21 Things to Know Before Moving to South Korea
South Korea is one of Asia’s most exciting countries to live in. With the incredible city of Seoul, unbelievable food, breathtaking scenery, and temples galore, it’s no wonder more than a million expats (including around 150,000 Americans) call the ‘Land of the Morning Calm’ home.
But even if you’ve started packing your bags, there are still plenty of things to consider before you make the move. To help, we’ve put together this guide on everything you’ll need to know before moving to South Korea.
Seoul is a spectacular city
1. The work culture is intense
There isn’t much point sugarcoating it – South Koreans work incredibly hard, and if you’re moving there for work you’ll be expected to do so as well. The hours can be long and it’s not unheard of for people to work over the weekends (we’re talking office jobs here).
This work culture has contributed to South Korea’s status as one of the world’s fastest growing economies, but it also means that meeting company targets often requires a lot more work than many Westerners are used to. Even South Koreans sometimes struggle with this, and depression and burnout are worryingly common.
It’s not all bad news though, especially if you like forming close relationships at work. South Koreans see work relationships as pivotal to the success of a business, so you’re almost guaranteed to make friends!
If you’re moving to South Korea to teach, you’ll be pleased to learn the hours aren’t anywhere near as bad as they are for office workers (roughly 40 hours versus 52).
2. One-size-fits-all clothes are the norm
In the majority of South Korean clothing stores, you won’t find anywhere near the variety of sizes seen in Western outlets. What South Korean stores consider as plus size is different too, with their starting point being a Korean size 66, or a size 8 in US terms.
Finding a pair of jeans for anyone above this size is particularly difficult, so it might be best to pack a few more clothes just in case you struggle!
The reason why South Korean stores don’t stock much variety in sizes is hard to pin down, but one contributing factor is that obesity levels tend to be very low in the country. In fact, just 4.2% of Koreans are considered obese, compared to roughly 40% of Americans.
3. Expect to get stared at
Whilst South Korea has become a popular destination not only for expats, but tourists too, this hasn’t had much effect on how often the locals will stare at foreigners. Don’t take much offense though – it’s just a cultural quirk, and South Koreans don’t mean anything by it.
The staring isn’t quite as bad in a city like Seoul, but head into the smaller towns and rural areas and you’ll find people stare for a long time. This feeling of visibility can be uncomfortable for some, but oftentimes it’s best to just ignore it. You could even take it as a compliment!
4. Medical insurance is mandatory
Every foreigner living in South Korea for more than six months must pay a mandatory medical fee of $100 USD a month.
Healthcare in South Korea is generally very good, but if you’d like further protection, getting a comprehensive healthcare plan is never a bad idea.
5. English is more commonly spoken than you’d think
One of the biggest concerns people have about moving to any foreign country is the language barrier. No one wants to be wildly gesturing just to buy a bottle of water, for example. Thankfully, South Koreans tend to speak a decent amount of English – at least enough for most foreigners to get by, anyway.
Gyeongbokgung palace in spring, South Korea
6. Being a vegetarian or vegan can be tricky
You will find Western outlets in the major cities offering vegetarian and vegan cuisine, but generally speaking, it’s not too easy to come by in Korean restaurants and cafés. Most of the population enjoy a steady diet of meat and fish, with a good portion of outlets not even having vegetarian/vegan options available.
Currently, the percentage of Koreans that are either vegetarian or vegan is around 3%, which is actually a big increase over the less than 1% in 2010.
Koreans are a very friendly bunch though, so it’s always worth trying your luck and asking for a vegetarian or vegan version of a dish. Meals like ramen are particularly easy to remove meat from (make sure you double check whether it’s cooked with a meat or vegetable stock), but a ramen-only diet might get a bit boring after a while! Tofu is another popular choice for both vegetarians and vegans.
7. On the subject of food, expect to share
South Koreans love the communal aspect of going out to eat, so be prepared for wandering chopsticks looking to pinch your mandu (dumplings)! A really cool thing about many restaurants in South Korea is that you can often cook your own food. This might be a negative for some people, but there’s a lot of fun in having your own personal BBQ in the middle of the table.
Also, you’ll usually be sitting on the floor in restaurants, though it’s not a case of parking your keister on a hard floor – you’ll get either a cushion or a padded ‘chair’ without legs.
8. Prices here are high
Don’t come to South Korea expecting prices typical of many other countries in Asia, because you’ll be in for a shock. Seoul is especially pricey, with the average cost of living about $1,500 a month (including rent).
Of course, if you’re moving to South Korea from somewhere like New York, then the prices won’t surprise quite as much – but it’s still expensive.
You can find ways to reduce your spending though! Try to avoid Western food where you can, limit how much you drink, and keep an eye out for ‘buy one, get one free’ deals in supermarkets (look for the 1+1 signs).
When you move to South Korea, you’ll need to make sure you’ve converted enough cash to get by in the early months. We recommend using a trusted money transfer service, and thankfully we’ve already done the research to help you choose the right one. Check out our expert ratings and find the best money transfer provider today.
Food in South Korea is as varied as it is delicious
9. Transport is amazing
The buses, trains, subways, and taxis are all very well managed in South Korea, with arrival times typically measured in the seconds. Anyone who’s found themselves stuck in a New York yellow cab or dealing with heavy subway delays will quickly appreciate just how efficient transport is in South Korea.
Apart from taxis, most of the transportation options can be paid for with electronic transport cards. This makes travelling around the country very simple, as you’ll no longer be juggling multiple passes or worrying about not having enough change.
10. Deodorant is rare
This might sound like an odd one, but really, deodorant in South Korea is surprisingly hard to come by. And when you do find it, it usually costs far more than what you’d pay back home. As a result, most seasoned expats choose to import their chosen brand, or bring plenty with them when they make the move.
Why, though? Well, the simple reality is that most Koreans don’t actually sweat. It might sound unbelievable, but several years ago a study was done into the gene that causes people to either produce dry or wet earwax. What was then revealed was that people who produce wet earwax also produce the chemicals that cause underarm odor! Koreans overwhelmingly fall into the group of people who produce dry earwax, and therefore they don’t produce much (if any) body odor.
11. Internet in South Korea is incredibly fast
South Korea has some of the highest average internet speeds in the world, clocking in at an astonishing 214 Mbps (megabits per second). In a country famous for its online gaming culture and incredible internet infrastructure, this isn’t surprising.
You’ll be able to connect to high-speed WiFi throughout much of the country – but of course, don’t expect to get the same speeds in the very rural areas.
12. South Korea is very safe
The idea of leaving your home without locking the door is inconceivable for many, but in South Korea it is a daily reality. Many will happily leave their door unlocked on a night out, with little to no fear of someone robbing them.
This is all down to a high level of social trust and some of the lowest crime rates in an industrialized nation. You’ll generally have no issues at all walking the streets at night, but be aware that traffic can be a little dangerous. South Koreans sometimes choose to jump red lights, which can cause all the problems you’d expect.
Traditional street in Bukchon Hanok village in Seoul
13. The country is still officially at war with North Korea
Despite the armistice between South and North Korea in the 1950s, both countries still exist in a state of war. Physical spats have been few and far between of course, but it’s always important to be aware of the latest developments just in case.
Although military conscription is compulsory for males aged 18-28 years, there isn’t a strict military culture in South Korea at all. That being said, there remains an ever-present fear of the possibility of another war, but with North Korea as a neighbor, this isn’t too surprising.
14. Toilet paper… doesn’t go in the toilet
Something that’ll take some getting used to is the simple fact that South Koreans put their toilet paper in a (usually open) bin. It seems like this is an ingrained cultural thing and not an issue with the plumbing though, because Western restaurants have no issue with toilet paper being flushed!
15. South Korea is very clean, but expect to see men spitting in the streets all the time
The streets in the major cities of South Korea are almost impeccably clean, with most South Koreans having a real disdain for trash being chucked anywhere but a bin. However, it seems this disdain doesn’t extend to spitting. The men of South Korea can be seen spitting almost everywhere, which can be an unpleasant sight for those not used to it.
The reasons why are quite interesting – the majority view spitting as a cleansing act and indeed, see the Western habit of ‘collecting’ spit or phlegm in a handkerchief as pretty disgusting.
16. Karaoke and DVD rooms are a BIG thing on nights out
A typical night out for South Koreans involves either visiting a karaoke bar to sing their hearts out, or hiring a private room with friends to watch a movie. Lots of drinks and snacks are involved, but a word of warning about going to the movie rooms – it's still a social event, so if you want to actually hear what’s being said in the movie, you’ll be disappointed!
Changing of the guards at the King's palace – tradition still plays a big part in South Korean culture
17. Buddha’s birthday is a national holiday
Celebrated in May, the birthday of Buddha is a very important holiday for South Koreans. It is an opportunity for families and friends to congregate at the many temples across the country, with many giving offerings of food and flowers.
Many of the temples offer free food and tea, too! One common dish served is bipimbam, a rice dish topped with namul (sautéed and seasoned vegetables), or kimchi (traditional fermented vegetables), with a dash of gochujang (chilli pepper paste) and soy sauce.
Expect to see loads of beautiful yellow lanterns adorning homes, shops, restaurants, and just about any other building in sight as well.
18. Shoes are not worn inside, at all
If you go inside the home of a South Korean, do not forget to remove your shoes! Not doing so can be interpreted as a sign of disrespect. It’s a similar rule in the workplace, where you’ll either remove your shoes and walk around in socks, or wear special ‘inside’ shoes.
19. It’s considered rude to talk on your phone on public transport
Imagine you have errands to run or business to do, so you whip out your phone on the bus and start yapping away. Within seconds you’ll have South Koreans telling you to stop (meomchwo in Korean)! This is because people in South Korea are very respectful of each other, which extends to not ‘polluting’ the ears of others with loud phone calls.
One thing that’s pretty funny though, is that elderly people will often talk on their phones with the loudspeaker turned on. No one will ever tell an elderly person in South Korea what to do, however!
20. On that note, age is of great importance in South Korea
There is a lot of etiquette on how to treat people in South Korea according to their age, and it’s very important that you remember this. If someone is older than you, it is respectful to use both hands when you shake their hand, or offer a short bow.
This etiquette extends to eating and drinking as well. If you’re drinking with someone older than you, you must turn your head to the side when you do. Drinking whilst facing the older person is another sign of disrespect in South Korea.
21. South Korea’s ageing system is unique
Did you know that regardless of your actual age, in South Korea you gain a year on New Year's Eve? And that babies are considered one years old when born, because Koreans include time in the womb (they round up nine months to twelve)? This presents all sorts of interesting scenarios, including one where a baby born on December 31st will already be considered two years old!
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