Monday, August 17, 2009

How much money should I bring to South Korea?

Here's the question:

I will be teaching with EPIK next week and was wondering what should I do about the currency. Where can I get the best exchange rates? I heard the airport is the worst. Also, how much money do you think I should exchange for a month and is it true that it takes about a month before I can open a bank account (alien card)?

I hope I got to this one in time since it is time-sensitive. When I first came to Korea, it was a very different situation. The ATMs on the streets didn't have to "Foreign Card" option they do now. I was told to bring travelers checks which I did, but that is not as necessary anymore. You could still bring the checks, but cashing them is a problem. That leaves cash or relying on your bank account at home. You can bring a ton of cash over and exchange it, but if you lose the cash on say, a late night bender, then you're out of luck. The ATM/debit/credit card option is always a pretty safe bet. You should be able to find an ATM that honors your account or credit card.

How much is a different story. If you arrive towards to end of the month, don't expect to be paid for at least a month and a half. I always suggest that people bring enough cash to get them through a couple months of moderate living. That equals out to about 800,000-1,000,000 won ($640-$800). If you're like me and my wife then that wouldn't last a week, but if you are a little crafty, you can make it last. Remember, you'll also want/need to buy a few start up items like dishes, utensils and soap, so that does not mean you get to spend all of that money of food and booze.

The best place to exchange cash is at a bank. The airport is always higher than other places (save for late-night exchange places). You can even shop around if you want. Before my last trip abroad, I went to three local banks and eventually settled on the best rate. This is what you do: Exchange a hundred or more at the airport just to get through the first few days. Go to a bank with the rest of your cash and exchange at the one with the best rates. You shouldn't have to have an account to exchange cash. I am not totally certain about that, but I exchanged money at Woori Bank and neither my wife nor I have an account there.

Opening is easy as hell. All you do is go in there with your passport and proof of employment (signed contract, tax info, etc...) and fill out the info. Korea4expats claims otherwise (and they're usually pretty accurate), but we took one of our new teachers into a bank within a week of her being in the country and opened the account. She didn't have her ARC yet and still managed to get a check card issued within 10 days. That doesn't mean it's the rule though. Remember, Korea is a land of exceptions.


Chris in South Korea said...

ATM's that dispense money are a dime a dozen - and thankfully virtually all of them work. That most of them provide English service is nice - but make money transfers a one-way street FROM Korea TO your home country, or else you're paying double the fees.

As for the airport being a good / bad place - check just before you leave what the 'sell price' is (the price you sell your dollars for won) online - is fine, but even google can do it too.

KEB rocks - within an hour I had an account AND check / debit card opened with nothing more than an ARC and an address. I needed my passport for internet banking, which makes sending money home possible 24/7 without needing a special trip.

Regarding stuff - craigslist and (shudder) Dave's. People are leaving all the time, and some of it will go for almost nothing if you can move it.

The Expat said...

So, you had to have your ARC? That perplexes me.

Lola O. said...

I was planning on using traveler's checks, why is cashing them a problem?

Anonymous said...

I got my Korean bank account the second day I was here. You don't need the ARC.

The Expat said...

I agree with LfM. Despite all the info saying otherwise, my first-hand experience tells me different. Either way, it certainly wouldn't hurt to try.

What did you bring into the bank on your second day?

Gomushin Girl said...

You do not need anything besides your passport or ARC to open an account. I've had accounts with six different banks over the course of my years here, and none of them have required anything besides a valid form of ID recognized by the Korean government. You may open one the day you arrive, and you should be issued an ATM card immediately. You may also use your passbook to make most ATM transactions as well.

celiac chick said...

You used to be able to open an account with just your passport, but (here in Busan, at least), banks are now only accepting an ARC as a valid form of ID. Now that you have to wait until after your health check to even apply for your ARC, it's extremely inconvenient for new teachers!

Sumeet Sahni said...

I had a question regarding Citibank. If I have an account in the US and have dollars in it, can I withdraw Wons in Korea without paying a rate? And if I do not get the actual currency exchange, how much is paid to Citibank?

danielmikesep said...

This is such an interesting blog. You are very knowledgeable about this subject.

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