Your guide to expat life in South Korea

Working in South Korea

South Korea’s booming economy, based mainly on the exports of cars and electronic goods, make it an exciting and lucrative place to do business.

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Doing business

A key player in the global economy, South Korea has free trade agreements with both the EU and the US. The country ranked an impressive 5th out of 190 countries in the 2017 World Bank Ease of Doing Business Survey. It scored particularly highly in getting electricity, enforcing contracts and protecting minority investors.

Social customs and etiquette dictate how business is done in South Korea. An understanding of and a willingness to engage with these is crucially important — any faux pas could mean the difference between success and failure.

The country attracts expats in the technology, engineering and finance sectors, but as a nation heavily invested in education, it is also a magnet for English teachers from around the globe.

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Business culture

Personal relationships, hierarchy and saving face form the foundation of all business practices in South Korea. South Koreans prefer doing business with people they know and trust; after-work drinks and karaoke are part of the work culture, and you’ll need to embrace this if you want to cement your relationships with your counterparts.

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Punctuality

Punctuality is highly valued – be sure to always arrive on time for both social and business gatherings. Schedules and deadlines are closely adhered to.

Politeness

There is an elaborate system of hierarchy that is based on a person’s age and their position. Remember to greet or introduce the most senior member of the group first, and don’t make direct eye contact with them.

Communication style

The Korean communication style is indirect and non-confrontational. A person’s personal reputation is highly valued, so it’s best not to challenge or question your colleagues in public.

Fast facts

Business language

Korean is the official language, but English is widely used in business circles.

Business hours

Usually from 9am to 6pm, Monday to Friday, but it’s common for employees to work late and exceed the 40-hour maximum. Some companies also work Saturday mornings.

Dress

Both men and women are expected to dress smartly – a suit is ideal. It’s better to be understated rather than overstated and women should avoid revealing or tight clothing.

Greeting

The traditional greeting is a bow (with hands to your side) followed by a handshake. When handing out or receiving business cards, always use both hands and take a moment to acknowledge the name and title. Don’t put the card in your pocket or wallet.

Gifts

Gift giving is common and there are important nuances to be aware of. Give and receive gifts with both hands, and they are not usually opened in front of the giver. Wrap the gift in bright colours like pink or yellow, which denote happiness. Avoid sets of four, sharp objects, and never write a card or note in red ink.

Gender equality

Although gender relations are becoming more equitable, men still dominate the Korean workplace. Foreign businesswomen are expected to behave in an elegant, refined and ‘feminine’ manner.

Expat salaries

With good relocation packages that usually cover the high accommodation costs, working in South Korea can be lucrative for expats.

Assess everything. The politics, the company hiring and locality of accommodation.

Expat Explorer Survey respondent

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All Expat Explorer survey data and all tips (in quotation marks) are provided by HSBC.

All other content is provided by expatarrivals.com, Globe Media Ltd and was last updated in August 2016. HSBC accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of this information.

This information does not constitute advice and no liability is accepted to recipients acting independently on its contents. The views expressed are subject to change.

Always remember to ensure you are aware of and comply with any laws in your host country or country of origin that apply to gift giving and bribery.