Seoul, South Korea Report of what it's like to live there - 03/24/22
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?
Yes, this has been my first overseas post.
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?
We came from Washington DC. There is a direct flight from Dulles.
3. What years did you live here?
4. How long have you lived here?
Two and a half years.
5. 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 on a mostly-empty US military base. The embassy housing area will remain in use until new apartment style housing is built (estimated completion date of summer 2026). The on base housing are ranch-style duplexes. They are spacious with nice yards. The base is located in the middle of the city, with lots of restaurants, shops, and activities nearby. Traveling from the housing area to the gate takes time (a car is recommended), but once you are off base, it is easy to catch a bus or train.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
You can find most things here that are in the US. Larger stores sell many western brands, but I recommend learning the Korean words for food allergens if that is a concern for you. They are clearly marked on packaging, and there are plenty of options for non-dairy, wheat, etc. Prices are comparable to large cities in the US. Produce can sometimes be expensive, depending on the season. There are also a couple military bases with commissaries where you can shop, about 1-2 hours away by car.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
My favs from Trader Joe's, but really you can find everything you need here.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Korean, Chinese Korean, Fried chicken and beer (chimaek), and Kebabs are some popular choices. The base is located next to Itaewon, which has a large expat community. You can find all styles of cuisine here. There are food delivery services, such as Shuttle and Coupang Eats, but they do not deliver directly to your door. You need to meet the delivery driver by the base gate. It is a bit inconvenient, but manageable if you have a car. There is also a Korean restaurant on base, which will deliver directly to your home.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
The mosquitos are brutal during summer. There are also a lot of feral cats in the housing area. They largely avoid humans, but some are less fearful as a result of being fed.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
DPO. I've never used local post facilities for mailing to the US, but for local mail, it is fast, efficient, and cheap!
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Most families who need full time assistance sponsor a foreign national; many are from the Philippines. The typical rate is around $1,500 per month. The going rate for part time help is $10-12 per hour, but is dependent on whether someone's helper/nanny has time to spare. Due to COVID and challenges with immigration, household help can be hard to find right now.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There are three gyms on base. Two have monthly fees and one is free. I've heard local gyms are quite affordable, but haven't been myself. There is an English-speaking yoga studio and a Pilates studio with English-speaking instructors 5-10 minutes walking distance from the gate.
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?
Credit cards are widely accepted locally. Cash is preferred at markets. Some facilities on base require cash payment, like the spa. You will likely need to carry some cash in both USD and KRW for small purchases.
5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You can get by without speaking Korean, but knowing some basic courtesies will make your experience richer. The Embassy has a Post Language Program, or you can take lessons through one of Seoul's Global Village Centers. Lessons are free, and it is a great way to meet other expats.
6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Navigating Seoul is challenging for anyone with a mobility disability or who has to push around a stroller. The terrain is very hilly. Many large roads have underground crosswalks that require you to climb stairs. Sometimes there are elevators, but often you have to go pretty far out of the way to find one. Some buses are equipped with chair lifts, but not all of them. Taxis are an affordable alternative to getting around, but trunk space is not always enough for a stroller or wheelchair.
Many neighborhoods don't have sidewalks. If you have a vision or hearing impairment, it can be dangerous getting around as drivers can be quite bold. Scooters zip around without warning.
This may be getting a little too "into the weeds" but Korean website are often inaccessible. They frequently use images to display text, which makes it impossible for someone relying on a screen reader to navigate the site. This can be challenging if you want to order something online, research local activities, book a hotel, etc.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Very safe, affordable, reliable, and convenient.
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?
Parking spaces are incredibly tight here, so smaller is better. Most Koreans put foam bumpers on their car doors to prevent scratches. Korean brands are most common (Hyundai and Kia), but you can find parts and service for most everything.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes, your social sponsor can request it to be installed prior to your arrival (at least for on-base housing).
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Google Fi and T-Mobile work here, but I recommend having a local plan. Many services authenticate through your phone provider, so it is convenient to have one. (Like buying movie tickets, etc.)
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?
Yes, there are qualified veterinarians here. There is no quarantine for dogs or cats.
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?
Most spouses/partners have home-based businesses or work remotely for a company in the US.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Seoul is very safe.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Many of the university hospitals have International Clinics, where you can receive care from English-speaking doctors. The Health Unit has a clinic on base in the embassy housing area, where you can receive very basic care.
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?
The air quality is poor during winter and spring. GSO provides three air purifiers, but you may want to bring additional ones if you suffer from asthma.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Allergen information is labeled clearly on food packaging, so you should learn how to recognize it in Korean. Many Korean dishes contain shellfish or anchovy, even if it isn't the main component (kimchi, for example).
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
There is a large expat community in Seoul. If you want to go beyond the embassy/military community, I recommend joining some of the expat Facebook groups, attending classes/events hosted by the Itaewon Global Village Center, join a club, or visit the local yoga studio (The Flow Room).
2. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Seoul is for everyone. You have to step outside of the embassy bubble to experience it.
3. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
There are many friendly Koreans who speak English well. My closest friends are those whom I've met through exercise classes or through a Korean language study buddy program.
4. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Themed cafes, karaoke rooms, amusement parks, bicycle trails, running clubs, kayaking on the Han River, camping/glamping, skiing, and so much more.
5. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Skincare, pottery, craft paper, textiles, stationary.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
In a heartbeat.
2. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Itaewon Class is a fun k-drama that takes place in the neighborhood near the base.
3. Do you have any other comments?
Don't let base life scare you from bidding on Seoul! It has its inconveniences, but it also has many perks. For families with children, it is a super safe place for kids to run around and play. Lots of parking!!! And you can grow a vegetable garden that would be the envy of any ajumma.