Pros & Cons of Moving to Seoul
Seoul’s city motto is “the Soul of Asia,” and, once moving here, or even visiting, it is easy to see why people fall easily in love with this mega-city. Korea and Korean culture, however, are as foreign as foreign can get for many people from Western cultures. However, life here is built to be easy, convenient, and quick. Once you know the basics, you’ll wonder why other countries don’t do the same.
Accommodation in Seoul
Most expats living in Seoul move here after being hired, and most companies hiring expats will have the foresight to prepare housing for you before you arrive. These apartments will often be fully furnished. These apartments will most likely NOT be the absolute greatest apartments in the world. I have seen very few employer-provided housing situations that were more than studio apartments and the nicer ones I've seen have been from bigger companies or the military. However, if you move here before getting a job, or your company does not offer housing, things can be pretty difficult (re: UNEXPECTEDLY, HORRIBLY EXPENSIVE!).
Pro: Creature Comforts
Korean apartments will often come with a washing machine, gas range, floor heating, and air conditioning. This is especially true of newer buildings. Older buildings may not have any of these “extras,” but will at least have floor heating installed. Korean buildings are also very safe. Even though the crime rate in Korea is already very low, most Seoul apartments will require a gate/front door key or combination as well as your individual door key/combination. The locks in newer buildings are also digital, welcome to the future!
Con: Difficult to Navigate
Korean housing is vast and there are always apartments for sale/rent. However, if you are planning on living outside of the more metropolitan or foreigner-heavy areas, it will be extremely rare to find realtors who speak English. Also, by law, all rentals and home purchases must be done through a through a third-party realtor. These realtors are numerous and each one is offering different apartments, so you’ll need to visit a lot of them to find your ideal home. Also, attempting to find an apartment without the aid of a person who speaks Korean is a recipe for disaster.
Your down-payment on a rental is probably going to be excessively expensive. Korean renters will almost always charge you what is called “key money.” Key money is like a security deposit, but will often be about the same price as if you were actually buying the apartment. You can negotiate the key money price by adding on monthly rent payments, but you will still need to pay a few million won (thousand dollars) to get the keys to your new home. However, it is possible to find apartments with low key-money payments in foreigner-heavy areas, particularly Itaewon. The nice part is that the key money will be returned to you, in full, once you move out. Your key money, added to all the other crazy amounts of cash you get when leaving Korea, will make for a VERY comfortable first few months back in your home country.
Lifestyle in Seoul
As in any foreign country, life in Seoul is what you make of it. If you fight to keep the same lifestyle that you had in your home country, you will probably not enjoy life in Seoul, because that will be an almost impossible task (say goodbye to burrito Wednesdays and Mac & Cheese Thursdays!). However, if you’re willing to give up some control and learn to find joy in the differences, life in Seoul will be full of little surprises and wonderful experiences.
Pro: Friendly Natives
Korea is one of the most homogeneous countries in the world and, unless you are genetically Korean, you will be easily spotted and identified as a foreigner and a curiosity. Native Seoulites, more-so than any other area of Korea, are used to seeing foreigners and are aware that the average foreigner will need some help navigating life here. If you play the “dumb foreigner” card in food shops and restaurants, you’ll find people are patient and happy to help you. They will also want to help you form a positive opinion of Korea and Koreans. This results in free drinks, food, and other items, if you appear friendly and eager to embrace the culture.
Con: Extreme Winters and Summers
Winters in Seoul have been getting colder and colder, and summers have been getting hotter and hotter. Winters will often have weeks averaging around -20 Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit) and then summers will be very humid and average 35 Celsius (95 Fahrenheit). Korea prides itself on having four seasons, but fall and spring will normally last only about one month each before the oppressive temperatures on either side of the spectrum begin.
Pro: Large and Welcoming Foreigner Community
Making new friends in Korea is very easy. All you need to do is explore activities designed for foreigners (language exchanges, cultural events, hobby circles) that are easily found on Facebook or the various English news outlets and blogs. There’s also the large foreigner district called Itaewon that’s full of western style restaurants and bars where you can make new acquaintances and friends. (I'm not going to talk about this anymore, realize that sitting alone in your apartment is NOT the way to make friends, people!)
Pro: Large Variety of Activities to Meet Any Interest
Because Seoul is so massive, the different districts have all been encouraged to find their own identities. Gangnam-gu is the ritzy area, with posh restaurants and extravagant shopping options. Yongsan-gu is more tourist and expat-oriented with many cultural museums, national monuments, and foreign-style restaurants. Mapo-gu has the youth-driven art district of Hongdae, a place that could be called “too hip for its own good.” Every district has its own personality and little surprises. This is really what makes life in Seoul special. Seoul is also surrounded by a mountain range to the north and many mountains blot the city landscape, so the outdoorsy types can easily find activities to suit their needs.
Safety in Seoul
Pro: Low Crime Rates
Guns are completely illegal among civilians in Korea and are not easy to come by on the “black market.” Petty theft is also extremely rare. If you accidentally leave valuables in public places, it is pretty common to be able to call the location or return there and get it back, completely intact. I once had my purse stolen when I was out in Hongdae. I called my cellphone (which was in my purse), asked the guy nicely to bring it back, and... he did!
Con: Reckless Driving
Bending the law is extremely common among Seoul motorists. Scooter drivers will often take to the sidewalks when roads are congested. Drivers will also run red lights when they think they can get away with it. It’s very rare to be pulled over by a police officer for breaking traffic laws, as long as you are not extremely close to injuring others. I have had taxi rides where I felt completely comfortable falling asleep and others where I've been clutching the seatbelt for dear life. Just be careful, peeps!
Working and Doing Business
Seoul is truly a haven for dedicated English Language teachers, but can be more of a hassel for those wanting to do anything else.
Pro: Wealth of Opportunities
As long as you’re happy with a teaching position, it’s very easy to find a job with good benefits and salary. The English Language Learning industry is truly massive in Seoul and schools are always looking for new teachers, especially around March and August, the prime hiring times for teachers. But, there's also...
Con: Risk of Being Taken Advantage Of
For every three happy expat employees in Korea, you’ll find a disgruntled one. There are horror stories of English after school programs being shut down without informing employees, employees being fired for unfounded claims of "negligence" so the business doesn’t have to pay severance, and employees being forced to work extra hours. However, these situations are easily avoidable by going through reputable employment agencies, respected companies, or the public school system. Also, READ YOUR DAMN CONTRACTS, PEOPLE!
Con: Lack of Non-Teaching Positions
Without knowledge of Korean and a good deal of experience in your field it’s difficult to find positions in Seoul outside of the education sector. Even then, you’ll mostly be used as a communication tool bridging the gap between your company and the English speaking world. There are positions available in the tourism industry but, again, these are few and far between.
Korean culture is greatly unexplored in the Western media. Subsequently, people move to Korea with very little knowledge of exactly what they are getting in to. However, if you go into the experience with an open mind, it’s easy to learn and adjust.
Con: Communication Problems
The Korean language is a beast to tackle, and the way Koreans communicate with one another is a different animal entirely. Korean grammar is very different from English, and Korean syntax is highly implied. Then there's the issue of what language to use for friends and what language to use for your superiors, and knowing who is your superior is more than a little bit tricky. It’s assumed that you will understand that, if you’re told what the end result should be, you should know what all the steps from start to finish should be. It makes for some difficult and confusing employee-employer relations.
Pro: Korean Alphabet
Unlike other Asian languages, Korean has one alphabet that is very scientific. The shapes of the letters are the shapes your mouth takes when saying them. Each group of shapes is actually just a syllable combining the different letter sounds. Once you know the different letters, getting around is a lot easier, especially when it comes to restaurants!
Con: Hierarchical culture
Respect for one’s elders is hugely important in Korean culture, and the elders love to take full advantage of this. Their behavior could be seen as rude to outsiders, but in Korea it’s pretty normal. Younger people (under the age of 40) are expected to give up their seats on public transportation and do whatever their supervisors require (including staying out until the wee hours eating and drinking). If an older person looks like they are in a hurry, watch out! They WILL push you out of their way with reckless abandon!
Pro: Digital Culture
Seoul has the most bandwidth-per-person of any city in the world, and Korea’s digital network is the most technologically advanced in the world. You’ll be amazed by how fast your computers and cell phones are and there’s rarely a place where you’ll lose signal (full reception in the subway!). Almost every Seoulite has a smartphone and these smartphones can run your life. You can order groceries to your door, pay with credit cards, keep frequent shopper cards, and watch tv. It makes everything even easier than it already is!
Cost of Living
Pro: Diverse, Cheap, Good Food
Eating in restaurants, as long as they are East Asian style cuisine, is cheaper than cooking at home in most cases (unless you are happy living off ramen, ain't nothing cheaper than that). You can get a massive home-cooked meal, with sides and rice, for only 5,000 won ($5). This food, while often high in sodium, is typically very nutritious. Korean cuisine, due to the relative isolation of the Korean peninsula, is also extremely diverse. You could live here eating a different Korean food every day for a year and STILL have things you’re dying to try!
Con: Expensive Groceries
Unless you know how to cook Korean foods, your groceries can get pretty expensive. Western-style products are much more expensive than Korean ones. Moreover, without knowledge of Korean it’s difficult to navigate Korean products and cooking methods. Produce is also more seasonal here, so if you want something out of season, it’s pretty expensive.
Pro: Absolutely No Need for a Car
The public transportation system in Seoul is fast, efficient, cheap, safe, and clean. Having a car in Seoul is far from necessary; it’s almost silly! The price of gas is very high and the roads are congested with the thousands of cheap taxis that make personal cars even less necessary. Unless you live on a subway line that would take you more than three bus or train transfers to get to work, there’s really no need for the investment.
Education and Schools
Con: High-Pressure Education Culture
Koreans take education VERY seriously. Those born outside of Seoul will work their entire lives to have the chance to go to university in Seoul and those in Seoul will do whatever it takes to stay there. Students will go to after school academies focusing on various subjects starting in elementary school, increasing in middle school, and taking over their lives in high school. High school students are under tremendous amounts of pressure to get good grades and make it into a prestigious university either in Seoul or in America. This, sadly, leads to an elevated adolescent suicide rate.
Pro/Con: Education-Centered Culture
Parents are serious about their students doing as well as possible, and the city has built itself to meet the needs of these students. There are study cafes and study rooms all over the city for students to get their work done in peace and quiet. Teachers are also tenacious in their desire for their student to succeed. Parents will give up everything and go into debt in order to ensure their children’s futures. This system turns out diligent and dedicated lifelong learners, as long as you survive it.
Con: Few and Expensive International Schools
The vast majority of the expat community in Seoul is between the ages of 21 and 30. Because of this there is a small number of international families in Seoul. This means there are few facilities organized to accommodate these learners. International schools are also expensive, due to their demand from both the expat and Korean communities.
Pro: Accessible and Affordable Healthcare
Korea has a universal healthcare system and, as long as you have a work visa and a job, you are covered. The universal healthcare will cover up to 50% of health care costs and most employer-provided insurances will then cover 25% on top of that. Extra health insurance is easy for foreigners to obtain, granted you have a Korean friend speaking to the insurance broker, and will cover up to 50% of the remaining 25%.
Pro: Access to English Speaking Physicians/Pharmacists or Translation Services
Many doctors in Seoul are considered the top in their fields, and you rarely get to the top of any field in Korea without the ability to speak at least intermediate English. There are international clinics in all of the four major hospitals and they will often send a translator around with you as you see doctors. Many pharmacists speak at least a little English, so they can explain your medications to you.
Con: Not Many International Clinics
If you are nervous about going to Korean hospitals or clinics, there are only a few options for facilities that speak almost entirely English, and they will be booked up during peak illness seasons. However, they are worth the wait and easy to find with a simple Google search.