Seoul, South Korea Report of what it's like to live there - 02/20/20
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. Spent time in WHA previously.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
West Coast, about 15-18 hours depending on connections. Easy travel to pretty much everywhere in the United States, but you are guaranteed at least one long flight.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Housing is all on base.It ranges in size from two bedrooms up to maybe five. The housing is big and functional, but (in my opinion) also old and ugly. Overall, the housing is not the issue. The issue is living on a base with very few services (px closed, gas station closing, commissary closing, all entertainment and restaurants closed or closing). Normally I am a proponent of shopping/spending time outside of the bubble and Seoul has a lot to offer here. Unfortunately, it is a 30-50 minute walk just to get off base, which is not pleasant in the summer or the winter due to weather. I love Seoul and I love Korea. There is so much to do, but I just think the base situation is terrible.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
You can find basically anything you want, except maybe ingredients for Mexican food.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Delivery used to be a highlight. The app "Shuttle" delivers from about 75 restaurants near the base and would come to your house for 2-4k won. However, the base operators decided to shut it down, as not all could use it.There is hope that it will start up again, but for now it is a major downer on morale, at least in my family. You can still order shuttle if you meet the driver at the gate of the base.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
We had some mosquitoes and ants, but nothing crazy. Biggest problem is probably dead birds from the wild cats killing them.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
It's too expensive to have full time help for most at the embassy, but some with two incomes do it. I have paid US$10/hr for cleaning every once in a while.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There's a free gym on base, not sure when it will close. Yoga is offered near base for reasonable prices.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
Basically everywhere takes credit cards. ATMs are everywhere and safe.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
You can find pretty much every religious service in English.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You don't need it, but it helps a lot. Korean websites are not always foreigner friendly. Sometimes English pages are out of date or incomplete. There is a post language program, but there are also a lot of cheap alternatives outside of the government.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Some, but not too many. Not every subway station is easily accessed in a wheel chair, but overall, the Koreans have similar setups as in the U.S. for stores/buses/subways.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
100% safe 100% cheap.
2. 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?
Something small if you are at the Embassy. The parking lot is tiny. Parts are easy to find, but will be cheaper if you order yourself (like oil filters for oil changes) or have a Korean car. Not all Korean brand cars that are built to U.S. specs use the same parts/sizes though. Heated seats are nice in the winter.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
It is available and it works fine. It was up and running when i got here. We pay about $40 for 500 mbps, no cable.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Getting a sim is a real pain. You can only get a temporary one when you first arrive and you have to explain/borderline argue with the phone store about why you qualify for a long term sim with your diplomatic card. Rates are ok, not great. A little cheaper than the US, but are much faster and you will have data everywhere. mountains, subways, skyscrapers, basements, you have LTE up to 200 mbps.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
Lots of options. Ask in Embassy Facebook pages for specifics.
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?
Telework, embassy jobs. I don't know anybody working on the local economy. Salaries are surprisingly lower than the U.S., but not shockingly so.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Not a lot. Orphanages are reluctant to let people show up and interact with the kids, but it is possible after you build a history with them. Possible opportunities with NGOs, refugee groups, etc.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Slightly more formal than in the U.S., but you could get away with the same dress code. Koreans have no hesitation showing all of their legs but are not ok with cleavage or too much neckline showing. Swimsuits tend to be shorts and a shirt for men, a one piece with shorts and a shirt for women, and everybody must wear a hat in a lot of pools/water parks.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Nothing specific but check with RSO when you arrive.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Air quality is pretty bad. It can be close to 300 AQI some days. Schools sometimes don't let kids go outside. sometimes you can hardly see across the street. Medical care is top notch here. It is equal to, or better than, the U.S. generally. a lot of people get Lasik eye surgery since it is cheap (about $1,200 for both eyes).
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
See above. It is not good. It is seasonal in general (winter and spring), but bad air is just part of living here. It isn't quite china, but it is closer to China-quality air than Japan air.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
A lot of dust in the spring. Everything will be caked in it.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
In my opinion: BaseLifeSucks Syndrome, especially among single people.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
It is extremely hot and humid at times, very cold and windy at others. More wet than dry. You can get the specifics from googling Seoul weather patterns better than you could from post reports.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
A few good choices, and everybody seems happy.
2. 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?
Preschools are expensive (US$1200+ per month for most English-language preschools)
3. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes, lots of choices.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Very big, if you include the military down south. Even if you don't count them, there are a lot of English teachers, students, and diplomats. Morale is fine. As far as I can tell, negative morale tends to be due to the base living situation or a work situation, not Korea specific. That said, Korean culture can make it hard for westerners to date, especially women. The Metoo movement seems to have exposed a lot of sexism and young men especially have reacted poorly against women.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
So many options. Any situation in the U.S. is pretty much a choice here.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Good for everybody, but families tend to be happiest because they face the least downsides from being stuck on base.
4. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
The language barrier is the hardest hurdle, but most Koreans speak at least some English.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Yes. Koreans, especially in smaller towns/outside of Seoul, do not have a lot of interactions with black people. I have heard stories ranging from rude comments to staring and pointing. If you have kids, people will want to touch them and take their picture. They might even come up and pick them up without asking (usually older women do this and mean well. They often say "it's ok I'm a grandma")
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Food. Regional travel. Interesting work. Thailand, vietnam, china, philippines, everywhere around here has interesting places to visit. so does korea.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
There are too many to list. Use Tripadvisor/Google and you can come up with a list of 50 things just in Seoul.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Tailored suits/shirts, some art, but not like you might find at other posts.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Great public transportation, great food, fairly walkable for how big it is, good launching point for travel.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
The autumn is amazing. Save your annual leave for winter.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Absolutely...after the Embassy moves to a new building and base housing is gone.