You need to bring “survival money” with you for your first month in Korea. You will have orientation for about 2 weeks and then start your new job. If you are coming to Korea in February, you will only be paid at the end of March — after your first teaching month. This means that you will need money for 5-6 weeks. It sounds like a long time, but here’s the bonus:
- You will be fed at orientation, so you ONLY need money for things like socializing and buying international calling cards during your first two weeks.
- Once you start teaching, you will get a big (and I mean BIG) lunch at school every day. Sure, you might not like Korean food yet, or not be used to it, but it keeps your belly full. Which means you won’t have to spend too much on groceries.
The average teacher will come to Korea with US$1000. If you are not going to go out drinking fancy cocktails every night, this is definitely enough. Be smart about where you eat / what you eat / what you buy during your first month and you’ll probably have some spare cash by the time that first fabulous payday arrives. If you eat and drink cheap (500cc beer: $2 vs. cocktail $8) you will be okay! Don’t go to Outback Steakhouse because you miss meat. A steak on a lunchtime special will cost you at least $20. You can have Korean BBQ (called Samgyeopsal) for about $5 each. Don’t worry about gaining or losing weight the first month. If you eat noodles for a week before you decide to be adventurous, then so what.
How should I bring $1000 to Korea? Please note that this is my personal opinion.
It is not possible (or super difficult) to get Korean Won in South Africa. You need to bring USD and exchange it to KRW in Korea. The best way is to bring some USD in cash and keep the rest as travelers cheques. There are other options, but here’s what I don’t like about them:
- Bringing $1000 in cash: Sure, Korea is super safe and crime is low, BUT you are not sharing a university dorm with 300+ Koreans. You are sharing a university dorm with 300+ foreigners from all over the world. Criminal checked or not, I think bringing $1000 in cash is just plain stupid. Also, if you exchange $1000 at the airport, you will receive: a) a bunch of 50,000won notes (20+ of them) which none of the store owners would want to accept. It’s like buying a wilson toffee with a R200 note. or b) a staaaash of 10,000 won bills. Seriously I paid my laptop (1,200,000won) with 10,000 won bills once. It’s not fun.
- Using your credit card from home: Possible, if you have one – Impossible if you don’t. I went to the bank to apply for one before I came to Korea. With the new credit act, they don’t allow us to travel to countries with our credit cards for such a long period of time anymore. :( Something about racking up a huge bill and never returning to South Africa… Also, you won’t want to buy the Wilson toffee with your credit card either… It’s not a completely bad idea bringing your SA credit card, but be sure to bring some cash too. Be sure to have enough money in SA to cover your credit card bill at the end of the month so that you are not pressured to figure out how to transfer money home so soon after your arrival.
- Using your debit card from home: Dooooon’t!!! ABSA will charge you R40 per withdrawal — that is IF you can find an ATM that accepts your card. (More on this – check #4) Cards from home should be chipped. Some teachers have had major issues with “old” cards that were not chipped. Sometimes they also block your card when it has been used abroad – as a security measure.
- Travel cards, like Rennies / Bidvest / Travelex: No. No. No. No. No. As I said, my opinion, but this is probably the worst of the lot. Global ATMs are not on every street corner and even the Global ones don’t always accept the cards. Your best bet for a “global” ATM would be convenience stores (Family Mart, GS25 or 7-Eleven) but this is not always guaranteed. I think my boyfriend and I tried about 8 different “global” ATMs before we found one that accepted his Rennies card. A close friend of mine used his Bidvest card at the local E-mart. He bought a whole lot of things for his apartment. When he checked his Bidvest balance online, the amount (just over $300) had been deducted twice. Unfortunately, the E-mart records show that they only received payment once. So that $300+ is floating somewhere to this day. $300 x 2 is a lot if you only brought $1000!
Soooo the winner is?? Travelers’ cheques. They might be old fashioned but it was sooo easy. I brought about $300 in cash and $700 in travelers’ cheques. (If I remember correctly it was recommended by TeachKorea at that time… not too sure…) The $300 was more than enough to cover my time at orientation as well as the first week or so in my apartment. My co-teacher took me to the local bank (ask for a big one in your town) where I deposited the travelers’ cheques (in USD) into my Korean bank account (in KRW). Kapish. Done. Finish. Klaar. Mari had money.
EPIK will help you set up your bank account at orientation. We got Nonghyup Bank (NH) accounts when I first arrived, some other intakes got KB accounts and last year they got KEB accounts. (Note there’s a difference between KB and KEB!) I still cheer for KEB, but if they don’t give you KEB accounts at orientation and you really want a KEB account, you can always still open the NH one just so you know you have an account to transfer your travelers’ cheques to once you finally leave orientation. If you are in a smaller city you might not have a KEB bank close by, so then at least you have some kind of bank account. I’d suggest making a day trip to one of the bigger cities with a KEB branch if you still want KEB banking. Definitely worth it!
As for cheap living during your first month: walk, walk, walk. You will get to explore your city / town better this way and $2 taxi every day will add up. If you want to eat, EAT KOREAN. If you’re scared of eating Korean, eat instant noodles, fruits, salads etc. Here’s a short list of cheap meals from Korean restaurants (kimbap shops) that aren’t “scary” if you want to try it. It’s a really really simple list and definitely not the best dishes on the menu, but they are easy to pronounce and aren’t spicy or weird or “I don’t know wtf I’m eating”… :
- “Chamchi kimbap” is kimbap (almost like Korean style Maki rolls) with tuna and a liiiiittle bit of mayo. It’s NOT raw fish. If you like sushi this will be pretty good too. +- $2 (not spicy)
- Bulgogi is marinated beef. Usually they serve it as a stew with rice. (I forgot the name, but if you say bulgogi they will probably know what you mean) (not spicy)
- “Mandu” is a good snack food. Dumplings, usually stuffed with glass noodles, green onion and some meat. (not spicy)
- “Dolsot bibimbap” is a traditional Korean meal. Rice topped with lots of veggies in a stone pot with an egg on top. It’s not spicy, but the red sauce, called Gochujang, is. Sometimes the gochujang is already added, other times they bring it separately.
- Donkassu is pork cutlet. Usually served with some rice and a bit of a salad (coleslaw or fruit). Not spicy.
- Cheese donkassu (pork cutlet with cheese, same as above… duh.)
- Ramen = instant noodles. Cheese Ramen = instant noodles with cheese. duh.
I hope this answers most of your questions! If not, feel free to comment! (PS: ABSA travelers’ cheques include travel insurance!)