Destination in Focus: South Korea
Practical advice on visas, finding a job and a place to live in South Korea, with useful links to Irish organisations, social and business networks and emergency assistance, prepared in collaboration with the Irish Association of Korea.
Prepared in collaboration with Conor O’Reilly of the Irish Association of Korea.
In the past five years, the number of Irish living in South Korea has almost doubled, from around 500 to almost 1000. The majority of new arrivals are university graduates who have come to teach English.
Korea is a very modern country with excellent services. Although the cost of living is rising, it is still a much cheaper place to live than Ireland. The cities are lively and diverse with a wide variety of food available, while the countryside is stunning with skiing in the winter (Pyeongchan will host the Winter Olympics in 2018) and great beaches and islands to travel to in the hot summers.
The expat community in Korea is very active and there are hundreds of clubs and societies catering for every interest. Korea fielded more than ten teams at the Asian Gaelic Games in Suwon last autumn. Being active in these any of these groups is a great way to meet new people from many different countries, including Koreans who are always very eager to be hospitable.
The Irish have participated in Korean life for more than a century, through the work of Irish missionaries, and Irish soldiers who fought in armies under the command of the United Nations during the Korean War in the 1950s. For more information on the history of Ireland and Korea, see the Irish Embassy website.
The Hi Korea website (www.hikorea.go.kr) is the official government website for foreigners, and has links to visa application forms and information on each visa type.
If you intend to work as an English teacher, you need to apply for an E1 or E2 visa.
Other professionals such as lawyers and doctors need an E5 visa.
Requirements for other visa types such as short-term business visas and permits for journalists can be found here.
A one-year H1 Working Holiday visa is now available for 18-30-year-olds following a Work and Travel agreement recently established between Ireland and Korea, but note that you are not permitted to teach English under this scheme.
English teachers are required to provide a Garda Clearance Certificate to prove they have no criminal record, and a copy of their degree certificate. A stamped and sealed copy of your degree transcripts may also be required in some cases. On arrival in Korea, you are required to carry out a health check which includes a drug test, specifically for cannabis, and a HIV test.
The majority of foreigners working in Korea are on temporary contracts, and to get long term residency you need to live there for quite a long time. Even with sponsorship, the majority of visas only last a couple of years.
Find a job
The majority of jobs available to foreigners are in education, both in public schools, privately owned hagwons, or in universities. It is relatively easy to get a teaching visa once you have a university degree, regardless of what subject you specialised in. Salaries and work conditions for teachers are generally good.
Having teaching experience or a teaching qualification can be of great benefit for landing a better job with better benefits such as longer holidays. Even with no teaching experience, there is still plenty of work available with good pay and good conditions, although there is a good chance that you will have to work in the private sector with less holiday time and possibly no centralised support structure to fall back on if problems arise.
Almost 800 E2 visas (specifically for conversational language teaching) were granted to Irish people last year. There is currently no limit on the number available. However, O’Reilly cautions that in the private education sector, preference is often given to American or Canadian teachers, especially for more lucrative positions in wealthier neighbourhoods. Government-employed teachers will not have this problem.
There is no minimum wage for teachers, but the minimum you should expect is about 2 million KRW (€1600) a month. However, if you are contracted with a school they will provide you with accommodation (a small but ‘cosy’ studio apartment) or a monthly stipend for rent.
EPIK (English Program in Korea) is the official government programme for foreign English teachers. Their website lists available positions.
For other education work, see www.worknplay.co.kr, daveseslcafe.com (which has an section on jobs in Korea, including a very active, although pessimistic, forum), or Hiexpat.com. Sometimes these feature non education jobs too.
Work can be found in sectors other than teaching, but it requires a lot of networking in advance of arrival, or face-to-face when in Korea.
For non-education work see koreabusinesscentral.com, a very active and positive business and networking community site with excellent advice and a host of links to online recruitment sites for a wide variety of jobs in Korea.
Income, taxes and healthcare
If you are earning a standard income then taxes are quite low. The largest chunk from your monthly cheque goes into the national pension scheme, which foreigners can now reclaim following a recent agreement with Korea. Think of it as another way of saving.
Healthcare is very affordable provided you don’t get seriously sick – all full time employers have to provide basic health insurance by law.
While it is said that a lot of money can be saved in Korea, this depends on your lifestyle.
Find a Place to Live
Most employers in education will provide teachers with accommodation, usually a small studio apartment or officetel with a kitchen, living space and bed all in one room.
If you are arranging your own place to live, note that the process of renting in Korea is very different to Ireland. A large deposit is required, about 5 million KRW for a small apartment. However, the more you give as a deposit, the cheaper your rent will be, and the deposit is insured by the government so you don’t need to worry about losing it.
For every 5 million KRW you put down on a deposit you can probably add an extra room, although a lot depends on the neighbourhood, the quality of the building, and proximity to public transport/commuter services.
Some apartments are rented completely unfurnished, but officetels often come furnished. There are plenty of second-hand furniture places around, and even then some furniture stores aren’t necessarily that expensive for the basic bits and pieces. You can also pick up some left out on the street for collection. People often offer furniture for free through some of the websites listed in the jobs section above.
The best way to find a place to live yourself is to visit a real estate office in the area rather than looking online. They will show you around a few places to suit your requirements and budget. It may help to bring someone along who speaks the language to help to negotiate the price. Choose the area carefully to ensure it has a wide variety of restaurants, amenities and transport nearby.
Some apartments will charge for heating or electricity on a communal basis, shared among all residents in the block. Some will also charge a management fee. During the winter and summer bills can be quite high with heating and air conditioning, but if you are in a small place they shouldn’t be excessive.
Irish associations, clubs, and other useful links
Irish Association of Korea: www.iak.co.kr
Seoul Gaels (Korea’s biggest GAA club and the host of the 2011 Asian Gaelic Games): www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=570700906
Columban Missions: www.columban.org
Korea4Expats website and forum: www.korea4expats.com
Irish embassy in Seoul: www.embassyofireland.or.kr
The Irish Association of Korea recently launched a new website which covers Irish-related news: www.iak.co.kr
There are too many cultural considerations to list here, but generally speaking most Koreans respect the fact that you are not Korean and may not be aware of how to act in certain situations. If you are polite and friendly, have some cúpla focail in Korean most people will be willing to help you and accept you. When you first arrive, keep your eyes, ears and mind open, and you shouldn’t have too many problems settling in.
The Irish Association of Korea is an independent non-profit organisation dedicated to the promotion of Ireland and Irish culture in Korea. Made up of Irish expatriates, Koreans, and people of other nationalities, the organisation has been in operation since 2000. The Irish Association of Korea organises a number of events throughout the year, most notable of which is the Saint Patrick’s Festival in Seoul; this attracted over 10,000 people last year. For more visit www.iak.co.kr, www.facebook.com/irishassociationofkorea, or on twitter @IrishinKorea.