UPDATED to include information about goshiwons.
A quick update to readers here in Chris in South Korea: in case you hadn’t heard, Chris is no longer in South Korea. He’s in Thailand now, exploring strange new worlds and seeking out new street foods. Check out the new blog at Chris in Thailand – www.oneweirdglobe.com/.
OK, so the question was asked on Ask a Korean first, which I’ll quote here:
I’m seriously thinking of moving to Seoul. Do you have an idea of what the budget listing would be for about a 15 week stay in Seoul, a detailed tally of expenses? Are there any other unexpected expenses expats/non-citizens are known to incur?
The Korean, that anonymous blogger who always refers to himself in the third person, ended up having up having to explain that his expenses would be quite different from your average expat. Having lived in Korea for nearly five years, let’s see if I can put some pieces together for our friend here.
To correct some potential misinformation on the AAK! comments thread first. A tourist visa doesn’t cost anything. If you’re from most Western countries, you’ll get 90 days (Canadians get 180 days). Lather, rinse, repeat, if you like. The trick (and cost) comes since the peninsula doesn’t have a viable land crossing, as you might in the rest of southeast Asia. A plane ticket is necessary, and China or Japan are the closest, geographically speaking.
Assuming you have to find this yourself, this is your biggest cost right here. 4 months is an awkward amount of time to be in Korea, to be honest. Since the question doesn’t indicate whether you’ll be a student or what your job will be, I’ll assume that the school or job is not providing you with housing.
Were you in Korea for a year, signing a lease is fairly straightforward, with the only exception being the key money systems. This has been explained before, but the system you’ll most likely see is 월세 (wol-se) – a large deposit (by Western standards) and a monthly rent. How large, you ask? 5 to 10 million won is not uncommon. In some of the more expensive areas of Seoul (e.g. Gangnam, Apgujeong), some realtors have taken to charging a more Western-style deposit of one or two months deposit. This isn’t just done to be Western – it’s because the folks that want to move in there don’t always have $10,000 just laying around gathering interest.
So what to do? I’d look on craigslist – without fail there are expats trying to sub-let their apartment while they go on vacation, or folks that would take a roommate to help pay the rent. Expect to put something down (a month or two’s rent as a deposit), and expect to get either a room or the whole place to yourself. Location may or may not be important, depending if you’re in school or working somewhere, but avoid being out in the sticks if you plan to stay out after the subways stop running.
EDIT: at least one comment received has focused on goshiwon (고시원)- the small, studio-like apartments one can rent while studying or working. I haven’t had many personal experiences with them, but a couple friends have stayed in them. These are the sort of apartments where space is at a premium, much like in a dorm room. You may well get clever with the very limited space, but you may also get frustrated with it as well. If you’re closer to college age, or if you intend to spend most of your time outside the apartment I’d say give it a go. The big benefit to these places are the flexibility and price – they’re cheap, require either no deposit or just a small one, and utilities are either minimal or included in the monthly rent. Walk around the neighborhoods you like, or search for them on Naver Maps.
A big variable – for some folks, this is the area where you can really save some money by enjoying some local goodies. You can safely assume anything imported won’t be any cheaper in Korea, and like anywhere else in the world things tend to cost a bit more in the big city. Prices from Seoul, drawn from recent (March 2013) memory:
McDonalds biscuit set: 3,000 won.
Roll of basic gimbap / kimbap: 1,300 won.
Small carton of milk from the grocery store: 1,000 won.
A roll or something from the bread section: 1,000 – 2,000 won.
Burger set of Lotteria (clone of McDonald’s): 3,500 – 6,000 won.
Bibimbap (비빔밥) at Gimbap Cheonguk (or similar chain): 4,000 – 5,000 won.
Donggaseu (동까스) at Gimbap Cheonguk (or similar chain) - or pork cutlet: 5,000 – 6,000 won
Fruit from grocery store: 1,000 – 2,000 won.
Bag of chips at convenience store: 1,000 – 1,500 won.
Samgak gimbap (triangle-shaped kimbap) at convenience store: 800 – 1,000 won.
(Picture from this older post, still serving good food though)
Nice steak at ‘upscale’ Western franchise: 25,000 – 35,000 won.
12 inch pizza at Pizza School (Little Caesers-like franchise): 5,000 – 8,000 won.
Standard pub grub / pub meals: 9,000 – 16,000 won.
Spaghetti at a trendy place in Itaewon or Gangnam: 12,000 – 17,000 won.
Samgyeopsal (thick slices of bacon): 7,000 – 10,000 won (can vary based on the area – the more foreigners around, typically the more expensive)
Soondubu jjigae (soft tofu stew): 5,000 – 7,000 won.
Street food: 2,000 – 5,000 won.
Again, this one varies widely, and is based entirely on how much you get down, and whether you’re out to get wasted or just enjoy a couple beers with friends. Note that between all the Happy Hours, drink specials, and other opportunities to not pay full price, you may not need to pay full price.
Club admission: free to 30,000 won – varies widely based on the time of night, the pretentiousness level of the club, and whether there’s a world-class DJ inside.
Cover for a live show: free to 20,000 won, with more venues leaning towards 15,000 won for a show with more than a couple bands.
Drinks (for women): free to 10,000 won – varies widely based on the time of night, the current promotion at the club, and so on.
Drinks (for men): 2,000 to 10,000 won – varies widely on whether you want cheap shots of tequila or a pint of imported Guinness.
Drinks (at the grocery store): 1,000 – 1,500 won for a bottle of soju; 1,500 – 2,500 won for a glass bottle of local beer, or 4,000 to 5,500 won for a 1600cc ‘pitcher’ (a plastic bottle); 3,000 to 8,000 won for a bottle of imported brew; 10,000 won for a cheaper bottle of spirits or wine, either of which can get expensive quickly.
Drinks (at the convenience store): 1,500 won or so for a bottle of soju; 2,000 – 3,000 won for a glass bottle of local beer, or 5,000 to 6,000 won for a 1600cc pitcher. 4,000 to 9,000 won for a bottle of imported brew; bottles of wine and spirits (assuming they’re available) are a significant markup from the grocery store.
Shirts (in Dongdaemun, Namdaemun, or another traditional Korean market): 5,000 – 15,000 won.
Shirts (at a department store): 10,000 – 25,000 won.
Jeans (at a department store): 10,000 – 35,000 won.
Shoes (in Dongdaemun, Namdaemun, or another traditional Korean market): 10,000 – 25,000 won.
Shoes (at a department store): 15,000 – 70,000 won.
Ajumma cart (foldable metal cart good for carrying around heavy / large items, often used by the ajumma around town): 15,000 – 30,000 won. Do NOT buy the tiny cheap-ass one from Lotte Mart to carry a 20 kg box, as it will break on you. Learned that one that hard way.
Bike (used, on craigslist): 50,000 – 150,000 won. Do NOT buy one new from a department store unless you like being hosed.
Bike lock: 10,000 – 25,000 won.
Internet connection: 30,000 – 35,000 won a month. You get a small discount from agreeing to a longer contract, and I can’t see them chasing you down for a few thousand won. Any of Korea’s internet companies offer a blazing-fast, all-you-can-use connection.
Electricity: 15,000 – 60,000 won a month. Figure an average of 30,000 – 35,000 won a month, but you’ll use more in the summer and winter. Use the fan instead of the A/C.
Gas: less than 10,000 won (in the summer) to over 100,000 won (POTENTIALLY, in the winter). If you run your heat non-stop, expect some sticker shock.
Water: 5,000 – 10,000 won a month. You’d have to be showering three times a day and watering a fairly large lawn to use more than 10,000 won a month.
Cell phone / hand phone: 10,000 – 85,000 won a month. Expect the lower end if you buy a used / second-hand phone and use pre-paid minutes; expect the higher end if you want a new smartphone (the cost of the phone is broken down into monthly installments, and it’s wise to have the insurance policy for a few thousand won as well)
One-way train ticket from Seoul to Busan on the KTX: 53,700 won (weekday) to 57,300 (weekend). Note that first-class bumps up the price another 30% or so.
One-way train ticket from Seoul to Busan on the Saemaeul (2nd-class train, makes more stops than the KTX): 40,700 won (weekday) to 42,600 won (weekend).
One-way train ticket from Seoul to Busan on the Mugunghwa (3rd-class train, nice older train but makes many stops) 27,300 won to 28,600 won (weekend). Note that you can save a few thousand won in exchange for taking a standing / unassigned seat. For this 6-hour journey, however, it wouldn’t be recommended.
Typical local bus fare (using a T-money or stored-value traffic card) 1,150 – 2,500 won (the red buses and light blue buses connect Seoul to the surrounding province).
Typical subway fare: 1,050 to 2,000 won (they can cost more, but these wouldn’t likely be as typical unless you call ‘typical’ an hour or more away)
Taxi fare: 2,400 won at flagfall for the first two kilometers, with 100 won being charged for every 144 meters or every 35 seconds after that. Note that smaller cities may have a slightly higher flagfall, and in Seoul there’s a 20% surcharge for taxis from midnight to 4am.
OK, long post over – what did I miss? Comments are open.