South Korea is a small mountainous country, dotted with valleys and narrow coastal plains. 51 million inhabitants populate its many large cities and smaller rural towns, scattered throughout its diverse landscape. Expats moving to South Korea will discover a fiercely competitive modern country that is still steeped in ancient history and tradition.
Living in South Korea as an expat
Most foreigners find employment teaching English in Korean schools or working in electronics, finance, IT and production. As the home of industry giants such as Samsung and LG Electronics, South Korea has a tech-centric economy. Fittingly, the country consistently ranks as having one of the fastest internet infrastructure 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.
Many expats move to Seoul, the country's capital, its most densely populated city and the chief industrial centre. 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.
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.
Cost of living in South Korea
The cost of living in South Korea is high, with Seoul being among the 15 most expensive cities in the world. The rest of the country is slightly if not significantly cheaper than the capital, however.
Accommodation is expensive, despite apartments being extraordinarily small, and all imported foodstuffs and goods are also costly. That said, salaries are competitive and employment contracts often include accommodation and schooling. On top of that, transport, locally manufactured goods and Korean food are extremely affordable.
Expat families and children
The standard of education in South Korea is high. Expats generally choose to send their children to one of the many foreign language or international schools in the country, as the language of instruction at the local public schools is Korean. There is a culture of excellence at schools in South Korea which places a large amount of pressure on children to do well. Luckily, there is also a large tutoring industry in the country that exists to assist children with their learning.
Climate in South Korea
South Koreans pride themselves on their country’s distinctive and beautiful four seasons. The country has a continental climate of extremely cold, dry winters and humid, hot summers, with short, mild spring and autumn months in between.
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.
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). Although English is widely spoken in business circles in the large cities, this is not the case throughout the country.
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 everywhere.
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: 220V, 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-hand side of the road. South Korea has a reliable and efficient transport system, with buses and taxis in all cities, and metro stations in the main cities.
►Read about the ups and downs of life in the country in Pros and Cons of Moving to South Korea.
►See Frequently Asked Questions for answers to any questions you may have about moving to South Korea.
"My advice would be to accept that you are in a different country, and it will not be the same as home. Instead of focusing on what you miss, be open to experiencing all the new and wonderful things that Korea has to offer!" Learn about Bronwyn's move to South Korea and her experience of expat life in the country.
"The things that I enjoy most about the city I live in are its safety and its sense of community among the expat population." Read about Patrick, an American expat, and how he's adjusted to his new life in Ulsan in his interview.
Are you an expat living in South Korea?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to South Korea. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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