Whether you’re a recent college graduate or a 40-something looking to escape from the 9 to 5 life, teaching ESL overseas is a perfect way to travel, experience a new lifestyle and make money all at once. Follow this 7-step guide and you’ll be living and teaching abroad in no time.
Step 1: Get certified
You’ll need to get TEFL or TESOL certified. You have two choices: Get TESOL/TEFL certified online or onsite. Can’t decide which path is better for you? Here’s my guide to getting a TESOL online vs. on-site.
Search for a legitimate certification program with a minimum of 100 to 120 hours of training. Most accredited TESOL training programs partner with job placement agencies that guide you along the process of finding a job.
The path I chose: A 3-week onsite TESOL training course in Phuket, Thailand with the American TESOL Institute (ATI). The program cost $1000 for a 3-week certification course, plus accommodation and guaranteed job placement in Thailand when I completed my training.
If you’re interested in taking the same path I took, read more about my TESOL training experience with ATI.
It’s possible to teach without a TESOL/TEFL qualification but it’s much simpler to go through a training and job-placement program, especially if you’ve never done anything like this before.
Step 2: Pick a country
For guaranteed job placement, southeast Asia and Taiwan are your best options. The job markets in western Europe and Latin America are far more competitive.
If you want to save money for traveling, consider teaching in South Korea, Japan, China or the Gulf Arab States. You can earn between $1,500 and $2,000 per month teaching English with free housing and travel stipend included.
Expect to earn between $1000 to $1,500 per month in countries like Thailand, Taiwan, and Vietnam, where accommodation is also likely to be included. If you choose to teach in Latin America, the cost of living is more expensive and the salary isn’t as high. Jobs in Costa Rica will offer wages in the $400 to $800 range, so don’t expect to save money.
Considering teaching ESL in Thailand? Check out my quick prep guide to teaching ESL in Thailand.
Step 3: Find a job
If you plan to sign up with an accredited TEFL training/job placement program, skip to Step 4.
The internet is your best friend if you want to independently find your own job. But searching the web for ESL work can be daunting because there are so many programs, schools and agents out there vying for your attention.
Resources: Everyone is familiar with Dave’s ESL Cafe, arguably the best independent ESL employment website. It’s especially catered to those who want to find work in China and South Korea, but there are plenty of ESL job postings for many other countries as well. Ajarn.com is the most popular website to search for ESL jobs in Thailand.
It’s easiest to find a job teaching younger children aged 5 to 12, but primary school and high school ESL teaching jobs are also widely available. There are ESL teaching jobs for adults and colleges out there, but most require experience.
Resume (CV): When applying for ESL work, fine-tune your resume to emphasize your teacher-relevant qualifications and experience.
Apply: Once you find a job that catches your eye, apply. You’ll probably need to email a cover letter, resume, scanned copy of your diploma (if you have one), scanned copy of TESOL./TEFL (if you already have one), a scanned copy of your passport, and a recent photo of yourself.
If the employer/agent contacts you within a week after you’ve submitted your credentials, they’re interested in hiring you. Now it’s time to schedule an interview.
Interview: Interviews are typically done via Skype, so if you don’t have a Skype account, create one. It’s free and easy to use. Otherwise it’ll be over the phone.
Job offer: If the phone or online interview goes well, expect a job offer. Don’t pick low hanging fruit! Take your time and do plenty of research about the benefits, accommodations, salary and expected working hours. Assuming everything about the job suits your preferences and you know you are working with a legitimate program or school, you are ready to sign the contract.
Contract: Your school will email you a contract. Read it carefully. If everything checks out okay, sign, copy and return the contract. You now have an overseas employer and work visa sponsor. It’s time to get a visa.
Step 4: Get a visa
A visa is the stamp on your passport that allows you to enter a foreign country. Certain counties have more difficult working visa laws than others, and the process of obtaining a work visa takes time, so plan ahead.
Often you will need to apply for a work visa in your home country. You can do this by visiting the government embassy of the country where you plan to teach. To find your most nearby embassy, I highly recommend you check out this ultra helpful list of worldwide embassy locations with detailed visa requirements for each country.
In certain instances, you can enter a country with a tourist visa and convert it to a working visa after arrival. This is common in Thailand, where you can enter with tourist visa and—assuming you have a visa sponsor (employer)—you can do a ‘visa run’ to one of Thailand’s neighbor countries like Laos and convert it to a non immigrant “B” visa.
Wanna teach in China? As of September 2013, foreign work visa laws in China have tightened up a little bit. If you enter China with a tourist visa, you cannot legally convert it to a work visa unless you return to your home country and start the visa application process over again.
Step 5: Prepare to travel
Time to gather all the documents and other things you’ll need. I recommend you make a list and check it twice like Santa Claus.
Documents: Passport, airline ticket, diploma (if you have one), TESOL (if you already have one), photocopies of all your documents, and passport-size 2×2 photos.
Vaccinations: Make sure you have the recommended vaccinations for the country where you will be living. To find out which vaccines you should get, I suggest you refer to this helpful travel vaccination guide by the Centers for Disease Control.
Bank account: Notify your bank when and how long you’ll be gone to avoid cancellations and whatnot. You will almost always be able to use your ATM/debit card overseas to withdraw cash. Only take out big chunks of cash since overseas ATM fees tend to hurt.
Cell phone: If you have a long-term cell phone contract, cancel it. AT&T has f$#*ed me with outrageous fees and charges since I left home, even though I haven’t touched my old phone. But I digress.
Criminal background check: Many countries many require a criminal background check to secure a legal work visa. Assuming you have a clean record, you should have this document just in case. You can get a background check by visiting your local police station for about $20.
Clothes: How will you dress when you stand in front of a class of ESL students? The proper dress code—in and out of the classroom—varies depending on the country you choose. Find out what formalwear you’ll need for your job.
Pack clothes based on the climate where you’ll be living, but don’t overpack clothes. Shop at the thrift store. It’s better to save your money for when you’re abroad than to blow it on designer logos.
“Before traveling, lay out all of your clothes and all of your money. Bring half the clothes and twice the money.” I saw that quote written on the wall of a hostel bathroom.
Step 6: Arrive and adjust
You’re now overseas and ready to start living a new life of teaching ESL in a foreign country. Now it’s time to get acclimated to your new surroundings.
Jet lag: You will probably experience jet lag if you fly through a bunch of time zones. If you haven’t felt jet lag before, I can only describe it as feeling exhausted, confused and restless, all at the same time, for a few days on end.
Internet: If you’re like me, you need to be plugged in to the world wide web no matter where you are (the plights of a blogger). Most schools have WiFi you can use. Make sure you will have WiFi at your apartment and be prepared to negotiate this if you have to.
If you’re going to be teaching ESL in China, I suggest you download VPN software to bypass the “Great Fire Wall.” Some VPN services are free, but they aren’t as reliable as paid memberships. I use Astrill and it costs me about $30 per 6 months of service.
Cell Phone: Wherever you decide to live and teach, I recommend buying a cheap pay-as-you-go phone when you arrive. That way you can make local calls and you won’t be tied down by any contracts.
Bank account: If you go with a TESOL training and job placement program, they will help you set up a bank account, or even completely take care of it for you. If you find work independently, your employer should help you with setting up a new bank account.
Gym: If you’re a gym rat, do some research about available gyms where you want to live. Big cities will almost always offer modern work out facilities, but small towns lack in this area. I was disappointed when the town where I was placed in Thailand didn’t have a Muay Thai boxing gym.
Culture shock: You’ll probably be wearing rose-tinted glasses when you first arrive. That’s the honeymoon phase of traveling abroad. Once that feeling fades, you will feel a little culture shock.
Step 7: Start teaching!
It’s your first day of school and you’re feeling nervous about standing in front of the classroom. My advice: Try not to poop your pants, and check out this story about my first day of teaching ESL.
ESL students love games. If you come prepared with fun games and activities every day, not only will your students love you, but you’ll enjoy the experience more yourself. You can always refer to my free list of 27 Proven ESL Games for Large Classes for ideas in the classroom.
Here’s a short list of the most common questions I receive via email.
Which do you prefer, Teaching ESL in China or Thailand?
Thailand is better for first time teachers in my opinion. Thai people are more easy going and the work visa laws aren’t as rigid as China’s. But if you’re interested in teaching older (college) students, I think there are more opportunities in China.
I don’t have a college degree. Can I still teach ESL overseas?
Yes, but it’s gonna be more difficult. Most ESL jobs require a college degree, but some will hire you under the table if you don’t have the right qualifications. It depends on how needy a particular school is.
I have a few friends without degrees that teach at private language schools here in China. You’ll have more luck finding a job at a private language center than a government public school if you don’t have a degree.
I’m in my mid 40s… Do you see people my age who also teach ESL overseas?
Of course! I know many expats in their mid 30s to late 40s who live and teach ESL overseas. Age is a just state of mind, and many of the more seasoned folks who travel and teach abroad seem to live by this mantra.
I want to teach older students (high school or older). Do I have an option to choose which age I teach?
Are you going through an accredited training and job placement program? If so, then be sure to express your job preference ASAP. They should be able to help you land a job where you want.
Are you searching for work on your own? If so, then your ability to cherry-pick jobs is contingent on your qualifications and experience. If you have a degree in education, go ahead and move to the front of line. You can find a job pretty much anywhere.
If you don’t have a degree and have zero experience, you can find a job, but expect scraps. Just get any experience you can. Once you have a little experience under your belt, then you will have a better shot at moving up to where you want.
Can I pick which city I want to live and teach in?
If you go with a job placement program like I did, express your preference. They should be able to accommodate, to a certain extent. If you want to teach ESL in Thailand, don’t expect to land a job on the shoreline in Phuket. Competition is fierce in certain areas, so many agencies with guaranteed job placement don’t partner with schools in high-demand areas where guaranteed placement is impossible.
If I travel abroad with a friend, can we both teach at the same school?
Absolutely. If you elect to teach in southeast Asia, China or Taiwan, many schools in this part of the world are seeking 2+ ESL teachers, so they may actually prefer couples and friends. In other parts of the world—western Europe and Latin America—you will probably have less luck.
What’s the difference between a TESOL, TEFL and CELTA certification?
TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) and TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) are the exact same thing with different acronyms.
The CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults) is a more decorated, intensive course than the TEFL variety. It costs more money and it is apparently much more difficult, but it will look better on your resume and could probably land you a better job and salary in the long run.
If you’re serious about leaving home to teach ESL overseas, hopefully this guide can help you achieve your goal. Please leave a comment below if you have any questions. Good luck in your future endeavors abroad!