Banking in Korea: Tips for Foreigners

Banking can sometimes be a tricky part of life abroad. Below are some tips to help you more easily navigate the banking system while living in Korea.

Call customer service before going to the bank

Even though this is extremely easy, I learned it the hard way. Basically, if you need to do something at the bank aside from a basic function (e.g., withdrawal, deposit), you can call the bank’s customer service center for assistance. In my experience, the employees answering the phones speak native or near-native English. If they can solve your issue over the phone, they will. If not, they may call the branch closest to you and explain the situation to one of the tellers for you. Then they can arrange for you to meet with that specific teller the next time you visit the bank. This can save you hours or days of waiting to get something done. 

Customer service numbers

Credit cards, debit cards, and bank books normally have customer service numbers printed on them.

Bank branches for foreigners

The major banks have branches that specialize in serving foreign customers, and you can search for these on your bank’s homepage. So, this is a great option if you live near one of these. If not, I recommend calling the bank before you go to your local branch so that you will know exactly who to talk to for assistance.

Money Orders

There may come a time in your life when you need a money order—and fast. US Passport renewals, for example, require checks or money orders. Easy right? Well, not all Korean banks issue them, so it’s good to know where you can get one. 

To make sure that you can quickly and easily find a bank that provides this service, I recommend calling around (before going in person) to see which bank(s) sell money orders. It’s rare that you will ever need one while living abroad, but when you need one, it can be tough to get. The process is easy once you find the bank that sells them. If you do not have an account with that bank, you can pay in cash for the money order, plus the fee, in Korean won. The bank will factor in the exchange rate, and issue the money order in USD. 

Note: I recommend calling to confirm that the specific bank branch that you plan on visiting actually does sell money orders.

Internet Banking

If you plan on doing Internet shopping or online banking in Korea, you may have to first register for this at your bank. You can probably get help with this without much hassle if you just randomly go to your bank. However, it’s possible that the tellers might have difficulty explaining all the terms and conditions in English. Calling customer service before doing this might make it easier. You’ll likely still have to go to the bank in person, but at least you can arrange to meet with an English-speaking staff member beforehand. 

Discounts on money transfers

There are various ways of transferring money from your Korean bank account to your American account. I typically to do this at my bank’s foreign remittance desk. In general, it’s tricky to compare the exchange rates between banks since they change every day, and you can only choose one bank as your primary (international) transfer bank. You can technically do it at multiple banks, but there may be limits on the total amount that you can transfer abroad from an account at a non-primary bank. The good news is that you can ask the agent (bank teller) for a discount on the fee.

A high-ranking foreign exchange trader at a major bank once gave me the following advice: Always do the international money transfers with the same bank teller, and ask for a discount. They will likely remember you and give you a slight discount (i.e., better exchange rate). The worst thing that can happen is that they could simply say “no”. 

Non-bank remittances

Lately, there is more competition in the remittance space by non-banks. These services claim to offer customers more convenience and lower money transfer fees.

These companies may serve as an alternative instead of traditional providers for remittances. Full disclosure: I have not used these services, so I can’t verify the cost savings or efficiency. I do, however, think that learning more about different options may be helpful when comparing services.

Don’t forget to bring your passport and ARC

For most things, your Alien Registration Card is sufficient. But sometimes the bank tellers may ask for your passport for certain services. It’s super frustrating to wait in line for 45 minutes at the bank, only to realize that you didn’t bring your passport. This happened to me about a half dozen times, and it was just the biggest waste of time. So don’t forget to have your passport with you when going to the bank (for something other than a deposit or a withdrawal), just in case. 

Check cards for transportation

If you have a bank account in Korea, having a check card for public transportation makes it easier to get around. Be aware: not all check cards automatically work with the card readers on the buses and the subway. You have to specifically ask your bank for one of these check/debit cards with a special chip that allows it to be used for public transportation. The KEB Hana Bank 1Q Check Card, for instance, allows customers to pay for public transportation and simply debits the total amount owed once a month. 

Having one of these special check cards is more convenient than using a *T-Money card, which must be recharged regularly. Plus, it can be risky if, for example, you run out of cash to recharge your card at night and miss the last subway train or bus. 

*T-money cards are rechargeable cards used for public transportation in Korea. 

Getting a credit card

After you get paid a couple of times and your Korean bank account has accumulated a balance, consider asking your bank about a credit card. Why are credit cards worth considering? Deals, deals, deals. The major merchants are tightly interconnected, and the system rewards loyalty, a lot. Since every card is different, I won’t get into specifics. But, in general, benefits may include discounts at some of the popular chain restaurants, cafes, theme parks, etc. And some of them can be used for public transportation as well.

In sum

  • Call the English customer service center if you need help with something other than a simple transaction.
  • Visit a bank branch specifically for foreigners if it’s convenient.
  • It may be possible to get a discount on transfers.
  • Banks may ask to see a passport for certain services.
  • Some check/debit cards may be used to pay for public transportation.
  • Credit cards may provide discounts on purchases at certain shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues.
This is not financial advice. Check directly with service providers for specifics.