12 tips for international students studying in Korea

Written by on August 21, 2014 in Travel, Worldwide Korea Bloggers

The orientation for fall semester 2014 is just around the corner. Students from all parts of the world are preparing to make the voyage to Korea. Classes are registered, plane trips are booked, and accommodations are arranged…at least we can hope.

I’ve talked previously about why you should study (in short-term exchange programs) in Korea, but at this stage we’re past that. Now that you’re coming here, what should you be prepared for? What should you do to make the best of your time here? Studying abroad costs a lot more than taking a semester at your home university, but your potential for learning is far higher.

There’s a lot more that you should know, obviously, so this list isn’t everything. But my advice will give you an advantage over the standard orientation information.


Sungkyunkwan University (SKKU) students prepare to welcome international students to campus.


Be prepared for arrival

Unfortunately your long journey doesn’t end at the airport. From there, you will need to get to your university or dorm room.

Many universities offer pickup services or shuttle buses. But failing that, you should always have a backup plan.

Oh, and if you have to arrange your own transportation from the airport, I highly recommend avoiding the taxi drivers looking for fares. You will end up paying way more than you need. The AREX train will take you to Hongik University Station or Seoul Station, either of which might be convenient depending on your host university.

There are also the dependable airport buses which drive out to every corner of the country. The bus should be 10,000 KRW, which is slightly more expensive than the train. Be sure to look up which bus you need in advance of your trip, if only to save yourself a huge headache. Here are the main bus routes within Seoul:

6013: Konkuk University, Sejong University
6003, 6017: Seoul National University
6016: Seoul National University of Education
6001: Sookmyeong Women’s University
6101: Korea University (Sungrye Elementary School stop)
6011: Yonsei University, Ewha Womans University, Sungkyunkwan University, Hanseong University, Sungshin Women’s University,
6002: Hongik University, Ewha Womans University, University of Seoul

Your university should also provide a survival kit with instructions on how to reach your destination. It is a good idea to have a printout of this with you.



Always carry around important information

Throughout your stay, it’s a good idea to carry around a piece of paper with any information that might be helpful

-phone numbers, addresses, and maps for your host university, dormitory, and embassy
-emergency contacts
-Seoul Global Center hotline or regional equivalent

Even if you have a phone, it’s useful to have this information on paper in case your battery dies. And it’s helpful to have this information in both languages, in case you need to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak English such as a taxi driver.


Have a phone

For a full semester, you will find having a phone to be essential in Korea. You’ll soon learn that a smartphone is as important as an appendage here. The most valuable app you can download is Kakao Talk, which is on pretty well every phone in Korea. Your university should have a store somewhere that will cater to your needs.


Get to know the area around your host university

Nightlife in Korea is heavily oriented around universities.

Of course the best-known area is simply called Hongdae, which is the mecca for live music in Korea as well as a destination for nightclubs, microbreweries, and trendy new restaurants. What we typically think of as Hongdae is the area in front of Hongik University (abbreviated in Korean as Hongdae).


Hongdae Playground is the nexus of the area, with flea markets, live music, and activity around the clock.

One subway stop from there, Sinchon is another vibrant area places at the nexus between Yonsei, Ewha, and Sogang.


Sinchon Rotary connects with Yonsei, Ewha, and Sogang.

Daehangno is the equivalent for Sungkyunkwan University (as well as many smaller auxiliary campuses. It is known domestically for its theatre scene, but also has all the requisite restaurants, bars, and cafes.

Seoul National University has Nakseongdae and Korea University has Anam-dong.

No matter where in Korea your university is located, you will inevitably spend at least one weekend in Hongdae. But never forget your own university area. It’s always useful to know your way to the best places around there, because that’s where you’ll likely be having lunch. And it’s a pain to have to go all the way to Hongdae if you aren’t planning to make a full night of it. Of course, if you are attending Hongdae, you’ll have the benefit of everyone wanting to visit you on the weekends.


The street from Hyehwa Station to Sungkyunkwan University is always active.

The street from Hyehwa Station to Sungkyunkwan University is always active.


Learn to read Hangeul

Don’t kid yourself: unless you’re a serious polyglot, you won’t be speaking fluent conversational Korean after just one semester. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Learning Korean starts off very easy and rewarding, and then all of a sudden it gets very complicated.

At a bare minimum, you should try to learn to read Korean characters.

“A wise man can learn it in one morning,” wrote Sungkyunkwan alumnus Jeong In-ji in the Hunminjeongeum Haerye, “and a fool can learn it in the space of ten days.”

Learning to read Hangeul will help you especially with proper names of people, places, and foods, and will heavily demystify the chaos of Korea’s streets. Once you become fast enough at reading Hangeul, you’ll be surprised just how many foreign words you’re surrounded by at all times.


Piece of cake.

Piece of cake.


Make friends from around the world

At times, you may feel overwhelmed in Korea. Especially if you’re non-Asian, you might feel like you stand out in class, on campus, in public, everywhere.

Remember, not every Asian person you see is Korean. There are likely many Chinese or Singaporean students studying alongside you. For that matter, there may also be many Korean-Americans, Koryo-in, and Joseonjok who consider themselves foreigners in Korea. Foreigners in Korea come in all colours.

You are in Korea so of course you need to focus on Korea (I’m skipping over the really obvious points here). But also this is an opportunity to meet people from all over the place who are here for the same reason as you. It can be a lot more fun to discover Korea alongside other foreign students from different backgrounds.

Represent your home university and country with pride

Unless you are a degree-seeking student, you are likely in Korea on an exchange program brokered between your home and host universities. Similar to how nations have diplomatic ties, universities also maintain international relationships with each other. Only instead of preventing wars and establishing free trade deals, universities are mainly into building partnerships for the exchange of students, faculty, and researchers. You are part of that bilateral relationship, and your participation will influence its future, whether it expands or fades out.

There are many ways you can help your home university out:
-Get to know your professors and visit them during office hours.
-Be an active participant in classes.
-Find a reason to visit your host university’s international office and make sure they know who you are (preferably for positive reasons).
-Participate in extracurricular activities. If there aren’t any you’re interested in, organise one.

Recently, I was asked by a partner university overseas if my university could provide tuition waivers for their students to attend our winter sememster program. I remarked that I had met one of their students at our International Summer Semester and he was an outstanding contributor to our program, so I would recommend their university for tuition waivers. It’s as simple as that.



Have a great time

I don’t mean by that previous point that you should try to be on your best behaviour while you’re in Korea. Well obviously I hope no international students end up hurt or in trouble, but now’s the time to take chances. In Korean culture, one of the best ways to build professional relationships is to drink together.

When you’re in Korea, you should go out of your comfort zone. Try something new, get lost, stay out late.

If your dormitory has a curfew and you can’t get back in time, don’t despair. First of all, other than a roommate, your absence won’t be noticed. There are myriad options for the late-night nomad. If you don’t have class the next morning, there’s nothing stopping you from staying out all night partying. But if you want sleep, you can choose from hostels, motels, PC rooms, and jjimjilbangs to keep yourself sheltered until the morning.



Explore Korea

While you’re in Korea, you really need to make the most of it. There will likely be many other students eager to travel or dine with you, but don’t let that stop you from going alone.

Go to a historic site. Go to the beach. Visit an amusement park. Visit an abandoned amusement park. Attend a festival. Try a new food. Never stop exploring, even if it’s around the nearest corner.



Don’t neglect your studies

You are here to attend classes, do homework, study, take exams, earn credits, etc. Some classes may be harder than others, so you might find yourself with less free time than you’d like. It’s important not to forget about your school work, because it would be a very bad idea to fail here.


Document your experiences

For decades after your trip, you will want to remember every detail of your time in Korea: when you had a certain experience, when you tried something for the first time, or even what thoughts were going through your head.

So, write a journal. Or a blog. Post photos on Instagram. Take better pictures with a real camera. Years later when you look at those pictures, it will bring you right back to Korea and allow to relive your sense of discovery.



Bring your Korean experience back to your home country

After my first visit to Korea, I really didn’t learn much about the country.  However, by being so far away from home, I came away knowing more about my own country and myself. What you learn and experience in Korea will help you to examine where you come from in an entirely new perspective.

Eventually, your friends and family will get tired of hearing you talk about Korea. But the memories you’ve  made will stay with you the rest of your life.


About the Author

Jon Dunbar

Jon Dunbar is a former editor and staff writer for Korea.net. His first visit to Korea was in summer 1996 when he was a teenager, and he returned permanently in December 2003. He is involved in the Korean underground music scene and has supported local musicians through writing, photography, and occasionally planning events. He has been blogging for more than a decade, mainly on music, urban exploration, and his cats