***Please note: That this is the process that we went through but it might be different depending on the type of visa, the reason you’re in Korea, etc.***
Here was our process:
BACKGROUND: In a nutshell, Lym and I are both US citizens – Lym was born as a dual citizen in South Korea but had to pick one national citizenship (US) when he became an adult, Faith is a US-born US citizen. Lym’s parents currently live in Korea. Lym and the kids qualified for a special visa related to their Korean heritage, Faith has a one-year spouse visa. We used those visas to enter and live in Korea, we currently do not have work visas in Korea however, Lym and the kids have visas that allow them to work. Faith would need to change her visa to work in Korea. I don’t know how those may affect school applications if they do at all but I believe the documents needed would be similar for any children entering the Korean public school from a foreign school in another country.
FINDING THE SCHOOLS:
Basically, we had to visit the local schools – elementary and middle schools in our case — and ask if they would accept our children as students. The schools gave us forms to fill out; later on, we also needed a few passport pictures (Korean size – 35 mm x 45 mm) for the application paperwork. I want to mention that all the forms will be in Korean and they may not have a person who can assist with the application process in another language. In our situation, Lym grew up in Korea and can speak and write in Korean, because of that, all of our forms were completed in Korean – also, I don’t know if they would have been able to accept a form completed in English or another foreign language. Since we applied to schools without multicultural support, I’m not sure if the multicultural-support schools would provide more assistance during the application and enrollment process.
Multicultural support: There are over 200 schools in Korea that are designated as “multicultural-support” schools, so it may be a good idea to see if the area you are in has a multicultural-support school available. Those schools have more infrastructures in place to support non-native speakers and the teachers and staff members have more experience working with foreigners. In addition, they are more likely to have “Korean-as-a-second-language” classes, counselors on-site, etc.
In our case, the closest multicultural-support school was a little too far from our apartment, so we decided to apply for schools right in our neighborhood and then asked the Department of Education for additional Korean language support. (Again, this was all done with Lym as the primary contact/translator.)
Oddly, it was the application process that was the most frustrating. Once all the kids were officially accepted in their schools, settling in with teachers and classrooms was very smooth. In the end, by the time the kids started school, everyone was very helpful – the elementary school even went as far as pairing our children with teachers who had strong English-language skills. We were also lucky to get some additional help with Korean language tutoring but since it’s not a guaranteed thing if additional help is an absolute must, then going to a multicultural-support-designated school would probably be easier.
Additional Commentary: I’ll be blunt and say that the application process would have been 10x more difficult if Lym wasn’t there or if he couldn’t speak Korean. The schools in our neighborhood were not used to having foreigners attend and it was, at times, a really frustrating process that we chose to endure because we wanted our kids to attend the local public schools for the sake of learning Korean (not to mention, we wouldn’t have been able to afford 3-4 international school tuitions anyway!). The elementary school application process was a little bit easier, although at one point a staff member seriously suggested sending our 3rd and 6th graders back to 1st grade because they didn’t know Korean. But overall, those kinds of things were quickly resolved and I just took it as just the passing thoughts of a teacher inexperienced working with non-native speakers. But for our 8th grader, we had some difficulty finding a school. The closest school we applied to turned us down (they said their school was full) but they also seemed really nervous that he couldn’t understand, speak, or write in Korean.* In the end, we found another school about a 15-minute walk away with more experience working with foreigners and they really helped us with the whole application process, that school even has a Korean language teacher on-site and a couple of foreigners in their school so the difference in approach was visible even to me as a newbie and non-Korean speaker.
*I don’t want to sound too negative about the first middle school. I found out later that the school that turned down our oldest son is one of the most popular middle schools in the area and less than 75% of those who apply to the school get in. Also, when our second son graduated from 6th grade and entered middle school, he decided to attend that school (instead of his brother’s school) and is currently thriving there with strong teacher support, after-school help classes, and a Korean tutor. In retrospect, I think they really didn’t know the process of enrollment for a foreigner and it was a little overwhelming.
A few other things to keep in mind:
- Although an elementary student will most likely be accepted by a school, if the school principal chooses not to accept them, then you’ll have to check out a different school or bring it up to the Department of Education for that area. Most likely, it’s a procedural thing (i.e. they don’t know what to do) or they might not have the infrastructure to help the child. Overall, the elementary school will most likely accept the foreign students and, generally, it’s more of a procedural process than anything else.
- All children, regardless of visa status or of their parents’ visa status should be able to attend Korean public school. Korea stands with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and all children regardless of visa status can go to school.
- The Korean school year runs from March to January/February so it might affect the grade your child enters school. In Korea, students generally enter a grade based on the year they are born, so that might be a factor as well. For example, our children finished the first semesters of kindergarten, 3rd grade, 6th grade, and 8th grade and, when we applied for Korean school, we kept them in those same grades (their birth years also matched those grades). The only complication was with our kindergarten son, since Korean public school starts at first grade. In his case, we actually tried to have him apply as a first grader, but we were turned down because, based on his birth year, he wasn’t supposed to start first grade until the 2021 school year. He stayed home with us last year and is now a first grader in elementary school.
- Once a child is in middle school or high school they have to wear uniforms to school. This was a cost to us because, in our region, all students entering 7th grade receive one full winter and summer uniform set for free (government-sponsored). However, since our oldest son was a transferring 8th grade student, we had to pay for the uniforms and this ended up costing a little over $400 for everything: 1 winter uniform set, 1 summer uniform set, 1 winter PE uniform set, and 1 summer PE uniform set.
- If your child is entering 9th grade (3rd year middle school) or any grade in high school, it might be more difficult if they are not fluent in Korean. For 9th graders, their grades may affect what high schools they are allowed to enroll in. Since our son is a foreign student, he just needs to show improvement (through exams during the year) in order to qualify for specialized high schools – schools with a focus on math or science, or international studies, etc. For high school, students are usually geared toward preparing for college entrance examinations and this might make high school life difficult if your child doesn’t know Korean.
Our second son’s uniforms: winter PE, winter uniform with the jacket, winter uniform without the jacket.
Our first son’s uniforms: winter uniform without the jacket, winter PE uniform, summer uniform.
DOCUMENTS WE NEEDED TO ENROLL
I would highly recommend going through this list, or whatever list you receive from your Korean employer, and try to get as much as you can before going to Korea. Some of our documents took many weeks or over a month (Hawaii can be a little slow) so I’m glad Lym thought to start a little early. In our case, even though we got vaccination charts, transcripts for schools – both elementary and middle school for our older children, and the apostille, we still had a few documentation headaches along the way. Please see #4 for more details of our “headache” document.
1. 출입국 사실 증명 (Certificate of Facts Concerning Entry & Exit) or 외국인등록 사실증명 (Certificate of Alien Registration).
Where: At the local Korea Immigration Office. You might need these for the whole family – even parents.
Cost: A couple of dollars each.
2. Vaccination information.
Most US states have similar vaccination schedules to Korea, so generally, there is no issue. We just got copies of the kids’ vaccinations charts from our US doctor before we left the states. There are, however, a couple of diseases in East Asia that are not prevalent in the US, so even if your child is fully vaccinated in the states, there might be a couple of shots needed. For example, all of our elementary-school kids needed one additional vaccination before going to school.
You’ll eventually want to register your information at a local Korean Public Health Center.
3. Report cards and/or Transcripts.
Here is a link for a list of schools that do not require additional steps for report cards:
Link to the same page (in Korean):
Most US public schools should be on the list and the list is updated regularly. Some private schools are also on the list, but not all. If your child’s school is not on the list, then you will need to get an apostille for those report cards. In our case, one of our children went to a private school for 2 years before we decided to move to Korea. Even though it was a well-known school, it was not on the list, so we had to get an apostille. In Hawaii, the apostille is through the Lt. Governor’s office and it took several weeks.
4. Probably the MOST important: 재학 증명서(Certificate of Enrollment – or enrollment verification). <<< This document MUST have the principal’s signature or seal on it, with an original signature or stamp. The letter must include: Name, DOB, enrollment duration, and grades attended and signed/sealed by the principal. You must present and submit the original document. They will not accept a scanned or emailed copy. (We had to FedEx ours 😭😭.)
>>>The main things here are: 1) MUST be signed by the principal and, 2) MUST be an original document.<<<
The Korean school will NOT accept any document signed by the Vice Principal, or Dean of Students, or Administrative Assistant to the Principal, or Registrar, etc.
Quite frankly, this item was a big pain in the A%$ because it is a common Korean requirement, but not a familiar US one. PLUS, we were trying to get it after moving to Korea. I truly think that if we had understood this requirement while in Hawaii, it would have been MUCH easier to get since we could have met face-to-face with the school administrative office to work it out.
*Sorry, I tried to think of a non-swear word for this but it was such a hassle that it deserved a flurry of swear words 😅 – we even contemplated sending one of us back to Hawaii JUST to get the documents.
**If you get the Certificate of Enrollment before moving to Korea, I don’t think you’ll need to explore alternative options unless you have special circumstances.
While working with the Department of Education, we did find out that there is a possible alternative option for the following situations:
- If any document is missing or cannot be obtained or,
- If you want your child to enroll in a specific grade different from the school’s recommendation
If either of these applies, the Department of Education would probably require some additional processes. For missing or alternate documents, a placement committee would review the documents you have and determine what other items you can bring in. For a change in grade level, the child would need to go through some testing. The testing will be in Korean, so they may place your child in a younger grade if the alternative placement process takes place. A placement committee would review the testing results to determine the grade to enter.
**These options are possible but it could take a while – a month or so – and, whatever the committee determines would be the final decision so you would have to decide if you’d rather work with the specific school to get what you want or leave the decision up to a separate broader Department of Education committee to decide.
ADDITIONAL KOREAN RESOURCES:
Here is a great info guidebook for living in Korea:
If you go to their main page, there is a lot of info there as well.
Here is some additional info about sending kids to school:
So that’s it. Sorry, it’s really, really long but we wanted to be as thorough as possible to help those who are thinking of going this route. This information was compiled in May 2021 and our personal experience with school in enrollment was in February 2020 and February 2021. All of our children are attending Korean public schools while we live in Korea. Please check with the local/regional Department of Education office in your area as well as the local schools for more current and accurate information as applicable to your situation. Good luck!