What to Expect When Moving to Korea: 4 Obstacles to Overcome

Korea can be a hard place to move to if you don’t know what to expect. Read on to arm yourself against the common obstacles and make the start of your Korean adventure buttery-smooth.

Anthony Weineck - Profile A three-year veteran in the war against Korean monoglottery, Anthony has been through this process twice and is here to tell you that the ARC office never gets any friendlier – all you can do is try to spend as little time there as possible.

No matter what distant part of the globe you’re from, once you arrive in Korea you’ll be joining a community of foreigners who all have one thing in common – the experience of living there. And the very first step in your induction to this not-so-prestigious group is the confusing and often-laborious process of getting settled in Korea: jumping through the paperwork hoops, getting a phone, learning enough Korean to order gimbap, and finding a community.

The seven-year veterans nod sagely as they listen to the newbies complain of how they couldn’t get a phone for six weeks; they couldn’t open a bank account; they don’t have internet at home yet – they’ve heard it all before. But as they’re not going to be there to explain the process when you first arrive – you’ll be surrounded by foreigners in the same situation or Koreans who have never had to go through it – we’ve put together a list of the obstacles you’ll have to overcome in your first days and weeks in Korea, and how to do so. [divider_line]

Obstacle 1: Phoning home

PC Bang's like this one are everywhere...

PC Bang’s like this one are everywhere…

When people travel, their first task when arriving somewhere is generally to let people back home know that they arrived safely. In Korea, you might find this harder than expected: your phone won’t work (if you even brought one), and you probably won’t have internet in your new apartment either. Even if you’re not desperate to let people know you reached your destination, it won’t be long before you’re feeling the first pangs of homesickness setting in, and you’re going to need a way to get in touch with friends and family.

Making contact: You might be lucky enough to move into an apartment building that has internet pre-installed (for me, I’m 1 out of 3), in which case you’ll be able to Skype and use other VoIP technologies.

If you don’t have the Internet or a computer, then there is nowhere in the country that you won’t be able to find a PC Bang (PC Room). Look for giant PC signs, or images from games. Language will be an issue, but generally you take a number or a card from the front desk, and then sit down at any PC. Pay when you leave.

Some coffee shops will also have free internet, though others have started charging for it.

[one_half]Free Internet:

  • Caffe Bene
  • Dunkin’ Donuts
  • Tom ‘n Toms[/one_half]

[one_half_last]No free Internet:

  • Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf
  • Homestead Coffee
  • Angel In Us[/one_half_last]

The easiest way to get a phone is through the Arrival Store, who can arrange to have it waiting for you either at the airport, your apartment, or your place of work. If you want a traditional contract you’ll have to wait six to eight weeks for your ARC card (dealt with below in number 3) before you can sign up for one.

[note align=”center”]Protip: Skype has been very sketchy since Microsoft bought it out; use Google Hangouts for video calls, and use the Call Phone button in your Gmail chat menu to make free calls to the US and Canada (very small fee for UK, SA, other countries)

Click here to find more information on getting a cell phone in Korea.[/note][divider_line]

Obstacle 2: Getting settled

Learning some Korean - or at least the alphabet - will really help ease the culture shock

Learning some Korean – or at least the alphabet – will really help to ease the culture shock

After you arrive, you’ll be taken to your new school and to your new apartment. At some point you’ll be left alone to recuperate from the cultural whirlwind, and you’ll have time to start taking stock of what’s around you, and maybe to go for a walk around the neighborhood.

It can take a while to feel comfortable in your new environment, so take your time unpacking and settling in. Hopefully you read our guide on what to bring to Korea, and have a few home comforts to help you relax.

Overcoming the culture shock: Really the best way to overcome the culture shock is just to dive right into it. The sooner you can read Hangeul (the Korean alphabet), the sooner all those billboards and shop windows are going to stop being so alien; the sooner you try those weird-looking cookies in the corner store the sooner you’ll realize they’re just Oreos in a weird package.

It’s all about taking control: learn to speak some Korean so you can ask for help, buy things at the store, and generally get about; Try a bunch of different foods, even if you don’t like them, just so you can say you’ve tried them and have an opinion on them. [divider_line]

Obstacle 3: The paperwork, oh! the paperwork

You probably thought all the hoops you had to jump through before you left home – the background checks, degree copies, and visa applications, to say nothing of apostilling – would be enough. Well, the good news is that you’re nearly done, the bad is that what remains in Korea can be difficult due to the language barriers. This is the procedure you’ll have to go through:

  1. Undergo a medical examination. This includes a drug and HIV test, as well as a bunch of other things. Think the HIV test is discriminatory? You’re not alone.
    You’ll probably be taken to the hospital by a coworker to make sure you get the right exam done. If they do the wrong tests you’re going to have to go back and pee in a cup all over again. If you’re going alone, make sure you take a phone number for a Korean speaker with you then, if you run into any problems, have the hospital administrators give them a call
    [note align=”right” width=”175″]The business registration certificate can be confusing for employers. In Korean it is this: “사업자등록증”
    Here is a decent guide to getting your ARC in Seoul.
    Here is a list of immigration offices[/note]
  2. Apply for your ARC (Alien Registration Card) in person at the local immigration office. You will need a bunch of documents, too: your passport, the completed application form and (most importantly) a copy of your employer’s business registration certificate
  3. Wait two to four weeks for your ARC card to be ready, then go pick it up from the immigration office
  4. You will now be able to apply for a phone contract, open a bank account with a debit card, and sign up for any other service (like Internet) that requires a government ID.
It all revolves around this thing, without which you will be able to get very little done indeed.

It all revolves around this thing, without which you will be able to get very little done indeed.

Streamline it:

Really, just make sure you have everything you need at every step of the process, and that you have a Korean-speaker either with you or available by phone who can help out with any misunderstandings.


Obstacle 4: Finding community

Before long you'll be as into it as these guys!

Before long you’ll be as Korean as these guys!

If you’re joining the EPIK or GEPIK programs at one of their biannual intakes (in February and August) then you’re going to be meeting more people  than you probably care to at the week-long training and orientation. Most people form groups there that are the basis of their social circles for their entire time in Korea. Make sure to swap names and facebook IDs or emails with people before you leave (as you will have neither phone numbers nor addresses).

If you’re joining a hagwon then your foreign coworkers are going to also be your social circle. It’ll be hard to form connections outside of that group. Getting a feel for the kind of people you’ll be working with is one of the things you need to consider before taking a hagwon job.

For everyone else, the best way to find a community near you is by looking online. Every small town seems to have a facebook group for the local foreign community, and if that doesn’t work then just pop onto the waygook forums, introduce yourself, and ask if anyone else lives in your area. The community is inter-connected enough that someone will know someone who lives nearby.

All-else-failed solution:

Take the brute force approach, as I did years ago, and run down a foreigner on the street or in the supermarket, yelling “TALK TO ME!”


Are you worried about a planned move to Korea? Had an interesting (or crazy) experience when you arrived? Leave a comment to let us know or ask a question.