Summer in Seoul can be really hot: When I arrived at the Incheon Airport, it was almost 40°C. It takes around 1 hour by the airport limousine bus to get into the capital, Seoul, and costs around 8€. You have to pay it in Won though, so before exciting the airport, make sure to change some Euros into Won.
The airport limousine stops at almost every subway station existing in Seoul – which are a lot. When you booked your apartment/hotel/hostel in Germany already, make sure to find out which of the airport busses brings you to your location, the amount of busses can be really confusing! Concerning finding a good apartment, it’s the best if you book a temporary apartment for the first month and get help by a Korean resident to find an apartment for the rest of your stay right here in Seoul. Most apartments aren’t offered on the internet and only on special Korean applications or in certain newspapers. So it’s better and cheaper to look for one here.
One thing you just have to love about Seoul is the incredible variety of super delicious Korean food –맛있습니다! (mashisseumnida, delicious in Korean)
Korean cuisine uses a lot of red chili peppers and has hence a variety of spicy dishes. You’ll have to order one main dish and will get a lot of side dishes for free. Eating outside is very cheap (~4-5€), while buying fresh vegetables or fruits is really expensive. That’s why even Koreans eat outside most of the time instead of cooking their food themselves.
Koreans have a very vivid eating culture, meaning that they usually eat in huge groups sharing one big bowl of the same dish. And: Korean BBQ is a thing. Like THE thing. Once you’ll try that you’ll never be able to stop. You can grill your food by yourself in almost every restaurant, the meat gets marinated in a special sauce and is usually eaten in a ssam (= lettuce leaf) that you can fill with a variety of side dishes as well.
The Korean cuisine is also popular for its soups and stews. You’ll absolutely have to try Ddeok Mandu Guk (Rice Cake Dumpling Soup) and Kimchi Jjiggae (Kimchi Stew) when you are here!
Also: Get used to not finding any good bread here in Seoul, no matter what the name of it is, it will taste sweet. Like really, really sweet. And same goes for chips. They will have octopus, honey, caramel etc. chips here but the spicy chips will taste sweet. They are still delicious though!
Special Advice: Cafés here in Korea are awesome. There are dog cafés, cat cafés, even sheep cafés. The Flaccinos, Lattes, Bubble Teas etc. offered are really tasty. Ever heard of the Mint Oreo Chocolate Mocha?
One important thing you cannot forget is that you have to register yourself at the Immigration Office once you get here. You have a total of 90 days to register as an alien (yes, alien) and get your Alien ID. Only when you have this ID you are allowed to leave the country. So you won’t be able to make any trips to other countries without this ID.
You have to go to an immigration office near you and ask for an appointment. It usually takes around 3-4 weeks until you get that appointment where you can officially apply for the ID. You will need a paper by your university that proves that you are officially enrolled (the Certificate of Admission is NOT enough), passport pictures, and a form that you can download on the website online. You will get your ID around 1 month later.
Kwangwoon University is particularly famous for its long history of engineering modules and is located a bit outside of the city center. The subway station “Kwangwoon University” is reachable with Line Number 1, which is the biggest line in Seoul, so it is still really easy to reach. There are a lot of different buildings, each one of them teaching classes of one specific major, so you have to be prepared to change rooms a lot. You have 15 minutes transfer time in between of each class.
You will have orientation days and a possibility to meet your main professors before the university starts. There you will be introduced to the grading system, the mentor program and get information about the university itself. It’s also a great way to get to know the other foreign exchange students which are mostly from other Asian countries.
Regarding the courses – it’s on a first come first serves basis. So you have to be quick to apply for the courses you want/need to take. But Ms Hong, a wonderful woman from the International Office who will be the first one to contact you, is very helpful in that matter and usually finds a way to get you into a course you want to take even if the class is technically full. A lot of students drop courses during the first week because they seem to be too hard for them, so you always have a chance to reapply for those new free places.
One class lasts 1 hour and 15 minutes and you will have 2 classes of each course every week. Most professors will give you homework and you will have to send them by email within the same week. They get graded and count for your final grade. Participation is also a part of your final grade. In addition you don’t have only one exam: you’ll have a midterm exam and a final exam in each class. I personally think that’s a better system since you always have a chance to improve your grade and get more motivated to keep on track with the content of the class through the homework.
The people in Seoul are incredibly nice and helpful, but also very shy. You’ll have to approach people first because everyone will tell you that their English is too bad – which is not true since you’ll be able to have a conversation with almost everyone.
Also when you need some help don’t hesitate to ask the people around you, they will always be happy to help. Usually I don’t even get the chance to ask whether someone could help me with the directions and they just ask me first when they see I am about to pull out a map. Once a woman even brought me to the place I was looking for even though it took us around 20 minutes by feet and she originally had to go into the opposite direction – that’s how helpful people are. It’s easy to make friends around here.
A very important aspect is the respect for older people. Usually the first thing people will ask you is in which year you were born – to know whether you are a hyung (older male when addressed by men), noona (older woman addressed by men), eonnie (older female addressed by women), oppa (older male addressed by women) or just a dongsaeng (younger man/woman). There is this kind of hierarchy based on age everywhere. People also bow to each other, especially in shops you’ll enter or when people in university greet you.
It’s not necessary to speak Korean to be able to communicate with everyone, but it is really helpful to know how to read the Korean alphabet when you are looking for locations. The first apps you’ll have to download when you arrive here are these:
- Kakao Talk (Messenger)
- Kakao Metro (Subway Guide, also English names of stations, works offline)
- Kakao Bus (Bus Guide, works offline as well but only in Korean)
- Naver (Korean Search Engine, Map is way better than Google Maps)
So for the locations it is good to be able to read Hangeul (=Korean alphabet), especially with bus stations. In most cities except for Seoul the stations are only written in Korean. It also helps with street names, buildings etc.
You will have to buy a T-Money Card (available in every supermarket) which will be valid in every Korean city. You have to charge money on it at automats in the subway or also in supermarkets and it will deduce around 80ct for every time you use the subway/bus. You can also pay in shops, taxis or restaurants with your T-Money Card.
South Korea is the country with the fastest internet connection in the world – and at certain locations you can even use it for free. There are 5G Public Wi-Fi near most attractions. Generally you will find a lot of free public Wi-Fi so most foreigners don’t buy a SIM Card.
I actually decided to do so because I want to travel to other cities as well in which Public Wi-Fi isn’t as common. Also inside of the subway, the huge Prepaid Sim Card operators offer free Wi-Fi to their clients if they registered for that service as well. Getting one 1GB of data costs around 8€ and you will be able to use the operators Wi-Fi which are all around Korea for free as well. They have their routers installed in almost every street.
So that’s it for my first blog post, these are the first impression you’ll make when coming to Korea for the first time. The people, the food, the culture, the mentality, everything will be very different. But in a good way and it is really easy to feel accepted and welcomed in Korea. In my next post I will tell you more about my favorite places and the midterm exams in university!