In this post we are listing the Pros and Cons of living in South Korea as an expat.
South Korea is a fantastic country to live as an expat. However, Korea is not the most common choice for expats in comparison with other nearby Asian countries such as Japan, Hong-Kong, Bangkok or Singapore.
If you have been reading our blog for a while or if you are following us on social media, you may already know that we lived in South Korea and more precisely in Seoul for 3 years. Before moving to South Korea we didn’t have any expectations, other than we were really looking forward for the great food, having 4 distinct seasons (as we lived in Singapore for 3 years before that), and experiencing a totally new culture.
In this post we list what are for us the Pros and Cons of living in South Korea. We hope that our impressions will be useful. If you are thinking about moving to South Korea, we also share our daily life experience living in South Korea here.
If you’ve never been or never lived in Asia before, be prepared for a cultural shock! For any westerner who arrives here for the first time, the change can be quite drastic. Although you may already know a few things about South Korea (K-pop, K-dramas, electronics brands, cosmetics etc.) Korea is not a very popular travel destinations yet and not the most popular place to live for expats.
However, today South Korea seems completely focused towards the future. The new generation has a strong appetite for achievement, dynamism and optimism. An enthusiasm that is attracting more and more people all over the world! Hence the expat community is growing.
Seoul is gigantic. One of the largest metropole in Asia with its 25 million inhabitants. When landing in Seoul for the first time and driving to the city, you will notice how big and stretched Seoul Metropolitan area is.
If you want to know more about South Korea before moving there, we suggest to read this post here. This is our full guide for living in South Korea.
So here is our take on the Pros and Cons of living in South Korea. Let’s start with the Pros 🙂
Seoul is often ranked in the top 10 safest cities in the world. Not only Seoul but pretty much everywhere in South Korea, you will be safe. You can walk on the street at pretty much any time and no one will bother you. You can leave your phone and wallet on the table at a restaurant or cafes and no one will even look at it. So if safety is one of your concern, South Korea definitely ticks that box 100% !
Another pros of living in South Korea, is that healthcare is very affordable and highly developed. South Korea is one of the most developed country when it comes to healthcare. South Koreans would usually go to the hospital even for minor symptoms to get it checked very quickly. If you work in South Korea, it is also mandatory to have a full body check every 2 years (usually paid by the company).
Pro: Public transports and infrastructure
Although South Korea is a “car” country and many people own a car, it is not really needed. Especially if you live in a city, public transports are really cheap and very convenient. It’s quite rate for a bus, train or subway to be late. South Korea also has a highly developed network of high speed trains called KTX. From Seoul you can reach Busan in 2 hours. The train stations are also very well connected with the bus and metro lines.
Make sure to get a T-Money card (티머니) upon arrival. You can basically pay every single transportation with this card including taxi. Convenient? Oh yes !
Pro: Speed and efficiency (“Pali-Pali” culure)
Perhaps the first word you will learn in Korea, is “pali-pali”. Basically it means fast/hurry-up. You will hear it many times on the street, or while talking with your colleagues. Whatever it is in South Korea, it has to be fast and efficient.
As an example, the first time we ordered groceries online, it was a Sunday late evening. The very next day at 7am, the food was already waiting in front of our door. Getting things delivered to your place is really common in Korea, super convenient and very fast – “Pali-Pali”. Check out websites or download apps like Coupang, 11STREET, Gmarket or Kurly market to order pretty much everything you need online.
We wrote a full article here to understand the Korean culture.
In South Korea, you’ve probably heard that food is amazing. Well, no secret here, it is really good. Although it takes a bit of time to find the good places, and understand the dishes name, once you know, YOU KNOW ! Ask your colleagues, friends or locals for advice. Usually the best restaurants do not look very fancy from the outside and can be quite intimidating at first. But no worries, you will always be welcomed as a foreigner.
If you want more westernized food and like brunch, we listed our favorite places here.
Although Koreans are known to be meat eaters, Vegan places are becoming more and more popular. We listed our favorite vegan restaurants in Seoul here and best Vegan places in Jeju here.
Pro: So many things to do and visit in Korea
This is what stroke us the most after moving to South Korea: there are so many things to visit in this country! So many, that this is actually the reason we started this blog in the first place. We wanted to list all these fantastic places, as many are not (yet) in most guide books. We wrote many posts about the best places to visit in South Korea (here are all our posts about Korea).
Here are a few of our favorite places to visit in South Korea and not very touristy:
- Boseong Green Tea Plantation. If you want to see amazing tea plantation, with world award winning tea, head to Boseong Green Tea Plantation. Check out everything you need to know here.
- Geoje: we love the sea and Geoje in the southern part of Korea, is a beautiful place surrounded by sea, with stunning islands such as Odeo (more info about Odeo here). We even joined a sailing and snorkeling trip during the summer. Make sure to visit Geoje when you are in South Korea. Here is our full guide.
- Namhae: we call it the hidden gem of South Korea. For some reasons not many people visit Namhae, however it is one of the most stunning place for nature lovers in Korea. Especially the GACHEON DARAENGI VILLAGE and paddy fields which look just like in Bali. Check out our post here.
If like us, you like the adventures, you will not be disappointed. You can do amazing hikes (here), go surfing (here), skiing in winter (here), go wakeboarding in summer (here) and so much more (all adventures here).
And if you want a short beach gateway, head to Jeju island, sometimes nicknamed the Hawaii of Asia. More info about Jeju, here.
Pro: AMAZING COFFEE
Surprised by this Pros? Well, read this then:
Believe it or not, but Koreans drink more coffees than they eat Kimchi. Indeed, the number of cafes in Korea exploded over the last few years. Starbucks counts most branches in Korea than anywhere else in the world.
According to the results of a 2019 study by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, Korea ranks as one of the countries with the most cafes in the world. Apparently Koreans drink more cafes in a week compared to many other nations including in South America or Europe.
South Koreans also brought the concept of cafes to another level. There are so many amazing concepts and themed cafes. Don’t be surprised if you drink a coffee next to a racoon, sheep or rabbits right in the middle of Seoul.
Here we compiled the list of the most incredible cafes in South Korea.
Also in Spring and Autumn the most beautiful seasons in South Korea, check out the best outdoor cafes in Seoul here.
Pro: Korea is becoming one the trendiest country in Asia
Have you heard of BTS yet? No! Oh common. BTS is THE most famous K-pop band in Korea. But BTS is also named the 25 most influential people on the internet and the 100 most influential people in the world. Their songs are widely popular in Korea, but also in the rest of the world. In 2020 BTS made history by dominating top two spots on Hot 100 US chart.
With this popularity, it is said that BTS contributes to the overall Korean economy and attracts more and more tourists in Korea.
Today, whether you are into fashion, cosmetics, K-Pop or K-drama South Korea is making a name for itself on the international scene. It is currently one of the best place to be in Asia!
Do you have any other Pros in mind? Share it in the comments below !
Let’s move on to the Cons of living in Korea:
Con: Language barrier
For some reasons, South Koreans are not very good in speaking English. One would expect that the new generation would speak more English, but it’s not quite true. Hence, everyday life can be an adventure: going to the bank, ordering food at restaurants, buying a train ticket, getting a taxi, going to supermarkets etc.
While it can be quite troublesome and frustrating at times, Koreans who can speak English are usually more than happy to help you in those situations. We had many friends and colleagues who we would call when we needed help because of the language barrier. You will always find your way, don’t worry. This is part of the fun in an expat experience!
Con: Not as foreigner friendly compared to other Asian counties
People may argue with that, but for us coming from 2 previous expat experiences in Hong Kong and Singapore, it felt very difficult to get settled in Korea.
Since the number of expats, although increasing, is still relatively small, many services are not really catered for foreigners. For example, opening a bank account, when no one speak English and having to sign over 10 forms all in Korean is not a very pleasant experience. Also, if you do not have a Korean phone number, it is practically impossible to order anything online. Getting a local phone number should be your number 1 priority. This will make your life much easier.
Getting a local driving license is also very troublesome, as you need to exchange it with your own driving license. The government will keep your original document and when you return to your home country you can pick up your own driving license again by presenting your flight ticket. What a strange concept, isn’t it?
Also most of the common apps used worldwide, do not work well here. You need to download local apps, which are often not translated in English. For example Google search is replaced by Naver Search, Google Maps is not working well and most people use Kakao Map. Forget about Amazon, you need to switch to Coupang or 11STREET etc.
All these little things make it less foreigner friendly in our opinion. Overall it took us much longer to get fully settled in South Korea compared to Hong Kong and Singapore. However, once everything is settled, you have a local phone number, local credit card, local bank account, things are getting really convenient.
Seoul is one of the most expensive city in the world. In 2019 it ranked 7th most expensive city on par with New-York by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). Food is not very cheap, especially for imported products. A cup of coffee can sometimes go as high as 7 to 10 USD !
One major Cons, is the renting system for accommodation. First of all accommodation is very expensive and the value for money is not very good. On the other hand, the renting system is very special in Korea. Either you need to pay the whole amount of the property upfront and then no monthly rental fee (which obviously requires a huge amount of savings), or pay a very high deposit up to 12 months worth of rent upfront. The higher the deposit, the lower the rent. This is the standard way to negotiate a lower rent.
However both options requires a lot of money upfront. So be aware of that if you decide to move to South Korea. We had to pay 5 months upfront + the first rent and the real estate agent fees equivalent to 1.5 months of rent. That was quite a lot to be honest! Thanks god, we had some money aside.
The good news, is that many Koreans are adapting to the international model, and will accept lower deposit for foreigner. But not all. If you want to know more about the rental structure in Korea and look for the best neighborhood in Seoul, check out this post here.
Seoul and the main cities in Korea are often congested. On the weekend going in and out of Seoul is always very stressful and lot of time is spent stuck in the traffic. In the weekday during peak hours expect the same.
However the infrastructures are really good and traffic not that bad once you are out of the city. The best way is to adjust your routine by going earlier at work for example. If you intend to drive to work, it is advisable to find a house near your workplace. And be aware that sometimes to drive just a few kilometers it can take 1 hour depending on where you are in the city. So distance is not the only factor.
On top of heavy traffic, also expect reckless drivers. The rules are not really enforced in South Korea. We have seen people crossing red light so many times, even in front of policeman and they did not say anything. It is common to have people stopping on the side of the highway without really looking behind, cutting lane right in front of you, people overtaking from left and right. Basically there aren’t real rules when driving in South Korea. Or at least, that’s what we felt…
Con: Air Pollution
Unfortunately in the recent years the air pollution in Korea is getting worse. In 2019, the government even had to pass emergency measures to tackle the air pollution problem after record levels of fine dust. The government used emergency funds to install high-capacity air purifiers in classrooms, encouraged sales of liquified petroleum gas vehicles or electric vehicle, and implemented policies to curb the use of coal-fired power stations.
Don’t be too scared though, it’s not every day like that and not as bad as other cities in China or India. Just be aware of it. Some people wear masks during high pollution peaks. We also invested in air purifiers in our home which really helped lowering the level of fine dusts inside our house. But in the 3 years we lived in South Korea, it was probably very bad 2 to 3 weeks a year only.
Con: Harsh winter
If you do not like Winter, then South Korea might not be for you. Winter can be really harsh here with Siberian wind and temperature as low as -20 degrees Celsius. The first thing we did in Winter is invest in a very thick Korean Winter Jacket. Best investment we did in Korea, as it was really worth it!
It doesn’t snow too much, and most of the time it is sunny at least. However, if you like snowboarding, make sure to check the best ski resorts here. Our favorite one is Phoenix Park, we wrote a full guide here and a made a video here.
Con: Limited work-life balance
Koreans are some of the hardest working people in the world. Actually, not only at work, but right from school at a very young age. Kids are being challenged to succeed. It is the norm that after school kids will have private teacher for various topics until late at night.
It then continues in their professional life, when working hours are really long. Recently the government reduced the maximum working hours from 63 to 52h per week. This is still a lot. And don’t count on resting and taking long breaks, since most company only offers 10 to 15 days of leave per year.
In the 3 years we lived in Seoul, there was a clear effort from the government to push companies to reduce their working hours and implement clear control to enforce the 52 hours work per week. So overall, things got much better over time. We managed to finish work at reasonable hours. Which was good. However, still expect to work hard in South Korea!
Con: Technically still at war…
To be honest this is not a major Cons… However, when we decided to move to South Korea, this was our families first concern: “what about North Korea? It must be dangerous to be in South Korea? etc.”
Well, Koreans don’t talk about it much, and would rather make jokes about the current situation. It’s been like that for so long, that it doesn’t feel that South Korea and North Korea are still at war. Perhaps the only time you will realize it, is when you visit the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the border between the North and the South. So don’t worry too much about it.
Conclusion about the Pros and Cons of living in South Korea
Like in any country in the world, there are things we like and things we don’t like. However, having lived in so many different countries now, we learned that we always adapt and adjust ourselves to the places we live. Ultimately the good things will prevail. And the things we didn’t like make up for some good and fun stories back home.
Living in a new country is always a fantastic experience. We always enjoy the first few months, when everything is new, everyday we learn about something else and we can’t wait to talk about our new life to our friends and family back home.
If you ever have the chance to move to South Korea, do not hesitate. It is a great place to live, with plenty of things to do and see. It is the occasion to discover a unique culture, with fantastic tradition, interesting history, delicious food and very nice people. This is certainly what we remember the most about South Korea.
We hope that you found this post useful about the pros and cons of living in South Korea. We wrote many posts about South Korea. You can check them all out by clicking here. If you are moving to South Korea soon, make sure to read our full guide for expat here.
Links to related articles
- COMPLETE GUIDE FOR LIVING IN SOUTH KOREA
- UNDERSTANDING THE KOREAN CULTURE
- FINDING A JOB IN KOREA
- LIVING IN SOUTH KOREA
- THE BEST TIME TO VISIT SOUTH KOREA
- BEST SKI RESORTS
- AWESOME DAY TRIPS FROM SEOUL
- BEST THINGS TO DO IN SOUTH KOREA
- BES THINGS TO DO IN SEOUL
- TOP ADVENTURES NEAR SEOUL
- FUN THINGS TO DO IN WEEKENDS IN SEOUL
Thanks for the post! I wanted to know what kind of pros and cons are there as expats
Hi, I love your blog! And I need some advice…Through my husband’s job we have a chance to move to Singapore or Seoul. I know Singapore quite well but I’ve never been to Korea. Would you recommend Singapore over Seoul, or visa versa? Thanks
Hi Hammer and Guillame,
I am enjoying your Korea blog a lot.
We have the opportunity to move to Seoul or Singapore in a few months. We have a 2 year old. Can you recommend one of those cities over the other?
A Fun Couple
Hi Lilly, thanks for your message. We sent you an email with more comments. Hope this helps 🙂