Korea, like Japan, has long been known as a homogenous society, one with a strict sense of national identity and little ethnic diversity. However, you might be surprised to know that there are actually quite a lot of foreigners in Korea. But how many foreigners in Korea are there?
The number of foreigners in Korea has been growing for decades, rising by leaps and bounds. The number of expats in Korea has exploded to 25 times the level seen in the early 1980s. Foreigners in Korea now make up over 3.4% of the whole population.
As of June 2022, there are 2,012,862 foreigners in Korea. Whilst this seems high, it’s actually a surprisingly large drop from the December 2019 peak of 2,524,656. The number of foreigners living in Korea dropped during COVID, but has started to grow once more.
Where are these foreigners in Korea from? Why do foreigners choose to live in Korea? And why is the number of foreigners in Korea declining? Find out all these answers, and more, below.
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Where Are Foreigners In Korea From?
Korea is an attractive place that has drawn in immigrants from around the world. Some come to Korea to work, others to study, others to learn about the culture. Marriage is also a big source of foreigners in Korea, with international couples (Korean & foreign) rising steadily over the last few decades.
There are also a lot of US soldiers stationed in South Korea, serving to help protect against threats from North Korea. The close ties between the two nations means that’s unlikely to change any time soon.
Which Country Is Most Represented In Korea’s Foreigner Population?
China. There are more Chinese immigrants in Korea than the rest of the top 10 countries combined. As of 2021, there were over 850,000 Chinese immigrants in Korea. This looks like a lot, but that number is down from over 1,100,000 in 2019.
The main reason for this large number of Chinese immigrants in Korea is the return of ethnic Koreans from China. There are 719,269 ethnic Korean immigrants from China – almost 85% of all Chinese immigrants in Korea.
There are large numbers of ethnic Koreans who have returned from the USA and former Soviet Union, too. Ethnic Korean returnees account for 878,000 of all foreigners in Korea.
Can you guess the nationalities of the rest of the top 10 list? Some of the results might surprise you. I was certainly shocked by number 5.
Top 10 Nationalities Of Foreigners In Korea
Here are the nationalities of the top 10 groups of foreigners living in Korea, as of 2021. Japan used to be 5th on this list with 86,196 people in Korea in 2019. However, by 2021, Japan has dropped all the way down to 13th, with 28,631 Japanese people living in Korea.
Were there any surprises in the top 10 list for you?
As you can see, Asian countries take up 9/10 spots on the list (a large part of Russia is in Asia) and, apart from Canada (16th) and Australia (20th), so is the rest of the top 20.
The fact that there are more Canadians and Australians living in Korea than British people certainly surprised me. I do know a lot of Canadians living in Korea, but I assumed more British people would want to live in Korea.
Besides returning ethnic Koreans, why are there so many foreigners in Korea these days? What motivates them to live and work in Korea?
Why Do Foreigners Live In Korea?
Oscar-winning movies like Pandemic, record-breaking chart-toppers BTS, binge-worthy TV shows like Squid Game, and catchy YouTube sensations such as PSY and Baby Shark have all helped fuel the desire to experience life in Korea. As has Korea’s rapid economic growth, which has attracted people looking for work and opportunities from around the world.
The primary reason for foreigners moving to Korea is for ethnic Koreans to return to their homeland. After the Japanese occupation, Korean war, and life under cruel dictators that finally ended in the 1980s, Koreans have had many reasons to flee to more peaceful shores. And now they have many reasons to return to Korea.
There are many other reasons that foreigners want to live in Korea, including work, marriage, and study. Or a combination of these. Here’s a brief overview of the 3 main reasons why foreigners live in Korea and what they do here.
To Work In Korea
These days, with Korea’s economy growing strongly (Korea is now ranked 10th in GDP), many foreigners move to Korea to look for work. Korea has transitioned from a ‘least developed’ nation to a ‘developed’ country, thanks to The Miracle on the Han River – a term given to Korea’s rapid development after the Korean War.
There are around 1.3 million foreign workers recognised in Korea doing a range of different jobs. These include positions on farms, in factories, as teachers, or even as a K-pop celebrities for the lucky few.
Teaching English in Korea is a popular option for thousands of foreigners, with many people coming to work at a hagwon (cram school) or school. That’s how I started off in Korea. I worked as an EPIK teacher for 5 years before moving to teach at a Korean university.
Whilst teaching in Korea is popular among the foreigners in Korea that I know, it certainly isn’t the main occupation for most immigrants in Korea. There are many more workers in the following industries:
- Forestry and Fishing
- Mining and Manufacturing
- Electricity, Gas, Steam, and Air Conditioning Supply
- Transportation and Storage
- Information and Communications
- Financial and Insurance Activities
Korea is an exporting country, one that has a lot of manufacturing and production, as well as a growing services industry and high-tech companies. The wages in Korea are good and, according to a survey by workers in Korea, ‘high wages’ (70.9%) was the biggest reason for moving to Korea, followed by a ‘good working environment’ (10.7%).
With a relatively low cost of living, Korea is a place where many expats can work and save, as well as enjoy a comfortable life. Eating out is not expensive, accommodation (which is rising these days) is still a lot less than in other developed economies, whilst taxes are a lot lower than in the other developed countries.
If you’d like to know more about working in Korea, check out my guide to How To Apply For EPIK and start a new life working in Korea as a teacher in Korea.
To Get Married
Of the 2,000,000 foreigners living in Korea, over 166,000 are married to a Korean person. The majority of these are foreign women (137,094) who have married Korean men, with the rest being foreign husbands (28,931). These numbers are even higher when you count the 135,056 spouses who were nationalised before 2019.
There have been a number of initiatives to encourage foreign women to marry Korean men, including financial incentives that started as early as the 1980s and still run today. These programmes help Korean men find wives, most of whom are middle-aged and live in rural areas where there is a significant gender imbalance.
They aim to bring foreign women to help repopulate Korea and halt Korea’s rapidly declining population. Many foreign brides come from China (60,000) or South East Asia, including Vietnam (44,000), the Philippines (12,000), and Thailand (5,000).
Of course, not all foreign spouses come through such arranged-marriage programmes, with many Koreans and foreigners meeting and falling in love in Korea or abroad.
I, for one, am glad that there are more international marriages and hope these help reduce some of the prejudice against foreigners that exists in Korea, as it does in every country in the world.
If you want to know more about dating in Korea, check out my silly article about the Dangers Of Dating In Korea and what could happen to you.
To Study In Korea
Korea has worked hard to bring high quality education to everyone, which is why Koreans have one of the highest IQs in the world. Korean universities have been rising up the global ranks, with Seoul University ranking 31st in 2021, bringing in an ever-growing number of students.
As of January 2022, there are approximately 152,000 foreign students attending higher education in Korea. This is down slightly from 154,000 before the pandemic, but this drop is likely to reverse after quarantine restrictions ease.
As a university teacher in Korea myself, I teach foreign students from many different countries. They have many reasons to study here, including getting a job in Korea, working for an international company in their home country, or simply because they want to experience life in Korea for a few years.
Korean language courses are a popular option for people who want to live and study in Korea short term, with many courses running from 3 months to a year. This allows people to learn the language and experience life in Korea at the same time.
If you want to find out more about how to study in Korea, check out the article below from Seoulinspired about Studying In Korea.
Where Do Foreigners In Korea Live?
As with most of the native Korean population, most foreigners in Korea live in the greater Seoul area, which is made up of Seoul, Gyeonggi Province, and Incheon City. An interesting fact about Korea is that more than 50% of people live in this area, which takes up just 12% of the country’s land mass.
The largest foreigner population isn’t actually in Seoul itself. More foreigners in Korea live in Gyeonggi Province (360,000) than in Seoul (260,000). Incheon is unsurprisingly 3rd (66,000) and South Gyeongsang Province 4th (63,000). South Gyeongsang Province includes Busan, an area famous for its ports and international connections.
There are foreigners all over Korea. From Korea’s other large cities, such as Ulsan, Gwangju, Daejeon, or Daegu, to the rural towns and villages tucked away between Korea’s many mountains.
Which is the best place to live in Korea as a foreigner? Well, that certainly depends on you. Some prefer the busy city life found in Seoul or Busan, whilst others (I know a few) want to settle down and enjoy a rural life, growing rice and keeping chickens.
Whatever your preference, there’s a range of places to live and settle down as an expat in Korea. Personally, I’d go for the scenic beaches of Jeju Island if I had to choose.
If you’ve found some of the facts in this article interesting, you’ll love these 50 Interesting Facts About Korean Culture.
Why Is The Number Of Foreigners In Korea Declining?
After decades of record growth, the number of foreigners in Korea has declined since the peak of 2.5 million in December 2019. Why are there now fewer foreigners in Korea? Well, you can probably guess why.
The coronavirus pandemic.
With the exception of August 2020, the number of foreigners living in Korea has decreased every month. Why was August an exception? Most likely due to students moving or returning to Korea for the autumn semester.
As a university teacher in Korea, this was the time when my classes moved from online to offline. Suddenly, thousands of foreign students, who were studying online from their home country before, had to return to campus.
Korean university courses begin at the start of September for the autumn semester. Due to the 14 day quarantine, that meant they had to arrive in Korea in mid-August.
After this short reprieve, the number of foreigners living in Korea continued to fall, dropping to under 2 million by the end of 2021.
Will the number of foreigners living in Korea increase in the future?
I definitely believe there will be many more expats in Korea in the future. Whilst the coronavirus pandemic has temporarily reversed the trend, I think it will climb again soon.
There are undoubtedly many people waiting to move and travel to Korea as soon as the borders are open. I know, as I meet them in the Korea Travel Advice group on Facebook every day.
What’s Expat Life In Korea Like?
Expat life in Korea is a really mixed bag. There are some incredible things, there are some terrible things. It’s the same in most countries. But there are certainly some very uniquely Korean problems and opportunities that you can experience as a foreigner in Korea.
If you’d like to know more about the highs and lows of expat life in Korea, check out this article all about My Expat Life In Korea.
I’ve written several articles about life in Korea, you can find them in the ‘Life’ section of this website, including an article about whether you need to Learn Korean To Live In Korea.
For expats in Korea who are looking for ways to transfer money from your home country cheaply and conveniently, I recommend reading up about the Wise Travel Money Card. It’s great for expats.
Korean Travel Essentials
Planning to visit Korea? These travel essentials will help you plan your trip, get the best deals, and save you time and money on your Korean adventure.
Korea Electronic Travel Authorisation (K-ETA): Most countries need a K-ETA to travel to Korea. Apply before you travel only with the Official K-ETA Site.
Incheon Airport To Seoul: Take the Airport Express (AREX) to Seoul Station or a limo bus to other parts of Seoul. Don’t want to carry heavy suitcases? Book an Incheon Airport Private Transfer and relax to or from the airport.
Learning Korean: Want to learn Korean before you travel? I recommend 90 Day Korean as they have well-structured lessons and loads of useful resources.
How Many Foreigners In Korea FAQs
Here are some FAQs about the number of foreigners in Korea that should answer any other queries you may have.
How many foreigners live in Korea?
There are 2,012,862 foreigners living in Korea in 2022, down from a peak of 2,524,656 in December 2019. The main reason for the decline has been the coronavirus pandemic and restrictions to entry by the Korean government.
Where are foreigners in Korea mostly from?
The largest group of foreigners in Korea come from China, with 851,615 Chinese immigrants living in Korea in 2022. However, the vast majority of these Chinese immigrants (719,269) are ethnic-Koreans who have returned to Korea.
Why do foreigners live in Korea?
There are many reasons for foreigners to live in Korea. The main reasons are for employment, education, marriage, and long-term travel. The biggest reason is employment, with more than 1.3 million foreigners in Korea for employment reasons in 2022.
Is it hard to live in Korea as a foreigner?
There are good and bad parts of living in any country. Korea is one of the most homogenous countries in the world, which means that most of the population have the same ethnicity. Foreigners in Korea certainly stand out, which can make it hard to live in Korea. Prejudices against foreigners certainly exist, with some foreigners suffering more than others. Generally, the cost and condition of life in Korea is favourable, making it not so hard to live in Korea as a foreigner.
Where do most foreigners live in Korea?
Most foreigners in Korea live in the greater Seoul area, which accounts for around 50% of the whole population of Korea and includes Seoul, Incheon, and Gyeonggi Province.
Sources For This Article
Here are some of the sources used for this article:
- Korea Times Article: Jun 23, 2022
- Korea Times Article: Jan 26, 2022
- Korea Herald Article: Sep 26, 2021
- Wikipedia: Immigration to South Korea
- Statista: Foreign Students In Korea
- Business Standard: Korean Economic Ranking
- Statistics Korea: Foreign Workers In Korea
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