What Does it Cost to Live in Seoul, South Korea for a Month?
You’ll often see Seoul cited as one of the most expensive cities in the world to live, but I’m here to tell you it doesn’t have to be that way.
It can be. There’s no doubt about it. But I think that’s true of any major city on our planet. After all, today, our cities hold the bulk of the earth’s population – and with vast numbers of people come vast numbers of choices. Seoul, more than any other city in the world, may reflect that. And here’s where a little history might come in handy.
The Modern History of Seoul In a Nutshell
These days, Korea is synonymous with Gangnam Style, K-Pop, K-beauty, K-dramas and pretty much anything else that fits into the Hallyu wave that’s already swept across Asia, and now has international markets in its sights.
But before Psy and Gangnam Style, before Korean sheet masks, and before kimchi spread around the world, there was the Korean War. And a country that was divided and left in utter devastation.
As I look out the window of my 33rd-floor apartment at the modern, industrialized city around me, it’s even difficult for ME to truly comprehend what has been accomplished here… and I grew up with my parent’s stories of what it was like living in undeveloped Korea. It was bleak, to say the least.
You see, 70 years ago, Korea was utterly devastated and turned to rubble. There were no trees, no food and no economy. People were living hand to mouth, literally just trying to survive.
Miracle on the Han
In 1961, 8 years after the Armistice between the 2 Koreas was signed, South Korea had a per capita income of less than $80 per person. And while just $80 a year to live is unimaginable, what’s even more unimaginable is that just 40 years later, the so-called Miracle on the Han, saw it develop into the 15th largest economy in the world.
My point with all of this is that South Korea might be the only country on earth, that holds within its public consciousness, living memories of utter poverty and great wealth… all within a single generation. And you’ll see this reflected in society at large. There is utter poverty and great wealth… and the living choices and costs associated with whichever strata of society you inhabit here… for better or for worse.
Seoul’s Totally Weird Housing Costs
Gosiwon. Villa. Apartment. Hanok. Officetel. The number of different housing options in Seoul can be dizzying. Add in the totally weird system of payment for housing, and it gets even more confusing.
At the bottom end of the spectrum, you’ll find gosiwons. These are basic rooms that are usually furnished with a bed and a desk and not much else. They can be very affordable though, and a lot of students or single people live in these tiny spaces. Depending on the area, they can cost as little as a couple hundred dollars per month.
At the top end of the spectrum, you’ll find not houses, but new construction apartments – usually found within huge complexes. In Seoul, there are not that many houses available to live in, except in some older areas. It’s actually not that surprising since Seoul is the 5th most densely populated city in the world. However, it’s also because most people WANT to live in apartment complexes.
Where I Live in Seoul
The apartment complex that I live in was built along with 2 other apartment complexes on 3 corners of a huge intersection. Each complex has around 70 buildings and stands 25-33 stories tall. The most amazing thing about this complex is that it was all completed, from start to finish, in just FIVE years! That’s 210 huge apartment buildings. Did I mention, it was all done in just FIVE years!?
Apartments are usually the most expensive places to buy and rent in the city because they’re outfitted with the most modern amenities, schools, playgrounds, fountains and a lot of trees. Most of these are rented under a contract system called “jeonsae,” which is basically a HUGE security deposit.
The popularity of the neighbourhood usually dictates the amount of the jeonsae. High demand areas can command up to 80% of the purchase price in jeonsae. So if the purchase price for an apartment was $1M, the jeonsae could be as high as $800,000. And that’s just to rent it out for a couple of years. The good news though, is that renters get their jeonsae BACK at the end of their contract, and pay no rent in the meantime.
Cost of Utilities and Other Expenses of Living in Seoul
When I moved to Korea from Canada, I realized how insane prices were for things like cable, internet and phone there. In Seoul, all of these things are incredibly affordable… at least from my point of view. I pay just $30 a month for cable and internet in my home and use a pay as you go phone that I load up with another $30 every 2 or 3 months. Of course, this is the bottom end of the spectrum, and you can pay much, much more with phone plans and special television channels, but it can be very affordable if you want it to be.
I will say though, that a big part of the reason why I can get by with using a pay as you go phone here, is because there’s free wifi pretty much everywhere in the city.
When it comes to utilities in homes, it really depends on how new the construction is. When I lived in a villa (not as fancy as it sounds – since these are usually older houses, where each floor is individually rented out), I paid an arm and a leg for heating in winter. My bills would range from $250-$400 a month just to heat an 800 square foot apartment – mostly because the insulation was horrible and the heating system old and outdated. It wasn’t even that warm. [Sad face]
Now I live in a 1200 square foot, newer construction apartment, and pay between $180 – $350 per month (in winter) for all utilities combined, security guards, underground parking, and facilities like huge playgrounds, schools, free fitness classes and more.
My guess is you’re starting to understand why Koreans choose to live in newer apartments if they can.
What Does it Cost to Get Around Seoul
I’d bet you’d be surprised to find out that a lot of older Koreans don’t have a drivers license and don’t know how to drive. And in fact, I have many friends here in their 30s or 40s that never drive and don’t plan to get a license. It’s a testament to just how incredible the city’s public transit system is… and honestly how gnarly the traffic is. In fact, not long after moving here, I let my Canadian driver’s license expire!
Having a car in Korea is expensive, mostly because gas is expensive and because it takes a long time to get anywhere due to the intense traffic. But car insurance is incredibly cheap, starting from around $300 per year, depending on how much experience you have driving, and what type of car you have.
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Public transportation here, on the other hand, is incredibly affordable and convenient. Seoul has 22 separate rapid transit, light metro, and commuter rail lines that criss-cross the entire city, as well as connecting all of its satellite cities. A ride on the super clean, super modern Seoul subway starts at around $1.25 and goes up depending on distance. Transfer between subway lines to buses is free and easily accomplished with a T-Money card that you can use to pay your fare on the subway, buses, and even taxis. You can even use it to buy things in a convenience store!
Taxis are also relatively cheap compared to other major cities, and I’ve taken 30-minute rides across the entire city for less than $10. Actually catching one might be the biggest challenge you face.
How Much Does It Cost to Eat in Seoul?
Ahh, Korean food. This is definitely one of the very best parts of living in Seoul… and the great thing is that it’s mostly very affordable. There’s no separate tax or tip involved when eating out at a restaurant, and it’s totally possible for 2 people to have a super healthy, tasty meal out in a restaurant for less than $15. In fact, a lot of people NEVER eat at home, because the cost of eating out is almost equal to cooking at home.
To give you an idea – in my neighborhood, for $8 or less, you can get a bowl of delicious Japanese ramen, a lunch set of sushi with full-size pork cutlet, an order of hearty Korean bone broth soup, or a bibimbap full of veggies, seafood or meat. And if you want to eat even cheaper, you totally can! A gimbap (basically a sushi roll) can be had for anywhere from $2 – $5, depending on what’s in it.
At the top end of the spectrum, you can expect to pay hundreds of dollars for a meal. If you choose to eat out in foreign food restaurants, you’ll always pay a lot more than you do for Korean or Japanese food. A single plate of pasta will cost a minimum of $15… and if you go to a high-end steakhouse, expect to pay hundreds of dollars. There are also international fine dining restaurants here, and Korean hanwoo (premium beef) places that can cost upwards of $300 per person, not including drinks.
Why Live in Seoul?
I’ve traveled to 61 countries, and countless cities and for me, there’s no other place on earth that compares to Seoul.
It’s a city that never sleeps. One that’s racing into the future as fast as it possibly can, and you’ll feel that energy and vibrancy with every step you take on her congested streets. There’s a constant movement, change and forward momentum that I’ve struggled to find anywhere else in the world. Seoul gets under your skin in a way that’s hard to explain until you’ve spent some time here.
And so, despite the challenges of co-existing with 10 million other souls, in one of the world’s most densely populated cities, there’s still nowhere else on earth I’d choose to live.
Shelley Lee is a coffee loving, cubicle hating, toddler-toting introvert, who quit the grind 10 years ago to live life on her own terms. She’s visited 61 countries so far, morphing from budget backpacker to mid-range flashpacker to family traveler along the way. Highlights include getting married in Thailand, a safari in the Serengeti, a babymoon in the Maldives, and any time spent on a Greek beach. Read about it all, on her blog Travel-Stained.com.