Seoul, South Korea Report of what it's like to live there - 05/01/08
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. I've lived in three other large Asian cities.
2. How long have you lived here?
3. Travel time and best routes to this city from Europe or the US:
Good non-stop routes to many cities in Asia, the U.S. and Europe.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
I am a U.S. government employee.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
One story ranch style duplex homes on the army base in a shady, tree lined compound. It's very safe for kids and quiet. The houses are modest but adequate and most have nice yards. The quiet park like compound is the best part of this post. Commute time is about 15-20 minutes to the Embassy, but traffic is bad.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Excellent and very low priced at the commissary on base. It's not Whole Foods and you won't find your organic olive bar here, but it has the basics and is really cheap. The PX is akin to a large Target or Wal-Mart and has your basic household items. Everything else can be brought in via the APO.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Everything is available here. Perhaps some gardening items.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Many available-there are several fast food restaurants on the base and many in Seoul. However, the best aspect of Korea is its food-which is also fairly affordable if you stick to the small regular street restaurants.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
I have APO.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Expensive. The new South Korean visa regulations regarding the sponsorship of third country domestics has created a lot of problems as well as added to the expense.
3. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
You can use your credit card or debit everywhere on base. Credit cards are not as widely accepted in Korea as in the U.S. but are still accepted at many major locations.
4. What English-language religious services are available locally?
All available on base.
5. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
Good AFN Cable, affordable. English papers and magazines also available.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You don't really need to know any Korean but it is, of course, nice if you do.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Some. As with many large Asian cities, no thought has been given in Seoul's urban planning to those with disabilities (or even small children in strollers).
1. Do you drive on the right hand side of the road or the left?
Right-same as the U.S.
2. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Safe and affordable. Buses are great and the subway is also excellent.
3. 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?
Anything would be suitable. There are several good garages next to the base that can perform routine maintainence.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Great broadband at about US$35 a month.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Everyone has one-either provided by work or bought themselves.
3. What is the best way to make phone calls back home?
Skype. Phone cards.
1. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
Good pet care on base.
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?
Yes. Teaching mostly.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Business-suits, the usual. Same as at home. The Koreans dress more formally than most Americans and are very style conscious.
Health & Safety:
1. Pollution index (Good, Moderate, Unhealthy, or Very Unhealthy)?
Bad compared to the U.S., but moderate compared to other polluted Asian cities. Not nearly as bad as I'd been led to expect.
2. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
None really. The usual caveats apply regarding being out late at night at bars, etc..
3. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Good health care is available here (a lot of Class 2 medicals get placed here) both on the base and on the local economy. There is something of a plastic surgery boom going on amongst expats. No real health concerns-save traffic accidents.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Cold winters, some snow. Hot muggy summers. Similar to D.C. There is a bad mosquito problem on the base.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There is the Seoul American School and elementary, junior high and high school on base. I've heard mixed reviews.
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?
This can be a problem. There are two daycare facilities on base-Mustard Seed and the base's community daycare. Nannies are difficult to sponsor and it is expensive to sponsor them. Most are from the Phillipines.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
2. Morale among expats:
3. 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 nightlife, bars and restaurants, although expensive. People on base are BBQ mad-it's like somekind of Stepford-ville on the weekends.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Very good for families and single men. Not so good for single women. Very bad for single parents (too expensive).
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Moderately tolerant. There are some gay bars and nightlife, etc.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Not too much. Seoul is a tolerant city. There are mosques, churches and Buddhist temples here and expats of all colours. That said, this is not the most multi-ethnic city in Asia.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Hiking, visiting the palaces and few historic sights, gardening (in your own yard), a variety of small town activities on base (bowling, put put golf-if that's your thing), some okay shopping, sight-seeing, going to the beach (in southern Korea), and all the sleazy bars you can shake a stick at.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Traditional styled Korean blanket chests and celadon pottery are about the only unique items here. The rest of the junk is knock offs from China that can be bought cheaper in China if bought at all.
9. Can you save money?
No no and more no.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
No. Who wants to live on an army base? Plenty of people, it turns out, but not myself. It puts a huge barrier between you and Korea. Many people never leave the base except to go to the sleazy bars in Itaewon. It's not an interesting cross-cultural experience. Seoul is way too overpriced for what it is-which is a city not nearly as sophisticated as Tokyo nor as interesting and cheap as a Bangkok or Beijing. For these prices, I could be in Paris.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Belief that Seoul is a shopper's paradise. It's too expensive and most of the stuff is from China anyway.
3. But don't forget your:
Debit card. You can use it everywhere on base.
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
6. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
7. Do you have any other comments?
This is a good post for some, not for others. Consider your needs. It's expensive and the army base is a drag. The city isn't very colourful or exciting and the traffic is horrific. On the other hand, it's safe and you could easily snooze through your three year tour here without ever realizing you're overseas at all. You decide whether or not that's something you are interested in.