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Living in Korea as a Foreigner – Everything You Need to Know

If living in Korea is your dream or you just moved here and don’t know how things work here, I gathered lots of useful tips and tricks to make your life in Korea easier. In this article, you’ll be able to read about housing costs in Korea, food prices, transportation information, how the internet is in Korea, where to do some cheap shopping in Seoul. I’ve also included a few interesting facts and unwritten rules to make living in Korea easier for you to understand. This article can help you as a tourist, long term or short term visitor and it is regularly updated with new facts. If you want to know what more you can do in South Korea, then make sure you visit this destination page to get inspired.

How much money do you need to come to Korea

If you aren’t living in Korea yet, then this is a little screener for you to be prepared for the basic costs of living in Korea. The below expenses are approximate for one month of staying in Korea, whether you’re a tourist or a long-term visitor. Things like shopping and eating out will of course depend on you, but Korea is filled with amazing coffee shops, so it’s definitely not easy avoiding them and I recommend you take that into account!

Approximate monthly costs for a short-term stay:

  • Airline tickets from New York to Seoul from around $600 for a return ticket.
  • A decent Airbnb in Seoul will cost you around $300-500 per month.
  • Food is about $20-30 a day, and can be cheaper if you are staying somewhere with a kitchen (you always save by having at least one meal at home).
  • Transportation in Seoul is around $140 per month.
  • Prepaid sim card about 30$ per month (LG U+ for short term, they have cheapest plans)
  • Coffee shops, 1 drink costs around $2.5 – $6.
  • Shopping, $150 a month if you do unplanned shopping in stations, more if you go out with the intention of shopping (Korea has amazing shops so brace yourself).
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Cost of living in Seoul per month

If you plan on living in Seoul then here is the approximate cost of living in Seoul.

  • Rent for your own place, maintenance fee, utility bills, car and phone bills, $1400.
  • If you want to save up on rent, then look up 야놀자, 여기어때 (cheap motels, hotels) or a shared house and goshiwon (app is called 고방 or search “sharehouse” in Naver (Korean Google). Be careful when finding cheaper places to live in Korea and read this article on everything you need to know about finding housing in Korea.
  • Prepaid sim card, cheapest ones are about $30 per month.
  • Food for two people, eating out and grocery shopping, around $500 per month. This will depend very much on how often you eat out.
  • If you plan on taking public transport every day then buy a monthly card for about $140 per month. If you don’t need to commute daily then it will be about $50 per month if you only take public transport half the time.
  • Owning a car is not worth it in Seoul, but if you will then diesel is about $1.2 and gasoline $1.4 per 1L.
  • You get cheaper basic necessities from Daiso (such as chargers, tableware, cleaning products, candles, shampoos, toiletries etc.), about $10 per month

So the cost of living in Seoul for two people is roughly $2000 per month. If you plan to stay here long term, then make sure you have a steady source of income because living in Korea is definitely not cheap!

Do you need to speak Korean to live in Korea?

No, you do not need to speak Korean to live in Korea, however, it will make your life easier to know some Korean if you plan to stay here long term. If you are here for a shorter time or only touristing, then you will get by just fine with English. Of course, this means you already have a job that doesn’t require you to speak Korean, because finding a job without Korean is very hard!

I found translation apps very helpful for communicating with taxi drivers (none of them could speak English). But if you will have errands; in banks, you will find that at least one person will be able to help you in English, post office errands you barely need to speak and English will be fine, some real estate agencies can also offer you their service in English if you’re planning to buy or rent long-term. You can also hire a translator when visiting a hospital, but generally, you can find a doctor that speaks English and they will be very helpful.

If you live in Seoul you will also find big foreign communities or neighborhoods, such as Itaewon, a Russian community in Dongdaemun, or a French community in Seorae French village. If you want to find fellow ex-pats, then just have a browse around some Facebook groups as well, those will be very helpful for getting information fast.

Food in Korea

Food is very important to Koreans, even to the point where instead of asking how someone is doing or asking them to meet up, Koreans will say “Did you eat?” and “Let’s eat together sometime”. Actually, in Korea no one will ever ask you “How are you”, so always be prepared to talk about food instead of feelings haha!

The reasons why food is so important to Koreans dates back to the 50s when the Korean War broke out. One of the major problems was starvation, so a lot of people still remember those days and want to make sure their loved ones are well fed. Since eating out is quite cheap in Korea, Koreans love eating out. It is more common to meet in a restaurant than inviting people to your home.

If you happen to be a broke student, then go to the big supermarkets like Emart or Homeplus and get some free food samples. They will often have different things on sampling, but it can be anything from pizza to ramen and yogurt to cheese balls.

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Food prices in Korea

Living in Korea isn’t as cheap as a lot of other Asian countries. Since the minimum wage is quite similar to that in Sweden, you can expect food prices to also be quite high, especially imported goods and fruit. If you will want to save money on food, then make sure you buy from street market vendors, instead of supermarkets, you will definitely save a pretty penny doing that. Here are a few price examples so you can get yourself mentally prepared:

Milk, $2
Rice, 10kg $25-30
Eggs, 2 for $1
Potatoes, 1kg $3.50
Apples, 1kg $7
Cheese, 1kg $15
Grapes, one packet $15
Tomatoes, 1kg $6
Salmon, 500g $13
Chicken, 1kg $6
Pork, 500g $10
Emart ramen (민생라면), 0.3$

I compare all the prices with Numbeo, it’s basically a website that lets you compare everything from food to housing between any two countries. I compared Korea with Sweden. When living in Korea it is sometimes cheaper to eat out than cooking at home since the prices of certain groceries are even 150% higher than in Sweden! The photos below are from Pink Pool Cafe.

Transportation in Korea

Korea is very well connected to all its major cities and it’s even convenient to get to smaller towns, it just takes a little longer. The tips below will be for every type of transportation, but first a few things you should know:

  • Get Naver or Kakao maps before coming to Korea, Google Maps will not work properly in Korea.
  • Easiest way to navigate will be with your phone, so make sure you have a Korean SIM card or a portable WiFi.
  • Buy a transportation card (or 교통카드 in Korean) in any convenience store.
  • Recharge your transportation card in recharging machines at any subway station or in convenience stores. If you don’t have cash to recharge the card with, there are ATM’s in all subway stations.

Taxis

A good thing to know before you sit in a taxi in Seoul is that the black taxis are more expensive, so make sure you choose the orange, white, or other color ones. The starting prices of taxis during the day are 3.3$ and after midnight it’s 4.08$. Sometimes they might change those rates for foreigners, so make sure to check it carefully and make sure the taxi driver didn’t change it after seeing you’re a foreigner. It’s also better to use the Kakao taxi app so that you know you don’t get scammed.

I would say that getting a taxi is a good idea if you don’t need to travel long distances and need to arrive somewhere fast or in style. In this case, a 15-minute ride will cost you around $8 USD.

Car

Since Korea has one of the best public transportation systems in the world, owning a car is not the best decision to make while living here. Of course, if you live outside of a city and it takes a while to get to a store, school or hospital then I would say it’s worth it. But if you hate being stuck in traffic, then owning a car in Seoul is more of a luxury/status thing to do rather than convenience.

A lot of Koreans prefer to rent a car when they need it and ride public transportation on a daily basis. A car rental is about $50 a day (8 am to 11 pm).

Buses

Buses in Korea are easy and convenient to use and also make for the cheapest ways to get around in and out of the city. The buses also often have their own lines and cost about $1 for a single journey ride.

You can read more about buses here, but here is an explanation taken from the article of why the buses are different colors: blue buses travel are for long distances through Seoul; green buses for shorter distances and between transfer points, red buses are express buses that travel from Seoul to suburban areas; yellow buses operate on a closed circuit within a district of Seoul. Seoul also operates night bus routes, with service from 23:30 until 06:00 the following morning. Bus fare can be paid either by cash or transportation card when boarding.

Subway

By far the most convenient way to travel in the bigger cities when living in Korea. It is also the fastest way to travel since you will never be stuck in traffic, as most cars are. Subways are currently available in five bigger cities in Korea and they are favored by both locals and tourists alike. We traveled mostly by subway during our time in Seoul and it was easy, convenient, and cheap (around $1.1 USD for a single journey).

There are 23 lines in the Seoul subway and while they aren’t as easy to read at first, you will start to make sense of them after a couple of weeks. The subway trains are also very spacious (I compare it mostly to London, those are very tight in comparison) and some seats on the subways are heated so you don’ät get cold sitting on them in the winter. You will also be able to enjoy free WiFi inside.

If you’re afraid that you won’t understand where you need to get off, the train stations and directions on where to go are also written in English and the announcements on which stop you’re at are repeated in English, and in some stations even Chinese and Japanese. We were afraid we wouldn’t understand where to get off, but the subway system is very clear even for tourists so don’t be afraid to use it right away!

Kickboard or electric scooters

I’m pretty sure you’ll find these wherever you’re from as well, but even when living in Korea, renting a kickboard or electric scooter is easy and very convenient! They’re available all over Seoul and you just have a look at which brand it is and download the application for it on your phone. They cost approximately $6 for one hour and if you sign up for long-term use they will be cheaper.

The most common brands you’ll see on the streets are Lime (1200 won basic fee, 120 won per minute), Kickgoing (1000 won basic fee, 100 won per minute), and Xingxing in case you want to download the apps in advance. Also be aware that all kickboards require an international driver’s license, a credit card that can be used for payments in South Korea, and a mobile phone for verification. Make sure you use bicycle lanes when driving these.

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Internet in Korea

If you plan on living in Korea short or long term, you will notice that the internet is no problem when living in Korea, since the internet here is faster than almost anywhere in the world! This goes for big cities, tunnels under mountains, countryside with nothing but nature around and even on underground trains!

You will see that there is free public WiFi (Kkachi On) on bus lines, coffee shops, restaurants and even in some parts of the city. So, if you plan on being a digital nomad in Korea, the internet will never cause you problems.

Cheap shopping in Seoul

There are plenty of places you can shop for cheap clothes in Seoul and you will notice that some of the best and cheapest shopping can be done on your daily commute!

  • Express bus terminal station (고속터미널역) or Gangnam station: Big underground shopping center with decent prices
  • Dongdaemun night market: cheap shopping and a place where you can also negotiate prices.
  • Dongmyo market: for cheaper vintage clothes.
  • Hongdae shopping street: often one-size-fits-all, lower quality products, but with cheap prices. You will not be able to try it in these places.
  • Ewha women’s university shopping street: you’ll see lots of items being sold there for just $5. A tip I saw from a local: if you say you’re from Ewha university they will give you a discount.

A few interesting things to know about living in Korea

No tipping culture

You don’t need to worry about tipping in Korea since there is no tipping culture in Korean restaurants and coffee shops. When you’re done with your meal in a restaurant, you will often go to the cashier before you leave and pay. In coffee shops you usually order and pay at the same time, so no one will expect you to tip.

Red light districts

You might not notice it at first, but there are many ‘red light districts’ in Korea. These are often in the forms of ‘kissing rooms’, ‘love karaokes’, ‘love massage salons’, ‘Ofi’s’ (officetel girls). It is not uncommon for young couples to visit a motel together since most young people live with their parents and have no privacy. Even though these motels can be quite sunky, you will very often get free condoms, toothbrush and paste, hairpins, beauty samples, etc. 

Umbrella bags

When we went shopping in Seoul I was quite surprised at the amount of long plastic bags I saw at the entrance of bigger clothing stores. I then saw other people pack their umbrellas into this bag so it won’t drip around the entire shop while you’re shopping. I think it’s rather smart, but if you do use one, try and have it with you from the first shop to the others to avoid using several plastic umbrella bags per day. If you decide to leave your umbrella by the entrance in a basket, you may risk it getting stolen, so I suggest having it with you instead.

Public bathrooms

Drink all the milk tea and soju you want when living in Korea because public restrooms are totally free and they are everywhere (even underground stations). You will also notice that the public toilets are very clean, there is no excessive bad smell and some toilets are even heated! You will also find free restrooms in big buildings with lots of coffee shops, stores and offices and coffee shops, department stores, supermarkets, parks, and even some playgrounds.

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How to make Korean friends

Finding friends is one of the most difficult things to do when moving to a new country. And while it tends to be easier if you move for studies, it is especially hard if you move for love and don’t have a job or university lined up. You will need to be proactive when finding friends in Korea, especially if you want to meet locals.

The easiest way to meet Koreans is online. I would recommend HelloTalk and Interpals apps since the people there are already interested in something you are/have – language. Be patient and persistent and hopefully some of the conversations you have on those apps will lead to a real friendship!

Thank you to my HelloTalk friends, fellow Tiktokers, and Instagrammers for answering my questions and giving tips on living in Korea so I was able to comprise this helpful guide to anyone who is dreaming about living in Korea! If you notice that some things have changed or are not relevant anymore, please leave a comment and I will update the article.

Advantages of living in Korea

I often compare living in Korea to living in Sweden, simply because there are so many things similar in the way people behave and how organized daily life looks like. But here are the best advantages to living in Korea that also other ex-pats talk about:

It’s very safe

If you want to travel or live in Korea solo, you need not be afraid. The crime levels in Korea are very low because the punishments are very strict and it’s easy to get caught. You will often see Koreans leave all their belongings on the table (laptop, wallets, phone, and more) when going to the toilet in a coffee shop or in a library. Even if you lose your wallet somewhere, there is a very low chance someone will use your cards since itäs very easy to locate and identify the person who did it. So when you’re living in Korea you will definitely see more CCTV than usual.

People are respectful

This is very similar to Scandinavia, people like their personal space and will respect yours as much as they possibly can. Customer service is also one of the best in the world here, you will rarely encounter negative attitudes, but be aware that culture is different and some things that may be considered rude in your country, aren’t here. Such as saying ‘bless you’ when sneezing – no one will say anything in Korea. Or when people bump into you on the subway or the streets, they will not apologize, but not because they are rude, it’s just how it is. This is a little harder to adjust to, but you will get there.

Good healthcare system

All citizens have insurance which is covering almost 80% of their medical treatments. If you plan on living in Korea for more than 6 months, insurance will be obligatory for you as well. The insurance doesn’t include dentists or cosmetic procedures though. It costs around $100 per month.

Internet banking

I am a huge fan of the no-cash-culture and even though it’s still needed more in Korea than Sweden, you will also be able to easily transfer money or do online banking with just your phone. You will get all the needed instructions from your chosen bank, but you basically need to set up a Security Card (보안카드) for safety against identity theft and you’re good to go.

Convenience

Shopping online, fast deliveries, or 24h convenience shops on every corner. Everything is conveniently located and delivered in even less than a day. For most services you don’t even need to make a call anymore, you just download an app and get food, groceries, clothes, and more delivered straight to your door. 

When it comes to food, there are some apps, like “coupang eats”, that deliver a freshly cooked meal straight to you in only 10 to 15 minutes.

Buying second hand

If you want to buy anything second hand in Korea, use 당근마켓 or ‘Carrot Market’ in English. On here you’ll find everything from phones, furniture, kitchen utensils and more. It’s especially good if you are planning to buy something expensive and don’t want to waste money on getting new when the used version will be almost just as good!

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I hope you enjoyed this detailed guide on living in Korea! If there is anything else you wonder about or would like to add, then please let me know in the comments and I’ll add it in.

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