Korea is much, much cheaper. Things just cost less out here. From public transport, eating out, health care. The quality might not be quite as high as some places in the West, but it is still good. Korea is certainly a little ‘rougher around the edges’, but in my opinion, the cost of living to quality of life is far better value out here. I can save around 2/3 of my paycheck most months, even when I eat out and travel.
Let’s look at some examples of where Korea’s cost of living is much cheaper than the in the West: Source for the numbers (I think these are quite Seoul-centric) and my personal experience. Numbers are in Korean Won, or USD (rule of thumb W 1000 = $1)
Housing and utilities:
Apartment rent is quite cheap, a single bedroom apartment in a city it can be around W 600,000 / month, less in smaller cities. In my experience, it’s a little cheaper than that, closer to W 300,000. On campus housing is cheaper still.
Utilities are quite cheap around W150, 000 per month according to the figures from Numbeo. I think that’s pretty reasonable compared the West. In my experience campus housing, usually bills you for rent and utilities together, I pay less than W 300 000 /month.
The one thing that is a little different is the deposit (Key money) which can be several thousand dollars, but like a deposit you get it back at the end of the tenancy.
Korean food is usually less than 10, 000 per serving for most restaurants, Western food and more upmarket restaurants will set you back a bit more. If you eat mostly Korean, you will eat much cheaper. Beer is at most W 5000 for 0.5L bottle.
The local buses are very cheap, you pay a single fare no matter how far you travel and it’s only $1-$1.50 depending on the city.
Subway. Some of the larger cities have a subway and the cost is comparable to the buses.
Taxis are a little bit more expensive, but they are still cheaper than other parts of the world.
Slow trains are the cheapest way to get between cities, although it is quite slow and the schedule can be quite sparse.
Buses. There are two classes, the intercity and the express buses. The intercity buses are the easiest way to get around. They are cheap and regular (every 10 mins between some cities). The express buses are good for getting to and from Seoul (or Incheon airport), they can take a bit of time (up to 6 hours to get across the country but are reasonably priced).
KTX The fastest way to get around is the high-speed train, the KTX. It is expensive for Korea but is still reasonable compared to western countries (you can traverse the country for around $60, in three hours). There’s complimentary wi-fi, too.
If you prefer to use a car, that’s possible too. Gas is very cheap and you can often pick up used car for ~1-3 million won from another expat who’s leaving. Another thing to note is compacts qualify for discounted parking, tolls and gas.
Healthcare costs are subsided by your insurance (either national or employer). A simple doctor’s visit is around W 10, 000. The cost is not the major difference between healthcare here and the UK for example. Hospitals operate on a walk-in basis, and you’ll normally get seen by a doctor quickly. If not, another hospital is probably not too far away.
At the postdoc paygrade, income tax is 17% on everything after your first 10 million won. Other withholdings include pension contributions and health insurance. In total, withholdings are ~10% of the paycheck.
There are some things that are more expensive. These are mostly the imported or the seasonal goods. The cost of living is higher in Seoul, too.
Being a science PhD, your skill-set travels. Doing science is more or a less the same wherever you go in the world. So you can absolutely take into account economic considerations when deciding where you want to do a postdoc. The prestige of postdoc-ing in the US or some top labs in Europe means that there’s always going to be many more people trying to get in than there are jobs, which drives down your value. It’s a basic law of economics: Supply and demand. There’s not much point in fighting against this, if you want to make maximum economic benefit from your skills, then you need to go look for where demand is high and or supply is low.
You can reach out to me if you have any questions about living and working in Korea as a scientist.