- Download our Moving to Seoul Guide (PDF)
As the capital of one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, Seoul is a fast-paced, cutting-edge city with a highly desirable working environment. Working in Seoul can be difficult as competition for jobs in the city centre is fierce, but becomes a little less so in some of its outlying suburbs.
Despite occupying less than one percent of South Korea's surface area, Seoul generates a significant portion of the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Job market in Seoul
Many of the core industries in Seoul are concentrated in the manufacturing sector in fields such as information and communications technology, electronics, food and beverage production, and publishing. The city is home to the headquarters of major corporations such as Samsung, LG, the Hyundai Group and HiteJinro.
The majority of jobs available to English-speaking foreigners tend to involve either teaching English or working for the US Army. Expats who are interested in non-teaching jobs in South Korea generally need to have postgraduate education and experience in a highly specialised field to be seriously considered. Otherwise, they will be in direct competition with the local workforce.
Outside of teaching, expats may find work in Seoul's service sector and the electronics, automobile and chemical industries. More often than not, being hired depends just as much on the connections a candidate has as it knows, just as much as it does on their qualifications and experience.
For those that do find employment, many of the biggest companies in Seoul insist that their managerial staff be proficient in English. As a result, doing business in Seoul is fairly straightforward as the language is less of an impediment. That said, there are certain rules of etiquette and social customs that should be researched before attempting to climb the Korean corporate ladder.
Finding a job in Seoul
Most expats find a job before relocating, as this is often a necessary condition of receiving a work visa and because Korean employers often provide key support, such as helping expats find accommodation. South Korea also offers a visa for job-seeking expats, allowing them to stay in the country for a certain period while job hunting.
Many expats find employment through the many job portals available online. The large number of expats looking to teach English in South Korea has resulted in many recruitment companies which organise placements on behalf of private schools, of which there are many in Seoul.
Work culture in Seoul
Traditional social practices and etiquette still have an important role in South Korean business. 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.
While South Korea's place in the global business circuit has changed the way that business is generally conducted in the country, there is still an elaborate system of hierarchy that imbues business culture. This is based on position, age, prestige and, to an extent, gender.
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. For this reason, expats shouldn't expect Koreans to acknowledge if they can’t help or don’t know the answer to a question. In avoiding admitting lack of knowledge, an individual maintains their honour and dignity.
Koreans want 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. Dinner invitations, after dinner drinks and karaoke are also likely to feature at some point and should not be turned down.
Teaching English in Seoul
A steady stream of English-speaking foreigners make their way to the country each year searching for financial, professional and cultural gain. By far, the most popular source of income for these expats is teaching English in South Korea.
English teaching jobs have traditionally been fairly easy to secure for expats from countries such as the UK, the US, Canada and South Africa, as long as they meet a few basic requirements. That said, recently the Korean government has been cracking down on foreigners teaching English illegally or without a proper visa. Competition, especially for placements in schools based in Seoul, has also increased and requirements have become slightly more stringent.
Most expats secure a job in Seoul from overseas before they arrive, and often the employer applies for a work permit on their behalf.
►Read Accommodation in Seoul for information about finding a home in the city
"We would describe the work-life balance here as WORK HARD - PLAY HARD! South Koreans work really hard but also know how to have fun after work. Guillaume had so much fun with his colleagues after work. For him, he said it was actually one of the best working environments. People are so committed to delivering good results and also want to have fun together. Although not everywhere is like that, we heard quite a lot of different stories. Our recommendations would be to build strong connections with the employees to fully embrace the working culture in South Korea." Learn more about French and Hong Kong expats Guillaume and Hammer's experiences in Seoul.
Are you an expat living in Seoul?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Seoul. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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