These are some helpful hints for getting started in Seoul, South Korea. If you’ve lived there yourself and have something to add, please leave it in the comments section! Feel free to ask questions here too.
Before you go…
Almost everyone speaks a little English
You’ll always be able to get your message across in a store or restaurant with a combination of simple English words and sign language, although cab drivers tend to be an exception. It takes time to get used to speaking like this, but you’ll start to figure out which English words Koreans understand best, like “many” instead of “a lot,” or “take away” instead of “to go.” As you pick up a few Korean words here and there, (“Kamsamnida” is thank you, “annyong haseyo” is hello) you’ll get by easily, even if you don’t fully learn the language. Of course, it would be great to learn the language while you’re in Korea, but it can be hard, especially for teachers who are speaking English all day. If you want to, there are some great free exchange programs where you can find a tutor. Click here for some lesson options.
Bring a stock of tampons, deodorant, and sheets
They are quite expensive in Korea (I’ve generally seen 16,000 won for 8 tampons; 8,000 won for the cheapest deodorant; 40,000 won for one bed sheet) and not very easy to find, especially right off the bat when you’re settling in. Of course you’ll be fine if you don’t bring them, but I was very glad I did. Otherwise, I found everything else I needed pretty easily, often even down to my favorite brand.
Unlock your phone
If it’s not already unlocked, do it, unless you want to buy a new phone when you get there. Some companies will allow you to unlock easily at any time, but I had to buy my contract out with ATT. Your plan is separate from your contract, so if you plan to return home at some point and you like your current plan, you can suspend it. It will cost a small monthly fee, but allows you to keep your phone number for when you get back. Once your phone is unlocked, you can easily get a SIM card when you arrive in Korea. I used an Evergreen Mobile SIM, which is really a traveler SIM card that I reloaded every month. It includes free Olleh wifi, which is almost everywhere, so you don’t need too much data. I paid 16,000 won for 1GB at a time and rarely used it up in a month, but there are options for more data, and you can always reload when you run out. It isn’t the most user friendly, but you can reload using an app. Another easy and only slightly more expensive option is to go to an Olleh store and get a SIM card from them.
Learn to Read
I swear I learned it in three or four hours spread over two nights when I first got to Korea. King Sejong commissioned the Hangul alphabet in the mid-1400s. He wanted something so easy to pick up that it would eliminate illiteracy in the country, and he got it. I used this website to nail down the basics, and then this comic to solidify it. Even if you don’t speak Korean, you will be surprised by how helpful it is to be able to read. You can find the names of places on stores, maps and signs, and read food names on menus. In fact, you’ll find that many things you read, like menus, are in English, transliterated into Hangul. It demystifies things a bit and makes you feel more like you know what is going on.
Download the Subway Korea app and Kakao Talk for your phone
As if the train system wasn’t fool-proof enough, the Subway Korea app makes it incredibly easy to find out where you’re going, and even what car you should be in for the easiest transfer.
Kakao Talk is the messenger app that Koreans use for texting. It has it’s own set of emojis that are completely amazing. The characters all have detailed back stories and you’ll see them everywhere, from restaurants to clothing. They have their own stores too! You’ll never want to go back to iMessage.
When you arrive…
The yellow dust will getcha
This was a real challenge when I first arrived in Korea. I’d seen many images of people in Asia wearing face masks, and for some reason assumed they were worn out of paranoia about bird flu. It turns out they’re worn because of yellow dust. Essentially, it is a meteorological phenomenon in which dusty soil from the deserts of Mongolia, northern China, and Kazakstan blows east, collecting pollution as it goes. It hangs in the air visibly, especially in the spring. If you are exercising outside, it really is a good idea to wear a mask, despite your vanity. Re-usable cotton masks like the one in the photo above are sold everywhere, but they wont keep the dust out. Go to a pharmacy and they’ll tell you which one you need to protect yourself. The dust makes your eyes water, your nose run, and it gives you a cough. I even got a lung infection from it. There are websites like this one and apps like this one you can use to check the dust levels before you leave the house.
Join the HBC/Itaewon Information Board on Facebook
Haebangchon/Itaewon is the foreigner area in Seoul, so the HBC/Itaewon Information Board is essentially the ex-pat board. It can get a little ridiculous, OK a lot ridiculous, as it seems many people can’t figure out how to tie their own shoe without asking the message board for advice. Still, it is a great source for news, information, apartment sublets, and cheap stuff.
Taxis are cheap
The trains shut down around 11pm-12pm, so a late night means taking a cab home. Luckily, they are very low priced, starting at 3,000 won during the day time (+20% from midnight – 4am) and often not going over the minimum for a 10 minute ride. While you might count it out as a viable mode of transportation in your hometown, in Seoul it can often be the same price for a group to take a taxi as it is to take the train.
Just make sure you’re VERY clear about where you’re going, since many places in Seoul sound the same, like Sinchon and Sincheon. Drivers will generally not use GPS and will not be able to go directly to an address, so give them the name of a nearby train station, market, or other landmark. It is also helpful to learn words to give directions, as I mentioned cab drivers don’t tend to speak English. Here are a couple useful words:
-“Yeok” means “station,” so you’d say “Sinchon yeok” to be dropped at the train station in Sinchon. It sounds like egg “yolk.”
-“Uhoejeon haejuseyo” means “please turn right.” It sounds like “oo-ay-john hay-joo-say-yo.”
– “Jwahoejeon haejuseyo” means “please turn left.” It sounds like “Jai-ay-john hay-joo-say-yo.”
– “Jikjin haejuseyo” means “please go straight.” It sounds like “jick-jin hay joo-say-yo.”
When I arrived at my destination, I would say “yogiyo” which basically means “here.” It sounds like “Yo-gee-yo.” You’ll definitely be able to get by using these words – I can attest to that much.
Join Seoul Hiking Group
Join this group on Facebook or Meetup.com. I won’t lie – I didn’t join, and I kind of regret it. I heard so much about it and met so many great people who have gone on the trips. I get the impression that it is not just a meet up for some hikes – it is a large community of people who like to get out and make new friends while seeing the country. Countless people have met their close friends and significant others through this group. It also makes getting to places like Seoraksan much easier, since busses and pension reservations can be very difficult to navigate if you don’t speak Korean. In order to join a trip, you can go to an ATM at your bank and transfer money into their account – it sounds strange, but that’s how things are done. They’ll give you the info in the event posting. Try it out, tell me about it, make me regret not joining even more!
Find a Pizza School near you
Cheese pizza is 5,000 won, pepperoni is 6,000 won, and there is a 90% chance of one being in your neighborhood. I consider it a staple, and I have friends with Pizza School box towers in their apartments to back me up.
Daiso is your friend
If you want to decorate your new apartment, fill in gaps in your kitchen equipment, or purchase enough cleaning supplies to wash away the previous tenant, head to Daiso before you go anywhere else. It is a dollar store, originally out of Japan, with a great selection of everything you could need. I bought nice new dishes when I first arrived for 1,000 won each, as well as plants, picture frames, pillows, toiletries, soaps, sponges and more. When I left Korea, I bought cute gifts like eye pillows and face masks to bring home. They have sports and camping gear, travel bags and bottles, and plenty of useful things that will generally function long enough to make the savings worth it. There are small stores all over the city, with larger stores in shopping areas like Hongdae.
Don’t forget about budget airlines
Make sure to add Jeju Air, Peach Air, and Eastar Jet to your searches. They won’t always come up on your flight aggregator or Google flights, but they’ll save you a lot of money. Jeju Air flies from Seoul to the island almost every fifteen minutes – it is the most traveled flight path in the world! Peach air is based in Japan and flies from Incheon to Osaka, Tokyo, and Okinawa. Eastar flies from Seoul to Jeju as well as Thailand, Cambodia, Japan, Hong Kong and more.
There are all sorts of adventures that feel out of reach when you realize you basically need to be Korean to book them. Some require ID numbers that ex-pats don’t have, some are in Hangul only, etc. This website gives foreigners the ability to book things like shuttles (I took one to Yongpyeong), cultural attractions, lessons, theme parks, tours, ski packages, and shows. It also has discounts, like 2,000 won off of tickets to the Trick Eye Museum. It’s worth checking in to next time you go somewhere to see how it can help!
Use the website Cine in Korea for movies
Cine in Korea is the easiest way for a non-Korean speaking person to check movie times and locations, and to get tickets online. Movies tend to sell out fast, and this way you can check times and get seats without having to go to the theater hours in advance. The big theaters in Korea tend to have one or two English action movies, but places like the CGV in Apgujeong have a wider selection.
Send things home via slow boat
Whether you’re packing up to leave or just sending gifts to loved ones, this will save you a good chunk of money. I went to the post office and sent everything home by slow boat, spending only about 330,000 won on six very heavy boxes, and received them all in Los Angeles within two months. Some friends have had boxes arrive torn and possibly missing items, but mine were in good shape. It is a slight gamble, and it is a good idea to line the box with a trash bag to keep items from falling out or getting musty if the box does break. Still, it worked out very well for me. As a side note, the post office will not send a laptop as they do not have insurance. I sent mine separately at the Fed Ex in Hapjeong, and it cost about 100,000 won.
I’ve written about a few of my favorite places in Korea. Muuido is my favorite getaway because it is easy to get to for the weekend and it’s quiet. It’s an island with a smaller island you can get to by foot at low-tide. You won’t see too many other foreigners there (at least I didn’t), plus there are two great beaches and gorgeous hikes. In the winter, head to Yongpyong, home of the 2018 winter olympics, for skiing, and even ice fishing nearby. Incheon (Korea’s third largest city, not the airport) is a good day trip – you can hang out in Incheon Grand Park and eat in the famous China Town (although I didn’t find it to be so amazing). Sokcho is a nice beach town in the summer to hang out and eat seafood. For a long weekend, head to Busan, the second largest city in Korea, and probably my favorite. If you have a few days, Jeju, a subtropical island off the southern coast, is a must-visit. It is known as the Hawaii of Seoul, covered in volcanoes, beaches and gorgeous forests. The list goes on! Each place is so different. The more you travel, the more you will understand the culture (duh).
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By Evy Bround