For international students, a part-time job at Starbucks is a bureaucratic nightmare
Whether interning at a company, waitressing in a cafe or working in a convenience store, part-time jobs are hard to find and keep for international students due to visa limitations.
“As an international student, finding a part-time job is difficult and not because of the language barrier, but because of the visa limitations,” said Alysa Hasegawa, a 22-year-old senior at Yonsei University.
In the last month, Hasegawa has applied to over 20 part-time jobs, from cafe chains to privately-owned businesses. Most rejected her application, and those who called her back ultimately told her she could not work with them due to her limited working hours during the semester.
International students like Hasegawa, who obtained a Test of Proficiency in Korean (Topik) level 4, can work up to 25 hours from Monday to Friday and unlimited hours during weekends and holidays. Those without the Topik level 4 certificate are limited to just 10 hours weekly.
“Employers have little understanding of what our visas allow, so even if they are looking for university students, they are guarded when it comes to hiring me because of the hours I can work,” said Hasegawa. “Most of the places want people to come in five to six days a week with an eight hour shift — which I cannot do because of my visa limitations.”
International students with a part-time job offer have to obtain a granted work permit from immigration to work. They have to request permission to work, first from their university and then from the immigration office.
At first glance, the process seems straightforward: Students need to gather the required documents, visit their university’s international affairs team to get approval and apply online or offline for a work permit at the immigration office. However, international students have to jump through countless hoops to see those permits granted.
If students apply online, they can use the HiKorea platform to file an e-application, with the guidelines written on the website requiring basic documents such as the labor contract, the certificate of part-time employment given by the university, a transcript or certificate of attendance and documents to prove Korean language ability.
However, the university or immigration guidelines are often incomplete, often failing to mention the need for things like a business registration certificate or an employer’s ID matching the business registration.
When submitting files to immigration, more documentation is often requested as each situation is treated as unique — whether the permit is accepted or denied is at the immigration officer’s discretion. The officers can return the first application, requesting contract modifications or additional documentation and asking students to re-apply.
“When you apply online and get your application returned there is little guidance, they just give you a reason for the refusal but do not explain how to fix it,” said Vanessa, a 22-year-old Yonsei student from Vietnam.
“I have been working with this company since 2021, changing contracts between holidays and the semester to abide by hourly regulations and re-applying each time without issue,” said Vanessa. “But this time, the application was returned, stating that the job description did not meet the criteria for part-time workers.”
When applying for the permit, international students are only allowed to take simple labor jobs like waitressing or working in convenience stores or as office assistants.
Vanessa’s job involved handling Vietnamese communication with customers and management on social media, but when she applied for her latest part-time work permit, she was told that did not count as part-time work. To resolve the issue, her company had no choice but to downgrade her role to "Vietnamese translation."
“They are not very consistent with the guidelines, it makes the process extremely confusing, and they often contradict each other,” said Vanessa. “For example, while my university guidelines say that expired Topik scores are still acceptable, the immigration officer told me to get renewed scores next time I applied.”
Vanessa also ran into multiple problems when she applied offline, as her application was not processed on-site. Her application process continued beyond the visit through email exchanges with the immigration officer, modifying her work contract to fit the requirements. However, she was never informed when it was granted.
“I had to physically go to the immigration office, only to find out my application had been granted a few days prior — it was just that the employee did not contact me at all,” said Vanessa. “Before, I used to get my permit granted immediately, now it takes four to five tries to finally get it. The process took almost a month and a half.”
Applications are supposed to have a processing period of roughly 10 days, but before obtaining a work permit, students can have their application returned multiple times, restarting those 10 days each time.
As such, students can experience long waits before they start a part-time job. This can impact their relationship with their employer once they finally do start, assuming the employer has not already given up and hired somebody else instead.
Amy, an American student majoring in Korea, looked for part-time opportunities during the summer, but resorted to remote work with companies outside Korea.
“The offer changes once employers find out about my visa type,” said Amy. “Instead of part-time work, they turn to unpaid internships or volunteer opportunities, and while those can give me experience, I am looking for monetary compensation.”
Not all international students have monetary support from their families and financially rely on part-time wages, and the difficulty of finding a job can be a burden to their studies and time in Korea.
In addition, limitations to the type of work international students can do prevent them from getting internships related to their major and limits work experience in their respective fields.
“It is very much a hindrance to international students, especially when it comes to building their resume,” said Amy. “In the long run, the limitations have a negative impact on international students — even entry level jobs require some experience and not being able to have technical experience related to our major can be a hindrance in the job market.”
☝ Getting a permit for part-time work
How long does the part-time work permit application take?
After submitting your documents on the HiKorea platform, the processing time can take up to 10 days, but it might also just take a day or two; each case is different.
After you submit your documents, your application might be returned, or you might be asked for more documentation. In that case, the 10-day countdown could start again. While two weeks is a reasonable estimate, the permit can be granted within days or take over a month.
What do I do if I want to change part-time jobs before the initial contract is over?
After you resign, make sure to ask your employer for a "certificate of end of work" (퇴직 증명서). If your employer does not have a form ready, you can find a few templates online. Make sure to include your name, information, the start and ending date of work and the employer’s name and signature.
When applying for your new work permit, submit the document alongside the other required documents.
I live in Incheon — can I work in Seoul?
Dispatch labor and long-distance labor are restricted for international students, so make sure the workplace is within an hour of your residence.
Are there any part-time jobs I cannot do as an international student?
In general, international students are restricted to simple labor like waitressing or working in a convenience store, or office assistance like translating or transcribing.
Other types of work like manufacturing or construction are restricted unless the student has a Topik level 4 and a special permit from their university. If the student lacks either and the business registration certificate includes manufacturing or construction as the type of business, the permit will not be granted.
Finally, working in foreign language education facilities for minors, such as at an English kids cafe, English camp or a language institute, is prohibited.
Is there anything to look for in the contract?
The immigration officer in charge of your case might ask you for a few modifications to your labor contract before granting the part-time work permit.
While changes can be on a case-by-case basis, you can keep some things in mind to save time during the process: Make sure the contract is as clear as possible, as any ambiguities might be grounds for a clause to be modified or deleted. Part-time work is not permitted beyond the explicitly stated working place, hours and role, so keep that in mind.
Make sure the times and dates are clearly stated and matched in the part-time confirmation form and the labor contract.
Make sure to state your responsibilities clearly in the contract.
My friend got her part-time work permit granted for a similar job, but mine keeps getting denied; Why is that the case?
Each immigration situation is different and each immigration officer might look at a case differently. Since part-time work applications are handled on a case-by-case basis, you might be asked to provide more documents than your friend, even for the same job opportunity. That is normal and part of the process.
BY LAURA SENIOR PRIMO [firstname.lastname@example.org]
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