or belittle Korean culture

  • Don't expect a direct negative answer from Korean people if they can’t help or don’t know

  • Don't make small talk about North Korea

Visas for South Korea

Foreigners from a visa-exempt country, staying less than 30 days won't need a visa to visit South Korea. This list includes the USA, South Africa, Australia, Canada, the UK and most EU countries.

Expats wanting to stay longer or work in South Korea will need a visa. South Korea issues a range of visas that are grouped alphabetically, depending on what the applicant intends to do in the country. Some of the more commonly issued visas for South Korea are listed here.


Visas for South Korea

Tourist (B-2) visa

Nationals of countries that don't have visa-free entry and want to travel to South Korea will need to secure a B-2 visa. Generally, tourists on a B-2 visa must use the Incheon International Airport, Gimhae International Airport, Yangyang International Airport, Cheongju International Airport or the Muan International Airport to enter South Korea. Travellers will need a passport valid for at least six months beyond the date of arrival, two passport photos, a completed visa application form and the visa fee.

Student (D-2) visa

Student (D-2) visas are for those wanting to study at a tertiary level in South Korea. Applicants will need a letter of acceptance from a recognised Korean institution, certified copies of degree and diploma certificates, proof of funds and some other supporting documentation. It's important to note that students on this visa may not work full time.

Foreign Language Instructor (E-2) visa

This is for expats wanting to work in Korea as teachers of English or other languages for primary school level and above. The regulations for this class of visa are strict. Applicants will need to provide various documents which may include an original employment contract and letter from the school, official academic transcripts, personal reference letters, original degree certificates, an apostilled criminal record clearance certificate, medical clearance and a completed visa application form. 

Note that applicants need to have a tertiary degree, and be a native resident of the country whose mother tongue is the same as the language they will teach, to apply for this visa. 

Candidates who are applying for the first time will probably need to schedule an interview at their nearest South Korean embassy or consulate. The visa is valid for one year, although a South Korean work permit will also have to be applied for once they have arrived.

Instructors invited by the Ministry of Education have additional requirements, including an original employment contract from the superintendent of Educational Affairs in South Korea.

Special Profession (E-5) visas

Expats applying for an E-5 visa will need to have a certificate of qualification that is recognised under Korean law. It's aimed at candidates such as airline pilots, doctors, hospital interns and residents, and those hired as essential staff for shipping services.

In general, those seeking employment will need to provide proof of employment, certificates of degrees or other qualifications, and professional reference letters. 

Specially Designated Activity (E-7) visas

Specially designated activity visas (E-7) are for candidates who are qualified in certain in-demand fields. This includes top-level executives, various kinds of engineers and certain IT professionals. 

As is the case with special profession visas, applicants will need to provide proof of employment, certificates of degrees or other qualifications and professional reference letters. 

Permanent Residence (F-5) visas

Permanent residence visas can be applied for at the outset by foreign high investors who have invested a certain amount in the country and who've hired at least five Korean workers. Foreigners with superior skills in fields such as science, business administration and education will also be considered. Expats who have lived in South Korea for longer than five years may also apply for permanent residence. 

The basic items that may be required include a passport that's valid for at least six months, a passport-sized colour photo with a date stamp which has been taken within the preceding six months. High investors will require a certified copy of their corporation register as well as proof of having hired and paid at least five Koreans employees.

Applicants working in special fields will need proof of their qualifications and letters of reference.  

Working Holiday (H1) visas

Residents of certain countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, France, Germany, Japan and Ireland, between the ages of 18 and 25 or 30, depending on the nationality, may apply for an H-1 visa. This visa is valid for one year. Applicants must show proof of onward travel and proof of funds. Those entering on this visa can engage in some employment and some educational pursuits, but the main idea is for this trip to mostly be a vacation.

*Visa regulations are subject to change at short notice and expats should contact their respective embassy or consulate for the latest details.

Cost of Living in South Korea

On paper, South Korea may seem like an expensive country to live in. In 2019, Seoul ranked 4th out of 209 cities in the Mercer Cost of Living Survey. However, South Korea boasts competitive salaries. Employment contracts also frequently cover costs like accommodation and schooling, which saves expats a lot of money monthly. Overall, the cost of living for expats in South Korea is generally quite affordable.

There are many ways to keep expenses down. The cost of public transport is low. Eating Korean food is a lot cheaper than buying Western food. Shopping at markets and smaller shops is more cost-effective than shopping in tourist hotspots or at major department stores. 

It is also worth bearing in mind that prices between cities and smaller towns will differ. The cost of living in Seoul will, on the whole, be more expensive than in other cities.


Cost of accommodation in South Korea

Accommodation in large cities like Seoul or Busan will be more expensive. Generally, accommodation in South Korea is organised and paid for by an expat's employer. However, if a foreigner chooses to organise their own accommodation, they will be expected to pay ‘key money’, which is in effect a very large deposit that the landlord earns interest from. This will make accommodation more expensive.

Basic utilities like gas, electricity and uncapped WiFi tend to be affordable.


Healthcare in South Korea

Healthcare in South Korea is much more affordable than in most Western countries like the USA. The National Health Insurance programme is compulsory for all expats. Many companies will pay half the monthly fee, leaving the other half for expats to pay themselves.

Due to the affordability of healthcare, South Korea has become a medical tourist destination. This is especially true for cosmetic procedures and LASIK eye surgery. It's quite common for expats to get their eyesight fixed at the end of a contract before going home.


Cost of electrical goods in South Korea

Electrical goods such as televisions, DVD players, digital cameras, cell phones (particularly Samsung), computers and high tech gadgets are all relatively affordable in South Korea.

On the other hand, foreign manufactured goods from toiletries (deodorant, toothpaste containing fluoride) and English-language books through to Nikon cameras and Apple products are obviously more expensive than items made locally.


Cost of food in South Korea

Foodstuffs that are mostly taken for granted in Western countries, such as fresh produce and cheese, will generally cost more in South Korea than an expat would have paid back home. Most Korean stores also sell products in bulk, making groceries for a single person quite expensive.

Overall, dining out is inexpensive if one sticks to Korean food. This often makes eating out a better option over buying groceries, especially for single expats. Naturally, dining out at Western restaurants comes with a higher price tag.


Cost of living in South Korea chart 

Prices may vary depending on product and service provider. The list below shows average prices in Seoul for January 2020.

Accommodation (rent per month)

One-bedroom apartment in city centre

KRW 920,000

Three-bedroom apartment in city centre

KRW 2,420,000

One-bedroom apartment outside of the city centre

KRW 600,000

Three-bedroom apartment outside of the city centre

KRW 1,350,000

Shopping

Eggs (dozen)

KRW 3,500

Milk (1 litre)

KRW 2,550

Rice (1kg)

KRW 4,700

Loaf of white bread

KRW 3,200

Chicken breasts (1kg)

KRW 9,700

Pack of cigarettes (Marlboro)

KRW 4,500

Eating out

Big Mac Meal

KRW 6,500

Coca-Cola (330ml)   

KRW 1,700

Cappuccino

KRW 4,800

Local beer (500ml)

KRW 4,000

Three-course meal at a mid-range restaurant for two

KRW 40,000

Utilities

Mobile-to-mobile call rate (per minute)

KRW 140

Internet (uncapped ADSL or cable  – average per month)

KRW 26,000

Basic utilities (per month for a small apartment)

KRW 200,000

Transportation

Taxi rate (per kilometre)

KRW 800

Bus/train fare in the city centre

KRW 1,250

Petrol/gasoline (per litre)

KRW 1,600

Culture Shock in South Korea

The language barrier is a source of culture shock for expats moving to South Korea. While the younger generation will probably be keen to test out their English skills on expats with a friendly greeting, most of the older people in the country speak very little to no English. A simple way to ease these situations is by brushing up on basic greetings. Also, new arrivals should adopt bowing. A bow can work as a greeting, a sign of gratitude or as an acknowledgement. South Koreans pay great respect to their elders, so expats should always bow to people who are senior to them unless they are being served by them in some way.

If someone is visibly foreign, South Koreans generally won't expect them to completely understand local social and cultural practices. Expats who have been in South Korea for a while have quickly learnt the ins and outs of the culture by observing those around them.


Cuisine in South Korea

South Korean hosts will be incredibly impressed if expats try all the food that is placed in front of them. Korean cuisine has unique tastes and aesthetics. Those with a delicate palette should build up their resilience to spicy food before they arrive, as most dishes here have a fiery or sharp flavour.

While most Western foods are available in South Korea, the local cuisine is cheaper and definitely worth a try. Vegetarians in South Korea should be aware that most of the main dishes have meat or some kind of seafood in them. A good idea for vegetarian expats is to ask a Korean friend or co-worker to write a note for them, to inform serving staff that they don't eat meat of any kind.


Trends in South Korea

Koreans are extremely fashion-conscious, a fact visible in almost every facet of daily life. New shops and eateries pop up overnight to keep up with current trends. This dynamism requires expats to be flexible in order to keep up with changes in trends. 

For the fashion-conscious, it's wise to mirror the dress code of people of a similar age. In the workplace, it's advisable to dress formally for the first week or two and then to adjust according to one’s particular work environment. Women should take note that although they can wear short skirts, no cleavage should ever be shown. Women also usually cover their shoulders.

A further adjustment that foreigners will need to make is that shoes should be taken off whenever a home is entered. Most locals keep a pair of indoor shoes which they change into after arriving at home. Some restaurants also require patrons to take off their shoes before entering the dining area. 


Space in South Korea

Another cultural aspect that takes some getting used to is the use of space. South Korean cities are crowded with apartment blocks, skyscrapers and bustling markets. Being able to adopt an ‘Eastern space not Western space’ mindset will be helpful, especially when negotiating apartment sizes and Seoul subway carriages during peak hours. Although the cities are crowded, there are plenty of forests, beaches and islands to escape to on the weekends.


Women in South Korea

Although Korea is arguably a male-dominated society, modern-day Korean women strongly value their independence and will generally stand up to belittlement. A word of warning though; women who smoke on the street, wear low-cut shirts or drink excessively will be looked down upon. Being foreign does give expats a bit of leeway, but they will probably receive a few dirty looks if they behave this way in public.


Cultural dos and don'ts in South Korea

  • Do get toilet paper before heading to the stall. Most public toilets in South Korea don't have toilet paper in each stall.

  • Don't expect to eat much fruit in South Korea as it's very expensive

  • Don't write anyone's name in red ink as this traditionally signifies death

  • Don't leave chopsticks sticking up in a bowl as this is only done when commemorating the dead

  • Do look away from the table when taking a sip of alcohol with a group of Koreans. This is considered polite.

  • Don't pour your own drink. If another person at the table offers a refill, let that person pour it and return the favour by pouring one for them.

  • Don't fold your arms in front of yourself when in the company of older people – this is considered rude. Rather leave them hanging by your side.

  • Do always use two hands when accepting money, a business card or anything of importance

Accommodation in South Korea

Considering South Korea's extremely high population density, expats soon find that securing accommodation in South Korea is often more a case of making the best out of a situation as opposed to hunting down the perfect rental unit.

The range of housing options in South Korea is very limited, and prices can be exorbitant. On the positive side, most Korean employers, especially those employing English teachers, organise accommodation for their employees as part of their employment contract. This significantly lowers an expat's cost of living.


Types of property in South Korea

The standard of accommodation in South Korea is high, although living spaces are extremely small by Western standards. Rental accommodation in South Korea generally falls into three categories, namely houses, villas or apartments. Houses are difficult to find and are usually very expensive. Villas are buildings with up to five storeys that typically contain up to 10 individual units. Apartments are contained in the high-rise buildings that dominate the skyline of every South Korean city.

While house and villa interiors can vary, South Korean apartments often follow the simple formula of a single bedroom, bathroom and kitchenette.

Underfloor heating (ondol) is a great bonus, and most modern apartments have air conditioning in at least one of the rooms. The lack of privacy in apartment buildings, due to the closeness of the apartments, is probably the one aspect of Korean housing that expats will have the most trouble adjusting to.

Another aspect foreigners will have to wrap their heads around in the fact that Korean bathrooms typically don't have a separate shower. Instead, the tap over the bathroom sink would have a hand shower attached to it. This essentially turns the whole bathroom into a shower. Koreans also have special shoes they leave outside the bathroom to put on when going into the bathroom to avoid getting their socks wet.


Finding property in South Korea

Expats who aren't assigned accommodation by their employer are often shocked at the high rental prices in South Korea. The best means of finding a rental are to search through online property portals, expat discussion groups, and social media groups that list properties. Real estate agencies are also common in most South Korean neighbourhoods, with some agencies specialising in the expat market. Agency rates for securing a lease are typically between 0.3 and one percent of the annual rent cost. 


Renting property in South Korea

The majority of expats won't have to go through the rental process themselves as it's very standard for employers to supply their foreign employees with an apartment. Though this takes the stress out of the moving process, it takes the choice of where to live out of the expat's hands. Some expats prefer to choose their own accommodation and receive a monthly stipend from their employer instead.

Furnished or unfurnished

Since many employers supply apartments, there isn’t a standard answer to whether or not an apartment comes furnished. Depending on how kind one’s employer is, an apartment can be fully furnished, even including pots, pans and cutlery. On the other hand, some apartments only come with a fridge, washing machine and bed. This is something expats will need to discuss with their employer beforehand.

Luckily, with the transient nature of expat life in South Korea, good quality furnishings are available at low prices. It shouldn’t be hard for new expats to get the basics bought.

Deposits

Jeonse or 'key money' is a uniquely South Korean phenomenon which functions like a deposit – except that the amount of money required is extraordinarily high and generally amounts to 50 to 100 percent of the market value of an apartment. Key money is returned in its entirety when the lease agreement is concluded.

Paying key-money will directly affect monthly rental prices as the larger the amount of key money paid, the smaller the monthly rental payments will be, and vice versa. It's important to note that owners are more forthcoming with jeonse agreements in times of high-interest rates, as they invest the tenant's key money in order to turn a profit on the rental.

New tenants should be sure to take pictures of the apartment when they move in, and to leave it in as good (or better) condition than they found it in – otherwise, they can expect to have to fight with their landlord to get their deposit money refunded.

Leases

Standard leases in South Korea typically last for a year. The tenant has to give at least three months' notice if they want to move out of the apartment before their lease ends.

Alternatively, many expats sign a lease on a wolse (monthly rental) basis. Wolse rentals are more similar to Western rental practices, and tenants will usually have to pay a deposit equal to two months' rent, with expats making fairly high monthly rental payments.

Utilities

Tenants will almost certainly be responsible for their own monthly gas, electricity and internet bills. Generally, utilities in South Korea are affordable. Gas can be quite expensive – so it's important to monitor heating costs during winter. Bills are easy to pay via bank transfer at the bank, ATM or through a mobile app. It's even possible to pay some bills at convenience stores.

Bins and recycling

South Korea’s waste management system (jongyangje) is highly organised and efficient. Food waste, recyclables, non-recyclables and large objects are all disposed of separately. There are high penalties for those who do not comply with the system.

Though there isn’t a monthly fee for garbage removal, it's important to buy the correct garbage bags from the local grocery store. These garbage bags are colour coded according to the waste category and district. Collectors won’t accept incorrect bags.

Most apartments have a designated disposal area with communal bins. Smaller buildings may not have a designated area. In these cases, garbage bags should be left outside the building between specific hours on designated days.

Healthcare in South Korea

Healthcare in South Korea is modern and efficient. Both Western and Eastern medical practitioners and medicines are available, and both are covered under the government’s National Health Insurance (NHI).

Doctors, dentists, dermatologists and other specialists in South Korea are all affordable and readily available, as are general healthcare products and pharmaceutical drugs. Most hospitals and doctors have some English-speaking staff members. However, it's sometimes advisable to bring along a Korean-speaking friend, particularly in smaller towns and cities.

Apart from the NHI, there are a number of private health insurance options, however, most of these are more expensive and not as widely recognised as the national scheme. 

It's important for expats to note that they aren't covered by either the National Health Insurance plan or private health insurance until they have received their Alien Registration Card (ARC) from their local Korea Immigration Service office. This can take some time.


Public healthcare in South Korea

South Korea's National Health Insurance programme is a compulsory social insurance system which covers the whole population. By law, any company that employs more than five foreign workers must enrol their foreign workers in a health insurance programme. The company is expected to pay half of their employees' health insurance premiums each month, while employees cover the other half.

It is important to note that this does not apply to expats employed as independent contractors. The amount someone pays towards the NHI is determined in the same way taxes are – on a sliding scale according to how high their salary is.

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

The upside is that expenses for a routine visit to a doctor or dentist will be quite low for both the consultation and the medication. On the other hand, some doctors may try to see as many patients as possible, so consultations aren't as thorough as they could be. Doctors may also overprescribe medication in an attempt to get more benefits from pharmaceutical companies.

Employers are responsible for enrolling their employees in the NHI system. Self-employed expats will need to apply at their nearest hospital with their passport and their residence card.


Private healthcare in South Korea

National Health Insurance covers most day-to-day and emergency medical procedures, prescription medication and specialist visits. However, some procedures and medications, particularly those associated with chronic illnesses, such as cancer, aren't covered and can become costly. Private insurance companies exist for this reason. Many Koreans and expats who can afford it, sign up for a chronic illness plan to guard against costs the NHI may not cover.


Hospitals in South Korea

Medical facilities are of a high standard in South Korea, especially in Seoul. City hospitals will almost always have an English-speaking doctor on staff, although support and technical staff are less likely to speak English.

Hospitals are often well equipped and modern looking, although they may not always have the best sanitation practices. Expats can also attend one of several 'international clinics' affiliated with certain hospitals. These are staffed by doctors who have studied abroad and generally speak English, but they are more costly.

Before being treated in a hospital, patients need to pay a deposit against the costs that might be incurred during their stay. Some hospitals accept only certain credit cards, so it may be necessary to bring cash.


Medicine and pharmacies in South Korea

Pharmacies are plentiful and both Western and Eastern medicines are available in abundance. Pharmacies are usually located near hospitals, as hospitals in Korea are not permitted to dispense prescription medication. Although 24-hour pharmacies are rare, many pharmacies close at late hours.

Expats who have enrolled in South Korea’s NHI programme will be able to get prescription medication at a heavily subsidised rate.


Health hazards in South Korea

As in many cities in industrialised Asia, South Koreans are increasingly facing health problems due to pollution in cities. In spring, the 'Yellow Dust' – a combination of industrial pollutants and dust from mainland China – might necessitate wearing a mask while outdoors, particularly for people who already have respiratory problems such as asthma.

 


Emergency services in South Korea

Expats can phone the Immigration Contact Center for emergency or routine medical advice. They also offer translation help if an expat is at a clinic or doctor’s office where nobody speaks English. The centre can also connect anyone directly with emergency services if appropriate. Staff members are bilingual and there will almost always be someone on staff who speaks English.

  • Immigration Contact Center: 1345

  • Police: 112

  • Ambulance: 119

Education and Schools in South Korea

Since the 1960s, the Korean Republic has emerged as one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, largely thanks to a fierce focus on education. This legacy of hard work and achievement continues to shape education in South Korea, which regularly outperforms Western countries in science and mathematics.

Expat parents looking to educate their children in Korea should prepare themselves for a society that puts enormous emphasis on academic performance – an emphasis that also spills into the international schools in South Korea. 

South Korean parents treat education as a household’s top priority, spending as much as three times on education as their American counterparts. A typical school-going child in South Korea spends eight hours a day in school, and up to six additional hours reviewing school work at cram schools called hagwons

There are several good international schools, especially American-curriculum schools, due to the presence of various United States Army bases and a sizeable expat community.

Children usually begin pre-school at three or four years old, continue into grade one at six years old and complete grade 12 – the final year of schooling – at 18 years old.


Public schools in South Korea

While the standards of education at public schools are excellent, most expats don't send their children to public schools as the language of instruction is Korean. 

The public education system is divided into three parts: six years of primary school, followed by three years of middle school and three years of high school. Attending primary and middle school is compulsory and public schooling is provided for free. It's not mandatory to attend high school, and parents must pay for high school attendance. 

Public schools in South Korea often focus almost solely on academics, and many public schools don’t have sports facilities of good quality. Rote learning is emphasised, and particular attention is given to science, maths, Korean and English.


Private schools in South Korea

There is a high number of private schools in South Korea. They are generally more expensive than public schools, especially as parents will have to pay for both primary and middle school. 

Although private schools are independently funded, they follow the state curricula and the language of instruction is Korean.


International schools in South Korea

Due to the presence of Westerners in the US Army base as well as the large English teaching community, there are a number of high-quality international schools in South Korea, particularly in Seoul. Many are American-curriculum schools or follow an international curriculum such as the International Baccalaureate (IB). There are also French and British curriculum schools. 

International schools are extremely expensive, but they provide the benefits of English-language instruction and allow for a continuous learning experience, as many expat children will continue following the curriculum from their home country. 


Homeschooling in South Korea

The academically driven nature of Korean schooling, coupled with the high cost of international schools, means that an increasing number of expat parents choose to homeschool their children. 

Homeschooling laws in South Korea are vague. Although the government has expressed a somewhat positive stance on homeschooling in the past, this has yet to be transcribed into law. In practice, parents are generally able to homeschool their children without much issue or interference. It's possible to complete courses through accredited online schools or distance learning colleges and graduate with an American high school diploma or British A-Levels. 


Tutors in South Korea

Education and schooling in South Korea is extremely competitive. Parents place a lot of pressure on their children to achieve high marks. Because of this, hiring a tutor in South Korea is common practice. It would be more uncommon for a child not to have a tutor than to have one. Tutors can be useful for expat children transitioning into a new school environment. Tutors 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 (after school academy). Many schools will have a list of tutors or hagwons they can recommend.


Tertiary education in South Korea

The highly competitive Korean job market means that going to the right schools, networking and maintaining relationships are extremely important. The university that a potential employee attended can make or break a job application, and competition for places in the best South Korean universities is exceptionally fierce.

In the country, there are a number of state universities and many private institutions, including a number of vocational polytechnics. University entry is usually based almost entirely on grade scores.

Expats applying at an English university will need to show proof that they have received an English education or qualification, while those applying at a Korean university will have to demonstrate an ability to speak Korean sufficiently (usually via an official transcript from a Korean language programme).

Cuisine in South Korea

Food in South KoreaSouth Korean cuisine is very different from quintessential Asian food and may initially challenge expats’ palates. Perseverance is crucial and there are many regional delicacies worth sampling.

Western food is readily available in the major cities like Seoul and Busan, with a multitude of restaurants to choose from. However, if it's Korean food you're after, you'll be spoiled for choice even in the smaller towns.

Barbecue-style restaurants, serving beef or pork that you cook at your table, can be found on almost every street corner. There are also faster kimbap (rolled rice in seaweed, much like sushi) take-aways every few hundred metres or so and it's easy to find places serving piping hot soups (jigae) and rice dishes such as bibimbap.
 

Where to eat in South Korea


Some of the better restaurant areas in Seoul are Gang-nam district, Itaewon and Nopsakyeong. While in Busan, eating options with sea views can be found in Haundae and Gwangan. The area around Pusan National University has a fair amount of both Western and Korean delights and is perfectly situated for those who enjoy a drink or two after dinner. The blocks around Seomyeon subway station have a number of restaurants, bars and entertainment venues as well as numerous shopping opportunities.

Transport and Driving in South Korea

Given its compact size and advanced infrastructure, expats should have few problems when it comes to transport in South Korea. The country is well connected by road and rail networks. It's even possible to travel between major cities on cheap domestic flights. For most expats, especially those living in major cities, owning a car and driving in South Korea is unnecessary since getting around with public transport is generally easy.


Public transport in South Korea

South Korea’s public transport system is comprehensive and well organised. One of the most popular ways of getting around is the railway network, which connects the country’s major cities and is also an effective way to get around within them. Larger cities boast modern subway networks which are another popular way of commuting. Expats will also be able to use both inter- and inner-city bus services. 

Trains

In addition to extensive subway networks within most of the major cities, South Korea as a whole is well connected by rail. Travelling through the country by train is possible on Korail, the national rail service, which has been upgraded and extended in recent years. However, it remains a more practical option for travel between major cities, as access to rural areas is limited. The line from Seoul to Busan via Daegu and Dondaegu is the most travelled.

There's also a high-speed express train (KTX and SRT) from Seoul to Busan via Daegu, Dondaegu and other smaller towns. These trains travel from one end of the country to the other in just over three hours. A second high-speed line runs between Seoul and Gwangju.

Both the KTX and Korail train services are easy to use. There are self-service ticket kiosks that accept cash or credit cards, most stations are signposted in both Korean and English, and station staff often speak basic English.

Buses

An extensive bus service connects all South Korean cities. Travelling by bus in South Korea is cheaper than travelling by train, and more practical if travelling to a more rural area. There are a number of intercity bus options, as well as express buses which travel long distance with fewer stops.  

Subways

Large cities such as Seoul, Busan, Gwangju, Daejeon, Daegu and Incheon have their own subway systems. Although, outside of Seoul's established, extensive system, expats may sometimes struggle to use the subway to get to the outer reaches of the city they live in. In some cases, expats may need to use a bus or taxi for the final leg of their journey.

Taxis

Taxis are plentiful in South Korea, especially in the cities. Drivers are unlikely to speak English. It's a good idea for foreigners to have a Korean friend or colleague write down their destination in Korean to show the driver, or to carry a business card with the Korean address of a nearby hotel or business. 

A local app-based rideshare service called Kakao Taxi operates in South Korea. It allows expats to order a taxi service to their exact address. Many expats prefer using rideshare apps as they allow for automatic credit card billing as well as greater control over their route.


Driving in South Korea

It's possible to get around the country without owning or driving a car due to the extensive public transport system. However, foreigners can drive in South Korea on an International Driver’s Permit and, as an additional benefit, major road signs are in both Korean and English.

Driving can be a more convenient way of exploring the countryside but may be more trouble than it's worth in larger, more congested cities such as Seoul - even though traffic is not as chaotic as it is in many other Asian capitals.

Vehicles can be hired from any number of international car hire companies, which have offices at the airports and in cities. Foreigners can also buy new or used cars as long as they're in possession of an Alien Registration Card (ARC). Newly purchased cars need to be registered within 15 days. Buying a car is a popular option for expats with children or those living in the country long term.

Those in possession of an ARC can also exchange their driving licence for a Korean one if their home country recognises South Korean licences. Their licence is returned to them when they leave the country.


Air travel in South Korea

Most travellers arrive in South Korea at Incheon International Airport, which is connected to Seoul by train. Busan International Airport is another popular airport for international travellers and is well-connected to the city by subway, buses and taxis.

Although it's possible to travel from one end of the country to the other by road or rail in a few hours, there are domestic flights between cities on South Korea’s two main airlines, Korean Air and Asiana, as well as low-cost airlines Jeju Air and T'way Airlines.

It is also possible to catch a ferry to the island of Jeju in the south, but much easier to fly. There are commuter flights between Seoul and Busan, and travelling on these flights with low-cost airlines is often cheaper than travelling by express train.

Keeping in Touch in South Korea

South Korea could be called the high-speed internet capital of the world. Just over three-quarters of the population use smartphones. In addition to the impressive internet availability, mobile phones, landline phones and the oft-forgotten postal system are all reliable and affordable in South Korea.

The large expat community in Seoul also means that there is access to an array of English newspapers and publications, although most are in digital form. 


Internet in South Korea

South Korea frequently ranks as having the fastest internet in the world, surpassing even its biggest rivals, China and Japan. Seoul is primarily outfitted with fibre optic lines, which results in fast and reliable internet speeds.

Outside of the big cities, ADSL lines are standard throughout most of Korea and, if it hasn't already been installed, then apartments can easily be set up with Wi-Fi options.

KT Broadband, SK Telecom and CJ Hellovision are some of the biggest internet providers and offer good service at affordable prices. Expats wanting to set up an account will need an Alien Registration Card (ARC).

For people on the move, internet cafés, known as PC bangs (rooms), are everywhere in South Korea. Expats will have no problems getting computer access if they need it, even in the most remote areas. Wi-Fi is also freely available in many public spaces. 


Telephones in South Korea

There are three telephone and mobile operators in South Korea: SK Telecom, Korea Telecom (KT) and LG Uplus. All three offer good customer service available in English.

Mobile phones

Mobile phones or are by far the most popular means of communication in South Korea.

Affordable contracts are available in addition to prepaid options. Many expats sign up for a two-year contract with the least possible amount of call time but with unlimited data. If they then leave before their contract has finished, some will pass on the phone contract to someone else, usually another expat that has just arrived, or simply cancel the contract for a fee. 

In order to sign up for a contract or a prepaid phone, an expat will need their ARC and passport. Anyone who doesn’t speak Korean is advised to set up the terms of their agreement in Seoul, where employees are more likely to speak English.


Postal services in South Korea

Despite being such a digitally connected country, the South Korean postal system has maintained its efficiency. International postage is not outrageously expensive and postcards can easily be sent in bulk without costing too much. Packages are delivered to people's homes or their apartment building, although many expats choose to receive packages at work so they can sign for it.

As a direct result of South Korea’s strong economy and the presence of large multinational companies, courier services within South Korea are fast and reliable. Many international courier companies such as FedEx and DHL have offices in the country, in addition to local options such as Dazen.


Print media in South Korea

As a result of the large expat community in South Korea, a number of English-medium newspapers and online publications are available. There are some printed national newspapers which are distributed in larger cities, including The Korea Herald and The Korea Times, which also have English websites.

Frequently Asked Questions about South Korea

Expats moving to South Korea usually have many questions, often about what to expect from expat life. Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about living in South Korea.

Is it necessary to learn Korean? 

Fortunately for many expats, English is the language of business and commerce. It's also possible to get by in South Korea without knowing Korean. Despite this, South Koreans are proud of their language and history, and while it isn't vital to learn Korean, it 's useful in both navigating the country and understanding Korean culture. The Korean alphabet is easy to master and is especially helpful when reading signs and bus stops.

Is South Korea safe and what is the situation with North Korea?

South Korea is incredibly safe and crime statistics are low. Pickpocketing does occur in the larger cities but it's rare. Walking about and catching public transport late at night is considered safe, but this does not mean that one should forgo safety precautions.

The situation with North Korea is tense but unlikely to escalate. South Korea is committed to peace with its northern neighbours. Many older South Koreans have relatives in the North and speak confidently about reunification. Although there are occasional acts of aggression by North Korea toward the South Korean military, North Korea doesn’t pose a threat to expats and their daily lives.

Which is the best city to live in?

While Seoul is the most obvious choice for expats, South Korea has four main expat hubs: Seoul, Busan, Daejeon and Daegu. With just a three-hour train ride separating Seoul, in the north, and Busan, in the south, it's easy to explore all of these cities regardless of which one you choose to call home. Expats live all over the country, and getting around is very easy.

Seoul is the capital and contains the largest expat community. It also has a large number of international schools and a significant number of shops, restaurants and businesses catering to Westerners.

Daegu also has a fair number of international schools and a large expat community. It's the centre of the manufacturing industry (textiles, machinery and metals) in South Korea. Both Daegu and Seoul host US military bases and so they have large American expat communities. Although military bases make it easier to find Western goods and Western-orientated shops and restaurants, South Korean sentiment toward these bases isn't always positive.

Daejeon is just over an hour from Seoul and is something of a science hub. Daejeon focuses on technological innovation and has one of the fastest developing business communities in South Korea.

Busan is located in the south. It's a coastal city and said to be the most laid back of all the South Korean cities. However, Busan is also one of the busiest seaports in the world and is host to a number of international and local festivals. There are a number of schools and shopping districts catering to the expat community living in Busan.

What is ‘saving face’?

Reputation and the way others perceive a person are very important to South Koreans. In a work environment, this means that proper respect and social harmony must be shown at all times. South Koreans will often give subtle hints or clues about the true nature of a situation without approaching the matter head-on. In many cases, a higher value is placed on showing politeness than on other moral values like honesty. When dealing with Koreans it's important to take note of subtle hints and clues and it's equally important to remain polite in all business dealings. Striving to maintain a constant state of peace and equilibrium is highly respected in South Korean culture.

Banking, Money and Taxes in South Korea

The banking system in South Korea is as advanced as in most Western countries but is also relatively simple and user-friendly.

Language barriers may make it harder for expats to set up their account or get their internet banking up and running. There are some banks, like KEB Hanna, that are more expat-friendly than others. However, it is best to ask a friend or employer to assist with setting up one's banking needs in South Korea.


Currency in South Korea

The official currency of South Korea is the Won, which is abbreviated to KRW or ₩. Foreign currency can be exchanged at banks, airports, and some hotels or tourist spots, and most major international currencies are accepted. Expats will have a more difficult time exchanging won for other currencies outside of South Korea.

  • Notes: 1,000 KRW, 5,000 KRW, 10, 000 KRW and 50,000 KRW

  • Coins: 10 KRW, 50 KRW, 100 KRW and 500 KRW


Banking in South Korea

Some of the better-known banks in South Korea include KEB Hanna, Woori Bank, Kookmin Bank (KB) and Shinhan Bank. International banks such as Citibank, HSBC and Bank of America also operate in the country.

Banking hours in South Korea are generally from 9am to 4pm during the week. Very few bank branches are open on weekends. 

Opening a bank account

To open a bank account in South Korea expats will need a copy of their working visa, Alien Registration Card (ARC) and their passport. Although the ARC has the cardholder’s address printed on it, it's also helpful for applicants to bring in a copy of their address written in both Korean and English, for the bank to capture it properly.

Once the necessary forms have been filled in, the bank will issue the applicant a bank card. It's important to note that this is an ATM card, not a debit card. Should an expat require debit card facilities, or a card that works overseas, they will need to ask the bank for one specifically. Internet banking also isn't necessarily included. Expats should have banking staff set up all of their banking needs when their account is first created.  

Credit cards and ATMs

ATMs are plentiful in cities and are mostly found in convenience stores, hotels, banks, post offices or train stations. Although some are available 24/7 and accept foreign cards, many are only online during the day between 8am or 9am and midnight, and only accept Korean bank cards.

Although Koreans themselves usually pay with debit or credit cards, international credit cards may only be readily accepted in larger hotels and stores - smaller stores and restaurants may have trouble processing a foreign credit card. ATMs affiliated with the main Korean banks usually accept foreign cards.


Taxes in South Korea

South Korea has an income tax rate of up to 42 percent of an individual’s income. In addition to income tax, individuals are also charged a residents’ tax which amounts to around 10 percent of the income tax amount.  

Some expats receive partial or complete exemption from paying tax for a specified number of years of their stay in South Korea. These include English teachers working in state schools and qualified foreign engineers. 

Foreigners are also expected to pay a percentage of their salary into the National Pension Scheme. By law, employers must match this contribution. Some expats, depending on their nationality, can claim some of their taxes back at the end of each tax year and they can claim all of their pension payments back at the end of their stay in South Korea.

Some expats can also opt to pay taxes either in their home country or in South Korea. This depends on their resident status and whether their country has a double taxation avoidance agreement with the South Korean government. 

For the most up-to-date information around the issue, it is best to refer to a tax professional. 

Expat Experiences in South Korea

When considering a move to a new city, there is nothing more useful than hearing real-life stories and experiences from other expats who have lived there. We'd love to hear about your expat experiences. Please contact us if you live or have lived in South Korea and would like to share your story.

Rianca is a South African expat who worked as an English as a Second Language teacher in South Korea. Although she intended to stay there for just one year, she fell in love with life there, especially the financial freedom, safety and healthcare system. Read all about Rianca's expat life in South Korea.

Rianca

Patrick is an American expat who's been living in South Korea since 2007. He is an English teacher by day and business owner by night. Patrick loves the healthcare and transport systems in Ulsan where he lives with his finance and small dog. Read all about Patrick's expat life in South Korea.

Patrick Korea

Azra is a queer expat from America. They are currently living in Busan, South Korea where they work as a teacher. Azra enjoys the excellent healthcare and supportive expat community in Busan. Read more about Azra's expat life in Busan. Azra_Busan_1.jpg

Malcolm is a free-spirited expat from South Africa. He is currently living in Seoul and works as an English teacher. In his free time he enjoys getting lost on the city's amazing subway lines. Read more about his life as an expat in Seoul.

Malcolm_South_Korea_1.jpg

Having moved to Songdo so that her partner could pursue his dream job, Ishwarya has embraced the challenges presented by the Korean language as well as the difficulty of shopping for a vegetarian in South Korea. Read about Ishwarya's expat life in South Korea 

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Brittany, an American expat living in South Korea, is a daydreamer who quit their marketing position to move to Asia, teach English and feed their travel bug. With a lower cost of living, Brit has managed to travel, pay towards her student loan and even save some money. Read about Brit's expat life in South Korea.

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Samantha, a Canadian English teacher, has recently returned home after living in South Korea and following her thirst for adventure. A prolific traveller, Samantha enjoys stepping outside of her comfort zone and pursuing new experiences. Read about her expat life in South Korea.

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Gaby is a South African expat living in South Korea. Looking for a change and chance to travel, Gaby and her husband moved to Gumi when she was offered a position as a resident Native English Teacher. Read more about her expat life in South Korea.

Amy is a New Zealand expat teaching English in Suwon. Read her advice on how to choose a school in South Korea, read about what she most misses about home, and find out what she loves and hates about living and working in South Korea.

Jenna, an American expat in Busan, found she couldn't keep away from the city. After a stint as an English teacher in 2010, she returned in 2012 to continue her life exploring South Korea while working at an international kindergarten. Read about her experiences living and working in Busan.

Maggie, an American expat in Seoul, travelled to the country to teach English and coach rugby. She's loving the great food, the easy-to-use public transport and the opportunities to make new friends in South Korea. Find out where to look for a job or an apartment, and other advice about living in Seoul as an expat.

Maggie an American expat in South Korea

Amanda became an American expat in South Korea when she realised her 9-5 desk job back home would never satisfy her wanderlust. Instead, she headed off to teach English in Seoul. Read about her opinions on the work culture in South Korea, on learning Korean and the best areas to expat life in Seoul.

Amanda an expat in South Korea

Deva, like many a South African expat in South Korea, moved to the country to teach English and in the process pay off her student loans. Read her advice on living in Daegu, her experiences of ESL placement agencies and her advice on handling culture shock while living in South Korea.

Deva an expat in South Korea

Matt and Andrea, two American expats living in South Korea, landed in the country just three months after their wedding to teach English in a small town outside of Seoul. Despite missing Western food and having the occasional mishap, both are loving their new expat life in South Korea.

Andrea and Matt two expats in South Korea

Andy, a South African expat teaching English in South Korea, left the corporate world in search of adventure. Working on the quieter outskirts of Seoul, he enjoys the quality healthcare, complete lack of crime and low cost of living. Read more about his expat experiences in South Korea.

Andy an expat in South Korea

Chris, an American expat teaching English in South Korea, has decided to absorb as much Korean culture as possible. When not grappling over grammar and pronunciation with students, he's a full-fledged traveller, writer and experiential explorer; in short, there's never a dull moment. Read what he has to say about life as an expat in Seoul.

Chris - an American expat teaching English in South Korea

Simon, a Canadian expat living in South Korea, cites life in Bucheon as being nearly perfect. He enjoys all the perks of big-city living, a slower pace of life as well as a more affordable cost of living. Even his dog seems to be happy. Read more about his expat experience in South Korea.

simon - a Canadian expat living in Korea