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A Student's Guide to Living in South Korea

by Mark Bennett

South Korea is geographically central to East Asia and has played an important role in the region's continuing technological and economic rise. Renowned for its hi-tech industries and the international success of companies such as Samsung, Hyundai, Kia and LG, the country is also rich in history and possesses a range of striking geographical features. As a PhD student in South Korea you'll have the opportunity to live and study in hi-tech megacities like Seoul - featuring the world's largest subway network and its fastest internet speeds - whilst also visiting beautiful world heritage sites like the volcanic island of Jeju or the architectural remains preserved in Gyeonggi Province: the capital of the ancient Silla kingdom.

Key facts:

  • South Korea has a population of around 50 million, roughly half of which is concentrated around the greater metropolitan area of the capital, Seoul.
  • The country is governed as a liberal democracy, with an elected President and National Assembly.
  • The climate is seasonal and partly subtropical, with a monsoon period in summer, a warm autumn and substantial temperature drops during winter months.
  • South Korea is an increasingly popular tourist destination, with visitor numbers rising at roughly 10% year on year.
  • The currency is the South Korean Won (₩). ₩1 is roughly equivalent to $0.001.
  • Various faiths (including Christianity and Buddhism) are popular in South Korea, but the country has no state religion and many of its population express no religious beliefs.
  • The official language is Korean. English is also spoken by a large number of South Koreans and taught from an early stage in all schools.

Culture, leisure and everyday life

As a resident PhD student you'll probably find yourself living in one of South Korea's major cities. These include Seoul (the capital, located in the north-west of the country), Daejeon (located centrally and featuring a large science park with a 90ft high IMAX cinema!), Pohang (a vibrant seaport on the eastern coast) and Busan (situated on the southern coast and famous as a hub of traditional Korean culture). Wherever you choose to study, South Korea's excellent advanced transport system will provide easy access to tourist hotspots including ancient temple sites, beautiful beaches and mountain ski resorts.

South Korean customs

Despite its rapid modernisation, South Korea continues to value many of its traditional customs. Some of these are reserved for festivals and special occasions and are well worth experiencing. Others concern everyday etiquette and knowledge of these will be valuable in preparation for your time in the country.

Body language and associated behaviour can be particularly important in interactions with South Koreans. People will probably be forgiving of mistakes when you first arrive in the country - particularly in a university context - but acquainting yourself with some key points of etiquette in advance will demonstrate respect and goodwill.

Formal acknowledgements usually consist of a bow and a handshake between men and a polite nod between women (though non-Korean women may offer to shake hands with Korean men). When shaking hands, respect is conferred by supporting the right forearm with the left hand. Other forms of physical contact should be refrained from, except in situations involving close friends or relatives. Unless otherwise indicated, superior staff at your institution (such as your PhD supervisor) should be treated with respect for their seniority: address them with the correct title and avoid using first names without invitation. In general, pointing to someone with an extended index finger or beckoning them with your palm upward may cause offence. The Rough Guides travel website offers useful information on general South Korean customs and etiquette outside the university.

South Korean sports and leisure

Martial arts such as taekwondo originated in ancient Korea and continue to be popular today. Western sports are also well established, with the South Korean football team enjoying international and Olympic success. If traditional sports aren't your thing, don't worry: in keeping with its tradition of technological innovation, South Korea is also at the forefront of the rise in e-sports and videogames such as the Starcraft franchise are played by many at a professional level.

Artists drawing upon and adapting western popular music have become especially popular in South Korea and the resulting sub-genre of 'K-Pop' has enjoyed substantial international success. Noraebang (Kareoke booths) are also common, so you'll have plenty of opportunity to take a break from research and practice your own 'Gangnam Style!'

Food and dining

South Korean food is particularly varied, with some dishes that you may recognise from other Asian cuisines and many that you won't. Classic South Korean cooking emphasises a philosophical harmony between varied and balanced ingredients, with rice (or 'bap') playing a central role. Dishes are traditionally served and sampled simultaneously rather than in courses. South Korea also has its own tradition of 'Yasik': convenient take-away food, perfect for late nights in the library or lab. This originated in the sale of food by street vendors, but is now operated mainly through restaurants with a wide variety of menus available. If you'd like to whet your appetite for South Korean cuisine you can check out the guides offered on the country's official tourism website. Western style restaurants and cuisines are also becoming established in the country, so you'll have plenty of options to choose from, whatever your tastes.


As with all options for overseas study, you should get in touch with your institution's international office as early as possible and take advantage of their services and guidance. Certain stages of South Korea's immigration system may benefit from sponsorship or representation by a resident national and your university will be able to assist with this if relevant in your case.

Visa requirements

As an international student studying a PhD in South Korea you will typically need to acquire a Visa for Regular Educational Program (D-2). In certain circumstances (usually where your course is focussed upon technical training and / or does not take place at an academic research institute) you may need a Visa for General Training (D-4). If in doubt, your university's international office will be able to advise you.

Application for a Visa should be initiated by contacting a South Korean embassy in your home country. You will normally be required to submit the following documents:

  • A Passport, valid for the duration of your intended stay in South Korea.
  • A completed visa application form.
  • A processing fee, equivalent to $50 for single-entry or $80 for a multiple-entry visa.
  • Confirmation of admission to your programme of study, provided by your institution and recognising your aptitude and financial capability.
  • Certification of your educational record and qualifications.
  • Financial verification, demonstrating that you have resources equivalent to at least $12,000 ($13,000 for residency in Seoul) available for your studies. This can take the form of a current bank balance and / or confirmation of funding or other financial support.

In some cases you may be able to apply for a Certificate for Confirmation of Visa Issuance to simplify and speed up your application process. This can be submitted in place of documents confirming admission, educational record and financial verification, but requires sponsorship by someone within South Korea. Certificates are issued by Korean immigration offices and are valid for three months.


Within 90 days of arrival in South Korea you (or an approved representative from your university) will need to visit the immigration office that oversees your region in order to receive an Alien Registration Card, which you will be required to carry at all times during your stay. The fee for this is ₩10,000 (roughly $10) and you will need to present a certificate of enrolment at your university, your passport and a passport sized photo as part of your application. At this point you should also notify your country's embassy in South Korea of your arrival.

If you wish to leave and re-enter South Korea during your studies you will need to submit a report form through your university, confirming your temporary departure. Absence during the period of your visa should not normally exceed 30 days, but exceptions will be made for travel required to carry out research as part of your PhD or present work at international conferences. In these cases you will need to submit confirmation of the purpose of these absences together with a covering letter from your supervisor.

Health insurance

You will need to register for health insurance at an office of the National Health Insurance Corporation, providing documents confirming residency, visa approval and student status. This will entitle you to medical treatment at all of South Korea's hospitals and costs around ₩21,000 ($20 per month) though the price may vary depending upon employment status.

Accommodation and living costs

Accommodation in a university dormitory will usually be the most affordable option available to you as a PhD student in South Korea. The government estimates costs at between ₩320,000 and ₩1,075,000 (roughly equivalent to between $300 and $1000) per semester, varying depending on the number of individuals sharing a dormitory and the provision of other services such as catering.

Private accommodation designed for students will be available in and around most university regions. The cost for this is substantially higher than most university accommodation, however. In expensive regions rent can be as much as ₩20,000,000 ($18,000) per term and substantial personal deposits may also be required by some landlords. One alternative form of private accommodation is the Hasuk Jip, a form of boarding house. These can cost as little as ₩800,000 ($750) a month, but prices and facilities are very variable.

Your university should be able to offer you some information and advice on the arrangements for its own accommodation as well as the cost and quality of nearby Hasuk and other private options. You should contact them early as you may need advance confirmation of accommodation to demonstrate that you have sufficient financial means to support yourself during your studies.

General living costs

The majority of South Korea is relatively inexpensive to live in, though prices in Seoul can be substantially higher than in other regions.

Most universities will offer affordable catering on their campuses and a meal from these facilities can cost as little as ₩2,600 ($2.50). In general, South Korea's native cuisine will cost less than food from western restaurant franchises, but either should be affordable. The South Korean government estimates the cost of food at roughly ₩300,000 ($300) per month for students using university catering.

Access to South Korea's world-leading high-speed internet services will usually cost around ₩420,000 ($30) per month.


Personal banking in South Korea is available to students and is usually free. In order to open an account you will need to present your passport, together with your residency documents. Larger businesses will usually accept major international credit and debit cards, as will some ATM machines.


Once you have been enrolled for one semester (six months) you will be eligible to work part-time (up to 20 hours per week). Applications for employment will need to be supported by a letter of recommendation from your university and the presentation of your student visa. You should contact your institution for advice on local employment opportunities and supporting documents.

Travel and transportation

South Korea has several international and domestic airports. The largest is Incheon International Airport, not far from Seoul. Travel within the country benefits from a world-leading high-speed rail service, as well as a range of bus, subway and ferry routes. Public transport in South Korea is very affordable so, wherever you choose to study, you'll be able to take full advantage of all the country has to offer.

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