A Cultural Journey of Gift-Giving Etiquette in South Korea

gift giving

You've just scored an invite to a special event in Korea, and you're eager to leave a lasting impression on your friends. You're hoping for the perfect gift to make you stand out, not as a clueless tourist, but as someone who appreciates and understands Korean culture. Well, you're in luck! You've come to the right place.

The Daebak Company is giving you a helpful guide to the cultural journey of gift-giving etiquette in South Korea. Let's get started!

Photo from BP Guide India 

Importance of Gift Giving in Korea

In South Korea, giving and receiving gifts is a significant gesture for cultivating strong relationships, expressing gratitude, and demonstrating respect. It acts as a symbolic bridge that connects people emotionally, playing a crucial role in maintaining harmony within Korean culture.

Photo from Hotcore.info

Koreans really like and value gifts. They enjoy giving and receiving gifts during various festivals, and it's a big part of their culture. Foreigners must be aware of this, as gifts hold a special meaning for Koreans. This tradition has been passed down from one generation to the next to keep it alive.

And if someone hands you a gift, guess what? A hidden tag says, "You might want to give something back."

If you're wondering why, it's because, in Korean culture, gift-giving is based on the principle of reciprocity. Whenever someone receives a gift, they are expected to give a gift of similar value in return at a later time. 

This practice is essential to keep in mind because if you give an overly expensive gift, the receiver may feel obliged to reciprocate with a gift of equivalent worth. Therefore, choosing a gift of appropriate value is crucial to avoid discomfort or awkwardness.

Popular Gift Choices in Korea

When visiting South Korea, you'll notice that the gift-giving tradition is deeply rooted in their culture. It's not just about the act of giving but also about selecting the right present that resonates with the recipient's tastes and preferences. 

Traditional Gifts

1. Booze

Individuals often enjoy partaking in the traditional Korean practice of toasting with a drink. If you're contemplating a suitable gift, you might want to think about a high-quality traditional alcoholic beverage or an exceptional wine. This can often serve as an effective means of creating a positive impression.

Photos from Korea.net

Now, it's a classic in Western-style gifting, but in South Korea, the drinking culture can be pretty intense. However, not everyone is on board the "intense" train when it comes to drinking, so you've got to read the room. 

When you unwrap the layers of a carefully chosen bottle, it's not just about the drink inside. It's a way of showing you appreciate someone, highlighting the importance of your relationship. Whether the traditional soju with a long history or a new craft brew showing creativity, each choice says you've thought about what the person likes and values.

Some people are not big wine fans, so when they got a bottle, it ended up as fancy decor on a shelf, never to be sipped. So, the moral of the story is to figure out what your gift recipient enjoys.

2. Money

In Korea, giving cash as a gift is a widely accepted practice and is suitable for various occasions, including birthdays, weddings, and other significant events. The practicality of money as a gift lies in its versatility; it gives the recipient the freedom to use it according to their needs or wants, whether for saving, spending, or investing.

Cash gifts are often given to individuals embarking on new life milestones, such as moving into a new home, launching a business, or welcoming a child. This practice is rooted in the belief that cash symbolizes prosperity and good fortune. It aligns with the Korean values of generosity and goodwill, making it a culturally appropriate and appreciated gesture.

Photo from The Korea Times 

In many cases, money in a special envelope called bokjumeoni (Traditional Korean Lucky Bag) is given as a gift during significant events like weddings and major holidays. 

Wondering what to consider before giving the right amount of money? Answer these questions:

What is your relationship with the recipient?

The closeness of your relationship with the recipient can influence the amount you decide to give. Are you close friends, family, casual acquaintances, or colleagues?

What's your gift-giving history?

Consider if there's a history of monetary gift exchanges between you and the recipient. In Korea, reciprocal gift-giving is common.

Are you attending the event? 

Your presence at the event or celebration can also affect the amount you give. If you're attending in person, you might consider offering more than if you were sending a gift remotely.

What's your financial situation?

Lastly, take into consideration your own financial situation. It's important to give an amount that is comfortable for you.

When it comes to giving cash gifts in Korea, your connection with the recipient, the context of the occasion, and your capacity to share are all important considerations. It's not just about the monetary value but also the thoughtfulness behind the gesture.

3. Products Related To Health And Wellness

There is an array of health-related gifts that are highly appreciated in Korea. These include health supplements, teas, vitamins, and the highly regarded red ginseng. Red ginseng, in particular, is often considered a thoughtful gift for Korean in-laws.

Also, premium food items such as Hanwoo beef, gourmet mushrooms, and wild ginseng can make excellent gifts. These items offer recipients a taste of high-quality, luxurious Korean cuisine. Therefore, when selecting gifts in Korea, health and gourmet food items can be suitable.

Photo from Wonderful 

And if you find yourself in an office scene, you might spot people sharing tiny juice bottles in cute boxes. It's an excellent choice for family and friends, too. 

People in Korea are becoming more aware of the importance of a healthy lifestyle. That's why they often choose gifts that contribute to overall well-being.

Giving health-related gifts is a way to show they care about the other person's physical health, following their cultural belief in living a well-rounded and healthy life. Additionally, Korean instant coffee is a popular item, often considered a staple, making it a suitable choice for a gift.

4. Hanji

Hanji, a traditional Korean handmade paper, is a popular gift and souvenir in Korea due to its deep historical roots, cultural significance, and versatile use.

This art form, dating back over a thousand years, has been an essential part of Korean tradition and design. In the past, Koreans relied on Hanji for everyday necessities such as window paper, wallpaper, folding fans, and umbrellas. It's famous for its durability, so much so that while other historical print papers have to be preserved in special conditions, Hanji does not.

Gifting or buying Hanji items contributes to preserving and promoting this beautiful Korean craft still being made today. Therefore, Hanji doesn't just serve as a mere souvenir; it's a piece of Korean heritage that visitors can take home with them.

Modern Gifts

5. Kpop Merch

Kpop has taken the world by storm. Fans of groups like BTSBLACKPINK, or EXO would be thrilled to receive official merchandise, which can range from albums, posters, and photo cards to clothing, accessories, and collectibles. These gifts are not just items but tokens of shared passion for Kpop culture.

6. Korean Cosmetics

South Korea is renowned for its innovative skincare and cosmetic products. Brands like ETUDENacific, and Sulwhasoo offer a wide variety of products that make perfect gifts, whether it's a luxurious face mask, a hydrating lip sleeping mask, or a BB cream with sun protection. These gifts speak to the Korean emphasis on self-care and the importance of a good skincare routine.

7. Accessories

Accessories are versatile gifts that cater to different styles and preferences. There's something for everyone, from trendy jewelry pieces like hoop earrings and layered necklaces to hair accessories like headband and hair clips. You can also consider other fashion accessories like scarves, bags, phone cases, or cute socks featuring popular Korean characters.

8. Gift Boxes

Gift boxes are a popular choice because they offer variety and the element of surprise. They can be customized to fit any theme or occasion. For example, a snack box could contain a selection of popular Korean treats. 

In contrast, a beauty box might include various skincare and makeup products. A K-drama box could contain items related to popular Korean dramas.

Occasions for Gift Giving In Korea

Housewarming Party

Photo from UoH

When you visit someone's new home in Korea, instead of bringing food, it's a tradition to give cleaning stuff and toilet paper. At first, it might sound strange, but it makes a lot of sense.  

Toilet supplies, such as toilet paper, tissues, or cleaning products, are considered essential items for maintaining a clean and orderly household. By presenting these items as a gift, the giver expresses good intentions and a wish for the recipients to enjoy a fresh start in their new home without worrying about basic necessities.

Think about it: when someone moves into a new place, they need all those cleaning things to keep their home spick and span. So, if you're going to a housewarming party in Korea, grab some cleaning supplies from the store, and you'll be all set!

First Birthday

Photo from Best of Korea 

A child's first birthday, the doljanchi, is a big deal in Korea. But even in many cultures, they go all out to celebrate a new life and those first-year milestones. 

In Korea, they used to give gold rings as a gift for a child's first birthday, but because gold can be super expensive, it's primarily close friends and family who do that. Money is appreciated because parents invest a lot in the child's first birthday, making it a thoughtful gesture. If it's the baby's first 100 days, a culturally pleasing gift would be a chopstick or utensil set.

In many Western cultures, birthday gifts, especially for children, often include clothes, toys, or books. These tangible gifts are typically chosen based on the child's age, interests, or needs. However, in Korean culture, the approach to birthday gift-giving, particularly for children, is different and leans towards caution.

The idea of gifting clothes or toys to a child isn't prohibited in Korea, but it's viewed as potentially risky. This stems from traditional beliefs and superstitions that giving certain items could bring bad luck or misfortune. For instance, sharp objects like scissors or knives are considered harmful, while shoes are believed to make people run away or leave.

Instead, money is a favored gift option for birthdays in Korea, much like weddings. This practice is seen as a way to convey good fortune and blessings. It's not just about the gift's monetary value; it's also symbolic of wishing the recipient prosperity and success in their life.

Adult’s Birthday

Photo from LingoDeer

In South Korea, birthdays are significant milestones and are often celebrated with lavish parties or, in some cases, trips overseas. The guidelines for gift-giving during these occasions tend to be more flexible compared to weddings and other formal events.

Cash gifts are universally appreciated and considered a safe choice, with the amount typically reflecting the status or closeness of the relationship with the recipient.

Given the prominence of the drinking culture in South Korea, alcoholic beverages, such as premium wines and soju, a traditional Korean spirit, also make suitable gifts. These offerings honor the country's traditions and add a festive touch to the celebrations.

Additionally, gift baskets filled with various foods can be a thoughtful and versatile present. These could include an assortment of local delicacies, gourmet treats, or even imported specialties, offering a feast of flavors that cater to different tastes and preferences.


Photo from Brides

Wedding ceremonies in Korea exhibit a wide range of styles. While some prefer Western-style ceremonies complemented by a buffet meal, others, particularly multicultural families, often prefer traditional Korean wedding ceremonies.

Gift-giving is an integral part of South Korean weddings, where it is not just about giving but also adhering to cultural norms and traditions. The amount of cash gifted typically depends on the relationship between the giver and the couple. 

Those who are closer to the couple may give a more considerable amount. At the same time, acquaintances or casual friends might give a smaller sum. Thus, the size of the gift is reflective of the relationship with the couple in question.

Korean Thanksgiving Day

Photo from What The Kpop 

Chuseok, often compared to Thanksgiving in the United States, is one of South Korea's most significant holidays. However, unlike Thanksgiving, which has a fixed date, Chuseok varies yearly as it is based on the Lunar Calendar and typically falls in autumn.

Gift-giving is a central aspect of Chuseok, expressing gratitude and maintaining social ties. The nature of these gifts can range widely, from cash to everyday items such as socks or other practical goods found in stores.

For the older generation, health-oriented gifts are often preferred. These can include wellness products or vitamins, reflecting the giver's wishes for the recipients' continued health and well-being.

Photo from The Korea Herald 

These gifts are all about saying thanks and wishing for a long and healthy life. If you're a teacher in Korea, parents might send you food baskets or gift cards. And you won't believe this – stores make it a piece of cake. They set up tables right at the entrance with ready-made gift sets. You can snag a SPAM gift set, a toothpaste gift set, or other cool boxes.

Starting Of A Brand New Company

The launch of a new business is often marked with considerable fanfare. This could include music, promotional activities, and refreshments, all designed to draw in potential customers and create a lasting impression.

The tradition of gift-giving for new businesses differs somewhat from that of personal or holiday gifts. Typical gifts include practical items such as cleaning supplies, food, or drinks. However, plants, particularly flowers and wreaths, are a classic choice.

Things Never to Gift Koreans: Korean Gift-Giving Superstitions

Korean culture, like many others, has its own set of superstitions that affect what kind of gifts you should steer clear of. What are they? Let’s discuss it below!

  1. Expensive Gifts: In Korean culture, pricey gifts might put pressure on the recipient as they may feel obligated to return the gesture with an equally lavish gift. So, it's best to keep it modest and thoughtful.
  2. Sharp Objects: This includes items like knives or scissors. It is believed that gifting sharp objects symbolizes severing ties or ending a relationship. Definitely not the message you want to send!
  3. Gifts in Red: The color red can be associated with danger in Korean culture. Therefore, it's advisable to avoid gifts wrapped in red or red-colored gifts.
  4. Sets of Four: The number four is considered unlucky in Korea because it sounds similar to the word for death. Avoid giving gifts in sets of four to respect this superstition.
  5. Shoes: Giving shoes as a gift is considered bad luck in Korea. It's believed that the person who receives the shoes as a gift will run away.
  6. Handkerchiefs: They are traditionally given at funerals, so they are seen as symbols of parting or sorrow. It's best to avoid them as gifts for happier occasions.
  7. Green Headwear: This is a very specific superstition, but it's believed that giving green hats, especially to men, implies that their wife is unfaithful.

Remember, these superstitions aren't universally held by all Koreans, especially among younger generations or more cosmopolitan individuals. However, being aware of them can help you navigate gift-giving in Korea with respect and cultural sensitivity.

Gift-giving in South Korea is an essential part of maintaining and strengthening relationships. It's a way to express gratitude and feelings. Whether you're visiting or residing in the country, adhering to these practices can enhance your connection with the locals and appreciation for the culture.

Looking for the perfect gift? Explore The Daebak Company's wide range of Korean products, from Kpop and Kdrama merchandise to Korean snacks, skincare, and fashion accessories!

What are the lucky colors for gift-giving in South Korea?

In South Korean culture, blue is often associated with good fortune. Therefore, selecting gifts in shades of blue or using blue wrapping can be seen as a gesture of goodwill and luck.

How do you accept gifts in South Korea?

When you get or give a gift in Korea, it's nice to use both hands. This is a polite way to show respect, especially if the person is older than you. Also, gifts often come in pretty wrapping paper with many bright colors!

Is it rude to decline gifts in South Korea?

In South Korean culture, modestly declining a gift once or twice before accepting it is seen as a sign of humility and respect. So, contrary to being considered rude, it's actually a part of the traditional etiquette in South Korea. They wait to be insisted on at least twice or thrice more before accepting gifts.

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