The basics
South Korea: Before you leave

International student survival guide to South Korea

Want to study in Korea? We tell you the ins and outs of this unique country and how to make the most of your stay here.

796

With the Hallyu wave slowly, but surely gaining momentum all across the globe, it’s no surprise that South Korea has become increasingly popular as a student destination. In fact, according to KTO (Korean Tourism organisation), the number of tourists coming to Korea has increased on average about 10% every year.

South Korea is famous for its kimchi (salted and fermented vegetables mainly cabbages and radishes) and is also home to a plethora of cosmetics and makeup for all skin types, fashionable clothes and drop-dead gorgeous celebrities. Top that with fascinating geological wonders and cutting-edge technology, South Korea has something for everyone.

Bursting with economic activity with successful international brands such as Samsung, Hyundai, Kia and LG, this country is also steeped in history, tradition and natural landscapes.

You study in megacities such as Seoul (located in the north-west of the country) that boasts the world’s largest subway network and really fast internet speeds, other major cities include Pohang (a seaport and major industrial city on the eastcoast), Busan (on the southern coast, famous for their nature reserves) and Daejon (centrally located with an impressive science park).

No matter which city your study abroad adventure takes you, there are a few things that you’ll need to know about South Korea before you get there.

 

South Korean customs

As a largely monolingual and mono-ethnic society, there is a strong sense of shared culture among the South Koreans.  Like any other country that has a different culture from yours, there are bound to be practices and values that will vary from your own. South Koreans are a respectful bunch. The elderly are treated with deference and dignity. The social hierarchy is such that you always need to be respectful to anyone that is older than you. Bowing and nodding demonstrate respect and goodwill, what’s more you’ll impress your South Korean classmates! Even when shaking hands, the right forearm is supported with the left hand. Avoid using first names unless you’ve been given express permission to do so.

 

South Korean table manners

Ok, there’s a lot to remember here!

Here are the things that you should do to maintain South Korean table manners -

  • Ensure that you wait for the eldest person to start eating first
  • When pouring alcoholic drinks for others, do it with two hands
  • When having your alcohol poured for you, use two hands to hold your cup
  • Traditional Korean meals consists of dishes that you share with the rest of your table and your own serving of rice and soup. Place your chopsticks and spoon on the right of your soup dish (either on a napkin or a chopstick holder), then place your rice to the left of your soup bowl
  • The same way the Japanese say ‘Itadakimasu!’, the Koreans say “Jal meog-gaet-seum-nida”, loosely translated, they mean: Bon apetit!
  • Accept the first drink of alcohol (even if you’re not a heavy drinker), you can respectfully decline subsequent offers
  • Make sure that you match everyone else’s eating speed. Eating slower or faster than the rest of the table is considered rude

What you should NOT do -

  • Don’t get someone to pass you a dish, reach across the table to get it. It’s considered rude to request someone that is eating to pass you what you need.
  • Don’t blow your nose at the table
  • Don’t leave the table until the eldest person has finished eating

 

Learn the Korean language

If you’re like me, who watches Kdramas and their variety shows with subtitles, then it pays to master these few basic phrases (below) to being with. Of course, as with any foreign country where English is not their national language, we highly recommend for you get a head start by picking up a language course in your area before flying off. There are also many apps available on both the Apple store and Google Playstore for you to use to learn Korean and translate those strange looking characters. On average, you can expect to have about 25-30% of your classes conducted in English. So it will still be beneficial to learn Korean in order to communicate with your fellow students and professors.

Basic Korean phrases

Eol ma ae yo? (How much is it?)

An yong ha sae yo. Jeo nun (Alex) im ni da. (Hello, I am Alex)

Ireumi mwoyeyo? (What is your name?)

Je ireumeun (Alex) imnida. (My name is Alex.)

Ne (Yes)

A ni yo (No)

Mashi soyo. (It’s delicious.)

Ko-pi (Coffee)

U-yu (Milk)

Sul (Liquor)

Soe go gi (Beef)

Pi-ja (Pizza)

Ju-Bang (Kitchen)

Jeo eun (America)eseo was eoyo. (I am from America.)

Joesong hamnida (Sorry)

Kamsahamnida (Thank you)

Yeong-eo hal-su is-seoyo? (Can you speak English?)

Hangu georeul jogeum hal su isseumnida. (I can speak a little bit of Korean.)

Han gukeo mo tae uo. (I can’t speak Korean.)

Sil lae hab ni da. (Excuse me.)

 

Things you need to know about being an international student in South Korea

South Korea has strict recycling policies, so it’s best if you can get reusable recycling bins to sort your trash before you throw everything into the dumpster on the first floor of your apartment. This may come across as common sense, but the South Koreans are very civic-minded people. Don’t litter and always give up your seat for someone who is pregnant or the elderly.

Make an effort to socialise. During lunch break in school, find a table with familiar faces or sit with your seniors (Sunbaes). Sitting alone during lunch isn’t seen as a good thing; even though in most countries, sitting alone signifies independence, that is not truly the case in South Korea.

In South Korean universities, when you join a club or society, there are compulsory MTs (Membership Trainings) that you have to attend. The purpose of these MTs are to help freshmen better integrate into their surroundings where they get to know fellow freshmen and their sunbaes.

 

Concept of “Naeri sarang” (Descending love)

The culture of seniors and juniors are a real things in Korea. Sunbaes will often treat their hubaes (juniors) to meals, and expect their hubaes to call them when they’re in need of advice. You receive all the help and love from your seniors in your junior year and are expected to pay it forward to other juniors when you become a senior.

 

Part-time jobs abound

There are a lot of opportunities for you to obtain part time work. Most South Korean university students work to help pay for their tuition or extra money to go out and have fun. Universities often hire their own students for various jobs around their campuses. As an international student, you might have more unique work opportunities within your university than outside. However, if you can’t seem to find a suitable job in school, you could always tutor others.

 

Stay calm and adapt

As with any study abroad experience, you will experience culture shock, no matter how well you prepare yourself for it. It’s not impossible to adapt quickly to the culture though, and by staying calm and learning to simply go with the flow, your study abroad experience in South Korea will go swimmingly!

Hwaiting!

 

Want to study in Korea? Check out the courses available here!

 

Useful links

Student accommodation in Korea

Career in Korea

Korean tuition fees

3 scholarships to get you started in Korea

 

Search for a course

South Korea
Study level*
About Author

A fan of anime and all things Japanese, Khai has been writing professionally since 2010 and “unofficially” for much longer. In her free time, you will often find her baking, reading, travelling and doing everything else in between.