…or just if you plan on being there for a long period of time.
Some shopping in Korea, including a pair of boots I found in a size 10 (!) at an international goods store in Itaewon:
If you are an unusual size or bigger than the average Korean size (which is smaller than the western average) you will have limited options. Even though there are some larger people in Korea, most small shops don’t carry a wide range. Little boutiques or subway markets often only carry “free size” in many items– a sort of one size fits all. Shoes average size 7 for ladies, size 9 for men. Any size much bigger than that will be hard to find. Even if you are slim, if you are curvy (for women) or broad-shouldered (for men) you may have some challenges with fit.
A and B are the most common cup sizes for bras with some stores carrying a limited stock of C cups. Anything larger than that is specialty and won’t be carried in most Korean shops (though western brands like H&M will sometimes have a few Ds in their larger stores). Band sizes above a 38 are also rare so pack a few good bras. If you like to wear thongs, those are also less popular in Korea, so bring your own stock.
Also keep in mind the weather. Winters are cold, if maybe a bit dry. Good quality winter coats are expensive in Korea and also limited in sizing. Bring your own and anticipate layering underneath. In the summer it’s pretty hot, but also extremely humid and rainy. Have a few pairs of shoes, particularly ones that are waterproof or dry quickly. Going sleeveless is also generally frowned upon for both genders, so thin, light, sleeved shirts or cardigans are essential. Bear in mind that off-the-shoulder tops and low cut blouses are also frowned upon and may get you unwanted attention (people asking if you’re a prostitute).
There’s a variety of hygiene products easily available in Korea. Some foreign brands like OGX, Dove, Burt’s Bees, and others are available at stores like Olive Young and even in the local markets. However, there may not be some of the smaller brands you prefer and all natural brands like Burt’s Bees can easily be two to three times the price you’re used to so you may want to stock up at home.
I would also recommend bringing your own starter tube of toothpaste until you become familiar with what’s on offer in Korea. Not all toothpastes are mint flavored there. Many are ginseng flavored which can be a very unpleasant surprise for someone not used to the taste. If you have sensitive teeth it can also be hard to find a specialty paste.
If you have darker skin, then finding makeup in your shade is very hard. Many girls in Korea wear their makeup a shade lighter to give themselves a more porcelain complexion, so even with medium toned skin, you might not be able to find the right shade. If your skin is very dark, it’s unlikely any makeup store will carry your shade. Some foreign makeup counters in large department stores can order it for you, but expect to pay a good amount for it– so bring your own foundation and powder from home.
Many women struggle to find feminine hygiene products similar to what they use at home while they are in Korea. Instead of being made of more absorbent materials, many pads are just much bigger for overnight usage. Tampons are also less common and have less variety in a Korean store. (No stores seemed to carry my beloved OB.) If you have a particular brand you’re comfortable with you should bring a stash along to Korea. Menstrual cups haven’t caught on there yet either, but cloth pads are starting to be seen in more locations.
You may notice less selection in birth control devices as well and while some western brands are sold, they will cost more and have fewer varieties than you may be used to in your home country. The “Family Planning” section of the pharmacy is smaller overall, so bring a stat whatever products work best for you if you’re not sure they’ll have what you need.
Essential home goods:
Finding bedding you like at a good price may be hard. Spreading a sort of thin quilted pad instead of a fitted sheet over your mattress is still preferred by many in Korea. Fitted sheets can be expensive, especially if you want them in a nice flannel or satin. Tucking your favorite flannel sheet into your suitcase could make all the difference on a cold winter night.
Large bath towels and bath sheets are less common as well. It’s more popular to quickly wipe yourself down with a smaller towel, sometimes more like a hand towel than to wrap up in a large towel. If you prefer to wrap up, bring your own bath sheet.
Special treats that remind you of home are always good to pack. In Seoul especially, there are markets that sell foreign imports, but always at a mark-up. Your favorite tea or candy might be hard to find or impossibly expensive. It’s nice to bring a package along as a special treat on days you’re feeling a little homesick.
Things you probably won’t need
–Accessories: Scarves and winter accessories are inexpensive and plentiful in Korea. Jewelry, ties, and fun socks are around nearly every corner in the city. They round out your wardrobe (especially if you’re packing light) and also make great gifts to send home.
–Skincare products: Kbeauty has taken most of the world by storm recently and it’s true that Koreans are very appearance conscious and put a lot of effort into their skin. No matter your skin type you can most likely find some products that work well for you and are probably a good price as well.
–Dishes: for your basic plates, cups, and utensils you will find plenty of inexpensive options at your local Diaso (found in or near most residential areas). Large supermarkets like EMart will also have housewares for sale.
–High heels: You might think packing some heels for a night out or in case you’re invited to a co-worker’s wedding is a good idea. I certainly thought so, and then wore them maybe three times in the four years I lived there (once was to my own wedding). Seoul is hilly and even though the transit is comprehensive, it’s often packed. You’ll be running for buses, climbing stairs in train stations, and likely standing on crowded trains. Unless you’re already used to wearing them for hours on your feet, you probably won’t have much use for them.