Top 10 Tips for Expats Leaving Korea
The day has come! I’m leaving Korea! After 10.5 years in Korea, I’m down to my last 3 days in the land of the kimchi. Overall, I’m feeling pretty upbeat about the whole thing and know it’s the right decision. Just this very morning I completed the last little bit of paperwork I needed to do and it’s now smooth sailing straight to the homeland.
Here are my top 10 tips for those leaving Korea. Consider it a kind of “leaving Korea checklist.” They’re more applicable to those who’ve been here at least a few years like myself. Newbies are usually still living out of a couple suitcases so it’s much easier to pack up and go.
Leaving Korea checklist: let’s go!
Leaving Korea Tip #1: Decide Early Whether to Stay or Go
The first tip related to leaving Korea is to make the decision about staying or going early enough. In my case, it was half-way through my two year contract which meant that I had a year to pull everything together. I went through busy phases, and then lulls but there were a lot of loose ends to tie up.
At the very least, allow yourself 3-4 months. I’ve seen some expats over the years who decided on a whim to just go and they left in a flurry of crazy activity. It stressed me out to even be around them! Plus you have added the disadvantage of having to sell your stuff in a hurry, which almost always means getting less money for it. The last thing you want is to be doing all kinds of lesson plans and teaching and then also having to worry about tying up loose ends.
Leaving Korea Tip #2: Hire Someone to Help You
The best decision I made in this whole process was to hire someone to help me. Although I speak basic Korean, I had to do an overwhelming amount of things that required some serious Korean skills. Important stuff that I didn’t want to be left open to misunderstanding. And the other problem is that I know precisely a total of “0” vocabulary words related to things like junking a car, getting a housing deposit back, or taxes.
So, about six months ago, I asked one of my best (former) students if he’d be willing to do things like contact my landlord, arrange stuff for my car, come to the tax office, etc. He’s a chill, but very responsible guy and also speaks English freakishly well, so I knew it’d work out well. He made some money. I had way less stress. Everyone was a winner.
Leaving Korea Tip #3: Start Recycling/Giving Away Stuff ASAP
As soon as I decided I was going to leave Korea, I started the process of getting rid of all my stuff. One of the best things I did was to make a “junk-pile” in the corner of one room. Then, I would insist that every single person who came over to my house take at least three things. I’d also take pictures of the pile and post it on group events for a house-party or whatever and offer to bring whatever people wanted. I felt so happy that people were getting some use out of my stuff instead of just throwing it in the trash. However, this method takes time so start early!
Another thing I did was to throw away or recycle one thing every single day for around six months until I had almost nothing left. It made the last couple days before I moved out of my place really easy.
I was also super organized about selling stuff. I started early, posted on a few different Facebook groups, etc. and took good pictures of the stuff. Because I did it early, I had time to go meet people, have people over to my house, etc. I did have to go without a washing machine for a couple weeks, which was by far the most inconvenient thing about it.
Leaving Korea Tip #4: Organize Stuff at Home
I found myself a place to stay in Canada, as well as a job (of sorts) about three months before I left Korea. This was huge for me. It’s hard for me to imagine going home without a job or a place to stay. Those first couple of months would be so, so chaotic. And after 10 years teaching in Korean universities, if there’s one thing I’ll all about, it’s the happy zen place.
Leaving Korea Tip #5: Say Goodbye
I’ve known a lot of expats over the years who didn’t say goodbye when leaving Korea. Here one day, gone the next. Some of them were my good friends and it made me sad not to give them a hug and wish them well on their journey. A goodbye party isn’t just for you, it’s for the people that you were close to as well.
Maybe you’re not a huge party person? That’s okay! Even something simple like a last round of BBQ with a few close friends is a good thing so make time for it. Or, a final hike with your coworkers. Whatever makes you happy. People like a chance to say goodbye, even if it might make you a wee bit uncomfortable.
Leaving Korea Tip #6: Move out of your Place Early
If you’ve taken care of your own housing, move out of your place a few days early in case something goes bad with getting the housing deposit back. Also make sure you don’t tell your landlord you’re going back to your home country because this will make it way too easy for them to keep delaying until you have to leave the country. I just said I was moving to Seoul (from Busan). My student phoned the landlord at various intervals (6 months-2 months-1 month-1 week) before I moved so that he’d have no excuses for not having my money on the day I moved out.
I found a place to stay for a few days by posting on Facebook, asking friends if they’d take me in. Lots of people volunteered so just ask.
Leaving Korea Tip #7: Tie up all the Loose Ends
It’s 1000x easier to deal with Korean paperwork in Korea than from your home country. Get organized and get it done here when you’re leaving Korea. Things like employment certificates, taxes paid, reference letters, driving records for insurance, etc.
A pro tip: make sure you organize Internet banking before you leave, along with international transfers. Do a test-run while still in Korea to make sure it works. Then you can take care of your pension payment as well as final pay yourself from your home country.
And of course, take care of your pension refund before you leave Korea. I have heard rumors of people being able to claim their pension from Korea after returning to Canada, but this seems kind of like a crapshoot. Doing it in Korea seems like far more of a sure thing.
Leaving Korea Tip #8: Bring your Pets with You
Don’t be that guy who abandons your pets when you’re leaving Korea. Adopting is for life. “It’s too hard” is not an excuse. Use Pet Airline. I paid them around 1,000,000 Won to send my two cats cargo about a week before me. Then, I paid someone with a cat hotel in Vancouver to pick them up at the airport and keep them until I can get them. It was unexpectedly easy. Not cheap, but definitely stress-free.
Leaving Korea Tip #9: Ship your Stuff, the Cheap Way
Shipping stuff in post office boxes is annoying. Shipping stuff door to door with shipping companies is ridiculously expensive. Instead, find yourself an agent and ship your stuff port to port. You’ll have to pick it up in Vancouver or whatever port it’s closest to, but it’s strangely cheap. I paid about $250 to ship 6 large boxes of stuff including a bicycle and inflatable stand-up-paddleboard.
Note from the other side: I had to pay so, so, so many fees here on the Vancouver end to pick up my stuff. I ended up regretting this and wish I’d just sold my things in Korea! This strategy is perhaps only a good one if you have a particularly large amount of stuff (all the fees are flat ones), not just a few boxes like me.
Leaving Korea Tip #10: Money Buys Less Stress
Money makes this whole process way easier. Having money (or not being desperate for it) made my life easier in the following ways:
- I junked my piece of crap car instead of trying to sell it for a pittance. It took me a total of around 10 minutes and they even came to find me at work one day.
- I gave away almost all my furniture and possessions. People like free stuff and it’s way easier to get rid of stuff if people come to you rather than schlepping around the city and wasting your time.
- I paid people to get my cats to Canada. It is possible to do it yourself, but it seemed way too annoying.
- I hired a student to help me. He was a champ and everything went really smoothly.
- I’m not so worried about life in Canada. I know it’s expensive there and it’s not going to be easy to make enough money online to support myself, but at least I won’t be forced to take a terrible job that I don’t want to do.
Leaving Korea? You’ll Need Life After ESL
Life After ESL: Foreign Teachers Returning Homeis the book I wrote mostly for myself in order to alleviate my panic about going back home after 10 years teaching abroad. Leaving Korea was a pretty scary thought a year ago!
I interviewed 55 people who’d gone before me and tried to glean every little bit of wisdom I could from them. The book I wrote is the result of that process. Here’s what a few people are saying about it on Amazon:
“So here’s my verdict: This book should be the starting place for anyone thinking of going home after a stint abroad.” Steven D.
“I’m sure there are many of us TEFL teachers who are thinking, “What the heck am I going to do when I go home?”. This book tells us what people have done: what works and what doesn’t.” Sharon
You can buy Life After ESL: Foreign Teachers Returning Home on Amazon in both digital and print formats. The digital format can be read on any device by getting the free Kindle reading app.