Interested in moving to South Korea? This is our simple South Korea Immigration Guide, containing all the info you need to get started. From getting a visa to finding work and (eventual) citizenship – it’s all here. Read on!
South Korea: Quick Facts
- The country has a population of ~51.5 million.
- South Korea proudly maintains its rich cultural roots – evident through its festivals and celebrations.
- South Korea is located in the midst of three formidable neighbors: China, Japan and the infamous North Korea. Flanked by the Yellow Sea on the west, the Korean strait to the south and the Japanese (Korean) sea to the right, its pine-covered mountains and extensive rice paddies makes for scenic drives through the countryside, especially during fall.
- In the last sixty years, South Korea has blossomed on an amazing journey of recovery from its tumultuous past. Its ever-present ally, the USA, largely aided its victory in the civil struggle that ended in 1953, a victory which brought it independence from North Korea. The love-hate relationship between North and South Korea continues on its unpredictable cycle of friendly tolerance to outright animosity.
- The capital city, Seoul, is the both the legislative capital and the largest city.
- The proud Korean heritage permeates all aspects of modern life and the respectful adherence to traditional customs is still widely followed, both in formal and informal settings. Koreans are known to be proud, hard-working, and patriotic.
- Currency: South Korean won (KRW)
- Spoken languages: primarily Korean (English is popular as a second language).
- Major religions: Buddhist (23%), Protestant (18%), Catholic (11%). 46% are unaffiliated (no religion).
- Major races: 99% Asian (Korean). South Korea is one of the most ethnically homogenous countries in the world.
- Largest cities: Seoul, Busan, Incheon, and Daegu.
- Climate: very hot, humid and wet summer (between May and August) and a very cold, snowy winter (between November and March) are briefly interrupted by a flowery spring (March/April) and a gorgeous autumn (September/October).
Why move to South Korea
- The high living standards in South Korea are a big draw. Poverty is not a common sight, as there are adequate government resources available to families in need. The average citizen can afford a car, a smartphone (or two), fashionable clothing, and decent entertainment.
- The modern infrastructure and fantastic public transportation systems make life in South Korea all the more attractive. Public transport is clean, efficient, punctual and secure – commuters have a choice of reasonably priced options, which together allow for easy navigation to every corner of the country.
- The latest forms of technology abound. From fully automated home security systems to a well-supported online shopping industry, South Korea simply loves new technology.
- Education is a main priority across the entire country, and the government pours significant resources into the sector. Achieving high honors in education is considered to be important not just for the child, but also for the honor of their family.
- The crime rate is very low, and petty crime is virtually non-existent (even in the heart of the major cities).
- South Korea has at least ten UNESCO world heritage sites and boasts an exciting variety of sights and interesting locales to explore.
Reasons Not to Move to South Korea
Note: these are common expat complaints, and may not apply to you.
- One of South Korea’s positive attributes is its unrelenting focus on education. This also has a negative side, which may deter foreigners from comfortably settling down into the Korean way of life. The principle that prestigious education is the key to success weighs heavily on the lives of the young people. In the West, it is often argued that an all-round education is essential for a child’s optimal development; which includes a steady balance between academic study, sports, culture, music and also time to play (you will not find this same sentiment as part of the Korean culture).
- With 50 million people in a space the size of Kentucky, there’s bound to be a bit of congestion. From motor expressways to the bustling Seoul subways, queues and traffic jams are part of daily life.
- The intense work culture can be off putting. South Koreans work very long hours. In many office settings, employees are expected to stay until the boss leaves (and/or go drinking with coworkers and managers late into the night).
- The ever-present rumbles from the North deter many from visiting South Korea. However, aside from the occasional flare ups between ruling leaders, the tantrums of nuclear proportions are barely acknowledged by the majority of South Koreans. For the most part, life continues unabated (although military drills are common).
Getting a Visa and Finding Work
- A working visa for South Korea is fairly simple to obtain, especially with a signed contract of employment. Visa renewals are also simple.
- Examples of visas available to non-Korean visitors include:
- F-5,6 Permanent Residence and Marriage Immigration visas
- D-8 Corporate Investment visa
- C-2,3,4 Temporary Employment, Business and Study visas (short term)
- H-2 Working visa (short term)
- E-2 English Teaching visa (1 year)
- The official immigration websites contain detailed and up-to-date information on all the visa classes (see “Further Reading and Resources” below)
Permanent Residency & Citizenship
- Permanent residency: this is notoriously difficult to obtain. To be eligible, many would have to marry a citizen or invest a large sum of money ($5 million USD or more).
- Note: if you have Korean blood (e.g. you are Korean-American), you are immediately eligible for permanent residency (F-4 status). In short, the entire process is much easier if you can show that you are ethnically Korean.
- Obtaining citizenship (naturalization): it is possible to apply for naturalization after 5 consecutive years of living in South Korea. Some of the requirements include passing Korean language proficiency tests, demonstrating your knowledge of Korean culture, and proving that you have made significant contributions to South Korean society.
Starting a Business in South Korea
- The government emphasizes the need for foreign investment and has implemented policies which aid foreign business owners to bypass the stringent legal and financial policies. These benefits include tax incentives and financial support (including cash grants).
- Starting any business in Korea can be difficult for entrepreneurs with no previous ties to South Korea. Many foreign business owners without spousal or family ties to Korea have had to rely on silent partners or tentative Korean ownership.
- Cultural differences in the workplace are glaringly obvious when comparing Korean business culture with that of Western or Middle-Eastern business customs:
- The culture is intensely focused on status. Any loss of standing is considered as shameful and should be rectified or conveniently ignored. This respect-first culture often results in long-winded encounters, which may end without a definitive conclusion or agreement.
- Contractual obligations are considered as guidelines, second to the priority of maintaining a flawless perceived reputation. As such, it is important to emphasize the desired terms and conditions adequately before concluding any agreement.
- Due to the nature of the “top-down” culture, bosses are never questioned or held accountable by subordinates and for employees to attain career advancement, it is often required to do things, as instructed, putting aside family or personal commitments.
- Note: although there is a keen focus on learning English in South Korea, business transactions are still predominantly conducted in Korean, although use of an interpreter is common.
Recommended Reading & Resources
- Konglish: The Ultimate Survival Guide for Teaching English in South Korea
- How to Thrive in South Korea: 97 Tips from Expats
- Korea Immigration Service – official government website
- Korea Tourism Organization – info and guidelines for expats in Korea