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South Korea for expats

What to know about moving to South Korea

The most recent addition to the roster of currencies you can send and receive with CurrencyFair is the South Korean won (KRW). To give the won the warmest possible welcome, we’re taking a look at why and how you’d want to make a long-term move to the ‘Land of the Morning Calm’. 

Sending money to South Korea

Get bank-beating rates when you send money to South Korea with CurrencyFair. Your fees are fixed at just US $4 (or the currency equivalent) and in most cases you can enjoy a same-day transfer to your local account.

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Why foreigners are moving to South Korea

Although K-pop and K-drama (as well as 5 million Koreans living overseas) have helped to make South Korean culture a global phenomenon, the peninsular country is still only emerging as a destination for foreigners to live and work. Even by 2040, the foreign population will have risen to just 4.3%

However, with the cost of living in other regional hotspots such as Hong Kong and Singapore continually rising, skilled foreigners might well see South Korea as a more affordable alternative. Traditionally, the majority of job offers have been in English language teaching. South Korea’s notoriously stressful and competitive education system means there’s always demand for outstanding teaching talent. 

Yet there are also opportunities in finance, tech, automotive, and IT. South Korea’s economy is dominated by the Samsung Group of 60+ companies, which account for 18.3% of the nation’s GDP, but there are also roles to fill with local giants including Hyundai, SK, and LG Electronics. The ubiquitous global multinationals are also present and hiring, spanning finance, accounting, consultancy and more. 

The pros of life in South Korea as a foreigner

  • It’s extremely safe, with a low crime rate
  • There’s a 24/7 lifestyle in the major cities with an accent on convenience and efficiency
  • Super fast internet, ranked second only to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) according to recent data
  • Fascinating mix of hyper-modern and ancient history, with 13 UNESCO World Heritage sites to explore

The cons of South Korean life

  • The capital Seoul is now one of the world’s most polluted cities
  • Life satisfaction is low, according to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development data, although this applies mainly to native Koreans. South Korea ranked 36th out of 38 OECD countries when it came to overall happiness, with high levels of household debt a recurring concern. 

Living and working in South Korea as a foreigner

The South Korean peninsula is abundant with opportunities at some of the world’s best-known companies. The average salary is around KRW 3,890,000 (USD 2,947 per month), but if you’re a skilled, experienced foreigner at Chief Executive Officer or Chief Financial Officer level, expect to earn double the average figure. 

It’s certainly not among the cheapest countries in the world, but South Korea is about 22% cheaper than the USA (rent, taxes, salary etc.), and 11% cheaper than the United Kingdom (UK), but slightly more expensive than Japan. 

Accommodation will be a major expense, and you can expect to pay a third of your salary (or more) on rent. However, that’s a world away from the 68% rent-to-income ratio you’d find in New York City or Hong Kong, and if you’re hired from overseas by a local employer then accommodation might well be included in your package anyway. For the money, you can look forward to hi-tech, secure accommodation that’s equipped for South Korea’s climate (heated floors!). 

Do foreigners pay taxes in South Korea?

If you’re a resident in South Korea (for more than 5 of the previous 10 years) you will pay tax on your global income, whereas you’ll be taxed on your Korean-sourced income only if you’ve been in the country for less than 5 years. Although the top income tax rate is 42%, for income over KRW 500,000, foreigners can opt to pay a flat 19% tax rate on their local income. Note too that some foreign teachers benefit from tax exemptions for their first few years. 

Most of the American citizens working in South Korea are likely to be part of the 28,500+ US military personnel stationed on the peninsula, but those who work for local employers are covered by a dual tax treaty dating back to 1979. 

Do you need a visa to live and work in South Korea?

You’ll need a visa to stay longer than 90 days (180 days for Canadians) in South Korea, and a work visa and permit to take up employment. 

Given the hyper-competitive local job market, it’s rare for foreigners to move to South Korea without a job offer already secured. There is a D-10 job seeker visa for that purpose, but it’s reserved for highly qualified and skilled candidates only. 

Otherwise, you’ll apply for your own visa at the nearest consulate or embassy in your home country, or your sponsor (employer) will apply for a ‘Confirmation of Visa Issuance’ on your behalf through the Korean online visa portal. Once you have this letter, you send it to your local consulate to get the passport stamp. 

South Korea offers a substantial range of visas to foreigners, but the most common are:

  • E-2 for foreign language instructor
  • E-4 for consultants in natural science or tech
  • E-5 special profession (eg. for lawyers, accountants)
  • D-2 visa for study
  • D-7 intra-company transfer 
  • F-5 permanent resident visa

Korea visa portal

You can find out which type of visa you need, and what the requirements are here

Once you’re settled in South Korea, you must register with the local Immigration Office and obtain your 

Alien Registration Card (ARC). 

Setting up a South Korean bank account and health cover 

Non-residents and foreign residents can open a local bank account in South Korea, but you’ll need to do it in person. One of the biggest obstacles is that you’ll need your Alien Registration Card as well as your Korean visa and (possibly) Certificate of Employment. If you don’t have these yet, it might be better to find an international bank with branches in your city. 

Korean banks don’t typically impose a minimum deposit or balance, and you’ll find plenty of branches where English is spoken in the main cities. 

Everyone has to pay into the healthcare system, which is of such a high standard that private insurance may not be necessary. Expect to have around 7% of your salary deducted to cover National Health Insurance contributions, but only once you’ve received your Alien Registration Card. 

Where to live in South Korea

Seoul has now fallen out the top 10 world’s most expensive cities, and is where most foreigners settle. The trade-off in the capital is between space and tranquility and transport links and nightlife. 

Seoul highlights: Old city, historic palaces, Hangang park, National Museum, and authentic cuisine at Gwangjang market

Approximate single-person monthly costs (excluding rent): $1,103. 

1-bedroom rent: from $546/month outside the city centre to $781 in central Seoul


Jeju island is a popular honeymoon spot and tourist getaway where stressed Koreans go to unwind in summer. It’s also on the radar for foreigners too. 

Jeju highlights: ‘Korea’s Hawaii’ is a laid-back island with a biosphere reserve and great beaches 

1-bedroom rent: around $490/month 


Fashion-conscious Daegu is Korea’s 3rd largest city in the southeast. It has a substantial ‘expat’ population despite being much smaller than Seoul. 

Daegu highlights: Relentless nightlife and plenty of trendy bars and venues to sample. When that gets too much, it’s close to rivers, lakes and mountains too. 

1-bedroom rent: from $311/month outside the city centre to $432 in central Daegu.


Korea’s second-largest city, Busan, is a busy port where you’ll meet foreigners easily. The climate is milder down this part of the peninsula, and you’re near to the beaches (which get busy in summer). 

Approximate single-person monthly costs (excluding rent): $883. 

1-bedroom rent: from $320/month outside the city centre to $396 in central Busan

[Source: Numbeo]

Culture shock: how to adjust to life in South Korea

As is so often the case with moving abroad, it’s not the country that matters, but the expectations you bring. That’s why it’s important to bust the myth that South Korea is a homogenous, insular peninsular where foreigners find it hard to settle. 

That’s simply not true. Korean society is certainly formal, hierarchical, and patriarchal, compared to the US or EU, for example, but foreigners are by no means outsiders. Squid Game might have conquered the world in weeks, but the tentacles of Korean business have been creating international bonds for decades. 

In short, you won’t find it too hard to fit in. Daily life will be even easier if you remember the following:

  • As in Japan, tipping is not expected and may be considered rude
  • Korean’s can be superstitious about writing in red or using the number four
  • Learning Korean will go a long way outside the major cities (where English is quite common)
  • Take off your shoes when entering a building and don’t eat on the go or on transport. 


Sending money to South Korea

Get bank-beating rates when you send money to South Korea with CurrencyFair. Your fees are fixed at just US $4 (or the currency equivalent) and in most cases you can enjoy a same-day transfer to your local account.

Learn more


This information is correct as of May 2023. This information is not to be relied on in making a decision with regard to an investment. We strongly recommend that you obtain independent financial advice before making any form of investment or significant financial transaction. This article is purely for general information purposes.

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