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Health Insurance and Healthcare in South Korea Explained

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The healthcare system and health insurance in South Korea is of extremely high quality, and expats will receive excellent care during their stay in the country. The only problems expats may encounter are lengthy wait times, even in emergency situations. Unfortunately, even using private insurance will not make much of a difference in this regard.

If you are planning to relocate soon, or maybe you have recently moved, use this guide as an overview of the South Korean healthcare system. We go over everything you need from finding a doctor to the costs of giving birth. Expats will need to sign up for the National Health Insurance scheme within their first six months of living in the country. This is especially important for expats with asthma or frequent respiratory problems as Korea’s air pollution can greatly affect the lungs.

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How Healthcare Works in South Korea

South Korea’s public healthcare system is referred to as National Health Insurance (NHI). It is of extremely high quality and all residents living in Korea for a period longer than six months are required to register. When using the healthcare system in urban areas, it is common to find English speaking doctors and staff members. However, unless you have an advanced knowledge of the Korean language, you may need a native speaker to help you navigate the NHI website as it is largely in Korean, with few translations available.

South Korea Health and Healthcare Facts

There are many pros and cons to the South Korean healthcare system. Below is a quick look at what foreigners can expect in regard to their health and healthcare in the peninsular country.

  • Life expectancy in the country has been increasing over the years. Recently, the life expectancy age has increased to nearly 90.
  • South Korea is the leading country for skin disease treatments.
  • As with many countries in Asia, air pollution is a significant problem in Korea. Expats with asthma or upper respiratory conditions should register with the national health scheme immediately upon arrival in the country, so that they can be prepared should the pollution cause any problems. Likewise, it is advisable that all expats invest in medical masks, either the standard paper ones or ones that come with air filtering functions.
  • One con of the South Korean health system is the disparity between medical services in urban versus rural areas. Private facilities are largely found in urban areas, as are nearly 90% of the country’s physicians. Around 80% of the country’s population lives in or near the cities, but this still leaves those in the countryside without the same topnotch access to healthcare that is standard throughout the country.
  • Another con is that the country’s healthcare system is more focused on treatment rather than prevention. South Korea’s medical treatment practices are effective, but they do not save patients from long-term health effects and spending.

The South Korean Healthcare System Explained

How does healthcare work in South Korea? Healthcare in South Korea is universal and funded through a combination of government subsidies, outside contributions, and tobacco surcharges. Hospitals and clinics are modern and efficient, and expats will find a variety of both Western and Eastern treatment options.

In the past, foreign residents were not required to register for South Korea’s National Health Insurance (NHI) plan, but after too many instances of foreigners using the healthcare system and then forgoing payment, the government now mandates that everyone in South Korea must register with the NHI after six months of living in the country.

With the National Health Insurance scheme, residents have the freedom to choose their own healthcare provider and facility. If your employer signs you up for insurance, but then dictates which hospital/healthcare provider you must use, you should double check whether they have registered you with the NHI or a private provider.

Should I go to a Hospital or Clinic?

While there are both hospitals and clinics available throughout South Korea, it is common to seek treatment at a hospital even if you just have a cold or flu. After you are seen by a doctor, you will be sent to a nearby pharmacy to pick up your prescription. Unlike some Asian countries, prescriptions are not sold in Korean hospitals. Hospitals will typically see non-emergency cases between 9:00-18:00 or 8:00-20:00. It is best to book an appointment ahead of time, which you can typically do online through the hospital’s website.

How To Sign-Up for Public Healthcare in South Korea

If you are moving to South Korea for work, your employer is required by law to provide you with health insurance. Employers will pay half of their employees’ monthly premiums.

As a foreigner, you can only sign up for the National Health Insurance plan once you have received your Alien Registration Card (ARC). As this can usually take a month or more, expats who need medical services immediately upon arrival in the country should bare this in mind and make plans accordingly.

If you are not moving to South Korea for work, or if your South Korean company employs less than five foreign workers (the legal requirement to be legally obligated to provide health insurance), then you must register yourself. You will do this by taking your ARC, passport, application form, and certificate of enrollment to your nearest Immigration office.

The monthly amount you pay for health insurance will be dependent on your salary. In general, you can expect about 30% of your gross monthly salary to go towards health insurance costs.

What does the Public Healthcare Cover?

Korean public healthcare covers between 50-80% of medical costs depending on the individual’s needs and the treatment they receive. This includes the costs for medical checkups, general procedures, accident coverage, and prescription medication. The NHI also covers expenses should an employee be hurt on the job or in the case of unemployment as well.

If you are traveling outside of Korea and wish to have medical coverage, you will need to buy travel insurance or sign up for a private healthcare plan. People who need frequent medical care or treatment for severe/chronic illnesses will also want to look into private healthcare as this may be more cost effective in the long run.

South Korea Healthcare Costs

Does South Korea have free public healthcare? No, it does not. Every resident in the country, whether you are a foreigner or a Korean national, must pay to use the public healthcare system. Wondering if South Korean healthcare is expensive? Luckily, it is not this either.

The public healthcare in South Korea is not free, but it is reasonable. On average, residents only need to cover 20% of their medical treatments, which is typically just the copay or the service fee. If you are employed, 5% of your income will go towards the NHI. The amount self-employed expats pay is based on their income.

On average, most monthly healthcare costs average around 120,000 KRW (100 USD) per month.

An Overview of Private Health Insurance

Do you need private health insurance in South Korea? The answer depends on your needs. For expats who are of generally good health and only in need of periodic healthcare treatment, knowing how private health insurance works is not necessary. For expats with more severe, chronic illnesses, private health insurance may be the best option.

South Korean Private Health Insurance

All foreign residents are required to register with the National Health Insurance (NHI) after six months of living in Korea. If you only need healthcare for common illnesses, day-to-day procedures, and emergency situations, then using this will be more than enough. When it comes to comparing private and public health insurance in South Korea, the quality of care does not differ greatly. However, what differs is the cost.

Why Use Private Insurance in South Korea?

As stated earlier, foreigners with chronic illnesses, special medical needs, or serious diseases will benefit the most from private insurance in South Korea. While the quality of the medical treatment these expats will receive will remain the same, using private insurance may be more effective and cost-efficient. Private insurance will not reduce the cost of medical procedures, but it will subsidize the typically 20-50% out of pocket payment that is required when residents only use the NHI.

Because companies are legally obligated to provide insurance if they employ more than five people, many South Korean companies enroll their foreign employees in limited private insurance plans. This suffices the company’s legal obligation, and they therefore do not have to sign the employee up for the NHI. However, these plans will usually only cover expenses in the case of an accident. Thus, expats with simple, common medical needs will find themselves under-insured. When starting a new job in South Korea, be sure to check your company’s health insurance policy thoroughly. If you find you are only covered in case of an accident, you will want to sign into the national health plan.

Health Insurance Coverage

With private providers, the type of health insurance plan you get depends on your individual needs. Depending on your provider, you can insure yourself for accidents only or get more extensive coverage for chronic/long-term illnesses. These should help you offset the cost when compared to just using the public insurance alone. Certain procedures and illnesses may also not be included in some plans, so you should read through the choices thoroughly before making a decision.

To apply for private insurance, you will need the same documents as applying for the public health insurance:

  • passport;
  • Alien Residence Card;
  • employment contract.

If your visa is sponsored by family members in Korea, you will need to bring an official certificate that verifies that relationship.

Average Cost of Health Insurance South Korea

Buying into a private insurance scheme in Korea costs about as much as the public health insurance scheme (114,000 KRW/100 USD). However, keep in mind that you will need to pay into both health insurance schemes.

Need help navigating the differences between private and public health insurance in South Korea? Did your company offer private coverage, but no assistance in registering with the public system? Contact the relocation experts at InterNations and let us solve all of your international relocation needs.

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How to Find a Doctor or Dentist

As a new resident in South Korea, one of the first things you will want to know is how to find a doctor or a dentist. For expats with upper respiratory problems this is especially important as the Asian country’s air pollution has the potential to create medical complications or frequent illnesses.

Finding a Doctor in South Korea

Wondering how to find a family doctor or a specialist in South Korea? You may be surprised that many Koreans simply go to the hospital for their illnesses. In some countries, such as the US, hospitals are only for emergency purposes. However, in Korea it is common to go to a hospital for something as minor as a cold or a sprained ankle.

One of the best ways to find a doctor in South Korea is to look online. As mentioned throughout this guide, Korea is an incredibly technologically advanced society with a high reliance on online resources for many everyday needs.

This includes finding (and booking an appointment with) medical professionals. Nearly every hospital and clinic will have its own website where you can search through a database of doctors. These databases will typically let you sort by specialty or the particular type of care or exam you are looking for.

What if I Need a Doctor Who Speaks English?

It is easy to find doctors who speak English in Korea. Most hospitals and clinics will have at least one (if not more) doctors on staff who speak English. Some medical professionals will even list their language capabilities in their online profiles. It is also possible to find international hospitals and clinics, where the majority of staff members, including receptionists, should speak English.

Finding a Dentist in South Korea 

Learning how to find a dentist in South Korea is about the same as finding any other type of doctor. Your best bet is to look online. Like all medical professionals, dentists in Korea are highly-skilled and it is even easy to find ones who have been trained overseas if you wish. If you move to Korea for work, it is also worth asking your colleagues or HR department for recommendations.

Average Wait Time to See a Doctor in South Korea

One drawback of the Korean medical system is the wait time to see a doctor. Even in emergency situations, patients find themselves often waiting hours to be seen by a medical professional. For non-emergencies, you can expect to wait 24 hours or even multiple days.

A Note About Seeing Doctors

Doctors in South Korea are highly-respected. This means they are not used to being questioned often by patients. Seeking a second opinion may also be deemed as extremely rude. If you feel you are not receiving the treatment that is right for you, or if you want a doctor who is more willing to answer your medical questions, consider looking around for a doctor that is accustomed to working with expats. It is often common for doctors to overprescribe medication as many are compensated for the medicine that they promote.

Despite these cons to the South Korean medical system, the country as a whole still has supreme medical care and highly-qualified doctors. Expats moving to Korea should just be aware that this is a cultural difference you are likely to encounter.

Giving Birth in South Korea

Giving birth as a non-resident in South Korea is as easy and straightforward as if you were a native-born citizen. Expectant mothers will find a great deal of services available to them through every step of their pregnancy: from the time they learn they are pregnant all the way until after the baby is born.

What to Expect When Giving Birth in South Korea

In the past, Korean society dictated very specific beliefs and customs in regard to pregnancy (for example: women could not eat duck for fear that the baby would be born with webbed feet). While many of these traditions are no longer practiced, some have remained to modern times. For example, it is frowned upon to make noise during the actual delivery process. Some expats have even reported being shushed by their delivery doctor.

Dulas, midwives, and birthing pools are all available in Korea. Women can give birth either at a hospital or in a birthing center.

C-sections are very common in South Korea. Do not be surprised if your doctor suggests this right away. Enemas and episiotomies are also common right before delivery. If you do not want these, be sure to make this clear before your due date.

The Cost of Having a Baby in South Korea

If you live in Korea for more than six months, you will need to register for the National Health Insurance (NHI) scheme. If you move to Korea and give birth before this time, you should go ahead and register for the NHI as it will help with pre- and post-natal costs, as well as the delivery. Giving birth in South Korea without health insurance is possible, but it will be costly.

If using the NHI, the general cost for having a baby in South Korea is as follows:

  • Pre-natal tests and treatments: 30—80,000 KRW (25—70 USD)
  • Vaginal delivery: 7,100,000 KRW (6,000 USD)
  • C-section delivery: 11,000,000 KRW (9,250 USD)

The NHI does allow for women to give birth at a maternity clinic if they prefer, although this will be the more expensive option at around 500—800,000 KRW (420—670 USD).

Benefits of Giving Birth in South Korea

A large benefit of having a baby in South Korea as a foreigner is the supreme level of care you will receive. Korean hospitals and birthing centers are well-equipped with advanced medical technology.

Can You Give Birth in South Korea for Citizenship?

Unfortunately, it is not possible to give birth in South Korea for citizenship. Even if you are giving birth as a permanent resident in South Korea, your child will be given the same citizenship as you. The only way your child will be given Korean citizenship is if one of the parents is a citizen.

When you give birth in South Korea as an expat, you must register the birth with the local authorities. This means you will need to go to the local city office of your residence and apply for an ARC on behalf of your child.

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