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10 Tips for Living in Korea

By Betsy Burlingame

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Summary: Expats in Korea agree that traffic is terrible and should be taken into serious consideration when deciding how far from work and school to look for homes. Expats also agree that Korea is a very homogenous society and foreigners will get lots of stares.

Expat Korea - 10 Tips for Living in Korea

Deciding where to Live in Korea

"We chose to live in Itaewon because the area is between yonhi-dong (where SFS is located) and samsung-dong (where my husband works). If we live near either, the other would suffer with the traffic during peak hours. There are other nice areas like Sumbok-dong or UN village in hannah-dong, but you need your car just to get out whilst Itaewon has the subway. It depends on the priorities of each family," explained one expat in Itaewon near Seoul.

"Live close to work. Life is hard enough without a 1-2 hour commute--especially if it's on a bus, subway or (for the purely insane) driving your own car here. For an expat, who should be thinking of a compromise between their home culture/lifestyle and their adopted one, getting a smaller place that's closer to work may be better than a large apartment (no houses here, unless you're way out of town or really loaded) that is far away may be the difference between happiness and h#ll," advised another expat.

"If you are a family, stay in a hotel until you discover the neighborhood you desire. How I would find that neighborhood is to seek out your child's school counselor or principal and ask what neighborhoods do most expat students live in. Then hire an expat service to find housing in those areas at your price range. ARM, Asian Relocation Mangement Korea, is a very good expat service company (phone in Korea: 011-9547-8383). My husband relocated to Korea first and chose a location close to subways and shopping - an area called Itaewon. Unfortunately, if I had to do it again, I would not choose this neighborhood. The area is frequented by singles and there are many bars. Not necessarily the best neighborhood for raising children," said another expat.

Housing in Korea

"There are 3 kinds of living accommodations in Korea. 1 - house. 2 - Villa (which is what they call a low-rise apartment so therefore less spacious than a house). 3 - apartments (or condos). We lived in a villa as that was what we could get for our budget. Not bad at all since to heat everything during those cold korean winters would be ridiculously expensive. Korean houses have floor heating and a villa and apartment could benefit from the floor heating of the upstairs," described one expat.

Meeting People in Korea

"Daejeon offers a variety of activities for expats. There are book clubs, sports organizations, artist collectives, and volunteer opportunities. However, the frequency of participation tends to vary greatly, depending on the current expats living in Daejeon. Since the majority of the expats in Daejeon are EFL teachers serving one year contracts, there is quite a turnover and variance within the expat community. There is a monthly publication called the Daejeon Access that focuses on expat happenings. Also, other expat-oriented information can be found at hang-outs frequented by foreigners. Santa Claus (the best known bar in Daejeon) and Brickhouse (a very popular expat spot) are great places to plug into the Daejeon ex-pat scene," said one expat living in Daejeon.

"Some I've found, but could not really take full advantage of, are: www.seoulclub.co.kr (a language/events club), www.adventurekorea.com (an event/language club) and www.ccck.org (Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Korea). Bar-hopping in Itaewon (especially during a Rugby or Football/Soccer game) is sure to turn up many, many expats from all over the globe. For those who prefer more Godly gatherings there is the (reputed) largest church in the world in Yeoido, where I live, that has a congregation of something like 700,000 as of a couple of years ago--traffic is pretty brutal on Sunday as many are bussed in for the SIX packed services throughout the day," one expat living in Seoul explained.

What to Bring...What to Leave Behind

One expat said that he could have left at home, "all my clothes. Well, I needed something to start out with, but found I could get good, cheap and well-fitting clothes here with little problem (of course my Korean in-laws helped). 2 suits, 2 pants, 4 shirts, 4 undershirt and 2 ties for about 550 USD. (And I am about 6 foot...not the easiest size to fit over here.) My old leather briefcase. No one has an old briefcase here. The first thing my boss said when he hired me was "Get a new attache". Luckily they are cheap, plentiful and easy to find here."

"Floor heaters - I only have two and it gets really cold in Korea. The utilities bill is outrageous. Using the whole house heater really runs up the bill. It would be nice just to heat the required rooms and close the door of the others," said another expat.

"Salting for ice on driveway, walkway, and parts of street. Despite the heavy snow fall and sheets of ice that form, the Seoul city does not clear its streets. Slipping is a constant hazard and finding salting material is near impossible. For 2 months out of the year, my walkway to my front door is a sheet of ice," suggested one expat who moved to Seoul.

Working in Korea

An expat in Busan, Korea said, "a wise coworker once told me, "Never ask a why question (if your boss is Korean), chances are you won't get a direct answer or the same answer twice. Just go with the flow, it will save you a whole lot of frustration. Instead, just ask yourself, why not?"

"The one thing that may be different from cities in the West is the emphasis on connections in getting jobs, positions and titles. It was said that you need a connection even to get a job in a toll-booth...and this may be true. Friends do business with friends here and they hire their friends and relatives of friends and friends of relatives and friends of friends. Once you're in you're golden, but to be an outsider is tougher," said another expat.

"The majority of expats are employed in the EFL industry. As is true throughout Korea, these jobs are easy to find and are readily available. As mentioned before, the science and technology sector employs some foreigners too, but the job market is quite competitive. Finding a job in Daejeon (EFL industry) is probably best done through a recruiter. They have the best access to the highest number of jobs and can place you accordingly. Most expats don't "choose" Daejeon when they first arrive, but there is a decent number who stay here after their first year," advised one expat.

One expat said, "Business Cards are a BIG thing. When given a business card, actually take 30 or so seconds to look at it. Put it in a shirt pocket or your wallet. Do NOT put it in your back pocket and sit on it. The card is a reflection of the person!"

International Schools in Korea

Expats have submitted dozens of reviews of international schools in Korea such as Seoul Foreign School and Taejon Christian International School.

Diversity in Korea

"Korea is a VERY homogenous society, so diversity is rare and uncommon, especially outside of Seoul. Those who are not Korean can expect the typical stares that are ubiquitous throughout Korea, and the uttering of "waegook saram" which means foreigner, is also quite common. That said, overt racism is almost non-existent in Daejeon and those of non-Korean descent typically enjoy a high quality of life. The expat community in Daejeon is relatively small and it is possible to go about your day without seeing another foreign face. However, within the expat community there is an array of cultural backgrounds present, mostly due to the large international student presence at Daejeon's universities, and the science and technology sector, which attracts people from around the world, particularly India. Diversity is most noticeable in the Oeun/Gung-dong neighborhoods on Daejeon's west side. These two neighborhoods are sandwiched between Chungnam University and KAIST, both of which have considerable international student bodies. These neighborhoods, especially Gung-dong, are also popular EFL teacher hang-outs. Here you can find a variety of foreign food, such as North African and Pakistani, plus a variety of businesses that have an expat friendly vibe. There is also a Muslim place of worship here (just a small room), the only one in the city," explained on expat in Korea.

Combating Homesickness in Korea

One expat in Chinhae described his homesickness, "Periodic homesickness for simple things like a THICK hamburger or steak, an actual drink of brandy, a draft microbrew! We avoided homesickness for American TV by employing the aide of a Slingbox before relocating. A quick netsearch on slingbox will provide any info you may want. After watching Korean TV in Korean for a while, language becomes noise. So this was one of the best things we could have done.

The Korean Culture

"VERY family oriented culture. VERY helpful people, although reserved to strangers. Hierarchal-based society. Very proud, hardworking people," said one expat in Chinhae.

"Tipping...there is NO tipping in South Korea - period. Not for waitresses, taxi drivers, Concierges, Room Service, ANYTHING. They take pride in what and how they do things they are paid to do. Tipping is an insult," advised one expat.

Bathroom Tips

"Always carry a small thing of toilet tissue in your purse; most public restrooms have rolls out by the entry door to the bathroom. Be sure to grab a good handful before going into the stall. Otherwise I think you may be setting yourself up for an interesting sequence of nasty events," said one expat in Busan.

About the Author

Betsy Burlingame Betsy Burlingame is the Founder and President of Expat Exchange and is one of the Founders of Digital Nomad Exchange. She launched Expat Exchange in 1997 as her Master's thesis project at NYU. Prior to Expat Exchange, Betsy worked at AT&T in International and Mass Market Marketing. She graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University with a BA in International Business and German.

Some of Betsy's articles include 12 Best Places to Live in Portugal, 7 Best Places to Live in Panama and 12 Things to Know Before Moving to the Dominican Republic. Betsy loves to travel and spend time with her family. Connect with Betsy on LinkedIn.

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Feb 12, 2013 18:18

Not much has been written about life in Korea, that was really interesting I hope there will be more to follow! How is the weather and the beaches there I wonder? Good job!

Feb 19, 2013 22:25

Good Job. I traveled to Korea several times each year for at least 15 years. Early on their was a curfew which was no problem for foreighners. Because Americans have been their since the Koran War it is releativelly easy to get around. The trains are easy to use. I enjoyed it , even the winters.

Feb 21, 2013 02:00

We are relocating to Jeju Island August 1st and I hear the beaches are good there I hear.

Feb 23, 2013 02:08

To the reader who is relocating to Jeju on August 1st. Are you by chance going to be at the International School of Korea in Jeju? We are moving there August first also for my husband to teach there. Since our dates of the same, I just wondered.

Feb 23, 2013 02:10

Is ice on the streets a problem on the island of Jeju?

Feb 26, 2013 09:45

What about bringing a dog to Korea? My wife and I are moving to Jeju Island and have a small (55lb.) yellow lab. Do you have any advice on bringing a dog? Are their hardships...aside from the flight over? Are dogs welcome there? Will our dog be happy there?

Dec 5, 2016 14:45

Hello, I would like to say things are changing. Since Korea is fast-moving society, it is not easy to generalize. (e.g. most of the public toilets now have the tissue inside...and people actually doesn't care that much about foreigner until they seem to be need some help....and so on.)

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