In this post-Hallyu world we live in, more and more people are taking an interest in the “Land of the Morning Calm,” South Korea. Attendance at Korean language classes is increasing, along with the number of K-drama websites and K-pop blogs — South Korea is emerging as a cultural force to be reckoned with. As interest in this peninsular country-that-could rises, so does the number of non-Koreans who desire to spend time over there, either working or studying. Having been one of those people — I studied for two semesters at Seoul’s Yonsei University last year as an exchange student — I encountered a number of things that I wish I had known about beforehand. Thus I feel I should impart to you the knowledge I gained! If you are seriously considering spending time studying or working in South Korea, without further ado here is my list of 10 things you should know first. I had to learn these the hard way, but hopefully you will soar where I stumbled.
1. Getting Your Alien Card
If you’re a foreigner planning to stay more than 90 days, you need to register for an alien card. For this you will need your passport and visa, an application form (which you get at the immigration office), and a passport-sized photo (they have photo booths at the immigration office for this purpose, if you don’t have one). In South Korea everyone has a standard government-issued photo ID with a number, which is kind of like a SIN card. Essentially, having an alien card ensures that you have a temporary ID number, which you need if you want to access many South Korean services (like getting a cellphone). Getting the card is like getting a health card or replacing your SIN card: it requires filling out forms and waiting in a long queue for hours in a depressing government building — be warned! Go early in the morning (around 8 am) or just before the office closes (around 5 pm) if you don’t want to wait up to six hours. Seriously, it can take that long! I had a friend who waited for seven hours and didn’t even make it to an official . . . so go early (or late). I went around noon and had to wait for three hours — apparently I was lucky. The process is a bit different and apparently less time-consuming if your cultural background is Korean; if you’re a Chinese citizen it’s also different and apparently can take even longer. Heed my words.
If you’re a tourist and you’re spending a couple of weeks or months in the country, you probably don’t need to open a bank account. When I was in Korea for my two two-month stints, I just relied on cash. However, if you’re planning to spend several months or longer, I really recommend opening a bank account. To do this, all you need is a passport and a place of residence; a hotel, guesthouse, or dormitory will suffice — they just need a place to send the paperwork. I banked with Woori Bank because there was one on campus and it was the most convenient, and opening the account was pretty straightforward. I went to a branch that was off campus, walked in, and said in English that I wanted to open an account. The teller — who most certainly could not speak English — simply highlighted a bunch of lines on a form, pointed to them, and said “name, address, phone number, passport number” as I got to each one (the Woori branch on campus did have English-speaking staff, though). The whole process took about 15 minutes. I got a bank card and an account book, and the bank card worked like a Visa debit card, so I could use it to shop online.
Be warned, if you use your passport to open your account initially and later get an alien card, you should update your account with your alien card number; otherwise you won’t be able to get a phone plan (more on this later). There are several different banks in South Korea and they all have their own deals and ways of doing things. Woori Bank had this annoying rule that you couldn’t withdraw money or debit anything between the hours of 12 midnight and 1 am. I don’t know the reason for this but it’s something that took me by surprise when I attempted to pay a club cover — not fun, so withdraw money beforehand. Some friends of mine relied on their American credit cards and bank accounts while they were there. If you’re going to be in South Korea for a long time, I would not recommend this, as we frequently ran into situations in which their card could not be used or an extra charge was applied to withdrawals.
3. Getting a Phone
South Korea is one of the most smartphone-obsessed countries I’ve ever been to. If you want to jump on the bandwagon and get a phone plan, you need an alien card, and if you don’t speak Korean well, try to find a phone shop in which the staff can speak some English — Itaewon is your best bet in Seoul, Haeundae in Busan, and in the countryside and smaller cities, get someone to help you. There are prepaid services but you still need a phone for those, so depending on how long you are staying, you can either buy into a contract or do what I did: I found a used Galaxy SII on Seoul’s Craigslist (yes, that’s a thing and it’s entirely in English) for just under $300 (foreigners and locals are always selling phones on Craigslist and there’s a lot to choose from). I took it to a U+ store (one of the providers) and got them to set me up with a plan; this turned out to be a really good idea because the standard plans are two years and I was only staying for one. If I had bought into a Galaxy SIII deal (they were new at the time) and then terminated the plan, I would have had to pay for the phone — which would have been steep. However, since I had bought the phone separately, when I terminated the contract I only needed to pay my last phone bill.
It was totally worth getting the phone separately in my case. If you’re there for more than two years, this shouldn’t really be an issue, and if you’re lucky enough to have an unlocked phone then you can probably just use that. The phone plan I had cost around $40/month and afforded me 500MB of LTE data and unlimited incoming calls (I can’t remember the talk and text stipulations). The cool thing about getting a phone in Korea is that they usually give you an extra battery with an external charger, so you can always have at least two charged batteries on the go. If you are wondering why, just ride a Korean subway and count the smartphone users . . . good luck!
4. Wi-Fi and Phone Reception
I am convinced that South Korea is the most Wi-Fi–friendly country in the world. There is Wi-Fi in malls, coffee shops, schools, subway trains, even in some parks! Wherever you are, there is Wi-Fi near you. However, many Wi-Fi hotspots are tied to telecom providers, meaning that if the hotspot is, for instance, Olleh Free Wi-Fi, you likely won’t be able to access it unless your provider is Olleh. This is something to consider when choosing a telecom provider. I found that in Seoul U+ was the cheapest but Olleh had the most Wi-Fi coverage (especially in the subways). There are lots of SK Telecom hotspots too, so keep your eyes open — data ain’t cheap, after all. Also, as far as I know, there are very few places in South Korea where you can’t get reception on your phone, even if you’re in the middle of the countryside — very convenient!
5. Room and Board
Chances are that, if you are a non-Korean working in Korea, the company you work for will set you up with some sort of accommodation, probably an apartment. For anyone going to teach in Korea that is most certainly the case; however, for those of you who will be studying in Korea or are for whatever reason not provided with free accommodation, a number of options are available. For students, dormitories are always an option, but they sometimes fill up quickly; if you are not able to apply fast enough you might not get a spot. Korean dormitories also have curfews, which can be as early as 11 pm, so no partying! At Yonsei, where I studied, they had a special dorm for international students, which did not have a curfew; however, I’m not sure if every university has this sort of arrangement.
If dorm life is not for you, you can always go for a hasookjip, which provides you with a single room and meals; these are often located near universities and international schools. Some of them are quite comfortable and will let you have company over, while others are more strict — do your research beforehand! They also fill up pretty quickly around the start of the semester, so you’ll want to get in early. They usually range from $300 to $500/month, and keep in mind that meals are included in the price. Alternatively there are homestays, which tend to be a bit more expensive but you actually live with a Korean family and can theoretically interact with them, although how much you see and talk with them depends on the family.
If you want a bit more independence, there are a number of apartment options, such as the shared apartment (which I went for), the “one-room” or “officetel” — basically a small bachelor suite with kitchen, washroom, and washing machine — and of course more substantial apartments for those who can afford them. I ended up paying about $500 a month for a shared apartment, but I had a big room and a nice kitchen and my flatmates were good chaps, so I was pretty happy. Be warned, though — down payments on Korean apartments can get pretty steep compared to Canada. Again, do your research.
Well, it turns out I had a lot more to say on these things than I expected, so I’ll do the final five next week. This week was more logistical information, while next week will be more culture-oriented. Stay tuned!