Packing for Korea

A Detailed Guide of What to Pack Before You Move to Korea

The decision to move to a foreign country is something that a lot of people do not have the courage to do. You should be proud of your decision to see the world and see other cultures. We only have this life to live and you should try to see as much of this awesome world as possible. Also take notice that you are not alone in your endeavors. People all over the globe decide to move to another for all sorts of reasons; teaching, extended travel, military orders, and love just to new a few. 
Moving to Korea can be even more challenging and intimidating because of the language. There are many more countries in the world that use a romanized alphabet which makes it easy for most people to read even though they cannot understand what they are reading. The Korean language use a writing system called Hangul, which can seem very scary to a foreign person. I am happy to tell you that learning Hangul is a lot simpler than you think. I learned how to read Hangul in two days with the help of my Korean friends. I don't want to go in to too much detail about Hangul in this article because part one is going to focus on what you need to do to prepare for moving to Korea. 
Before I start writing about the main focus of this article I want to give you a little background about myself so you know why I am able to write an article like this. I never had any desire to come to Korea. The reason I found myself in the land of the morning calm was due to the Army sending me here. I won't lie, when I got my orders for Korea I was very upset. It was my last year in the Army (Korea was a year tour at the time which is why they sent me) and now I had to transition out of the Army in a country that was extremely foreign and intimidating to me. I spent most of my Army career overseas in Europe which I loved. Germany is by far my favorite place I have visited. I loved living overseas but I had absolutely no desire to go to Korea. 
I had no knowledge of Korea, any of its customs or culture, or how living in the country would be. My ideas about this foreign country were quickly squashed when I went out, explored, and made friends here. The people and community is what makes Korea great. My best friends were my Korean Soldiers that worked with me. In Korea, the US Army has an augmentation called "KATUSA" or Korean Augmentation to the United States Army. I worked with more Korean Soldiers than I did with US Soldiers. This opened up a whole new view of Korea to me. If you are worried about making friend in Korea, don't be. Many Korean people speak English and there are plenty of ways to make friends. When you come to Korea you will see that the streets, restaurants, bars, hoffs, karaoke rooms, and more are filled with people socializing and eating. I know many people are afraid of being a lone here but don't worry, friends are easy to make. 
Now let's discuss what you should pack to bring to Korea. There are some things I will mention here I'm sure you will be surprised about, I know I was. One day I was at work (Army work) and somehow a conversation about deodorant came up between my Korean Soldier friend and I. I asked him what kind he used and he said he doesn't wear deodorant At first I thought it was just him but it turns out that most Korean people don't wear deodorant. So what does this mean? It means that deodorant might be hard to find. Just to make this article organized, I will list al of the places you can find the items I mention in this article. Another hygiene staple that you would think is pretty standard around the globe is toothpaste. The major brands we use in English speaking countries are not common in Korea. Korean toothpaste isn't terrible but I definitely prefer the brands I used tin the US compared to the Korean brand. Shaving cream is common but it is a little more expensive than back home. 
Clothes are definitely something you have to plan properly for. I will give you a reference to what you can expect over here regarding men's clothing. I am 68 inches tall and not heavy. In the US I usually bought medium-sized shirts and 34 or 36 sized pants. I can find clothes in Korea but my size in Korea is extra-large. When I try to buy pants I need to get them with a 36 sized waste. This is where I always run in to a problem. Sometimes they have them and sometimes they don't. What bothers me the most is that there are tons of Korean men walking around that I know are bigger than me. Where do they find clothes? A good tip is to shop at Uniqlo. Uniqlo is large chain so it is very easy to find not matter what part of Korea you live in. I will list more details in the list below. Shoes are a toss-up, I haven't had too much trouble but I only wear a size 10 or 10.5 which is 280 or 285 in Korea. I know guys with bigger feet struggle but there is a custom shoe store in Seoul that can make the shoe any size and style you want. As for other personal hygiene stuff like hair care, soap, gels…you will be in the world head quarters for items like that sans deodorant. 
Now on to what women should bring to Korea. I'm afraid the women have it tougher than the men when it comes to finding what you are used to in your home country. Deodorant and shaving cream are the most elusive when it comes to personal hygiene items. I actually just ran in to a Lotte Super which is like a tiny grocery store and they actually had women's razors but not women's shaving cream. Deodorant is possible to find and I will list the locations below. There are rumors floating around that Korean women don't use tampons and that they are hard to find. At one point this was true but now tampons are just as common as pads. My wife is Korean and I have run to the store plenty of times to pick up tampons, I'm not sure why that rumor is still floating around. 
Finding clothes is by far the hardest thing for Western women to find. Unless you are very slim, have a B cup or below, and small feet you are going to have trouble finding clothes. Like with the guys, I have seen bigger Korean women walking around and I wonder where they find clothes. My wife is slim but she is in the high range of a B cup has trouble finding shirts that fit correctly. All is not lost though. There are chain stores like Uniqlo, Forever 21, H&M, and other major chains that will carry sizes that are appropriate for Westerners. Makeup is an area where you will definitely not have any problems. There are tons of beauty and makeup stores, even popular chains you will be used to like MAC, Lancome, and Clinique. I recommend exploring the Korean brands because Korea definitely knows how to do make up and beauty products right. Also, you won't be able to go ten feet without bumping in to a beauty store. 
That covers the major issues that men and women will face. This next section will cover items that are not specific to men or women. I will start with medicine because it is something we rarely think about until we feel miserable. Some fellow expats recommend bring medicine from home. I mainly think this is due to laziness because Korean pharmacies are awesome, it is just the language barrier that turns people away. We live in the age of the internet and smart phones. It takes two seconds to search what aspirin is in Korean. What I usually do is search for what I need on my phone and show it to the pharmacist. Sometimes the medicine you are looking for is pronounced the same way in Korean or the pharmacist will know what the Korean name of the medicine you are looking for is. Korean pharmacies are everywhere and they carry everything so don't worry about bringing your own medicine. 
Just today I had to see the doctor because my stomach hasn't been acting right. It cost me 10,000 Won ($10) to see the doctor and he gave me a paper for the pharmacist. I went to the pharmacy and handed the paper to the pharmacist. I paid 14,000 Won ($14) and that was it. I got four different types of pills for three days. 14,000 Won is a steal and this is all without health insurance. 
 The price of medicine is extremely cheap but don't be expecting to find name brand anything in the pharmacy or stores. In Korea, medicine must be purchased from a pharmacy, even the meds we would consider over the counter. This means that if you need medicine after 6pm, you're out of luck. My advice is to stock up on common meds like aspirin for when you need it at night. There is no need to bring any medicine from your home country. 
If you are from a country that is either warm most of the time or cold most of the time make sure you pack for four seasons. Korea has four distinct seasons: Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter. Temperatures range from 34C (93F) to -2C (28F). It is highly recommend to make sure you have a hat, gloves, scarf, coat. A coat might hard to find in your size if you typically wear a larger size. Everything else is very easy to find and not expensive at all. 
Some random things you will want to bring are 220 Volt caps to fit over 110 Volt items. I've found it is hard to find 220 Volt caps in Korea. If you can find them in your home country I recommend bring some because most cell phone chargers are dual voltage and all you need to do is put a 220 cap over the 110 plug. The same goes for most laptops, just double-check your power brick to make sure before you plug it in. Electronics like hair dryers and curling irons are usually not dual voltage so save space in your luggage and buy them here. 
Towels are tiny in Korea and is something that surprised me. I'll never forget my first Korean shower and I was trying to hunt down the bath towel. I eventually learned that the towel I thought was a hand towel was actually what I was supposed to dry off with. At first I didn't like the tiny bath towel but now I've grown to love it. They dry a lot quicker and I don't need a normal sized towel to dry off with. If you like the larger towels, especially if you are a women and want to put your hair in it, I would recommend bringing a towel if for some reason you have extra space in your luggage. If you don't have the extra space, my wife tells me that the department stores carry larger towels, though, I never saw this myself.
I have read some crazy recommendations before like people recommending to bring your own candy and books. There is tons of candy here, even the stuff we are used to in the West. As for books, book stores are thriving here. There are at least three major book chains that have large English sections and I don't mean English as in the study guides, I mean actual books written in English. A tip I have for you is to get a Kindle. It is easy to download the book you are looking for plus you save on having physical copies of books in your tiny apartment. 
The last piece of advice I will give in this article is to set up a Google voice number. When I first moved to Korea I used Skype and bought a Skype number so my family could call me. I felt like kicking myself when I found out Google voice is free and gives you a US number that can receive texts and voicemails. The only downside is that there is not a physical phone that rings but if you leave your Gmail open it will ring when you have an incoming call. If you miss a call you will get an email instantly. I downloaded an app for my phone called  "OTO" which allows me to make calls to foreign countries and it just uses the minutes that come with my plan. A Gmail notification pops up on my phone through the Gmail app and then I just call the person right back on my cell phone with OTO. Of course if you make calls though Google voice on your computer it's free. 
Here is a list of places you can find the stuff I mentioned above:
  • Wastson's - A drug store that carries men and women's deodorant, men and women's shaving cream and razors, cologne and perfume, soap, shampoo, snacks, beauty products, feminine products, and more. 
  • Boons Apothecary - Boons is great for finding the same types of stuff Watson's has. Usually Boons will carry more and they have a pharmacy inside. 
  • Emart / Lotte Mart / Home Plus - All three of these are huge stores that are comparable to Target or Wal-Mart.
  • Uniqlo - A large clothing store with sizes that will fit Westerners 
  • Myeongdong, Seoul - Myeongdong is the shopping capital of Seoul and is where you can find stores like Forever 21 and H&M. 
  • Makeup and beauty supplies can literally be found anywhere so I won't list them all here. If you want them all in one central area go to a department store which usually has them all located on one floor. 
That covers all the advice I wished I had before I moved to Korea. I will be writing Part 2 of this series shortly which will cover what to do once you arrive in Korea and what you can expect your first couple of weeks.