Hello my fellow Americans. Thinking about moving to South Korea?
Whether you need a break from the overwhelming freedom, or just want to know how they do things on the other side of the other pond, this one’s for you.
South Korea differs from the states in ways that range from awesome to mind boggling.
Here are all the things you might find amusing as an American moving to Korea.
Let’s get started!
1. Buzzers in restaurants
Tired of awkwardly trying to get your server’s attention while they take care of more important customers? Just use the ever awesome “call bell” and you’ll be greeted with a doorbell sound and multiple ajumma saying “nnayyyy” in unison.
Best thing ever.
2. Scissors are the duct tape of Korea
As in they’re the all-purpose tool that gets the job done. From cutting samgyeopsal and ramyun packages, they work like a charm.
I find myself using scissors at home when I’m grilling or cutting anything thin enough to wrap those blades around.
3. Tipping is an insult
Well, maybe not that, but they’ll sure be confused as to why you can’t math good or left money on the table. They might even chase you to return your change. If you liked the meal, just say “jal meo-geo-ssub-ni-da”.
4. Sales tax isn’t a math quiz
On the subject of math, you’ll be glad to know that you won’t have to do multiplication in order to buy something. What you see on the sticker or menu is what you pay.
5. Fried chicken delivery everywhere
I don’t just mean there are an abundance of retired old men frying up some tasty poultry, they’ll also deliver it to wherever you happen to be at the time.
The most popular location in Seoul is the Han River. You pick a landmark like a convenient store and in 30 minutes or less you’ll be stuffing your face with the most delicious bird meat in the land.
6. Snacks keep the country running
Fun fact, Korean girls have two weaknesses, tteokbokki and aaany type of corn (remember when Bubba listed shrimp dishes in Forrest Gump? Yes just like that, but for corn). Easiest way to get on their good side. You’re welcome guys.
Furthermore, Korean men offer to buy ice cream for the girl they’re interested in after a night out in college.
Snacks also do wonders for office morale when you bring in some cookies or coffee anytime at work.
I’ve learned a lot about the intricacies of Korean snack culture over the years.
7. Eating alone is for losers
I was often met with suspicion when I tried to get a table by myself in the 2000s. Don’t even think about eating samgyeopsal alone.
Now they’re starting a hon bab (혼밥) trend in an attempt to grab that unhinged solo diner demographic.
No idea what people ate when they were alone. Most likely something from Family Mart while weeping about their failures in life.
8. Drinking in public is encouraged though
No more brown paper bags for you. Let the world see how awesome you are at life.
It’s not just common to sit at a table in front of a convenience store and drink the night away, it’s also loads of fun.
Walking on the beach at night with an inexpensive can of oat soda is another experience I treasure.
9. Checks are cute in Korea
My Korean friends are shocked when I whip out my checkbook to pay the IRS. It’s not my fault I’m super retro.
They’ve had instant bank transfers for about 20 years. Most banks in South Korea don’t even charge service fees. One tried that a few years back and customers nearly rioted.
10. They tell you how much tax you owe
On the subject of the IRS, the National Tax Service (국세청) will tell you exactly how much in taxes you need to fork over.
The e-tax forms are filled out for the most part and if you need help, you can head on over to one of their offices and they’ll do it for free.
No need to play the noonchi game trying to guess what you owe.
11. Apartments are from the future
I’ve never met anyone with a housekey. Keypads with cameras on the building entrance and your front door were the norm from the early 2000s.
There’s nothing more satisfying than asking what someone wants through an intercom while sizing them up on a monitor and telling them to go away.
You can even call your elevator before leaving your house in newer buildings.
Don’t even get me started on bidets.
12. Ovens, dishwashers and dryers don’t exist in that future
When I first arrived in 2006, only the president had an oven and a dryer. OK maybe a few others but I sure didn’t see any.
Newer houses are starting to get them although most Koreans prefer to let nature take care of the drying since it doesn’t wear out the clothes as much. Air fryers are huge in Korea and work as an oven in a pinch.
As you may have guessed, dishwashers will never be a thing in Korea.
13. Kimchi refrigerators are very much a thing
If you ask any Korean if they own one, they’ll say “not everyone has it, but I certainly do”. Kimchi refrigerators are technological marvels with rapid-ageing, preserving and probiotic booster settings.
They’re super high tech like the singing rice cookers.
Pretty much every home appliance in Korea plays a tune that brightens up your day like the talking silverware in Beauty and the Beast.
My stove used to robosplain that “heat is hot” before I turned off the sound.
14. No curfews
When I first arrived in Seoul and saw a bunch of middle to high school students loitering about at 11pm, I thought I was in a rough part of town.
Turns out they were just going to study, seriously.
Hagwons are open late and high school students have study marathon days that last until midnight.
Not sure how much cramming the human brain can handle, but they could probably tell me.
15. Couple style is out of control
It’s not just for honeymoons (although that’s when it’s most common).
I’ve seen Korean couples decked out in full matching outfits. I’m talking socks, shoes, phones and hats. At some point you just have to admire the dedication.
16. Public trashcans are a myth
Throwing out garbage isn’t free in Korea. You need to buy a special bag for that.
Recycling on the other hand IS free, as long as you separate the “vinyl” from the plastic, from the paper from the food waste (they make you earn it).
I’ve walked a mile looking for a trashcan.
Pro tip, just stuff whatever you’re carrying in the trash bags lying on the sidewalk.
17. Air is soupy
Yes, the air quality in Seoul reminds one of London in the early 1900s. You might think there’s a thick fog when you land in Incheon, but no, it’s just progress or deregulation in aerosol form depending on your political affiliation.
Covid wasn’t the only reason why Koreans had no issue masking up.
That being said, if you love the country but can’t stand the air, head down to Busan for a cleaner environment.
18. Winters are no joke
Ah lovely snow in Seoul. So beautiful when it first arrives, so murky when it lingers.
You will get snow in the winter along with minus 20℃ (-4°F) days where the wind feels like razor blades. Koreans joke that the founder of Korea got scammed when he picked out real estate.
19. It rains a lot
Especially in Summer. The climate is becoming more tropical these days, but you get to see little old ladies in some posh rain boots.
20. Umbrellas aren’t just for rain
You’ll see umbrellas or “sunbrellas” out on sunny days too. If you don’t have one as a female, your friends will gently encourage you to do so. Sun is the enemy in Asia.
21. Whitening is big business
When avoiding the sun like a vampire on Mykonos isn’t enough, there’s millions of whitening cosmetics as well as “white” tanning, lasers and injections!
Imagine selling a “whitening” product back home in this day and age.
22. Fans used to kill you, but not anymore
You’ve probably heard that older Koreans think electric fans will murder you in your sleep, but there’s more to it.
Some believe this myth started with an energy crisis.
In the 70s when fuel prices were through the roof, a rumor spread that sleeping with your fan on with the windows closed would exhaust the oxygen in the room. Boom, energy crisis averted.
What you might not know is that fan-phobia started as early as the 1920’s. Probably just some good old-fashioned journalism mixed with technophobia.
Fortunately, the younger generation are hip to the joys of temperature-controlled slumber.
23. Medical care is practically free
I didn’t have insurance for a time (it’s my right to die penniless from treatable illnesses darnit) and paid 10 bucks for a doctor’s visit.
My Korean friends chided me on how I got ripped off. They could have charged me twice and I would have thought it was a good deal.
It’s also pretty cool that I can walk in without an appointment and be seen in 15 minutes.
24. Korean cold medicine is industrial strength
On the other hand, I never went to the doctor for a cold in the states.
In Seoul they’re a different beast. A simple cough would morph into full blown pneumonia and lay me out for weeks.
I went to the doctor after much suffering, and they gave me mystery packets full of pills. They numbed me, wired me and had me back to work that afternoon.
Must keep the machine humming.
25. Petiquette is a big deal
Dressing up your dog isn’t just for rich eccentric ladies in Korea. Everyone is getting in on the action.
You’ll find hardened old men walking the best groomed Maltese or Pomeranian you’ve ever seen.
You might also encounter meerkats as well, because why not?
26. Korean girls hate pigeons
Yes I’m generalizing a bit, but for whatever reason, culturally or it’s just a thing to do, Korean girls loathe the sight of pigeons (sort of like how Anakin hates sand).
I’m often tasked with removing them from the premises.
27. Korean men go all out
A night out for Korean guys is $200 minimum, regardless if they’re a starving student or a jaebol’s son.
Something to do with chaemyeon perhaps?
Bottle service at a club or bar is a must and “standing bars” are a stopover to somewhere fancier.
Basically a night out devolves into a spending competition with your bros. It’s no surprise that many wives take control of the finances.
28. Driving in Korea is a deleted scene from Mad Max
I’ve driven in 10 countries including Georgia with soviet tank bunkers lining the roads and pot holes you could launch a battleship in after it rains; and Australia which is on the opposite side and patrolled by 100-ton road trains that will squash you like a bug without slowing down. Without a hint of exaggeration, Korea is by far the toughest place for me.
For example, the speed limit changes every few kilometers (one mile in freedom units) and turn signals are optional.
In fact, the Korean driver’s license test discourages the checking of blind spots.
Good thing most cars have sensors that beep when you get too close to someone.
29. Riding the bus isn’t just for the unemployed
Seoul is a big city and people from all walks of life take the bus and subway.
It’s not uncommon to *gasp* take your date on the bus.
30. No highway patrol
Yes, they do have highways, but no police cruisers lurking around.
According to the older generations, traffic cops were crooked as a question mark. They would pull you over and give you a choice, pay 20 dollars to the motherland or 10 dollars to them.
It was so rampant they just replaced them with speed traps and cool robots.
31. Smile, you’re on candid camera
Don’t even think about launching your career as a cat burglar in Korea.
Assume you’re being recorded by CCTV every moment you’re in public. No one’s actually watching these (I hope), but they can be called up in the event of a crime or traffic accident.
Koreans on average think this is totally normal by the way.
32. Finders keepers will get you locked up
Absent-minded people rejoice. If you forget your wallet or purse in Korea, they’ll either be left untouched for hours or someone will hunt you down and give them back. Kind of like Liam Neeson from Taken if he were a good Samaritan.
Why you may be wondering? It’s straight up illegal to take them. And with the aforementioned ever-present nanny state, you’ll be easily identifiable on camera. A friend of a friend found her stolen Louis Vuitton bag in a day.
33. Reefer madness 2: Park Chunghee’s revenge
Don’t mention your recreational habit, unless you want to look like a straight up junkie. Thanks to Park Chunghee’s counter attack on the counter culture movement in the 70’s, the average Korean regards it as a serious crime.
It’s actually illegal for Koreans to partake, even overseas.
34. Police are chill
I thought police officers were Boy scouts when I first saw them. They’re lightly armed and aren’t driving Humvees around.
I even deign to ask them for directions on occasion.
35. The truth will get you in trouble
Defamation is illegal, even when it’s true. As are insults. Keep your opinions to yourself or among friends.
If you must swear, do it to the sky and not at someone.
36. Bodies of water are actively trying to kill you
Swimming in a light fog will have the entire coast guard chasing you on jet skis and boats while blowing whistles. It’s enough to make you feel like you’ve made the FBI’s most wanted list.
You’ll notice other idiosyncrasies where safety is obsessed over and where it’s completely ignored.
37. AI is taking over the country
Koreans love their technology and adopt it quick.
You’ll notice that robots are doing all the human jobs like frying chicken. Even the convenience stores have self-checkout.
38. High tech elevators and superstition
Korea has some fancy elevators that are anti-virus, anti-bug and equipped with CCTV, and yet there’s an “F floor” instead of 4th. The number four sounds like death in Korean and is their equivalent of 13 in English in terms of bad luck.
39. Shopping is different
I love seeing how different shopping culture is in other countries. Korea has tons of skincare shops, but places like CVS, Best Buy and Home Depot don’t exist.
Guys should bring their razors and supplements. Ladies might want to stock up at Victoria Secret because sizes are different (same goes for makeup if your skin tone doesn’t match that of the local populace).
Definitely bring enough prescription medicine to last the year. They have tons of doctors, but they might not carry your medication.
No need for skincare, because they’ve got you covered.
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