A guide to getting started in Korea for foreigners

A guide to getting started in Korea for foreigners

Living in Korea can be an exciting adventure for many foreigners, but it also presents a variety of challenges. Adapting to a new culture, language, and way of life may not be difficult for those who have lived abroad before, but proper preparation and information for an extended stay can make the process much easier. The following guide provides the minimum essential information and tips for expats starting life in South Korea. The Complete Guide to Living in Korea for Expats Check out our first article, The Complete Guide to Living in Korea for foreigners, for very basic information.

1. Basic understanding of Korea

If you’re considering moving to or staying in South Korea for an extended period of time, it’s important to have a basic understanding of the country’s culture, traditions, and language. South Korea is a country with a long history and rich culture, blending tradition and modernity.

Official country name

  • The official name of South Korea is the Republic of Korea, or “Korea” for short.

Location and area

  • Located on the Korean Peninsula in the northeastern part of the Asian continent, South Korea has an area of 100,188.1 km², or 45% of the total area of North and South Korea, including the Korean Peninsula and its annexes, of 221,000 km². The Korean Peninsula is slightly larger than Cambodia (181,035 km²) and about two-thirds the size of the Philippines (300,000 km²), Vietnam (331,210 km²), and Japan (377,915 km²). The Korean Peninsula, which encompasses North and South Korea, is bordered by China to the northwest by the Yalu River and to the northeast by the Tumen River, as well as by China and Russia. Surrounded on three sides by the sea, South Korea is bordered by the Yellow Sea to the west, the East Sea to the east, and the Nam Sea to the south. The southern and western parts of the peninsula are largely plains, while the eastern and northern parts are mountainous. The highest mountain on the peninsula is Mount Baekdusan (2,744 meters). The Gaema Plateau in the north is called the “Roof of Korea,” and the Taebaek Mountains, a mountain range that runs along the east coast of the peninsula, are also called the Baekdudaegan. Famous islands include Jeju Island, Geoje Island, Jindo Island, and Ulleung Island, which were formed by volcanic activity. The Hwanghae and South coasts are characterized by rias-style coasts, with large tidal differences (Source: Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport).
A guide to getting started in Korea for foreigners - Korea Map
A guide to getting started in Korea for foreigners – Korea Map


  • South Korea has a total population of 51,780,579 (2020 Census, Statistics Korea), ranking 28th in the world, and a population density of 516 people/㎢ (MOLIT Cadastral and Statistical Yearbook, Statistics Korea Future Population Projections), ranking 23rd in the world.

Economy size

  • South Korea has a GDP of $1.8102 trillion, the 10th largest in the world, and a GDP per capita of $34,983.70 (Bank of Korea 2021).

Korean culture and traditions

  • A blend of tradition and modernity: South Korea is a country that blends traditional values with a modern way of life. Seoul is home to several historic palaces, including Gyeongbokgung Palace, and cities like Andong offer traditional villages to explore, allowing you to experience both a modern cityscape and a variety of cultural characteristics.
  • Holidays and events: Traditional holidays such as Lunar New Year and Chuseok, as well as regional festivals, are great opportunities to experience Korean culture. These events allow you to experience the importance of family, traditional food, and play.

English and Korean

  • The importance of language: South Korea is a country with its own language, Hangul. However, many South Koreans don’t feel much pressure to speak English, especially the younger generation, who speak English better than other Asian countries. However, if you’re planning to live in South Korea for an extended period of time, it’s very convenient if you can speak Korean. Being able to use Korean in basic situations such as everyday conversations, getting directions, and ordering food will make your life much easier. While many things are labeled in English, place names and such are often translated from Korean into English, so you’ll want to take that as a given.
  • Learn the basics: If you want to learn Korean, simple greetings, basic questions, and numbers are a good place to start. There are many resources available to help you learn basic Korean, including online materials, applications, and language exchange groups. We’ll cover these in more detail in another post.

2. Visas and residency permits

Obtaining the appropriate visa is essential to living in South Korea. Visa types vary depending on the purpose of your stay, so it’s important to choose the right one for your situation.

Visa types and requirements

  • Tourist/Short-stay visa: This is the right visa for you if you’re visiting South Korea for tourism or a short stay. You can get a visa waiver for tourism purposes from most countries.
  • Student visa: This visa is required if you are staying in South Korea for the purpose of studying and requires a letter of acceptance from your educational institution.
  • Work visa: If you want to work in South Korea, you will need to obtain a work visa, which requires an employment contract and sponsorship from your employer.

Residence permit process

  • Apply for a residence permit: After you arrive in Korea, you will need to register as a foreigner. You can do this by visiting your local immigration and alien affairs office or local government. Some administrative matters, such as the certificate of fact of domestic residence, will be explained in detail next.
  • Required documents: You may need a passport, visa, photo, proof of residency, and more; specific requirements may vary by visa type.

3. Find a listing

For short-term travelers, it’s common to stay in hotels or guesthouses, but if you’re planning to stay for at least a month, finding a place to stay is crucial to your stability in Korea. There are many different types of accommodations in Korea, and it’s important to understand the characteristics, advantages, and disadvantages of each.

Housing options

  • Studios and offices: These are small apartments, suitable for individuals or couples. They include a kitchen and bathroom, and may be partially furnished. They are the equivalent of studios in foreign countries.
  • Boarding houses and guesthouses: These are popular with students and short-term residents. Meals are often provided or you can use a communal kitchen.
  • Apartments: A great option for families or long-term residents, these units offer more space and more amenities.

Lease agreements

  • Contract type: South Korea has a unique subletting (Jeonse) system. However, for foreigners, renting is more familiar (paying a minimum deposit and then paying rent each month), and the Korean rental market has recently seen an increase in renting.
  • Contract process: Check the terms of the lease, the length of the contract, the security deposit, and the rent before signing. Before signing a lease, make sure you understand all the terms and conditions, and seek legal advice if necessary. As in many countries, it’s recommended that you sign a lease with a real estate agent in the middle, rather than directly with the landlord, for legal protection. Of course, you’ll pay a fee to the agent, but it’s recommended if you’re paying a large deposit, even if it’s for a sublet or a month-to-month rental. If the rental contract is not large, such as a short-term rental, it is possible to contract directly with the house owner.

4. Adapting to daily life

Everyday life in South Korea is full of new experiences and challenges. Here are some tips to make your life in Korea easier.

Public transportation

  • Convenient public transportation: South Korea’s public transportation system is one of the most convenient in the world, especially in the capital city of Seoul, where subways and buses connect all parts of the city, and transportation cards like T-Money make it easy to use.
  • Use transportation apps: There are a variety of apps that provide real-time traffic information and routes, such as Kakao Maps and Naver Maps. You can check the status of the subway, how long it will take to get from where you are to where you want to go, and if you’re on a bus, where your bus is.

5. Health and medical services

Staying healthy and accessing healthcare when needed is very important while living in South Korea. South Korea has a world-class healthcare system that is accessible and relatively affordable.

Understanding the healthcare system

  • National Health Insurance: Foreigners living or working in South Korea for a certain amount of time are eligible for National Health Insurance. This greatly reduces hospital costs.
  • General hospitals and neighborhood clinics: Large general hospitals provide specialized care, while neighborhood clinics provide simple checkups and prescriptions. We have an amazing system for accessing healthcare, which is quite fast compared to countries like the US.

Handling emergencies

  • Emergency services: In an emergency, you can call an ambulance by dialing 119. Most emergency rooms are open 24 hours a day.
  • Medical interpretation services: Some hospitals offer foreign language interpretation services. You can check with the hospital in advance or use the Medical Assistance Center for Foreigners.

6. Social and cultural activities

We encourage you to participate in social and cultural activities to enrich your life in Korea. Korea offers a wide variety of cultural experiences and activities, which can help you meet new people and gain a deeper understanding of Korean culture.

Build a social network

  • Local communities: Joining a local expat community or club can help you connect with people going through similar experiences. We’ll cover this in more detail later.
  • Language exchange groups: A great way to improve your Korean language skills and make friends with locals.

Cultural experiences

  • Traditional cultural experiences: Hanbok experience, traditional tea tasting, traditional Korean crafts, and more.
  • Attend events and festivals: Experience the colorful culture of Korea by attending local festivals, traditional holiday celebrations, K-pop concerts, and more.

7. Language learning

One of the most important aspects of living in Korea is language skills. Learning Korean is a great way to improve your communication skills and gain a deeper understanding of Korean culture. Here are some helpful tips and resources for learning Korean.

The importance of learning Korean

  • Daily life: Basic communication, directions, shopping, and ordering food rely heavily on Korean language skills.
  • Cultural understanding: Language plays an important role in understanding culture. By learning Korean, you can get closer to the culture and society of Korea.

How to learn Korean

  • Utilize online resources: You can learn basic grammar and vocabulary through a variety of online courses and applications (such as Duolingo).
  • Language Exchange Groups: You can practice your Korean in real life through language exchange with locals. This is a great way to improve your language skills and meet new friends at the same time.

Learning materials and tools

  • Books and training programs: You’ll have access to a variety of learning materials, including Korean language books and online courses.
  • Language schools: You can join regular or intensive courses offered by various language institutes in Korea. These courses offer structured learning.

Practicing language in everyday life

  • Practice everyday conversations: Try to have simple conversations in everyday settings, such as the store, bank, or cafe. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, and try to say as much as possible.
  • Consume Korean media: Learn the language naturally by watching Korean dramas, movies, music, news, etc. It’s a fun and effective way to learn.

Starting a new life in South Korea can be challenging, but this guide will help you through the initial settling in and adjustment process. If you’re willing to engage with your new environment and keep an open mind, you’ll find that living in South Korea can be a rewarding experience. We’ll be covering more topics to help you get started in the future.

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