I did a lot of research before we moved here to South Korea on what we would need to bring and what we could leave behind. A lot of the information I found though was geared toward single people coming here to teach English and/or those who would not have access to the things that military expats have like US mail and the commissary.
So I wanted to make a list for people who are coming here for military service. This list goes for anyone moving to Korea, but I just left some things out because we can get them on post. These are my bare bones essential, and non-essential, lists.
In other words, these are the items that you are going to regret not buying and bringing. Or you will regret hauling along.
Essentials items to buy and bring to Korea
1. A great pair of walking shoes
Even if you think you have a pretty good pair of sneakers, I encourage you to buy a great pair of walking shoes before you come over here. Especially if you have larger feet like I do.
Splurge a little and get insoles too that will give you support.
It doesn’t matter if you plan to get a car or not, you will be doing a lot of walking in Korea. Parking lots are rare, and if you don’t have to pay for parking then they are usually a long ways from the actual building. Even when you get great parking you often have to walk on long pathways to even get up to your destination.
If you are bringing kids make sure to get them all a pair also. Shoe sizes are sporadic at the PX. You can find them out in town, but they are usually expensive. Unless you buy a pair of knock-offs from a guy in the subway station.
2. A decent camera
You don’t have to buy a crazy expensive camera, but you are going to want a nice one. For one thing, this is an amazing experience living in another culture and country. You will want to document that.
Also – Korea is gorgeous. Mountains, valleys, cities, traditional villages. It’s a photographer’s dream!
I have a Canon Rebel T3i that I absolutely love. I invested in a DSLR for my blog, and I’m slowly learning how to use the manual settings. But I take most of my photos on automatic no-flash with the regular lens.
3. Clothes, bras, underwear – if you are a larger person
I thought I prepared for this one by stocking up on bras and underwear before coming here. But I didn’t think about seasonal things I might need.
If you are a larger person – man or woman – you might have a hard time finding clothes. Our PX has one little rack of plus size clothing. That is it. I’m thankful that I have free priority shipping through Amazon.
Out in Seoul, there just isn’t anything for my size.
So think about what you will need for all four seasons and bring it. Jacket, coat, swimwear, etc.
4. A backpack
Again – you will be doing a lot of walking. And you will probably use the public transportation system of buses, trains, and taxis. A backpack is great for holding your souvenir finds and hauling them all over.
It’s also easier than a diaper bag or tote because it keeps your hands free. I bought the SwissGear ScanSmart travel backpack because it has a separate area for my laptop (which has to be removed or layed open in a special bag to go through airport security now).
4. Statements for bills you need to pay in the US
That might sound weird, but make sure you know what bills you will need to pay back in the States (and inform them you are leaving the country).
It’s a good idea to get all your bills through email or register online at their site because mail takes much longer to get here. Many times we have gotten a bill in the mail long after it was due.
And because of the time difference, it’s difficult to call and work things out once you get here.
Have your bills and bank accounts in order BEFORE you leave so you don’t run into issues. It will take you several days to in-process and have a place to even send mail. And you will need to get set up with a Korean cell phone, which brings me to my non-essential list:
You probably won’t need to bring these items
1. Your cell phone
Sorry to bum you out, but your beloved iPhone probably won’t work here. And even if it does, you will be charged crazy roaming fees. So it’s better to just leave your smartphone behind.
The nice thing is that cellphones are easy to get here and the plans for 3G and 4G phones are about 1/2 the price they are in the US. I have a Samsung Galaxy S2 that I paid $75 (always offer to pay cash – they will usually give you a discount) for a 2 year contract. If we get orders elsewhere, I can simply return the phone and I won’t get any cancellation fees. I pay about $75 a month for unlimited data and messages. I think my plan has 300 minutes of call time but I never use the call feature. Kakao is an app that lets you chat and call anyone for free over here.
There is usually a cell phone shop (or three) on every military post that will help you set everything up and set your phone to English.
2. Your furniture
You might think I’m crazy for suggesting that you move to a foreign country with no furniture. I might think you are crazy for trying to move with furniture.
Furniture is a hassle to move here, even for native Koreans. You will most likely be living in a high-rise apartment or in a villa (3 story apt building where each floor is a separate apartment). And you will probably not get the first floor.
It’s probable that you can find a decent furnished apartment with your housing allowance, and any furniture you do end up needing you can rent from the military post for free.
Definitely don’t bring your washer & dryer, or any appliances. Those will be provided.
3. Boxes and boxes of books
I’ve read a lot of blogs that say you should bring all your books. But I haven’t had any troubles finding good English bookstores. There are two nice ones right here in Itaewon.
If you are going to be living somewhere outside of Seoul, you should still have access to the PX and post library. We have found our PX to have a very nice book section with a lot of variety.
We actually misplaced our main box of books and it got stored for the year. They were our homeschool books, but I’ve been able to replace most of them locally if not through Amazon.
I wouldn’t worry too much about hauling all your books. Bring enough to last you a few months until you can get settled. Then go hunting! I’m guessing there will be some sort of used bookshop near most military posts.
4. An umbrella
Not that you won’t need one! But you can pick up an umbrella here in Seoul for about 3,000 won. Look for them in convenience stores, Daiso stores, and on street vendors near subway stations. If all else fails, a larger department store will have upscale ones for 9-12,000 won.
This is just my list for military expats who will have access to most of the conveniences of home through their military post. If you are coming here on your own, you might find you need to bring a few more essentials like your favorite deodorant (hard to find here!). But it might surprise you how much you can find here that is just like home.