Find A Job
South Korea is not the easiest place on the planet to find work, but for the more adventurous expat job seeker, who wishes to experience Asian culture, there are possibilities worth exploring. Your biggest chance of employment will be in English language teaching (TEFL). In saying this, there are a number of multinationals that have branches in Seoul, so depending on which sector you are planning to work in, you might like to look at either a secondment, provided your current employer has a South Korean base, or to apply directly to one of the big companies, such as Samsung or Hyundai. Manufacturing also offers possibilities, as does IT.
What Are The Legal Requirements For Foreign Employees?
You will need a work permit to work legally in South Korea, and in order to obtain this, you will need an offer of employment first, from a locally licensed and incorporated company. You can enter the country on a 90 day tourist visa if you intend to seek employment whilst on the ground, but you must prove that you have a return ticket.
South Korea is keen to attract skilled overseas workers to compensate for an ageing and diminishing population. It intends to introduce a new, longer stay visa for well-educated and high-income foreigners. In the longer term, it also aims to set up a tailored service to assist entry into and departure from South Korea, as well as help with job searches, medical consulting and child education.
However, this is not yet in place, and the South Korean visa application process can be confusing and complex, with a large number of visas available. You should also be aware that having a visa does not guarantee you entry to the country; it is perceived as a consul’s recommendation, rather than a certainty. So you can still be refused access to the country, even if you do have a visa.
Visas for South Korea do not take the form of a general work permit, but instead depend on your employment category. You may be eligible for:
• E-1 Professor Visa (academics)
• E-2 Foreign Language Instructor
• E-3 Research (usually in STEM areas)
• E-4 Technological Guidance
• E-5 Special Profession
• E-6 Culture and Art
• E-7 Specially Designed Activities
• D-5 Long-Term New Coverage (for journalists)
• D-10 Job Seeker Visa
If you want to move to Korea and search for work while you are there, you can apply for a D-10 Job Seeker Visa, but note that the criteria is difficult to fulfil. You will need a university degree from an institution that features in the Times Higher World University Rankings, and your previous employer must have featured in the Fortune 500 list. Thus, if you wish to move to Korea and take up bar work, this is going to be a non-starter. The Korean government is keen to attract highly educated, highly skilled personnel only.
If you are intending to set up your own company, you can apply for a business visa, but again, you must fulfil the strict criteria.
Whichever visa you apply for, you will need:
• a completed application form
• your passport (original and/or copies, digital or physical)
• one coloured passport-style photograph (3.5 mm by 4.5 mm)
You may also need:
• employment contract
• recommendation letter
• copy of your apostilled qualifications
• police clearance
You must also pay a fee, which will vary, from US$40 to US$90, depending on the kind of visa you wish to obtain.
You will also need an Alien Registration Card (ARC) if you are planning on a long-term stay.
Are Any Skills In Particular Demand?
TEFL is in constant demand, with opportunities both in private language schools and state schools from kindergarten upwards. For this, you will need an E-2 Foreign Language Instructor Visa.
IT workers are also in high demand, so this may be a good option if you have digital skills.
It is a good idea to speak basic Korean, particularly if you will be working in an area outside one of the main cities.
What Are Typical Working Hours And Annual Holiday Entitlement?
South Korea has very long working hours. They have recently been reduced from 68 hours per week to 52 hours per week (40 normal hours plus 12 hours of overtime). Employers who make their employees work for more than 52 hours per week face strict penalties, including imprisonment.
Typical business hours are 9.30 a.m. to 4.30 p.m. Monday to Friday, and 9.30 a.m. to 1.30 p.m. on Saturday.
The number of public holidays fluctuates, but range from a minimum of ten to a maximum of sixteen days each year. Your annual leave will initially be 15 days, but you will be entitled to an additional day for every 2 years of employment after this. The statutory vacation days earned per year are capped at 25 days.
If you become pregnant, you will be entitled to 90 days of maternity leave. 60 days are fully paid, and the remainder will be paid at a percentage of your monthly income. Your leave can be split into 45 days of parental leave before the birth, and 45 days after.
The minimum wage is currently 8,350 won (US$7.37) per hour.
Can My Spouse Work?
Your spouse can join you in Korea, but if they are under a dependent visa status, they must complete a Change of Status application before they can start work. They will need to apply for an appropriate work visa sponsored by a company in Korea, as outlined above.
Are Speculative Applications To Companies Common?
Yes, it is routine to approach companies directly.
What Is The Best Method Of Finding A Job?
There are a number of recruitment agencies covering Korea, for instance for TEFL posts. You may also wish to explore online job boards. Note, however, that you must wait until you have your visa before entering Korea. If you are already on the ground when you apply for a work visa, you may have to return to your home nation for this to be processed.
What Is The Recommended Format For CVs/Resumes And Covering Letters?
A standard format is acceptable, but it might be a good idea to have the headings translated into Korean.
Which Questions Are Illegal / Can Be Asked In An Interview?
Anti-discrimination law in Korea is not comparable with that of Western nations. The law, for example, does not prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Qualifications And Training
You can, if you wish, sit the Korean Language Proficiency Test (KLPT). You will need to have your qualifications apostilled. Note that a university degree is a basic requirement for most forms of employment.
Apply For A Visa/Permit
South Korea has visa waiver arrangements with a number of countries, including the USA, the EU, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. If you are a citizen of one of these countries, then you do not require a visa to visit South Korea for tourist purposes or for simple business meetings. If, however, you wish to remain in the country for longer than 90 days (or 180 days if you are Canadian), then you will require a visa, and these are not easy to get.
South Korea has a highly educated workforce, and there are relatively few job opportunities for foreigners, other than English teaching. In almost all cases, you must fit one of the following criteria:
• Possess significant qualifications at a high level from one of the global top 200 universities according to The Times
• Be an experienced employee of one of the world’s best 300 corporations as announced by FORTUNE
• Be able to demonstrate that you are an expert in your field
• Have a contract with a Korean organisation to work in a specific area which has been approved by the Korean Ministry of Justice
• Are being transferred by your current employer to work in South Korea
These opportunities are rare, and you cannot remain in South Korea for longer than the time specified by your short stay visa or visa waiver without providing a specific reason. Also, you cannot get a visa to retire to South Korea.
If you are of Korean heritage, with at least one parent or grandparent who was a citizen of South Korea, and can demonstrate competency in the Korean language, you may apply for a people of Korean heritage visa, which lasts for two years.
A full list of visa types can be found on the website of the South Korean embassy or consulate in your home country.
Get Health Insurance
Many expats take out private medical insurance, even if this is not a requirement of residence, because healthcare is expensive in their destination country or because certain treatments and procedures are not available.
When taking out health insurance, be sure to check factors such as the annual and lifetime policy limits, whether there are any exclusions which are likely to affect you, whether you are limited to treatment from specific types of healthcare providers, and whether the policy covers emergency evacuation for medical treatment.
Too frequently, potential buyers of health insurance look only for the lowest cost of premiums before really considering the specific benefits and areas of cover they may actually need. Some plans are cheaper for a reason. Often they include large voluntary deductibles on any claim you might make in the future and may severely cap the benefits received under the plan. Clients should define their needs first, establish the particular area of cover they need, then determine their annual healthcare insurance budget. Only then should they look to premium comparisons, last of all.
Do not buy a plan without studying the policy wording carefully. If in doubt, ask, and only when completely satisfied complete all application forms fully, to the best of your ability.
Important questions to ask the insurance provider:
1. Does the plan allow for cooling off periods, cancellation and then repayment of premium in full?
2. Does the plan offer “Moratorium” or is it “Full underwriting” and do you need to have a medical examination before joining?
3. Does the insurer offer a 24 hour help line, 7 days a week, available from anywhere in the world (freephone)? Most insurers now offer this facility.
4. Are pre-existing conditions excluded when joining and if so, for how long are such conditions excluded?
5. Are all and any nationalities accepted or are there restrictions which apply to local nationals? Some insurers will only take expatriates abroad and not local nationals into an overseas plan.
6. Does the plan allow you to continue cover unbroken through your lifetime? In most cases insurers will continue to offer existing clients cover year on year, irrespective of age or claims history, although premium rates charged can increase dramatically with age.
7. Does the insurer allow for any doctor or consultant or hospital within the plan? Are there any restrictions in this respect? Most international plans do not place restrictions on either hospitals or doctors, but almost all demand that their help lines are called first, prior to approval of any inpatient care.
8. Does the insurer provide for the direct settlement of bills presented by hospitals worldwide, regardless of location (or do you have to pay first)?
9. What are the insurers procedures for outpatient claims? Do these require any pre-authorization or if stated in the plan can you just pay and claim? How long before you get money back from the insurer? 14 days? 28 days?.
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Rent Or Buy Property
Despite the overall low cost of living in South Korea, rental prices in central Seol can be astronomically high. It’s a particularly saturated market. The Korean language is complex for foreigners to learn, so if you are unconfident or unfamiliar with it, your best bet is to hire a real estate agent or broker (budongsan).
A good agent will be able to show you a range of listings, keeping the process as uncomplicated as possible for you, and potentially negotiate a good deal on your behalf. The majority of rentals in South Korea are unfurnished. Utilities are not included in your rent and will need to be paid at the bank or local post office. Usually, the payment of utilities is the sole responsibility of the tenant, but in some circumstances, utilities may be split between all of the building’s tenants.
Tenants who sign leases for less than a five-year period must be legally guaranteed the ability to extend their lease up to five years if they so wish. The deposit you pay can vary, depending on the type of rental. In South Korea, there are two different systems within the rental market. These are:
Jeonse (전세), also known as Chonsei
Instead of paying monthly rent, a tenant will make a lump-sum deposit on a rental space of between 50% and 80% of the market value. Usually, this means your key money will be around 200 million KRW (170,800 USD). The tenant is then allowed to stay in the property “rent-free” until the end of the lease, which is usually two years. The only costs that the tenant will need to pay on a monthly basis are utility bills.
With a Wolse lease, a tenant will sign a lease for one or two years and make a deposit on the apartment equal to roughly 10% of the market value (or sometimes calculated as between 10 and 20 times the monthly rent). The tenant then pays monthly rent for the rest of their lease. The larger the deposit, the smaller is the monthly payment. The deposit is refundable without any interest.
To ensure that any deposit paid is returned, tenants are protected by the House Lease Protection Act. If the lease contract is broken by the tenant, they forfeit 10% of their deposit for Jeongseon rentals and 10% of their monthly rent for Wolse rentals. If, however, the contract is breached by the landlord, they must pay double the contract money.
Rental agreements vary somewhat, but should generally cover the rent rate, the amount of deposit, the terms of breaking the lease, whether you can sublet and instructions about renovations.
You can either choose to work with a local agent, or you can specifically search for one that speaks your native language. You can also search for rentals yourself online. If you choose to do this, these sites may be able to give you an idea of what is available:
There is no black and white answer to this question, due to the way the rental system works in South Korea. If you rent a Jeonse property, then you will not pay monthly rent. With a Wolse property, monthly rental costs can vary widely. A small one-bedroom apartment in a city centre location may cost roughly 717,150.10 ₩ (South Korean Won). This is equivalent to approximately £474.40 (GBP) or $588.82 (USD). A three-bedroom apartment in a central location may cost around 1,855,705.41 ₩ (£1,227.17 or $1,523.65) per month. Costs get much lower the further out of the cities you get.
It’s important to be vigilant about property scams. Never pay money upfront for a property that you have not personally viewed. Never accept a landlord’s offer to mail you a key after you send a deposit.
Foreigners are permitted to purchase real estate in South Korea. Foreign residents wishing to buy are subject to the Foreigner’s Land Acquisition Act and the Registration of Real Estate Act. The transaction must be reported to the appropriate district office within 60 days of signing the purchase contract, and both the property purchase contract and a certified copy of the property registration must be submitted.
Non-resident foreigners are subject to both the above laws, and they are additionally subject to the Foreign Exchange Transactions Act. As well as following the above reporting requirements, non-residents transferring money to South Korea in order to buy property must report the transaction to a foreign exchange bank. To do this, you will need to submit copies of the appraisal report, the property contract, and a certified copy of the property registration.
Buying costs are typically quite high in South Korea. The procedure for buying is as follows.
After making an offer on a property, a sales contract/agreement will need to be drawn up by a practising lawyer and signed by both the buyer and seller. At this stage, the seller may also ask for a deposit (usually 10% of the sale price of the property), but this is not actually mandatory – it is subject to your agreement with them. The payment conditions will be outlined in the sales contract. It is not uncommon for it to be paid in two to three instalments. The sale cannot be cancelled after the second payment transfer is made.
The next step is registering. Real estate registration in South Korea is split into two stages: land acquisition registration and transfer of ownership registration.
Foreigner’s land acquisition
You must get a Land Acquisition Report when you purchase property. To do this, you need to report your purchase to either the Si, Gun or Gu office (city, county or district office) in your area within 60 days of signing the sales contract. You will need to take the signed sales contract, your alien registration card, and a copy of the land register, showing the name of the seller.
Transfer of ownership registration
Within 60 days of paying the full property purchase price, you need to complete the property registration by registering the transfer of ownership at your local Si, Gun or Gu office. You will need to take your alien registration card, completed registration application form, signed sales contract, land acquisition report, and registration certificate with you.
As a non-resident, you are also subject to The Foreign Exchange Transactions Act. This means you need to report the transaction (of purchasing the property) to a foreign exchange bank. To do this, you will need to submit a copy of the sales contract, a copy of the appraisal report, and a copy of the property registration.
Additional costs incurred will include stamp duty (which can range anywhere between 50 ₩ to 350,000 ₩, depending on the value of the property), acquisition tax (this is typically 2%, and is paid when you buy the property), and annual property tax (this depends on the type of property). If you use the services of a real estate agent, you will also need to pay them a fee.
Non-residents will likely find it quite difficult to obtain a mortgage in South Korea. They may find it easier to get an international mortgage from a bank in their home country. The biggest banks, like HSBC, Standard Chartered, Citibank, Agricultural Bank of China and China Construction Bank, all have offices in Korea. In South Korea, the mortgage provider often pays your landlord for the property, and you make monthly payments to the provider. This is because so many people rent Jeonse, which means they have to pay a vast amount of money upfront. If you want to go down this route, it would probably be best to hire a financial adviser or broker, who can explain the process and criteria more fully, advise you whether you are eligible, and help you through the application.
Move Your Belongings
Consider if you want (or are able) to transport your belongings yourself or whether you will need the services of a removals company that deals with international moves. Unless you are travelling very light, or making a fairly short move by road, you will probably need professional help to ship your possessions. Ask for quotes from several companies first, ensuring that they visit your home to carry out a survey of your requirements. It may be worth paying extra for the removals firm to pack your possessions for you, particularly if they are going to be transported to a distant country and need special protection for the long journey. Make sure you bring to their attention anything fragile or precious that needs particularly careful wrapping and packing.
Before agreeing to a quotation, ensure that you are fully aware of exactly what is covered in the price, and that the service to be provided meets all of your requirements. For example, does the service include both packing and unpacking of your household effects? What about disassembling and reassembling of furniture? If you are planning to put anything into storage in your destination country while you find accommodation, does the price include final delivery and unpacking at your home, or will you need to arrange collection of the items? Obtain a firm estimate of the likely arrival date of your items and obtain contact details for any agents that will be dealing with the removal in your destination country. Ensure that the removals company is aware in advance of any practical considerations such as the lack of an elevator to your apartment, or likely parking problems.
If using a removals company, you may be required to take out their insurance cover for your possessions. Whether or not this is the case, ensure that you have adequate insurance for anything of actual or sentimental value that could get lost or damaged during the move. Take the time to accurately complete or check an inventory of your possessions to be moved, as this will form the basis for any insurance claim for losses or damages. Find out if insurance is included in the price quoted by the removals company, or whether you are required to pay extra for this.
The removals company should arrange any customs and importation documents on your behalf, but if you are arranging the move independently you will need to find out what documents are required and what import duties and taxes are payable (and whether you are eligible for exemption from these).
Make sure that you set aside the important documents you will need for the journey, such as passports and air tickets, and keep these easily accessible in your hand luggage.
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Register For Healthcare
QUICK LINK: South Korea health insurance
If you are employed, your employer will register you automatically for national health insurance (NHI).
If you are self employed you will need to contact your local hospital directly and register yourself. You will require an ARC first, and you will need to take along your passport as well, plus your bank details. You may also need an initial means of payment, such as cash or a card.
You can also enrol yourself if you are a freelancer or unemployed.
You will then be given an insurance passbook.
If you are in the country for six months or more, and have registered with the immigration authorities, you will be automatically enrolled into the NHI.
Open A Bank Account
Migrants have easy access to financial services in South Korea. There are no restrictions on opening an account, and financial transactions using debit or credit cards is straightforward. However, there are some things you need to be aware of as an expat planning to make frequent money transactions in South Korea.
South Korea’s official currency is known as the Won. It is found in both note and coin denominations, although coins are rarely used in daily transactions. South Korean notes are in denominations of W10,000, W5,000 and W1,000. Coins are available in W500, W50, and W10.
South Korean Bank Accounts
South Korea has 19 official banks, all of which offer services to expats as well as local people. The main local banks in the country include Kookmin Bank, Woori Financial Group, Shinhan Financial Group and Hana Bank. Kookmin, Shinhan and Hana are foreign-owned banks and are known to offer services tailored specifically to expats.
There are also international banks in South Korea. Popular choices include Standard Chartered Bank, Bank of America, Deutsche Bank, Well Fargo and JP Morgan Chase. Internet banking is also available and is offered by two banks, K-Bank and Kakao Bank.
Opening An Account
Expats can open three types of account in South Korean Banks. These are savings, time and installment accounts. It takes less than a day for an expat to open any of these accounts.
A savings account is mainly for making deposits. Interest is calculated according to long the customer is committed to the bank account. Short-term accounts have a lower interest rate than long-term ones. The interest rate on savings tends to range between two and four percent.
Time accounts function as checking accounts. It is possible to find a bank that rewards interest on time accounts. However, this interest rate will be low compared to that offered on a savings account. Like savings accounts, the interest rate is calculated according to long the customer intends to keep the account.
An installment account works almost like a savings account but has different requirements. A client is required to deposit a specific amount into the account to earn interest. When the grace period for the installment matures, a bonus amount is deposited into the client’s amount. Money must be deposited monthly.
Debit And Credit Cards
ATM cards are widely used in South Korea. Expats can use ATM cards to pay for hotel bookings, flights or to eat at major restaurants. You will find ATM machines available at bus terminals, train stations, hotel lobbies and department stores.
Besides ATMs, there are cash dispensing machines all over the major South Korean cities. The difference between the two is that some ATM machines may not accept foreign debit cards. You may also have to change your debit card to a four-digit pin so that it works in local ATM machines. As an expat, the best way to utilize local ATM machines is to open an account with a local bank and receive a Korean ATM card.
Most ATMs and cash dispensing machines operate from 8am until midnight each day, although some are available for 24 hours. Machines allow a daily limit of between W300,000 and W700,000. Most ATMs and cash dispensing machines in South Korea provide their services in English as well as other languages, so there is no language barrier for an expat who needs to access cash points.
The main credit cards accepted in South Korea are Visa, MasterCard and American Express. You can use these cards to make payments in restaurants, major department stores and hotels. Some hotels, restaurants and lodgings will also accept a Diners Club credit card.
South Korean people do most of their financial transactions with debit or credit cards. You will only need to carry cash when shopping in local street shops.
It is possible to make payments using bankers or travelers checks in South Korea. Local banks and Forex bureaus will change traveler’s checks for local money. Thomas Cook, American Express and most Visa traveler’s checks are accepted by South Korean financial institutions.
In addition, expats can use traveler’s checks to make payments at malls and city eateries, as well as when paying for flights or checking into a hotel. However, you cannot use checks to make payments in kiosks, small shops, open markets or local pubs.
Migrants can buy traveler’s checks in local internationally-owned banks or from many of the international banks established in South Korea. American Express is one of the major banks that issues traveler’s checks to expats. AAA members of Visa can also obtain Visa checks for a small fee. Locally issued traveler’s checks, such as those from American Express and Thomas Cook, can be used to make payments where foreign checks are not allowed.
Fees For Financial Services
Fortunately, South Korean banks do not charge fees for services offered. Some banks will even pay their customers a tax benefit on time deposit accounts, provided they are a resident of the country. Tax benefits on checking accounts differ with bank accounts, therefore it is good to shop around first before settling for an offer. Should you encounter a local bank that wants to charge for their service, walk away from them. There will be a competing bank next door that is willing to overlook such charges.
If you will be spending most of your time in the major South Korean cities, you will be okay using your debit or credit card. However, remember to carry cash when visiting local open markets, dining in street cafes or buying items from a souvenir shop. You should also be careful about pickpockets in the city. Only carry enough money to spend, and store it in a safe bag you can guard at all times.
There are many ways of sending money from one country to another. As always, expats can save themselves a lot of trouble and expense if they do a little research and shop around for the best deal.
International Bank Transfers
For most expats, currency transfer involves transferring small to medium sized amounts regularly from an existing bank account back home into a new overseas bank account in the local currency. These may be pension payments, benefits, or any other form of income.
Your home bank will usually be glad to oblige. You can set up facilities with them “on demand” whereby you fax or call them on the phone, provide a secret code or two, tell them the amount in question, and they will transfer it to your new bank, automatically converting it into the relevant local currency. Some banks also allow you to make international payments online. Whatever method you choose, transfers normally take between 3-7 days although 1-2 day transfers are often available but be prepared to pay more for these.
You can also set up regular transactions that are processed automatically on a fixed day of each month. Many state pensions and benefits can be paid directly into your new bank abroad without going through your home bank at all. Some private pension organisations may also offer the same facility.
When you first set up a transfer of funds abroad, the sending bank or institution will ask you for various codes that identify the destination bank. Often they will ask for IBAN (International Bank Account Number), BIC (Bank Identifier Code) or SWIFT codes but don?t panic – your new bank will give these to you and they may even already be listed in your new chequebook or bank statements.
As far as charges are concerned, you will probably be required to pay a flat fee per transaction. Additionally a percentage fee is often charged for the currency conversion itself. You may also find that your receiving bank charges you for receiving the transfer. Charges vary by bank but can quickly add up – ask your bank(s) for an indication of the fees involved.
As a general rule, transferring larger sums less frequently usually works out cheaper than transferring smaller amounts more often. However, if you need to transfer regular amounts of at least a few hundred pounds/dollars or need to make a larger one-off payment (e.g. for a house purchase) you should consider the services of a currency broker.
Cash Machine/ATM Withdrawals
Thanks to modern technology, most people abroad can go to a cash machine/ATM and withdraw local currency funds directly from their home bank account. This is a useful option to have for expats but exercise caution – many banks make hefty charges for using this type of facility. You may also find that withdrawal limits are in place (as a security measure) even if you significant funds in your account back home.
You can also use VISA or Mastercard credit cards to obtain cash in this fashion and if you pay the amount off quickly and avoid interest charges then fine – but once again credit card charges for cash withdrawals can be high. Check the rates carefully.
Currency brokers (also called foreign exchange brokers) offer significant advantages over traditional banks. Firstly, brokers will often be able to offer you a better rate than your bank. Secondly, the entire process is more transparent – many banks require you to accept the exchange rate available on the day they process your transaction, whatever and whenever that may be, but a specialist broker will offer greater flexibility, even allowing you to specify the rate you want in advance.
Currency brokers are smaller companies than major banks so always check their background carefully. Ask existing expats for their own experiences and recommendations before choosing a firm to handle your own foreign exchange requirements.
A good broker will discuss all the options with you and enable you to make the best decision for your circumstances. Using a broker will typically off the following advantages:
1) Currency brokers generally provide superior exchange rates to the high street banks. The currency brokers have access to the interbank rate and do not have the high costs that the banks have. This means that they can usually offer better exchange rates.
2) Use of a free Market Watch/Order Service: This allows you to tell your currency broker your target or budget exchange rate and they will ring you if that exchange rate level is reached. As the rate moves every few seconds, currency brokers can act as your eyes and ears on the market.
3) Ability to fix the exchange rate in advance using a Forward Contract. If you know you need to convert/move funds in the future but don?t yet have the money you can reserve a rate in advance using a Forward Contract. During this period, you are exposed to exchange rate movements and therefore, a forward contract is ideal if, for example, you have agreed to buy a house and want to fix the rate now but will not be making payment for a couple of months.
Savings from currency brokers can vary from between 1 and 4 per cent on the exchange rate alone, and specialists do not typically charge any fees for transmitting the funds abroad, unlike banks which often levy expensive fees or charges. If you are emigrating and transferring a large sum of money – such as the proceeds of a property – a foreign exchange company could potentially save you thousands.
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Learn The Language
If you are intending to relocate to South Korea, you may be wondering how fluent you will need to be in the official language, or in other languages spoken in the country. Will you be able to get by solely in English? We will answer some of your questions below.
The official language of South Korea is Korean (hanguk-eo or Hangul), an East Asian language spoken by about 77 million people. It derives from Old Korean and its origins probably lie somewhere in Manchuria. Some linguists believe that it has links with some of the older Siberian languages.
It has some unique features, including the way in which it is written: it uses a phonetic system, also called Hangul, consisting of 14 consonants and 10 vowels, which stacks sounds into horizontal or parallel blocks that represent syllables and then words.
It was designed to replace a previous system based on Chinese characters: bear in mind, therefore, that if you wish to learn Korean, you will need to master this system of writing.
Korean has a number of dialects, including the Gyeongsang dialect spoken around Busan and Daegu and you will, as in all nations, hear a variety of accents spoken across the country. The Gyeonggi dialect is widespread in the Seoul National Capital Area and is the dialect on which standard Korean is based. If you are in the region around Busan, you will also hear Japanese widely spoken, too.
English is growing in popularity in the country but it is by no means as widespread as it is in some South East Asian regions, such as Singapore or Hong Kong. You can expect to hear English spoken in the workplace if you are employed by a multinational company but otherwise you may not come across it outside the cities or tourist areas. Young Koreans are more likely to speak it and may like to do so as a status-indicator of their sophistication.
You may also come across ‘Konglish,’ a hybrid combination of Korean and English: this is unlikely to be very intelligible to you although you may recognise a few words.
It is advised that you take a good phrasebook with you and do not rely on digital methods alone, such as translation apps on your phone: more rural or mountainous areas of the country may not have extensive wifi or mobile signal coverage.
There are resources in Korean language training online, but if you are in the country and have time to enrol in language classes, you will find a number of Korean private language schools and one-to-one tuition available, from all levels from beginners to advanced, and for different purposes, such as business and finance. There are language schools in cities such as Seoul and Busan. If you want a short course in conversational Korean, you will find this available, but you may want to take more intensive courses for business, for instance. Course duration varies from one week summer courses to yearly classes.
Some schools can arrange homestay accommodation but if you are already living in Korea you will find that this is an immersive learning environment. You can also hire a private tutor, athough this usually costs more than group classes.
Some schools, such as EF International, also offer language courses with Special Interest Classes like Korean Calligraphy, Jaeum and Moeum (orthography, or writing in Hangul), Public Speaking, Art & Culture, and Exam Preparation. In addition many schools offer trips and cultural experiences.
The Best Friend Korean language school offers classes in business Korean, including:
• Korean honorifics necessary for business, making presentations, real-life conversations
• business Korean such as writing emails, making phone calls, preparing for an interview
• aspects of the business culture in Korea, such as the relationship between superiors and juniors, company dinner culture, Korean manners
You may be intending to come to Korea in order to teach English and the growing use of English in the country entails that there is currently a substantial demand. It is always easier to get work in international education if you have at least a certificate in either TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) or TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages).
It is also preferable if you have experience in teaching schemes such as the Cambridge English exams or IELTS (International English Language Testing System): the English test for study, migration or work. Some teaching experience in the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) will also be helpful. This assesses analytical, writing, quantitative, verbal, and reading skills in written English for use in admission to graduate management programs, such as the MBA. You may also find work more easily if you are experienced in teaching English for particular sectors, such as tourism and hospitality, or in summer schools.
You are likely to find work in one of the private language schools in a city such as Ulsan or Daegu, or in private schools (hagwons, commonly known in British English as a ‘crammer’). You may also wish to consider government public school programs such as the English Program in Korea (EPIK) a program to improve the English speaking abilities of students and teachers in Korea, to foster cultural exchanges, and to reform English teaching methodologies in the country.
It will also be helpful to have at least a Bachelor’s degree as most language schools require this: basically, the rule of thumb is that the more qualifications you have, both in TEFL and in academic subjects, the easier you will find it to get work. Salaries are competitive, from around US$1800 – 2000 per month, and may include a return flight and paid vacation.
If you are seeking work in translation or interpreting, you will obviously need to be highly proficient in Korean, and will also need the relevant qualifications.
Choose A School
English is growing in popularity in South Korea but it is by no means as widespread as it is in some South East Asian regions, such as Singapore or Hong Kong. Thus you should be aware that there may prove to be a language barrier unless your child is bilingual. English is taught in schools as a foreign language.
Public education in Korea is divided into three parts:
• six years of primary school
• three years of middle school
• three years of high school
The primary curriculum consists of nine subjects: moral education, music, Korean language, fine arts, social studies, mathematics, science, physical education, and practical arts.
At middle school students will have a core of around 12 subjects, including some electives.
At high school level students will have a choice of academic or vocational subjects.
The school year runs from March – February and is split into two semesters. The school day starts around 8 am and continues until around 4 pm. Students may then attend private tuition. It is a rigorous schedule but it evidently pays off: South Korea is held by the OECD to be one of the best educated countries in the world. It consistently ranks globally among the best-performing countries in the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment, PISA.
Despite the excellence of the public education system, if you are an expat in South Korea you may wish to enrol your child in private education as a result of language issues. Private education is a popular choice among Korean students, too. The participation rate of South Korean elementary students in private education stood at around 83.5 percent in 2019, higher than middle or high school students. Elementary, middle and high school students spent 20.99 trillion won ($17.6 billion) on private education in 2019.
South Korea has an unusual definition of international schools: they are technically only in Korea Free Economic Zones and Jeju Free International City. Foreign schools are intended for the children of expats resident in Korea, while international schools are designed more for Korean students who want to be educated in English. This terminology is somewhat different from the customary use of ‘international school.’
There are over 20 English-speaking schools in Seoul, teaching a variety of curricula from the British national curriculum to the International Baccalaureate and American syllabi, among others. You will also find French and German-oriented schools here. Note that a number of independent schools in Korea many be faith-based.
For instance, Seoul Scholars International offers an approved, American, art high school curriculum leading to college entrance exams such as SAT, AP, and TOEFL. You will need to contact them for their fees.
The Korea International School is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), and offers education for students from the ages of 3 -11. They are affiliated with Harvard and MIT among others. Fees range from US$21K- 24K per annum.
Korea Kent Foreign School is accredited by Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education (SMOE) and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). Fees range from US$16K – 19K per annum and it teaches children from the ages of 5 – 18, on an American curriculum.
Seoul International School offers a US curriculum from ages 4-18 and costs in the region of US$18K – 27K per year.
Dulwich College is affiliated with the British school and offers an English curriculum to students from 3-18, leading to IB, IGCSE, AS Level, and A Level. Fees are between US$27K – 29K per year
You may find that you need to make one-off or regular payments such as capitalisation fees or enrolment fees: check with the school and make sure that you are aware of what you are paying. You may be able to pay in termly instalments. Check if there are any sibling reductions. Check, too, if your employer offers private education as part of your employment package.
Enrolment policies will vary from school to school, but your child may be asked to take a proficiency test (for example in English or maths). Competition for private schools can be fierce and it is recommended that you select a school and enrol your child as soon as possible once you know your arrival dates in the country. You can also check the accreditation of your selected school: for instance, whether with WASC or organisations such as COBIS (the Council of British International Schools).
The private sector may adopt the Western academic calendar rather than the two-semester model of Korean public schools.
Although hiring private tutors is common, homeschooling per se is rare in the country and is said to occupy a legal grey area. If you intend to go down this route it is advisable to contact the local education authorities or talk to the expat community in your area and see if there are any homeschooling groups nearby.