With the February intake of new EPIK teachers just around the corner, we decided to put together items that should be on everyone's list to bring to your new home in South Korea.
Packing for small trips can be a daunting task in itself; and packing for an entire year can seem impossible. But fear not. South Korea is an increasingly modern country, and most essentials are easily accessible here. Plus, much of what you can't find in stores or can be bought through one of Korea's many online retailers and shipped to your door in less than 48 hours.
There are some things though, that you won't want to forget. Trust us.
Keep reading for a list of what to bring, what items to leave at home, and to find the answer to the all-important question of "How much money should I bring?".
What should you pack?
1. Power Strip
A small power strip is a must! You can plug in all of your appliances from home, then use one adapter and converter to plug it into the Korean outlet. This saves you from needing tons of adapters. You can buy one or two of these here.
Research whether you will need your phone unlocked before you come. If it'll work to bring with, it will save you from having to purchase a new one - not a small expense (yes, even in the land of Samsung and LG).
Photos take up hardly any space, so pack a ton! Being away from all the familiarity of home can wear on you, and pictures (or maps of home) on your walls will be something you appreciate. Plus, its a cheap way to spruce up those bare walls. Oh, and don't forget the and sticky tack!
4. Bed sheets
Yes, the rumors are true. Sheets are expensive here and often only include the fitted one - not the flat sheet that lays between you and the comforter. Pack a couple sets if you have room. Our apartment doesn't have curtains, and we are currently using one sheet to block out light (and the neighbors views) from our bedroom window.
Full-size towels are not really a thing here. If you like wrapping yourself in a big fluffy towel after a shower (as opposed to a small, scratchy one), bring it from home.
Bring lots of it. Seriously. Don't be that smelly person. Aside from expat stores in the biggest cities, you will have a very difficult time finding deodorant here. And even if you do find some, pickings will be slim so it might not be a brand or scent you're fond of.
Ahem, ladies... tampons are not popular in South Korea. And as such, they are incredibly difficult to find. I haven't had to search too hard yet because I brought my own from home; but in the little looking I've done, I haven't seen one box. (Update: I've heard from friends that you can find a small selection of tampons at Olive Young stores and Costco. My friends have mentioned that they are generally more expensive than at home, and there are only a few brands and types available.)
8. Pain medication & Vitamins
After a pretty severe dental infection left Ben in a ton of pain, our ibuprofen supply was dwindling. We went to a pharmacy to pick up some more and were surprised by how expensive pain meds are in Korea. In fact, we got a 21-day supply of prescription antibiotics here for a fraction of what ten pills of Tylenol cost. Be smart and bring a big bottle from home so you are prepared for the occasional hangover or in the case of an emergency. Additionally, if you take vitamins, bring those from home as well.
I didn't realize that I'm picky about toothpaste until I tried a few Korean brands. The flavors are a bit strange. Fresh pine, anyone? And even when you find mint, it is sweet. Like sugary sweet.
10. Behind the door organizer
Korean-style bathrooms have no separation between the shower and the rest of the room. Keep your toiletries from getting drenched by bringing a behind the door organizer. I think we got ours at Target for under $10, and boy, was it a good investment. Or find it here on Amazon.
The only familiar spices we have easily found in Korea are black pepper, dried basil and cinnamon (though cinnamon is pretty expensive). If you like curry or any other exotic seasonings, pack them. Hopefully you will come to love Korean spices as much as we have, but everyone loves a little comfort food that tastes like home! (Update: The Homeplus in our town recently got a makeover in the food department, and now there are spices galore! This is not the case for all Homeplus stores, so I would still recommend bringing your favorites from home.)
If you like to bake, be sure to pack vanilla because it's really difficult to find here, and cookies just aren't the same with out it! The baking isles in Korea are pretty well-stocked, with the exception of this one essential.
13. Healthy food
Chia seeds, quality protein powder, quinoa, ground flax, stevia, coconut oil – these items are all extremely rare in Korea, and expensive if you do find them. If any of these are things you can't live without, pack them along. It may not last you an entire year, but you'll have a small supply to make you feel more at home during your transition to life abroad.
We packed this little kitchen device on a whim, and we're sure glad we did! I love Korean food, but I get pretty sick of all the heavy rice that's served with every meal. This small gadget spiral cuts zucchini into healthy "noodles" that I make every time I need a little veggie detox. It's simple to use, and and incredibly versatile. For a really quick meal, add tomato sauce for "faux" spaghetti. Or you can add whatever vegetables you have lying around. My favorite is to add tomatoes, mushrooms, and peppers, and then toss it with garlic, lemon, olive oil, salt and pepper. I sometimes add chicken to make it a more filling meal. Zucchinis are easy to find and relatively cheap in Korea, so if you think you'll be needing a break from the rice and pork, consider packing this handy gadget.
You can buy a Vegetti here, or at stores like Bed, Bath & Beyond.
15. Winter clothing
Being that we've lived through many Minnesota winters, we consider ourselves pretty tough. But let me tell you, it gets cold here. Since we moved to Korea during the heat of August, we didn't think too much about the winter clothes we were packing, and did not bring nearly enough. Korea is a country with four drastically different seasons, so be prepared!
I kind of have an obsession with candles. There's nothing that makes you feel quite as cozy on a winter day than a vanilla scented candle burning on your table next to a bowl of steaming soup and a plate of freshly baked cookies, am I right? Well, Koreans have an obsession with Yankee candles — there are entire stores dedicated to the brand in just about every city. But they are hella expensive! And other than Yankee and a handful of generic ones, candles were hard to come by in Korea. I'm kind of OCD about what is in the candles that I'm burning... I don't want to breathe those nasty chemical fumes, man. Soy or beesewax, baby! So I really wished I had packed some high quality, delicious-smelling candles to warm up our apartment during the long winter months.
17. International Driver's License
If you plan on traveling much in Korea, this can be a handy thing to have. We stopped by AAA before we moved to Korea and paid $15 USD for an international license. We've only used it once so far to rent a car, but we were glad we'd brought it. Yes, you can get one while you're over here if you deem it necessary, but you'll need to get photos taken and it will cost a bit more (plus the hassle of figuring it all out). While we do most of our traveling via trains or buses, there are some places in Korea that are hard to reach on public transportation.
What should you leave at home?
1. Suit Jacket
On the EPIK packing list, they tell men to bring a suit jacket. After inquiring if this was really necessary, our recruiter assured us that yes, it was required that Ben bring this big, bulky article of clothing. Aside from the day we learned our placements (and even then it wasn't necessary), he has not worn it. Not once. Unless you like to look as if you work in a fancy office building, leave your suit jacket at home.
2. Most dressy clothes
On a similar note as the topic above, we brought way too many fancy clothes. Both of our schools are pretty casual, and I end up wearing jeans and a nice top most days. Definitely pack some business clothes, but don't overdo it.
3. Most shoes
Being that I wear a women's size nine, I knew before moving here that I wouldn't be able to buy any shoes in Korea. I reasoned that I should bring every kind of shoe for every occasion - heels, casual flats, dressy sandals, hiking boots, winter boots, running shoes, you name it - I packed it. Don't do what I did. Let me break it down: In your Korean school, you will wear slippers all day. No, they will not match your outfit. Yes, they will be ugly. And no, you will not care. On most days I only wear shoes on my walk to and from school, making the majority of pairs I packed unnecessary.
4. Most makeup
With the exception of foundation (it may be hard to find a match to your skin tone here), there is an abundance of all things vanity-related in Korea. You'll find more nail polish, bubblegum pink lipstick, and hair products than you ever thought possible. Bring your favorites from home, but it's unnecessary to stock up on a year's supply of anything. There are tons of stores devoted just to beauty products, so you won't have a hard time finding what you're looking for (plus things you never knew you needed). The store clerk, in her well-meaning yet unfiltered manner, will assure you that you have wrinkles setting in and yes, you do really need the snail excretion mask.
Unless you are extremely brand-loyal or need special products, plan only to bring a travel-size bottle to get you through your first week in Korea. You'll be able to find Pantene and Dove in stores, but you'll have to be willing to pay for the Western labels. Korean brand hair products are a fraction of the price and work just fine.
6. Hair dryer
If you bring one from home, you will need to plug it into a power converter and an adapter. Save yourself the hassle and purchase one here. You can find them here for as cheap as about $10 USD.
7. Low-cut tops
In Korea, low-cut tops are a big no-no. And it's not just cleavage that is taboo - anything below the collar bone, really, can be considered risque. Similarly, tank tops that expose your shoulders might attract some unwarranted stares. It does depend on the city you live in. What is acceptable in Seoul, for instance, will probably be frowned upon elsewhere in the country. Since you are a foreigner, you will stand out anyway, but just be prepared for the reactions you might attract with your exposed décolletage.
8. Birth Control
Okay, let me rephrase that... I'm not telling you not to bring birth control. If you're on The Pill, have a brand you like, and your doctor is willing to give you a year's worth of the prescription in advance, by all means, bring it! But if you're like me and couldn't get a full year ahead of time, don't fret. Although Korea is a relatively conservative country, you can get birth control over the counter. And it's cheap! I would suggest packing a few months worth of pills, just so you don't have to worry about getting it filled right away. When you're running low, head to a pharmacy and show them your current prescription's package. They should be able to match the drug, and you'll be paying around $6 USD. Not too bad, huh?
How much cash should you bring?
Many recommendations online say to bring between $500 and $1,000 USD worth of Korean won. I would absolutely lean toward the latter. You won't spend anything during orientation, and if everything goes smoothly with your school, you should immediately get 300,000 won (about $275 USD) with which to furnish your apartment. If you're lucky, your apartment will be stocked with everything to get you started that the previous teacher left behind. Though you may not be so lucky.
In our case, we needed to immediately shell out 500,000 won (roughly $460 USD) for a deposit on the gas in our home. Additionally, no teacher lived in our apartment before so it was completely empty - not one single pan or roll of toilet paper. Needless to say, we had quite a few purchases to make right away. Until your first paycheck, it can be difficult to access funds from home. And as some of our friends found out, some foreign cards (even ones that claim to be international) do not work here. $1,000 USD worth of won should be enough to get you through the first month.
Websites to Know
Korea has incredibly fast shipping. Like next day fast. As you may imagine, online shopping is quite popular here. Below are some good sites to help you find what you need once you've settled into life in Korea.
Gmarket - This website has everything. Like seriously, EVERYTHING! And shipping is incredibly fast.
iHerb - A great site for health foods and natural products - all of which can be tricky to find in stores here. Shipping on this site can take a bit longer since most of the goods are imported from overseas.
What the Book - Buy games and books in English for your classroom or just for fun!
What site to avoid:
Arrival Store - This site is often recommended to foreigners when they first move to Korea. You can get the essentials, like bedding and full-sized towels delivered to your school before you even arrive. The catch? Steep prices and products that are, in general, poor quality. For example, a friend purchased an expensive towel from the site, and the fabric started falling apart the first time she used it. Also, beware of their phone plans - you'll end up being tied to a contract that's much more expensive than if you find it elsewhere. Unless you are in a real pinch, I would steer clear of this site.
*Helpful tip: Have your co-teacher or a Korean friend type your address in Korean characters into the shipping information on each of these websites. (Usually people will have things shipped to their schools instead of their apartments.) This will make the shipping process faster, and since you only have to input it once, you'll never have to worry about it again.
Phone Number to Know
Dial 1330 to be connected to a tourist hotline that you can call any time of the day and ask them literally ANYTHING. They speak English well and are extremely helpful when it comes to figuring out transportation or even activities. Example of what types of questions you can ask: What time is the first bus from Daegu to Busan on Saturday? How much does it cost? How long does it take? Where will it drop me off? Is there a good restaurant nearby? Like I said, ANYTHING!