The Pros and Cons of Teaching English Overseas

by derek on March 27, 2012

One of the most common ways to make money overseas is to teach English. At any given CouchSurfing meeting in Bangkok, if you walked around and asked the expats “what do you do” a good 50% of them will tell you: “I teach English.”

There are English teachers in Asia, in Europe, in South America and really in just about every non English speaking country in the world. (Well, except North Korea. Not so much there.)

If your goal is to travel, teaching English is a very viable option. Before you go however, it helps to have an accurate picture of what you’re getting into.

These are my observations of the pros and cons of being an English teacher overseas, based on having met dozens of English teachers and having taught English myself for 2 weeks in Cambodia and Laos.

Benefit: It’s Extremely, Extremely Easy to Get a Job

If you’re postponing your trip because you’re afraid of not being able to find a job once you land somewhere, worry no more. I’m here to tell you just how retardedly easy it is to get an English teaching job overseas.

You can literally get off a plane in China, Thailand, India or Indonesia with no college degree, no highschool degree, no teaching experience, no work experience and no Teach English as a Foreign Language (TEFL ) certification and still get a job within a week. The sad truth is, being white will help you more than having a college degree.

The country you go to does make a big difference. China for example is notorious for being easy to find English teaching gigs in, while Indonesia is a bit more stringent and prefers teachers with TEFL certifications.

That said, almost all developing countries are starved for English teachers. There are over 30 million people in China alone who are trying to learn English. 2 billion people worldwide are trying to learn.

The demand is so much greater than the supply. All you need to do is land in a country that needs teachers, then do one of three things:

1)      Look for an agency that places teachers.

2)      Go directly to the schools.

3)      Go to a CouchSurfing meeting, meet other teachers and ask about which schools might be hiring.

That’s all there is to it. The “job shortage” in Europe and the USA really doesn’t apply on a global scale. There are a lot of countries that are developing very rapidly and really, really need help in the English department.

Downside: The Pay is Terrible

Think teachers back home done get paid enough? Try teaching overseas. On average, you’ll earn about $1,000 a month for working full time as a teacher. You might get as high as $1,500 if you’re lucky and land in a good school, but it’s rare that you’ll earn any more than that.

Keep in mind that this is enough to live on wherever you are.

For example, in Thailand you can pretty easily find an apartment for $250 a month in Bangkok. Everywhere else in Thailand you can rent a place for $100 a month. Food costs about $1 to $2 a meal, so $200 a month more than covers that. With just $450 a month, you can cover your food and rent, which means $1,000 a month can actually buy a decent though not extravagant lifestyle.

Benefit: Financial Security for the First Time Traveler

A lot of people I meet who’ve never traveled before are financing it through teaching English.

For many, traveling is like diving into the great unknown. You’re going to a foreign country, with a foreign culture, often with a bank account that doesn’t quite scream security.

Knowing that you have a steady job with a steady paycheck in that country can really help with getting over the fear of something going wrong. It’s like having job security, except your job’s in another country.

Downside: You’re Stuck for a Year

The downside of security is the tradeoff for freedom. Usually to take a teaching gig, you need to commit to one year.

Most travelers I know really don’t want to spend that long in any given country. A lot of teachers also end up assigned to places they don’t like all that much. For example, if you’re teaching in Thailand, you might get assigned to a rural village somewhere several hours away from civilization.

That’s okay and it can be quite fun to get to know the culture – For a couple months. Then you start missing being able to speak English, make friends, go to parties and more or less direct your life and where you want to go.

Should You Teach English Overseas?

It’s essentially a tradeoff between financial security and financial risk and its subsequent freedom.

If you want to live a more free lifestyle, it’s entirely possible to hop from country to country and just work at bars and hostels paying your way through. Or, you can create an online source of income and just work from your laptop.

Doing so requires more initiative and seems less secure on the surface. There’s the illusion of a guarantee of a paycheck with a job that isn’t there when you’re the one primarily responsible for generating your own livelihood.

My take? I wouldn’t do it. There are too many adventures out in the world waiting and a year is an extremely high price to pay. I’m 24, and if I’m gonna die at 80 that means I have 56 years of life left. I’m not going to spend one of those years doing something I don’t truly love simply because I couldn’t afford to live the life I really wanted.

If teaching English in and of itself sounds like a valuable life experience that you want to have, I’d say more power to you and two thumbs up. Go for it.

On the other hand, if teaching English is just something you’re using to get by because you want to be abroad but you don’t particularly love the idea and will likely feel trapped within a couple months of signing a contract, I’d say don’t do it. Figure something else out instead.

- Derek

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Eric March 28, 2012 at 9:04 am

Great post. Can I just add one more way to pick up easy teaching work?

Each nation/language has its own local version of Craigslist. Post there that you are available for private lessons.

This worked for me in Latvia. I wrote down a 100-word ad, had a friend translate it to Latvian (in your case, you may have to offer a staff member at your hostel money or booze in exchange for this favor), and got a couple of responses quickly.

In my case, the respondents were all educated professionals who just needed regular conversation to keep their skills up. If you can target this crowd, you’ll do yourself a favor because 1.) they’re motivated students, 2.) you can charge professional rates and 3.) they probably have an office themselves, so you can go directly there after work for lessons.

This method also gives you more control over your schedule. The downsides are that you have to hustle to get each new student, you will have to juggle lots of lesson plans, and you will be exposed to cancellations.

As an added bonus, this is get for networking with a professional crowd locally.

As far as pricing, I simply undercut the local going rate by just a bit (my price was 8 lats per hour, which worked out to about $16 / hour). That’s huge money in a country where the mean salary is $800 / month.

I hope this helps!

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derek March 28, 2012 at 12:45 pm

Hey Eric,

Wow – That’s a brilliant tip! Thanks for sharing!

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Daniel Johnson April 10, 2012 at 6:14 pm

Having taught in South Korea, there are a few things I’d like to add…

1) A ‘pro’ that you left out: It’s really fun to teach English! At the school where I taught, we weren’t hired because we were technically skilled in grammar, etc… we were hired for our accent and conversational skill (native speakers). So, basically, the classes had a Korean teacher teach them the grammar, and we would just play games. I taught kids age 6-16, and it was a blast. I had 13 year old girls try to flirt with me (of course, I didn’t engage in flirting back, but it was amusing.) I had a class of 6 year olds who didn’t even know the alphabet (and I spoke no Korean). Playing with children, entertaining them, teaching them about my childhood in America…. it was awesome!

2) I made way more money than what you write about. I made about $1700 a month, plus rent was paid in an apartment next door to the school, plus a round-trip airfare to Korea, plus a $1700 bonus for completing my year-long contract. This was in 2004, and not an unusual wage at all.

3) As Eric mentions, there are opportunities for “privates.” Although in many places, like Korea, it is technically illegal, and you could lose your visa and job if found out. But, many people still do it. I didn’t do it, but many of my co-workers were earning in the range of $40-$60 an hour for privates, and some made up to $100 just to sit with a doctor and have a conversation with him for an hour (for example).

With that said, I probably would never teach in Thailand (or more poor countries like Laos) because they don’t pay as well. I’d rather do it as a volunteer or something.

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Rachel Myles September 7, 2013 at 5:20 pm

Thank You Daniel! That was really helpful!
I’m looking at TEFl certifications now, particularly 140 classroom hrs. I’ve looked int o internships but it can get pricey and you don’t make much during it. Do you have any suggestions of who to go through to get TEFL certified and what not? Thanks for your time!

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derek April 11, 2012 at 11:49 am

Hey Daniel,

Thanks for sharing your experiences too =) I remember how passionately you talked about teaching those kids. You’re right, I did definitely leave out how much fun teaching could be.

I don’t think I ever got to the point of “self-expression” with teaching, since I really only did it for a few weeks. But even when I was a little nervous about being the teacher, I still had a blast.

Yeah, I know other countries like China, Japan or Korea pay more than Thailand … But the expenses are also higher. A cheap meal in Korea’s about $6 to $8, while in Thailand you can eat a meal for $1. At the end of the month, I don’t think the take home difference is that big.

I’m glad you guys brought the private tutoring stuff to the table – I think future readers would definitely benefit =)

Cheers,

- Derek

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Mark June 29, 2012 at 3:48 am

Currently teaching in a public elementary school in South Korea, been here 4 months and plan to do two contracts of a year each.

Just to add what’s been said above:

1. The pay is pretty decent, I’m on around $2100 per month, I get my rent paid for me, I pay no income taxes, I get $1300 to pay for the flight here another $1300 when I leave for my return flight and extra $2100 for every year I complete as a bonus and I’ll be getting a pay rise to $2200 for the second year. 4 weeks paid vacation plus 10 public holidays off too.

2. The cost of living here in Korea is high by South East Asian standards but far lower than in the West. So long as you’re willing to eat and drink local then you can save $1000 a month without trying and I know people who try consciously to save and end up saving $1400 a month.

3. The job is the easiest job I’ve ever had. Granted I’m lucky enough to be in a good school with small classes but the work is easy and usually rewarding. Whilst we’re in school for a full 40 hours a week Monday-Friday I usually only do about a dozen 40 minute classes a week, at most. I’ve known some teachers to go a week or more without actually teaching.

4. You need no teaching experience or professional teaching qualifications. You need a degree and an online TEFL course, though some people do have either teaching experiences or Post-Grad qualifications they aren’t essential.

5. You do your orientation for a week with several hundred other newly arrived teachers. This, coupled with facebook, means networking and socialising is not an issue.

6. As long as you can speak English and you’re friendly with the kids then not much else will be expected from you.

7. Having EPIK (English Program In Korea) on your CV is, apparently, impressive when you apply for other EFL jobs and they provide references.

8. Cons. Korea and Koreans aren’t that used to foreigners, especially the older generations, and the Koreans, whilst generally friendly, can be suspect of anything non-Korean or any social attitudes that aren’t in keeping with Korean values.

9. The food is poor in taste and variety compared to the rest of South East Asia, though the Koreans claim it is the best in the world. It isn’t.

10. To conclude Korea is a great place to come if you’re starting on the EFL road. You can save a considerable amount and it’s an easy introduction into teaching and the set up is well organised, plus by working for the public sector you won’t get screwed out of pay and benefits. I plan to go to Thailand after 2 years in Korea, get my CELTA then continue teaching somewhere else in Asia, Vietnam perhaps. Most good EFL jobs will now require you to have a Degree and a CELTA, sometimes EFL experience too. If you have no debts then a year in Korea will allow you to save up an ample about to do a CELTA when you’ve finished here and then move on to somewhere more exciting and challenging.

11. Top places I’ve heard to do EFL in Asia from fellow teachers – South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong/China, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia. South and Central America is meant to be amazing, but the pay is very low. Europe is a mix of reasonable pay and reasonable cost of living, particularly in the South and East, but unless you’re British or Irish getting a work visa is almost impossible. Personally I’m heading to Vietnam, because the pay is very good, cost of living very low and it’s an extraordinary country and then maybe Italy, Turkey or Czech Republic.

12. If you’re doing EFL as a means to travel then get an online TEFL course and teach your way around South East Asia, Europe or the world! You may be expected to sign a years contract but, realistically, there’s nothing to stop you leaving whenever you want for the next adventure. If you’re planning to do EFL as a career then get a CELTA at least, start somewhere like Korea or Japan and, after a few years experience, you’ll be able to get the well paying jobs in specialist language schools or universities. Because most people only do EFL for a year or so experienced EFL teachers are a rare and highly prized commodity.

13. Regardless of which route you take to do EFL it will be one of the most memorable experiences of your life.

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Cheryl November 17, 2012 at 9:30 pm

So happy to have come across this site! I’m a 40-something single woman and am wondering how schools/students would react to someone in my situation teaching abroad? EFL seems to be something that mainly 20-somethings do, so I’m curious if people have any thoughts or insight into the positives and negatives of someone in my shoes teaching overseas?

Also, wondering if anyone can recommend the best online TEFL program? Something affordable would be great. Thanks!

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alan reid December 17, 2012 at 1:57 am

Would definately not recommend thailand. Its all sexpats who get teaching jobs here and because of the thai culture age and money brings respect and personal qualities mean nothing. And the food maybe 1 – 2 dollars but after a few days of that you soon realise you need to eat more for a healthy diet. And the portions are tiny.

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J March 15, 2013 at 2:30 pm

hey Mark
thats a great post – thank you for all that information.

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Caro March 18, 2013 at 7:01 am

Hi Derek,

Just a note to express how excited I am to have discovered your site.

Like you, I read Rich Dad Poor Dad as a teenager, and have become an entrepreneur rather than following a more conventional path. Now, after about 3 years, my business is finally at the stage where I can begin to fully automate it, getting my money from a created asset rather than work.

That said, I feel kind of bewildered and not sure how to actually embark on the globetrotting lifestyle I so dreamed of. Rather predictably, teaching English came up as an idea, but after reading this I’m not so sure. You’re right – a year is a hell of a long time in one small town…

Again – so excited to have found this!

Will spend a lot of time reading your posts today :) .

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Stefan Helber March 31, 2013 at 7:24 pm

I am looking to move abroad at the end of the year after i save a good amount of money and was thinking that i needed like 20k just in case it was hard to find work but it sounds like after i get my certification i will be fine. I plan to get my certification in Spain and they have a paid internship. I see that a lot of the asian countries pay for rent so is that one of the best places to teach because of all the extra benefits? Any help is much appreciated.

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Kaitlyn Martin April 7, 2013 at 4:51 am

Hey all! Great info. I’m starting my TEFL course in a day or two (As soon as the money is is in my credit card!). I opted for the University of Toronto 100 hour one.

I’m planning on heading to Indonesia first as I don’t have a BA and I’ve heard the pay is pretty good there. Any other suggestions for locations that don’t require a BA? I wish I could go to South Korea but they’re pretty strict about that.

Cheers!

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Gavin McCann April 12, 2013 at 1:42 pm

Hey everyone!
Im so glad i found your site derek! this is brilliant and exactly the information i am looking for! I am from Northern ireland and i have been looking at teaching english abroad for sometime now. I dont have a degree or TEFL certificate! i know not having a degree does not stop me from finding work but could i still fly out somewhere without degree and TEFL certificate and still find work?? Also where would be my best bet to fly to? Thanks

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dan April 14, 2013 at 10:31 am

Why is the pay so little? You can earn 10x more working as cashier in your home country..

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dan April 14, 2013 at 10:33 am

Do they have good internet access in Thailand? I do web design work and can make about $1,000 extra monthly on the side if I am able to have a PC with decent internet access.

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Indi500 April 21, 2013 at 2:28 pm

Hi, can anyone recommend a good and reputable online website to take the courses for EFL certification?

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Mark Lewis July 9, 2013 at 10:28 pm

Go through the worksheets attached to the W-4.
You can claim 2 for yourself and your daughter, then can also claim one or two more, depending on your income, for the child tax credit, so can probably claim up to 4 if you want to without owing at tax time.
Depending on your income, you might also be eligible for an Earned Income Credit which would come in your refund.
. . Child support is not deductible to the payer or taxable to the person receiving
it, so has nothing to do with your taxes and is not reported
on your return.. . If you’ll post again listing your total expected income for the year, what you’ve had withheld so far, and the amount of child care costs you
expect to pay for the year, someone can give you a closer answer on what you might get back as a refund.
. . Just to give an example, if your income for the year
will be around $20,000, you’d be likely to get back whatever was withheld, plus an Earned Income Credit of a little less than $2000. . . Sounds like you are a very busy person. Good luck all around….

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Eric Reynolds July 24, 2013 at 3:35 pm

I agree with most of what you said. However, it’s a very bad idea to hop on a plane to China and try to get a job because you won’t have the proper visa and will have to fly out again, usually back to your home country, in order to get the proper working visa. If you just arrive, you will have no choice but to teach illegally, and the government has been cracking down on that lately. Also, you can earn quite a bit of money now because there is such a high demand-but don’t write to tell us you are qualified because you grew up in a native speaking country and are qualified! Schools are looking for more now and if you don’t have experience, get a TEFL-we work with providers that charge as little as US$250, which is worth the investment to get $2,000 per month.

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