Cost of Living in South Korea: A Guide for Potential Expats

March 22 , 2021 by: Kim Walker

You might have come across Seoul in a list of the world’s most expensive cities, but don’t let that put you off. The South Korean capital can be quite costly but not nearly as much as its Japanese or Singaporean counterpart.

However, life beyond the capital isn’t quite as expensive, with rents dropping down to a staggering 50% monthly. In pretty much any other city – and even in the countryside – ex-pats can expect to make a pretty decent penny, without necessarily having to live on a tight budget.

Today, we will be talking about the cost of housing, utilities, medical expenses, transports, food, education, clothes, and entertainment. And hopefully, by the time you are through with reading this article, you will be able to make a more informed decision about your move here and what to expect.

Without further ado, let’s get started!

Cost of Housing

As in most countries, the largest portion of income will also go into paying rent in South Korea – especially if you choose to live in the capital. The cost of everything else is fairly similar throughout the country, the biggest difference is, in fact, rent prices.

The average rent for a 1 bedroom apartment in Seoul is 950,000₩ ($850). Even if you decide to live further away from the city center, the same type of accommodation will cost you roughly 660,000₩ ($590). And, at best, you can expect these places to be a small studio with a loft you can sleep in!

The prices hike up exponentially when it comes to finding larger housing, with an average of 2,725,000₩ ($2440) each month to rent a 3 bedroom apartment in the center, and 1,420,000₩ ($1270) on the outskirts of town.

However, if you choose to live in another Korean city, such as Busan, Daegu, Jeju, or Daejeon, you can save pocket nearly half of what you would pay each month in Seoul. The average rent for a 1 bedroom apartment in these regions is as low as 450,000₩ ($400), even lower further away from the downtown area, only 290,000₩ ($250).

And if you will be living with family, you can expect an average rent of 1,300,000₩ ($1160) for a 3 bedroom apartment in the city center, or just 975,000.00₩ ($870) further away.

Living in a house with a garden is a commodity reserved only for the wealthiest, as most people live in small apartments – except maybe for the elderly folk, deep in the countryside, that are still able to maintain their traditional homes.

You also can expect to pay less or more depending on the district you choose to live in, and whether the building is older or more modern.

Cost of Utilities

The cost of utilities in South Korea varies greatly not depending on location but the season, instead. This is because, in the winter, most Korean buildings will have their underfloor heating system running and, in the summer, the much-needed AC units.

You can expect to pay roughly 150,000 ₩ ($135) each month on electricity, water, cooling, heating, and garbage per month, with the cost lowering significantly in the spring and fall. And note that newer apartment buildings will also charge a condo fee, which includes the cost of shared electricity (garage, elevators, hallways), cleaning, and maintenance.

You can expect a basic TV and Internet package to set you back anything between 30,000₩ and 50,000₩ ($25-$45). Phone service cost starts at 30,000₩ ($25) for the cheapest packages, climbing up to nearly 100,000₩ ($90) if you want to make sure to stay well-connected at all times. Although South Korea is known for having fast internet, communication companies haven’t caught up and still charge a hefty amount to mobile users.

Medical Expenses

South Korea actually has a great public healthcare system. Residents get a portion of their income deducted each month towards the National Health Insurance, which is calculated based on earnings. In turn, they can enjoy inexpensive treatment and consultations, with the NHI covering up to 80% of medical fees.

Private health insurance isn’t much more expensive than the public system, standing at around 115,000₩ ($100) each month. Some people choose to support this extra expense as private insurance can cover costs that public health insurance does not.

Expats who come from wealthier countries, like the United States, often choose to simply pay out of pocket as the fees for seeing a doctor, getting examined, and for a prescription are ridiculously low when compared to back home.

Cost of Transportation

A standard bus or subway journey costs anything between 1,000₩ and 2,000₩ ($0.9-$1.8), depending on the distance, but all transfers are free. Each trip will cost you even less if you purchase a refillable transportation card, which can be bought in any convenience store for as little as 2,000₩ ($1.8).

In the darkest hours of the night, the bus and subway will not run, so taxis might be the only way to get home. Taxis are quite affordable in South Korea, with a base fare of 3,500₩ ($3) during the day. After midnight, taxi fares will go up, but they cost the least after 4 am. Sometimes, you can get halfway across town for only 15,000₩ ($13)!

When traveling between major cities, your best options are coach bus or KTX train, which can cost between 20,000₩ and 60,000₩ ($18-$54), depending on which you pick and how far you are going. On off-seasons, plane travel can be an option too, especially if traveling to Jeju, with fares setting you back as low as 30,000₩ ($27) for a roundtrip departing from Busan.

And, in case you will be driving your own vehicle, a liter of gas will cost you roughly 1,500₩ ($1.34) or just under 6,000₩ ($5.40) per gallon.

Sher Lyn on Pexels

Cost of Food & Drink

Most Koreans prefer to eat out, especially during their lunch break from work, not necessarily to save time but money, as an average meal costs way less than the groceries you would need for it. To give you a rough idea, you can expect to pay around 2,000₩ ($1.8) for a decent kimbap, and somewhere between 5,000₩ and 7,000₩ ($4.5-$6.3) for a small meal in any small establishment. Regular traditionally Korean restaurants don’t usually charge much more than 10,000₩ ($9) per person. But if you get a craving for foreign food, be ready to drop at least 20,000₩ ($18), depending on the category.

If you do go grocery shopping, you will find that most things are reasonably priced. A carton of milk is only 2,500₩ ($2.25), a dozen eggs are 3,500₩ ($3.1), and a pound of apples will cost you the same. However, fresh fruit, red meats, and even rice can get quite expensive – which is why most people prefer to go out for these.

If you enjoy the occasional alcoholic beverage, you’ll be happy to know that there are inexpensive soju bars and pubs all over. You can even easily buy imported beers at the convenience store, for as little as 3,000₩4,000₩ ($2.7-3.6), and a bottle of soju for less than 1,500₩ ($1.3).

Keep in mind that most traditional Korean bars will expect you to order at least one dish from the menu, some even refusing to sell you alcohol if you don’t. The same does not apply to cocktail bars, which aren’t as cheap but not more costly than anywhere else in the world.

Cottonbro on Pexels

Cost of Education

One thing to note about South Korean society as a whole is that they highly value education. The cost of enrolling your little ones in school will vary depending on where you live, but foreigners are free to attend any school in South Korea, public or private, religious, and international. The latter is definitely the most expensive, but public schools are free to attend, provided that your children know sufficient Korean to be able to attend and understand classes.

Private education costs between 15,000,000₩ to 45,000,000₩ ($13,400-$40,200) per year, with international schools starting at around 25,000,000₩ ($22,000). Daycare is not mandatory as most mothers still stay at home with the children, so it can cost anything between 250,000₩ and 500,000₩ ($225-$450) per month. The younger your children are, the more you can expect to pay.

In the matter of university, tuition is significantly lower than in North America but way more expensive than in Europe, for example. On average, undergraduate tuition for a semester costs anything between 3,000,000₩ to 6,000,000₩ ($2,700-$5,400) – depending on the major. Postgraduates pay only a bit more than that.

Junko Nakase on Unsplash

Cost of Clothes & Entertainment

It’s hard to pinpoint the price of clothing exactly as fashion is subjective, but there are a lot of small outlets and underground clothing stores that will charge as low as 5,000₩ –20,000₩ ($4.5-$18) per piece. Keep in mind that these stores sell with Asian sizes in mind, so if you’re a taller or bigger person, you’d probably do well to shop at western or global brand stores. In these, you can expect to pay roughly the same as you would back home or only a little more. The same applies to bigger shoe sizes, especially women’s.

There are plenty of luxury brand stores and it’s not unusual to see Korean people sporting Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Chanel, etc., on any given day. Feel free to join in if you can afford it, but you should know that there is a ‘luxury tax’, which adds to the final cost – especially when jewelry is concerned.

Cinema tickets are usually 10,000₩ ($9) per person, with snacks costing just as much. Some credit card or affiliation card companies have deals with the major cinemas, and that can save you quite a bit if you are a film buff.

Karaoke rooms (the infamous noraebang) are pretty inexpensive, with some individual booths charging only 1,000₩ ($0.9) for three songs! And in larger rooms, you can usually bring your own food and drinks if you rent by the hour.

gym membership can cost anything between 30,000₩ to 100,000₩ ($27-$90) depending on the plan you pick and the facilities they offer.

Finally, you can spend a whole afternoon in a PC bang (or net cafe) for as little as 5,000₩ ($4.5), and even get drinks and snacks delivered to your desk without paying more than you would at any convenience store.

Karolina Grabowska on Pexels

Monthly Estimates

To give you a general idea, the average monthly salary is just above 2,000,000₩ ($1,800), which will vary depending on the profession, of course.

Taking into account housing, utilities, transportations, food, medical, and other expenses (not including education), here’s an estimate of how much you can expect to pay each month:

*These amounts are merely indicative and can vary greatly depending on how many people will be living together their lifestyle, and budget.

We hope this article is helpful in assisting you to plan for your move to South Korea. In case there is anything we didn’t cover on this cost of living post, feel free to leave a question in the comments below and we will do our best to answer you accurately.

Good luck!


Filipa Alves

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