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Living in South Korea
A practical guide to the way of life in South Korea
Living in South Korea gives you an insight into a nation with a rich heritage. The lifestyle in South Korea is defined by countless possibilities and a can-do attitude. Read our guide to living in South Korea and learn about healthcare, the apartment search, and local etiquette on InterNations GO!.
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Life in South Korea
The Different Regions of South Korea
Seoul, South Korea’s capital located along the Hangang (Han River) has grown into a huge metropolis and the center of life in South Korea in recent years. While it is home to many foreigners, there are other regions and districts throughout the country which are worth a visit.
Gyenggi-do is located in the west of the Korean peninsula. The Hangang divides the region into a mountainous north and open fields in the south. Gyenggi-do has countless bays and coves, capes and islands. This is also where Ganghwado (Ganghwa Island) is located, Korea’s fifth-largest island, which is rich in history and natural beauty. Namyangman and Asanman Bays are also worth a visit while you are enjoying your life in South Korea.
The Eastern Region
Gangwon-do (Gangwon Province) is located in the central eastern region of the country. Most of this area is covered with thick forests and scenic spots. At the same time, however, you will find fewer residential areas here than in other provinces. Remote mountains and small towns along the coast characterize the eastern region. The eastern coastline may be rugged and mountainous, but you will also find the most beautiful beaches while living in South Korea’s east. The eastern region may not be a top expat destination, but it is definitely worth a visit.
The Central and Southwestern Region
Daejeon is located two hours south of Seoul and is a major traffic hub. Expats living in South Korea will probably stop here on their way from Seoul to Busan or from Gwangju. The area has also developed into a major science and technology center. On the other hand, temples, national parks, hot springs, and natural wonders are located here as well.
The provinces of North and South Jeolla are located in Korea’s southwest. This region is very flat and is known for its jagged coastlines and small harbors. One of its highlights is the close proximity to Namwon and Mt. Jiri National Park where you will also find the second-highest mountain peak in the country.
The Southeastern Region and Jejudo Island
The provinces of North and South Gyeongsang are located here. South Korea’s southeast is mostly known for tourist attractions, cultural assets, and historical places. However, the most outstanding natural resources of this region are the Hallyeosudo Waterways. Busan, South Korea’s principal port and second-largest city, is located here too. Andong, on the other hand, is a treasure trove of Confucian tradition and one of the last vestiges of traditional life in South Korea.
Expats living in South Korea’s island province Jejudo are truly in luck. Not only is Jejudo the best preserved place in the entire nation, it is also often referred to as “Little Hawaii.” The beaches, waterfalls, and hiking trails make it a popular honeymoon destination. Nature enthusiasts will also feel right at home in Jejudo. After all, the island is home to over 2,000 different species.
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Accommodation and Health in South Korea
Different Types of Housing
While looking for a place to live in South Korea, you will come across different types of housing. Your choice should depend on your current situation (are you living alone or with your family?), your income, and your personal preferences. Before you begin your apartment search, try to keep in mind that housing space is often measured in pyeong (1 pyeong = 3.4 m²).
- Serviced apartments are the best choice if you are visiting South Korea for just a few months. They are often furnished and offer you hotel-like services. Some even have a pool or other facilities you can use. On the downside, serviced apartments are more expensive than regular apartments.
- Regular apartments are probably the better choice for expats who are staying in South Korea for a long-term assignment. The rents vary, depending on the city and even the district you move to. Don’t be shocked if the apartment units are smaller than expected.
- Officetels are another popular housing option in South Korea, particularly among younger expats and Korean students. These are high-rise buildings which offer both residential units and office space. Officetels come fully furnished and with a 1–2 year lease.
- One-room and studio apartments are the right choice for single expats. These apartments are not very big (27 m² on average) and come with basic furnishing. However, they are a much cheaper option than officetels.
- Multi-family and private houses are usually the top choice of expats with children. This housing option is, of course, quite rare in urban areas like Seoul. You may, however, find them in smaller towns or on the outskirts of metropolitan centers.
- Traditional Korean housing, or the so-called hanok, is available as well in some towns and cities. Many of these hanoks have been remodeled and now come with modern amenities, including ondol (underfloor heating).
The Aspects of the South Korean Healthcare System
In South Korea, you will find three types of medical facilities, which are categorized according to their number of medical services and size.
- First-tier facilities are private hospitals and public health centers. They only offer a limited number of departments and services to treat early symptoms of illness.
- You have to visit second-tier facilities for specialist treatments and services of different departments. This is also the place to visit for emergency medical services.
- Third-tier facilities, on the other hand, are general hospitals or those which belong to a medical school. They offer specialist care, services of different departments, and over 500 hospital beds.
You should always visit a first-tier or second-tier facility for medical care or to get a referral to a third-tier facility. Otherwise, your health insurance may not cover the costs of your treatment and you may be stuck with high medical fees.
You usually have to pay medical fees in advance and then make a claim with your insurance provider. By now, most hospitals and health centers accept credit cards. Unfortunately this is not always the case, which is why you should always bring enough cash.
Education and Etiquette in South Korea
South Korea is a country in which education is of high value and Confucian ideals of learning are still considered important. The government invests a considerable amount of the country’s GDP in education. At the same time, parents spend a major share of their income on private tutoring, evening schools (Hagwons) and study visits to foreign countries.
The Education System
Korean children go through six years of primary education and three years of middle school, followed by another three years of high school. Although co-educational schools are becoming more and more common, this is a rather new development. In 1996, only 5% of all schools in South Korea were co-ed. Today, many schools still teach boys and girls separately.
There are academic and vocational high schools in South Korea. Most children attend academic high schools, in order to pursue higher education. Teachers enjoy a lot of respect in Korean schools and their lessons often focus on health, moral values, and independence. A day at a typical high school can be quite tough. It does not only involve a rigorous schedule, beginning at 08:00 and ending at 22:00. Most children also study before and after school.
Education for Expat Kids
South Korea offers three different schooling options for expat children:
- Local Korean schools might be your best bet if you plan on staying in Korea for a couple of years or even for good. Your kids may easily adapt to Korean society in the long run. However, keep in mind that it might also be hard for them to adjust at first if they are not proficient in Korean yet. There is a wide choice of public and private schools, but only public elementary schools are free of charge.
- Homeschooling is an increasingly popular choice among expat parents. Internet resources are often of great help to parents who want their kids to keep up with the curriculum of their home country.
- International and foreign schools are mostly available in bigger cities, such as Seoul. While most expat parents send their children to an international school, annual fees can amount to 12,000–20,000 USD or more. In addition to application documents, most schools require parents to submit transcripts, report cards, and standardized test scores of their children.
It’s All about Being Polite
When you meet and mingle with the locals in South Korea, keep in mind that special rules apply. For instance, you should wait for your friends or colleagues to introduce you to a third party at social gatherings. South Korean men usually greet each other with a slight bow and a handshake. In this case, the younger person should be the first to bow, while the older one should be the first to extend his hand.
Elderly people enjoy a lot of respect in South Korea and you should always speak to them first. Make sure to pass objects with both hands and compliment them on their good health. But remember that physical contact is very rare and considered inappropriate unless it’s between friends and peers. Do not touch people’s arms or back, even if it is in a friendly manner.
South Koreans are very polite folks. They lower their voice when talking or laughing in public, and criticism should only be communicated in private. Blowing your nose and pointing the soles of your feet towards other people is considered extremely rude and even vulgar. Try not to cross your legs, especially in front of an authority figure, and if the spicy food makes your nose run, briefly leave the table.
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