If there’s one thing I will definitely, always remember from being in Korea, even when all the other memories start to fade into one massive ‘That time when…’ type experience, then that thing is the first week I spent in this country.
In short, it was an utter nightmare. A look-back-10-months-later-and-laugh kinda thing, but living it was hell. The actual story is one for another post, which will make me cringe, but the crux of the matter was: the girl I flew out with and I had landed in a new, terrifying country, with no fixed accommodation. And I’m talking no fixed accommodation. Not even for the first night.
I’m just going to let that one sink in.
Because, yeah. Wow.
Stupidly – there really isn’t any other word for it, to be quite honest – I’d delegated possibly one of the most important things to sort out to my travelling companion and thought that it would be a-ok. Little bit naiive there but I digress from the actual point of this post. Kind of. But it does bring me to the underlying Golden Rule of Travel:
Never go anywhere without knowing you have somewhere (safe!!!!) to sleep for at least the first night.
I’m looking at that now and thinking, well, duh. And even then I was berating myself for being completely and utterly idiotic – but sometimes important things do slip through the net. Preparing for travel in general is hectic, especially if you are a student on a limited budget and have had little to no information relevant to your situation that you become really very lost.
So I’ve decided to put together a post that I hope will help anyone wishing to travel to South Korea to study. It’s kind of a long post, but I’ve tried to include as much information as I could that’s relevant to finding accommodation as a student. ^^”
The first thing you need to know is that there are various types of accommodation available in South Korea (as with any country, really). You have your flat/apartment shares, ‘one-rooms’; hasukjibs; goshiwons; home-stays and of course, university dormitories/accommodation. Each comes with it’s own perks and pitfalls, but I can guarantee at least one will suit your needs well enough while you stay and study.
The second thing you should know is that you don’t need permanent accommodation straight away. Hotels, guest houses and hostels are fairly cheap for one to two weeks, maybe even three if you’d prefer a little more time before signing a contract (unless you choose to stay at the very swanky ones with pools).
Also it’s a good idea to know when your school/university orientation is, or semester starts in relation to when you touch down in Korea. If you’re planning to stay in dorms but arrive a month before orientation, you’ll have to stay in temporary accommodation before you get to move into dorms. Likewise, if you’re arriving two days before orientation and want to get a flat…. you might want to re-think that, or be prepared to move during the time you aren’t attending class.
Starting with the most expensive type of accommodation. Well, I say the most expensive, rent in South Korea is actually pretty reasonable, compared to places like England. The reason this type of accommodation is so expensive is because you have to pay ‘key money’. This is a payment to the landlord that secures you the accommodation, and acts as the landlords security that you won’t damage the property, will pay rent on time and generally adhere to the contract. Key money tends to be anywhere from one million won to twenty million won – sometimes even more. Generally paying a higher key money fee means your monthly rent is lower, although you can drive the key money payment down if you agree to pay more monthly rent. You get your key money back once your tenancy has ended.
The difference between a flat or apartment and a one-room is generally the number of rooms and the building that the accommodation is in. A one-room is exactly what it says it is. You rent one room and that space is yours. The bathroom is yours. The bills are yours and it’s your name on your contract. A flat or apartment can have a number of rooms, and you rent one of them. You may have to share a communal space such as the kitchen, cooking facilities and a bathroom. The bills, rent and key money are split between how many are sharing the apartment. This can be great if you think you might get lonely living on your own, but might also be terrible if you run into terrible flatmates.
One-rooms can also be called ‘officetels’ and the building can often have other businesses either above or below the rooms being rented out by the landlord. Apartments tend to be in one block of other apartments, sometimes they’re above small businesses.
You can find apartments, flats or one-rooms in a couple of ways: word of mouth, sites like craigslist, and going to an estate agent. Word of mouth tends to have perks for the previous tenant(s), if they can fill the room almost immediately after they’ve left, they may get a fixed amount of money as thanks from the landlord. Craigslist tends to be aimed solely at foreigners needing to find accommodation, and so the listed rent and/or key money can be drastically inflated because the landlords think they can pull the wool over foreigners eyes more easily that those of native Koreans. You also need to be careful about the possibility of being scammed. Craigslist is definitely a useful way of finding somewhere to live though.
Estate agents (부동산) are one of the more reputable ways of finding accommodation if you’re looking for an apartment or one-room. However, if you’re not fluent in Korean they can be incredibly scary places, and you may need to bring a close Korean friend to make sure that you are not duped into paying ridiculous rent and a large amount of key money. Usually estate agents also charge a commission that is separate to the amount you pay for the flat, so be careful of that! However, they do make sure a contract is signed and adhered to on both ends, so there is that extra security that finding accommodation through word of mouth and craigslist doesn’t really provide unless you are adamant.
For reference, I found a three bedroom apartment close to Yonsei University for me and two other girls to share on craigslist. The total key money was 1.5million won as a one off payment and rent is 1.4million each month, and that is split between the three of us. Utilities are not included and are added on to the rent each month. I’ve been told varying things about where I live vs how much I’m paying for it by Koreans and other foreigners alike: some believe it’s good value for money, some think it’s ok and some think it’s way overpriced. I’m just happy I have somewhere to live and that the rent is cheaper than it would be in England.
Hasukjibs (‘boarding house’) & Goshiwon’s:
Hasukjibs and Goshiwons are essentially the same type of accommodation, the names differ because of how Korean students use them. A hasukjib is a boarding house, for those who don’t want to live in dormitories but can’t afford or don’t really want the commitment of an apartment. A goshiwon is a room rented for cram-study around exam periods.
The principle of living there is the same: you rent one, usually small, sometimes very small, room for a length of time, with rent being paid monthly. Depending on the type of facilities available, some hasukjibs and goshiwons may offer you a room with an ensuite and small cooking area (usually a hob, microwave, rice cooker and kimchi fridge), although with most you will have to share bathroom and dining facilities. Some goshiwons and hasukjibs even provide their tenants with free meals or food that they can use to cook – there may be some restrictions or regulations in regards to using the kitchen facilities though. In general, it’s really useful if you’re running low on money or just don’t want to buy food.
Building wise, a hasukjib or a goshiwon will be on the 2nd floor of a building or higher, and being above some noisy businesses (karaoke rooms, bars/pubs/restaurants) is common. A lot of them aren’t regulated as they are seen as more ‘temporary’ type accommodation, and so may be in quite bad condition, I have run into a few of these in the lesser-well-off areas of Seoul. From my friends experiences though, they seem happy with their choice as the fellow tenants and landlords are friendly and helpful, rent is affordable and the rooms are clean.
Staying in a goshiwon or a hasukjib does not enter you into a fixed contract like an apartment or one-room does. As long as you give notice you can move from place to place fairly easily, although there rules and regulations of each place differ. Some don’t allow any visitors, some make you pay to have visitors over, some have a curfew… so make sure you read the rules if you decide to stay in one of these.
Finding a hasukjib or a goshiwon can be quite stressful, generally they’re not advertised in estate agents or on craigslist, you have to be fairly vigilant and look up when walking along streets. There will be 고시원 / 고시텔 or 하숙집 in the windows or as a sign on the side of the building. You can ask to see rooms before you decide to stay there, and don’t ever feel pressured to stay somewhere you don’t feel safe!!
The rent for goshiwons and hasukjibs does make them far more accessible to students, plus it’s a good way to meet other people studying abroad, or korean students as you tend to interact with the other tenants quite a bit at meal times or around your floor.
I’ve heard both very bad, and very good things about home stays, ranging from ‘It was awful’ to ‘My host family is like a second family to me’, so really I think this sort of accommodation depends entirely on what type of person you are. If you are able to easily adjust into another families way of life, and are open to living by their rules then I really believe home stay’s are a really great way to learn a language and about a completely different culture. If you’re not… then…
I’m not entirely sure how the payment system to the host family works, so I can’t really say whether it’s monthly and how much rent is on average, but personally, I think it’s a really great way to improve language skills, and pick up some other useful knowledge on the side (how to cook korean food, for example), and in some cases you might become so close with your host family that you are welcome to stay with them whenever.
However, the location of the host family may be quite far away from your university, there may be quite harsh repercussions if you break house rules, and occasionally you could be treated as ‘extra help’ if the host couple has young children – though that is quite rare.
Dorms are, by far, the most convenient type of accommodation, but they aren’t guaranteed to every student and they can be expensive. As with home stays’, I don’t have any direct experience with living in dorms here in South Korea – but I have heard about them extensively and shall share the information I have gleaned.
There are rules. It depends on the university, and I’m not talking necessarily curfews and lights out type rules, more the single-sex floor divides and no opposite sexes in rooms. Or single-sex block divides and no opposite sexes in the building. As I said, depends on the university.
You get a roommate. Generally, you have to share your room. You can pay more for a single room, but most accommodation is with a roommate. Great if you want to make a new friend straight off the bat, not so great if you don’t get on and are literally polar opposites.
You have to reapply. If you plan on staying more than one semester in dorms you have to reapply. This is largely due to the turnover of exchange students and the fact that the university semester in Korea starts in March. It depends on the university what the time period for reapplications is, how they deal with them and if you even can reapply – for some universities it’s one term only, so it’s always good to check out the regulations before.
They’re on campus. You get everything campus has to offer, right on your doorstep. Which is actually a major bonus when you need to send boxes home via the post office…
It can be really noisy. I have been told that sometimes dorms are not the quietest of places, but you do get to interact with a lot of different people.
Well this post was long (and took me far more time to write than I thought!!), but I hope there is at least some useful information in here somewhere, or that it has enlightened you on a couple of types of accommodation available to you if you are planning to study in South Korea. There are two more, borderless houses and flatshares, which I didn’t include as I think they’re quite similar to each other and to the apartments/one-room type accommodation.
If you want to know any more just drop me a comment and I’ll be happy to answer to the best of my ability!! 🙂