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The expat guide to Seoul, Korea The expat guide to Seoul, Korea
by Joseph Gatt
2019-07-08 08:53:05
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Everything you wanted to know about Seoul but never dared to ask.

The basics

Seoul is searching for itself. Not quite a world capital of fashion, but could compete with Paris or Milan. Not quite the food capital of the world, but quite an experience when it comes to food. Not quite a financial hub, but could be the next Hong Kong or Singapore. Lost its high-tech edge, but a few structural transformations could make it the next tech hub.

swoul001_400Many people leave Seoul frustrated, broke, with many complicated failed relationships, and yet they stayed there all those years.

Seoul has cold, dry winters, cool fall and spring, and the summer or hot, humid and rainy.

I usually start expat guides with tips on work and life, but for Seoul, I'm going to have to start with dating.

Dating in Seoul

I would not say don't date Korean women or Korean men, but I would say Koreans have rigid rules when it comes to dating, marriage and having children. And many have experienced the Seoul blues when it comes to dating.

First, your Korean boyfriend or girlfriend will swear the Korean dating and marriage rules don't apply to them, before they gradually apply the rules. Let's say relationships in Korea are very complicated for the following reasons:

-My parents vs. Your parents. Westerners tend not to put too much thought into family, but your Korean boyfriend or girlfriend will try to cut you off from your parents and try to get you “adopted” by their parents. That means giving money to the Korean parents, helping the Korean parents with all kinds of events and work, serving your Korean partner's family, helping their brothers or sisters. All this while your Korean partner will completely disregard your parents, your family, and will try to get you to cut ties with your family.

-The economics of marriage. Marriage involves a huge mortgage for a very modest apartment. To give you an idea, you'll put 30,000 dollars down, owe the bank 120,000 dollars, make monthly payments of about 1 or 2 thousand dollars, just to get a place to live. And it's not even a mansion, it's a lifeless apartment.

Now if that weren't enough, your Korean husband or wife will also try to get you to have children, and to spend between 500 and 1,000 dollars a month on private tutoring fees for your kids.

Problem is, your household income will be something like 30 or 40, maximum 50,000 dollars a year. You do the math.

In sum, marriage to a Korea=constantly raising the debt ceiling and constantly being broke. And yet your Korean husband or wife will insist on going to restaurants, shopping, and leading a bourgeois upper middle class life.

Your Korean husband and wife, chances are, will also mess around with other people, and will probably hope to win big at the casino to repay the debts.

Average lifespan of an international marriage in Korea: 4.7 years.

I'm not saying don't date Koreans, I'm just saying that if you're going to date a Korean, you need to know that a lot of times you're going to have it rough.

For the rest, I'll assume that you're going to live alone or with your expat family in Seoul


Seoul is overcrowded. If you live alone, you want to opt for what Koreans call a “one-room” which is basically a very small room with a tiny bathroom. The room will usually have a bed, a desk, and perhaps a small table. The bathroom will be very ergonomic and save a lot of space, and the toilet, sink and shower will all converge in one space. Most one-rooms take between 5,000 and 10,000 dollar deposits (which you will get back) and anywhere from 300 to 500 dollar rent.

The reason this is a bargain is because what Koreans do is they take a large deposit, and collect the interest from the deposit, making rent more affordable. It's win-win. However, you want to ask a Korean friend to check your landlord's credit score. Credit score information is available on every single Korean online. If your landlord has a bad credit score, I don't recommend you give him the deposit, because chances are he'll keep it. Opt for another building.

If you live with your family, all I can recommend is getting help from Korean friends to find adequate housing. Chances are your children will share a room, and you will have no balcony. Korea is not the best place for decent housing. Keep in mind that you are not allowed to smoke in most buildings, and that Koreans are very noise sensitive, so you may want to avoid playing music or inviting people to your house. Most houses are not insulated, and you can hear your neighbors talk.


The subway system and bus system in Seoul are excellent. Driving is quite an experience. Korean drivers tend not to yield, tend to drive fast, and tend to tailgate. And they have this tendency to try to beat the red light, so they tend to race before the light turns red. Koreans rarely signal. In sum, driving is a jungle. And the traffic jams can be painful.


The school system in Korea is excellent. Name a language, name a disability, name a vocation, and you'll find a school. There are about a couple of dozen of international schools (most with expensive tuitions) and if you want cheap tuition, there are special “multicultural” schools which teach the Korean curriculum, but at a slower pace with non-Korean children. But you have Christian schools, Islamic schools, vocational schools, foreign language schools, and most European countries have some kind of school.


There are all kinds of expats in Seoul doing all kinds of different lines of work, anywhere from chefs to pub owners to engineers to businessmen to teachers to religious workers to entertainers. So here are the basics.

-A lot of expats get paid to do nothing. They show up, surf the web, leave. A lot of Korean companies, and foreign companies, hire expats, leave them in the closet, and do nothing with them. To some, it can be considered a blessing, while others will find doing nothing incredibly distressing. Problem is there's no water cooler conversation in Korea and a lot of employees won't ever talk to you. So you're like a ghost at the company.

-Rules change very quickly at Korean companies. You're going to have to adjust to new rules all the time.

-Burning you out. There's something Koreans call “burning someone out”. That is they'll leave you with piles of work, and keep piling up work, and then haze you for not doing the work. They will also drive you crazy by yelling at you for not doing work that they never told you to do in the first place.

-If you're the boss, expect to see a lot of mediocre work and wonder how those guys ever got through college. Korean bosses are allowed to yell at their employees, but a foreign boss yelling will lead to the entire team collectively resigning in some cases. So you'll have to put up with mediocrity.

-Many partners will be unreliable. Expect a lot of cancellations and failed orders.

-If you're ever doing budgets, you're going to pull your hair out. Korean branches and companies tend to overspend, and don't make a lot of money. Losses can be appalling.

So if you get sent to Korea, it's a real challenge. Many expat workers take the “Seoul midnight run” and disappear, never to be heard of again.

Going out

Now suppose you're the rare person with a nice job and a stress-free life. Seoul has lots of pubs, restaurants and karaoke. Most outings will involve a restaurant, then a pub, then a karaoke.

Seoul also has a lot of night clubs, concerts for all tastes ranging from classical music to k-pop to western music.

There are sports leagues for almost every sport. Many expats pick up taekwondo or some kind of Korean martial art, while others opt for soccer or tennis. Golf is expensive but rich people like to play it. Many people join some kind of soccer team or basketball team and enter division 4 sports. If you win enough games, you could join division 3.

Korea is also a shopper's paradise, although a lot of times Western sizes are hard to find. Most clothes won't fit. 

Now just a couple of warning when you go out. First, the adult bar scene in Korea is huge. But there have been altercations in those kinds of pubs, and if you're clearly a non-Korean, some people could be uncomfortable with your presence there.

Second. If you go out to a pub, adult or normal, and that you get assaulted or your stuff gets stolen or something. Korean law clearly states that no person can enter the police headquarters under the influence of alcohol. So if you've had a few drinks and want to go complain to the police, the police will throw you in a cell and you will spend the night there. You will be released around noon the next day. Your Korean colleagues will judge you for spending the night in jail. To play it safe, take a Korean friend with you if you need to deal with the police, your Korean friend will know better.

Cultural notes

-Koreans change the rules all the time. Expect new rules for everything all the time, be it at work, in your building, in the streets, when driving, for immigration, and for just about everything.

-Korean immigration will give you goosebumps. They tend to give you your permit on your first official day on the job. Your job will state “no permit, no job”. Immigration will state “no job, no permit”. So you will get your permit like 12 hours before your first day of work. I know a lot of people who couldn't get their permit, and were “fired” from their jobs because they had no permit.

-Koreans tend not to speak to you in Korean unless you speak perfect Korean. The only reason I learned Korean is because my ex-girlfriend was Korean, otherwise I'd still struggle with the language. At lease she was useful for that. Most people will refuse to speak to you in Korean if you don't sound like a native speaker.

-Koreans tend to believe that love, affection, kindness are a sign of weakness. You'll have to get used to people not saying “thank you” and taking everything for granted.

-If Korean friends or business connections come asking you for favors, you can oblige. But don't expect much of anything in return. At best, they'll buy you lunch or dinner. At worse, they'll do absolutely nothing. Don't expect new deals or contracts just for giving favors.

-Final note: a lot of expats are fed by stories that some people made millions of dollars teaching English in Korea, and are tempted by the English teaching business in Korea. Or by stories of people making their millions in technology, or starting a Church and getting hundreds of thousands of members. Koreans will constantly feed you these stories, but a lot of times you won't get anywhere near success, and they'll tend to feed you these stories just to keep using you. A lot of Koreans will promise you millions, will make their promise sound very credible, and you will get absolutely nothing. In the meantime, you'll have done all the work and submitted to all their demands thinking you were going to

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