Westerners may find living in South Korea challenging. The culture is different, and the language barrier can be difficult to overcome, but the country continues to attract many foreigners every year. In fact, more than 1 million foreigners are living in South Korea. Whether you are relocating for work or vacationing, here are some of the things to expect when you arrive.
Passports and Visas
There is an array of visas South Korea offers visitors. The most common ones are:
- Temporary Employment (C-4)
- Intra-Company Transfer (D-7)
- Foreign Language Teaching (E-2)
- Special Profession (E-5)
- Specially Designated Activities (E-7)
- Training Employment (E-8)
- Non-Professional Employment (E-9)
- Temporary Journalism (C-1)
- Short-Term Business (C-2)
As you can see, the majority of visas issued are job-related. If you plan on taking up gainful employment, you probably need a temporary employment visa (C-4).
Cost of Living
Seoul’s housing market is the most expensive in South Korea, but many areas are still more affordable than other developed countries. The housing quality, selection, and availability can be limited, however many places offer convenient access to businesses and provide comfortable living, especially for foreigners.
If you are thinking about living in Seoul, expect apartments to be tiny by Western standards. Not surprisingly, the further away from the city one moves, the more spacious the accommodation becomes. An interesting feature of Seoul’s many apartments is that they have switched out traditional locks and keys for electronic locks with magnetic door keys and number pads.
If you are experiencing homesickness or culture shock, large cities have ex-pat groups who hold regular meet-ups. If you stand out from the crowd, expected to get stared at by curious natives. This is not ill-intentioned, but reflects different social norms about staring and personal space.
Traditional Korean food is everywhere, and it is often at a reasonable price, depending on where you eat. Always be open-minded about new foods. If you are at a company dinner with your coworkers, to refuse a soju makes you seem unfriendly and unwilling to embrace the culture.
South Korea has all four seasons, and you can expect extreme temperatures for summer and winter. There has been no volcanic activity for well over a century, and earthquakes and typhoons are rare. Pack sensibly with outfits appropriate to the season during which you plan to visit.
Work and Education
South Korea has a strong work ethic. If you are a student, you can expect to study for long hours, and don’t even think about skipping work. If you do nap at your desk, it shows that you have worked hard and deserved it. Koreans traditionally form strong coworker bonds, so you can look forward to going out with your workmates in the evenings. They can be considered your second family.
Since public transportation is well-developed and abundant, owning a car is not necessary. Seoul’s subway system, the Seoul Metro, is one of the best in the world. As a pedestrian, be careful when crossing the streets as traffic can be unpredictable. Some tourists have complained about aggressive drivers, but overall it is quite safe for locals and tourists alike.
There is crime in all corners of the world if you know where to look for it, but in South Korea it is rare. Since firearms are illegal and only carried by law enforcement, crimes tend to be less violent. Like any foreign country, use common sense and always be aware of your surroundings.
It is important to note that 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. Stay updated with the news, and set a plan to reach your nearest embassy if needed.
If you are from the US or Canada, then you will be accustomed to the high standards found in Korea. They have excellent healthcare and a well functioning legal system, so if you are used to law firms like Diamond & Diamond, you’ll not be disappointed and will have no problem adjusting. In fact, South Korea is a rapidly growing destination for medical tourism.
Similar to Canada and the UK, South Korea has National Health Insurance, which is a universal health insurance program created by the Korean Ministry of Health. If you do not have your coverage upon arrival, it is mandatory for you to enrol in the program once you obtain your Alien Registration Card (ARC).
Be sure to inform the embassy of your stay, and keep your visas updated. If you are excited about learning new things and exploring a new lifestyle, South Korea is a great place to start.