Foreigners living in South Korea are required to register for Korea’s universal healthcare system after 6 months. The healthcare system in South Korea is one of the best in the world for both foreigners and Koreans. Within just 12 years (1977-1989), South Korea was able to transition from a private healthcare system to government-mandated universal healthcare coverage. Currently, South Korea has a single-payer program which means it is both publicly and privately financed. 

In addition, if you are living in Seoul, most doctors at major hospitals will speak English or they will have staff members who can speak English. However, if you live in rural areas, it is unlikely they will offer English language service. Therefore, most foreigners travel to urban cities when getting treatment. The difference in healthcare between rural and urban hospitals is vast. This article will provide an overall view of the healthcare system in South Korea, focusing mainly on Seoul. 

Overview of the Healthcare System in South Korea

healthcare System in South Korea
Source: Samsung Medical Center

South Korea is known for having a healthcare system that is both cheap and of high quality. The quality of South Korean healthcare has been ranked as being among the world’s best. For example, the OECD’s highest colorectal cancer survival rate is at 72.8% which is a lot higher than the United Kingdom at 54.5% 

The public healthcare system in Korea is called the National Health Insurance (NHI). It is universal and funded by the Korean government. This does not mean it is free. Everyone including foreigners living in Korea must pay into the NHI. The good news is that the monthly payment for the NHI is relatively cheap (around 123,000 won). In addition, people with NHI will only have to cover 20% of their medical treatment fees. Therefore, healthcare in Korea is very affordable. However, this also means that doctors and medical staff in Korea make less money than the United States. 

The NHI allows people to use any hospital or clinic in Korea for their medical needs. If people prefer to go with private health insurance, they might not have the freedom to select whichever hospital they like. Some private health insurances will only cover you if you go to a designated hospital or clinic. 

They have a website but it is mostly in Korean and could be difficult to use if you are a foreigner. 

Issues regarding the Healthcare System in South Korea

doctors in Korea

One of the major issues/complaints when it comes to the healthcare system in South Korea is the long wait times. When visiting most hospitals in Korea, it is highly likely you will have to take a number and wait for 30 minutes to sometimes an hour or more. This even applies to emergency rooms. 

However, the biggest issue in regards to the Healthcare system in South Korea is the number of tests doctors perform. Since most of the costs are covered by the government, doctors like to run as many tests as possible. In addition, they tend to overprescribe medication as most are compensated for the medicine they promote. 

Hospitals vs Clinics in South Korea 

The biggest question among foreigners tends to be whether or not they should go to a hospital or clinic in South Korea. There are far more clinics than hospitals in Korea. 90% of physicians work in the private sector in Korea. However, most Koreans seek treatment at a hospital even for the common cold. However, if you have serious issues it is best to go to a hospital rather than a clinic. For example, if you are looking for treatments for diabetic foot ulcers, do your research to find the best hospital for that particular issue. For both cases, after being examined by a doctor, you will be sent to a nearby pharmacy to pick up your prescription. All hospitals in Korea will have a pharmacy within the hospitals. In addition, most clinics in Korea will have a pharmacy within walking distance and sometimes within the same building. 

How to get on the NHI Plan

healthcare system in South KoreaIf you are working in South Korea, the company you work for will take care of your health insurance plan. They are required by law to provide employees with health insurance if the company has more than 5 employees. The employer will pay half of their employee’s monthly premiums. If you are employed, on average, 5.06% of your income will go towards the NHI. 

If you are not working or your company has less than 5 employees, then you can sign up for the NHI plan if you have gotten your Alien Registration Card (ARC). Getting your Alien Registration Card could take up to 2 months. Signing up for the NHI plan is very easy. You will need to take your ARC, passport, certificate of enrollment, and application form to your nearest Immigration office. The monthly premium you will have to pay is based on your salary so prices will differ for everyone. 

Private vs Public Health Insurance in South Korea

In most cases, there is no need for private health insurance in South Korea. South Korea offers one of the best healthcare plans in the world. For those that are in good health and will only need to go to the hospital in emergency situations, the NHI is the way to go. However, if you have health issues that require constant treatment it is highly recommended you get private insurance since having only public insurance could get costly.

It is important to note that the quality of care between private and public healthcare is pretty much the same. Therefore when deciding between public vs private, it all depends on the amount of time you will need to visit a hospital or clinic in Korea. In addition, plastic surgery in Korea is not covered under the national health insurance program. 

The cost of private health insurance in Korea is similar to public health insurance. It will typically range from 100,000 won to 120,000 won. However, if you get private health insurance you are required to also pay for public health insurance. 

Having a baby in South Korea 

Baby in Korea

There are many great services for expecting mothers in Korea. Whether you are a foreigner or local, there are services available for every step of your pregnancy journey in Korea. For example, midwives and birthing pools are all available in South Korea. In addition, South Korea offers post-birthing centers that help with the first few critical weeks of the baby’s life. Women in Korea can give birth at hospitals or at birthing centers. Most Korean women tend to have C-sections as most doctors in Korea push for them as natural births can take 6-12 hours. In addition, C-section delivery costs double the money a natural birth would cost. 

Top Hospitals in Seoul for Foreigners 

All these hospitals have an English website so make sure to check them out before visiting! 

Asan Medical Center

Asan Medical Center is one of the largest hospitals in Korea and averages over 2,400 inpatients on an average day. Through their website, you can make appointments and even get a second opinion upon request. In addition, they have an International healthcare center on the 4th floor specialized for international patients. They even offer translation, guidance, and counseling services throughout the overall medical process from the reservation, treatment, medical payment, examination, and administration. 

# of Hospital Beds: 2,700

Samsung Medical Center

Samsung Medical Center’s website allows you to make appointments as well as make payments. In addition, they have a wide range of information about their services all in English. They also have an International Healthcare Center which is dedicated to ex-pats in Korea. The doctors, administrators, and nurses at the International Healthcare Center at Samsung Medical Center are fluent in English. The hospital is known for its excellent infrastructures such as pharmacies, a gift shop, a beauty salon, a bank, a restaurant, a food court/cafeterias, and even prayer rooms. 

# of Hospital Beds: 1,970

Seoul National University Hospital 

The best aspect of Seoul National University Hospital is that they offer a 24-hour emergency contact service in English. They established their International Healthcare Center in 1999. Therefore they have over 20 years of experience working with international patients with medical appointments, payments, examinations, and prescribed medications. You can make an appointment at the IHC via phone, email, or office visit. Furthermore, there will offer English receipts upon requests. 

# of Hospital Beds: 1,780

Yonsei Severance Hospital 

Yonsei Severance Hospital is the oldest hospital in Korea and is highly regarded by foreigners. They have an International Healthcare Center that is staffed by doctors and nurses fluent in English. The reception area at the center is open from 9 am to 5 pm on weekdays and 9:30 am to noon on Saturdays. It is located on the second floor of the Student Union Building. Furthermore, international students can use their Yonsei Student ID cards to get discounts.

# of Hospital Beds: 2,600

Seoul St. Mary’s Hospital 

Seoul St. Mary’s Hospital has many doctors and nurses that speak English. Make sure to go to their International Healthcare center for one-stop medical services such as medical consultations and filling prescriptions. All medical reports and insurance forms will be provided upon request in English. Their 24-hour emergency care center offers physicians that are fluent in English. 

# of Hospital Beds: 1,400

FAQ – The Healthcare System in South Korea

Why do foreigners have to register for the NHI plan? 

Foreigners in Korea did not have to register for the NHI in the past. However, there were many cases of foreigners leaving South Korea without paying their medical expenses. Therefore, a new law was created that requires all foreigners in South Korea to register for the NHI after 6 months of living in Korea. 

What does the NHI cover? 

The NHI covers around 80% of medical costs depending on the treatment. Most of the costs go towards medical checkups, general procedures, and prescription medication. 

If an employee is hurt on the job the NHI will cover the expenses. The same goes for cases of unemployment. 

The NHI will not cover you if you are outside of Korea. Therefore if you are traveling abroad you will need to buy travel insurance or sign up for a private healthcare plan that offers coverage abroad. 

My work told me to go to a particular hospital for treatment. Can I go to another hospital? 

If your work tells you which hospital you must use, it is highly likely you are not on the NHI plan but rather a private insurance provider. If you are on the NHI plan you can go to any hospital or clinic in Korea you like. However, if you are under a private insurance plan, you will need to go to that hospital. Therefore, double-check with your work to see which plan you are currently under. 

There are some companies in Korea that will only meet the minimum requirements by law in regards to healthcare coverage. For example, companies might go for private healthcare that only covers expenses in case of emergencies. Hagwons (private learning centers) are notorious for this which is why many foreign teachers working in Korea are under-insured. Remember you are required to be on the NHI after 6 months so if your company only has you on private insurance you will need to get on NHI yourself. This is why when starting a job in South Korea make sure to look over your company’s health insurance policy thoroughly. 

What can I bring if I have to stay overnight at a hospital? 

You can bring electronic devices such as laptops, tablets, and your smartphone. Make sure you bring earphones and chargers. Bring your own toothbrush and toothpaste. The good news is that most hospitals will have a CU, GS Mart, or some kind of convenience store that will sell the most commonly needed items. The hospital will feed you three Korean meals a day.

If you have travel health insurance when visiting Korea what should you do? 

The best thing to do is email your insurance company who will find the nearest English-speaking hospital in Korea based on your address. Most travel insurances will cover the hospital registration fee. Make sure to bring with you a copy of your insurance and forms of identification (passport will do). If you don’t want to email your insurance company you can still go to any hospital in Korea. Once there you will need to fill out forms. Remember all travel health insurance packages are different so emailing your travel health insurance is the most recommended. 

If I give birth in South Korea will my baby have Korean citizenship? 

Your child will have the same citizenship as the mother. Therefore if you are a foreigner in Korea from the United States, your baby will be a U.S. citizen, not a Korean citizen. However, if your husband is a Korean citizen then the baby will be a Korean citizen.