How to decide where to teach abroad
One of the best things about teaching abroad is the places it opens up to you. “Oh, the places you’ll go!”. The demand for learning English all around the world means that there is an incredible range of places you could go and live.
So how do you choose where to go?
We have put together the main things we think are important to consider when choosing a job abroad.
Job Requirements for teaching English abroad
For jobs teaching English in many countries, you do need a Bachelor’s degree. This is a requirement of the visa, not usually the school and you will need it if you want to work legally. It generally doesn’t matter what subject it’s in, it’s more as a proof of education. One exception is Indonesia, where your bachelor’s degree needs to be in English.
If you don’t have a bachelor’s degree, then you could work ‘under the table’- at your own risk. You could be deported and/or arrested and fined if you are caught. Having said that, a lot of people do it.
If you are an EU citizen, you might also find work in Europe without a degree, as you won’t have to apply for a working visa and work permit. I’ve also heard that South American countries don’t require degrees, nor do Cambodia.
Be careful of TEFL agencies and certificate companies in Asia, particularly in Thailand and Vietnam, who tell you they can get you work without a degree. I’ve heard stories of companies being very reassuring over email and on the phone before you arrive about their ability to get you legal work, but then on arrival, wanting you to create fake paperwork, pretend you have a degree and/or teach illegally in remote places – far from the city you thought you were moving to.
Whether or not you have a TEFL certificate won’t really affect where you go. You can teach in many places without qualifications. However, if you are reading this blog and really considering teaching abroad, then I’d do a course. It’ll only take you a short time and will open doors to a wider variety of jobs. Have a look at our blog: What qualifications do I need to teach English abroad? for your options on this.
Visa/work permit requirements for teaching English abroad
To teach in most countries in the EU, you will need to hold an EU passport. While there are many Americans, Australians etc. teaching within the EU, they are often doing it illegally. It’s very difficult to get the paperwork for non-EU citizens to teach in the EU, because the school has to prove that there isn’t a British or Irish person who could do the job. Brexit may, of course, affect that in future.
The exception to this is programs like the language assistant programs in countries like Spain, France and Italy where you work in government schools, providing support to the teachers, for a monthly stipend.
You can also work in Germany if you register as freelance.
Similarly, to teach English in the USA, Australia, Canada, South Africa or New Zealand, you need to have the legal right to work there. That generally means you need to be from there or have a passport from there.
However, if you are under 30, these countries have working holiday visas under the Youth Mobility Scheme, so young people from eligible countries can work there for a short time, usually 1-2 years. For example, if you are 25 years old and from the UK, you could teach English in Australia for a year, although you can only work for one employer for six months.
For South Korea and Taiwan, you need to have a passport or have had high school education from one of the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand or South Africa. It doesn’t matter if you have an excellent level of English, if your passport is not from there, they won’t accept you to teach English.
Most other countries in Asia, and South and Central America accept teachers from all over the world, provided they have a high enough level of English (usually CEFR C1 level, but sometimes B2).
Some countries have restrictions on age for employment visas. This is usually 60 or 65.
Sometimes schools or agencies put an age range on job adverts. For some reason, recruiters or school directors sometimes think that the younger a teacher is, the better they will be with small children. Or they want to use a nice, handsome face on their advertising. If you see this, consider whether you want to work somewhere that puts appearance above teaching standards and experience. If you see this and you are outside their age brackets, just look somewhere else.
There can be tons of bureaucracy that comes with teaching abroad. The amount of paperwork we must have signed and sent to various places around the globe is mind-boggling. We try not to think of all the trees.
In China, Japan, and South Korea you need to arrange your work visa before you arrive. This involves a combination of notarised degree certificates, police checks and sometimes transcripts from your university. It can take a while, so you need to start the process early.
To teach in Mexico you also need to get your work visa from your home country.
If you are an EU citizen in Europe, as well as in most Central and South American countries, as well as Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam, you can just turn up and look for work. You need a work visa and permit for both Vietnam and Thailand, but you can arrange that from within the country.
If you need to apply for a work visa before you arrive in a country, look at whether your school owns the visa or you do. If you arrive and you don’t like your job, will you be able to leave and find a different job in the same city?
It might sound a bit tasteless to discuss (oooo us Brits and our inability to talk about earnings….), and you may be planning a new life where you have to worry less about material possessions etc, but this is an issue. The money you can earn teaching abroad varies wildly, and many of these variations come with location. While living free of materialistic issues is a great thing to aspire to, at the end of the day, we need to eat, we need somewhere to live, and we probably want to travel.
So you need to think – are you happy living as a student again for the experience of living and teaching abroad, or do you want a higher standard of living? That’s going to influence where you go:
The Middle East
The best region to teach in terms of salary seems to be the Middle East. Jobs in countries like Saudi Arabi and UAE can pay $4,000 a month and more.
However, these jobs almost always require qualifications and experience, usually a Masters’ degree in TEFL or linguistics, or sometimes a TESOL Diploma, and at least two years teaching experience. As a new teacher, these doors are rarely open.
As a new teacher, Asia is pretty well-paid. Jobs starting out in South Korea and Japan pay good salaries and often come with housing and flight allowances. The salaries in China may be lower but the cost of living is much lower too so you can save a lot and have a good standard of living. Vietnam pays pretty well, although you are unlikely to get housing or flights included.
New teacher jobs in Europe and South/Central America are well-known for being poorly paid. You’ll get enough to experience the culture and lifestyle, but don’t expect to save much. If you put in the time, your salary will increase with experience, though.
Check out our post on the Cost of Living vs. salary in Odessa, Ukraine.
As I have said, jobs in some countries like China, Japan, and South Korea come with a package. You get a salary plus they provide accommodation and a flight allowance. Sometimes you get health insurance
Others just pay you a monthly, or hourly salary. If you go for one of those, you need to have money saved up for set-up costs, such as flying there, putting down a deposit on a house or apartment, and living for the first month before your pay cheque comes through.
Do you get paid holiday, how much and are you restricted on when you take it? Teaching is tiring and you’re going to need time off. You are also going to want to visit home sometimes, and probably travel. While it’s not good to mention holiday when you first get interviewed for a job, it is something to look at before you accept one. We would say the minimum to accept would be 15 days.
Location, location, location.
Do you want to live in a big city or in a rural area? How much do things like western-style shops, watching English language films in a cinema, getting the occasional pizza or burger or a decent hair cut matter to you? How do you feel about being far away from an international-standard hospital? These are questions to ask when looking at jobs.
It can be useful to live in a major transport hub, so you can easily fly to nearby countries for holidays, and get back home fairly easily.
On that note, how far are you comfortable living from home? When considering this, look at if there is an airport in the city you are looking at that has flights to your home country. How much will flights cost you, especially if the cost is not included in your benefits package? How long is the journey back?
When we lived in Odessa, it looked closer to the UK on a map (because it is!) but often took us as long to get home as it takes from South East Asia. There were no direct flights to the UK so we had to either fly via Istanbul from Odessa or take a bus/train to Kiev and fly from there.
When we lived in Spain, we thought we could pop back regularly as it was just a two-hour flight away, but we didn’t have enough time off or earn enough money, for that to be a possibility.
Friends are great. There’s no doubt that wherever you live, you’ll make some great friends, be they locals, or expats. In a bigger city, there will be more expats, so it will be easier to meet people similar to you. Smaller places often have fewer foreigners, so if you don’t speak the language, it may be harder to meet people. However, you may be more of a novelty, so locals might want to befriend you more easily.
You might want to move somewhere where you already know people. We moved to Madrid because our good friend from university and her husband were also teaching there, so it was easy to settle in and we had instant friends.
For ways we meet people abroad, check out our blog post: ‘Making friends as an expat’
Most of us are teaching English to experience different cultures, but just how different a culture are you prepared for? For example is it important for you to go to a country where they celebrate Christmas, or will you be ok on the 25th December if you are at work and there are no decorations up or Christmas songs on repeat?
Can you live somewhere where alcohol is banned?
If you are a single woman, how is it going to be for you? Are women treated equally to men in this culture, and if not, will you be able to tolerate that?
How tolerant are they to LGBT, and will that impact your lifestyle?
What’s the dating culture like? If you are single and looking for love, how easy will it be? I love living in South-East Asia, but our single female friends complain a lot about not being able to find good men, as many men come here looking for an Asian girlfriend.
While teaching English is mainly done 100% in English, if you are going to live in a country, it helps to know some of the language. In some countries, it can make life quite hard if you don’t. In Spanish speaking countries, e.g. Spain, South and Central America, most teachers working there know Spanish, and people expect you to be able to speak the language. It can be tricky to do things like set up bank accounts, deal with landlords and contracts and hospitals without.
In Asian countries, where you are clearly ‘foreign’ and where fewer expats are able to converse in Korean, Japanese or whatever, there is more provision for those who don’t speak the language. English speakers are employed in banks, hotels, hospitals etc. to help out, at least in the bigger cities.
Some schools will help out with language-related problems, setting you up with an apartment, bank account etc. Our school in Ukraine did all of that, even filling our fridge with food and giving us a healthcare package when we arrived, so it wasn’t a massive problem that we didn’t speak any Russian at the time.
Many jobs will offer some language training when you arrive, and you can, of course, use living in the country as an opportunity to learn a foreign language.
There are a lot of things to consider when deciding where to teach abroad. Of course, you could just go with your gut and go to the place you are dreaming of. What’s the worst that can happen? If you don’t like it, you can leave.
If you are going to do that, at least keep a few of these things in mind.
Still not sure about where to teach? Check out our New Teacher Tales – interviews with many experienced teachers we know about how they started out. Perhaps you’ll be inspired by one of their stories.
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