Life in South Korea provides plenty of unique opportunities, but sometimes at a cost. Expats who are flexible and open-minded should easily adjust to the change of scenery.
Accommodation in South Korea
+ PRO: Accommodation is often pre-arranged
It is often the case that expats moving to South Korea with a job contract already in place will have an apartment provided and paid for them. Expats will then only need to worry about their utility bills.
+ PRO: Futuristic locks
Many apartments and homes have done away with traditional lock and keys, and use an electronic lock that requires either a magnetic door key and/or a keypad combo instead.
- CON: Cramped, boring and expensive
If renting in Seoul, expats should expect apartments to be tiny by Western standards. The further away from the city an expat moves, the more spacious accommodation becomes. In addition, apartments are almost exclusively built in blocks with little to no architectural variation. Despite this, rental prices, especially in Seoul, will be high for a small space and deposits are typically much steeper than in other countries.
Safety in South Korea
+ PRO: Little to no crime
There are low crime rates throughout South Korea. While expats still need to use common sense, crime won't be a serious concern.
- CON: Technically still at war
While North Korea and South Korea haven't engaged in open hostilities since the ceasefire of the Korean War, they are still technically at war with each other. It’s advisable to keep up with news regarding the two neighbours and know where the nearest embassy is, should anything occur.
Cuisine in South Korea
+ PRO: Abundance of traditional fare
Even in the tiniest of towns, there will always be one or more traditional Korean restaurant to satisfy an expat’s appetite for authentic dishes. The fierce competition also means a quality Korean meal is always affordable.
- CON: Lack of comfort foods
Unless an expat is living in a very urban area, it’s difficult to find food that isn’t Korean or Asian-inspired. More exotic, foreign cuisine options are hard to come by outside the city, and are oftentimes of disappointing quality.
Culture shock in South Korea
+ PRO: Tight-knit expat communities
Making friends with other foreigners helps lessen any initial culture shock expats may feel. In Seoul especially, there are many expat meet-ups and parties with the aim of bringing foreigners together. In smaller cities, groups meet up regularly and are generally very welcoming of newcomers.
- CON: Staring
Expats should anticipate being stared at while in public. Older Koreans especially will not be shy about watching foreigners. This is often out of genuine curiosity, however, and not any ill will.
- CON: Shy locals
South Koreans are often unable to speak much English or are too shy to attempt it for fear of making a mistake. While there are exceptions, it’s common for locals to shy away from answering a question completely, for lack of English skills.
Work culture in South Korea
+ PRO: Friendly and amicable
Koreans value their interpersonal relationships with co-workers and will make it a priority to get to know each other. The standard corporate atmosphere can be highly social, with employees often going drinking and dining after work, followed by a trip to a karaoke bar.
- CON: Unpredictable scheduling
Koreans will often make last-minute adjustments to meetings and schedules and expats will need a certain degree of flexibility to accommodate to this. Expect unplanned meetings, projects and cancellations as well as obligatory social gatherings after work, which are only announced shortly before the day's end.
- CON: High-pressure work environment
There is a lot of pressure put on employees working in South Korea to perform. This often leads to employees working longer hours than they may be contracted for. Taking sick leave is also frowned upon, as it shows a lack of commitment to one's job. It isn't uncommon to see people coming in for work, or children going to school, while they're sick.
Cost of living in South Korea
+ PRO Cheap basic amenities
The cost of living in South Korea varies depending on the city one lives in. That said, groceries, utilities, public transport and even alcohol are all reasonably priced compared to the prices in most Western countries. Most expats find that living in South Korea is an efficient way to save money.
- CON: Expensive non-essentials
There's an expectation in South Korea to follow the newest trends, to dress well and to have the fasted gadgets. But, these items tend to be expensive.
Education and schools in South Korea
+ PRO: Excellent education
Public Korean primary and secondary schools are generally quite good and focus on science and mathematics, as well as English and Korean. Many schools also employ a native English speaker to teach the language, even in rural areas. Hagwons, private after school institutions, are extremely popular and rigorous as well.
- CON: Stressful atmosphere
South Korea has a notably high suicide rate, partially as a result of the very stressful atmosphere surrounding education. Students account for many of these suicides as they are constantly pressured to perform better and study longer, in order to get into a good university.
Healthcare in South Korea
+ PRO: Cheap public healthcare
If an expat is employed, they will be covered by the public health care system, which costs little and offers excellent medical care. In urban areas, many of the doctors will also speak English, although bringing a friend to translate is still advisable.
- CON: Travel/wait time
If an expat does not live in an urban area, they may need to make a long trip to see a doctor at one of the official university hospitals. Because these hospitals are also centrally located, waiting times for treatment can be inconvenient but not outrageous.
►For information about day to day expenses in the country, read Cost of Living in South Korea
"Getting to experience a new culture was really exciting for me: meeting new people, learning the language and the history, and trying the many delicious foods. In terms of the quality of life, the transport in Korea is exceptional compared to SA. You are able to travel all around the country via buses or trains at a very reasonable price. In my experience, Korea is very safe. Unlike in SA, you can leave your belongings on the table and go to the bathroom, and they will still be there when you return. The national health insurance is amazing; any time I went to the doctor it was significantly cheaper than it would have been in SA. My housing was paid for, so I don’t know the exact details of the housing market, but I have heard that it can be quite expensive because they require a large security deposit." Read more about Bronwyn's expat experiences in South Korea.
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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