Life in Korea for Foreigners

Young caucasian woman wearing a backpack looking around an Asian outdoor market

Think moving houses is hard? Try moving to a whole different country! Whichever country you live in, have lived in, or will live live in, they all have their own quirks, challenges, and wonderful parts, and South Korea is no exception.

Before beginning your life in Korea, it’s great to be prepared for what’s to come – and not just with the school or workplace that you’re going for. Like everywhere else, life in Korea will have its ups and downs and life in Korea may be quite different as a foreigner than it would be for a local.

We’ll give you a brief overview on what life in Korea for foreigners is like, so you can come prepared!

Young caucasian woman wearing a backpack looking around an Asian outdoor market

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COST OF LIVING

Housing

3 women walking around near a large concrete structure

Although talking about money is a rather shallow way to approach life in any country, it is important to be prepared and have adequate finances at all times. In the case of Korea, as most countries, the biggest cost of living for anyone is usually accommodation.

As was already detailed in our post on getting an apartment in Korea, while the monthly rent may not be bigger than anything you’re already accustomed to in your home country, the key money deposit can be a killer.

If you’re looking to rent an apartment all to yourself once you arrive in Korea, you may want to have an extra few thousand dollars in your bank ready to pay for that key deposit. Even more in some cases since some of the best places can be easily get into the 10s of thousands of dollars in deposit.

However, if you come to Korea as a teacher specifically, this is usually not something you need to worry about – typically many schools will pay even your rent, or at least give you an allowance for it.

Transportation

Overall transportation in Korea is not expensive, nor is it difficult to navigate once you get used to it. A one way commuting ticket costs around 1,250 won, with the fee getting higher depending on how far of a distance you’re traveling, though usually not exceeding 1,550 won within Seoul.

The ticket also allows you to transfer from bus to subway, or the other way around, for free, as long as you do so within 30 minutes of exiting the previous public transportation.

Besides public transportation, you can also get around by taxi fairly easily. The cost of taxis in Seoul is well below the rates of other big cities in the world. It’s also your only option at night time when public transit stops running. And here is where it gets tricky. The starting fee is higher, and the meter will also run up quicker.

In addition, the taxi drivers will be pickier about actually agreeing to drive to your destination – sometimes this is because they only operate within a specific area, other times they’re just being greedy.

Know that although taxi drivers discriminating against foreigner customers is sometimes an issue in Korea, it is absolutely illegal in Korea to turn down servicing a taxi client, and you are encouraged to report the taxi driver who refused to drive you or otherwise extorted more money out from you than would have been fair for that distance.

Summing up

In general, whether South Korea is expensive for you or not depends on where you’re from originally. As far as food goes, because eating out is such a big part of socialization among Koreans, restaurant food is quite affordable. You can easily get delicious local dishes for just a few dollars!

International food is more expensive, but the more affordable ones are often under 15 dollars, and anything beyond that is considered expensive and luxurious even among Koreans.

Grocery shopping, however, can be quite pricey. So, as soon as you’ve arrived in Korea, you might want to browse around your neighborhood’s restaurants and supermarkets to map out good spots for your weekly eating.

Korea is also great for shopping, especially for cosmetics and skin care. Both are top notch in quality and affordability. For clothing, it again depends on your home country, and also the brands you choose. Korea has many affordable clothing shops on almost every street, and they’re even cheaper online, but the quality of the more affordable clothing isn’t always the greatest.

They do also have many international brand stores, if you’re okay with paying more for quality.

Byeolmadang library at Coex Mall, Seoul, South Korea

LIFE AS A FOREIGNER

If you live in Seoul or Busan, you’re especially lucky, as there are so many things to do outside alone or with friends, from clubbing to a picnic by the river, on top of which there’s always some place to go to at all hours. This is why Korea is especially ideal for young active adults to live.

What you should understand, and may already know, is that Korea is a high pressure society, with intense competition in all areas of life. That leads Koreans to working insanely long hours, being concerned over how the world around them perceives them, constantly learning new skills or improving upon already existing ones, as well as feeling pressured to find the perfect partner to marry.

As a foreigner, you’ll be happy to hear that you will not have to share these expectations to the same degree as locals.

But that does come with one big tradeoff – in Korea, you will always be seen as a foreigner. No matter how good your Korean skill is, no matter how long you’ve lived there and where you work or went to school, no matter what your visa or marital status is. You will always be the foreigner to the locals, for both good and bad.

And this is perhaps the biggest thing you’ll have to adjust to if you choose to become a longterm expat, particularly when choosing to become one in Korea.

Downtown street in Seoul, South Korea

ANYTHING ELSE

Here are a few more things to take into consideration before your upcoming life journey in Korea.

  • Recycling is incredibly important in Korea, and you’ll get fined to hell and back if you make the mistake of trying to pass off recyclable items as general trash. Each apartment building will have its own area for recycling.
  • Internet Explorer is, unfortunately, the browser to use for almost all of your banking, school, and immigration purposes since websites are optimized for it. You’ll have varying degrees of success with other browsers.
  • In order to get service at a restaurant, there is either a button to press, or you’re expected to yell out for the wait staff. Also, tipping isn’t expected or required.
  • There is also no service charge in (Korean) restaurants and any sales tax is included in the menu items cost. The price on the menu and the price tag on the item is exactly the price you’ll pay.
  • It is mandatory for you to have health insurance if you are employed in Korea, registered as a student in one of their schools, or otherwise some kind of resident.

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