Living in South Korea: 10 Things to Know (Some of Which Will Surprise You)

Steve Ward at his wedding in South Korea.

Steve Ward at his wedding in South Korea.

Steve Ward went to South Korea as part of his graduate school studies. Upon completing his degree he got a job working in the state of his alma mater. With time he started looking for ways to get back to South Korea. He scoured the Internet and job boards and ultimately managed to find a job in Seoul. He he has lived in South Korea for seven years now. He also just completed a book on one of my most favorite topics – coffee.

As part of my ongoing series on expats who learned how to live abroad I had to hear his story. Here are the top 10 things to know about living in South Korea as an expat. (Some of which I bet will surprise you.)

1.       The biggest professional cultural differences between South Korean and the US? His response, “Where should I start?” 

“The proper way to communicate in South Korean work situations can be confusing to foreigners. Let’s say my manager is completely fluent in English and he comes up to me and starts talking and then dropping subtle hints that he needs me to do something. What he is doing is he is waiting for me to say, ‘How can I help?’ Whereas if I was in the US I would be thinking, ‘That is great. Can I get back to what I was doing?’ However in the Korean way you drop everything and tune into the boss’ needs. Any opportunity to help the boss you jump on in South Korea. When it came down to it that kind of stuff it was really hard but I got a lot of leeway being a foreigner.”

“Hanging out with Korean co-workers is another discussion. There is a large culture of drinking in South Korea. Social status is extremely important here. If the boss asks you to go to dinner you should go to dinner. He is not asking you he is telling you. If the boss is hungry and does not want to go by himself he will pick someone out of the office to go with. Co-workers are more laid back. Job descriptions here are very vague. My first day of work they showed me the computer and left me there. I really recommend connecting with someone so they can help you understand what you should be doing.”

2.       How to make $$ in South Korea

Steve did what very few often manage to do – he got a job in another country while still living in his own. He did so by, “scouring job postings.” If you would like to do the same, Steve recommends using the biggest expat job website in South Korea–,“Ninety eight percent of the jobs on the site are English teaching, but there are also non-English teaching jobs that can be found on the site.”  Also check out,, for high tech jobs or which is a newer site not for non-English teaching jobs.

Steve further recommends looking for, “the friends of friends. Ask around with family and friends and find any sort of contact that might already be in South Korea even if it is a third cousin’s former college roommate. Connections are important in the US, but they are even more important in South Korea.” Then once you arrive in South Korea Steve suggests you, “grow your network by getting involved with community. Take a Tae Kwon Do class. There is a big toastmasters group in Seoul that would be great to get involved with along with several other groups.”

3.       The English teaching climate in South Korea? Variable

Although Steve is not an expert on the ESL industry in South Korea, he knows the vast majority of expats come here as English teachers. “About 80 percent of my friends here are English teachers, so I am somewhat knowledgeable about that market and if someone has their heart set on coming to Korea, it is usually the easiest route. I came here as an English teacher initially, but have spent most of my years in the corporate and University setting, which are different job markets from the ESL industry.”

According to Steve the number of hours you teach will vary depending on the school but you won’t teach more than 30 hours per week. The most sought after English teaching jobs in South Korea are those in public schools where you teach 20 hours, but as Steve says, “those are getting harder to come by.”

However, don’t get too excited about teaching less than 40 hours a week because you are still expected to be there 40 hours a week. Steve also adds, “English academies in South Korea are in a sense kind of the wild west. With some you work a lot and others a little bit. Some have bad reputations. It is another reason to come here if at all possible first before accepting a job. If you are coming for a job make sure you talk to someone who is in the job or even better make sure you talk to the person you are replacing and talk to them via email and not over the phone because sometimes the boss is standing right behind them when you are speaking with them.”

“Do your homework,” Steve warns, “because some people have come here who were very well traveled and sure enough found themselves in a pretty shady situation. It is avoidable had they gotten a hold of me before signing the contract. I could have told them all of this.”

4.       And how much are you going to get paid to teach English in South Korea?

“As an English teacher you will be paid about 2000 to 2500 US dollars a month. Two thousand five hundred US dollars is at the high end of a starting out teaching English in South Korea. With a masters degree you could get closer to 3000 US dollars a month, but you would need to be here to get it. If you are searching for jobs overseas you would have to lower your expectations in regards to salary. Two thousand US dollars a month with housing included is very liveable here especially if you can eat Korean food for 7 dollars a day.”

5.       Don’t learn the language with just any tutor

Similar to everyone I have spoken with regarding their life as an expat Steve laments that learning the local language, “took a long time.” Steve said that, “Language exchanges are a great way to make friends but are not so great for learning the language.” So, he also took formal language classes about six hours a week. He attributes the vast majority of his learning to hiring a private tutor. Steve recommends you “pay the money for a professional teacher.” Steve said the private tutor kept him on topic and did not let him stray.

6.       Make sure your job comes with housing – or else!

In regards to the South Korean housing situation Steve recommends that you do not take a job without housing. South Korea does not have a rent system but a deposit system and as such instead of putting down a deposit and perhaps first month’s rent and then providing monthly rent payments thereafter in South Korea you put down 100,000 US dollars to rent an apartment and after a year or two when you decide you do not want to live there the landlord gives you the money back unless of course – they lost all your money in bad investments.

Steve said that these days that system is loosening up a bit where you,  “could give them 50,000 US dollars and then 1000 US dollars a month rent which also comes with an  insurance system so you can ensure you get the money back.”

(I don’t know still sounds scary to me, probably best to make sure the job gets your housing, no?)

7.       South Korea is open to foreigners working in their country – to a point

“They are reluctant to give too much responsibility to a foreigner. I think there is a lack of trust.”

Unlike prior times Steve notes, “Teaching English is more and more competitive in South Korea. You do not necessarily need experience, but you would need some sort of English teaching certification. With other industries it is possible to get jobs in South Korea but it takes a lot of patience and networking. Like in the US and most countries, Steve recommends you “use whatever contacts you may have in helping to find a job in South Korea.”

8.       Safety in South Korea v. Safety in the US

Steve believes that South Korea is, “comparatively safe to most cities in the US, but women should be especially careful as a lot of crimes go unreported.”

9.       What can make you go mad in South Korea

“Social level is incredibly complicated in South Korea as is job title.” Steve gives the example of when you are dealing with a car accident. “The first thing you will be asked is what your job is. The police will then frame the entire situation around the social position of the people involved. There have been times where people have reported crimes that were being committed and if the person reporting the crime is of lower status it will be encouraged not to report it.”

10.   South Koreans thoughts on foreigners…

“There are two generations of South Koreans. The older generation grew up in complete poverty. Many grandparents who grew up in the civil war believe the younger generation is a bunch of spoiled brats as they have no concept of poverty. Sometimes I try and stay away from older people but then I had an older guy come up to me and in perfect English tell me how much he is appreciative of what the US did for South Korea. Then there are others who warned my wife against marrying foreigners. The younger generation is more open to the west. They want the cars from Germany and the fashions from New York City. They all want to study abroad. There is a big generation gap. It is so hard to say one group is like one thing and another is like another as I have had my expectations totally blown away.”

More about Steve at Buy Steve’s latest book, The Coffee Manifesto.

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