IS SOUTH KOREA A GOOD PLACE TO LIVE? HOW MUCH IS A GOOD SALARY TO LIVE IN KOREA? LIFE IN KOREA AS A FOREIGNER?
South Korea has never really been on our bucket list of places to travel to. We always prioritized other countries in Asia. However, we ended up living in South Korea for 3 years. And what a fantastic experience it has been!
Life is definitely full of surprises, and quite often things do not turn out as per what we originally had in mind. However, moving to South Korea, was one of the best things which happened to us although it wasn’t in our plans at all. In this blog, we will tell you all about our experiences in this country particularly in the capital, Seoul, where we lived.
We lived in South Korea for 3 years
Like any place in the world, we learned that there are things we like about it and things which we didn’t really enjoy. But it’s all part of an expat experience, and definitely part of the fun after all! Otherwise, there wouldn’t be much to talk about back home!
In this blog post, we talk about our experience living in South Korea, the Cost of Living, What it’s like to work in Korea and so much more insights.
Welcome to South Korea
South Korea, the land of the morning calm, as they call it. South Korea, a small peaceful country, is one of those destinations that have managed to develop to a high degree of modernity while retaining all of their traditions.
During our 3 years living in South Korea, we traveled a lot and had this fantastic opportunity to discover a beautiful country full of contrasts, with amazing natural landscapes but also fun and exciting cities like Seoul and Busan.
We also had the chance to discover this fascinating culture, with sometimes a tough history behind it. But South Korean are resourceful, and today it is one of the most modern countries and the 11th largest economy in the world.
>> READ ALSO: LEARN EVERYTHING ABOUT THE KOREAN CULTURE
1. Why did we move to South Korea?
We lived in Hong Kong for 4 years and then in Singapore for almost 3 years. Then we got a job opportunity in Seoul and after weighing pros and cons (full post here), we decided to go live in South Korea.
We had been once in South Korea before, so we had a rough idea about what to expect when moving there. Besides the great job opportunity, we were also excited to experience a country with 4 seasons. We love snowboarding and Korea has some awesome ski resorts with state of the art facilities. Especially since the Olympics in 2018. So we could already imagine ourselves going on snowboard trips every weekends.
>> READ: 10 BEST SKI RESORTS IN SOUTH KOREA
By the way, if you are looking for a job in Korea, make sure to check our full guide here.
2. How to prepare for moving to South Korea?
As this wasn’t our first experience living abroad (Guillaume lived in more than 10 countries, and Hammer in 3 countries before that), we already knew the difficulties of moving to another country.
What we didn’t expect, is that compared to Singapore, it is much more difficult for foreigners to get fully settled. Opening a bank account, getting a phone, exchanging driving license, ordering food online, etc. It is such a hassle, really!
Before moving to South Korea, we kept hearing that it was such a modern country. Hence, we expected everything to be done in no time and fully digitally. However, opening a bank account required us to sign at least 20 different pages (all in Korean) and took us almost 1 hour (and the company even provided a translator for us… no kidding).
So before moving to South Korea, our advice is to have sufficient time before you start your actual job to get everything settled. It definitely takes more time than some other countries in Asia. So be patient, it will take a few weeks until you will start to feel more comfortable and “integrated” to your new life!
3. What is the cost of living in South Korea?
As expats, this is probably one of the first things we look up online. What should be my budget to have a comfortable life in Korea? How much does it cost to rent a place? Would we be able to save any money while living in South Korea?
Of course, it is always hard to answer all these questions, as everyone has different standards, different salaries and fringe benefits but also different lifestyles. So we can only talk from our own experience.
We actually could save a lot of money while living in South Korea and still enjoyed going out for dinner/drinks at least once a week, going for brunch (best brunch in Seoul here), and doing plenty of activities all year round (awesome day trips from Seoul here).
So let’s try to break it down for you:
Accommodation is for sure the biggest expense in Seoul. Prices are going up every year, and it’s more and more difficult to find affordable places in the capital.
If you are a family with 1 or 2 kids, want to live in Seoul in areas such as Hannam-Dong or Itaewon, and keep European/American standards, it would be really difficult to find anything below KRW 3.5 million (3,000 USD). As a couple or if you come alone, you could probably find a bit lower, but you might have to compromise on the quality of the place and/or the size.
The other thing to consider in Korea is the deposit. The traditional monthly rental system is fairly new in Korea. The majority of Koreans pay a very high deposit (~10 months in advance) in order to lower the rent. Another way to lower your rent is to pay all your monthly rentals upfront, which is most common.
We did not have that much savings, hence we negotiated with the agent and the landlord and settled on 5 5-month deposit. Which, was still very high, but better than 10 months or even 24 months! The landlord was also kind enough to pay water and internet bills for us… We only had to pay for electricity.
Like in many places in Asia, if you decide to eat local, then it will be very cheap! The good thing is that Korean food is really delicious. Hence, you can eat for very cheap most of the time. For roughly 10,000 KRW (9 USD), you can eat a lot! Most places have lunch set for about the same price.
If you decide to go for more Western restaurants (Italian food being the most popular), then expect prices similar to the US or Europe.
Cooking at home is of course also a good option. However, the price of fresh fruit and vegetables can be relatively high.
c) Transportation in Seoul
If you live and work in Seoul, then you don’t really need a car. Public transportation is really good, fast, reliable, and relatively cheap. Get a T-Money card (it can also be part of your debit card, ask your bank for it) to pay for pretty much every transportation including taxi.
However, if you want to start exploring outside of Seoul, although there are trains such as the KTX (fast train), or many buses, it would always be more convenient with a car. Buying a car, is not that expensive in Korea, especially if you opt for a local brand such as Kia and Hyundai.
The second-hand market is also very good and reliable. You can also check the accident history online for the vehicle you want to purchase. So the process is very transparent.
As a foreigner, income tax is applied at a flat rate of 20.5%. Which is quite often preferable, of course depending on your salary. You can also choose the same tax rate as local, but for us, it would have resulted in almost 30%.
Hence applying the flat rate was in our benefit. You can ask your company for more advice on that.
Our conclusion on the cost of living in South Korea
In 2020 Seoul ranked 11th most expensive city to live in. So yes, living in Seoul is not cheap. However, for us, as we lived in Singapore and Hong Kong before that, we felt that Seoul was definitely much cheaper. We finally managed to save money, while still enjoying our life and not trying to particularly restrict ourselves on anything.
If we were to move again in Seoul, we would probably opt for a slightly cheaper place to live, as we didn’t stay at home much. But other than that we were fine with the cost of living here. If you live in Busan, things would even be cheaper there.
>> READ: BUSAN VS SEOUL WHICH ONE IS BETTER?
4. What did you like about living in South Korea?
South Korea is such a beautiful country. We stayed in Korea during COVID, and could not travel abroad for obvious reasons. So we explored many places within South Korea and did not expect to see so many amazing places. On top of that, the 4 seasons are gorgeous in Korea.
In Winter, we enjoyed snowboarding a lot. In Spring, the cherry blossoms are everywhere and simply stunning. We particularly loved visiting the main Palaces in Seoul during Spring due to their beautiful gardens (main palaces in Seoul here).
We love adventure and Korea has a lot to offer in Summer, you can surf, do many watersports such as Wakeboarding and chill at awesome beaches, especially on the east coast near Gangneung and Yangyang.
Korean culture is also fascinating. We enjoyed discovering why all this hype around K-Pop, K-Drama, and all sorts of new Korean fashion. We started to watch many Korean Dramas, which also made us understand the Korean culture a bit more but also its history.
If you are new to Korean drama, we recommend Mr. Sunshine (available on Netflix), our first drama and we truly loved it.
5. Are there any bad things about South Korea?
As we write this post, the air pollution outside has been horrendous. Probably one of the worst days since we moved to Korea. Yes, early spring is the peak season for very bad air quality. Thankfully, bad air doesn’t happen too often, but still a few weeks per year, which is really unpleasant.
Another thing we did not enjoy in Seoul, is that it is very crowded… Indeed Seoul Metropolitan area has 25 million inhabitants… Traffic is often congested. Visiting a place all to yourself will of course never happen. So if you are not used to big cities, Seoul can be overwhelming at times.
Lastly, if you do not speak or read Korean, life would definitely be more difficult. Ordering things online, checking menus at restaurants, opening a bank account, etc. everything is in Korean. Google Translate quickly became the most used app on our phones. But well, the language barrier is what makes it fun and part of the expat experience. Besides, the Korean government offers free Korean lessons for foreigners.
Living in South Korea has its ups and downs like any other country in the world…
6. What do you recommend to visit in South Korea?
This is probably the hardest question to answer, as there are so many things we would like to recommend for people visiting South Korea.
In fact, we started this blog while living in South Korea, as we wanted to share all these amazing experiences about South Korea with the rest of the world. As there aren’t too many expats, nor as many tourists as in other Asian countries, information online wasn’t quite there when we moved to Seoul. So we decided to change that and ta-daaa: afuncouple.com was born!
Here are all our posts about South Korea. Enjoy the reading 🙂
But to make it easier, if you are new to South Korea, here are our top 3 recommendations, which are not always on guide books…
a) Jeonju Hanok Village
Jeonju is famous for its old town called Hanok Village. Hanok means traditional Korean houses, which are really beautiful. Visiting Jeonju should absolutely be on your travel itinerary in South Korea. Expect a romantic village, amazing food, peaceful Palaces, a surprisingly beautiful cathedral, and great parks.
We were pleasantly surprised during our visit on how gorgeous Jeonju is. And the good things is that there is train going there from Seoul and it can be visited within 1 day.
>> READ: FULL GUIDE TO A VISIT IN JEONJU
b) Boseong Green Tea Plantation
Did you know that Korea produces world-award-winning tea? Head to Boseong Green Tea Plantation to discover a majestic sight. Boseong Green Tea Plantation should be on your bucket list of things to visit in South Korea (trust us…).
Boseong is a district of South Korea, in the Jeolla region, famous for growing high-quality green tea. It is even the largest tea-producing region in the country, with nearly 40% of total production, for nearly 6 million plants. Impressive!
Head to Daehwan Dawon Green Tea Plantation for a gorgeous visit and hike between the green tea plantations. A magical day awaits you.
c) Udo Island near Jeju
Of course, you have heard of Jeju by now (if not, check out this post). Jeju is really beautiful, sometimes even nicknamed the Hawaii of Asia. However, we enjoyed even more a very small island accessible by ferry from Jeju, called Udo. Expect white sandy beaches, beautiful meadows, turquoise waters, and plenty of cute cafes and restaurants.
We will never forget our visit to Udo when we rented our electric tricycle and drove around the island. We had so much that day!
7. How to make friends in South Korea?
We made most of our friends through work, which was quite easy. Going for dinner or drinks after work is quite common. As you may have heard already, Koreans drink a lot of alcohol in general! With their national alcohol called Soju, South Korea has one of the highest per capita consumption of distilled spirits in the world.
We also made a lot of friends through our activities such as wakeboarding, snowboarding, surfing, and yoga.
So if you are outgoing, and enjoy sports or other activities, it will be quite easy to make new friends while living in South Korea.
8. Do you hang out with locals or mostly foreigners?
Actually both and it’s a great balance. However, our Korean friends are usually more accustomed to the Western world. Indeed, almost all of our Korean friends lived abroad for a while either to study (mostly in the US, Australia, and New Zealand) or for work. Therefore, they speak perfect English and understand Westerners much better.
Otherwise, still many Koreans struggle to speak English, so unfortunately the language barrier is sometimes the main reason why we couldn’t make more Korean friends.
But one thing is for sure, Koreans are really really really nice people. They always tried to help us in many different situations, always willing to share things with you and speak a few words of English whenever they could.
9. Is Seoul a great city to live in?
To be honest it took us a while to really appreciate Seoul. Compared to other cities we lived in before such as Singapore and Hong Kong, visually Seoul is not very attractive. There aren’t any landmark that stands out except for the Namsan Tower, which between us isn’t very pretty either.
However, the longer we lived in Seoul, the more we started to enjoy the city. Seoul is made of many different neighborhoods, which are all so different and for some really cute. It’s not a city where there is a clear city center and things around it. It’s definitely all mixed up. The good thing is that even after 3 years, we were still discovering new awesome neighborhoods every week which we had no clue about, and sometimes just because we took the wrong turn.
So to the question, Is Seoul a great city? Yes, it will grow on you! There are many things to do and visit in the city. If you like partying, bars and clubs open till dawn, if you like museums, there are countless of amazing Korean artists, if like us you enjoy being outdoors and doing some sports, there are many things to do in the city, such as hiking the Bukhansan National Park right in the middle of the city.
10. What is your most memorable moment while living in South Korea?
Certainly going on all these road trips in Korea, especially as we could not travel abroad due to COVID. We were so fortunate to be in South Korea during this time, as we were never on any lockdown and could travel freely within the country (of course by taking all the necessary precautions and respecting social distancing).
1 of our best trip was in the southern part of Korea. As sea lover, we visited 2 places called Nahmae and Geoje both surrounded by the sea.
Namhae is a real gem. It is famous for its slower pace of life, beautiful sea, and stunning nature. Namhae is completely underrated and not yet very touristy. The drive around the island is arguably one of the most scenic routes in Korea. Rugged ocean view, dense forests, tiny fishing village untouched by tourism, and paddy fields. Simply: WOW !
>> READ: DISCOVER NAHMAE IN SOUTH KOREA
11. Would you recommend others to live in South Korea?
South Korea is a fascinating country with so many things to offer. However, if you do not like big cities then Seoul would not make you very happy. Like most big cities nowadays, expect heavy traffic, crowded places and from time to time bad air quality.
To be honest, we do not really enjoy big cities. That’s why whenever we could we went out of Seoul, either for day trips during the weekend or for extended holidays. There is always something to do outside Seoul.
Korean culture is becoming more and more popular around the world. And many times, we encountered foreigners who moved to South Korea, just because they were fans of Korean trends and because of all the recent hype around South Korea. This was quite amusing to see, but made us enjoy Korea even more.
Lastly, living in South Korea as a foreigner proved to be more difficult than any other country we lived in before. Hence, we may not recommend South Korea as a first expat experience.
12. Is South Korea safe?
South Korea is one of the safest places on earth. It was really comfortable to live in South Korea, as we never had to consider our safety. You can easily leave your phone and wallet on a table in a restaurant or on a bench in a park, and no one will ever touch it.
However, when we moved to South Korea, our families were concerned due to the constant threat coming from North Korea. But, we never felt in any danger. The conflict between both Koreas has been going on for so many years now, that even locals don’t really bother anymore to follow the news about the conflict with North Korea…
13. Did you learn how to speak Korean?
A good thing about South Korea is that Korean is one of the easiest Asian languages to learn. First of all, there is a Korean alphabet, called Hangul, which consists of 24 letters.
So learning how to read comes very easily, which will help you a lot already when living in South Korea. Many words in Korean are a direct translation of English words. So you can get a sense of what is it about.
We then learned how to speak basic sentences and that was enough to survive in South Korea.
14. What’s your favorite dish in South Korea?
Another amazing thing about living in South Korea is the food! You probably read before that Korean food is absolutely delicious.
However, after 1 year of moving to Seoul, we decided to stop eating meat, from one day to another. Just trying to do our part to save the environment. Although the food in Korea is mostly meat-based, we were surprised to find so many alternative dishes for vegetarians or at least seafood. By the way we listed the best Vegan places in Seoul here and the best Vegan restaurants in Jeju here.
Our favorite dish, which is also one of the most popular is called Bibimpap. It’s a traditional bowl of rice mixed with many vegetables (it can also be served with meat). It has been recognized as one of the healthiest dishes in the world. You can’t avoid having a Bibimpap if you live in South Korea. The most famous ones are from Jeonju, which we talked about in this post earlier.
15. What surprised you about the Korean culture?
“Bali – Bali”! You will hear Koreans say that a lot. Basically, it means hurry up or going fast. Indeed, everything is super fast in Korea. Ordering food, online deliveries, basically any kind of service you get is generally very fast and efficient.
Another point that surprised us, is what South Korea went through in its history. The country has been invaded multiple times. Between 1910 and 1945, South Korea was part of the Empire of Japan following an annexation. By learning more about the history of Korea it helped us to understand Korea much better. As a result of all the wars and invasions Korea was quite a poor country for a long time. However, Koreans are very resilient and managed to rebuild the country many times, and it is today one of the wealthiest and most modern countries in the world.
Another aspect of what war brought to Korea is a sense of solidarity amongst its people. One event that really astonished us, was the gold-collecting campaign. Indeed, in 1998, South Korea had about USD 304 billion in foreign debt to the IMF. As a national sacrifice, 3.5 million Korean donated their gold to the government to repay part of the debt. About 227 tons of gold were collected during that event. Impressive, right?! This event has been called The Gold-Collecting-Campaign.
Lastly, all these foreign invasions over the years into Korea also brought a certain mistrust against foreigners even up until today. We are pretty sure that Koreans do not really mean it, but sometimes we feel a bit unwelcome. For example at the very early stage of COVID, Koreans would not allow foreigners to visit restaurants or other public places. For us living in Korea for a few years and then being rejected from a restaurant felt very discriminatory.
16. What do you do during weekends in Seoul?
Our weekends are usually quite full and vary depending on the seasons. But here is what our typical weekend would look like: Friday night meeting friends in Hongdae for drinks and dinner. We especially like places called Izakayas. Izakaya is a Japanese word which basically means “stay-drink-place.”. It is usually a great spot to grab a drink and eat some simple Japanese food.
On Saturday we would usually explore and walk around the city to discover new neighborhoods and for sure grab a coffee. South Korea is full of amazing cafes, which are awesome places to hang out. If the weather is good, make sure to check out those amazing outdoor cafes here.
On Sunday, we would usually try to do some outdoor sports. Either rent a bicycle and cycle along the Han River, or go wakeboarding / SUP or other watersports, or go hiking in Bukhansan Mountain.
We also enjoyed going on “Escape Room” which is also available in English. The concept of an Escape Room is that you are locked in a room for 60 minutes and need to solve riddles to get out. It’s really fun! It’s a concept that came from Japan.
17. How is work-life balance in South Korea?
Koreans are definitely very hard-working. The maximum working hours recently changed from 63 hours to 52 hours per week. Which is still very high. Although work-life balance has gotten better over the last few years, it is still very common to work overtime (and not be paid for it).
But at least Koreans know the concept of “Work Hard, Play Hard”. So even if you work late, Koreans would still meet up for dinner and drinks during the week.
18. What is the climate like in South Korea?
The climate in South Korea is divided into four very distinct seasons. Winters from late November to early March are Siberian cold, and fairly dry, especially in the northern area. In Seoul, it doesn’t snow a lot. Perhaps a few days in the year. There is more snow towards the east side of Korea, in the Gangwon area.
The summer, on the other hand, is rather hot and humid and is accompanied by a few sometimes quite dangerous typhoons. Note that during this monsoon period, the rains are generally torrential. Spring and autumn are the most pleasant seasons (cool and sunny).
In general South Korea is rather sunny the whole year except for the Summer months. The clear blue sky is the norm, which is really pleasant!
>> READ: BEST TIME TO VISIT SOUTH KOREA
19. As a foreigner is it easy to find a job in South Korea?
Absolutely not! If you do not have a job before coming to Korea and you don’t speak Korean, we wouldn’t say it’s impossible to find a job, but almost. We had a few friends who struggled for at least a year before they could find a job. Both in international companies and simply because speaking Korean was not really required thanks to their very specific skills.
The most common job for foreigners, however, is English Teacher. And for that, there are many programs and associations which can help you.
For the rest, we would strongly advise against coming to Korea without a job and trying to find something while you are there.
20. What have you learned from living abroad?
Traveling to a new country for a few days or a few weeks is always very fun. However, living abroad for over a year, it’s a completely new experience, which we would actually recommend to everyone.
Experiencing a new culture for an extended period of time opens up a completely new vision to the world. Living in another country teaches perspective about other people’s lives and cultures. People have different styles of thinking and working. And constantly adapting to this new culture, makes us more open-minded, but also more mindful of others.
Living abroad, no matter what, would always be a life-changing experience. The only recommendation we have is to be open and flexible when moving to a new country. Nothing is perfect and sometimes the process can be a little painful, however, you will never regret it. At least this is our philosophy.
Living in South Korea – CONCLUSION
We hope that you found this post useful. If you are considering moving to South Korea and you have other questions, feel free to leave a comment below or send us an email directly, you can find more information in the Contact Us section.
We wrote many posts about South Korea, if you want to read more, you can check them all here.
Happy traveling and take good care! A fun couple, Hammer and Guillaume