Life Abroad
10 min

What To Keep in Mind When Moving to South Korea

South Korea is very different from other countries in terms of lifestyle and culture. When thinking about moving here, you might want to pack your whole apartment in a suitcase to make yourself comfortable in this country.

Don’t worry though — things are not that bad. StudyFree mentor Sofia Haustova has lived in Seoul for seven years now. In this article, she is talking about what international students should keep in mind when moving to South Korea, and what things should not scare them at all.

My Life in South Korea

The first time I was in South Korea was in the fall of 2014 when I was an undergraduate student. I had been taking Korean courses for several years and decided to go to a Korean university for six months to overcome language barriers. By the end of my internship, the barriers were still there. However, as soon as I returned home, I started to prepare paperwork to enroll in a graduate program here.

I was accepted to the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Seoul National University, the country’s best educational institution. The first months were hard. I had to look for learning resources myself, memorize a lot of theoretical information, come up with questions, and write essays for debates. The program was in academic Korean, which you don’t learn in any language courses. This experience taught me how to deal with any problem and fight through obstacles that seem too overwhelming at first.

In 2014, it was difficult for foreigners in Seoul. Fortunately, the city has become "friendlier" to international tastes since then. For example, now you can find stores and restaurants offering cuisines of different countries here. In the suburbs, there are giant malls with stores familiar to everyone, such as IKEA, H&M, or Zara Home. So if you don't like the local brands, you can easily recreate the atmosphere of home.

You don't have to worry about food either: you can enjoy European cuisine in Korea now. For example, I got tired of Korean food at some point, because it's quite heavy and spicy. So I would cook at home for a whole year. I would replace rice with cauliflower, eat a lot of buckwheat, make salads with sour cream, and drink fruit tea with homemade cookies in the evenings. 

Below, I’m giving tips on what to consider when moving to vibrant and dynamic South Korea as a student.

Two-week Quarantine Upon Arrival

In the new post-Covid reality, all foreigners coming to South Korea have to undergo a mandatory quarantine. Self-isolation regulations for citizens of different countries change every month, so you should request the latest information at your local Korean embassy before you come.

Universities usually provide accommodation for quarantine or help students find one. For example, most of those arriving in Seoul get a room or studio in an apartment building near the Incheon International Airport. The housing will be booked for you for two weeks before you even come.

The “quarantine" housing costs are covered by the student. A room provided by the university will cost an average of $1,300. If you book a hotel or room on your own, the price will range from $1,500 to $3,000.

Quarantine in South Korea is very strict. You will really have to stay in your room for the whole time which is generally from 10 to 14 days. Upon arrival, airport staff will help you install a special app on your phone.  That’s how your quarantine supervisor will contact you. This app has a tracking system so that your supervisor knows exactly where you are. Health officials may call you or even give you a visit to check if you are staying in the apartment.

The cost of living in "quarantine" housing includes breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Korean cuisine is quite specific. It has a lot of spices, oil, rice, and various kinds of meat. If you don’t feel like eating rice alone, I advise you to bring some snacks or instant foods. Make sure to go through the list of food products that you are allowed to bring into the country. For example, you cannot take fruit, meat, sausage, and cereals with you, while instant noodles, instant potatoes, candy, and coffee are okay.

Getting a Residence Card and Phone Number

In the first days after quarantine, you should get a residence card. It is going to be your main document in South Korea, something like an internal passport, which you should always carry with you.

You can get the card in the nearest immigration office that will issue it based on your long-term visa. Without it, you won’t be able to get a bank card, a permanent phone number, or sign a housing contract yourself.

During the pandemic, you need a Korean phone number not only to make calls but also to visit public places. Before going somewhere, you should use your phone to generate a QR code. This code is a kind of digital signature that contains your personal data. When entering a store or restaurant, you need to scan the QR code so that the system receives the data about the place you visited and at what time. If some person who was at this place at the same time you were is found to have coronavirus, health officials will contact and ask you to take a test too.

If you live in Seoul, you can get a temporary phone number from the Seoul Global Centre (or any Global Centre in your city). The Global Center is a government initiative that helps foreigners adjust to life in South Korea. They provide free language courses, legal advice, and help you get a temporary phone number with your passport when you don’t have a residence card yet.

You can open a bank account without a residence card using your passport. You will also receive a passbook that you can use to make transfers or withdraw cash from ATMs.

Finding a Place to Live

During self-isolation, use your time to take a close look into the Zig Bang or Piter Pan apps. You can see available apartments there, get an idea of prices and neighborhoods. After the quarantine, I recommend renting a room for a couple of days or a week to take time and find an apartment for long-term rent. You can find good options on Airbnb or Booking. These two platforms work well for those coming to Korea.

Finding permanent accommodation in South Korea is not so difficult or time-consuming. All you need to do is to come to a real estate agency and tell them what kind of housing you’re looking for and what your budget is. The next day they will show you a few options that meet your request.

Don’t be shy to go to different agencies because they all offer different housing. It’s a common practice to visit three or five agencies. If you don’t speak Korean, ask your Korean friends to accompany you to help you communicate with the agents.

In Korea, a deposit is very important when renting an apartment. The bigger the deposit, the lower the rent. It is extremely hard to rent a place without a deposit. When your lease expires, you’ll get the deposit back.

If you want to rent a good studio in Seoul, the deposit is likely to be from $5,000 to $10,000. In this case, the rent will be about $500 per month. With a deposit of $500-$2,000, you will be offered small student studio rooms. This option includes a small kitchen, toilet, and shower room, and most of the free space will be taken up by a closet, bed, and desk.

Gwanak-gu in the south is considered the cheapest neighborhood of the capital. Korea's largest university, Seoul National University, is located there. Rent prices are quite low there because there are mostly students living near the university.

Finding a Friend Speaking Korean While Learning It Yourself Too

In South Korea, many service workers are still shy to talk to foreigners. This is especially true when a foreigner has a problem that they need to address, such as renting an apartment, going to the doctor, or visiting a bank.

When you go to a real estate agency for the first time, it would be great if you could take a person who speaks Korean with you. Hearing their native language will make the agent feel more comfortable, and they will take your requests and preferences more seriously.

If you are sick, you’d better not go to a small clinic near your home. Doctors there are not used to dealing with foreigners and may just refuse to see you. Instead, go to a larger clinic where they speak English or where they have a medical translator.

For informal communication, when you don’t have to handle bureaucracy issues, English is enough. Koreans, especially young people, speak it quite well. I advise you to learn basic everyday phrases in Korean though, like how to say hello or thank someone.

What About Bedsheets and Pillowcases?

Most housing in South Korea, except for student rooms, is rented unfurnished. If you want to live in a separate apartment, you have to buy everything yourself, even a bed or refrigerator.

When buying bedding in South Korea, Europeans are in for a big surprise too. The thing is that they don’t have sheets, pillowcases, or blanket covers in stores here. In the first few years of my life in Seoul, there was no IKEA yet. Now the Swedish store is the only place where you can get this stuff.

Fast and Nonstop

People in Korea are used to working hard and doing everything promptly. That's why everything works quickly and efficiently руку. Buses run on a firm schedule, which you can see before you leave home to catch exactly what you need. There are convenience stores at every turn where you can find all the daily essentials, from ramen noodles that you can make right in the store to shampoos and phone chargers. You can come to Korea empty-handed and buy everything you need here, so don’t get stressed out if you’ve left something at home.

South Korea is also a country of express delivery. No wonder the delivery services of the main marketplaces are called "lightning" or "cheetah" delivery. This way, people here can totally focus on their work and not waste time on routine tasks. Stuff like books or personal hygiene products usually arrives the next day already, while food delivery takes no more than an hour.

Students in Korea buy textbooks themselves. One book costs around $20-60. Apart from the main textbook, you need to read a lot of extra literature. Some books are either not on sale in Korea, or they cost over $100-120. With Amazon, the delivery will take around three weeks.

Small print shops are a lifesaver. You can find them everywhere here. Students can print articles to prepare for classes, their reports, and home assignments for a small fee here. Besides, you can bring a rare library book, scan it, print it, and have it bound. This way, you get a quality copy of the book, where you can make notes and underline text. 

Unlike delivery services, banks and pharmacies are not that generous in terms of working hours. Banks are only open on weekdays and only till 15.30. There are almost no 24-hour pharmacies. Most outpatient clinics do not work on weekends. Of course, you can buy the most common cold remedies in convenience stores. However, if you need a more sophisticated medicine, you have to get a prescription from a doctor whom you can see only on weekdays until 6 p.m.

By Sofia Haustova