How to Become a South Korean Citizen

How to Become a South Korean Citizen

The Republic of Korea is the official name of the country more commonly referred to as South Korea. This is a young state founded in the middle of the 20th century. In the 75 years since its foundation South Korea has become one of the strongest economies in the world: in terms of GDP, the Republic of Korea consistently ranks 12th among 213 countries in the list of the IMF and the World Bank.

South Korea has the third most powerful passport in the world. Its passport holders have the right to visa-free entry to 190 countries, including the USA and 43 European countries.

Citizenship of the Republic of Korea is granted first of all to anyone born in the country, as well as former citizens and their descendants. However, foreigners also have an opportunity to get a Korean passport. Read on to find out what you need to do to become a South Korean citizen.

Naturalisation

There has been a rapid increase in the number of naturalised foreigners in South Korea since the 2000s. This was when the country implemented immigration reforms to attract new able-bodied citizens. Whereas in the second half of the 20th century on average 34 foreigners per year were granted citizenship, by 2019, the foreign population of South Korea had increased 14 times: from 180,000 in 1995 to over 2.5 million in 2019.

Applications for citizenship are handled by the Department of National Affairs. It has 19 offices in South Korea: in Seoul, Busan, Incheon and 13 other cities across the country

There are three types of naturalisation in South Korea:

  • General
  • Simplified
  • Special

Photo: Daniel Bernard (Unsplash)

General Naturalisation

General naturalisation is stipulated for foreigners who live in the country with permanent residency status, in other words, with an F-5 visa, for five years or more. During this period you can stay abroad for a maximum of 30 days.

Applicants must comply with laws and regulations, as well as the requirements on proper conduct established by the Ministry of Justice; for example, you cannot photograph people without their express consent, and you must also cover your upper body, including your shoulders, when in public places. The import, storage and distribution of pornographic literature in South Korea, as well as printed materials produced in North Korea, is strictly prohibited.

In addition,  general naturalisation stipulates knowledge of the Korean language and the basics of South Korean culture. All the applicants pass a mandatory test which evaluates the extent of social integration in Korean society.

The financial solvency of the applicant is also important. Future citizens of the Republic of Korea (or a relative living with them) must have a bank balance of at least KRW 60 million (about USD 45,000). The applicant must own real estate worth the same amount.

To obtain citizenship in the Republic of Korea, the applicant must also provide a letter of recommendation from two or more citizens who have a good reputation in society.

Finally, there are also age requirements. You must be of legal age, in other words, over the age of 19, to become a South Korean citizen. However, immigration lawyers advise that you should only apply after you have turned 20.

Simplified and Special Naturalisation

The same requirements will apply to anyone naturalised under the simplified procedure, which reduces the total period of residence in the country to three years. The simplified naturalisation procedure is available to:

  • Ethnic Koreans who have the citizenship of another country
  • People adopted by Korean citizens before they reach the age of 19
  • The spouses of Korean citizens (you can read more about this type of naturalisation in the section Citizenship by Marriage to a South Korean

People born in South Korea, as well as children discovered in the country without parents, are granted citizenship immediately. In addition, anyone born to a South Korean parent automatically becomes a citizen.

In the case of special naturalisation, no mandatory period of residence in the country is stipulated. This procedure is intended for the children of South Korean citizens who lost their Korean citizenship for some reason.

Anyone who has exceptional abilities may use the special naturalisation procedure if they have already made a significant contribution or are about to make a significant contribution to the development of any industry in South Korea. Their applications are not forwarded to the immigration offices, but instead directly to the Committee on Citizenship and the Ministry of Justice.

For example, Ra Gun-ah, born Ricardo Preston Ratliffe, US-born player of the men's national basketball team of the Republic of South Korea, obtained dual citizenship in 2018 through the special naturalisation procedure.

Photo: Timothy Ries (Unsplash)

Documents for Naturalisation

The list of documents that an applicant needs to collect in order to apply for naturalisation in South Korea is one of the longest in the world. It includes:

  • application form
  • colour photo 3.5 by 4.5 cm
  • international passport and its copy
  • copies of both sides of the alien registration card
  • family book or ID-card of the applicant
  • documents confirming the financial solvency of the applicant or their relative;
  • document confirming the registration of a property worth KRW 60 million or more (from USD 45,000);
  • letter of recommendation from a guarantor who must be a South Korean citizen
  • certificate from the company where the guarantor works
  • documents confirming employment: in the case of sole proprietors, a licence and office lease agreement, in the case of employees, a certificate from the employer and a copy of the licence of the company where the applicant works
  • certificate of no criminal record in the Republic of Korea, as well as in the country of origin or previous stay
  • a written oath of allegiance to the Republic of Korea
  • government revenue stamp for KRW 300,000 (around USD 230)
  • documents confirming family ties with Koreans, if any: copies of requests and responses from civil registry offices with details about parents, their spouse, child or adoptee
  • results of the integration test 
  • copies of the birth certificate of a minor, their ID and passport (when applying together with a child).

It usually takes the authorities a minimum of eight months to consider an  application.However, the timing may vary depending on the workload of the immigration office and the complexity of each individual case. Sometimes officials request additional documents from the applicant. In this case, the procedure may take up to two years.

Citizenship by Marriage to a South Korean

The qualifying period of residence for anyone officially married to a South Korean citizen is two years in the marriage and without changing the address of their place of residence, or three years with at least one year of residence at the same address.

In addition, the requirement for an F-5 visa, which grants permanent residency status does not apply to people married to Koreans.

As well as the spouses of Korean citizens, their widows and widowers, as well as divorced spouses raising minor children who were born during the marriage are eligible for citizenship.

Citizenship for Overseas Koreans

The South Korean authorities are trying to attract respectable ethnic Koreans from all over the world to the country. For this purpose, a programme granting citizenship to overseas Koreans, which has existed since the middle of the 20th century, is updated regularly.

For example, a Special Act on Assistance to Sakhalin Koreans has been in effect in South Korea since 1 January 2021. According to this document, Koreans who were born on the island or settled there before 15 August 1945, as well as their spouses and family members up to and including the fourth generation, are eligible for South Korean citizenship.

Photo: Ciaran O'Brien (Unsplash)

Dual Citizenship in South Korea

The South Korean Nationality Law does not allow dual citizenship for naturalised people. You have to renounce any foreign citizenship within a year of receiving a passport. If you fail to do this in the given time period, you will lose your South Korean citizenship automatically.

However, the law provides exceptions to this rule. The following individuals are eligible for dual citizenship in South Korea:

  • the foreign spouses of South Korean citizens
  • anyone who previously had Korean citizenship, but then lost it and was the citizen  of another country at the time of the receipt of a South Korean passport
  • anyone adopted while a minor by foreigners who lived in other countries before returning to South Korea
  • anyone who had Korean citizenship, but lived abroad for a long time and returned to South Korea at the age of 65 or older
  • people who cannot renounce their current citizenship due to foreign law (in this case, a special decree of the President of the Republic is required)

All the above must submit a letter of commitment to the Ministry of Justice, stating that they will not use their foreign citizenship in South Korea. In this case, they will become legal holders of dual citizenship.

Loss of South Korean Citizenship

A South Korean citizen who obtains the passport of another country loses their Korean citizenship automatically. However, there are exceptions to this rule in the nationality law.

The following categories may keep their South Korean citizenship:

  • anyone acquiring foreign citizenship through marriage to the citizen of another country
  • Korean spouses and the minor children of anyone who acquired foreign citizenship and lost their citizenship as South Korean citizen if they also obtained foreign passports
  • anyone adopted by foreigners who received the citizenship of their adoptive mother or father
  • Korean citizens who acquired foreign citizenship by mistake or as a result of  fraud

Anyone included in one of the categories listed above must notify the Ministry of Justice of the Republic within six months of the date when they obtained foreign citizenship that they intend to retain their Korean citizenship. If the Ministry of Justice is not notified within this period, their Korean citizenship will be cancelled automatically.

In a Nutshell

Anyone who wants to settle in South Korea and become a citizen of this country, should use all available opportunities to simplify the naturalisation procedure. The general naturalisation process can take two years. You will also need to pass a written test for integration in Korean society, as well as an interview at the immigration office, showing your knowledge of the Korean language.

Cover photo: Busan,Thomas Roger Lux (Unsplash)

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