What to Bring to Korea

So, you just accepted a teaching job and you’re moving to Korea. Congratulations! Now what?

You’ve got a lot of things to think about now – not the least of which is: What the hell should I bring? First, take a deep breath – forgetting something isn’t the end of the world. You’re going to Korea, not Somalia. It’s not the end of the world if you forget something – it’s probably available somewhere in Korea.

Let’s take a little time to plan ahead and discuss what you do and don’t need to bring. You have precious little packing space, so it’s important to avoid anything unnecessary. Conversely, you don’t want to arrive in Korea only to realise that you forgot something important.

There is a popular service in Korea called The Arrival Store, which sells packages that include everything from basic necessities (sheets, towels, and cleaning supplies) to used cell phones. They set up a booth at the airport where you can pick up your order when you arrive. Many blogs will tell you to buy their packages, but bear in mind that the company partners with many blogs and websites, so the information provided elsewhere may not be unbiased. The service is convenient – I used The Arrival Store when I came to Korea – but much of the stuff they sell is unnecessary and overpriced. There are a few items that you should consider buying from The Arrival Store, but I wouldn’t suggest spending lots of money ($150+) on a package deal. I’ll provide links to the suggested items below.

Clothes

The proper approach to packing clothes for Korea depends almost entirely on one thing – SIZE. If you are thin by American standards and not freakishly tall, you’re in luck. Korea is littered with great clothing shops. You can find almost any style of clothing at a decent price.

If you’re like me, and you are tall or heavy, don’t expect to find much that fits you. It is exceedingly rare to find a pair of pants with a waist larger than 36 inches and even more rare to find a shirt cut for wide shoulders. I’ve lost about 40 pounds since arriving in Korea – dropped from a waist size 42 to 36 inches – and I still can’t find shirts that fit me.

If you are a teacher, keep in mind that most schools have a dress code. I’ve worked at two schools and business casual was fine at both places. 90% of the time, I wore khaki pants and a polo or dress shirt (no tie). Most of the female teachers I know wear business casual as well. Some hagwons (private academies) require a tie or suit, but that’s rare.

Underwear

If you are larger than a B-cup, bring all the bras you will need for a year. Korean bras tend to be heavily padded and anything larger than a B-cup is hard to find and expensive as hell. Also, if you’re larger than an American medium, bring all the panties (why do I hate that word?) you will need for the year.

Boxers can be difficult to find in Korea, so bring extras if that’s your style. Also, if you’re a heavy guy, bring lots of extras because anything larger than an American medium can be tough to find.

Shoes

If you have small feet, you’re in luck! I’m fairly confident that there are more shoe stores than people in Korea. Unfortunately, if you have large feet, the shoe situation is worse than the clothes situation. If you’re larger than 11 (men) or 8.5 (women), plan to pack all the shoes you’ll need while in Korea. You can special order larger shoes from the internet, but I’ve never had much luck with that approach because it’s difficult to buy shoes without trying them on.

Health and Beauty

Deodorant – Before coming to Korea, I read that deodorant is no longer difficult to find in Korea. Although true, that’s a bit misleading. Deodorant is easy to find, but decent antiperspirant is not. Finding a quality brand of deodorant/antiperspirant is possible at stores and markets specialising in western goods, but they are usually crazy expensive. If you’re a sweater, bring several sticks with you.

Toothpaste – I don’t like Korean toothpaste, but there’s nothing wrong with it. I’m not sure if there is a Korean equivalent of the ADA seal, but I sleep better at night knowing that 9 out of 10 American dentists recommend my trusty Colgate Total. If you’re not loyal to a specific American brand, then pack one tube and buy toothpaste when you arrive.

OTC Meds – Don’t bother packing lots of OTC (Over The Counter) meds. There are pharmacies in every neighborhood with plenty of inexpensive Korean medications that are equivalent to western brands.

Prescription Meds – There is a lot of misinformation floating around about prescription meds in Korea. First of all, you need a prescription in Korea. Ten or fifteen years ago, you could buy just about anything from the pharmacy, but that is no longer the case. I’ve also read that Korean doctors only prescribe medications for two or four days at a time – that’s not true either. The medication prescription and distribution is basically the same as in western countries.

Birth Control – I suggest you try to bring a year’s supply of birth control with you. You need a prescription for birth control in Korea now. The laws changed just a few months ago, so many other blogs are out of date. It’s not as easy as it was this time last year. The brand names here are different, so be sure to do some research before you switch to a Korean product. It’s also worth mentioning that Depo Provera is not available in Korea.

Cosmetics – With the exception of foundation, which is almost all for Asian skin-tones, you can find any cosmetics you need here. In fact, women from all around Asia travel to Korea for the high quality makeup, moisturisers, beauty creams, and other cosmetics. Don’t waste much space or weight on extra makeup.

Hair Care – Don’t bother bringing a hair dryer, curling iron, or hair straightener. If you bring them from home, you’ll have to use a power converter, which can be a real pain in the ass in a tiny apartment. Buy them here at EMart or Home Plus.

Other – Don’t bother packing other beauty or hygiene products. Places like EMart and Home Plus have similar selections to western stores like Target and WalMart. Shampoo is big and heavy, so don’t waste suitcase space on it. You can easily find dental floss, mouthwash, feminine hygiene products, and anything else you might need.

Household Items

Most household items are available at Emart and Home Plus. Don’t waste space on things like hangers, an iron, cups, plates, bowls, or any other basic household items. However, there are a few items that are worth packing:

Towels – I brought two from home, and I’m glad that I did. Most Korean towels aren’t full-sized towels, and the quality just isn’t the same as western brands. If you have enough space, bring one or two. If you don’t have enough space, this is a good item to buy from The Arrival Store. Link here.

Bed Sheets – Bedsheets are widely available in Korea – but there’s a catch. Fitted sheets can be difficult to find, and the quality of most sheets here is not the same as in the west. If you know your bed size ahead of time, bring one or two sets. If not, don’t worry – you can make a trip to Costco for some quality American sheets (they’re a bit expensive, but worth it). My Arrival Store package included twin-size bedsheets, but the bed in my apartment was a queen, so I never even opened the package.

Power Converter – First, let’s clear up a common misnomer. A “power converter” is a machine that reduces Korea’s 220-volt power down to 110-volts so that it’s safe to use American appliances. A “plug adapter” is an item that simply allows you to plug an one country’s appliance into another country’s outlet. You probably don’t need one of these. Your phone and computer probably have built-in voltage converters. If you are bringing a western appliance that uses 110 volts, then you will need a power converter. This is another item I suggest you buy from The Arrival Store. Link here.

Plug Adapter – You will need plug adapters to fit your western plugs into Korean outlets. I suggest you order a few plug adapters from an online store a few weeks in advance. They are less bulky and heavy than the universal plug adapters. You can also pick these up for a reasonable price from The Arrival Store. Link here.

Cell Phone

I suggest that you don’t bother bringing a phone. You will have to wait a few weeks after you arrive to get a smart phone because you need an Alien Registration Card to set up a phone plan. Don’t worry, none of the other teachers will have a phone either, so you won’t miss out on anything. Your apartment will probably have internet, so you can use Skype or Google to call your family.

Before I arrived, I purchased a used phone and monthly plan from The Arrival Store. I regretted it almost immediately. I paid $50+ per month for an old flip phone. I only made two calls with it. None of my friends had phones yet, and I used Skype to talk to my family. Once I got my ARC, I got a smart phone with an unlimited data plan for $60 per month. Trust me – it’s worth the wait.

Food

Personally, I think it’s crazy to waste precious space (or weight) on foods. But for some people, having comfort foods is a big deal. Western foods are becoming easier to get in Korea all the time. Between the “grey market” shops (they resell items from military bases) and online retailers, you can get just about anything you want. The only exception is western spices. Spices here are quite expensive, and the selection usually isn’t great.

The most popular online retailers are:

iHerb – This is the only online vendor I’ve used for food. I buy protein powder and vitamins from iHerb, which seems to be their specialty. Vitamins are insanely expensive in Korea, so this is a great option. The shipping is free for large orders, the vitamin/supplement selection is good, and it doesn’t take very long to receive most items.

FatBag – This site is similar to iHerb, but they focus more on food. A lot of what they sell is available at Costco (which is in Korea), but there are plenty of other foods not available in Korean retail stores. A few of my friends have used this site, and they have no complaints.

EZ Shop Korea – Like FatBag, this company sells a lot of Costco items. The have a section labeled “non-Costco”, which is nice. I don’t have any experience with this website, and none of my friends have either, but I’ve heard about it a few times over the past year and am unaware of any bad experiences.

Remember – don’t freak out. Take your time, make a list, and think carefully before packing items that may be unnecessary. Even if you forget something, it’s not a big deal. If you need something that isn’t available at a store or online, you can probably borrow or buy it from another expat. The standard two suitcases and a carry-on bag should be enough room for everything you need. If it’s not, then you’ve probably packed a lot of unnecessary items.

Are there any items that I’ve forgotten? Do you have any questions? Leave a comment.

Until next time.

-Taft

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