Is Korea still an isolated country? Many have been calling for a “global Korea” over the last decade, stressing that globalization is the only way for survival. The number of foreigners living in the country exceeded the 1 million mark last year, but many of them say Korea lags far behind Singapore or Japan. There is plenty of inconvenience in their everyday life here, from basic communication and asking for directions to applying for credit cards and using the Internet. They also say Koreans still have little regard for the feeling of foreigners.
John (25), a Canadian English teacher in Seoul, has a problem with, of all things, his mobile phone. Despite plenty of battery power, his mobile phone goes dead a lot because he is on a pre-paid plan. In Korea, it is difficult for foreigners to subscribe to normal, post-paid plans, apparently because service providers fear they could scram without paying their bills.
Michael (42), an American who has taught English at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies for three years, has a similar problem. Last year, he went to an airline office to buy a flight ticket for the Christmas holidays carrying W3.5 million (US$1=W936) in his backpack — and with Korea’s small-denomination banknotes that’s a lot of paper — because he could not get a credit card. “I tried to apply to two banks for a credit card. But the only reply I got from their clerks was, ‘No, sorry.’ They neither attempted to explain to me why they were not issuing a credit card nor gave me any brochures in English.”
Foreigners in Korea complain that it is very difficult to get ID numbers to use in the basic service sectors, including financing, the Internet, and communications. Most foreigners carry alien registration cards and numbers provided by the Korean government. But they are no use in everyday life, which makes it much more difficult to book train tickets, buy movie tickets in advance, or make online payments.
Korean websites use strict criteria for foreigners who wish to subscribe to their services — and there are no set standards either. It is possible for foreigners registered with the Immigration Office of the Justice Ministry to apply for services on portal sites such as Naver and Empas with their ID numbers. But they are required to send copies of their alien registration cards by fax if they want to use services on CyWorld or CGV. And errors frequently occur even on Naver during the subscription process.
Banking is another headache. Even if a bank decides to issue credit cards to foreigners, services differ greatly depending, it seems, on the individual clerks who deal with them. One clerk at a call center of Kookmin Bank, the country’s largest bank, said, “If you carry a professor’s visa but don’t have a third guarantor, you have to give proof of a salary of over W50 million a year.” But another clerk said, “If you carry a professor’s visa, you don’t need proof of income.”
What is the situation in other Asian countries like Japan and Hong Kong? In Japan, foreigners can immediately subscribe to mobile phone services and medical insurance if they carry an alien registration card. They are not discriminated against in terms and conditions or benefits from such services. Most portal sites in Japan like “livedoor.com”, the most popular site among Japanese netizens, only require foreigners to present basic information such as names and addresses, without asking for ID numbers.
In Hong Kong, foreigners also have little trouble subscribing to mobile phone and credit card services, even if they don’t have third guarantors or make security deposits. Major banks in Hong Kong, such as HSBC, Standard Chartered and Heng Sheng Bank, allow foreigners to apply for credit cards three months after they open accounts — on the same terms and conditions as local residents. Foreigners can also apply for housing loans after verifying their credit status, including income, just like local residents.
In Singapore, foreigners with employment passes, are not discriminated against in applying for mobile phone or credit card services. If they have employment passes and bank accounts, they can apply for bank loans. Ryan (32), a Canadian English teacher who arrived in Korea two years ago after living in Japan for three years, said, “Foreigners experience more inconvenience in Korea than in Japan because Korea has no universal standards. It seems Korea hasn’t even set its own standards yet, let alone using global standards.”