If you’re new to this blog, hi there! I’m Charlie and I moved to Jeonju in South Korea to teach English as a foreign language in 2017. Not knowing what I wanted to do after graduating from university, I signed up for the EPIK program (English Program in Korea) to travel to a new part of the world and experience something totally new.
As with most people on the EPIK program, when I set foot in Korea that autumn, it was my first time in the country (as well as in Asia) and everything was new, exciting and scary.
My year in Korea was awesome. It was far from perfect, but it was definitely the totally unique experience I’d hoped for.
I often get questions about what it was like to live in Korea, and I’ve finally got around to putting it down in words. So let’s get to it!
This is what it’s really like to live in Korea, from the perspective of an eager British globetrotter.
What’s It Like To Live In Korea?
If you want to live in Korea, then you’re going to need to make some money. So, you’ll be pleased to hear that if you speak English, it’s pretty easy to find work there. If you speak English as your first language and come from a country with English as its primary language, it’s even easier.
English teachers are in huge demand in Korea, which is why government schemes like EPIK provide such tempting employment packages for native English speakers around the world. The high salary and paid accommodation were what tempted me to join the program in the first place. I’ve written about the other best and worst parts of the EPIK program here.
There’s other teaching options too, with lots of English speakers required in private English academies (called hagwons), which offer similar perks to EPIK, including high salaries and paid accommodation. You can find postings for jobs in hagwons on this website.
The main difference between teaching at a hagwon rather than a public school is that the hours are usually longer and more sporadic, as many students attend the classes before or after their usual school. You can find out more about the differences here.
Outside of English teaching, work opportunities for foreigners who don’t speak Korean are limited. While there may be some opportunities in industries like technology and IT, most careers in Korea will (unsurprisingly) require Korean language skills. There’s more information about the Korean job market here.
For most expats, teaching English in South Korea is the way to go.
If you’re planning to live in Korea, it’s important that you know about one of the country’s less desirable traits: the climate.
Unlike the UK (where I’m from), Korea has four distinct seasons. The best and most beautiful ones are the spring and the autumn -the ideal time to visit the country as a tourist. In the spring, the famous cherry blossoms come out and the country starts to warm up after a long, cold winter. In the autumn, the whole landscape turns red and the temperatures cool back down after a long, hot summer.
And that’s about where the joys of the climate end. The summers and the winters in Korea are pretty rough, in completely different ways. The summer is very humid and often uncomfortably hot. The winter is dry and cold and sometimes feels like it’s never ending. When you live in Korea, you quickly discover that spending time outside is not possible (/pleasant) for much of the year.
Coming from the UK, it is exciting to experience such a different climate (and escape the relentless rain). But the weather is certainly not one of Korea’s biggest attractions. I actually listed it as one of the things I hated about living in Korea.
Hmm, where to begin. I have a difficult relationship with Korean food. Sometimes I love it, most of the time I don’t. But for many expats in Korea, the food is one of the country’s very best features.
Korea is famous for its unique cuisine, which is becoming more popular in the West. And sure, some of its most famous dishes are great. Korean BBQ, for example, is undeniably delicious and a great, social way to enjoy a meal with friends.
Other popular dishes are more of an acquired taste (kimchi, I’m looking at you). And if, like me, you don’t like that specific taste, then you might struggle because the same ingredients and spices are used in almost all of the traditional dishes. Gochujang is my nemesis.
However, if you do like it, then you’re in for a treat because the best thing about food in Korea is that it’s so cheap. Eating out isn’t a big event like it often is in the UK. Many Koreans eat out at local restaurants on a regular basis and enjoy nutritious and wholesome Korean meals (along with all the side dishes) for less than the cost of a McDonald’s Big Mac meal.
Other cuisines in Korea (Italian, Mexican, Indian etc.) are usually not up to scratch – unless you like mayonnaise on your pizza and sugar on your garlic bread. But, if you love Korean food, eating out is a great incentive to live in Korea.
In my opinion, the public transport situation in Korea is one of its best assets. In particular, I’m talking about the buses.
Being from the UK, I’d become accustomed to waiting for a slow, expensive bus to arrive, usually about 10 minutes late, then roll along at a snail’s pace to my destination. In Korea, the situation is totally different.
The buses are frequent, fast and, most importantly, cheap as chips. I’m so keen on them that I listed public transport as one of the 5 things I loved most about living in Korea.
There are also regular, affordable intercity buses going to and from key locations across the country, including Seoul, Busan, and my beloved Jeonju.
In some of the larger cities (Seoul, Incheon, Busan, Daegu, Gwangju and Daejeon) there are also extensive subway systems to help you get around. The great transport links make travelling around the country really easy and cheap – which is exactly what you want when you live in Korea!
It’s far too difficult to summarise Korean culture in a little segment in this post, so I’ll just compare some key aspects to life in the West and highlight some of the most unique things you might notice if you live in Korea.
One key difference is that most young people live with their parents until they get married. This means that there are tonnes of places for people to hang out with their friends and partners everywhere you go. This ranges from loads of cute, Instagrammable cafes, to indoor karaoke rooms (called noraebangs), to very cheeky and sometimes a bit gross love motels (for when you need to escape the prying eyes of your parents).
As a foreigner coming to live in Korea, you’ll probably be really impressed by the amount of interesting things to do and places to eat and drink. You might also be quite the novelty as a young person living ~solo~ .
Korean work culture, on the other hand, is pretty awful. Hopefully, as a foreigner in Korea you won’t be subjected to it in the same way Korean employees are.
Basically, in Korea, you have to do whatever your boss says. Working unpaid overtime? You’ve got no say. Helping your boss move house at the weekend? Yep, you’ve got to do that too. No questions asked.
Even the vice principal at my school (who had spent time living and studying in the UK) was shocked that in the West we don’t have to be at our boss’s beck and call 24/7 or risk getting the sack. Koreans work really hard and often for really long hours, which may come as a shock to you if you’re from the UK/US/anywhere in the West.
In Korea, people work hard, but they also play hard. The nightlife scene can be pretty hardcore, with people of all ages staying out eating and drinking until the early hours, sometimes on a regular basis. Koreans drink A LOT. Soju is the most widely consumed alcohol in the world, and most of it is consumed in Korea. It comes in loads of different flavours, it’s super cheap and you can find it anywhere. That should give you a little taster of the drinking scene in Korea.
I don’t have a huge amount to say about dating in Korea as I was happily coupled up throughout my time there. However, I heard a lot of stories from my single friends so I have a bit of an idea about the dating scene for foreigners. And a lot of it isn’t pretty.
Many foreign women arrive in Korea with dreams of meeting their perfect, handsome Korean oppa. And sure, some will find him. But in general, the dating scene in Korea for foreign women is pretty bleak.
For many Korean men, dating (and, more importantly, bedding) a foreign woman is a fetish. “Riding the white horse” (as it’s sometimes known *gags*) is a desire of more than a handful of Korean men who have no real intention of embarking on a serious relationship. Tinder is a prime place to find this breed of man, as it can be viewed as more of a hook-up app rather than a dating app in Korea. It’s important to be wary of this when you live in Korea if you’re looking for anything serious.
However, there are diamonds in the rough. I know of people from my EPIK intake who found exactly what they were looking for and are now happily settled with their Korean boyfriend/husband. If you manage to find the person for you, prepare to enter the world of matching couples clothing, couple rings, and a whole lot of cute soppiness.
Korea is a well-known for being a very safe country. It has a low crime rate (almost on par with Japan) and incidents of violent crime are rare. There are also very few incidents involving drugs or firearms.
In my year in Korea, I felt very safe wandering around on my own (even at night) and I have no memory of feeling unsafe in any other situation.
The one thing I could say that’s a bit more negative is Koreans drive like crazy people. The roads in the cities are often really wide, fast and congested. The constant honking of horns and switching lanes put me off ever wanting to drive in Korea. But now I’m just nit-picking.
Korea is famous for its awesome fashion scene. And when I say ‘awesome’, I don’t mean that I love it all. Korean style is very unique, with a lot of boxy, sometimes cool and sometimes frumpy looks that are really popular. In the cities, there are tonnes of clothes shops selling the hottest new looks, usually for low low prices. If you’re anything of a shopaholic, you will most likely be happy to live in Korea.
However, it’s important to note that Korea is definitely not about body inclusivity. Many shops will not sell anything in sizes that are considered bigger than average in Korea. And Koreans are tiny. The same goes for shoes, which usually come in small sizes. This can be a bit if an issue if you have any meat on your bones, which is why I’ve put “plus sized” clothes and shoes on my list of things to always bring with you if you’re coming to live in Korea.
Something interesting (and perhaps a little surprising) about fashion in Korea is that it can also be quite conservative – unlike what you might have seen from your favourite K-Pop stars. It’s seen as quite outrageous to show too much flesh, especially the shoulders and chest areas. I can clearly remember the shock and stares I received when I first arrived in my city of Jeonju wearing my off-the-shoulder bardot top. If I’d had any cleavage on show (or any cleavage at all for that matter…) it would have been a scandal.
It’s completely fine to wear short skirts, dresses and shorts, however. It’s funny how there’s very different ideas of ‘modesty’ in different countries.
Also, something I noticed about fashion in Korea is that what you wear really does matter. Unlike in many western countries, popping to the shop in your loungewear with no makeup on isn’t really a thing. In my whole time in Korea, I don’t think I ever saw an adult woman in public without a full face of makeup, well-composed outfit and hair done.
Don’t let that stop you though. You do you.
If you’re coming to Korea from a country that offers free healthcare, it’s always going to be a bit of a shock having to get your wallet out when you visit the doctors. However, if you’re coming from somewhere like the US, you’re probably going to be over the moon with the healthcare situation in Korea.
Healthcare in Korea is cheap (relatively). If you have any sort of ailment, it’s very easy to visit one of the many pharmacies or hospitals that are sprawled across the cities. With your job, you will be covered by some sort of health insurance too.
In comparison to the UK, because healthcare is private in Korea, things are a lot quicker. I once walked into a hospital looking for an X-ray on my potentially broken finger, got one within 30 minutes, and left with a bill of about £20/$25. And even better, the finger wasn’t broken.
It’s also handy to know that you can buy birth control/contraceptive pills over the counter at any pharmacy for about £5/$7 a month.
Cost of Living
Compared to the UK, the cost of living in Korea is very low. As I mentioned earlier, eating out and getting public transport are much more affordable. On top of that, clothes, entertainment and alcohol (soju and beer) will usually cost you less in Korea too. What a treat!
One thing I noticed that was a lot more expensive than back in the UK is groceries. In the UK, we are blessed with supermarkets full of very cheap fruit and veg, baked goods, and fresh and frozen food. In my time living overseas (in both Korea and Canada), I’ve been shocked at how much basic groceries can cost. Coming from another country, this difference might not seem so stark.
As for accommodation, I lived in the
hovel apartment provided for me by my job so I don’t have much experience of the private rental market. However, from what I saw the monthly rent was very affordable. One key difference though, is that you often need to put a very large deposit down (several thousand pounds/dollars) to secure your apartment.
In general, you’re probably going to find that if you live in Korea, things are going to be a lot more affordable than in your home country, particularly if you’re teaching English and have your accommodation costs covered. I was able to save a lot of money in my year living in Korea, which really was the icing on the cake.
Blog posts you might like
Want to know more? I’ve written a lot about living and working in Korea.
For more insights into teaching English in Korea, check out these posts:
For more insights into living in Korea, you might want to take a look at these:
I hope it goes without saying that this entire post is based on my personal experiences. Others might have a totally different perspective on life in Korea, particularly if they’re not from the UK.
However, I hope my insights have been useful to you. Korea is an amazing place to live, and if you do make it out there, you will certainly be having some truly interesting and unique experiences!
If you have any other questions about what it’s like to live in Korea, please feel free to leave them in the comments and I will do my best to answer them.