When Westerners think of Seoul, probably the first things that come to mind are high-tech gadgets, k-pop boy and girl bands, and soapy TV dramas. However, after living in Seoul as digital nomads for roughly 1 year, we look back to memories of fantastic culinary experiences, vibrant cultural events, mysterious palaces, and stunning natural beauty.
We were lucky to have spent the last 15 years working, traveling, and living all over the world. So, when the time came to leave behind our previous home in Hong Kong and move to Seoul, we felt a mix of excitement and regret.
Honestly, while we looked forward to a new adventure, our initial expectations were low. How could any city rival the colorful, expat-friendly, low-tax, sub-tropical seaside paradise that was Hong Kong at the time?
Well, like any good story, the reluctant start quickly blossomed into a passionate and lasting love affair.
This post contains affiliate links. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission at no additional cost to you. Read more about it on our disclosure page here.
Living in Seoul as a Digital Nomad: a complete guide
One of the first things that struck us was how clean and well-maintained everything was in Seoul. Even the parks and green zones were pedicured with mathematical precision. It was refreshing after the organized chaos of Hong Kong and most of the European capitals we experienced before.
Also, you should be aware that Seoul is extremely safe, unlike Western metropolises. I once forgot my wallet in a crowded fast food joint with all my documents and credit cards. Believe it or not, three hours later, when I returned, the wallet was still on the table, exactly as I had left it. Can you imagine this in London or New York?
Documents – South Korea Digital Nomad Visa
As a digital nomad, you can stay up to 90 days by obtaining a Korean Electronic Travel Authorization (KETA). Similarly, Canadians can travel to South Korea without a visa for 180 days.
Currently, South Korea has in place a visa-free online application process for certain eligible countries (you can check the list here) that you must obtain before your trip.
K-ETA or the Korean Electronic Travel Authorization must be obtained before boarding a flight or ship. Here is some useful information regarding the K-ETA visa:
- The approval process takes more than 72 hours, thus it is useful to apply in advance;
- You will need to have accommodation booked before applying for the K-ETA, the address is one of the required information.
- The validity of the K-ETA visa is of 2 years from the date of approval;
- With the K-ETA you can stay in South Korea for 30 to 90 days;
- However, if you are visiting for travel purposes, and plan to return after your first visit, you will have to come back and update your visa with the new hotel address;
- One person can apply for up to 30 persons and can pay for all at once;
- K-ETA price: 10.000 won (around 9-10 USD)
If you plan to stay longer, you’ll need to apply for a temporary resident visa, and a work permit, thus acquiring an Alien Registration Card (ARC). Without it, you can’t open a local bank account or have a mobile phone subscription.
We had a 13-months-long sponsored visa, but the whole process of getting the ARC took well over 2 months. In the meantime, we had no problems using our foreign Mastercard and Visa and buying temporary tourist SIM cards.
Rental – Accommodation expenses in Seoul
Regarding living space, the state highly regulates long-term rental contracts, and the three officially sanctioned contractual options are not financially feasible for stays shorter than 1 year. So, your best bet is AIRBNB (or VRBO). The prices for an AIRBNB are between 800 to 3.000 USD / month for 2 people, so I would say that you can find a decent place at 1.200 USD / month, maybe even lower, depending on your expectations.
Another option is to stay in an expat-friendly serviced apartment as we did. You pay by the month, and the fee includes all the additional services (internet, heating, water, electricity). However, the prices are relatively high compared to AIRBNB, so I recommend it only for more extended stays (3+ months).
We lived in a ~100 sqm, 2-bedroom service apartment and paid around 2.200 USD / month, including all the associated costs, access to the gym, and one underground parking space.
Be aware that selective waste disposal is strictly enforced in Seoul. You must sort your waste by type (plastic, glass, metal, paper, food waste) and dispose of it in special bags, so make sure you ask your landlord about the entire process. Fines are high, so I suggest you pay attention to this.
Internet & Tech
As a digital nomad, you’ll be delighted to know that Seoul is one of the most digitalized cities in the world. There is an app for every aspect of social and economic life to the point that you can’t survive without them. Do you want to buy a coffee? You’ll need a payment app or a contactless credit card, for many places don’t accept cash at all. The same goes for booking a restaurant table, getting a taxi, or paying for the bus or subway trip. Consequently, broadband internet is widely available, so you shouldn’t worry about the quality of your connection.
However, the different apps you’ll need are locally developed. Forget Google Maps, Google Translate, and Whatsapp, and get used to Naver, Papago, and K-Talk. The downside of this situation is the language; local apps are usually Korean-only. Don’t panic, though; Papago can help you translate everything from spoken language to written one. Just make sure your phone is always charged, and you have mobile data available.
Read also: South Korea – General Travel Information
The first time I went out for dinner with a group of colleagues, I realized after we split that my phone’s battery was depleted, and my T-Money card had no money on it. So there I was at -20 degrees Celsius, close to midnight, with no way to order a cab or pay the bus fare. Not to mention that I had no clue where I was, and I couldn’t read the Korean letters at the nearest bus station. I have never felt so lost in my life, and for a fleeting moment, I considered sleeping on a bench until sunrise, so I could walk into a store and charge my mobile.
Read also: What to choose – SIM Card or Pocket WIFI
Luckily, the random bus I eventually boarded (without a ticket) passed by a public square I recognized, so I was able to figure out my location and identify the bus line bound to my home neighborhood. The lesson of my story is that your mobile phone and its internet connection are a life-or-death matter in a highly digitalized city.
Transportation in Seoul
Although a massive metropolis with over 20 million inhabitants in the metro area, living in Seoul doesn’t require a car. Public transportation is amazing compared to many Western cities: affordable, clean, on time, covering the city and broader metro area.
All you need is a T-money card (or app – Traveler SIM and Public Transportation Card) with some money on it. You can buy the physical card from any convenience store and charge it. And, if you plan to visit the mountain resorts or the seaside, Seoul is the central hub of an exquisite train system, including a high-speed variety of express trains.
Get your Traveler SIM and Public Transportation Card here!
Taxi is also affordable; my usual 10-12 km ride was around 10 USD. Still, when possible, I preferred public transportation because it was faster and cheaper (0.9 USD / ride). Moreover, it can be difficult to hail a taxi at 10-11 P.M., when people finish their social dinners.
We had a car but used it mainly on the weekends when traveling outside Seoul. Even so, if our destination could be reached by train, we preferred that because it is significantly faster and more convenient. Also, finding a parking space can be difficult and expensive.
Read also: The comprehensive guide for getting around Seoul: by bus, subway, bike, taxi or learn everything there is to know about driving in South Korea
Food in Seoul & South Korea
Despite its high-tech infrastructure, local life revolves around traditions and rituals. For example, having regular dinners with your business partners, clients, colleagues, friends, or family is a must-have. Fortunately, Korean food is excellent, and I enjoyed every single of my thrice-a-week social dinners (Yep, three times a week!).
This article does not have enough space to describe the different types of restaurants, dishes, and dining rituals, but I can assure you that you won’t go hungry. Korean food is extremely variated, and, as a world city, Seoul offers a wide array of other Asian and Western cuisines. Still, there are a few things you should be aware of.
First, dinner and drinking go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other. And boy, Koreans love to drink, ladies and gentlemen alike. As a strong-spirit-loving East European, I had no issues adapting, but if you are not used to heavy drinking, I suggest you limit your intake. I saw many foreigners pass out on the streets around restaurants and pubs.
Beer is a popular drink together with Soju (Korean rice “wine”) and Makgeolli (a sweet fermented rice beverage). Personally, I am partial to Soju; it goes well with barbecue and traditional Korean side dishes, and it is effective in keeping your blood sugar down in case you are a diabetic like me.
Second, as opposed to Western restaurants, you order only the main dish and the alcoholic beverages; the side dishes and table water come by default. For instance, if you are in a barbecue place, you choose meat (e.g., beef sirloin). Then, the waiter will bring you several side dishes: different kinds of kimchee, probably a tofu dish or noodles, maybe some pieces of crab, a bowl of service soup (it can be hot or cold, with or without noodles, depending on the restaurant) and lots of garlic, hot peppers and leaves (lettuce and grapevine leaves most often).
Since I mentioned kimchee, you should know it is the number one Korean side dish. They are basically fermented vegetables and can come in many shapes: cabbage, radish, and different types of greenery. Don’t let the pungent smell put you off; although a bit spicy, kimchee is absolutely delicious!
Third, Korean restaurants are mostly do-it-yourself places. The waiter will bring the meat or the seafood, place it on the fireplace or induction stove in the middle of your table, and then it is up to you to cook it. Fret not! If you are as clumsy as I am, they will eventually help you out.
Lastly, some tips about the service. When you enter the restaurant, wait until you are seated. Most places have a button on the table, so you should push it when you are ready to order instead of waving. Payment is usually handled on your way out at the reception desk. No tipping is required or expected. Cashless payment is preferred.
Dinner is usually a grander affair than lunch, and the cost in a midlevel place is around 30 USD / person, including alcohol. A fancy place can go up to 100 USD / person while a luxury one…well, the sky is the limit.
Read also: Dining in South Korea – everything you need to know
As for lunch, every office and residential area is dotted with traditional Korean quick-serve places. These are affordable (6-7 USD / person), convenient and satisfying. They usually serve a small variety of soups that come with side dishes of rice, kimchee, tofu, garlic, and hot peppers. My favorites are galbi-tang (short rib beef soup) and hangover soup (it contains ox-blood, among other healthy stuff).
If you are not into soups, one of the widely popular alternatives is the ubiquitous fried chicken places, very similar to American fast foods such as KFC.
Vietnamese places are also popular for lunch, and the Pho is usually good, but unsurprisingly, it is served with a side dish of Korean radish kimchee.
You can also find many good Japanese places. However, they are usually more expensive than Korean, American, and Vietnamese-inspired lunch joints.
Koreans also love their coffee shops. There are countless cozy places where you can work during the day while enjoying brunch, having tea, or sipping your coffee. While many sites have a European feel, the coffee and brunch recipes are more American-inspired.
Read also: 13 Best Korean Subscription Boxes
Entertainment & Fitness
As you probably guessed, socializing over coffee and dinner is perhaps one of the favorite Korean past-times. However, Koreans also love nature, so hiking in Seoul’s mountains, cycling through its beautiful parks or having picnics on the banks of the Han river are typical leisure activities.
Another must-try local thing is the Korean Spa or Jimjilbang. It involves different saunas, steam baths, and salt rooms…we love it! It is relaxing and healthy at the same time. And it is said to make you look younger.
Surprisingly for me, Koreans are also partial to golf. While this is a rich men’s sport in Europe, many middle-class Koreans practice it. Although I was expected to play with several clients and business partners, I confess to having delegated the duty to others since it is not my kind of sport.
Koreans are not really into dancing, but they like singing apart from eating and drinking. Karaoke is huge; most people go out with friends, colleagues, and family to enjoy a singing night. Be aware, though, that they are usually good at it, so if you are a lousy singer like me, you better stay aside.
As a foreigner, you should dress up in traditional clothing, or hanbok, and visit the palaces of Seoul. It is a lovely experience walking the medieval streets dressed like a prince with a princess by your side. Be prepared to be asked to pose for pictures by the passers-by.
Lastly, please remember that the seaside and the mountains are just a train ride away. You can easily go on day trips to many incredible destinations outside Seoul.
Weather in Seoul & South Korea
One last thing you should consider before moving to Seoul is the weather. South Korea has 4 distinct seasons, and the differences between them can be wild.
Winter (December-February) can get very cold and grey even by our East European standards. Because of the high humidity, the cold seems even colder than it actually is. Unless you are into skiing or shopping, maybe winter is not the best time to be in Seoul.
Spring (March-May) is my very favorite. Everything is blooming and blossoming, the days are usually sunny, and the temperature is just perfect. Moreover, it is the cherry blossom season and the best time to visit the historic palaces and parks of Seoul.
Summer (June-August) is hot and humid with a lot of rain. June is still ok, but July and August are rather gloomy and suffocating.
Autumn (September-November) is my wife’s favorite season. The mild sunlight and the colorful leaves lend Seoul a painting-like appearance. This period, along with the spring season, is the best time to live in Seoul.
Summary – Pros and Cons for choosing Seoul as a digital nomad
All in all, Seoul is probably one of the best cities to experience as a digital nomad for the reasons below:
- Good public transportation
- Low crime
- Broadband internet
- Lots of places to visit and things to experience
But there are some cons, depending on your budget and personality.
- Seoul has a relatively high cost of living, comparable to London and Syndey
- There are rules, and everybody is expected to respect them (e.g., no speaking on public transportation, no smoking even outside on the streets in some neighborhoods)
- The language barrier is compounded by the low English language knowledge of the general population