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Living in South Korea - A Guide for Students

by Mark Bennett

What's it like to study abroad in South Korea?

Offering a fusion of vibrant Asian culture with world-leading hi-tech infrastructure, South Korea is a fascinating country in which to live and study abroad as a Masters student. Opportunities to learn an Asian language and convenient transport links to China and Japan also make South Korea a great place to enhance your CV whilst undertaking postgraduate study overseas. This article provides an introduction to South Korean culture and customs as well as the specific information you'll need to know to enter and live in the country as a Masters student.

Key facts for Masters students in South Korea

  • The academic year in South Korea usually begins in September, but Masters programmes may commence in either September or March.
  • Around 59,500 foreign students study at South Korean universities.
  • South Korea spends approximately 4.9% of GDP on education and 0.8% on tertiary education specifically.
  • The language of South Korea is Korean, written in Hangul script.
  • The Korean term for a Masters degree is 'seogsa hag-wi'
  • The currency of South Korea is the South Korean Won (₩).
  • South Korea has a population of a little over 50 million, around 25 million of whom live in and around the capital city, Seoul.
  • South Korea is officially known as the Republic of Korea. It's government is divided across three branches and is democratically elected.
  • South Korea has no official religion and many of its population do not express any religion beliefs; those that do are predominantly Buddhist or Christian.

Culture, leisure and everyday life for Masters students in South Korea

As a Masters student in South Korea you'll usually be studying in the country for around two years (see our article on Masters Study in South Korea for more information on postgraduate courses and content). This means you'll have plenty of time to take advantage of everything the country has to offer. An excellent transport system means that, wherever your university is based, you should be able to visit attractions as diverse as the volcanic beaches of Jeju Island, UNESCO World Heritage sites such as the Royal Joseon Tombs or the various ski resorts in the country's central mountain regions. Daily life in megacities like the capital, Seoul, will also offer plenty to experience with high-speed internet, innovative architecture and vibrant nightlife.

South Korean customs

South Korea has balanced its rapid modernisation and internationalisation by continuing to value its traditional Asian customs. Many of these form the basis for festivals and celebrations that are well worth experiencing during your stay.

Traditions of etiquette are also important in South Korea and respect for age and seniority is ingrained in the country's culture. This will be important to you when interacting with tutors, supervisors or even more advanced research students within your university. Unless otherwise indicated you should address people using the title conferred by their academic rank and avoid using first-names. Shaking hands is fine and is the traditional formal acknowledgement between men (to confer respect you should support your right forearm with your left hand). Women generally substitute a polite nod, but non-Koreans may offer to shake hands with Korean men. You should otherwise be considerate of personal space and refrain from uninvited physical contact outside of interactions with close friends and family. If seeking to gain someone's attention at a distance, do so by beckoning with your palm downward and avoid pointing towards someone with an outstretched index finger. Travel websites such as Rough Guides can provide you with more detailed information on etiquette outside the university.

South Korean sports and leisure

Korea is the traditional home of various martial arts, including Taekwondo. Western sports are also well established, with the South Korean football team enjoying international and Olympic success. In keeping with its tradition of technological innovation, South Korea is also at the forefront of developments in e-sports and videogames such as the Starcraft franchise have effectively become national sports.

If you live in one of the many countries in which songs like 'Gangnam Style' have topped the charts, you'll probably be aware of the international success currently enjoyed by South Korean recording artists. South Korea itself is a great place to experience the further development of 'K-Pop' or take part in a recreation using one of the country's many Noraebang (Karaoke booths)!

Food and dining

Even with two years of Masters study ahead of you, you'll struggle to sample the sheer range of South Korean cooking. Whilst some of the dishes you'll encounter will be familiar from other Asian cuisines, many won't be and you'll have the opportunity to experience them all within a traditional South Korean dining service. In this setting meals are served and sampled simultaneously, rather than in separate courses, with a focus upon rice (or 'bap') based dishes accompanied by a wide range of different sides. If a late-night in the library or lab keeps you out of the kitchen, don't worry! South Korea also has its own tradition of take-away food called 'Yasik.' 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, the official South Korean tourism website offers more information on Korean cuisine and Yasik. 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.

Accommodation and living costs for Masters students in South Korea

Accommodation options

Accommodation in a university dormitory will usually be the most affordable option available to you as a Masters 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 will be more expensive: as much as ₩20,000,000 ($18,000) per term with substantial personal deposits 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 if predominantly using university catering.

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

Working whilst studying a Masters in South Korea

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.

You can also use PostgraduateFunding.com to search a comprehensive database of small grants available to all postgraduate students. These can help top up your funding if you have any difficulty finding work alongside your studies.

Other useful information for Masters students in South Korea

Of course, there's a lot more to living and studying a Masters in South Korea than finding accommodation, budgeting for living costs and reading up on local culture and pastimes. There are also a few more practical details you'll need to research or arrange before you head off to begin your postgraduate study abroad experience. Click 'read more' for a quick introduction to some of these, including advice on banking, transport and healthcare for international students in South Korea.


International credit and debit cards will be accepted by most major business and ATM machines in South Korea, but opening a Korean bank account is usually free. In order to do so you will need to present your passport, together with your residency documents

Travel and transportation

South Korea has several international and domestic airports offering convenient connections to travel destinations around the world. Internal journeys benefit from a world-leading high-speed rail service, as well as a range of bus, subway and ferry routes. Transport in South Korea is very affordable so, wherever your university is located, you'll be able to take full advantage of all the country has to offer.

Healthcare and medical insurance

Registration with South Korea's National Health Insurance Corporation is mandatory for all residents, including foreign students. You will need to provide documents confirming residency, visa approval and student status. Insurance 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.

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