PCSing to South Korea
It’s PCS season! Like many military families, you may have anxiously awaited orders to your next duty station.
But unlike your neighbor, you just received orders saying you’re going to South Korea. You’re probably experiencing one of two popular reactions. 1) Oh crap! or 2) This ought to be interesting.
If you were lucky enough to get command sponsored, then congratulations. If you weren’t and/or you’re still waiting, then best of luck to you!
My family and I (an Army family of three with a cat) moved to¬†Osan Air Base, Korea¬† in May 2009 during the Mass Exodus of the 6-52 Battalion from Fort Sill, OK. During the move and over the past three years, I’ve definitely learned a thing or two.
Before moving to Korea, we participated in a few town hall meetings and teleconference video chats with some spouses who were currently living there. They were very helpful in giving us an idea of what our future held and although they were all fine and dandy, I honestly don’t think they prepared us for the complete and total shock of our first international move.
Before our PCS, we left our car with a family member. I would honestly advise you do the same unless you happen to already own a small vehicle. Most American model trucks and SUVs have issues navigating the roads in Korea and I wouldn’t want to subject my car that we were paying on/paid off to the whims of Korean drivers. They’re pretty crazy and traffic lights are really more of a guideline than a law. I’ve seen so many people (including bus drivers!) running red lights and driving as if they own the road.
On moving day, we went to the airport with the max amount of checked and carry-on baggage allowed per person, and oh-my-goodness was it a pain! We had about 12 bags between the three of us. Our daughter was 2 1/2, so she couldn’t really carry any of our stuff. A couple of the bags included my husband’s military stuff, which he thought he might need¬† right away (he so didn’t).
Our flight was non-eventful. Our cat was allowed to travel in a soft-sided carrier under the seat and he did very well the entire flight. Of course, that may have had something to do with the medications his vet gave him to help keep him knocked out.
If the military decides to fly you commercially, then you will land at Incheon airport in Seoul and go through customs and whatnot. At the time of our arrival, there was an outbreak of H1N1 so everyone had to get their temperatures read between exiting the plane and entering the actual airport. So, it took us a while to get through but we eventually made it. Whatever you do, make sure you NEVER take a taxi cab from the airport. Korean taxi drivers target military and offer to drive you wherever you need to go. However, if you accept, it will cost an arm and a leg to get anywhere. Instead, keep on walking until you hit the USO desk and you can ride the buses they provide. If you’re traveling to the Yongsan area (where my husband had to in-process), then the bus ride is free. If you’re going elsewhere, you should be able to find a military-approved bus to take you to your destination for a nominal fee. My best friend who I eventually made in Korea took the military-approved bus from the airport straight to Osan for less than $100 for entire family.
Once you’ve in-processed, you’re ready to look for a place to live. Chances are good that housing on base/post won’t going to be available right when you arrive. This is especially true for Army at Osan because the Air Force gets preference and the vast majority of the apartments in the housing towers go to them. The Army gets about 10 percent occupancy. If you are lucky enough to receive an active sponsor (we weren’t) then they should be able to help you out with finding a good realtor and whatnot.
Right outside the main gate of Osan, there are plenty of realtors to help you find a place to live. They all speak English and for the most part are helpful in understanding what you’re looking for. They will take you around to various apartments that fit your needs and if you don’t like what they show you, then you can simply move on to the next realtor.
BAH here isn’t like BAH in the states. Your allowable BAH will match the rent of your home, within a permissible range, so there is no option to pocket the extra cash. However, you will receive COLA to help cover the cost of your utilities. For example, we went with Korea Realty and lived in “Life Apartments.” I liked living there because I could pronounce the name of the complex; that made it easy for me to tell the taxi drivers where to go!
When we first got to Korea, our rent was 1.1 million won; about $850. We eventually moved on base our lease conveniently expired around the same time we had a serious outbreak of black mold in our kitchen. By the time we moved out last year,¬† our rent, while still 1.1 million won, equaled about $1,000 because of the conversion rate. As you can see, monthly bills here can fluctuate, as will your paycheck.¬† When the won rate gets closer to the dollar, you wind up getting more money because your dollar won’t go as far. Our COLA has been between $300-350 for the past year or so.
Our off base apartment came partially furnished even though we had opted to take pretty much all of our furniture with us. Our apartment came with 2 beds, a couch, table and chairs and a weird little table that could be used to hold a TV. This worked out really well for us because it meant that we didn’t have to borrow any furniture from the military while waiting for our shipment to arrive. Korean beds are much harder than American beds and I don’t recommend sleeping on them if you can help it.
If you live off base, I would caution you to not use your A/C, as it is insanely expensive to use. One month of regular use can run you anywhere from $400-600! Instead, stock up on many fans to plug in around your home and circulate the air. Please keep in mind that this is something everyone does during the summers here, so the fan supply at the exchange tends to go quick. Get them while you can.
There is a lending closet here at Osan for kitchen supplies, but we never needed it and I don’t know the details about how it works. We got our unaccompanied goods with our kitchen stuff relatively soon after arriving. I do know they prefer loaned furniture only be out for 30-90 days, but everyone I know here who used it kept it for their entire time here (2-3 years).
You’ll need a ration control card in order to shop at the exchange, shopette and commissary while you’re here. This is required due to the fear of the black market. Your sponsor will take care of this for you or, if you’re the military member, your ID card gets you full access.
The movie theater on Osan plays movies every night of the week, which we found to be a nice change from Fort Sill. where moves are only played on the weekends. The theater here also recently started taking debit/credit cards.
For eating-out options on base, you’ll find the usual fare in the BX food court including Charlie’s, Taco Bell, Subway, Pizza Hut, Captain D’s, Krispy Kreme, Baskin Robbins and a BK/Popeye’s dual food court a little ways down the road. There is also a Chili’s, which serves most of the same stuff as the ones back in the states, the Officer’s Club, Mustang Club and the Enlisted Club which all offer a variety of food options. We found the bowling alley and Checkertails have some of the best burgers on base. Checkertails also offers really good pizzas. Pizza Hut, Subway, Popeyes and Anthony’s all deliver off and on base while Checkertails, Chilis, the bowling alley and the other food establishments on base only deliver to people on base.
Off base food options include your typical Korean food as well as more American-known names like McDonald’s, Outback Steakhouse and Domino’s Pizza. But don’t let the names fool you -¬† the menus aren’t exactly the same as the ones back home. For instance, at McDonald’s you can get a bulgogi burger or a spicy shanghai chicken sandwich. They’re very good and I’m actually going to miss that sandwich when we go back home. The steaks at Outback are incredibly expensive; even more so than in the US because they actually import the meat from the US. I also highly recommend trying a Korean Domino’s Pizza because their toppings are very interesting. They use ingredients like corn kernels, potatoes and sweet potato paste. I know it may seem odd, but it’s nowhere near as bad as it sounds. Potatoes and corn on my pizza are another thing I’m going to miss when we return home. Be adventurous and try something new!
Osan has an elementary, middle and high school that are located near each other. Space is limited to command sponsored people first, so if you have school-age children and have yet to get CSP, that’s something you should think about before taking the plunge and coming over here.
On-base housing consists of three high-rise apartment towers. They’re all the rage here in Korea because there’s a lack of usable land and a plethora of people. There’s Serokasan tower, the oldest, which is up a tall hill and near the commissary, indoor pool, the best playground on base and all three schools. Hallasan and Jirisan towers are located next to each other, and unlike Serokasan, have a parking garage with assigned parking and are located across the street from the hospital. There are 2-4 bedroom options available. Most units come with a storage room inside the apartment and all come with a separate hallway storage room that you share with other families (each family gets their own storage cage in the room that locks with their door key). The A/C and heat get turned on and off at set times during the year per military regulations in order to save money.
There are many fun and beautiful places to visit in Korea so I beseech you, please get out and enjoy yourself. ITT offers many affordable tours to various places all over the country at relatively affordable prices. Everland is a fun amusement park with an animal exhibit that is essentially a zoo. Lotte World is an indoor/outdoor theme park that has a similar vibe to Disney World (just not as good) and there’s rumored to be an attached mall that we never found. Seoul Tower is another tourist hot spot that offers breathtaking views of Seoul and I hear is absolutely gorgeous at nighttime. The cherry blossom tours in April are worth experiencing. Take a temple tour or two – there’s plenty of them here in Korea. There’s even some overnight/weekend trips to go hiking in the mountains or to visit the beach at Jeju.
When it comes time to PCS out of Korea, try to set up for your HHG to leave asap so that you aren’t without your stuff as long in the states. You can always borrow military furniture to last you from the time they pick up your stuff until closer to your PCS date, which sadly you can’t do in the US (unless of course you want to pay for storage).¬† Also, be sure to prepare yourselves financially for the move back home.
In conclusion, the one major thing I wish I had known about this move ahead of time is that it is so much cheaper to have the military fly you out after your spouse has already arrived and found you a place to live. If the sponsor flies here first, they can find a place to live and get everything set up so that when you arrive you can just go straight home and not have to pay exorbitant hotel fees.
I really hope that you enjoy your time in Korea and make the best of it. We had a wonderful three years here and while this country was never on my list of places I would like to visit in my lifetime, I’m so glad we came because it’s been an amazing journey and experience that I wouldn’t change for anything.
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