Expats moving to South Korea usually have many questions, often about what to expect from expat life. Here are the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about living in South Korea.
Is it necessary to learn Korean?
Fortunately for many expats, English is widely spoken in business and commerce. It's also possible to get by in South Korea without knowing Korean. Despite this, South Koreans are proud of their language and history, and while it isn't vital to learn Korean, it's useful in both navigating the country and understanding Korean culture. The Korean alphabet is easy to master and is especially helpful when reading signs and bus stops.
Is South Korea safe, and what is the situation with North Korea?
South Korea is incredibly safe, and crime statistics are low. Pickpocketing does occur in larger cities, but it's rare. Walking about and catching public transport late at night is considered safe, but this does not mean that one should forgo safety precautions.
The situation with North Korea is tense but unlikely to escalate. South Korea is committed to peace with its northern neighbour. Many older South Koreans have relatives in the North and speak confidently about reunification. Although there are occasional acts of aggression by North Korea toward the South Korean military, North Korea doesn’t pose a threat to expats and their daily lives.
Which is the best city to live in?
While Seoul is the most obvious choice for expats, South Korea has four main expat hubs: Seoul, Busan, Daejeon and Daegu. With just a three-hour train ride separating Seoul in the north and Busan in the south, it's easy for expats to explore all of these cities, regardless of which they choose to call home. Expats live all over the country, and getting around is fairly easy.
Seoul is the capital and contains the largest expat community. It also has a fair few international schools and a significant number of shops, restaurants and businesses catering to Westerners.
Daegu also has a considerable number of international schools and a large expat community. It's the centre of the manufacturing industry (textiles, machinery and metals) in South Korea. Both Daegu and Seoul host US military bases, and so they have large American expat communities. Although military bases make it easier to find Western goods and Western-orientated shops and restaurants, South Korean sentiment toward these bases isn't always positive.
Daejeon is just over an hour from Seoul and is something of a science hub. Daejeon focuses on technological innovation and has one of the fastest-developing business communities in South Korea.
Located in the south, Busan is a coastal city that is considered the most relaxed South Korean city. That said, Busan is also one of the busiest seaports in the world and is host to several international and local festivals. There are a few schools and shopping districts catering to the expat community living in Busan.
What is ‘saving face’?
Reputation and the way others perceive a person are of utmost importance to South Koreans. In a work environment, this means that proper respect and social harmony must be shown at all times. South Koreans will often give subtle hints or clues about the true nature of a situation without approaching the matter head-on.
A higher value is typically placed on showing politeness than on other values like honesty. When dealing with Koreans, it's essential to take note of subtle hints and clues, and it's equally important to remain polite in all business dealings. Striving to maintain a constant state of peace and equilibrium is highly respected in South Korean culture.
What are the different visa options for South Korea?
Korea has several visas that one can get if wanting to visit, work or live permanently in the country. The visitor visa is a 90-day tourist visa (B-2) for people from non-visa-exempt countries. The student visa (D-2) allows foreigners to study in South Korea, while a foreign language instructor (E-2) visa allows expats to teach English in the country.
Working holiday visas (H-1) allow one to work and travel in the country, but the requirements for this visa are for the work to be secondary to the holiday making. Special profession visas (E-5) and specially designated activity visas (E-7) are for people with certain skills or people who work in an in-demand field in South Korea. Permanent residence visas (F-5) can only be obtained after five years of living in the country or from investing in the country. Expats wanting to work in the country will need a work permit, which is easier to obtain if they already have a job lined up.