South Korea: The No BS Guide to Living in Korea

Hey, welcome back!

I missed you!

As promised, this is part two in the South Korea series! Part one was all about teaching English in South Korea, what’s required, application documents, application process, etc. If you haven’t checked it out, I highly recommend it!

Again, thanks to those that contributed to this guide as well! You’re the best!

Now that the business stuff is out of the way, let’s get into the more exciting part of this guide! What is it like to live in South Korea on a day-to-day basis? How do I save all that money people talk about? Is the country in turmoil thanks to North Korea? Find out on the next episode of Dragon Ball Z!

Dragon ball z living in korea

Nah, but really though, here’s the real spill.

10 Things you should definitely know

This guide is, of course, full of things that you should know, but now I’m talking about the nitty-gritty things you should know and take note of. This is what it’s like to live in Korea.

~ The smell of cities can go from pleasant to smelling like ass in instant. The smell comes from the sewers and it can be really horrid.

~ Korean banking is a nightmare! It is so unnecessarily complicated for even simple tasks. You need to set up something different for a regular bank account, a remittance account to send money home, online banking, you name it. They also use what’s known as a digital certificate and you have to install this on your computer in addition to other security protocols before using online banking. It really is a hassle.

~ People will stare at you as a foreigner, but don’t let it bother you. In fact, I stare right back to throw them off. For me specifically as a black woman, I get many stares. When you pair that with having locs and a large chest, it doubles the stares, but I just remember that many people haven’t seen someone like me in person in their lives. The main culprits will be the old folks and children.

~ Garlic bread and chips here are a lie. I cannot express to you the disappoint I felt when I bought garlic croquettes from Paris Baguette, a famous chain bakery, took that first bite and sweetness met my taste buds. I’m not sure who told them that garlic bread is supposed to be sweet, but they need to be slapped. The same for the chip brands that you would recognize, they hurt my feelings. Stay away from the Cheetos. The Doritos are tolerable and Pringles are pretty much the same with different flavors.

~ The pizza here is…different. Be prepared for pizza with corn, pizza with potato, pizza with shrimp, pizza with potato bread crust, you name it. I still like to stick with the classic pepperoni or cheese most times. Also, it’s mad expensive, so keep that in mind.

~ The nightlife here in South Korea is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It’s insane and it’s so much fun! This is coming from a girl that scoffed at the thought of clubbing back home. The atmosphere is just different and most people are out to just have a good time without being bothersome. The clubs don’t close until 7 or 8 AM so if you’re a hardcore partier, you’re coming to the right place!

~ One thing I can’t stand is spitting and guess what’s prominent here in the streets of Korea? You guessed it, spitting. AND it’s that nasty, snot pulling spit. It makes my skin crawl. Smoking is also something that many people do here in the streets, so be prepared for that.

~ Korean men are the same as any other, so hopefully, the K-dramas haven’t filled your heads with a different expectation. Tinder is used here and we all know how that goes! Most of the guys here are looking to hook up with foreigners for casual relations and can be clingy and jealous.

~ It is very true that the crime rate is low here in Korea. I feel so much safer knowing that  I don’t have to worry about mass shootings or robberies like I do back home. HOWEVER, there are many, many instances of harassment for women from both Korean men and foreigners, so just be aware of your surrounds, ladies.

~ The bathroom culture here is cringeworthy, to say the least. I’ve noticed that a lot of people don’t wash their hands. I’ve also noticed that some bathrooms have a communal soap bar…I’ll pass. I recommend carrying hand sanitizer and a small towel to dry your hands with because it’s common for bathrooms to not have paper towels or a hand dryer. I would also recommend keeping a small batch of toilet paper with you, some bathrooms won’t have that either.

TRANSPORTATION: A BREAKDOWN

  • Bus (city and intercity)

The buses here are really cheap and a great way to explore both your city and other parts of the country since there are plenty that go from city to city. The typical price of a city bus is ₩12-1300 ($1.10-1.20). It can also be a little hard, especially in the countryside, to navigate the bus system if you can’t read Korean. P.S. these bus drivers are reckless. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Intercity buses are those that travel outside of your town and the cost depends on how far you’re trying to travel as well as the time. For example: I’ve paid both ₩19000 ($17) and ₩28000 ($25) for the same trip to Seoul from my city, Gyeongju. The price difference depended on the time.

You can use this website to check the time of intercity buses (in English).

  •      KTX/SRT

These are the fast or bullet trains of Korea and they can get you to your destination in record time. It’s the most expensive way to travel through the country, but compared to what you would pay back home, the prices are still good. Exhibit A: The roundtrip from Gyeongju to Seoul is $90. The advantage of this is that it cuts a 4-hour bus ride in half. You can decide if it’s worth the trade-off. I personally prefer bus for long distance trips and the KTX for short distance. It’s also very simple to buy your tickets on the Korail website. This is helpful if you want to skip human interaction. P.S. Not every city has a KTX/SRT station.

  •      Taxi

There are many taxi drivers in the cities of Korea and they will get you to your desired destination quick, fast and in a hurry. There have been countless times that I could’ve sworn I was going to die in the backseat while the driver weaved in and out of traffic at top speeds. The good news is that despite these near-death experiences, my wallet is happy. My cheapest ride has been just shy of $3 and my most expensive has been about $18. P.S. KakaoTaxi (iOS) (Android) is an app that is similar to Uber or Lyft for calling taxis. It can be helpful.

  •      Metro

The metro system here in Korea is pretty amazing and cheap. There are only a few cities with a metro system: Seoul, Busan, Daegu, Daejeon, and Gwangju. Seoul’s metro system is the most extensive with 9 lines and it covers the entire metropolitan area. If you can, try to avoid the metro around peak times because it’s a damn mess. P.S. The Subway Korea app (iOS) (Android) is super helpful! It shows you where the trains are in real time and gives you a full interactive subway map.

The best way to maneuver through the stations is to purchase a T-money card. This is a reloadable card (in the station or at a convenience store) that allows swift entrance and exit through the turnstiles. It also works for the bus and most vending machines. It’s the same as the Oyster card in London or the Suica/Pasmo card in Tokyo. Side note: If you’re a partier, it’s good to know the metro closes down at 12 AM and re-opens at 5:30 AM. If you want to go home within this time frame, you can either take a taxi or just tough it out.

Korean t money card

  •      Slow trains

Okay, they’re not necessarily slow trains, but they aren’t as fast as the KTX and SRT. These trains go to every city in Korea and are easy on the wallet. The Mugunghwa and the Saemaeul trains are what you’re looking for.

  •       Ferry

One mode of transportation that is often overlooked is the fact that there are ferries that travel from here to China and Japan. If you’re considering visiting these countries, that’s one option that may save you some money.

KIMCHI (김치), KIMBAP (김밥), JJIGAE(찌개), OH MY!

If you couldn’t already guess, we’re about to get into the best part of living anywhere…food!

And boy, does Korea do food well!

Korean foo

Before coming to Korea, I would eat at the local Korean restaurants in my city to try and get a feel for what it would be like and it doesn’t even compare (sorry, Go Hyang Gip!). There are so many different flavors that go into the cuisine here and you’re going to get hooked on the samgyeopsal (삼겹살, fatty sliced pork), just so you know. However, if that’s not your thing, Korea has something to offer everyone, literally. There’s some weird food here. I’m looking at you, fermented stingray.

The more traditional foods like kimbap, mandu, ramyun, and tteokbokki can be super cheap, typically hovering around the ₩4-6000 mark ($3-5). When you go out with a large group for BBQ, it can also be great for your wallet when everyone splits the meal. When eating out for BBQ, most times you’ll cook the meat yourself, which can be pretty fun. You’ll become a grill master in no time. You will also be presented with many side dishes, some may not look that appetizing, but you’d be surprised! P.S. Don’t worry about tipping at restaurants or delivery, it’s not a thing here.

korean pork belly

Samgyeopsal -삼겹살

When you first arrive and feel a little homesick, fret not! There are some dining options that will be more familiar to you depending on where you live. There’s Pizza Hut, Papa John’s, Domino’s, McDonald’s, Subway, Popeye’s (Seoul) and Taco Bell (Seoul) in addition to international food goods in Home Plus, Costco and Sam’s. Home Plus is like the Walmart of Korea so there’s an electronic section, grocery section, food section and home goods. Of course, these will be more expensive, but I understand the need to have it, I was the same way.

IS THIS **** GOING TO FIT?

The question everyone asks when they go out to shop in these Korean streets. If you’re shopping at the many boutique stores there’s a chance that some pants, skirts or shirts may not fit, especially if you have cleavage like I do or hips and butt. There’s also a chance that large here won’t go past your thigh. However, in most cases, you should be able to shop for clothes without much problem. In the bigger cities, there are stores like H&M, Uniqlo and Forever 21 (Seoul) if you’re super worried.

For shoes, it can get a little tricky. If you’re an avid tennis shoe wearer like I am then I have good news for you. There are stores like ABC Mart and Les More that carry larger sizes in many name brands like Vans, Nike, Timberland, Reebok, etc. for comparable prices. Outside of tennis shoes, if you’re a US 8.5 or higher, this is where it can get hard. It’s nearly impossible to find fashionable shoes for larger feet. The only way I see around this is to have family send you some or order online and have it shipped. I’ll list a site to help you with this later.

YOU SHOULD SAVE AT LEAST $8-10,000

Now, I’m sure you’re wondering “How the heck can I save thousands of dollars here like everyone claims?” Get to the point, lady! Well, here’s how: the cost of living here is relatively low! However, the amount of money you’re able to save wholly depends on your lifestyle. If you’re someone who consistently likes to drink/go out, go to every concert, travel outside the country and eat out every day, then you’re not going to save much of anything.

At the bare minimum salary of 2.1 million won (US $1930 or £1430) after deductions come out for medical, pension and utilities, you should be able to live off of $900 or less in an average month. If you’re able to save at least ₩400,000 a month, that in addition to your severance and pension should put you within that range or beyond it at the end of the year.

Monthly bills are different for every individual, for instance, although your rent is free, you may be put into a building that has maintenance fees and these can range from not a big deal to damn, fam!

Korean maintenance bills

Your wallet when your maintenance fee comes in

The electricity, gas, and water are all typically pretty low with summer months and winter months being an exception (which is nothing compared to prices back home).

I’m not going to sugar coat things and say that it’s extremely easy to save because it isn’t. A lot of people that are here are struggling to save money every month. Even in everyday, normal life in our home countries, it isn’t easy, but that’s where the right mindset and self-control come into play.

If you’re someone without monthly commitments back home, your best course of action would be to decide how much you want to save each month and set that aside as soon as you get paid. From there, you can budget with what’s left, but you have to be strict with yourself about it. Pro tip: it’s better to use cash since it’s less tempting than swiping your card. The mind is a funny thing.

If you’re like me and countless others with monthly commitments back home, this can put a strain on how much you’re able to save, but it’s still very possible! Your first month with your salary is a trial period: once you get paid, you can set aside the amount of money you would need to send home to pay your bills and budget with what’s left. This will give you an accurate look at what you’re able to live off of for a month and from there you can see what can be set aside for savings. I’m currently setting aside about $300 per month, but that will significantly increase in the coming months as my commitments decrease. For now, it isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing!

Advice from current expats

This guide wouldn’t be complete without giving you pointers from those of us who live here and have been here for years. These quotes are for a range of topics. Please heed all advice here for a smooth transition!

“Koreans appreciate kindness (although we don’t always see them being kind to one another). They express that emotion with more tenderness than Americans do – we might see it as ‘babying’ students or being a little too sweet. Or, they might seem to overdo acts of hospitality. Thinking that learning English was a serious business in Korea, I tried to be an old -school teacher: on the tough side with high expectations. It just didn’t go over well, and I think they couldn’t adjust their expectations of kindness to my American character. My advice is to treat the students like they are marshmallows – you just want them lightly toasted, not burnt out. Try a little stimulus and motivation in your classes, but keep a gentle heart.” – Patricia

“Be flexible AF.” – Alexandria

“Learn a bit of Korean because if you teach here, there’s a chance you won’t be in Seoul or a city. Also, it helps you out with traveling around the country and using certain apps/services. AND you’ll blow your co-workers’ and students’ minds (and possibly get more free stuff from people).” – Mia

“Don’t trust the garlic bread.”- Patrick (I bet you thought I was kidding).

“Have your co-teacher write down your address in Hangul or the closest bus stop so that no matter what, you can always get home. Especially if you have to hand it to a cab driver.” – Deborah

“Enjoy Korea for what it’s worth, don’t focus on the negative and try not to associate with anyone who does. All that does is taint your experience here.” – VeAngela

“Use the phone number 1-3-3-0 (if using a cell). It’s Korea Tourism Organization’s hotline, open 24/7 and can help you with anything travel/tourism related. Very, very helpful!” – Barun

“Do not take anything Koreans do to offend you to heart. Realize you may be more cultured than that person and offer grace (which will hopefully teach them about you). Also, don’t use the soap in the public restroom.” -Michael (I told you about that one, too!)

“Do not be afraid to explore alone. Sometimes you’re worried you don’t know Korean well enough or you may get lost, but trying is the best part of this journey. Some of my best adventures were had by going to places I could never see myself and the majority of the time I went alone. Trying to plan around others can often lead to you not doing anything and then becoming so tired of trying that you just give up. Get out there and explore!~” – Ren

“Find your people. Being in a foreign country sometimes you feel obligated to make friends with people you wouldn’t be friends with back home because we’re all expats, and that’s okay. but sometimes they aren’t your people, and you get stuck with folks you don’t really like. don’t be afraid to branch out and find your people.” – Nomsa

“Self-care. Self-care. Self-care is so essential as much as stepping outside your comfort-zone. Yeah maybe the first couple of months will be the hardest but you still have the remaining months that come with the undulating waves of good and best weeks, as well as, bad and worst ones. So if it is to go to meet-ups, explore new cities, and/or try new food; you need to continue/start to do what it is that works for you to help bring and maintain tranquility, solace, and love when work/life stresses you out. Yoga, archery, art, noraebang (karaoke), face masks, wallowing on the floor, going to a dog shelter, cleaning, meandering the neighborhood, or whatever is effectively cathartic for you. Don’t forget! Be proactive! Provide some self-love, my friend!” – Jasmine

“Don’t be shook if the first time you talk to them [Korean men] they talk about how they’re your man now, lol. It’s a lie fam, he wants the cheeks and to bounce. Also, don’t listen to the “let’s eat chicken at your house’ line…” -Quandra

Helpful Resources

Here is a list of resources that I believe will be quite helpful during your time here, especially if you’re keen on keeping your sanity intact!

  1. Gmarket

Gmarket is basically the Amazon of Korea. You can order just about anything from here and the great thing about it is that they have an English website! You’re able to order groceries from the website and have them delivered to your door, electronics, clothes, beauty products, you name it.

    2.  Coupang

Coupang falls under the same category as Gmarket, a large online shopping portal. This is extremely helpful for those who want snacks and cereal from their home country. I can’t tell you how excited I was to see Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Tostitos Scoops with mild chunky salsa. They also have products that I can find at my local grocery store for a cheaper price, so it’s a win in my book! Shipping typically takes 2 days and they tell you off the bat when delivery is expected. This site is best viewed on Google Chrome so that it can be translated.

    3.  Expat Women in Korea Facebook Group

I can’t say enough about how helpful this group has been to me. The ladies in this group were helping me before I even touched Korean soil. There’s a wealth of information to be found here, from legal advice to women’s health issues. This should be one of the first groups you join if you’re thinking of coming to Korea as a woman. Many people also host meetups, so it’s a great way to make friends!

    4.   Brothas & Sistas of South Korea Facebook Group

Again, another Facebook group that has been extremely helpful to my transition and answering questions that would be beneficial to minorities. It’s no secret that anyone darker than a manilla folder will have issues that are separate from others and this is a safe haven to express yourself amongst others who will understand where you’re coming from and offer advice. This group also hosts several meetups throughout the year!

   5.     Box Oregon

I recently discovered Box Oregon when I wanted to order something from back home and have it sent here to me. This is an awesome resource for those of us who need clothes, shoes, food, books, etc. from home but have no way of finding it here in Korea. How it works is that you order what you need online from any retailer and have it shipped to their address in Oregon.

When they receive your order(s), they’ll email you with the weight and you’re able to purchase a box that will fit all of your items. From there, they will ship your items over in that box. It only takes a few days to receive your items, as long as the contents don’t exceed the ₩150,000 (US $137) limit before you have to pay import taxes. This happened to me, but their customer service was swift in getting me the information of who I needed to wire the funds to. It arrived shortly after from customs in Incheon. The great thing is that you can order from several retailers and they’ll consolidate everything in one box!

  6.     Honey Hair

This resource is targeted to men and women of ethnic backgrounds who have specific needs when it comes to their hair (such as myself) and beauty needs. The physical store, run by Jessica Fry,  is located in Pyeongtaek, but luckily, she has a website to order from as well as a Facebook page if you need to get in touch. The online store has everything from essential oils and shampoo/conditioner combos to bundles and jewelry. The Facebook Group Natural Beauty in Korea is a great way to find stylists for your hair needs and is another way to get in touch with Ms. Jessica.

  7.      Waygook and Korshare

These two websites operate in similar ways. They’re file sharing sites for teachers here in Korea. So, there’s plenty of ideas for lesson plans amongst other information. Unfortunately, Waygook recently implemented a subscription, so what used to a great free resource for new teachers now has to be paid for. Granted, it’s not an unbearable amount, but still, it’s the principle of the matter.  However, Korshare is free and also another resource for lesson plans and advice.

8.      Every Expat in Korea Facebook Group

Similar to the Expat Women group, this is another awesome way to get your questions answered and get insight into what other expats are going through, and it’s more inclusive than the women’s group. I’m looking out for you too, guys!

  9.     Yours Truly

I’m more than happy to help you with any questions you may have and can direct to the right source! Feel free to reach out to me, I’m always available and ready to help!

 

My advice to you

Korean staff at Hagwon

Come to Korea with an open mind and expect the unexpected. Everyone’s experience here is different.

Make the best of your situation and always keep a positive attitude, it makes getting through each day that much easier!

Branch out and make new friends! It defeats the purpose of you coming here if you just sit around and do the same things you were doing back home. I would definitely recommend trying to make some Korean friends, they know about all the best restaurants and things to do!

Which brings me to this, here’s a great resource for learning Korean: Talk to me in Korean. This website is so easy to navigate and they have everything a beginner would need: free podcasts with PDFs, textbooks, workbooks, and youtube videos.

Daiso (a Japanese dollar store) and Artbox (a stationary store) are traps! They’re like the Target/Walmart of Korea. You go in for one thing or nothing at all and suddenly you’ve spent ₩100,000. Save yourself!

Korean winters are not fun. If you’re from a warm state like I am, try to pack for the winter because the wind will hit you like a ton of bricks.

Use this time to explore different creative outlets. You could start a youtube channel, start a blog (and potentially make money), pick up a new skill, the possibilities are endless! Leave this country way better than you came!

Please, please, please make sure you travel around Korea and see this beautiful country for all that it is. While you’re at it, it’s so cheap and convenient to travel to nearby countries, take advantage! Booking.com is one of the best websites for finding affordable accommodations.

If you decide to get a pet, please adopt! There are so many wonderful animals who just want love, warmth and attention at the many shelters throughout Korea. Many of them have been saved from meat market farms.

The young Korean crowd are really friendly and will try to practice their English with you! You could always do what I do and dance in the streets when you hear a banging song, they’ll join along!

Seoul nights

My friend Cat and I with some nice girls in Seoul

Phew!

You made it through this long ass guide, congratulations! Hopefully, you gained some knowledge about what it’s like to live in such a unique country like South Korea.

Tell me something that surprised you about Korea or something you look forward to in the comments!

Be sure to follow my adventures in Korea on Instagram!

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6 Comments

  1. December 6, 2017 / 12:48 pm

    Such a good read and some really great resources! My husband and I have discussed visiting South Korea, but I was always so concerned that we’d never be able to afford it. Now we can really start planning!

    • Bria
      Author
      December 6, 2017 / 3:02 pm

      Hey Ashley! Visiting Korea is definitely doable! You can eat for really cheap if you know where to look! Everything is either cheaper or comparable to other countries. 🙂

  2. December 7, 2017 / 12:04 am

    Love this! So much of this reminds me of my time in Thailand. I was there for a semester in college and can relate to the food struggles (unusual pizza, potato chip flavors), getting stared at, and bathroom cringes.

    I would love to visit South Korea someday, the closest I’ve gotten is a layover at the airport there 😉

    Have a blast!

    • Bria
      Author
      December 7, 2017 / 4:13 am

      Hey Torey! I’m so glad someone understands my struggle! You should definitely visit Korea, there’s so much to see and do here and the food is amazing. It’s also cheap, not as cheap as Thailand, but still fairly cheap compared to back home. 🙂

        • December 8, 2017 / 8:32 am

          I know I’ll miss them when it’s time to go! TT_TT

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