I moved to Korea in 2013 to study and live there for 4 years.
When I arrived I spoke about five words of Korean, could barely read Hangul (and my reading speed was painfully slow), and really had no idea of what I was getting myself into. Looking back, I think that I grew a lot just in the first few months, learning what to do and what not to do, and figuring out basic phrases to survive (because ordering coffee is essential to survival). I don't consider myself an expat or an expert, but I do have a lot of things I wish people had told me before my moving day. Even with my YouTube learning spree, there were things I didn't quite know would be so crucial to living my best life in Korea.
1. How important it is to have a T-Money card ASAP, and where to buy one
"T-Money" is essential to living in Korea, especially if you're in or around a big city. Giving cash to bus drivers, which usually upsets them, and buying subway tickets for each trip took a tole on my morale, and on my cash supply.
What is T-Money?
T-Money is usually in the form of a card, but there are also bracelets, keychains, bank card connected ones, and you can use some smartphones for it as well. If you don't speak Korean well and don't have someone to help, the best and easiest way to use it is via card. When I arrived I knew what T-Money was, but I didn't know where to get a card. I ended up buying tickets and paying cash on the bus for the first month or so until I got my hands on one. You can buy T-Money cards in almost any convenience store, and in some subway stations where there are huge charging/vending machines.
Only a few places let you charge T-Money with your debit/credit card, so you usually want to take out a bit of cash and load it up so you can use the card for at least a few days at a time. You can charge them in convenience stores, charging machines in subways, and even some magazine stalls will have the device as well.
2. Registering and Using Phone Points
You need a phone for doing almost anything in Korea. Your phone number is like an all access pass for getting membership cards, bank accounts, using PC rooms, etc. One mistake I made was that I didn't register for membership points with the phone company when I started my plan. I could've saved probably $200-$300 on my bills over time if I had saved up and used them. Try to find a buddy who speaks Korean, and ask them to help you set this up with the company to get the most out of your phone.
3. What apps to download (Naver Map, Kakao Bus, and the Subway app)
Never want to be lost? Because I got lost several times, especially the first couple weeks I was in Korea! I took one wrong bus when I was in a hurry, and I ended up on the other side of town at night, not knowing Korean, and not having a working phone. I was damn lucky that a lady helped get me a cab to take me to the right spot, but I wasted time, money, and sanity because of that.
Google Maps didn't work in Korea when I arrived, so I had to find an alternative. Now it's possible to use Google Maps, but it's also a good idea to have Naver Map as a back up, especially since many Korean websites will automatically try to open the app when you click on an address. Also, get to know your map apps before you arrive, and not when you're frantically looking for directions. You can use the Naver Map website or download the app. You'll want to learn how to type in Korean as well, to put in some addresses, but a lot of them will work with the romanized versions for searching. You can look for other apps as well, and find one that you like most.
Kakao Bus/Naver Bus
Another useful app is a bus app. You'll need to check and update it regularly for when bus schedules change, which has happened to me before when I didn't double check in the app. I used a different bus app before, but then Kakao Bus took over the scene and I ended up switching.
You can check the bus numbers for where all the busses stop, check stations and get their location on a map, as well as see which busses stop there, and keep track of arrival times so you don't miss your ride. I would favorite the busses I took often so I could keep track of them easily. This also takes a degree of skill in Korean, but you can manage if you can just recognize names of places (and are able to type them) and match those to bus stops. Busses can be really intimidating and confusing at times, so having an app that tells you if you're at the right stop and going the right way will help out big time.
There are also several subway apps to choose from, but the most popular one and most regularly used one will be at the top of your search in the app store - Subway Korea. Just like the bus app you'll want to update regularly to make sure you have the most recent information. You can simply type in or click on your start and end locations and it will tell you exactly what to do to get there, and let's you choose from different suggested routes. It can even tell you which cart is the best for transfers and let's you know the train times and when the first and last trains are.
This app is available in English as well, but I usually set it to Korean once I was more comfortable with the language. Again, there are other subway apps to choose from, but this is my personal favorite.
4. Have parallels installed or a PC to do certain things with.
This is for Mac users like myself.
Internet Explorer and PC are king in Korea. A lot of school and government websites won't run properly if you don't use that combo. If you don't have access to a PC in any way, think about installing parallels on your computer to run as a PC for those times you really need to access that website. You might need to find a download of old IE as well for some websites (which sucks, I know).
You might also want to invest in a VPN like Hola, or many others. This will help you in accessing sites that you need to as well, especially sites from your home country. You can get them on both your phone and on your computer.
5. Prepare all documents possible in advance, hard copies and digital
If you're working in Korea, going to school there (or both) having documents ready will save you so much trouble. I didn't have multiple copies of everything so once I gave my documents to the school I didn't have any for other places that would need them.
Always have at least one copy of every document on hand and on file if possible.
It sounds a bit motherly of me to stress this, but you really do want several of everything because it will save you so much time and stress in the long run! I forgot to scan some of my documents, like medical records, and getting a second copy took a lot of time.
And when it comes to ARC paperwork double and triple check that you have everything you could possibly need before going, to make the trip as short and easy as you can. (And make sure you have extra cash on hand as well for the fees!)
Living in a new country is tough, but you can make it easier.
Getting all the information that you can, like this blog post you're reading now, is really important because you want as little surprises as possible when you make the big move. Once I had everything settled I was able to really enjoy my time there outside of school, traveling around and having nice meals with friends. I think my experience in Korea will stay with me forever, and I also think that I am so incredibly lucky to have been able to go. So even looking back and seeing the little things I could've done better, I know that living in Korea was never a mistake.
See you next time,