When and Why You Should Buy Your Korean Friend a Meal – Seoulistic

When and Why You Should Buy Your Korean Friend a Meal

Korea’s changing rapidly, and many of the more “modern” Koreans tend to pay for meals individually (“dutch pay” in Korean). But some of the more traditional Koreans have a certain way of paying when hanging out. And that means you should know when it’s your turn to pay!

It really depends on who you meet, but when hanging out, some Koreans will pay for the bill individually. These are the more modern and/or international Koreans. They have their own money, and you have your own money. So just pay for your own stuff!

Example: Cheolsu orders a 20,000 won steak. Minji orders a 10,000 won salad. Cheolsu pays 20,000 won and Minji pays 10,000 won. Really simple! (Did anyone get the Korean textbook reference? ;))

But for more old school Koreans (aka Korean Korean or suuuuuper Korean) there’s a certain payment system with unwritten rules that is adhered to. Here’s an example:

Cheolsu orders a 20,000 won steak. Minji orders a 10,000 won salad. But when the bill comes, Cheolsu pays the entire bill. Minji says “Thanks! I’ll get the next meal!” 🙂 And then she does!

And it doesn’t even necessarily have to be the next time they meet. Many times when hanging ou with Koreans, people will hang out in “rounds.” That means going for a meal first. Then going to a cafe, and then going to a noraebang! It’s a night filled with fun. But of course at the end of each round, someone has to pay! If you’re hanging out with 3 people, 1 person will pay for the first “round,” the 2nd person will pay for the second “round” and the last person will pay for the third “round.” And if the number of rounds don’t add up to the number of people, just get them the next time.

Tip: What really looks bad is when someone pays for the dinner and when you go to round 2, you calculate to try to split the bill. In that situation just pay for that person. Or if there’s too many people and the bill is too expensive, just leave out the people that have already paid for the previous rounds when calculating the bill (after all they already paid for round 1!).

Paying for other people does get kind of expensive (thus, the “modern” Koreans). And like we said, there aren’t any specific rules. But it’s usually understood that you’ll be paid back at some point (not that it’s expected — just common Korean etiquette). They like you of course. But you should definitely offer to pay at some point. Otherwise it might be a little rude to just freeload off of other people. To be polite the Korean way, offer to pay for something if someone has already paid for you.

The reason this happens is because of the very Korean concept of “jeong.” It’s a difficult concept, but we tried to explain it best we could here:
A Special Kind of Korean Love (jeong/정)

Keith Kim is a Korean-American who has been living in Korea for almost a decade. Being in a unique position as both a Korean and a non-Korean, he's put all his experience and knowledge for surviving in Korea in Survival Korean . Read it to learn how you can survive in Korea. Follow him on Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram.


  1. Marina says:

    In Serbia we do that too, one pays and the next round another person pays and so on… But how do ppl in Korea decide who’s the first person, second, etc.? Is it by age? The oldest the first, etc?

    • Jset says:

      In most Oriental cultures, the host of the dinner is usually the one who pays. But for example, you have a relative from another country who just came back, he invites your family for a meal. After the meal, he wants to pay since he suggested the dinner. But you, knowing that he is the guest, wants to pay. So it is common to see relatives telling each other that they want to foot the bill. But of course, they do this out of courtesy, maybe inside they rather not foot the bill.

  2. Sam Tsai says:

    Yep, same with us. I’ve seen my grandparents and their friends have full-on thirty-minute “friendly feuds” with each other, trying to convince the other to let them pay. Asian tradition ftw.

  3. Vanai says:

    hm, it’s the same way here in Croatia. 🙂

  4. Kiko says:

    I live in the States with american roommates . I love them but this is something that appears to me as stingy. (ie buying groceries and errands for them…you get paid back only the exact amount on the receipt [$52.38]) . I grew up rounding things up when paying back money and giving a little more when someone really went out of their way. I’m not complaining or saying that this is bad… I just really prefer the rounds instead of keeping track and splitting of every cent <– gets annoying.

  5. Marvin says:

    Hello there! I will be catching up with my Korean friend this coming December together with my family. I have a feeling that we might go out for a lunch or dinner. I should be paying right? My concern is that I feel guilty since I’m with my wife, 2 kids and my maid so definitely the bill might be high if he will pay for all of us! He is OLDER than me so I’m thinking if he will insist to pay…

    What should I do?

  6. I have the same opinion with vanai

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