While South Korea has not been on the traditional list of dream expat destinations, that may be changing. It’s an economic powerhouse exporting cars, mobile phones, TVs and more (think Hyundai, Kia, Samsung and LG), and that economic power has led to investment in their cities and people. For expats, it offers a high standard of living and comfort in a safe country.
Most expats in South Korea are either teaching English as a second language or work in the technology fields. The US has a large military presence in Seoul. Most expats have their jobs lined up before relocating. The E-2 foreign language instructor visas have strict requirements, and you will need a letter from your employer and a contract in order to get one.
All expats who plan to work will need a work permit. Your employer can apply for one on your behalf. Be aware that if you are relocating with a spouse, they will need their own work permit and visa in order to work.
Life and Lifestyle in South Korea
If you’re in a large city like Seoul or Incheon, your lifestyle will be thoroughly modern. Apartments are small but comfortable, with heating, air conditioning, modern appliances and conveniences. South Korea’s cities have expansive public transit systems (Seoul’s metro is one of the busiest in the world) so you may be able to do without a car. Food, rent and other living costs are high. If your employer does not find your apartment for you, you may have to come up with “key money”, an extraordinarily high deposit that will be returned to you at the end of the lease. The higher the key money, the lower your monthly rent.
If you’re in a smaller town or the country, your cost of living will be lower, but your apartment may not have the latest conveniences.
South Korea has good western healthcare covered by the government’s National Health Insurance. Private insurance is available, but it is both more expensive and not as readily accepted as the national plan. Expats should note that until they receive their Alien Registration Card, they are not covered by either the NHI or private health insurance.
An Alien Registration Card is also needed to open a bank account.
Despite English being a mandatory second language in the schools, most people do not speak English. Learning some Korean before you go is a good idea, as is mastering the Korean alphabet (hangul), as most signs, menus and other information are in these characters.
Moving with Kids
If you’re moving to South Korea with kids, you should know that the South Korean schools are very different from American schools, with an emphasis on academics and rote learning, and not much emphasis on extracurricular activities. South Koreans emphasize academic performance. An American style international school may be the better choice for expat kids.
Moving to South Korea
If you’re going, think about what you’re bringing carefully. With small apartments (often just a bedroom, kitchenette and bathroom) it may make the most sense to pack lightly. Whether you’re moving a whole house or just the essentials to get you through a couple years, you’ll want a good moving company to partner with for the move to South Korea.