While Japan and Hong Kong attract retirees and expatriates by the thousands, South Korea, despite its economic strength and modern lifestyle, seems to have been left off the map. This dense country in mainland Asia offers both modern living and a variety of natural attractions, making it one of the continent’s last true undiscovered expatriate locations for foreign residents looking to retire.
Historically, Korea has been passed over in favor of other industrialized Asian nations by retirees and expatriates. Thanks to its cold climate and somewhat insular culture, most expatriates seeking the East Asian experience have instead settled down in Japan, Taiwan, or even Hong Kong, due to the relative ease at which foreigners can settle in those countries and territories.
Despite this, however, South Korea is a great country for retirees. After all, the places that attract the fewest expatriates and retirees often have the most to offer for those ready to dig beneath the surface and truly search for value. South Korea, despite its outward appearances, is a rewarding destination for retirees that are willing to learn some new disciplines and accept some changes.
A small country with just one major population center, life in South Korea very much revolves around Seoul. The country’s capital and its biggest city by a large margin, this mega-metropolis plays host to millions of international visitors a year. Despite this, standards of English are on the low side, and many Koreans speak only basic English for logistical communication.
Seoul is a relatively expensive city when compared to its counterparts in China and Taiwan, but it remains significantly cheaper than other cities of its size in Japan, or when it is compared to Hong Kong. Housing is relatively affordable – a comfortable two-bedroom condominium can be rented for as little as $1,000USD per month – and short-term housing options are easy to find.
Major banks, such as HSBC and Bank of China, are found within Korea, allowing expatriates that have based themselves financially in a territory such as Hong Kong or Singapore, to easily manage their finances from within South Korea. A variety of American and Australasian banks maintain an office in Seoul, making it easy to carry out business from the central districts of the city itself.
ATMs in Korea will accept most foreign cards, particularly those issued by VISA, Mastercard, and Cirrus. However, some visitors have reported difficulties when withdrawing cash from ATMs with their bank cards. Much like Japan, South Korea is a primarily cash-based society, and cards aren’t accepted in a lot of stores, including most convenience stores and large chain outlets.
Medical care in Korea is fairly inexpensive and very reliable, with public hospitals offering a wide range of safe and dependable services. Despite this, most expatriates and retirees choose to ‘back up’ their public coverage with a private health insurance scheme, which allows for access to many of the country’s top private hospitals, as well as more prompt and reliable medical care.
Eating out is the norm, with few Koreans cooking for themselves at home. Because of this, food is inexpensive and incredibly easy to find, with noodle stands and small independent restaurants on almost every street corner. Eating is a major part of Korean life, and the nation’s numerous dishes and unique foods will surely entice expatriates and lead to serious culinary appreciation.
Much like dining out, transportation is inexpensive and readily available in Korea. Both the many districts of Seoul and the city itself – and of course, its many satellite cities – are serviced by train and road. Taxis are inexpensive and readily available, with prices often lower for taxis than they are for the same trip using the metro and regional rail services.
South Korea is a major air hub and as such, accessing the country from elsewhere in Asia is very simple. Flights depart from Seoul for Japan, China, Thailand, and other Asian countries on a daily basis, while many international flights destined for Europe and the United States stop in Seoul as part of a longer multi-stop service.
With some of the world’s fastest internet connections and one of the world’s most advanced mobile phone networks, South Korea is a dream come true for technology gurus and businesspeople. Most internet connections in Korea, even those based outside of Seoul, far exceed the speeds that foreign visitors are accustomed to, making online communications a simple and effortless process.
Likewise, cell phones are used ubiquitously in South Korea as everything from music players to high-tech wallets. Convenience stores accept both cash and cell phone credit, and most purchases can be paid for using cell-based currency. Like Japan, Korea depends on the phone a great deal, and it’s rare to see any Korean leave their home without keeping their smartphone close to their side.
South Korea is rapidly learning English, and as such many foreigners have moved to South Korea in search of teaching positions. Because of this, and the country’s recent tourism boom, a number of services aimed at expatriates and English speakers have appeared, easing the transition to Korean life for expatriates and retirees that choose to make South Korea their new home.
Much like Japan and northern China, South Korea enjoys warm – and sometimes very hot – weather during summer, and frigid, chilled winters. Snow is frequent in winter and daytime temperatures are rarely described as ‘comfortable,’ making the country a poor choice for sun and beach lovers. Aside from this, South Korea’s weather is generally acceptable, and rarely subject to volatile storms.
South Korea currently does not have a retirement visa scheme, although there have been talks about opening up the country to retirees able to meet the minimum financial and legal requirements. Most expatriates in Korea stay using a tourism visa, an educational visa, or a working visa that tends to be linked to a certain profession.
For would-be retirees, this can be a frustrating situation. Thankfully, tour operators based in South Korea will often offer services specifically for expatriates attempting to extend their stay, and will generally offer free online advice. Standard tourism visas for residents of most countries allow for a ninety day stay, after which most visitors will need to apply for a secondary visa.
Religion in Korea generally isn’t a major part of daily life, and the country is liberal and tolerant of all religions. Evangelical Christianity has seen a surge in popularity recently, and many Koreans are keen to identify as Christian. Despite this, public life is largely unaffected by religion and almost all Koreans are supportive of the nation itself being a largely secular state.
Despite its lack of stunning beaches, its relatively high cost of living, and its very difficult language, South Korea is a country that can be very rewarding to expatriates and retirees willing to put in their best efforts. With a modern economy and some of the world’s best communications, this vibrant and interesting country can be difficult to access, but very rewarding for those that choose to retire here.