The Reality of Student Work Permits in Korea

Can international students work in South Korea? The short answer is yes, but there are many different rules that you will need to navigate and each student’s situation is a little different. There is no such thing as one set of paperwork or a guaranteed outcome. Such ambiguity may leave international students feeling vulnerable and frustrated. It also may impact a student’s ability to focus on coursework. Therefore, let’s dig into the different factors that impact students’ ability to work on D-2 or D-4 visas in South Korea.

Information Disclaimer

Information regarding student work permits in Korea may change often and without warning. What is true today could change overnight. The Korean government is an agile government style that allows rules and regulations to be adapted quickly. Additionally, each school may change its rules for students based on current issues related to individual programs. Students need to comply with both school AND government rules.

Due to the many variables that may impact student work permits, the following blog post addresses historical factors used to regulate student work permits to provide a realistic overview of what students may expect while studying in Korea.

Keep in mind, due to the many factors which impact work permits, the following blog post can not describe one exact system for applying for student work permits in Korea. Each student’s situation may be different and students need to work closely with their university and Korean immigration to comply with current student work permit rules and regulations. This post only provides factors, variables, and experiences in order to inform incoming D-2 and D-4 students of potential challenges they may face.

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The Difference Between A Student Visa and A Student Work Permit

In Korea, a student visa and a student work permit serve different purposes for international students. Here’s an explanation of the differences between the two:

Student Visa

A student visa, commonly known as D-2 or D4 visa types, is specifically designed for international students who wish to pursue their studies in Korea. They allow foreign nationals to enter the country for the purpose of attending an educational institution and engaging in academic activities. The primary focus of a student visa is on studying and completing the requirements of the educational program. While on a student visa, students are allowed to work part-time under certain conditions and limitations as long as they apply for a student work permit.

Sample of a D-2 Visa

Student Work Permit

A student work permit, on the other hand, is a separate authorization that allows international students to work part-time while studying in Korea. International students who hold a valid student visa may be eligible to apply for a student work permit. This permit allows students to work part-time within certain restrictions. The work permit specifies the number of hours students can work per week during the regular semester and may permit longer working hours during semester breaks.

About International Students Working in Korea

Online you may find what appears as conflicting information regarding the ability of D-2 and D-4 visa holders to get a work permit in South Korea. Siorea considers the information from their university or visa lens. Such a lens may not that consider the reality, needs, or experiences of different students, university programs, or visa types.

Due to the limited perspective of each article written about international students working in South Korea, many students arrive in Korea without a complex understanding of student work visas. The following blog post is designed to help students better understand the information they find about student work permits and the potential complexity of acquiring a student work permit.

Student-Centered Information v. School-Centered Information

Additionally, in this blog post, South of Seoul volunteers put student needs at the center of the conversation about student work permits. The blog post talks frankly about what students on D-2 or D-4 visas need to know to navigate their work permits in South Korea and how it may impact their experience studying in Korea.

Since South of Seoul volunteers operate independently for any government or educational institution, we can more directly discuss the challenges and unique experiences of international students applying for work permits. We also welcome information about the lived experiences of our readers. If you have additional information to be added to this post, please let us know.

Many Students Can Work in Korea on a Permit

As we get started, let’s clearly establish that Korea is one of the few countries that allows students to work. Korean Culture and Information Center states that:

Those with either a D-2 or D-4 visa are eligible for part-time jobs. (D-2 is for those pursuing a full-time degree such as a bachelor’s, a master’s or a doctorate in Korea, while D-4 is for those studying Korean at a language institute affiliated with a university).

https://www.kocis.go.kr/eng/webzine/201910/sub10.html

Getting a Work Permit May Be Complicated

However, students moving to Korea may discover getting a work permit and finding a job may not be as easy as schools, recruiters, and blog posts make it sound. Students often arrive in South Korea thinking that they can easily find rewarding and well-paying work but discover it’s much harder than they anticipated. Trust us, nothing is as easy as a university recruiter makes it sound. Carefully read the following information before moving to Korea to study if you need to work in order to live.

Factors Impacting D-2 and D-4 Work Permits

Many factors exist that impact an international student’s ability to get a work permit in South Korea. Such factors may include 1) student age, 2) immigration agent, 3) rules specific to a university, 4) rules specific to the region of the university, 5) class schedules, 6) job types, and 7) language ability. Let’s talk a little more about how such factors impact student work permits.

Age of Student

There are age restrictions for student work permits in South Korea. Elementary, middle school, and high school students can not hold a work permit in Korea even though they have a D-4 visa.

Immigration Agent

In South Korea, individual immigration officers have great leeway to make their own choices. This means that students may follow the rules exactly and get denied. Additionally, other students may find they can avoid certain requirements. No uniform enforcement of immigration rules related to student work permits exists. Such individual immigration enforcement means international students need to be patient and comply with the individual requests and needs of each visa agent. Students can’t control which immigration officer will process their paperwork.

University-Specific Employment Rules

Some universities do not want their students working. In this case, students may struggle to get their work permits approved. It’s important for international students to know if their university and university department allows students to have work permits.

Universities must track international students’ attendance and grades in order to be allowed to have international students, if universities find that working students aren’t attending school or keeping up their grades – the institution may not allow any students to work. Therefore, a student that must work in order to afford their living expenses and education needs to make sure the university or program they apply to in Korea allows work permits.

Additionally, different universities have their own unique relationship with the local immigration office. Following the rules of the university may greatly increase a student’s chance of getting a work permit. Conversely, going against university rules may decrease a student’s ability to get a work permit.

Length of Study, Grades, and Attendance

Due to such federal requirements for universities related to attendance and grads, students on D-2 and D-4 visas must make their studies a priority in South Korea while studying. If students do not attend their classes and their grades fall below allowable standards, work permits may be denied.

Additionally, international students studying on D-4 visas in South Korea have different rules for applying for work permits than D-2-type students. Let’s look at some of the details:

  • International students with a D-4 visa need to complete 1 (6-months) semester of studying in Korea before they can get a part-time work permit. During that time, they need to have a class attendance rate of 90% or higher.
  • However, international students with a D-2 type visa can apply for a work permit immediately assuming they meet Korean language requirements. However, such students need to stay above a C grade average and keep a 2.0 GPA or higher.

Keep in mind, the rules may change from semester to semester or even by university. Sometimes the federal government may have specific rules for certain universities based on past performance. Nothing is written in stone.

Language requirements

The Korean language requirements for student work permits depend on the type of visa and the type of program. For example, students who study in an English language program in South Korea may not need a TOPIK level but students who study in a Korean language-based program need a TOPIK score.

The TOPIK score requirements for student work permits in Korea vary based on student visa type. This can be

Students who want to work in Korea need to understand that getting a TOPIK level 2 or 3 may take up to a year to achieve. The timeline will look different for each student. However, it’s often a huge hurdle for many international students who don’t realize how hard the language can be.

In order to avoid the TOPIK requirements for student work permits, students studying in an English language program may need a letter from their university stating the program is taught in English. Additionally, this does not ensure the immigration agent will waive this requirement. It’s up the immigration agent’s discretion.

Job Type Allowed

Historically speaking, student work permits tend to limit individuals to working unskilled jobs. However, this shows signs of changing as of 2023. That said, currently, international students in Korea may be allowed to work:

  • At job correlated to their area of study.
  • Teaching a foreign language at private foreign language centers (Assuming the student meets certain language requirements related to the language taught).
  • General jobs related to the international student’s native language.
  • Temporary research activities.
  • Low-skilled labor like working in restaurants or convenience stores. 

Keep in mind, Korean immigration officers have a lot of freedom to determine which jobs fit the above criteria so no exact job list exists.

Job Schedules

Historically speaking, international students on D-2 and D-4 visas work part-time. The rules for part-time depend on the type of educational program students attend and the type of visa they hold. Generally speaking, the following rules apply:

  • Language training program & Bachelor’s degree program: 25 hours during the weekdays.
  • Master’s/Doctoral program: 35 hours during the weekdays. Unlimited hours are allowed on weekends and holidays.

However, there are many little rules that apply to each visa type, major type, country of origin, and so much more. The immigration officer processing the paperwork will ultimately decide what is allowed for a student’s work permit.

Job Types Restricted

Some employers and job types have generally clear restrictions. For example, restricted job types for student work permits may include:

  • Work that engages in illegal activities, such as working under the table at pubs or entertainment bars, is strictly prohibited.
  • Work for businesses and employers whose visa issuance is restricted due to criminal records such as illegal employment in the past
  • Jobs considered dangerous such as manufacturing business (Topic level 4 or higher holders are allowed) or construction business based on a business registration certificate
  • Work for employers that do not directly enter into an employment contract with the student, such as a delivery company.
  • Employment types such as dispatching and subcontracting.
  • Long-distance work based on the location of residence or University. Students’ jobs and residences need to be near where they study.
  • Work noted as restricted by the Minister of Justice or participating in activities that are incompatible with the student’s status is prohibited.

Keep in mind, the previous list of restricted job types for student work permits may change often. New rules and regulations occur by semester. Always check with Korean immigration for current information.

City v. Rural

The South Korean federal government would like to attract more international residents to rural areas of Korea. This means the government has been making it easier for students to get work permits if they study in more rural areas. Additionally, different types of work may be allowed in rural areas. Check with Korean immigration to learn more about this.

Home Country and Language

The reality is that Korean immigration may have different rules for students based on their home country or first language. For example, this may impact what language-related jobs a student can work at. For example, maybe English is one of the languages spoken in a student’s home country but they still can’t teach English as a second language.

Requirements for Applying for a Student Work Permit

Now that you understand some factors which impact student work permits, let’s look at a list of things international students need in order to apply for their permits. Work permit rules constantly change based on the following factors, as of September 2021, international students in South Korea follow the next steps when applying for a work permit:

  1. D-4 visa holders should complete six months of study (D-2 visa holders may apply immediately): D-4 student visa holders are typically required to complete at least one semester (six months) of their academic program in South Korea before they can apply for a work permit.
  2. Get a job offer: In most cases, students must secure a job offer before they can apply for a student work permit.
  3. Apply for a work permit at the Immigration Office: The application process involves completing a form, and usually requires the following documents:
    • Student ID
    • Passport
    • Alien Registration Card
    • Job contract or work agreement from the employer
    • A letter from the academic advisor or university permitting the student to work
  4. Adhere to work restrictions: Once granted, the student work permit usually has limitations. Students are typically allowed to work up to 20 hours per week during the semester, although they can work unlimited hours during vacations. They’re also restricted from working in certain sectors, like adult entertainment industries.

These rules are subject to change, and different rules may apply to different types of academic programs or visas. Therefore, it’s always best for students to check the most up-to-date information from the Korean Immigration Services or their university’s international office.

Social and Cultural Hurdles to Working in Korea

In addition to the factors impacting international student work permits in South Korea, many social factors impact students’ ability to find and keep a job. It’s important to realize that being legally allowed to work doesn’t mean students will find work.

International students often feel trapped in a mess of conflicting expectations such as the Korean government has its own social priorities, The university has its program goals, and international students have their financial needs. Since neither the government nor educational programs prioritize students’ needs, international students often feel unsupported and stressed as they navigate the following work-related issues alone:

Language

Many international students arrive in South Korea without functional Korean skills. As one can imagine, not speaking the local language may limit opportunities for employment. Companies generally need employees who can communicate with customers and co-workers.

Culture

The work culture in South Korea is different that other countries. Students may struggle to adapt to local norms for part-time jobs such as low wages, long work days, and different work expectations.

Schedules

Sometimes class schedules and employer schedules conflict. In this case, international students must quit their jobs in order to prioritize their studies. Since employers tend to want employees that prioritize the job, they may avoid hiring international students.

Lack of work experience

Many international students arriving in South Korea have no former work experience. This means finding an employer willing to rain international students for a job while also managing the culture and language barrier may be difficult. Such issues make international students difficult to hire.

Job Type

Many international students wish to have professional jobs that build work experience. However, this generally does not happen.

Exemptions for Work Permits

Like all many situations regarding immigration-related issues, small exceptions may exist. For example, one-time compensation or prize money that is earned during the course of everyday life and
does not contradict your purpose of staying as a student and does not require prior permission.

This exemption means that many international students choose to participate in social media promotion, acting projects, and other fun one-time compensation projects.

Consequences of Working with a Permit

If an international student works illegally in South Korea, they face serious consequences. Here are the potential penalties:

  1. Deportation: The student may be forcibly expelled from the country. This usually includes a ban on re-entry for a certain period, which could severely impact their studies and future travel plans.
  2. Fines: The student could be fined up to 20 million Korean Won (~$17,000 as of my last training data in September 2021) depending on the severity of the violation.
  3. Imprisonment: In extreme cases, the student might face imprisonment for up to three years.
  4. Academic Consequences: The student’s academic institution may also impose its own disciplinary actions, which could include suspension or expulsion.
  5. Future Visa Applications: The violation could affect the outcome of future visa applications, not just for South Korea, but potentially for other countries as well.

It’s, therefore, crucial to understand and adhere to the terms of your visa. If a student wishes to work in South Korea, they should seek the appropriate work permit or visa. As rules can change, always consult the latest guidelines from Korean immigration services or your university’s international office.

Your Work is Your Responsibility

Students from around the world often move to South Korea with no language ability or cultural knowledge expecting to find emotionally and financially rewarding work. However, being a student and an immigrant often makes this dream difficult to achieve. Such a harsh reality often leaves students feeling angry with South Korean culture and their university, which the international students feel should be helping them easily find work.

It’s important to realize that, it’s the international student’s responsibility to find work that the immigration office will approve. This can be quite difficult and time-consuming. It’s best to come to Korea with the money needed to study and not rely on a student work permit for survival.