If you’re looking to teach English in a foreign country, Asia is definitely one of the most accessible and affordable regions to move to. It’s become the premier destination for English teachers because of travel opportunities, decent salaries, great benefits like free flights and housing, and a whole range of jobs available for the novice to the professional teacher.
Teaching English can be a means for travel, a gap year from school or ‘real life,’ or the start of a lifelong career. Your options are usually private language schools, international schools, universities, or through a language program like Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme.
Depending which country or path you take can determine your salaries, benefits, experience, and overall costs involved. Vietnam and Thailand are best for experience and travel, whereas China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are better suited to saving money.
Before you get too excited and pack your bags, it’s important to assess the costs and requirements first. This will ensure you’re not left financially hanging once you arrive and that you’re prepared for what is sure to be a culturally different yet memorable experience.
There’s a few things you need in place first before you can jump on a plane and head abroad. It’s more than just picking a country you are interested in, though that is a big part of it:
- Education and training. Some countries only require a university degree, some prefer certifications in ESL (English as a Second Language). You’ll need to figure this out as this will determine the type of roles you can apply for.
- Choose a country. Research Asian countries offering teaching online, look for role descriptions, and read about people’s experiences. It also helps to have a genuine interest in the country you’re heading too.
- Find a program or employer. Search online, research thoroughly well-known programs, or find advertised roles to apply for and compare between to find the best one for you. Be sure to check what’s required to apply for the roles - namely education and training - before applying.
- Research what you should expect from an employer. What’s the minimum salary in local currency? Do they pay for your flights? Do they arrange accommodation - even initially? Is there training? Is health insurance included? These are all questions to ask and be clear on before agreeing to the terms. Go to online teaching forums like Daves ESL Cafe to see what the standard job should provide in country.
- Get the admin side of things sorted. Is your passport still valid? Do you need to arrange the visa, or will your employer arrange it for you? Make sure you check with your local Embassy to ensure there’s no issues upon arrival at the airport.
- Determine your timeline. Getting into the JET Program takes 10 months, whereas getting a job for a local assistant language teacher (ALT) provider might take more like 3-4 weeks. Ensure this is clearly stated so you can plan accordingly before you leave.
- Go prepared. And be ready for the unexpected too. Research the country ahead of arrival, to know what will be available there and what you’ll need to buy before you leave like clothes, beauty products and medication. Read up on other teacher’s experiences online. Get necessary vaccines before you go. For example, Hepatitis A and B, influenza and typhoid are standard for Asia.
Teaching in Asia can be the way to boost your savings while experiencing another country, or simply a way to fund your travels. To prioritize your search, it’s important to decide what you want from the experience. This will help determine which country and role to choose, and the costs to consider as part of your move.
Here are the typical costs you should consider for starting your career as an English teacher overseas
- Education and training - such as TEFL or TESOL certifications
- Job application process - often require original or apostilled degree(s) to be supplied
- Pre-departure costs - passport, visa application fee, work permit etc.
- Moving from one country to another - flights, specialised packing items, new luggage, etc.
- Transferring money internationally - for on arrival and until first paycheck
- Getting a new place to live in - first 1-2 months rent, deposit, etc.
- Budgeting while you’re there - food and essentials, according to local currency. Don’t forget to include going out and sightseeing!
If your budget is tight, consider teaching in countries where schools often will pay for your housing, like in South Korea and China. Or choose a country with a low cost of living so your startup costs are low, such as throughout South East Asia. Some countries will also have schools that sponsor work visas and reimburse or provide free airfare to English teachers abroad, which is common in China, Taiwan, and South Korea, and possible in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, and Malaysia.
Depending on the role and country, the requirements can vary greatly. A bachelor’s degree may be enough to secure you a role in Vietnam or Thailand, however in countries like Japan and South Korea, it may also be required to hold a TEFL or TESOL certificate from an accredited organization, an education-specific degree, or experience teaching English.
If you’re after a higher level position, then expect more stringent requirements on qualifications. The people who make the most money in Asia often work in International Schools, and for these jobs, you’ll need a teacher’s license and experience in addition to a college degree. For positions teaching English at a university, candidates with master’s degrees are significantly more likely to be considered.
Do your research in advance, because things are always changing. You can also expect a considerable amount of paperwork to complete as part of the application process.
Getting certified will help you with the job search, better salary options, and make you a more prepared teacher, especially if you’re considering this as a long-term career.
You should enrol in a course provided by an accredited company. There are many options available, from large organisations such as Cambridge to a variety of smaller, independent companies. Which means that before making your decision, you should ask yourself: is this course accredited, and is the certificate recognised in countries around the world?
There are four (4) major courses that are globally accepted:
- TEFL - Teaching English as a Foreign Language
- TESOL - Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages
- CELTA - Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults
- DELTA - Diploma in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages
To clarify, TEFL is an industry acronym, of which there are many TEFL schools, training programs, and certification options of varying degrees of quality, length and expense. CELTA on the other hand, is the name of a course provided by Cambridge University.
When choosing a school, do your homework and ask questions. Check their accreditation and teaching style, and importantly, find out what job placement assistance they offer and what it costs. You should really be looking at TEFL certification courses that are at least 100 hours.
TEFL is one of the most common certifications. Many teachers living and working overseas hold this qualification due to the relatively low cost, ease and speed of getting qualified.
However, it’s worth doing your research. There are many TEFL courses offered often at cheap prices that don’t meet the required standards, so make sure you select a course that is an accredited TEFL certification course.
- pricing can be more affordable, $500 - $1,500+
- course length varies, from an intensive weekend to 3 months with 100+ course hours
- no prerequisites required, need to be 16+, English native-level speaker
- lots of options for taking the course online and in person
TESOL is the most widely used and recognized certificates of all the options and is the general name for the field of teaching that includes both TESL and TEFL. As with the TEFL, you get qualified in the same way - online or in the classroom - with similar flexibility, usually reasonable pricing, and recognition to teaching worldwide.
- pricing is around $1,000 - $3,000+
- course length varies, though online tends to be more flexible
- pre-requisites may include a college degree, need to be 18+, English native-level speaker
- curriculum, look for 100+ course hours and 6 hours practice teaching
- generally less expensive than a CELTA, holds more clout than TEFL.
The Cambridge CELTA is a specific type of TEFL certificate and is the most intensive course of all options. As CELTA courses are all affiliated with Cambridge University and have to adhere to the same standards, it’s sometimes viewed as the more prestigious certification.
It’s the ideal course if you’re serious about teaching and want to make a lifelong career of teaching English abroad.
- affiliated and accredited with Cambridge University
- pricing is around $1,500 - $4,000
- course length is 4-5 weeks (full time) and 2-3 months (part time)
- pre-requisites include a college degree, 20+ (preferred) and native-level English skills, usually determined by a test and interview
- curriculum is six hours of practice teaching and four written assignments
DELTA is designed for those with a few years of English language teaching experience and taken as a way of advancing your qualifications. This advanced TEFL qualification can be taken either full-time or part-time. It’s for teachers who wish to refresh their teaching knowledge, review and update their practice, and extend their expertise into a specialist area.
- affiliated and accredited with Cambridge University
- pricing is around $1,500, depending on the module
- course length is 7-12 weeks, depending on provider
- pre-requisites include at least two years' full-time relevant teaching experience, a first degree, an initial teaching qualification, a range of teaching experience, native-level English
- curriculum is three modules
This is a good opportunity to declutter your items, clear out and sell what you no longer need, and pack up your life into a storage unit, family home, or in a friend’s garage. Unless you’re moving over more permanently to a higher level role, you’ll almost definitely want to hold off shipping items over until you’ve arrived and know more about your new city and country. Shipping items over can be quite costly and take months by sea - plus you may not need these items after settling into your host country’s lifestyle.
Buy new luggage if necessary and keep your packing focused and to the minimal. One large suitcase, a matching carry on bag, and a backpack should be enough to get you started. Pack a box of other “essentials” back home to potentially ask family or friends to send over at a later date.
Research what you’ll need for your new role and stock up on professional clothes and suitable shoes for your chosen country, as you may not find your size in this part of the world. Be smart, think about the climate you’re about to travel to, especially if it’s humid and tropical, and determine if you’ll be walking a lot or using public transportation to/from your new job.
Be sure to check the restrictions on medications, as certain countries in Asia have strict rules on medicine that can be bought over the counter in the West. Make sure any medications have documentation from your doctor back home as well.
Lastly, make sure you buy some gifts from your home country for your boss, coworkers, and students. In Japan, for example, there’s a strong gift-giving culture, and you’ll make a strong first impression if you arrive with gifts to share. Don’t forget to bring fun items to use in classes with students as well.
Many people forget that you’ll need to bring enough money to get you through the first 4-6 weeks before you receive your first paycheck. If you’re in a huge city like Tokyo, it’s usually recommended to bring $3,000-$4,000. Ideally, you’ll want to have enough money for up to six months available to you so you have savings ready in case of emergencies.
It may take some time before you setup a local bank account, so in the meantime you’ll also need to make sure you can access your money via your home country bank account. Check which ATMs you can use locally and their opening hours - for example, in Japan, ATMs are closed on Sundays and public holidays - which can be frustrating if you haven’t planned ahead.
Depending on the country, money transfers in different currencies can be costly and slow. Well known services like Western Union, PayPal and big banks almost always often offer poor exchange rates but hide this fact from consumers. Consider using an international transfer service like TransferWise to save money. TransferWise uses two local bank transfers in your home country and Asia to cut out the usual expensive international SWIFT transfer fees. Not to mention with TransferWise you’ll also get the real exchange rate - the same one you find on Google. That means you’ll end up with quite a bit more money to spend during your time overseas.
You may even consider setting up a TransferWise borderless account, as you can hold and manage your money in multiple currencies and get the real exchange rates, and then transfer money to wherever you are when the time is right. Check before you leave if your host country is compatible with this account.
Some employers will provide accommodation during your stay as is in South Korea, or initial accommodation as in Japan and with other teachers. However if this isn’t the case, then you’ll need to explore the local rental market and find somewhere to live on your own.
Finding a furnished apartment to rent is ideal and often commonplace for first arrivals. Hit up the expat community and online communities to find local resources for the apartment search. Expect to pay for a deposit and potentially key money (a non-refundable transfer), as is the case in Japan. Although the apartment may be advertised as furnished, you’re likely to have to buy some furniture and additional appliances, yourself. You’ll also need to connect Internet with a local provider - always good to ask a coworker to help you with this.
Rent costs will vary from country to country. If you’re teaching English in Japan, rent in Tokyo averages around $1,100 / £875 per month for a one bedroom apartment, which is lower than cities like San Francisco or London. Most English teachers in Japan find shared rooms in larger apartments, which significantly drives down the cost. Living with a roommate will cost as little as $440 / £350 per month.
If you’re thinking about Thailand as your English-teaching destination, you’ll find the cost of living in Thailand is notoriously cheap, with rent per month for a one-bedroom in city center at about ~12,500 baht or ~$356 / £290. If Vietnam is on your list of options, the cost of living is also extremely inexpensive - rent will still cost you about $500 / £400 per month.
Once you’re settled in, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of being in another country and living the expat life. However taking this “work hard, play hard” approach can also be a one-way ticket to living paycheck to paycheck. Because of this, two people on the same program or at the same school can save entirely different amounts of money while teaching overseas.
Your monthly budget should include:
- Monthly rent and utilities - if not covered by employer
- Health insurance
- Local mobile phone
- Having fun, such as going out and sightseeing
- Medical costs/emergencies
- Any costs back home (eg. your local mobile phone, keeping up health insurance, etc.).
Depending on your contract, your employer may also cover health insurance and travel to/from your workplace. Often is the case in countries like Thailand, Vietnam and Japan though, is that you may end up riding a bicycle to/from work like the locals do, which is an excellent way to save money and get around the city more efficiently. Just make sure you follow the road rules for cyclists in whichever country you live in. For example, Japan’s bicycling rules are notoriously strict.
How much you’ll spend on food depends on how ready you can adapt to the local lifestyle. Embracing the local cuisine is a great way to save money, so be prepared to flexible with your diet. Some countries will be easier than others, for example, if you’re teaching English in South Korea or Japan, fresh fruit can be quite expensive - a watermelon can cost as much as $25/£20.
Don’t forget to consider any costs you’re still paying back home as well in your budget, such as bank fees for your home country bank accounts, maintaining your mobile phone to keep your mobile number, or keeping your items in a storage unit.
Once you arrive in your chosen country, you’ll be able to see for yourself the cost of living in your placement area. To put the costs into perspective in terms of your home currency, use an online currency converter to make sure you know the actual figures you’re working with. You can also learn more about costs of living in various cities around the world using websites like Numbeo.
Teaching English overseas is an amazing way to travel, meet new people and experience new cultures. It’s a realistic goal for just about anybody, provided you take the time to research the options available and find the best role to get you started. You can fulfill your dream of living and working in Asia within a budget that’s suitable for your needs. You’ll be flying out before you know it!
Kat Loughrey is a freelance digital consultant, based in Berlin. She spent three years in Japan teaching English after university and before starting “real life”. Her website is katloughrey.com or you can catch her on Twitter at @KatLoughrey.