Seoul, South Korea Report of what it's like to live there - 02/03/16
Personal Experiences from Seoul, South Korea
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
Previously lived in Cartagena, Colombia
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
Seattle, WA. There are non-stop flights, about 10 hours each way, with a confusing time/date change.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Currently, most housing is on Yongsan Army Base. This is changing as the base moves toward closing. Also, if you are not State, likely there will be no room for you on base. We live in a great apartment on the 36th floor, with a view of the Han River. We love it! On base, you have mostly stand alone housing, with the attendant mowing and raking of leaves. My commute to work is 25-35 minutes by subway. The same drive runs anywhere from 20 minutes to nearly an hour depending on traffic. From base housing there is a shuttle.
Housing on the local economy can be found at any range of prices and sizes. You have to use a real estate agent for rentals.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
While the base is still open, there is commissary and Exchange access for USG employees. The commissary is just like a Safeway or Albertson's in the States, with similar prices. Out in the city, groceries tend to be a bit more than the US, especially meat. There is one CSA that has been around for almost two years -- we love the fresh veggies we get each week from that!
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
You can get anything you'd want, either locally or through the DPO
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
There are literally thousands of restaurants, at any price you want to pay. Many American chains as well. One thing that is different here -- many places only have 1-3 items on the menu. So going out is much more about deciding exactly what you want to eat and then going to the place that has the best whatever-that-is. And everyone in your party has to agree. The foodie scene is getting bigger all the time, as is the craft beer movement. You do have to research and ask around to find the "hidden gem" restaurants. Otherwise you'll pay too much for mediocre food.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
If you want full-time help you must sponsor a third-country national. We did not do this, so I can't speak to the process. Part time workers usually make about US$10/hour.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There is a gym on base that is free, with small fees for classes. It is also fairly easy to run on base. There are miles and miles of bike trails along the Han River. Also lots of hiking available nearby.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
Credit cards are ubiquitous. Koreans rarely use cash.
5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Zero. Many signs are in English, the subway has English announcements, there are taxis specifically for foreigners, there's a free translation service available by phone. While knowing some Korean can make life richer, you can get by for sure.
6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
This city is much easier to navigate than many others around the world.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
The subway, bus, train, and taxi systems are fabulous and inexpensive.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
We did not have a car and did not miss it one bit. If you live on base a car might be more useful, as you have to walk further to access public transportation. Traffic can be pretty awful, too, and parking can be limited. Unless you really want to stand out, bring a black, white, or silver car. It seems that's all the Koreans drive! There are always cars for sale, either diplomatic or military. One friend had a very easy time buying a used car on the local economy, too.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Internet is cheap and super, super fast. We pay about US$34/month for internet and land line and regularly get 95M speeds.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
We got one cell phone from the vendor on base. It was a two-year plan, but you can get shorter contracts. You can use an unlocked phone and just buy a Korean sim, but you have to take the phone to a special government office to register it first. Any cell service vendor can explain it to you.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
If you want to teach English, yes. Otherwise it is harder unless you're fluent in Korean. However, telecommuting is easy because of the great internet.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Koreans are sharp dressers, both for work and play. You can wear whatever you want, but you will stand out if you're sloppy.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Not at all. I worry more on the military base than in the city!
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Excellent medical care, both on base and locally. There is some medical tourism, mostly for elective procedures.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
Adequate. There are times when toxic dust blows in from the Gobi Desert, but as long as you pay attention to the alerts, you can minimize the impact. Otherwise, general big city air quality.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Seafood/shellfish allergy sufferers will need to be careful here, especially if you don't speak Korean. Many local dishes have some kind of seafood.
5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
There are definitely 4 seasons. Spring is gorgeous. Summer can be hot and muggy. Fall is short. Winter is surprisingly cold, although very dry.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
Many excellent choices, I'm told.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
The number of foreigners in Seoul (and all of Korea) is enormous. You see expats and tourists everywhere you go. For the most part it seems people are happy.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Lots of restaurants, bars, clubs, concerts, sporting events, and various outdoor activities. Base has a movie theater, pool, and bowling alley. Korean barbecue restaurants are a lot of fun, too! Also, most Korean evenings involve at least one stop at a place that sells fried chicken and beer.
You can be as busy (or not) as you want.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Everyone. There are lots of things to do for all ages, abilities, and interests!
4. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Not that I have encountered.
5. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Going to see Korean baseball, which is much more of a party than American baseball. Riding the train down to Busan, taking in the countryside in comfort. Jeju island. Easy travel to other countries in the region. Feeling safer than anywhere I've ever lived.
6. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
It's very easy living! Modern, clean, and culturally interesting, with tons of activities no matter what you like to do.
7. Can you save money?
We have, although not much. It can get expensive to do all the fun things here!
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
How easy it would be to get around, even without knowing any of the language. Would have saved me some emotional stress!
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
3. But don't forget your:
Bike, hiking gear