Moving to South Korea
A comprehensive guide to moving to South Korea
Expats in South Korea do not only benefit from the fast economic growth of the country. It is also a fascinating nation where rapid advancement and Confucian traditions co-exist. Read our InterNations GO! guide on moving to South Korea for info on visas, public transportation, and the government.
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Relocating to South Korea
When moving to South Korea, you will get to experience a country with a rich cultural heritage and historical background. The independent state of Korea has existed for several millennia. Following the Korean War in the 1950s, the nation was divided. Unlike its northern neighbor, South Korea saw rapid economic growth in the years that followed. Although tensions between the North and the South still keep resurfacing, South Korea is a modern democracy in every way.
The South Korean Government
South Korea has nine provinces, six metropolitan cities, as well as one special city (Seoul) and one self-governing city (Sejong). Its legal system combines European civil law and Anglo-American law with Chinese classical thought. South Korea’s president is elected by popular vote for a five-year term. The State Council, completing the executive branch of the government, is appointed based on the prime minister’s recommendations.
The legislative branch is made up of the National Assembly or Kukhoe with 300 seats. The judicial branch, on the other hand, consists of the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court. Supreme Court justices are appointed by the president and with the consent of the National Assembly. Justices of the Constitutional Court are nominated by the National Assembly and by the Chief Justice of the court.
An Economy of Opportunities and Challenges
Expats moving to South Korea will be happy to learn that this country does not only show a record high in growth and global integration. The government also continues to take measures to push the high-tech industrialized economy. Its system of close government and business ties as well as its directed credit and import restrictions have allowed South Korea to become one of the world’s largest economies.
Even after the brief financial crisis towards the end of the 20th century, moving to South Korea remains a good idea. The crisis led to greater openness towards foreign investments and imports. However, like any other country, South Korea faces various long-term challenges. These include a rapidly aging society, an inflexible labor market, and an overdependence on manufacturing exports.
Summer and Winter in South Korea — The Ultimate Extremes
Upon moving to South Korea, you will soon find that temperatures vary considerably between midsummer and midwinter. You should prepare yourself for very hot and sticky weather in August and freezing cold weather in January and December. In addition, many expats who are used to a more moderate climate will be surprised by the heavy rainfalls during monsoon season in June and July.
Spring and fall are probably the best seasons for moving to South Korea, with sunny and warm days and mild temperatures. Winters are quite dry but often bitterly cold. Indeed, Siberian winds will drag temperatures below zero. Should you move to South Korea during winter, you will quickly begin to appreciate ondol (underfloor heating) and oncheon (hot spring spas). Peak summer, on the other hand, starts off with monsoon season during which South Korea receives 60% of its annual rainfall. Hot and humid weather is the norm, and there’s a chance of typhoons.
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Visa Requirements for South Korea
Types of Visas
South Korea offers different visa types for expats who visit the country to work or do business. The duration of your stay and your type of employment usually determines which kind of visa you need to apply for. The most common ones are:
- Temporary Employment (C-4)
- Intra-Company Transfer (D-7)
- Foreign Language Teaching (E-2)
- Special Profession (E-5)
- Specially Designated Activities (E-7)
- Training Employment (E-8)
- Non-Professional Employment (E-9)
- Temporary Journalism (C-1)
- Short-Term Business (C-2)
Once you have received your visa, you have to enter the country within the following 90 days. After this period of time, your visa expires and you have to go through the application process once again.
The Process of Applying for Your Visa
If you plan on taking up gainful employment, you probably need a temporary employment visa (C-4). Ask your future employer to assist you with the application process. If you are going to work for a multinational company, they may even handle the visa application for you.
However, if you are taking care of the details on your own, you should get in touch with the South Korean embassy or consulate nearest to you. Expats usually apply by submitting the following documents:
- a completed application document
- one passport-sized photo
- a valid passport
- an employment contract
- a copy of your Korean employer’s certificate of registration
- a recommendation of employment by the responsible Korean minister or another document which attests the necessity of your employment
- proof of payment of fees
Keep in mind though that the exact application requirements depend on the visa type you will apply for. Your employment visa is only valid for the time and place of your employment. This means that with the expiration of your contract your visa is not valid anymore and you have to leave South Korea within two weeks. Of course, you can try to secure a new job. In that case, you have to contact the Immigration Office for a new visa.
No matter which type of visa you apply for, it will fall in one of three categories in terms of fees:
- single entry visa for no more than 90 days (40 USD or equivalent)
- single entry visa for more than 90 days (60 USD or equivalent)
- double-entry visa (70 USD or equivalent)
- multiple entry visa (90 USD or equivalent)
However, not all nationalities are required to pay these fees. You can take a look at South Korea’s immigration site for a list of countries which fall under the fee-exempt agreement.
Registering as an Expat
Even after you have successfully applied for an employment visa, there is still more red tape to deal with. Are you planning to stay in South Korea for more than 90 days? In that case, you need to apply for an Alien Registration Certificate. Contact the Immigration Office in Seoul or one of the branch offices and turn in the following documents:
- an application form
- a valid passport
- one passport-sized photographs
- the registration fee (about 10,000 KRW)
Once you’ve done so, you will receive a foreign registration card which is valid for one year. Please remember that, with every change of your visa status and every move, you are required to go through the registration process again.
Public Transportation in South Korea
South Korea has an excellent public transportation system which offers many choices for getting around at a reasonable price. Planes, trains, and express buses connect urban areas while intercity buses allow you to travel between smaller cities and towns. Local buses are available as well, and car ferries let you travel to offshore islands. You should know, however, that all transportation works on the Korean ppalli ppalli (hurry hurry) system. This means that trains and buses always leave on time and drivers usually speed and may disregard road rules completely.
Taking the Bus Can Be Confusing
There are lots of long-distance buses running all throughout South Korea. As a rule of thumb, buses run at intervals of between 15 minutes to 1 hour. However, there are usually no regular timetables, and departure times can vary throughout the day. Buses always leave on time or sometimes even too early. They go to more places than trains but are also less comfortable.
Local buses are popular for their frequent and reliable services. However, expats often struggle to find the right connection. Timetables and bus stop names are rarely in English and bus drivers don’t speak English, either. The best way to deal with the situation if you are still trying to pick up on the local language is to write your destination in Korean Hangeul letters on a card and show it to the driver.
A Punctual and Clear Railway System
The train services in South Korea are excellent. Unfortunately, the network is not comprehensive, and trains do not travel everywhere in South Korea. Trains still connect you to many major towns and cities. They are clean, comfortable and punctual. Unlike local bus stations, almost every train station has signs in Korean and English.
If you decide to take the train for a long-distance journey, make sure to buy your tickets in advance. This makes sense particularly on the weekends or on holidays. There are negotiations about reopening railway links between North and South Korea. However, this depends on the current political situation in both countries.
How Comfortably Do You Want to Travel?
There are four classes of trains in South Korea. The high-speed KTX trains travel at approximately 300 km/h from Seoul to Daejeon. The train tracks also extend to Busan on the east coast. Saemul trains are also fast and luxurious. They stop in major cities and offer their passengers all kinds of comfort. Mugunghwa trains, on the other hand, offer the same comfort but take more stops. That way, traveling by Mugunghwa can take a little longer than a journey with Saemaul trains. Tonggeun (commuter) trains are your cheapest option and stop at every station. They run infrequently and only on certain routes.
In terms of fares, it should be pretty obvious for experienced expats that KTX trains are the most expensive choice, followed by Saemaul trains and Mugunghwa trains, while Tonggeun trains are the cheapest option. All in all, fares are made up of a complicated and confusing range of discounts. As a rule of thumb, tickets are cheaper for travels between Tuesday and Thursday and if bought in advance.