South Korea is a wonderful country and life there is probably more similar to the Western countries than those in Asia. However, just like any other country or culture, if you plan on moving to Korea, you will definitely notice things you weren’t prepared for or had no idea why existed. So I’ve gathered 15 things that are useful and you must know before moving to South Korea! I hope this guide will help you be prepared for a new life in Korea and that the adjustment won’t be quite as hard.
Here are the 15 things you must know before moving to Korea
1. Phone cameras are never on silent
This will only apply to you if you plan on buying a phone in Korea. Since the prices of electronics are generally lower in Korea than most Western countries, there are some people who plan on buying all their new electronics in Korea. However, if you’re buying a phone in Korea, be aware that you won’t be able to mute the sound of the camera. Since it’s illegal to secretly take pictures of people (past problems of men taking pictures of girls from underneath on public transportation), all the phone cameras are on loud.
This is good to know in case you are wondering why no one turns off the shutter sound, I was quite surprised why no one mutes their phone, but then I found out about this!
2. No trash cans
There are basically no trash cans outside, so if you plan on getting something to go – be prepared to carry it with you all the way home! I would recommend carrying a little plastic bag (like those you’d have in a car) in your bag, especially if you’re going to have a banana or something else that’s not easy to store in a bag after its been used.
3. Shopping is mostly one-size-fits-all
If you plan on going on a shopping spree when moving to Korea, be aware that most of the cheaper station shops you will not only be unable to try on the clothes, you will also most likely only see them in very small sizes. Of course you also have bigger Western stores with more sizes, but they really are hard to come by. So, if you’re a bigger size (42 or L and up), be prepared to especially struggle with jeans. Shoes above the size 39 are also harder to find, so it might be worth bringing a few favorites with you before moving to Korea.
4. People will stare at you
And I don’t mind stare and look away when they see you saw them. The stares in Korea will be the intense, long kind. This is applied to all foreigners of all colors, but especially non-Asians. It’s nothing personal, so don’t be too offended by it – but just be prepared that you will not be invisible in Korea, especially in cities or towns smaller than Seoul.
5. Do not speak on your phone on public transport
If you’re the type of person who likes to get a few errands done on the phone while commuting to and from work, do not, and I mean it, do not do this in Korea. People are very respectful of each other in Korea and they will tell you to stop your phone call if you are speaking on it. Especially if it’s louder or longer. This is sometimes a little strange, because those older people that will tell you to stop talking, will then also take out their phones and speak on loudspeaker. But no one will ever tell anything to an older person in Korea.
6. Importance of age and respect
This topic would require a whole article in itself, but you need to remember that in Korea, age is of great importance. It is one of the first questions anyone will ask you and their entire relationship with them will be based on age.
A few good things to know about age is that when you shake hands, make sure to use two hands when you do it to people who are older than you. One hand can be used only with people of the same age, so those that are younger than you will use two hands. Eating and drinking also comes with a lot of etiquette, but remember that when you’re drinking alcohol with a person older than you, you must turn your head to the side and drink. You can’t drink it facing the other, older, person.
7. Low cut tops and short skirts
This one is very surprising, but when moving to Korea, make sure you dress appropriately. And by appropriately I mean, do not show off your cleavage or shoulders. However, short skirts are totally fine! Modest fashion is quite popular here though, so oftentimes the skirts and tops will cover everything. In trendier and more touristy areas it’s okay to live out your fashion goals, but always make sure you dress appropriately for work, meeting parents or going on a job interview etc.
8. You’ll get by with English
If you plan on moving to Korea (especially Seoul) for short term, then English will be just fine for you to get by. We had no problems finding the right buses or trains or buying things in stores. If you stay in Itaewon or Hongdae, you will also meet plenty of Koreans who will happily give you directions in English. I would recommend learning a few basic terms though, I use an app called Drops for learning easy phrases and words in Korean.
However, if you plan on moving to South Korea for a longer time, then you will really need to learn Korean. Paperwork, government errands, doctor visits, making friends etc., will definitely be harder if you don’t learn the language.
9. Weather forecasts are terrible
For us Swedes this is nothing unusual, but be prepared to cary an umbrella and sunglasses with you all the time, especially in the rainy season. The forecasts are often totally wrong, so don’t rely on those to plan your days or outfits. Everything can change in a moment! Luckily, the strong showers tend to be a little shorter, so you can just wait it out underneath a roof or go to a store if there’s one nearby. And in a store, you will have handy plastic umbrella bags!
10. Forget about Google maps
Before you are moving to Korea, you must download the Naver app and Naver Map app. Naver is pretty much the Korean equivalent to Google, so that’s what you’ll use to search for things (everything is easier to find if you have the Korean name for it) and Naver Maps to navigate. Google maps will be basically useless here and the taxi drivers have no idea where you’re trying to go if you show them Google maps.
There are plenty of other apps that are useful to have when you move to Korea and you can read all about them in this article.
11. Make sure you have enough money for a deposit
If you plan on moving to Korea for a longer time and want to rent a decent place, then you need to have some money saved up for your house deposit. The cheapest options will cost you around $1000-3000 USD in Seoul. The only way to get a place without a deposit is to live in a small room called ‘goshiwon’ (rent is around $400 USD per month), share the room with somebody else who already paid a deposit or choose and Airbnb. More on housing in this article that talks all about living in Korea.
12. Medical Insurance is a must
All foreigners are required to pay for a medical insurance of about $100 USD per month if their stay in Korea in longer than 6 months. Be prepared for that!
13. Vegetarian or vegan food
While there are plenty of Western choices and cute cafes with vegan options, being a vegetarian is not so easy in Korea (unless you don’t mind eating ramen often). Most of the people eat meat and fish and this is what the majority will also cook at home and the majority of the restaurants will only serve meat dishes. However, Koreans are also very kind and if you ask to go to a place where vegetarian options are available, then the majority will accommodate you.
14. Transportation cards
The first thing you need to do when you move to Korea is making sure to buy a transportation card in a nearby convenience store. Later on when you start lining in Korea and will need to make a bank account, ask bank workers to make your new check or credit card work as a transportation card as well as it’s a lot more convenient that way.
15. Food is extremely spicy
Be extra careful when you’re ordering or buying food in Korea. We made a huge mistake and bought ramen that was SO SPICY we couldn’t even breathe when eating it. Koreans love their spicy foods, so make sure you are fully aware of what you’re ordering and make sure to ask to make it less spicy if you can’t tolerate such foods.
I hope you found this guide to the 15 things you must know before moving to Korea useful! If you have any questions, just ask below and I’ll do my best to help you out. In this article, you can also see the 10 best things to do in Seoul.