Moving to South Korea? You're in for a lot of fun! After living in South Korea for 1 year as an English teacher, the country really got under my skin in all the best of ways. Although I loved my students, my school, and especially my Korean co-teachers, teaching just wasn't for me. I had taught for a few years in Ecuador and taught again for another in Vietnam but knew during the school year in South Korea that it just wasn't the job for me.
Many times throughout our year living in South Korea I told my husband that if we was able to get a job here, I'd happily stay. Even now while living in Trieste, Italy, we talk about going back to live another year or two in Seoul.
While it might be hard to move to South Korea if you're like me and don't want to teach, I'll share some tips down below the list of places to live on how to get a visa and some other options. If though, you're looking at teaching jobs in the country, you should be able to find plenty of opportunities in these fantastic cities listed below.
At a quick glance, I'd recommend living in:
Alright, let's dive into these 5 best places to live in South Korea.
Seoul: My Top Recommendation
Seoul has something magical about it me. From all of the cities in Asia that I was able to visit while living in South Korea and in Vietnam, Seoul is my favorite. When I lived in South Korea, we lived just outside of Seoul in Guri. That was simply because of the job I was offered but if I could go back and do it again, I'd want my same school but placed in the heart of Seoul.
Guri was still accessible by the metro from Seoul so that meant we went into the city as often as possible.
Seoul is bright, noisy, and has a vibrant nightlife. I'm still not really sure when Koreans sleep because it felt like they never do. From work to a party back to work again, they go big with whatever they do. By living in Seoul, you'll get to soak up the country's biggest city, full of a lot of shopping, restaurants, and plenty of things to do.
The biggest thing that surprised me about living in Seoul was that the city is surrounded by mountains, mountains which are great for hiking. I'm not typically a big city girl and prefer outdoor activities on most days so I was pleasantly surprised that I could take the metro to a plethora of hiking trails right from the city center.
Since Seoul is so big though, there are plenty of different areas/neighborhoods to consider. A few of the most recommended areas of Seoul to live in are:
- Hongdae: Hongdae is a super fun neighborhood and best for university students or young professionals that want a lively area that is buzzing any hour of the day.
- Itaewon: Itaewon is the most "westernized" area of Seoul thanks to the US military base. There's a lot of expats living in this area. Personally, I didn't like spending time there but it is a really fun area and a great choice to live if you prefer English to be more widely spoken.
- Insa-dong: Insa-dong is one of my favorite places in Seoul. It's trendy and centrally located and offers a lot of boutique shops, restaurants, and bars.
- Seongbuk-dong: Seongbuk-dong is much more residential than others on this list. This is the best area of the city to live in if you want to have a garden and a house more so than an apartment. This is a more likely option for professionals than English teachers.
Another thing that caught me off guard when we moved to Seoul is just how bitter the cold winters can be. (Can you tell I'm not much of a planner?) Seoul gets 4 real seasons with hot summers and brutal winters and everything in between. It might be tempting to bag for everything but shopping in Seoul is a lot of fun so I recommend bringing the basics and buying when you arrive based on the weather.
Busan: City & Beach Life Rolled into One
Busan is the second largest city in South Korea, located in the southern tip of the country on the coast. With large sandy beaches and a more laid-back atmosphere, Busan can be a great place to live if you still want city amenities but not something nearly as hectic as Seoul.
Busan doesn't have as large of an expat community as other major cities do but there are still plenty of English teachers living here. It's easy to navigate around Busan thanks to it's public transportation system and nothing ever feels too far away.
While you might not have heard of Busan (other than the film, "Train to Busan"), you most likely have seen pictures from Gamcheon Culture Village. This is the reason many tourists come to visit the city, leaving the heart of Busan not quite as touristic as Seoul, Jeonju, or Jeju.
The best areas of Busan to live in are:
- Centum City: This neighborhood is located near the city center and Haeundae Beach but has become its own hub for high rise apartments, shopping malls, entertainment, and restaurants.
- Gwangan-dong: Near Gwangalli Beach, this is a popular place for those that want to avoid hanging out in the center around Haeundae Beach. You'll find plenty of beach cafes, restaurants, and nice views.
- Haeundae-gu: Although busy in the summer, this is one of the best family-friendly areas of the city. Your near everything that brought you to Busan to begin with but also have easy access to beaches and hiking trails.
A surprising thing for me when we visited Busan was that the beach culture is totally unlike anything I had experienced before. They actually "close" the beach once summer ends and you're not allowed to go swimming, even on hot days in September. You can still sit in the sand and hang out but you can only go swimming when lifeguards are working and that only happens in the summer.
Busan experiences much more mild winters compared to Seoul but likewise has hotter, more humid summers.
Jeonju: For Culture & Great Food
You'll love living in Jeonju if you're craving culture, history, and incredible food. This is the place for you if you're craving a slice of traditional Korea. Jeonju might not be as exciting as Seoul and Busan but offers you a chance to live in a South Korean city that doesn't have as much international influence and.
Most of the expat community in Jeonju are English teachers so instead of having a real say in the area they live in, they live in apartments provided as part of their employment package. That means there aren't really areas of the city that you should look to moving to but instead you and your friends will be scattered around most likely near the school you're working in.
That being said, there are 2 universities in the city (Jeonju University and Chonbuk National University), each acting like a magnet for international students and expats. They're each on opposite ends of Jeonju and are a bit more diverse than other parts of the city, especially the area surrounding Chonbuk. Here you'll find a range of restaurants, cafes, and nightlife.
If you take food seriously, you'll be happy to find out that Jeonju does, too. Jeonju was named a UNESCO City of Gastronomy in 2012 and have earned the title every since. Experience the best food that Jeonju has to offer at the Nambu Night Market on Fridays and Saturdays or buy from the many street vendors along the streets of the hanok village.
Jeju: For Island Living
Does living on the "Hawaii of South Korea" sound enticing? If so, say hello to Jeju Island. Jeju has a vast and often times sad history which competes with the idea that today it's one of South Korea's top vacation destinations.
You may have heard of Jeju thanks to their mermaids, the Haenyeo. These are female free divers that once were the bread and butter of the island, supporting their families with fruits of the sea. Today, only few remain as this tradition is sadly dying out.
Living on an island like Jeju isn't for everyone but for the right person, it could be a dream come true. In general, Jeju is much quieter than other major cities in South Korea, except for during the summer months when tourists from mainland and other parts of Asia flock to its sparkling sea.
Jeju City (Jeju-si) is capital of Jeju and where most expats will live and work simply because the most opportunities are there. It's easy to travel around the island though but you'll most likely want to have a car or scooter to do so as public transportation can be slow.
Living in Jeju means weekends spent at the beach or hiking, comparatively quiet evenings, and a much more calm lifestyle than living in Seoul or Busan will provide. If you love nature and having personal space, Jeju might just be your favorite place to live in South Korea but do know that the summer months will look very different here than in other times of the year.
Daegu: A Tightknit Community Awaits
Daegu is probably the least-known city on this list but as the third largest city in the country, it has a lot to offer. It's big enough to offer everything any large city does but it's small enough that you'll become part of a tightknit expat community. Although I didn't live in Daegu, it sounds like my time living in Da Nang, Vietnam, just minus the beach but still with the intense heat.
Given it's central location in the country, nothing is too far away. You can easily pop over to Seoul, Busan, Jeonju, or to any of the smaller cities and towns that litter the country.
Like Seoul, Daegu is surrounded by beautiful mountains so it's easy to get out of the city and into nature if you enjoy those fresh air breaks like I do. Thanks to its smaller size, it doesn't suffer from the same air pollution issues as Seoul, Busan, and even Jeju City suffers from.
It's important to know that although many foreigners love living in Daegu, you might experience some issues you won't living in other places in South Korea. Since it's not nearly as touristic, learning Korean will be a bit more important to get by. It's also important to know that Daegu is a conservative city so you might have to think carefully about how you dress and present yourself and know that you might get plenty of stares if you stand out from the crowd.
When looking at where in Daegu is best to live, you might prefer being as close to the city center as possible but most likely, it'll depend on where your school is and the apartment you're given as part of your employment package. Like Jeonju, nothing is too far away so the commutes aren't as big as you might have to face in Seoul.
Before You Move to South Korea
The Reality of Visas
Most foreigners who move to South Korea will do so because of their job, be it as an English teacher or another profession. By moving here with work, you're in luck - your job will take care of your visa and you won't need to sweat the process. Just provide them with the documents they ask for and show up to the appointments they set for you once you arrive.
Moving to South Korea can feel like moving abroad with training wheels on as your employer really will take care of everything, even giving you an apartment to live in.
South Korea doesn't currently offer a digital nomad visa or visa for remote workers. The closest thing the country has for those that don't want to work here but do want to spend more time than a regular tourist visa allows for is their Working Holiday Visa. This visa allows foreigners to stay 6 months-1 year, based on your nationality.
Digital nomads in Asia might be better suited heading to another country, unless you're happy to just spend a few weeks or months here before popping over to the next country.
The Culture & Language Hurdle
There are a few things that you should be aware of before moving to South Korea. First off, do your best with language. It can be incredibly intimidating to learn the Korean language but unless you're only living and hanging out in touristic areas, you'll want to know at least some basic Korean phrases and food vocabulary. I use Mondly to help me with language learning.
If you plan to work in South Korea, be prepared for the intense work culture. Like I said earlier in this article, Koreans work hard and play hard and you'll likely be expected to do the same. Know that not all schools or job environments are the same but do know they expect their employees to take their jobs seriously.
For a little context: I had to get surgery while living in South Korea. It wasn't an emergency but also wasn't avoidable so while it needed to happen, I was able to schedule it. My work, which was way more laid-back than others I heard of, helped me schedule the surgery for Friday after work and expected me back in the classroom Monday. I had 60 stitches in my leg, in a wheelchair, teaching 3 year olds with just the weekend to recover.
In general, South Korea is super safe when it comes to petty crimes like theft. People will leave their phones at bars and come back hours later to find them still there; people commonly use their laptops on the train; and you can leave your bag at your table to pop off to the bathroom.
I did hear a few times though about issues with women feeling safe. I never had any incidents so can't speak from a first-hand experience but I was warned about walking home alone late at night and have heard about women being verbally harassed or followed home.
To end this section on a good note, just like Tokyo, Seoul has a very "cute" atmosphere. There are dancing cartoons lining the street, shops, and even in bars and restaurants. You'll also learn a variety of ways to make heart shapes with your fingers, hands, and arms for when you pose in pictures. People are silly, generally smiling, and are usually eager to let loose and have a good time.
How Long to Stay
How long you decide to stay in South Korea will depend greatly on your visa. Most expats stay for only a year or 2 but I know plenty from my time there that still are living in the country with no plans to leave. If you enjoy teaching or find another job that you love, South Korea can be a fantastic place to call home for as long as you'd like it to be.
Where Will You Live in South Korea?
Of these 5 best places to live in South Korea which city will you choose? Most likely, this decision will be based on your job but by knowing which of these South Korean cities best suits your interests and personality, you can steer your job search in that direction. Regardless of which city you choose, amazing street food, a unique culture, plenty of historical sites, stunning landscapes, and a fun nightlife await you!