If you read any article on ‘The World’s Most Expensive Cities’, then you are likely to see Seoul somewhere in the top ten, possibly nestled between Copenhagen and Los Angeles.
Don’t let that put you off! The cost of living in Korea is actually far more reasonable than such articles make out, and it is possible to live very well on a moderate amount of money in Korea.
Cost of Housing in Korea: Seoul vs Other Cities
The general prices of things are pretty similar across Korea. But one thing is far more expensive in Seoul than elsewhere: Housing. Housing is the big reason why Seoul often appears on top ten lists of the world’s most expensive cities. These lists are often skewed by the assumption that you need a detached house with a garden, something that is the preserve of Samsung CEOs and famous actors in Seoul.
Most people live in small apartments, and a one room apartment can set you back anywhere from 300,000 won per month to well over a million won a month, depending on the location of the apartment (Gangnam being one of the most expensive, the far north of the city being a lot cheaper), the facilities, and whether it is a new building or an old building.
Outside of Seoul, things get a lot cheaper, with even some of Seoul’s satellite cities like Uijeongbu being almost half the price of Seoul. Cities in other provinces are cheaper still, especially in the older neighborhoods.
Cost of Utilities in Korea
Gas fees will probably work out at around 10,000 won most months, apart from the winter, when the gas powered underfloor heating systems of most Korean buildings are in use.) During these winter periods, gas bills are often in excess of 100,000 won per month, and can be even higher if you leave the heating on all day. The same goes for the air-conditioning units in the summer, which can lead to exorbitant electricity bills if left on throughout the day. Otherwise, electricity bills will probably be somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 won per month.
Internet and TV packages often work out at around 30,000 to 50,000 won per month, depending on your subscription. Smartphone packages will be around 30,000 to 40,000 won per month plus the cost of the phone, which is often paid in monthly installments. Some apartments will also have a maintenance fee of around 100,000 won per month.
Medical Costs in Korea
All residents of Korea are required to have basic medical insurance, which comes directly out of employees’ pay checks (assuming that they have an employer who plays by the rules). If you are married and unemployed, then you can be put on your spouse’s insurance.
The basic medical insurance doesn’t cover everything, though. First, you will have to pay a small amount of the cost of seeing the doctor, getting x-rays, etc. Also, you will have to pay a small amount at the pharmacy for your medicine. Each of these fees is usually between 5,000 and 20,000 won. However, anything extra, such as MRI scans or major operations will see your medical bills start to rise pretty fast, and if you have a serious illness then it can be financially burdensome. Full on medical insurance (Allianz, etc.) can be bought, and usually costs around 100,000 to 200,000 won per month depending on the age and general health of the applicant.
Cost of Transportation in Korea
Once you have sorted out your housing, the cost of living in Korea can be very affordable indeed, due to the cheapness of transportation and food. The standard journey on a bus or subway will cost between 1000 and 2000 won depending on the distance, and transfers between different types of transportation are free. Taxis are also affordable for short distances, especially if you are sharing the cab with friends. A taxi journey halfway across Seoul (say from Itaewon to Jamsil) usually costs around 15,000 won. Taxi prices are more expensive after midnight.
If you are travelling around the country, then buses from Seoul to Busan are often around 20,000 to 30,000 won one-way depending on the type of coach you take. A KTX train will cost just over 50,000 won for the same journey. As the journey from Seoul to Busan is just about the longest possible journey within mainland Korea, other bus and train trips should be cheaper.
Cost of Food in Korea
A cheap lunch of gimbab or soup will cost between 1,000 and 3,000 won. For a small meal at a cheap restaurant, you can expect to pay 5,000 to 7,000 won. Regular Korean restaurants are usually between 10,000 and 15,000 won per person. If you are looking for foreign food then that gets more expensive, with meals usually in the 20,000 won or more category.
Due to the low cost of Korean food, it is often cheaper to eat at a restaurant than to cook for yourself, especially as most supermarket foods come in family-sized portions, which can lead to a lot of spoilage if you are living alone. Fresh fruit is particularly expensive.
Cost of Clothes and Entertainment in Korea
It is hard to state the price of clothes as fashion is very subjective, but prices are generally similar to other cities. It is possible to buy things like T-shirts for 5,000 won and jeans for 20,000 won in some places. Luxury items get expensive very quickly, and there is a ‘luxury tax’ which makes more expensive jewelry very pricey.
Cinema tickets are usually in the 10,000 to 12,000 won range, with snacks costing another 10,000 won on top of that. Singing rooms (noraebang) vary depending on how luxurious they are, but coin singing booths are 1,000 won for three songs. If you want to watch a baseball or soccer game, then often the cheapest tickets will be around 10,000 won per match. Unlike in other countries, snacks purchased inside the stadium are often only slightly more expensive than if they were purchased outside the stadium. Gym membership is often between 30,000 and 100,000 won per month depending on the quality of the facilities.
Hopefully this article gave you a good idea of the general cost of living in Korea. Of course, the exact cost of living depends on your lifestyle. As a general rule, living like a Korean (eating Korean food etc.) is a lot cheaper than trying to replicate the lifestyle of your home country, and can also help you understand Korean culture better. If you follow that advice, you will quickly find that Seoul is a very affordable city to live in!