If you’re thinking of moving to South Korea, 축하합니다 (chughahabnida/congratulations)! This economic powerhouse is now enjoying the Korean Wave, a phenomenon that’s seeing the rest of the world waking up to the country’s fantastic culture.

K-pop, video games, and films are leading the way, from the unstoppable rise of groups like BTS and Twice to the success of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite in winning the best picture Oscar.

One of the best countries for Americans also blends palaces and ancient villages with natural wonders like Nami Island, Seongsan Ilchulbong, and Gosu Cave, which has been creating stalagmites and stalactites ever since it formed 450 million years ago.

But before you become one of 67,819 US expats enjoying life in South Korea, you’ll want to understand what kind of healthcare you’ll have access to once you arrive.

And if you want to join the 39.8 million people in South Korea who have private health insurance, we recommend Cigna.

The company helps more than 95 million customers all over the world, and has the know-how to get you the right cover too.

Start building a customized plan with a free quote to protect your most important assets – you and your family.

South Korean healthcare: key stats

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seoul city and tower, south korea

South Korea's capital city, Seoul, really is this beautiful  

How does South Korea’s healthcare system work?

South Korea has a universal healthcare system that genuinely covers 100% of its citizens in the country.

The US helped to establish the system with a post-Korean War aid program called the Minnesota Project, during which American experts educated medical professionals in the country.

After the project ended in 1961, it took just a few decades for South Korea to surge past the US in terms of coverage.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare is in charge of the National Health Insurance Service (NHIS), which provides universal coverage in exchange for monthly tax contributions from employed and self-employed people.

This service covers 51 million people, which is 97% of the population.

The remaining 3% who aren’t financially able to contribute, for instance because they’re unemployed or economically disadvantaged, are covered under the Medical Aid Program.

All services are provided subject to co-payments, which basically means that patients have to contribute part of the cost of their care – but more on that in the next section.

Once you register for this public healthcare system, you’ll have access to the following subsidised services:

  • Inpatient care
  • Outpatient care
  • Emergency care
  • Medication
  • Dental care
  • Health check-ups
  • Cancer screenings
  • Long-term care insurance (LTCI), which covers up to 100% of the costs of helping those who are too old, physically unable, or ill to care for themselves

Is healthcare free in South Korea?

Every healthcare system needs to be paid for, and South Korea’s is no different, with people contributing through a monthly tax.

However, South Korea’s universal coverage costs the country just 7.6% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – less than half of the 16.9% of its GDP the US government pays for its healthcare system.

Monthly taxes

If you’re employed, you’ll be charged 6.86% of your monthly salary, as of 2021.

You’ll only ever contribute half of this figure, though. The rest is paid by your employer, making this an extremely low premium.

For instance, if your salary was $36,000, you would pay just $103 per month.

This monthly payment is more complicated for self-employed people, but suffice to say, your contribution will be based on your household’s overall financial status.

This takes into account possessions like property and cars, as well as your income.

Some groups may be charged a lower monthly contribution, such as people over 65, disabled people, and those who live in a fishing or farming village.

Co-payments

You’ll need to pay part of the cost for most services you receive from the healthcare system.

The co-payment for inpatient care is generally 20%, while the co-payment for outpatient care is between 30% and 60%.

There's a ceiling on how much you can pay out-of-pocket each year. Your limit depends on your household income, but the maximum annual amount is KRW 5 million ($4,485).

The introduction of this cap has had a positive effect, but the average annual out-of-pocket contribution in South Korea is still one of the highest in the world, at 32.5% – which is three times higher than the US’s 10.8% average.

Quality of healthcare in South Korea

South Korea’s healthcare system ranks 25th in the world, according to a 2018 study published in The Lancet and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

That puts the country above the US, which places 29th, and is exactly the same as South Korea’s rank in terms of GDP per person, which is also 25th.

The average life expectancy in South Korea is 83.3, which is the third-highest in the world, and 4.8 years more than the US – a ridiculous fact, considering the US is by far the richest nation in the world.

If you give birth in South Korea, you have a one in 9,091 chance of surviving it – nearly twice as much chance as you have in the US, where the maternal mortality rate is worse than it is in Tajikistan and Saudi Arabia.

There are also 12.4 hospital beds per 1,000 people in South Korea.

Excluding data from North Korea (which can’t be trusted), that’s the fifth-highest total in the world – and stands dozens of places above the US, which has just 2.9 beds per 1,000 people.

This superior healthcare system has allowed South Korea to respond well to the COVID-19 pandemic – unlike the US, which has been one of the worst countries at handling the crisis.

COVID-19 has led to 1,979 deaths in South Korea, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. This contrasts starkly with the US, which has suffered 598,766 fatalities.

When you take the countries’ populations into account, people in the US have died at a rate 45 times higher than in South Korea.

1.35% of COVID-19 cases in South Korea have led to deaths – more than one-third lower than the US, where cases have killed 2.15% of people.

Healthcare in South Korea for foreigners

If you stay in South Korea for longer than six months, you must join the public healthcare system, and pay your monthly premium.

The government created this rule in 2019 after realising some foreign people had taken advantage of the previous system by ‘dining and dashing.’

You can no longer gain quick access to expensive treatments by paying low premiums, then leave the country when your treatment is complete.

You may not have to sign up yourself, as companies often sign up their workers as a matter of course.

Private medical insurance is common though, because South Korea’s system involves expensive co-payments that can rack up over time. Getting a private policy means you won’t be blindsided by these costs.

77% of South Korea’s population – 39.8 million people – are covered by private medical insurance, and if you want to join them, we recommend Cigna.

Start building a customized plan with a free quote to protect your most important assets – you and your family.

Do I need health insurance in South Korea?

Legally speaking, you must sign up to the public healthcare system after six months.

Practically speaking, you should seriously consider purchasing private medical insurance before that date, so your life isn’t derailed by a medical emergency.

Going half a year without health insurance is enormously risky – both for your finances, if anything unfortunate happens, and for your health, as being without insurance makes people less likely to seek treatment.

Benefits of private medical cover in South Korea

  • Shorter waiting times
  • It covers all of your costs, unlike the public system
  • Peace of mind
  • You’ll receive the highest level of care possible
  • Medical equipment is up-to-date
  • Fewer unexpected out-of-pocket expenses means you can budget your healthcare in advance
  • Staff will be more likely to speak English
  • The paperwork is also more likely to be in English

How much does health insurance cost in South Korea?

For an individual

On average, people in South Korea pay KRW 123,963 ($111) in private health insurance premiums each month, according to a 2018 NHIS survey.

That works out as $1,332 per year – though it’s worth getting a few different quotes, as prices can vary massively.

For a family

To cover a family of four in South Korea, it’ll cost you around $3,950 per year.

That means you’ll pay about $2.70 per day, per person to secure peace of mind – and a better level of care, if you ever need it.

What’s next?

If you want to protect yourself and your family with private health insurance in South Korea, we recommend Cigna.

With four levels of annual cover to choose from and extra modules for more flexibility, Cigna will sort you out with a plan that suits your needs. Start building a customized plan today, complete with a free quote.