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.