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Country Facts about South Korea

What You Should Know about Living Costs and More in South Korea

There are many facts about South Korea that expats should know before moving to the peninsular country. For example, always avoid giving gifts with red writing or items with any combination of the number four, as the word for this number is similar to the Korean word for “death.”

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Thinking of relocating to South Korea? With an easy way of life, bustling city culture mixed with laidback countryside, and a reasonable cost of living, The Land of the Morning Calm is a popular destination for foreigners from across the globe.

When moving to South Korea, there are many practicalities to consider. For example, when shipping your household goods and belongings to the country, you have six months from your arrival in order to claim your goods duty-free. This even includes personal vehicles. Anything that arrives after the six-month period will be subject to a tax (and if it is a car, it will be subject to inspection).

Whether you are moving to South Korea next month or next year, this guide will help you learn all that you need in order to have an easy, successful relocation. We go over the most effective communication techniques so as not to create offense, as well as tips and tricks for driving and public transportation, so that you can easily get around your new Korean home.

Practical Information

Emergency Numbers

  • 119 – fire and medical emergencies that require an ambulance
  • 112 – police
  • 1339 – Korean Help Center for Disease Control (foreigner helpline that provides information about first aid and diseases in English, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Mongolian)
  • 1345 – Immigration (for simple immigration-related questions)
  • 1331 – National Human Rights Commission of Korea (for questions related to human rights law and social justice in Korea)

Public Holidays

  • 1 January – New Year’s Day (신정 or Sinjeon)
  • January or February* – Korean New Year (설날 or Seolnal)
  • 1 March – Independence Movement Day (3·1절 or Samiljeol)
  • 5 May – Children’s Day (어린이날 or Eorininal)
  • April or May** – Buddha’s Birthday (부처님 오신 날 or Bucheonnim Osinnal)
  • 6 June – Memorial Day (현충일 or Hyeonchung-il)
  • 17 July – Constitution Day (제헌절 or Jeheonjeol)
  • 15 August – Liberation Day (광복절 or Gwangbokjeol)
  • September or October*** – Chuseok or harvest day (추석)
  • 3 October – National Foundation Day (개천절 or Gaecheonjeol)
  • 9 October – Hangeul Day (한글날 or Hangeulnal)
  • 25 December – Christmas (기독탄신일 or Gidoktansinil)

* The three-day-long celebration takes place on the second new moon after the winter solstice. Date is adjusted every year according on the lunar calendar.

** The celebration takes place on the 8th day on the 4th lunar month. Date is adjusted every year according on the lunar calendar.

***The three-day-long harvest celebration takes place on the 15th day on the 8th month of the lunar month. Date is adjusted every year according on the lunar calendar.

Note that if a public holiday falls on a Sunday, you will get a day off on the following Monday.

Main Embassies

All the foreign embassies in South Korea are located in Seoul. Below is a look at some of the main

Embassy of Canada in Korea

주한 캐나다 대사관

21, Jeongdong-gil, Jung-gu, Seoul

02-3783-6000

Embassy of India in Korea

주한 인도 대사관

101, Dokseodang-ro, Yongsan-gu, Seoul

Tel: 02-798-4257

British Embassy Seoul

주한 영국 대사관

24, Sejong-daero 19-gil, Jung-gu, Seoul

Tel: 02-3210-5500

US Embassy and Consulate in Korea

주한 미국 대사관

188 Sejong-daero, Jongno-gu, Seoul

Tel: 02-397-4114

Main Airports

The main airport in South Korea is Incheon International Airport located on the coast west of Seoul. It is one of the busiest airports in the world and is considered to be one of the best ones, too. It has a spa, a golf course, a casino, an ice-skating ring, and plenty more to offer to the travelers that have to kill time before or in between their flights.

Other notable airports are:

  • Jeju International Airport
  • Gimpo International Airport
  • Muan International Airport
  • Yeosu Airport

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Cost of Living

The average cost of living in South Korea is reasonable. It is not as cheap as living in some Asian countries like Laos or China, but it is also not as expensive as Japan or Singapore. In general, the most expensive living costs in the country will be found in the capital, Seoul. Everywhere else, expats can expect to earn a decent wage and save a good bit of it without having to pinch pennies or live on a stringent budget.

Is it Expensive to Live in South Korea?

As is typical in most countries, the largest living expense in South Korea will be your housing. While prices are not astronomical, especially when compared to other popular expat destinations, expats should be prepared to pay 30 to 40% of their monthly salary for a nice place.

The Cost of Living in South Korea’s Most Expensive and Affordable Cities

When comparing South Korea’s cities, expats will find the highest cost of living in Seoul. However, this still does not mean that the cost of living in the capital city is exorbitantly high. Foreigners moving to the country have their choice of paying extra and living in expat-centric high-rises and compounds or you can live on the outskirts of the city in more local communities.

After Seoul, the other most expensive places in which to live in South Korea are Incheon, Jeju Island, and Busan. Below is a look at the average monthly living costs for each place. On a national level, a family of four can expect to spend an average 4,700,000 KRW per month (3,950 USD) in living expenses. A single expat can expect to pay 2,100,700 KRW (1,760 USD).

Average Monthly Living Expenses for a Family of Four (including rent)

City KRW USD
Seoul 6,867,700 5,780
Incheon 5,350,000 4,500
Jeju Island 6,176,800 5,200
Busan 5,066,700 4,300

Average Monthly Living Expenses for a Single Expat (including rent)

City KRW USD
Seoul 2,080,600 1,750
Incheon 1,725,000 1,450
Jeju Island 1,700,500 1,430
Busan 1,490,700 1,250

For a look at just the rent in each of the cities listed, please see the chart below:

Three-Bedroom Apartment Monthly Rent
City KRW USD
Seoul 2,320,605 1,950
Incheon 1,350,000 1,133
Jeju Island 3,176,800 2,670
Busan 1,066,700 895
One-Bedroom Apartment Monthly Rent
City KRW USD
Seoul 838,800 705
Incheon 525,000 440
Jeju Island 700,000 588
Busan 490,700 410

For a look at South Korea’s most affordable cities, you will need to head away from the large urban areas and look towards smaller, mid-sized cities where there are fewer expats and more local Koreans. Such cities that fit this description, and are still expat-friendly, include Daegu (near Busan), Suwon (south of Seoul), and Gwangju (in the country’s southwest corner).

Utility Costs

Utilities in South Korea will not add too much expense to your rent. Please keep in mind that, with the exception of internet, most utilities such as gas, electricity, and water are provided through the government.

Utilities will generally cost a little over 100,000 KRW per month (84 USD).

Food and Alcohol Prices in South Korea

Grocery prices in the country are fairly reasonable. Expats may be surprised to find that one of the most expensive items to buy is a bottle of wine.

Grocery Item KRW USD
One-quart of milk 2,600 2.20
One-pound chicken breast 5,400 4.60
One dozen eggs 4,100 3.50
Two-pounds tomatoes 6,000 5.10
Two-pounds apples 6,600 5.60
Two-pounds potatoes 4,000 3.40
16 oz domestic beer 2,300 2.00
One bottle of wine 25,600 22.00

Eating Out Costs

Dinner at a cheap restaurant for two people will cost an average of 31,700 KRW (27 USD). Dinner at a nice restaurant will be around 56,000 KRW (48 USD). Lunchtime costs can easily range between 6—9,000 KRW (5—8 USD).

Cost of Education

The cost of education in South Korea varies dependent on where you live in the country and what type of school your children prefer. Foreigners are able to attend every type of school in South Korea, from public schools to private, religious, and international. International schools will be the most expensive option. Public schools are free even for foreign students but be aware that your children will need to know Korean in order to attend.

Annual tuition for private education will range between 15,000,000 to 42,000,000 KRW (12,600 to 35,300 USD). International schools will start around 24,000,000 KRW (20,100 USD). As daycare is not mandatory in the country, you can expect to pay around 250,000–500,000 KRW (210–430 USD) per month if you wish to enroll your child. The younger your child is, the more you should be prepared to spend.

If you are moving to the country to attend university, the tuition for an undergraduate degree will be between 2,000,000 to 5,900,000 KRW. For postgraduate, tuition will be between 2,500,000 to 7,000,000 KRW. Both KRW amounts average to about 2,100 to 5,900 USD.

Healthcare Costs

South Korea has an excellent public healthcare system. Everyone must pay into the scheme. The amount you pay each month will be dependent on your gross salary. On average, you can expect to pay about 30% of your salary per month towards the National Health Insurance (NHI). On a national level, this is about 120,000 KRW (100 USD) per month. In return, the NHI will pay about 50-80% of your medical costs.

If you opt for private health insurance, it will run about the same amount per month as the public health insurance scheme: 114,000 KRW (100 USD). Although not as widely used at the country’s public health insurance, many Korean residents opt for private insurance to supplement the costs that the public insurance does not cover.

Travel and Transportation Costs

Transportation costs in South Korea will depend on several factors. The first is: do you have your own mode of transportation such as a car or motorcycle? Or will you be reliant on public transit?

If using your own vehicle, one liter of gas will run about 1,460 KRW (1.20 USD) or 5,840 KRW per gallon (5 USD).

For public transport, travel between cities in South Korea will range between 17,860—60,000 KRW one-way (15—50 USD). Subways within cities will be about 2,300 per ride (2 USD). Taxis start at a base fare of 3,500 KRW (3 USD) and can go upwards of 24,000 KRW (20 USD) for a thirty-minute ride.

For more information about transportation throughout South Korea, see our sections on Driving and Public Transport below.

Culture and Social Etiquette

When moving to a new country, it is important to be aware of cultural and social etiquette norms. This will help you both to adapt to the country faster and prevent you from committing any grievous errors that could offend locals in your area.

Read on to learn about some of the cultural and social expectations you should be aware of while living in The Land of the Morning Calm.

Taboos: Feet

Perhaps one of the most important things to learn about when moving to South Korea are the taboos to avoid. One taboo to keep in mind is that feet are considered dirty. This means you should avoid pointing or gesturing with your feet at anyone. This includes sitting cross-legged in public spaces. It is also considered extremely rude to put your feet up on furniture, including propping your foot up on a chair in public. Never rest your foot on a public seat, like in a bus or subway.

Likewise, when entering someone’s home, or even entering some businesses, be prepared to take off your shoes. There will typically be indoor slippers available for you to wear. However, even if there are not, you still need to remove your shoes.

Taboos: Eating

Despite what you may see in other Asian countries, it is considered rude to eat or drink while walking. Even in a city as fast-paced as Seoul, you will not see many people eating while they commute.

Taboos: Colors and Numbers

Colors and numbers have a lot of significance in South Korean culture. Some of the significance is for luck, while in other circumstances, it is for death. Expats should avoid using the color red, especially when writing as this is the color in which the names of the dead are written. Likewise, it is best to avoid the number four (this includes giving gifts with four items). The English word four sounds like the word for death in Korean and therefore is considered a very dangerous, unlucky number.

Meeting and Greeting

  • Bowing is still the traditional way to greet someone in Korea. However, as the country attracts more and more foreigners, shaking hands is also common. When meeting someone for the first time, it is best to err on the side of a slight bow, but also give a moment to see if the other person will shake hands first. If you are an expat man meeting a Korean woman, do not shake her hand unless she initiates. Keep in mind that the deeper you bow, the more respect you are giving. Thus, elders and people in a higher career position should be met with deep bows.
  • You should shake hands using your right arm. While you shake hands, you should support your right arm with your left hand.
  • If you want to call someone over to you, do so with your arm extended towards them, with the palm of your hand pointed to the ground. Keep your fingers together and flap them as if you are fanning something.
  • Be sure to bow to each individual person when you depart.

Touch and Personal Space

Although Korean cities will be crowded, you should avoid unnecessarily touching other people. This means, if you are in a crowded subway car or walking on the street, be aware of your body and its movements. Try to avoid bumping into anyone or leaning against them. However, do not be surprised or offended if people bump or shove into you.

In addition to keeping to your own personal space, you should also not hug anyone or pat them on the back. You should also avoid prolonged eye contact as this can be seen as extremely aggressive.

As a foreigner, you are expected to keep your hands to yourself and avoid encroaching on others’ personal space as much as possible. However, do not be surprised if you see Korean people, especially the younger generation, walking arm-in-arm. In Korea, this is a common practice between any combination of genders, and often it is only meant in a platonic sense.

Gift Giving

Korea is a big ‘gift giving’ culture and there is a high chance you will find yourself either giving or receiving multiple gifts throughout your time in the country. Just as with the taboo of certain colors and numbers, avoid giving a gift with red writing or something with four items.

When giving or receiving a gift, do so with both hands. If giving gifts at a business meeting or a party, wait until the host has started distributing their gifts before bestowing yours.

Dining

  • When arriving at someone’s house for a meal, do not sit until the host tells you where to sit. This is the same expectation that should be practiced at a business meeting. Likewise, do not pour your own drink. You should wait for someone to do it for you (typically the host). If you are able to, you should pour someone else’s drink for them.
  • Just as with the gift giving, only pass and receive food using both hands. If only using one hand, you should use your right hand and support it with your left.
  • If using chopsticks, do not point them at anyone, nor should you leave them sticking out of your food when not in use as this is a practice reserved for honoring the dead.

Talking and Communicating

Korea is a reserved culture with many moments of silence. For example, while eating at a dinner party, do not be surprised if no one talks during the mealtime. In Korea, it is considered polite to be silent while you and everyone else eats. Socializing will happen before or after the meal.

Likewise, if you are on a public bus or train, try to refrain from talking too loud with a friend or from talking on the phone. Try to maintain a good posture as slouching is considered rude.

Saying No

In Korea, it can be rude to decline an invitation or to refuse to do something. Instead, one way of declining something in Korea is by having a very long discussion. If you find yourself talking with a Korean friend or colleague, and they continue to talk about something you asked, take this as a sign that they may want to decline, but do not know how to without seeming rude. Try to find a discrete way to help them decline without making it known that you know their answer is ‘no.’

Driving in South Korea

A lot of traffic jams, aggressive bus and taxi drivers, and traffic lights that can be treated as mere suggestions for what you should do on the road are all in store for those thinking of driving in South Korean cities. Pedestrians here should also be careful as many accidents happen because drivers do give way to people crossing the street. Many locals believe that those who drive are higher in status than those on foot. Also, drivers of larger and more expensive cars assume that they have the right of way over other vehicles. However, if you can get out of the busy city streets and into to more rural areas, driving in Korea might be an enjoyable affair.

Basic Korean Driving Rules

  • Traffic in South Korea is on the right side of the road.
  • The minimum age for driving in South Korea is 18 for cars and 16 for motorcycles.
  • Cell phone use is prohibited for drivers, unless a hands-free system is used.
  • If you need to turn right at an intersection with a traffic light, you can do it no matter what light is on (even when the light is red). However, you still have to stop and be careful about pedestrians that might be crossing the street.
  • The maximum allowed blood alcohol level is 0.05%.
  • Seatbelts must be worn by all passengers.

Korea has a point-based traffic violation system. This means that if you violate traffic rules, in addition to fines or criminal charges, you will also get points. Each offence has a set number of points, for example speeding can get you 15–30 points, and cell phone usage while driving costs 15 points. If you get 40 points, your license will be suspended. If you accumulate more than 121 points in a year, 201 over two, or 271 over three years, your license will be cancelled.

Driving in South Korea with a Foreign License

No matter where you have obtained your license, in a European or African country, the US or Australia––you are allowed to use it in Korea as long as you have a valid international permit. They, however, are only available in your home country, so you have to get it before you arrive here. When driving, you should have both your original license and the permit on you. International permits are valid for a year and cannot be renewed.

How to Get a Korean Driving License

What if you realize you are going to have to drive in Korea after you land here? Well, it should not be that big of a worry as South Korea allows for driver license exchange for nationals from over 100 countries. And while this procedure requires way more time and paperwork, it will allow you to have an official Korean license until you decide to leave the country.

To exchange your license to a Korean license you need to present:

  • your passport;
  • a full and valid foreign license (not a temporary or probational one);
  • your Alien Registration Card;
  • a certificate from your country’s embassy declaring that your license is officially recognized;
  • three passport-style photos (3.5 cm by 4.5 cm, taken within the last six months).

You will also need to undergo a medical checkup that will cost you 6,000 KRW (5 USD) and pay a 7,500 KRW (6.5 USD) issuance fee.

Once you do decide to move out of Korea, you will have to return your Korean license. To do so, you have to go to the local Road Traffic Authority Driver’s License Examination Office and present your passport together with your airplane ticket.

If your country or state does not have a reciprocity agreement with South Korea, you will need to take a written exam to get the license. It consists of 20 multiple choice questions and is available in different languages, including English. If you came to Korea without having a license and you wish to obtain it, you will need to go through the same process as every resident living here and take both written and practical exams. And while you can get away without knowing Korean when it comes to the written test, know that it is rare for driving instructors to teach in English.

Renting a Car

You are allowed to drive a rental car in South Korea as long as you are 21 and have a valid license with an international permit or a valid Korean license. However, finding rental car agencies that can provide all the necessary information in any language other than Korean might be tricky. Also, note that some companies are extra careful about new drivers. You might not be allowed to rent a vehicle or face higher fees if your driving experience equals one year or less.

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Public Transportation in South Korea

In general, public transportation in South Korea is very well-developed and reliable. Buses, subways, and taxis are all affordable and can be paid for by using a single transportation card.

How is the Public Transportation in South Korea?

Subways

Subway lines are available in Seoul, Busan, Daejeon, Daegu, Incheon, and Gwangju. The information provided on the platforms is both in Korean and English. Many stations have lockers available where you can keep your belongings for a small fee, 500–1,000 KRW (0.40–0.85 USD) per hour.

To get in and out of the subway station, you need to validate your ticket at the gate. It will show how much you paid for the entry and how much money you still have on your transportation card.

Buses

Many cities have bus services available, however, information and timetables are usually only available in Korean. Drivers also rarely speak English, so you will have to rely on fellow passengers if you need help understanding how to get to where you need to be.

Use the front doors to enter the bus and validate your transportation card at the reader. You can also use cash to pay for your ride. Just make sure you have enough small bills to do so. When you need to get off the bus, press the stop button, scan your card at the reader, and exit through the middle or back doors.

Taxis

Taxis are also available all over the country and are fairly cheap. The available types of taxis are general, deluxe, and vans. Taxi rates might depend on which type of taxi you are using. If you are using a transportation card to pay for your ride, make sure to inform your driver about it upon entering.

Costs of Public Transportation in South Korea

While single-use tickets are still available in Korea, most commuters prefer using transport cards provided by T-money or Cash-bee. That is because it makes your journeys easier and allows you to change between public transportation for free (if done so within 30 minutes).

Furthermore, in addition to public transportation tickets you can use the money on the card to pay for taxi rides and make purchases in convenience stores and some vending machines. Some cards also offer discounts in affiliated stores.

You can purchase your transport card within the airport you are arriving to (at duty free shops and airport banks), in subway stations, or convenience stores for 4,000 KWR (3.50 USD). You can charge the card by using ticket machines or topping it up at convenience stores. Note that while both T-money and Cash-bee are available all over the country, T-money is more focused on the greater Seoul area.

When it comes to pricing, public transportation in South Korea is cheap. A single subway ride in most cities costs 1,250 KRW (1 USD) while in Busan it is 1,300–1,500 KRW (1–1.30 USD). Bus fares are 1,000–2,400 KRW (0.85–2 USD) depending on what type of bus you take. Night buses cost 2,400 KRW (2 USD). Discounted fares are available for children and teenagers.

Taxis here are also affordable, 3,800 KRW (3 USD) being the standard daytime flag-down rate while at night it is 4,600 KWR (4 USD). After the first two kilometers (1.24 mi), you will be charged 100 KRW (0.09 USD) for every 132 meters (433 ft).

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Updated on: January 07, 2020
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