Understanding Residency in South Korea

Would you like to better understand how becoming a South Korean resident allows you to integrate into South Korean governmental, social, and financial systems? In this blog post South of Seoul volunteers attempt to breakdown the interlinked systems which create the foundation for a smooth and easy life as an international resident of South Korea.

About South Korea Government Structure

South Korea has a centralized democratic republic government divided into three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. This means that Korea’s governmental power, as a country, rests in the body of citizens entitled to vote for officers and representatives responsible to them.

The South Korean federal Executive and Legislative branches of government operate primarily at the national level. Local governments also contain Executive and Legislative bodies of their own and remain semi-autonomous from the federal jurisdiction. (Remember this for later, it’s going to become very important)

However, the Judicial Branch of the South Korean government operates at both the national and local levels. The Judicial Branch overseas immigration and residency-related issues. (Once again, remember this for later.)

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About Residency for International Residents in South Korea

The Judicial Branch of the South Korean government manages immigration and residency status across South Korea and is referred to as the Ministry of Justice. The Ministry of Justice considers the following factors when creating South Korean residency types:

  • Country of origin
  • Visa type
  • Age
  • Income bracket
  • Skill set
  • Employment type
  • Educational background
  • Language ability

In short, there is no one type of residency for international residents. Different populations in South Korea must follow different regulations and different systems based on Visa Type dictating the terms of residency.

Defining Our International Residency Lens

Such variations in foreigner experiences create confusion within the international and local communities when talking about “foreigner” as a homogeneous group experience. In fact, there are many different experiences lived by international residents of Korea. Information about living as an international resident in South Korea should be placed within the lens of the group analyzing the system. Examples of differing foreign experiences include:

  • International students
  • US Military
  • Diplomatic staff
  • Migrant workers
  • Foreign spouses and family
  • Educators
  • Company employees
  • Foreign born Koreans

By ‘different foreigner experiences’ we mean that there are variations in the residency systems, banking systems, insurance systems, etc. For example, some foreigners may be required to have national health insurance while others are not. Additionally, some may have access to the National Pension while others do not. Or, different groups of residents may need to provide different types of paperwork to gain access to the same services. Such variances may create confusion and anger for those that experience them as they may feel inequitable or discriminatory.

The research for this blog includes the experiences of 1) international students, 2) educators, 3) US Military, and 4) foreign born Koreans.

Becoming a Resident of South Korea

When you move to South Korea you must register to become a resident of South Korea. To become a resident of South Korea you must have an appropriate visa and register with Korean immigration. Korea tightly monitors immigration and has strict rules for residency based on visa types. Each visa type impacts your residency in Korea and what resources and support systems you may have access to while living in South Korea.

There are some caveats to needing to be a resident of South Korea in order to live in South Korea. For example, members of the US Military live in South Korea under the SOFA Agreement. Under this agreement individuals affiliated with the US Military can live in South Korea but do not participate in Korean social and financial systems. They remain dependent on US social and financial systems. That being said, many such individuals may choose to also become residents of South Korea to improve their access to many of the conveniences provided by Korea.

In short, when we talk about South Korean Residency we talk about a system of integration into South Korean society. We are not talking about the simple act of residing in South Korea. It’s a small conceptual difference. As previously mentioned, US Military reside in South Korea but are often not South Korean Residents and thus do not have access to the same comforts and conveniences of South Korean Residents.

South Korea Residency Systems and Responsibilities

Residents in South Korea interact with some common government and social systems. Such systems may include the:

Participation in such systems may mean financial contributions or filing paperwork to state that you do not need to participate in the systems. For example, if you have private health insurance from your home country you may need to register this with the National Health Care service so that you are not automatically enrolled.

South of Seoul volunteers have documented ways in which international residents connect with these government and social systems upon arrival in South Korea.

A Map of Connections Regarding South Korean Residency and National Systems

In order to help each international resident unravel their unique situation, South of Seoul created the following infographic to document the relationships between South Korean Residency and the primary South Korean government, financial, health, and social systems. The systems may change over time. Expect variations based on visa type.

Resident life in South Korea infographic

The black, red, and blue dotted lines represent actions steps International Residents need to take. You may need to file paperwork, open accounts, or register information with the associated office. The black dotted lines are action steps that must be taken by the majority of International Residenents while the red dotted lines refer to action steps heavily impacted by country of origin. The blue dotted lines mean that action steps may need taken depending on visa type an other factors.

The light blue dashed lines denote digital linking between systems. Action steps taken at a specific office or system, denoted by a circle with an image, triggers information sharing between certain systems. It’s important for Residents to understand how systmes link in unseen ways.

Each circle with an image refers to a specific office or system. The grey box contains the infographic key which labels the meaning of the circle and image. South of Seoul chose to use images rather than names to create a more streamlined visual graphic. However, it does add one more step in order to cross reference the meanings.

Each circle with teal or orange and text denotes action steps of documents which may be accessed via a specific office or system. The teal circles are services or systmes provided by the pecific office or system and the orange circles refer to paperwork which may need gathered or filed.

Steps for Establishing South Korean Residency

The infographic establishes the bases for understanding each of the following steps related to a specific office or system which supports South Korean Residents.

Register With Immigration

Beginning in the center of the infographic, residency begins with a visit to immigration in South Korea. At immigration, you will apply for your FRC card. Each area of South Korea has a designated immigration office based on the address of residency.

After applying for residency status, it takes approximately 3-4 weeks for the card to arrive. During this time, we recommend preparing to create a plan of action such as:

  • Choose a bank
  • Decide on a phone provider
  • Locate the nearest hospital or clinic who can support your health insurance health checks

Looking at the previous infographic, you can see the dotted arrows leading away from the FRC in the center of the image. Such arrows indicate the Korean social systems the FRC connects to within Korean society. We used icons to represent each system (in order to make the infographic less busy) and included a key to what each icon represents.

Aquire a Smart Phone Number

Once you have your FRC card from immigration, you will need to go to your selected phone sales center and get a Korean phone number registered to your FRC card. You will never want to change this phone number as it will become your primary source of identity verification.

Your smartphone sits at the center of South Koreas ‘digital certificate’ system which creates the foundation for the smooth integration of social services. Your digital certificate will be used for linking banks, taxes, and health services such as vaccine verifications.

Looking at the previous infographic, you can relationships between the Smart Phone Number and how it may interact with South Korean social systems. Some of the systems (such as banking) require you to take actions (shown with the dotted lines) and some happen automatically without you realizing it (shown by the dashed blue lines).

Open a Bank Account

The Korean banking system remains largely insular despite great strides to better integrate with global banking systems. This means that using international debit and credit cards in South Korea can often be difficult. For example, 1) many businesses do not accept foreign credit cards, 2) many ATMs do not allow global withdrawals, and 3) Korean online shopping and apps usually accept only local payment options.

Opening a bank account in Korea enrolls you into the systems you need to be a part of in order to:

  • Engage with HomeTax (the national taxation system)
  • Receive direct payment deposits
  • Pay for food delivery
  • Make online reservations for local events
  • Book local hotels and pensions
  • Send transfers
  • Online banking such as Kakao
  • And so much more…

Depending on your visa and situation in South Korea. Opening a bank account might need to happen before getting a phone and sometimes it needs to happen after getting a phone number. This will depend on your situation.

Looking at the previous infographic, you can see what systems you can interact with once you have a bank account and a smartphone. The dotted black lines indicate the systems you need to set up while at the bank such as your: 1) digital certificate, 2) smartphone banking, 3) online banking, 4) transportation card (to use your debit card as a bus/subway card) and 4) Hipass cards (if you drive). ** Each of these services need to be setup with the help of your banker. They will most likely not do any of these things automatically – you must request them.**

Learn About Your Health Insurance

Looking at the previous infographic, you can see that Korean health insurance may be either public or private. This means that you may need to take some actions related to your health insurance.

South Korea requires foreign residents to have health insurance. This includes all international students, even those studying on foreign campuses. If you do not have health insurance, you will be automatically enrolled in Korean National Health Insurance (NHIS) with has premiums of around 50,000-150,000 a month depending on your visa type.

If you have health insurance equal to or better than the health insurance provided by NHIS you can register such insurance with the NHIS and avoid paying for NHIS insurance. You have 6 months to register your private insurance and avoid paying NHIS premiums.

If you are employed in South Korea you need to know what type of health insurance you have and ensure that your employer has registered any private insurance correctly. If you do not have registered health insurance you may get hit with a health insurance bill 6 months into your stay in Korea.

Registering Foreign COVID-19 Vaccinations

Looking at the previous infographic, you can see that you will need a Korean phone number linked to your FRC in order to register your foreign COVID-19 vaccine and have it registered with the KDCA and thus sync with the COOV app and other verification systems.

If you were vaccinated outside of Kores with a WHO-recognized vaccine, you may register it in South Korea at your local Community Health Center. Once you register your vaccination it will be linked to your Digital Certificate thus automatically updating the Korean vaccination system and the COOV app.

Registering your vaccine in Korea immediately allows you access to COVID-19 vaccination boosters. As a resident of South Korea, you will need to stay current with local vaccine requirements. You do not have to have NHIS to be eligible for a COVID-19 booster vaccine.

Registering your vaccine in Korea also allows you to print out current vaccine verification paperwork for international travel via the KDCA website. Such paperwork can be printed in English

Annual Taxes

The South Korean digital certificate keeps track of your dedications throughout the year. At the end of each year, you will print a form from the HomeTax website which will be used for filing your taxes. Many employers file year-end taxes for their employees. Such personal taxes should be filed by the first paycheck in January. Residents should be prepared for possibly paying a tax adjustment in January which the employer automatically deducts from the wages.

Additionally, some countries may have tax treaties with South Korea which allows some residents to avoid paying Korean income tax for a period of time.

National Pension

Some residents who work in South Korea may participate in the National Pension depending on the agreements between South Korea and their home countries. Residents who participate in the National Pension contribute 50% and their company contributes 50%. The pension may be cashed out if the residents leave Korea before the pension becomes vested.

Additionally, some employers offer private pensions for international residents employed for their companies. The situation around such pensions varies by company and pension type.

Local Government Centers

Many issues related to residency may be handled at local government offices such as a City Hall or neighborhood administrative office. Such centers may commonly be referred to as a Gumin Center. However, such a name applies specifically to a -Gu office. There are also -Si and -Eup offices for smaller cities.

South Korea also has semi-autonomous local governments. The processes and paperwork managed by local government offices may change based on where an international resident lives in South Korea. Local offices may handle such issues as family registry, businesses licenses, taxation forms, and entry/exit certificates.

Korean Government and Social Systems Evolve Quickly

This blog captures a moment in time and the system documented may change at any time. Korean government and society change quickly. Such quick changes may be made possible by the fact the South Korean government is a centralized democratic republic empowered by the voting public. One can not rely on information from a year ago when living in South Korea. Residents must work to find current information.

Korea’s Flexible Government Creates Challenges for International Residents

Although the governmental flexibility often works well for Korean citizens, such flexibility and fluidity may cause issues for international residents for the following reasons:

  • Rules and laws change faster than English language information can be updated.
  • Constantly changing rules feel unsafe when living in a foreign culture.
  • Regularly changing rules may seem inequitable since each International Resident may have a different experience
  • International Residents may feel they are chasing an impossible dream since the goal post for types of residency may change regularly

Local Semi-Autonomous Governance May Create Challenges for International Residents

Since local governments have semi-autonomous governance, they may change systems to better meet the needs of their local community. This means the expectations for International Residents may change depending on the location within Korea. However, information available in English may only be based on information from Seoul since local governments may not allocate support for information sharing in foreign languages.

Additionally, the fact that systems associated with the Judicial Branch follow national governance is the same for both national and local levels, while systems associated with the Executive and Legislative Branches of South Korean government vary between national and local implementation creates added confusion. International Residents often to do not have a clear understanding of who manages which system and where to access support related to the system.

More information about residency

Military welcome packet
Teacher welcome packet
Student welcome packet