Working in South Korea
The job market
What are your chances of getting a job?
In order to work in South Korea, even on a short-term basis, you need to qualify for a work visa. Opportunities exist in language teaching for native English speakers, as well as in areas such as technology and IT. However, there is often strong competition from home graduates for jobs. Language barriers and tight social and business circles may also limit opportunities.
Some multinational companies have their head offices in South Korea and may be more open to UK graduates. Focusing on the major industries may also be effective, particularly if you have previous related experience.
Korean is the main language and has its own alphabet, Hangeul. English is spoken to a certain extent in business and government, but less so outside the main cities. You may want to consider taking a Korean language course before applying for work. A good network of contacts in the country will also improve your chances.
Where can you work?
- Major industries: automobile production, petrochemicals, electronics, semiconductors, shipbuilding, steel and mobile telecommunications.
- Recent growth areas: biotechnology, internet software and services, and communications.
- Shortage occupations: the country relies heavily on exports and is looking to develop its domestic sectors, such as the service industry.
- Major companies: BP, Daewoo, ExxonMobil, GlaxoSmithKline, Hyundai, Korea Aerospace Industries, KPMG, Samsung, Schroders, Smith & Nephew.
What’s it like working in South Korea?
- Average working hours: 40 hours a week, 8 hours a day, although there is a culture of working very long hours.
- Holidays: 15 public holidays per year.
- Tax rates: personal income tax rates range from 8% to 35% (excluding a resident surtax of 10%). Don't forget to check your UK tax and National Insurance position with HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) to ensure that you are not losing any UK pension rights.
Applying for jobs
Graduates usually find work prior to entering the country to avoid any problems getting a visa.
The application and interview processes in South Korea are similar to those used in the UK. Some companies use a CV and covering letter, while others use an application form. Application forms may be in English when applying to multinational companies, but don't assume this will be the case. Networking and making contacts are also important features of job hunting in South Korea.
Graduates with some Korean language skills may choose to sit the KLPT (Korean Language Proficiency Test), which focuses on the practical communication skills needed to live and work in Korea. This helps you assess your communication ability when applying for jobs.
See Application and CV advice for more details on how to construct a good CV.
Will your UK qualifications be recognised?
UK qualifications are generally well recognised around the world, but check with the employer or the relevant professional body prior to applying for work.
- Gone 2 Korea – provides information and advice for getting jobs teaching English in South Korea
- HigherEd Jobs – search for PhD, postdoctoral, research and lecturing vacancies at South Korean universities
- Job Korea – site and vacancies in Korean
- Saramin – vacancies in Korean
- Seoul Global Center – vacancies in English
- Work-Net – the major public recruitment portal operated by the Korea Employment Information Service (in Korean). Also provides job search and placement information, psychological tests and online career advice.
There are private employment agencies operating in South Korea, and the country is a member of the International Confederation of Private Employment Agencies (CIETT). Word-of-mouth is another way of finding out about agencies.
- The Korea Herald – an English-language newspaper with a section for expats
- The Korea Times – used widely by English speakers
- The Seoul Times – has a section for jobs
- National Job Centre – supported by the government and located nationwide (in Korean)
- British Chamber of Commerce Korea – has links to member companies
- Networking – once in the country, networking and establishing contacts are good ways of finding out about vacancies
Getting work experience
UK graduates generally experience difficulty in finding work experience or short-term opportunities beyond either teaching English or work with voluntary organisations. Approaching multinational companies operating in Korea while still in the UK may provide opportunities.
Work placements and internships
IAESTE (International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience) provides summer placements for science and engineering students in a range of countries, including South Korea.
AIESEC (Association Internationale des Etudiants en Sciences Economiques et Commerciales) provides an international exchange programme for students and recent graduates. They offer voluntary and paid work placements in professional organisations, schools and charities in a range of countries, including South Korea.
Teaching English is one of the main areas of work open to UK graduates. If applying for a teaching position, check that all terms and conditions of employment are clearly stated before accepting an offer and signing a contract. Research the institution or company you're interested in thoroughly and, where possible, speak to other teachers working there before accepting any offer. It's not possible to obtain a visa to teach English in South Korea without a three-year university degree – a TEFL qualification alone is not enough.
UK graduates rarely get casual work and there are very few short-term opportunities for non-Korean nationals.
Do you need a visa?
UK citizens may enter South Korea for up to 90 days for tourist purposes only without needing a visa. (You must have an onward or return ticket.) If you wish to stay for longer or want to work in the country, you must get a relevant visa. It's illegal to work in any capacity on a tourist visa.
Work visas are usually valid for up to three years, starting from the date of issue. Visas are available for various types of work, including:
- short-term employment
- professional employment
- special occupations
- foreign language instructor
- technology transfer
Your visa will specify the type of work you can undertake.
Visa applications are made through the Korean Embassy and must be completed before you enter South Korea. If you've been offered a job in the country your employer should file a work permit application on your behalf. Once this has been approved you'll be issued with a Certificate of Confirmation of Visa Issuance and this must then be submitted, along with a Visa Issuance application, to the Korean Embassy. The work visa application process usually takes about two to four weeks.
If you're staying on a long-term basis in South Korea you must also register with the local immigration office within the first 90 days of your stay.
See Hi Korea for information for foreign nationals on issues such as immigration and work.
If you're not a UK national, contact the South Korean embassy in the country where you're currently living to find out how to get visas and work permits. If you're living in the UK, go to the Embassy of the Republic of Korea.
You might also find it helpful to contact your ministry of foreign affairs (or your own embassy if you're not living in your home country) to ask whether there are any issues to be taken into account when considering working South Korea.
How do you become a permanent resident?
You can apply for permanent residency if you've lived in South Korea for five years. Other people with a right to apply for residency include those with a PhD in cutting-edge technologies and those with abilities in specific areas where there's a skills shortage.
Living in Korea
- Cost of living: generally lower than in the UK. Korean food and restaurants are often cheap, but Western restaurants can be expensive.
- Internet domain: .kr
- Currency: won
- Health: medical and dental care is usually of a good standard but can be expensive. Staff may not speak English. Make sure you have adequate health insurance before travelling and that you have access to enough money to cover the cost of any medical treatment. Although there are no specific vaccinations required to travel to South Korea, some vaccinations may be recommended, particularly if you're a regular traveller or staying in the country for a prolonged period of time. Check with your GP about eight weeks before travelling.
- Type of government: republic with a president elected to a single five-year term by direct popular vote. Power is divided between the executive, legislature and judiciary branches of government.
- Laws and customs: penalties for possession, use or trafficking of illegal drugs (including even small amounts for personal use) can result in long jail sentences and heavy fines. A serious violation of local laws may lead to a jail or death sentence. Homosexual relationships are legal and the gay community, although small, is well established and growing. Make sure you have some form of identification at all times and that your next-of-kin details are entered into the back of your passport.
- Emergency numbers: 112 (police) – has an interpretation service available during working hours; and 119 (ambulance and fire). The Korean National Police operates a 24-hour, 7 day a week central interpretation centre where foreigners can report crimes. Register with the British Embassy South Korea on arrival to make sure that you can be reached in the event of an emergency.
- People: Korean with a very small Chinese community (about 20,000).
- Major religion: Christianity and Buddhism, although over 40% have no religion.