When you travel or move to a different country, living costs are one of the first things that you need to consider. While general living costs in Korea tend to be less expensive as compared to most western countries, it is true that Korean goods and services can be pricey for some people. If you look at the famous ‘Big Mac Index’ which is often used as an easy indicator of a country’s purchasing power parity and the general costs of goods, the debate over whether things are cheap or expensive in Korea becomes very murky. As of 2020, the unit price of one Big Mac in Korea is about 4,500 KRW (3.75 USD). While this Korean price is significantly lower than it is in the US (6,800 KRW - 5.71 USD), its neighboring country Japan which is more famous for its high living costs sells a Big Mac at the slightly cheaper price of 4,400 KRW (3.71 USD).
In this article, Expat Guide Korea will delve into the question of ‘Is living in Korea cheap, affordable, or expensive?’ by comparing goods and services that are considered cheaper and more expensive in Korea as compared to other countries. While the price of goods is, of course, subject to constant change, this article should give you a general idea when you need to finance your life in Korea.
You might also be interested in: Why are These Things So Expensive in Korea?
Please be aware that black taxis (left) with golden stripes on them, known as ‘premium’ or ‘deluxe’ taxis, have higher fares starting at 6,500 KRW. On the right is an international taxi that offers a translation service. Photo: Look at Korea & The Korea Herald
Let’s start off by looking at some of the things that are relatively cheaper in Korea as compared to other countries. If I think of goods and services that are recognized by foreigners as ‘cheap’ in Korea, the first thing that comes to my mind is perhaps taxi fares.
In many countries all around the world, taxis often conjure up a luxurious image, and students and travelers do not even think of including taxis in their list of means of transportation. On the contrary, taxis in Korea are very economical and affordable - and in many cases, it might be even cheaper to take a taxi when you are out with your friends with whom you can split the fare equally.
Despite the recent price increase in early 2019, the basic taxi fare in the city of Seoul starts from 3,8000 KRW (it used to be 3,000 KRW), which then increases by increments of 100 KRM in accordance with time and distance traveled. Even considering a 20% surcharge that applies during night time (i.e. 00:00 - 04:00), the basic taxi fares in Korea still stand at an affordable price of 4,600 KRW.
In Korea, public transport, such as subway and bus, is very affordable too, with the standard fare set at 1,250 KRW. However, if you do the math, taking a cab with a group of 4 is, in theory, even cheaper than taking public transport, with each having to pay only around 1,000 KRW. Of course, this only applies when you are on a short trip, and I would say the original fare allows you to travel around one or two subway stops.
If you visit an all-you-can-eat restaurant, make sure you are taking the right amount of food that you can actually finish as many places charge extra if they find leftovers on your table. Photo: Naver Place
What excites you when you embark on a journey to a different side of the world? Exotic culture? Traveling through historical sites? Or Mingling with the locals? While all these things are on bucket lists of many travelers, your travel is never complete without indulging yourself with different kinds of local authentic food that you cannot enjoy back home.
Korea offers a variety of affordable food options. If you go to a local Korean restaurant, you can get a Korean signature dish, such as bulgogi (불고기) and doenjang jjigae (된장찌개), for around 6,000 - 7,000 KRW, which comes with a variety of free side dishes.
However, what I find especially cheap when it comes to eating out in Korea are all-you-can-eat restaurants. Have a stroll around your neighborhood and you will stumble upon so many all-you-can-eat resultants in Korea dealing with different dishes from Korean BBQ to pizzas. As a general rule of thumb, all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ places go for around 10,000 KRW - 12,000 KRW while you can find all-you-can-eat pizzas at a cost of about 12,000 KRW. Below are some of the popular all-you-can-eat restaurants in Korea where you can enjoy a good meal at surprisingly affordable prices.
The list above compares countries in terms of movie ticket prices. Standing at 61st in terms of movie ticket prices, Korea offers one of the lowest movie ticket prices among the world’s advanced economies. Photo: Nation Master
I bet many people in the expat community love Korea’s amazing movie theatres that offer so many different time slots for one movie in a single day and open well after midnight. Furthermore, we never miss brand new movies thanks to cheap movie tickets that allow us to enjoy a new film every single week without breaking the bank.
Major movie theatres in Korea include CGV, Mega Box, and Lotte Cinema, all of which have very similar pricing for their movie tickets. For instance, a normal 2D movie ticket in Korea costs around 8,000 KRW -10,000 KRW depending on time slots and movies. This comes in stark contrast to its neighbouring countries such as Australia that stands at around 18,000 KRW (15.2 USD) for a single movie ticket and Japan where the price goes up to as high as 20,000 KRW (1343517.7 USD).
In addition to Korea’s already cheap movie ticket prices, you can expect to get a further discount via many channels, such as your mobile phone plan and point cards. For instance, my mobile phone contract with KT gives me one free movie ticket every month and other additional discounts that allow me to purchase movie tickets at surprisingly cheap costs of around 5,000 KRW.
Personally, I love sightseeing and going to different museums and historical sites in Korea. And this means that I have been one of the beneficiaries of cheap admission fees to such places. Surprisingly, many Korean national museums such as the War Memorial of Korea offer free admission while the entry fee at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Korea is only 4,000 KRW. Gyeongbokgung Palace, a must-visit sightseeing spot in Seoul, also has a reasonable entry fee of 3,000 KRW for adults. If you think about admission fees of other countries’ national icons such as the Statue of Liberty (23,000 KRW/19.25 USD) in the US and the Tokyo Tower in Japan (13,500 KRW/1,200 JPY), sightseeing in Korea can be said to be a very affordable activity.
Although this section mainly concerns long-term residents rather than travellers, electricity bills are something that you cannot avoid once you are settled in Korea. Fortunately, Korea is renowned for providing cheap electricity, making our costs of living remarkably lower as compared to other countries.
You can see how cheap electricity is by looking at this graph that summarises residential electricity prices, in which Korea ranks 72nd out of 87 target countries. Or if you believe that one experience is worth a thousand words, electricity bills for my small apartment have fluctuated between 3,000 KRW and 10,000 KRW in the past few years depending on the season.
On the other hand, it is very difficult to provide a general account for other utility bills including gas and water. Especially with gas, it is totally up to individuals and how much you use as I pay 8,000 KRW every month for gas on average while I have seen my friends’ bill go up to 50,000 KRW. During the winter, some people overuse or do not turn off ondol (온돌) - traditional underfloor heating in Korea -, a contributing factor for such huge price differences between different households in terms of gas bills.
The price in Korea is so high that you can occasionally find imported ones that are cheaper than domestically produced ones. Photo: Sisa Journal
Living in Korea for a while, you will just have to come to terms with a very contradictory paradox of ingredients and food products being pretty expensive as opposed to dining out. And one of the representative products that remain super expensive in Korea is dairy products.
In fact, Korea comes 2nd on the milk price, with the cost of milk per litter being as high as around 2,700 KRW (2.25 USD). Considering that even countries that are well known for their high living costs such as Sweden and Switzerland are on 18th and 23rd on the list respectively, you can have a glimpse of how milk in Korea is ridiculously overpriced.
Along with milk, it is safe to say cheese is a very expensive product in Korea. If you go to a local supermarket, a pack of very basic cheese slices that go into sandwiches costs at least 3,500 KRW - 4,000 KRW while other kinds of cheese such as cream cheese and camembert are just products of luxury. The high price of dairy products is mainly due to the very expensive costs associated with the operation and maintenance of farms in the country.
Perhaps, you have one friend who is always freaking out about overpriced fruits in Korea and how they miss a $1 bag of apples back home. Fruits are surprisingly expensive - and I found it surprising, specifically because Korea has many famous fruits such as yuja (citrus fruit) and mandarin oranges.
Many foreigners travel a few stations to go to big supermarkets like Homeplus and Emart in hopes of finding cheap fruits, only to find out their journey was in vain. Even at these franchise supermarkets that are capable of mass production, a normal bag of apple (1 KG) is sold at around 6,000 KRW - 8,000 KRW. Cherry too is notoriously expensive in Korea and a small package of cherries costs around 6,000 KRW - 8,000 KRW.
Photo: Happy Cow
Last, but by no means least, bread is another food product whose price is set very high as compared to other countries. In its 2017 Worldwide Cost of Living Report, the Economist Intelligence Unit found that the price of bread was higher in the city of Seoul than any other places in the world.
While it is very rare in Korea to buy bread in kg, an average price for one kilogram of bread in Seoul is around 17,600 KRW (14.82 USD). If you go to famous Korean bakeries, such as Paris Baguette, a small pack of sandwiches that can barely feed one person is sold at around 5,000 KRW - 6,000 KRW. Even at Subway which is supposed to be a place for budget fast food, a set menu starts from somewhere around 8,000 KRW.
I feel like people in Korea consider bread to be some sort of a premium product as opposed to them being a daily staple food in many other places. In 2016, Brioche Doree entered the Korean market, whose products are made of ingredients directly imported from France. Despite Brioche Doree’s high pricing (4,000 KRW - 5,000 KRW per pastry), many Korean customers flocked to the store when it opened in search of the ‘authentic’ taste.