You’ve made the choice to move to Korea, bought your (one way!) plane ticket, and now you’re getting ready to pack.
I’ll be honest here: I packed for Korea the night before I moved there. It was not my smartest move, so learn from my mistakes! Though, to be honest, the very fact that you’re reading this proves that you are better organized than I was.
This is a beast of a post, so I’ll divide it up into a few different categories: clothes, documents, toiletries, electronics, and your carry on.
Koreans will tell you proudly that they boast four distinct seasons, which means
half of the year is hellishly hot or cold the weather can be quite diverse. During the winters, the arctic winds come howling down from Siberia, leaving the peninsula a frozen wasteland pretty chilly. The summers, however, are blisteringly hot and humid, with temperatures soaring up to thirty-five degrees (95°, in Freedom Units). However, no matter how cold it gets, you can be sure of two things: Korean girls are going to wear miniskirts (I have even seen them in snowstorms in January!) and that necklines are quite high. All cleavage (for those fortunate enough to have it) is covered, along with your shoulders.
In other words, leave your tank-tops at home but bring them daisy dukes.
If you apply with EPIK (English Program in Korea), they don’t tell you what city you’re going to be living in until you arrive in Korea, which feels a bit like Russian Roulette. Therefore, I highly recommend packing a capsule wardrobe: only pack a few things with a similar color palette that you can easily mix-and-match. For a capsule wardrobe, use a rule of three, which means that you pack no more than three of each type of clothing item (save socks and underwear.) For example, three t-shirts, three button-up shirts, three pairs of shoes, etc.
This will start as a base for what to bring to Korea.
- Three t-shirts
- Two tank-tops (to wear as undershirts, as shoulders are pretty scandalous here)
- Two button-up shirts
- Three dress shirts
- Three skirts (Optional for men)
- Three pairs of leggings (both to wear with skirts and layer under my pants during the winter)
- Two pairs of jeans
- One pair of dress pants
- One lightweight fall/spring trench-coat
- One parka (As mentioned, it’s very cold here)
- Three scarves, of varying weights for different temperatures
- Seven pairs of underwear (enough to last a week without laundry, which is important as you might not have access to a washing machine during your orientation.)
- Three bras (Also optional for men.)
- One pair of tennis shoes
- One pair of sandals
- One pair of boots
I know this list probably sounds pretty Spartan to some of you fashionistas out there, but there are a few things to consider.
You can have additional items shipped to you once you know your address
Flying an extra bag can be exorbitantly expensive, and then you have to drag it after you to your new home in a strange country. It can be both cheaper and a lot more practical to have your things shipped to you, as soon as you know your address, if you’re lucky enough to have friends or family willing to make a trip to the post office for you. Several of my friends had things periodically shipped to them when they moved to Korea, and when they moved away again. For example, last spring one of my friends packed up all of her winter gear and shipped it back to Canada, which made packing up her apartment when her contract ended the next fall a lot easier.
Expat communities are always shedding members, and therefore, stuff.
EPIK has a pretty high turnover rate, as a lot of people only stay for a year or two. Even though this seems like a short time, a lot of people end up accumulating a lot of things which they can’t or don’t want to their next destination. Therefore, tons of people in your new community are often more than happy to give away their things. I myself have scored everything from curtains, sweaters, and even a couch (for free!) from leaving EPIK teachers.
Stores exist in other countries.
Even if you were to arrive in Siberia only to find that you had forgotten to pack any socks, I can guarantee you that there are stores there. You can find stores everywhere. North Korea even has stores. Smell the capitalism. SMELL IT.
I’ll admit, shopping in Korea is quite easy for me. I’m 154cm (almost 5’1!) and 45 kg (about a hundred pounds), so I fit quite easily into Korean-sized clothes, as people tend to be a lot smaller than back in the US. However, if you are taller or heavier (the cutoff point seems to be around a size 6 for women, with a height restriction of 5’6 or so), it might be difficult for you to find some items, but there are always specialty shops and tailors. Additionally, online shopping makes finding even difficult sizes easy. Anyway, everywhere in this country delivers (even McDonald’s!). So, don’t sweat it too much.
Documents and Things
Do not, under any circumstance, forget your passport. You won’t be even able to get on the plane without it, and you’ll have wasted a lot of valuable time both packing and reading through this guide. Make sure to have a copy of your passport easily accessible, just in case the worst happens and you somehow manage to lose it during your journey.
Along with your passport, you should obtain your visa before arriving in Korea. It will be in your passport, and declare your length of stay in-country. You’ll need it to obtain your ARC (alien registration card) once you arrive in Korea.
Arrival Information and ink pen
On the plane, you normally have to fill out an arrival card, which may ask for the address or telephone number of the place you’re staying. If you’re working with EPIK, it’s unlikely you’ll know your permanent address, so you can use the address of your regional office. You’ll thus need to have this information readily accessible. I like to either take a screenshot of the information on my phone or else write it down and slip it into an outside pouch on my carry-on bag. Make sure you also pack a pen in your carry-on, so you can fill your card out on the plane and get ahead of the queue at the airport.
Credit or debit card
Despite what my grandmother seems to think, Korea is a first-world country. There are banks and ATMs everywhere (which have the option to use in English!). Card is definitely king in Korea, with no minimal amount required for most transactions.
On that note: make sure to call your bank before you head to Korea.
Let me repeat.
Make sure to call your bank before you head to Korea.
If you don’t report that you’re traveling, your bank may see your card usage abroad, think “gee, that seems weird!” and promptly shut down your card. This happened to me once when I was traveling through Japan during vacation, and let me tell you, it isn’t ideal.
Personally, I use CitiBank. If you live in the US, I would highly recommend opening an account there before you leave for Korea. You can transfer money back online for free, which will save you tons of money in the long run. Additionally, CitiBank has branches throughout Asia, which makes traveling that much more of a breeze.
Toiletries (For Everone)
You know what country is really famous for having some of the best skincare in the world?
If you said South Korea, you were right.
There are shops everywhere here that sell all the toiletries you could possibly dream of, and most of them for a pretty darn good price, especially considering how high-quality they are.
That being said, toiletries are where tons of people break the bank on both space and weight limits. It’s easy to throw all of your different products into a case when packing.
During your life abroad, products you used back home will probably change. Markets are different in every country; you may not be able to find your normal favorites. It has been years since I used Colgate brand toothpaste or Matrix shampoo, but that has long since ceased to bother me. I have found equivalents that work just fine (or even better!). During your new life in Korea, you’re going to have to get used to a lot of new, foreign things and shampoo is an easy place to start.
Really, there are only a few items that you absolutely need to pack.
If you take a medication, make sure you have at least a two-month supply of it as long as it is legal in the country that you are going to. You’ll also need to do some research and see if you’ll have access to your needed prescriptions.
In Korea, there are pharmacies everywhere. You can simply walk in and tell the nice man or lady what your problem is, and they’ll help you find what you need. If you have to make a trip to the doctor, visits are relatively cheap here. (I think I paid about three USD every time I’ve visited my local clinic).
Toothbrush, travel-sized toothpaste, and dental floss
Even a travel-sized tube will last you a couple of weeks, which gives you plenty of time to buy a full-sized tube after you get to your new home. Additionally, a travel-size tube means you can take it on the plane, which means you’ll be able to get rid of that airplane-food taste as soon as possible.
Travel-sized containers of shampoo and conditioner
You can take those bottles you stole from a hotel. Make sure you have enough to last you a week or so once you’ve arrived at your destination, so you won’t be stressed to immediately go out and find refills. There is, under no circumstances, a reason to pack full-sized bottles of shampoo and conditioner. They are heavy space eaters that will explode in your suitcase and leave you with lavander-scented regret.
Bar soap is very useful, as it can also double as a quick way to wash out some clothes or scrub out stains (such as the infamous kimchi stain). Additionally, you’ll be able to take this onto the plane in your carry-on bag and clean up en route to your destination or shortly after you arrive, so you don’t look like too much of a hot mess the first time you meet your new boss.
Deodorant costs between 6-8 USD here, which is roughly 6-8 times more expensive than I was used to in the US. Most Koreans are genetically blessed in that their perspiration doesn’t smell, so deodorant is a bit of a luxury item.
A certain writer once pointed out that a towel is the most useful object in the galaxy, and he definitely had a point. Not only can it dry you off, but it be used to double as a blanket or pillow; sit on; make a makeshift bag; wear as an exciting hat; and a myriad of other useful things.
For the most part, Korea has super-tiny towels that would wrap once around a teddy bear, but not a grown human-sized body. I don’t consider myself especially girly, but I do like a big-enough towel to fit around myself once I get out of the shower so I can browse the Internet in peace.
Toiletries (For the Ladies)
One of Korea’s leading exports is beauty products. A lot of people come to Korea simply to get their hands on some of these products, so I can very well assure you that you can leave that three-year old tube of mascara at home.
Unfortunately, it can be quite difficult for those with darker skin tones to find products such as concealer or powder. If you’re a regular make-up wearer with skin darker than what’s normally marked beige, I would recommend bringing some products from home.
Or else, y’know, ordering online.
It’s easy enough to find sanitary napkins in Korea, but tampons can be a challenge at times. A Diva Cup (like a reusable tampon) or Thinx (period-proof panties) are both great, environment and space-saving alternatives to normal products. With whatever product you use, I would recommend bringing enough to last you through at least your first period. There’s nothing worse than being stranded away from a way to deal with your period when in a foreign country – I know from experience.
If you’re on the pill, it is available over-the-counter at pharmacies in most cases. Just tell the pharmacist your preferred brand. However, some other forms of birth control, such as an implant or patch, are more difficult to obtain. You’ll have to make a trip to the doctor for those, and evidently, long-term birth control can be tricky. You can read more about contraceptives in Korea here.
One last note: nobody ever needs to pack a hairdryer. They’re easy to find here.
Conveniently enough, Korea uses the same plug that they do in most of the EU. It looks like this:
If your electronics don’t have a plug like this, you’ll need a converter. You can pick one (or seven, if you’re prone to losing things like I am) up for pretty cheap. To save on even more packing space, just wait until you’re in Korea to pick up ones that will fit on your USB cables!
You’re moving to the country with the fastest Internet in the world, so a laptop is definitely a must. If you’re a teacher like me, you’ll be doing tons of lesson-planning, writing emails, and wasting time looking at cat pictures, so you’ll need your own contraption to do it on. (You will have a computer at school, but some sites are blocked!) Personally, I use a Chromebook. They’re dirt cheap, really light, and super easy to use. Also, because all of my work is done directly on Google, I never have to worry about files being lost or accidentally deleted. I can plan on the go, and then open my lessons on my school computer without having to worry about those pesky, easily lose-able USB drives.
If you’re moving to tech-central Korea, you’ll probably need a smartphone.
Koreans love their phones. If I were to go into the subway and snap a picture, I can virtually guarantee that at least 90% of the passengers would be using their phones. They’re infinitely useful. As a sole example, I do all of my banking on my phone, including transferring money to the US to pay my student loans.
I’ve always loved reading, but as a traveler, it’s a pain to carry around more than one book at a time. Worse, one book will only last a single long-haul flight. This is where the e-reader shines. They can hold and entire library, and the battery life is incredible- if you keep the WiFi off, it can last up to a month. English bookstores are few and far between in Korea (though I will admit, if you want to order books online, the delivery system is very good.) E-readers are also very slim and lightweight, which means you can easily tuck one into your carry on for those long hours traveling, and then you don’t have to worry about what to do with all your old-fashioned books once you move away.
Obviously, you don’t have to have a camera, but you’ll be living in Korea! You might as well capture it on film.
Your carry on should contain, at minimum, the following items:
- One complete change of clothes
- Three pairs of underwear
- Toothbrush/toothpaste/bar of soap
- Valuable items, including your passport. We talked about this.
Luggage does get lost sometimes, and if this happens, you’ll want the bare minimum to keep you set while the airline tries to find it. It’s also much easier to live out of your carry on for a day or two, instead of trying to unpack and sort through your suitcase immediately after arrival.
This guide should give you a good head-start into packing. Just remember, don’t stress too much over it! In the end, the things that you take with you are just things. It’s your experience that really matters.