Bureaucrazy in Korea: Banks & Healthcare

I’ve been having a lot of great adventures here in Korea, but I’ve also had to deal with some more mundane aspects of living in a new country. When I first arrived here, I got the flu rather badly and had to learn about the healthcare system much faster than I expected. Also, I had to open a Korean bank account and learn the details of online banking. One of these is awesome and the other is overly cumbersome. Can you guess? Sorry there aren’t any beautiful pictures in this one, but I hope you’ll enjoy it anyway.

Korean Banking

I was generally advised to wait until my ARC (alien registration card) arrived to open a bank account, but due to my illness, we got a late start on the ARC process and so my school’s accounting office was a bit desperate for me to open an account before my first payday. So my co-teacher and I headed out one afternoon after classes to do just that. I did some research on Korean banks and found that the Korean Exchange Bank was reviewed well for it’s service to foreigners, especially international money transfers, so I opted to open my account there. Recently, KEB merged with Hana Bank, so we went to a Hana branch to do the actual opening. I was able to open the account using my passport and US social security number, but it was going to be a somewhat limited account, and we would have to return to update the paperwork once the ARC was complete.

I thought at the time that it went smoothly. Although the bank clerks didn’t speak English, I was there with my co-teacher who helpfully translated and patiently got all my questions answered. I had to sign a thick pile of paperwork, on every page, sometimes twice. I deposited a small amount of cash just to open the account, and we were even able to make my bank card act as my public transport card as well. This was a clever option so I don’t have to worry about refilling my T-Money card, and the month’s bus/subway bill gets withdrawn on a scheduled day. We also filled out the paperwork for internet banking and international transfers, so I thought I was golden!


I left the account alone for a while, since there wasn’t much money in it anyway, and then on payday, I tried to log on to see if my deposit had gone through ok, and that’s when the trouble started. Internet security in Korea is intense. First, I tried to look up the KEB website and log in using the username and password we’d created at the bank for the express purpose of online banking. This was an abject failure. After several attempts, with the bank telling me that my user name didn’t exist, I finally asked my co-teacher to call the bank and ask what was going on. We discovered that the merger isn’t actually complete yet, and so I had to go to the Hana Bank website instead. Ok.

Next problem. I usually use Chrome as my browser, and have avoided IE since there was an alternate browser to choose from. However, when I opened the Hana Bank website in Chrome, I was informed that I could only access the website from Internet Explorer. So I lauch IE and try again. Then I’m informed that I must install special security software on my computer to access the website. Ok. Three separate pieces of security software, all of the instructions for which are in Korean. This is one of the reasons I like Chrome, because it has a translate option for websites which is (while not perfect) a really huge help in navigating foreign language sites. Fortunately, I have Google Translate on my phone, so I was able to use the photo option to take a picture of my monitor and translate the messages. Finally, I got all the software installed, managed to log in and see my bank balance. It turned out the deposit hadn’t shown up by the time we left school for the day (a Friday), so I went through the whole process again later that night from my home computer. Saw the money had arrived and decided to pay my entry fee for Holi Hai via internet transfer.


I hit the transfer button, went through the process of entering all the information: my account number, my pin number, the name of the receiving bank, and the receiving account number, the amount of money, then I was asked to verify via phone or certificate. I still didn’t have my Korean phone number when we opened the bank account, so my co-teacher used hers to fill out the forms. But I was at home and couldn’t just walk into the next office to ask for her help. It was Friday, the fee was due the next day, and we wouldn’t be back at school together until Monday, so I texted her to ask for help.

After a whole lot of back and forth, including her calling the hosts of Holi Hai because she thought they were Korean (nope, Indian) and that I might be having trouble communicating with them about the due date, we discovered that it was effectively not possible for me to do the transfer myself, so she agreed to send them the money herself and let me bring her cash the next day. I do love my co-teacher.

I spent a chunk of that weekend trying to figure out the certification process, because it seemed to indicate that once a computer (or other device) was registered with the bank, then the phone verification step would not be necessary. Several frustrating hours and more translation work later, I discovered that the certificate also would require phone verification, and so I gave up until Monday. I brought my laptop into the office because I didn’t want the school computer being the only one I could do my banking from, and managed to get online with my phone’s mobile hotspot (since my school has restricted internet access). My co-teacher and I painstakingly went through the website so I could show her the steps I had taken, but something had changed! My weekend of research was useless and we had to try to figure it out all over again.

Usually, Koreans use their national ID, and foreigners use their ARC ID for secure identification. I opened the bank account with my passport and US national ID, so when the website asked for my national ID number, I tried both of those with no success. We finally called the bank and got someone to explain what my temporary ID was (according to them), but they also told us that if I created this security certificate with that ID, then I would have to do it all over again when we changed the bank account to my ARC ID. So we decided to wait.

The next day, we headed over to a local government office that would print out a temporary paper that would have my real ARC number on it so we could give that to the bank, and we made plans to go to the bank later in the week where we could both change my account to my ARC number and figure out the certificate issue.

On the very day we were to go to the bank, my actual ARC card arrived at the school, so at least we never had to find out if the temporary certificate would have worked. We trundled over to the nearest Hana branch with my laptop in tow because we weren’t going to leave the bank without the certificate complete. We got the ID number changed with little trouble, and then asked more questions about the online certificate before we sat down in the waiting area to make it work. In order to apply for the certificate, I still had to go through the rigmarole of entering my account number, my pin number, the set of numbers requested from my security card –

*oh I forgot to mention this part. When I got my bank account, I was given a card full of numbers: two long numbers along the top and rows and rows of four digit numbers filling the card. Whenever you do anything online, you have to enter the numbers from the card that are requested, so it’s not just a pin code or password that you can memorize, you have to pull out the card and squint at the tiny numbers to find the one being asked for.

AND the phone verification (which at least was easier to do since my co-teacher was sitting next to me. Unlike other SMS verifications that text a code you enter on a website, this one actually voice (computer recording) called her phone (remember it’s the number linked to my account at this point) and requested we enter a number from the website into the phone.

The certificate had to be downloaded onto my computer and also requested yet another password (distinct from my password to log onto the website, or my pin number) which, I was informed, were I to forget, would necessitate physically returning to a branch to get a new one. Did I mention banks are only open during school hours, so I’m taking PTO from my vacation to get this stuff done?

Certificate complete, we then decided to test it by paying one of my bills online. In the US, when you want to pay a bill online, you can go to the company’s website and log in, see your bill, then pay it by credit card or by your bank account. The point is, you go to the company website. (Sure, banks have bill pay options online, I’ve never set mine up because it’s a hassle to enter all the data). I’m not saying our way is better (non-sarcastic), but you do take certain things for granted when they are all you’ve ever known. Even when I paid my phone bill in Saudi, I did it with the phone company, not with my bank. Korea is a bit different. The bill shows a bank name and account number where you transfer your payment to.

This took us a little tinkering because my co-teacher has all her bills set on auto-pay and hadn’t actually paid a bill by transfer in many years and I’d never done it this way at all. The first screen you come to when you select the transfer option has you enter your account number, your pin number, the bank and account number you’re transferring to, and the amount of money plus a brief description.

bank info prtscn

I had no idea how to indicate to the company which bill I was paying since my name isn’t actually on the internet, gas or utility bills that were set up before I ever arrived. I tried entering the customer information in the description field, and I hit “OK”. I was shown a summary of the transfer including my banking information and the name of the account I was sending to (which is nice so you can catch it if you mistyped the long account number). Then if that’s all in order, you enter the selected numbers from your security card:

bank card verf prtscn

hit “run transfer” again and have to enter —

bnk cert page prtscn

your certificate password! Bearing in mind, we’ve already gone through all this trouble just to register my computer as safe to do bank stuff on, but every time I do a transfer (read “pay a bill”) I have to go through three passwords (log on password, pin number, and certificate password) and a security card number dance to prove I’m really really really really me.

Once we did the transfers, I noticed that the description field had not worked as I expected and the customer account information was not showing up to the recipient. How are they supposed to know what bill the money is for? Tomorrow. The next day, we called around to the places I’d paid bills to and had the hardest time finding a real person to speak to (some things are truly international?). One place told us they’d simply matched the amount to the bill and figured it out. The internet company however said they couldn’t look up the account without the national ID number of the person who opened it. We didn’t even know who opened this account, it’s just been with the apartment for as long as anyone remembered. In the end, we were told, we could read the MAC address off the router as ID, so I took a photo when I got home and we called once more the next day. The good news is, companies here issue unique transfer account numbers. So the bank account number that’s on my bill is *just for me*, and that’s how they know what bill it is.

After more than a week of hair pulling, I finally figured out the process for online bill paying. I still haven’t tried the international transfer option because I want to send the maximum transfer when I do to get the most for my transfer fee. Nor have I been able to change the phone number linked to my own Korean one (still linked to my co-teacher’s). I’ll let you know how that goes in a couple more weeks/months.

Another really important point here: I did not do this alone. I had a cheerful, friendly, bilingual Korean person with me most of the way. I can’t even imagine trying to do this by myself. I’d probably be trying to pay my bills in person or by ATM (apparently that’s an option) and sending money home by Western Union. I bought my co-teacher a chocolate cake.

I’m all in favor of security for banking, and internet security in general, but Korea takes it to a whole new potentially tinfoil hat level of paranoia. My US bank account asks me security questions if I log in from a new computer, which is nice. But I CAN log in from a different computer, which is also nice, especially when I had to do things like log in from a public computer at a hostel in China to transfer money on the fly. I don’t think that would even be possible with my Korean bank.

On top of that, the internet security isn’t just for banking. I finally figured out how to order food for delivery online. Yogiyo is a really popular website, but they required me to register my phone and authenticate it with an SMS to place an order. I went to the Papa John’s website and tried to register, and only after half an hour of futzing with the security protocols, installing another security program, and trying to legally verify my real name did I give up and place my order as a “guest”. Why do they need to legally verify my name for a pizza? On the plus side, I’ll never have to worry about someone ordering a pizza and claiming to be me.

Korean Healthcare

The EPIK Orientation was ground zero for a very virulent flu minidemic. Later I found out some 40% of the new teachers missed part or all of their first week of teaching due to this outbreak. I got to my new apartment on a Friday evening, feeling tired from the long week, but otherwise ok. I bought some necessities from the local grocery and some soup from a restaurant and settled in to enjoy my weekend. A few hours later, I wasn’t feeling so great. I started coughing and having some breathing distress. I was suddenly gripped by fear that the pollution in my new home was worse than I expected, that I might experience the smog-induced nightmare of China all over again and be unable to stay here and be healthy. The next day was worse. I’d developed a fever and many flu symptoms, which was actually a relief because it meant my breathing trouble wasn’t caused by smog. I was hoping that it was just a short cold and I’d be at least slightly functional by the time I was expected at work on Monday, but alas, it was not to be. I texted my co-teacher (who at the time I had met just briefly on my ride from the orientation to my apartment) and told her I was feeling very ill. I didn’t want to be sick for my first day of work, but it was bad.

I finally managed to get the point across, and we started talking about doctor options. She tried to tell me about a place I could walk to or take the subway to, but this was my first weekend in my new place and I’d had zero time to learn the location of anything before falling ill. And even now that I know where the hospital is in relation to me, there was NO way I could have made it there in my condition at the time. She finally agreed to come pick me up and take me to the hospital. It turned out her husband and son had just recovered from the flu, so she was more sympathetic than I had feared. We got to the ER and checked in. Yep, ER, emergency room. It was after 8pm on a Sunday night so that was all we had, but my coughing/ breathing trouble had become too severe for me to wait any longer.

There was perhaps one person ahead of us in line to check in, so that was done quite quickly, and we were ushered into a large area where I was questioned and examined politely and professionally. We talked about my history of asthma, and about my other symptoms. They took a swab to test for influenza, then set me up in a cot with an IV for fluids (I don’t doubt I was dehydrated by this time) while we waited for the results. Being tested for the flu was a new one on me. In the US, healthcare is so expensive and doctors are so overburdened that it’s just not done. I might have expected a nebulizer treatment for my breathing, and I probably would have been sent home and told to rest and take some Tylenol for the fever, maybe a prescription cough syrup to help me sleep.

The test came back positive for influenza A, a more severe and less common strain that is highly contagious. I was ordered 5 days “quarantine” (basically don’t go anywhere unless you absolutely have to, and wear a face mask if you do) and given a prescription for anti-viral medication as well as a cocktail of vitamins and decongestants. We went out to pay for the visit, but my ARC was not in yet (or even applied for) so I wasn’t in the national Health Insurance registry and had to pay out of pocket. It was about 80$. That was it. For an ER visit. Blew my mind. We walked around the corner to the pharmacy, me coughing all the way, forcing my co-teacher to slow her normal pace to one that wouldn’t destroy me. The medication too, I paid for out of pocket and it was something like 10-12$ for all of it.

After my week of medication and bed rest, I was feeling much better. No more fever or aches, but my cough was lingering on fiercely. I showed up to work the second Monday, and we made arrangements to go to a doctor during regular hours to avoid the ER expense. My co-teacher was delighted to learn the English word “pulmonologist”, because here you don’t need to see a general practitioner to be referred to a specialist if you already know what kind of specialist you need. I couldn’t breathe, so we clearly needed a pulmonologist. You can’t actually make an appointment. It’s first come first serve, but that day we didn’t wait long, maybe 15 minutes, before we got in to see the doctor.

This kind of lingering breathing distress after a serious bout of flu is not unknown to me and that flu had been a doozy. I explained my history (with help translating) to the doctor and he listened attentively. He asked his own questions about my symptoms, and seemed ill at ease with some of my answers. When I asked why, he told me that it didn’t really fit with a “typical” diagnosis. So, I got even more into my history and explained the issues in more detail. This is also totally new to me, since US doctors just want you in and out as fast as possible and hardly ever want to listen to a patient’s own information about their illness or history except for short yes or no answers to specific questions. This doctor had done the specific questions, but when my answers didn’t fit, he kept looking for more information! He did insist on an x-ray just to be sure there wasn’t another problem (which I’m ok with, although it was clear as I expected) and then we talked about medicine.

Now, if this was new, I’d want to take the doctor’s word. But I spent years dealing with this after my return from China. Years of doctors who didn’t believe me or insisted it was something else, or kept giving me medicine that didn’t work or had bad side effects. And although I did eventually get one who listened and helped, it was an uphill battle. So, when it comes to my breathing, I know what works and what doesn’t. He wanted to give me a type of medicine that was awful for me in the past. I was on it for 2 years, and I hate it. I countered with a different option (which, to be honest I also hate but at least it’s over faster, and has always kicked the breathing problem in the butt before). We talked about risks and side effects, when had I last used the medication, how often I’d used it at what dose. Eventually he was satisfied that I understood what I was asking for and prescribed the medication. The visit and prescription out of pocket cost was less than 30$ total, which is what I could expect for a co-pay (what you pay after insurance) in the US (if my prescription was generic).

So– no appointment, short wait times, respectful doctor who both listened to me about my symptoms, history and preferences, and cross checked me to make sure he wasn’t just giving me whatever I asked for without sufficient knowledge, comfortable, professional, dignified, and cheap. Wow.

At a follow up appointment a week later, we had a longer wait. The nurse at the check in desk explained that Saturdays and Mondays were the busiest days. We waited for about an hour that day. My co-teacher was beside herself with the long wait, and I tried to explain that in the US, you can have an appointment to see a doctor made well ahead of time and still have to wait an hour or more in the waiting room before getting in. She was aghast.

The doctor clearly remembered me (although foreigners might stand out a little) and we were able to pick up our discussion easily, and decided to continue another round of treatment. We both agreed that this would be the last of this medication, as it’s meant to be a short term fix, so if this didn’t kick my cough, we would change tactics. At the final follow up, my cough was much improved but not gone. Although he seemed to think it might be normal activity induced asthma, he believed me when I told him I hadn’t had that as a regular symptom in years. We talked again about the original medication he had suggested, and I told him, no I had a different option in mind instead. His face clouded up with concern, but when I showed him the picture of what I was asking for on my phone, he recognized it at once, relaxed and immediately agreed. He gave me a month’s supply and said to come back if it wasn’t better at the end.

Compared to the US and Saudi (the other countries I’ve seen doctors in) the health care I received here was amazing. I have argued with so many doctors in the US who refuse to listen to me talk about my own body and health. I’m not suggesting they should blindly take my word, but to have a doctor listen and critically analyze my self reports was so awesome. I felt like a human being who was heard, respected and cared for in contrast to the US where I’m often made to feel like I’m being a nuisance or a silly girl who is making it up or someone whose health problems would all be solved by losing some weight. And believe me, I’m not the only one. The internet is full of stories of people who have seriously bad experiences with US doctors because they are poor, or women, or people of color, or possibly anyone that isn’t a medical cadaver.

About a week ago, my health insurance card arrived and we finally got some answers about reimbursement. My contract stipulates that I’m covered from the last day of orientation, so even my first ER visit should have been included in that coverage. We didn’t have the insurance card or national ID number at the time, so I paid in full and wanted to know how to go about getting the portion that should have been covered by insurance back. I was sort of committed to the idea that it wouldn’t really happen (getting money out of an insurance company in the States is like blood from a stone), and the bills weren’t that bad, so I knew it would be ok either way, but I decided to try. It turned out to be so easy.

All we had to do was go down to the hospital and pharmacy where the original purchases were made and show them my insurance card. The hospital took the credit card I’d used to pay with and refunded all the charges, then billed the new lower amount instead. The pharmacy simply handed me about 50$ in cash so they didn’t have to go through the paperwork process of reversing bank charges. It was done on the same day we asked for it, and it took less than an hour for both locations together.

The Korean health insurance system is a public service. All Korean citizens are automatically a part of it, and foreign residents are covered once we’re registered with our employer or immigration. But even without it, the health costs are low and the health care is good and speedy. The next time someone tries to tell you universal health care can’t work without insanely high taxes, poor quality care or long waiting lists, point them at Korea and ask them what part of this system is a problem for them.

So there it is, banking and healthcare, two systems required for long term existence in any country broken down in Korea. Although the banking system is far more cumbersome and complex than I personally feel it needs to be, I should point out that the customer care was really good and the fee structure is quite reasonable. I’ve had no problems with the bank itself or anything there other than simply navigating the obstacle course of security protocols. It’s really amazing when you remember this country was razed to the ground by war in the early 1950s and then look around at everything they’ve built since, not just in terms of skyscrapers or subway systems, but the social infrastructure that provides for it’s citizens and guests. I’m really grateful to have the opportunity to live in this uniquely fast paced country, modern that hasn’t yet lost it’s sense of social responsibility to the siren call of greed.