Everything You Need to Know About Teaching English Abroad

teaching abroad
There are no stupid questions. | Jason Hoffman/Thrillist
There are no stupid questions. | Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

Teaching is not generally a lucrative profession, because in America we have strange financial priorities. But there are countries all around the world where you make quite a comfortable living teaching English as a second language, either in terms of flat salary or relative to the cost of living. My mom made $20 an hour teaching English in Japan after she graduated college, which was good money in 1982. She lived in a boarding house with a mix of Americans, Germans, and Australians, took Japanese lessons, and looked for a dojo to learn martial arts, which in retrospect explains why, 15 years later, I was enrolled in a heavy courseload of kempo jujutsu classes.

Teaching abroad holds an enduring appeal as one of the steadier ways to make money while seeing the world. You get to travel, but without sacrificing what are arguably the two biggest things one usually must sacrifice in order to travel: a steady income and a sense of purpose. Intrigued? Understandable. Starting a new career in a new country can seem like a daunting, opaque process, which is likely why you have done a Google search for “teaching English abroad how” and why we will honor that search by making this as straightforward as possible. Here are answers to the big questions you might be asking yourself if you’re considering teaching English abroad. Hope you learn something.

Where are the most popular countries for teaching English as a second language?

The region most associated with teaching English abroad is Asia: Vietnam, Japan, Taiwan, China, South Korea, and Singapore are all popular. Destinations in the Middle East -- namely the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia -- offer the jobs that pay the most, but are also the most competitive. Opportunities in Europe are mostly confined to more Eastern countries like Poland, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, and Russia (whether you’re counting that as Europe or not) but you’ll also find work in Spain. Destinations across Central and South America, meanwhile, are legion: Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile, and Peru, for starters.
MORE:The countries where you can make the most money teaching English as a second language 

Do I need to be 18 or older?

Yeah. No upper limit on the age range, though.

Do I need to be a native English speaker?

Fuck no. You need to be fluent, and in excellent command of the finer points of English grammar and syntax, but so long as you have those skills you can teach English abroad no matter when or how you acquired them. Unfortunately, though, while not being a native English speaker doesn’t mean you can’t teach English abroad, it might affect where you can teach English abroad. For the most part, employers favor applicants from the following countries: United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. 

As you probably guessed, the preference for those seven countries has little to do with candidate proficiency and much to do with institutional racism. There are scores of Caribbean nations, for instance, where native English speakers comprise more than 90% of the population, while in South Africa it’s less than 10%. But if you’re not from one of those seven countries -- meaning, if you don’t hold a passport from one of them -- there are some places where you’ll find it difficult if not impossible to gain employment. Those include the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Kuwait, Indonesia, and Vietnam.

You might also run into TEFL training programs (more on those in a sec) that make it clear they’re biased against so-called non-native English speakers, which is to say they’re not interested in enrolling them. Ignore them. There are lots of programs that will gladly take you regardless of your country of origin. And lots of countries with agencies that will readily employ you, including Cambodia, China, Mexico, Costa Rica, Turkey, India, Argentina, and Romania. Global demand for English proficiency is increasing by the day, and therefore so is the demand for teachers.

Do I need a Bachelor’s degree?

A four-year degree helps in getting a gig, especially if it’s in education, but by no means is it mandatory. Again, this mostly just affects the locations in which you’re employable. The Middle East is out, but with a TEFL certificate (almost there, I promise) you should be eligible to teach in lots of places throughout Asia, Central America, South America, and Europe. 

Do I need to already have teaching experience?

Nah! Like everything else, previous teaching experience is helpful in that it gives you more options, location-wise, but it’s not required. If you’re a licensed teacher here at home, you have a head start on getting gigs in the Middle East and parts of Europe. As with any other job hunt, this stuff fills out your resume and makes you more attractive to employers. But for pretty much anyone looking to teach English as a foreign language, the must-have in order to actually get hired is TEFL certification. Now is the part where we talk about TEFL!

Finally. What is TEFL certification, and do I need it?

TEFL = Teaching English as a Foreign Language. This certification is sometimes referred to as TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) but either way it’s the first thing most employers are gonna look for, regardless of where you’re applying. There are two ways you can go about getting certified: online and IRL. You can do either at home or abroad, and neither is better, per se -- it’s more about which one suits you personally based on your schedule, budget, experience level, and professional goals. Either way, you’re looking at 100 hours of coursework, minimum -- more is always better, and less is probably a scam.

I see. What are the pros and cons of getting certified online?

Online courses can still be stupid expensive -- like, several-months’-rent-expensive -- but the most affordable ones you’ll find that are still decent hover around $200. Online courses generally take around three months to complete, but it’s common for programs to give you six, and you can do most of it on your own schedule. So if you’re working full-time, or you’re still in school, or are otherwise unable to make TEFL certification your 9-5 gig, online is for you. You can browse some of the most thorough and reputable online programs here.

Kk. What about in person?

The advantages of going to a physical classroom and getting facetime with teachers and other students are pretty intuitive, but it’s not just about that. If you’re able to commit to eight hours a day in a classroom, plus homework, you can become TEFL-certified within just four to six weeks. And while online certification is increasingly common, some employers do still have a preference for candidates who trained on-site. Especially if you don’t have a college degree and/or prior teaching experience, this version will do more to elevate your resume. Unfortunately, the most expensive online courses are about where the cheapest classroom versions start, which is to say around $2,000. You can look for classroom locations in your area here. There are also paid TEFL internships!

Once my resume’s good to go, how do I actually … find a job?

Reputable TEFL courses, whether online or on-site, will include resources for job placement, so that’s always the best place to start. There are also postings on loads of online job boards, like this one and this one and this one. You can also go rogue and find students to tutor one-on-one by putting up flyers in your hostel, or posting on Craigslist! You have everything you need now; you make the rules.

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Kastalia Medrano is Thrillist's Travel Writer. You can send her travel tips at kmedrano@thrillist.com, and Venmo tips at @kastaliamedrano.