Packing up your life to move abroad for a year is hard.
Especially when moving to a country you’ve never been to before. Looking back at how I packed for my year-long teaching adventure, I overpacked everything I didn’t need and underpacked everything I actually needed. No, I did not need to pack 12 mini bottles of maple syrup. And, yes, I should’ve packed a few more deodorant sticks to get me through Korea’s insanely humid summer.
Heading to South Korea to teach, but have never been before? Have no clue what to pack for your year-long adventure? Don’t fret!
Here is the ultimate packing list of things you will need and won’t need when making the big move to South Korea.
Korea is a shopping paradise. Clothes are trendy, plentiful, and cheap! You can and most likely will want to pick up lots of new clothes to add to your wardrobe in Korea. Keep this in mind when trying to stuff your entire wardrobe into a suitcase. Or, you may find that by the end of your contract you will have trouble packing up what you left home with, plus all of the new clothes you acquired during the year. If you feel like you’ve underpacked, don’t worry! You can find almost everything you need in Seoul, between Forever21, H&M, Zara, and the shops catering to foreigners throughout Itaewon.
What To Pack
Shoes. Korean feet are small. If you’re feet are a little bigger or wider than the average shoe size, you’ll want to bring your kicks from home. But, don’t panic about packing a dozen pairs of shoes. Western retailers like Nike, Adidas, H&M, Forever 21 and Zara can be found in larger cities and carry Western shoe sizes. I’ve picked up a few pairs of sneakers from ABC-Mart, a Japanese footwear retailer that carries tons of Western sizes and brands. You can find an ABC-Mart in every major Korean city.
Pants + Shorts. Not only are Korean feet small, but waistlines and bums are small too. Pack pants (especially your favourite jeans) and shorts to save yourself the journey to a Western retailer (if you will be living somewhere rural) and money.
Winter Clothes. Depending on where you live in the country, winters can be bone-chillingly cold. I’m saying this and I’m from Canada! Thankfully, I live in the Southern part of the country and experienced a relatively mild winter. But, the few times I visited Seoul during my winter break, I froze my butt off. Bring a warm winter coat or invest in one when you’re here, especially if you will be living or plan to travel outside of the Southern region.
Work Clothes. First impressions are important. So, of course, it’s important to have a few business casual outfits that you can mix up when you start teaching. Depending on your school, the dress code may be fairly strict or completely lax. My school falls somewhere in between. I can get away with wearing jeans to school if I dress them up with a business casual top. After your first few weeks of teaching, you will be able to gauge the strictness of the dress code of your school by observing how your coworkers dress. I will say though, I packed way too many work clothes and ended up sending a bunch of them home. Looking back, three, solid outfits that could be mixed up, would’ve been just fine.
For The Ladies
Bras + Underwear. Undergarments in Korea are small and tight-fitting. Depending on your size, you may want to bring enough underwear, bras and sports bras for the year. If you are a C-cup or larger, or have a bigger booty, you will probably have difficulty finding bras and underwear that fit you properly. I have found that a lot of Korean underwear is ultra conservative and old-fashioned (ajumma style!). So, if you’re looking for that fun, colourfully-printed, cheeky bottom, you’ll have to make the journey to Forever 21 in Seoul.
Swimwear. In Korea, you won’t have much use for a bikini. The beach and swimming culture is very different from Westerners are used to. Koreans go swimming fully-clothed to shield their bodies from the sun. When I wear a bikini at the beach in my town, I am stared at in horror and disbelief by the ajummas sheltered under their enormous umbrellas. Unless you live in Busan, you won’t see a single person on the beach in an actual swimsuit. Being that there is no real demand for swimsuits, you will have to travel to a bigger city to find them and the selection will be limited. So, if you are planning to visit or live in Busan, or make any trips to beach destinations outside of the country, pack a swimsuit or two from home.
What To Leave At Home
Socks. There is no shortage of socks in this country. Socks can be found everywhere, in all sorts of styles, sizes and prints. And, they’re ridiculously cheap! I’ve accumulated an impressive sock collection since moving to Korea, which includes pairs with cat faces, pizza, Pokémon and Sailor Moon.
Hats + Jewelry. Hats take up space and jewelry weighs down your suitcase. Only bring pieces you absolutely can’t live without. There are tons of accessory stores in Korea, with styles and price tags to satisfy everybody.
High Heels. Unless you are moving to Seoul and going clubbing all the time, you can probably leave these at home. I have yet to wear any of the four pairs I brought with me. When hitting up bars, generally both Koreans and foreigners dress a little more comfortably than back at home. I have worn sneakers, boots, or flats every time I’ve gone out, even in Seoul. If you really can’t stomach the idea of leaving these at home, bring one versatile pair.
T-Shirts + Sweaters + Sweatshirts. Bring your favourites and leave the rest at home. Sweaters and sweatshirts especially take up a lot of space in your luggage and you will definitely find some (and a whole lot of t-shirts) you like here.
Korea is considered one of the beauty capitals of the world. You will be overwhelmed by the selection of cosmetic and skincare shops and all of the amazing products they offer. But, despite being surrounded by beauty products galore, there are still some things from home you will want to bring with you.
What To Pack
Deodorant. There is very little use for deodorant here. Koreans don’t sweat or smell! Well, at least not as much as us Westerners do. Seriously though, we’re pretty gross compared to them! Spray and roll-on deodorants exist and you can find them in most marts. But, you will struggle to find deodorant sticks – and, will pay a small fortune for them if you do. Pack a year’s worth of your favourite brand from back home. And, maybe a little more than you think to get you through the unbearably humid and sweaty summer.
Toothpaste. I don’t like Korean toothpaste. There, I’ve said it. I don’t like the taste and it makes my mouth curiously dry. Unless you are living in a large city with a major supermarket or department store, you will have difficulty finding Western brands of toothpaste. I managed to order Colgate toothpaste online, but it was expensive compared to what I would’ve paid back in Canada.
Razors. They just don’t make them the same like they do back home. If you will be living in a smaller town, make sure to stock up on razors and cartridges!
Perfume + Cologne. Packing this will save you big bucks in Korea. You will most likely be able to find your favourite brands at any of the big department stores or order them online, but it will cost you!
Western Medicine + Prescriptions. Korean health care is pretty amazing. You can find most of what you need (a Korean brand equivalent) at your pharmacy or any major mart for a fraction of the cost you would back at home. Although, I would recommend bringing Western medicine you can’t live without. For me, this was Advil, Tylenol Cold and Flu, and Gravol. If you take any sort of prescription medicine, make sure you do your research before leaving, have what you need for the year, and if needed, a doctor’s note.
For The Ladies
Birth Control. The pill is cheap and available over-the-counter. But, the brands available in Korea are different from home. If you like your current brand and are worried about making a switch, pack what you will need for the year with you.
Tampons. Despite what you may have heard, you can find tampons in Korea! But, you will need to live in a bigger city and be prepared to dish out a few extra dollars than you would back at home. Not one, single store in my rural town sells tampons. I prepared accordingly by buying a year’s supply of tampons from Costco and received several concerned stares at the cash register in exchange.
Face Makeup. If your skin tone is even a shade darker than a light tan, or if you tan easily during the summer, you will have trouble finding foundation. Korean foundation tends to be dewy and sheer, compared to what we are used to. I regret not bringing a stockpile of my favourite foundation from home, as I have yet to find a Korean brand that works well for me.
What To Leave At Home
Shampoo + Conditioner + Body & Face Wash. Don’t put extra weight in your luggage! You can find most of your favourite Western brands including Dove, Pantene, and Head & Shoulders, everywhere (even in the rural parts!).
Makeup Collection + Nail Polish. Eyeshadow, brushes, eye liner, mascara, blush and nail polish. You can find all of these and more in any of Korea’s many cosmetic store chains, in more colours and at the lowest prices your eyes have ever seen. Western brands like Benefit, MAC, and NARS can be found in shopping centres, department stores, and online, but are pricier than back at home.
Hair Straightener + Dryer + Curler. Don’t risk blowing your expensive hair appliances from home! You can buy these in supermarkets, beauty stores or large marts for cheap. Although, if you have any of these with a European, 2-pin plug, then they should work just fine.
Don’t Forget These!
Documents. Be sure to have either the original or photocopy of all important documents with you. This includes your passport, degree, and teaching certificates (if applicable). Your school may ask for a copy of these to have for their own files. If you decide you want to stay another year in Korea, but apply to a different school or program, you will need the original copies of these documents.
Extra Passport Photos. Two or more colour passport photos to apply for your Alien Resident Card. I brought extras in case I lost any or needed them for something else. Learn more about passport photos here.
Medical Insurance. This is completely optional. Although, I would recommend having it, you never know what can happen! You are not covered by your school’s medical insurance until you receive your ARC. This takes about a month. Make sure the insurance you purchase covers you for your first month.
Spending Money. How much should you bring to hold you through until your first paycheque? That totally depends on you and the type of person you are! The amount suggested by recruiters is ₩1,000,000 KRW (about $1,100 CAD) and for most, this amount will be enough to keep you afloat. You will have more than a few, initial startup costs when arriving in Korea. But, in my opinion, generally the average person can get by on less than ₩1,000,000 KRW per month. If you like to go out or eat out a lot, or if you have a minor shopping addiction (no judgments – I mean, Korea is a shopper’s paradise after all), you may want to bring a little more just in case.
Unlocked Phone. Don’t forget to take care of this before you arrive! Most unlocked phones will support Korean phone plans or prepaid services. I unlocked mine while waiting at the Toronto airport by calling my Canadian phone company’s customer service line.
E-Reader. Who wants to lug around a bunch of clunky books? Besides, English books in Korea are expensive and can only be found in specialty bookstores. This is the one item I really regret not bringing with me.
Travel Backpack. If you are planning to do any trips throughout Korea or make a trip abroad during your vacation time, this will come in handy. Make sure it’s a standard carry-on size to avoid having to pay any fees or having to check it in, especially when trying to save on costs by flying through discount airlines in Asia. I use a 45L backpacking pack, and have had no problems with any of the discount airlines so far. Although, mine is fairly adjustable and I have mastered how to make it appear deceivingly small and compact.
Spices + Foods + Snacks You Can’t Live Without. If there is food from home you absolutely can’t live without, pack it! Don’t go overboard though! You’ll be surprised how many Western foods you can now find in the big supermarkets and online. In just the past few months alone, two of my favourite treats from back home began to surface on the shelves of marts – Reese’s and Kraft Dinner. Although, I do regret not packing vanilla extract with me. I use it a lot and have struggled to find it.
One Large Towel. You may have heard you can’t find towels larger than hand towels in Korea. This is slightly outdated information. Although large towels are more of a recent trend here, you will absolutely be able to find large towels in the big supermarkets. But, if you can’t make your way over to one within the first few weeks of settling down, bringing one from home is a good idea.
Gifts. To bring gifts for your principal and co-teachers or not? Some people do and some people don’t. Ultimately, this is up to you! I did bring gifts, but, I brought way too many. I was told I’d be teaching at four schools and had no idea how many principals, vice principals and co-teachers I would have. So, to be on the safe side, I packed all of Canada’s maple syrup supply. I ended up only giving four, small bottles of maple syrup as gifts and had enough leftover to get me through the year. I also discovered shortly after I arrived, that I could buy maple syrup in Korea. So, lugging all of these bottles of syrup over here was a huge waste of space in my luggage. If you’re going to bring gifts, think carefully about what to bring. And, make sure that packing them doesn’t prevent you from having to leave something else you really want behind.
International Driving Permit. I don’t drive. And if I did, I don’t know if I would be daring enough to drive in Korea. But, if you do drive and want to participate in a real life version of Need for Speed, then you will want to obtain an IDP. An IDP will come in handy if you want to rent a car within Korea or if you decide to travel outside of Korea. They’re cheap and easy to get, so why not have one handy just in case? Here’s more information about IDPs for Canadians and Americans and how to get yours.
Having lived in Korea for just over a year now and looking back at how I packed, these are my personal packing list suggestions. Keep in mind, I live in a small town and have limited access to big city luxuries. I do a lot of my shopping online. So, thank goodness for Gmarket, or I would have to make a lot of trips to bigger cities to get my hands on some pretty basic items.
Most things you want or need you will be able to find in Korea. It may require a bit of a hunt and come at a higher price point, but you definitely will not be deprived of items from home. To find out what you can get your hands on in Korea (before making a decision to pack a stockpile from home), you can check out these two online retailers.
- Gmarket – Korea’s version of Amazon, selling just about everything and anything you could imagine.
- iHerb – An American retailer that ships to Korea for cheap, selling all sorts of natural and health products and foods.