Seoul, South Korea Report of what it's like to live there - 02/08/16
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?
No. Previously lived in Rome and Brazil
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?
You can get a direct flight from Seoul to Atlanta but the USG probably wont pay for it. Most flights route you to SFO and then another connection or your final stop. Plan for at least 2 connecting flights and a 15-18 hour trip. Price can be reasonable if you plan ahead.
3. How long have you lived here?
about 2 years (left 6/2015)
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
government (USG DoD)
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
DOS personnel live on base. DoD personnel get LQA and find their own housing. DoD gets the better end of the deal. Most people live in luxurious high rises with lots of amenities. Single family homes are rare unless you live in a rural area or out near Pyeongtaek. I was a single person with a 4 bedroom penthouse apartment.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
USG bases have a very good commissary. I also shopped in a local grocery story and found the selection and prices to be comparable to the U.S. Fruits and veggies are expensive. The Korean diet has a lot of meat and vegetarians might struggle a bit. Also lots of pesticides so you might want to seek out so-called organic markets.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
the army exchange and commissary cover most household goods. I would actually bring less of those things with me.
If you are a 'curvy' person you will struggle to find clothes that fit and amazon will be your best friend. if your feet are bigger than a size 7 you will be ordering shoes too. If you are a woman, you better bring a good supply of 'feminine products' and be prepared to order from Amazon.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
American fast food is everywhere but it isn't cheaper or better than the Korean chains. There are lots of McDonald's, Burger Kings, Pizza Hut, and Popeye's chicken places off base. Skip all of them and eat and at Korean restaurants.
Note that some places don't really like singles eating alone (portions are for 2 people) but delivery or take out is easy so you don't miss out.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
I didn't have any insect problems in my house or anywhere else. They use a lot of pesticides here (which is its own concern) but it kept the bugs away.
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?
It's expensive and most people don't do it. They may pay a maid to come in once or twice a month but it's not cheap and the quality isn't that great.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
The army bases have free gyms but private gyms are pricey and don't have American style or quality equipment.
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?
I never had a problem using my credit card. Best thing to do for cast is take out USD on the army base and exchange for won just outside the gate.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Lots of English language Christian services around.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You don't 'need' Korean but your life will be way easier if you can at least read it and know how to ask for simple directions.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Seoul is not equipped to deal specifically with physical disabilities. The intrastructure is better than most places but that doesn't translate accesibility. If you can afford personal assistance, you will need it.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Buses and trains are safe. taxis are generally affordable but make sure you know your route to avoid being ripped off.
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?
Don't bring a huge car...roads are descent and parking spaces are small. People don't really take care in avoiding bumping other cars so if you bring something, expect it to get dinged and scratched up. I personally bought a local car because it would be easier to maintain and service. You will have to order parts for American cars unless you want to pay a fortune. People usually ordered car parts and tires through the APO.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
YES... the internet service is usually included in your lease so I don't know the cost. Negotiate internet and cable with your leasing agent.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
You can get a phone on base or bring your own unlocked one. Most people get cell service through the army base. Plan prices are comparable to the U.S. the coverage is outstanding and works at all the metro stations. Data speed is FAST and service is very reliable.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
I dont' have any pets...but kennels are really a thing here. I have only seen them on the army bases. Korean people tend to leave their pets chained up outside or in cars. If you travel you will need to make arrangements with coworkers to watch your pet.
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?
other than teaching English (make sure you have the right visa for this!!!!) your job opportunities as an expat are limited.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
there are many groups that organize volunteer activities. Many are centered around education, cleaning, and single mothers (who are kind of shunned).
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
typical U.S. dress code at work. In public people cover their arms but show lots of leg.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Not really...crime is very low but take normal precautions. Sexual crimes are under reported and I have had friends who were harrassed and it was not taken very seriously by the local authorities. Your risk of being a victim is low...but please educate yourself on the criminal justice system once you arrive.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
healthcare is generally good...but it doesn't meet U.S. standards of hygiene in my opinion. Do your research.
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?
Unfortuately the air quality is affected by the yellow dust that comes over from China. In the spring the air can be hazy and very bad for your health. Keep a smog app on your phone and pay attention. A lot of people wear face masks but if you just stay inside on the worst days you should be fine. Thankfully the yellow dust season isn't that long.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
my friends with allergies had to ramp up their medication.
5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Summers are very humid and hot and the winters are bitterly cold with ice and snow. They don't clear the ice from the roads so be careful when driving.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
Most USG people attend the schools on the army bases (DoDea). I have no children so I don't have any direct experience. From my friends with little ones it seems like it's a mixed bag depending on what teachers your child has. I did like that people on the bases really worked to make sure the kids had a well rounded experience (sports, career days, student productions). I participated in some events and really enjoyed myself.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
I don't have kids...but there is childcare on the bases. It's not cheap...and it's a mixed bag. Some people have opted to enroll their children in Korean programs.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
lots...I don't have kids but my coworker's children participated in lots of sports programs. They traveled around Korea and even to Japan and other countries to compete.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
size of the expat community is large. Morale is generally good but some people complain about everything. Those are usually the people who are afraid to venture off base and don't go anywhere.
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?
See above comments...there isn't anything you can't do here. I went to concerts, festivals, hikes, beach trips, etc. Had the time of my life.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
This is a FANTASTIC place for singles, families and couples.
I'm single and this is literally the best place I have lived in my entire life. Very easy to meet new people ( meetup and other groups/apps are very popular). Korea is a social country and I never had a dull weekend. My friends were other singles, couples, families with young children...it didn't really matter. I loved living in Korea and to this day I still chat with friends I made there.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Korea is a bit conservative about this...there have been organized protests against mistreatment of homosexual couples. I have not heard of couples being targeted or harrased but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Korea is a racially homogenous country and people who look different will get stared at. The problem isn't as bad as it used to be but it still happens. I am a black woman and I had lots of questions about my hair and people assuming I was from Africa (or the Phillipines?). Some of my friends who taught English reported that job adds stated they only wanted 'white American' applicants. My personal experience- I didn't really have any problems like that. If I went in a small town, people were curious but they weren't rude to me. Gender roles are complicated here...on paper women and men are equal but that is not really the case.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
There is always something to do here (hike, festivals, movies, exploring different parts of the country). It was very easy to meet people and I formed many good friendships with people from all over.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Hiking is huge here. There are lots of outdoor activities and many groups that organize weekend bus trips around the country. There is so much to do for everyone. The country is small so I don't know about any hidden gems- however you will have a few special experiences that you will hold dear to you.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
skin care products.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
If you aren't paying rent you can save...but it's also easy to burn money with shopping, entertainment and travel. It's very easy to get around with public transportation even with no knowledge of Korean- but I recommend at least knowing how to read it. The buses and trains are safe and very affordable.
10. Can you save money?
yes...if you are conscious of doing so.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
I think I knew enough...i had a good sponsor. find out exactly where you will be working and know the transportation situation before you get here.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
household cleaning supplies, food products, socks!
4. But don't forget your:
underwear, personal hygiene products, bras
5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
kdramas, kpop...not informative but very popular and gives you a starting base for chatting up people! The internet is a better resource than any book or DVD. I recommend 'escape from camp 14' and Chang-rae Lee's "The Surrendered" for a good background on the history of this country. Visit the War Memorial Museum in Yongsan when you get here too...
6. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
just search the internet...plenty of facebook groups to join