Two months ago, I hopped on a plane bound for Incheon to start a new job teaching English in South Korea.
It was a risky move: I had never worked as a teacher, I had never been to South Korea, and I didn’t know a soul in my new city. Despite all these challenges – or maybe because of them – I knew as soon as the plane took off that I had made the right choice. Living and teaching in South Korea has been a life-changing experience.
Teaching English abroad sat in the back of my mind for years before I pursued it. As an avid traveler I was always on the hunt for a career that would take me abroad, but every time I saw mention of teaching English overseas I assumed it wasn’t for me.
Luckily, this summer I was desperate for a new direction so I decided to look into it anyway. I found that there is no ‘typical’ English teacher. People are drawn to this work for all kinds of reasons. Your aim may be to gain experience with kids or to see a new country, but once you start teaching English exciting doors will open to you across the globe.
Teaching English in South Korea
When I tell stories about my new life in Korea, the response is often ‘Wow, I wish I could do that’. What I want everyone to know is that you can! Take it from someone who wrote off teaching English abroad for a long time – if you want it and you’re willing to work for it, there’s a job out there somewhere for you. Below are the steps I took to get a job teaching English in South Korea.
I hope they inspire you to consider doing the same, while shedding some light on the process of how to teach English abroad.
Step 1: Get a TESL or TEFL Certification
The first thing I did after I decided to pursue teaching English in South Korea was enroll in a TESL certification course. TESL stands for ‘Teaching English as a Second Language’. You may also have seen TEFL or TESOL courses advertised: those stand for ‘Teaching English as a Foreign Language’ and ‘Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages’. In my experience, they are fairly interchangeable – most employers in South Korea will accept any of the above certifications. TESL, TESOL, or TEFL course hours are completed online, in a classroom, or both.
A TESL course is a serious investment. Most courses cost several hundred dollars, as well as a significant amount of time. Not all English teaching jobs require that you have this certification. In South Korea it is often a requirement and always an asset because teaching positions are fairly competitive, but in other countries it is possible to teach English abroad without certification. Personally, though, I found the course itself valuable. It got me thinking about ways to teach and manage a classroom, and the unique challenges of learning English. It also exposed me to the variety of teaching positions that are out there, and a network of other hopeful teachers to navigate it with. The financial investment paid for itself before I even arrived, because the cost of my flight was included in my contract (which is common for South Korean teaching positions).
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Step 2: Research What’s Out There
Once I had my shiny new TESL certificate in hand, it was time to decide where it would take me. I knew by this point that I wanted to work in South Korea. Education is highly valued in Korean culture, so teaching positions are plentiful, reliable, and well-paid. You can compare this to the experiences of teaching English in various countries on Dave’s ESL Cafe or Oxford Seminars. If you are interested in South Korea, the next step is to learn a bit about the country. Take a few hours to browse the internet. Reading articles is a good start, but YouTube, Vimeo, and internet radio sites are also full of content that will give you a feel for life in South Korea. As you browse, take note of the places and things that catch your attention.
At this point, I recommend making a list of your priorities for teaching English in South Korea. How important are the following to you?
- Location (big city convenience and excitement vs. relaxed, rural experience)
- Schedule (working days vs. working evenings)
- Students (teaching young children, teenagers, or adults)
- Workplace environment (structured or relaxed? Do you need to have foreign co-workers?)
- Public or Private Schools (English teachers in South Korea’s public schools usually work days, teach larger classes, and have more vacation time than their private counterparts. Schedules, working hours, and vacation vary widely for English teachers at private kindergartens or English schools in South Korea.)
Step 3: Prepare the Application Basics
I found that job postings for teaching English in South Korea followed a standard formula. Having the basics of an application ready ahead of time will save you from scrambling when you find your dream position! Almost every job posting will ask for:
- A resume – Include basics like nationality and English speaking ability near the top. These things aren’t a given when you’re applying for jobs internationally. Highlight teaching-related experience above anything else.
- A cover letter – You should personalize this for each application, but have the outline of a letter that expresses why you are interested in teaching English in South Korea ready.
Here’s a tip: focus on the job, not the travel. Moving to Korea will be a fantastic adventure for you, but potential employers are more interested in what you have to offer their school than how excited you are to see the sights and eat kimchi.
- A photo – Have a high-quality, respectable photograph of yourself from about the shoulders up ready. It doesn’t need to be a passport photo (you can smile!) or a professional headshot, but you should look presentable.
Note that most job postings in South Korea also list a Bachelor’s degree (in any subject) as a requirement. If you don’t have one, you may have more luck searching for jobs in another country.
Step 4: Apply, Apply, Apply!
You’ve prepared a flawless application, now where do you send it? The first decision you have to make is whether to apply to jobs directly, through a recruiter, or both. Recruiters help employers (school directors) find good candidates for teaching positions. A quick Google search will yield lots of recruiters’ websites. With their considerable networks and experience, recruiters can help you find unique opportunities, polish your application, sift through the mass of job postings that are out there, and confirm that potential employers and contracts are legitimate. A recruiter should not charge you a fee – they are paid by the school director if they arrange a successful hire.
I chose to work with a recruiter because the service was offered through the company I took my TESL course with, and they were a very helpful resource. Whatever you decide, get ready to hit the virtual pavement! The more jobs you apply to, the better your odds are of finding a good fit and landing an offer. Google ‘ESL jobs’ and start browsing the pages upon pages of job boards.
This advice applies to anyone applying for jobs at private English schools in South Korea (known as hagwons in Korean). If you’re interested in teaching English in the Korean public school system, you will apply through an official government program. These are usually specific to a region; some of the bigger ones are EPIK (English Program in Korea) and ETIS (English Teachers in Seoul).
Step 5: Interview for English Teaching Jobs
After I submitted a wave of applications, there was nothing to do but wait (and compulsively refresh my inbox). Luckily, it didn’t take long to hear back from some employers looking to set up interviews. These are usually conducted over Skype or telephone. They are organized on the employer’s time, and South Korea is several time zones ahead of North America so you need to be accommodating. More than once I found myself sipping coffee at midnight to stay chipper for a 1:00 am Skype call!
In my experience, these interviews are short and there is usually only one round. The employer won’t ask you too many questions, so be sure to give detailed answers. If you’re on Skype, put some effort into your appearance and be sure the background of the shot is appropriate. Answer all questions honestly and positively, and be sure to ask some questions of your own at the end of the call.
Step 6: Accept a Position
Just when the application and interview process was beginning to wear me out, my recruiter called me with a job offer from a school. The catch was that she needed an answer by the end of the day. I had a good feeling about this particular school and the director I had spoken with there, so I decided to accept right away. This step isn’t always such a whirlwind, though! If you have an offer and you aren’t sure how to proceed, ask to speak to a teacher currently working at the school. They will be candid with you about the pros and cons of the job. Accepting a position halfway around the world will always be a leap of faith, but if you trust your instincts you’re likely to end up in the right place.
When accepting a position, there may be room for negotiation in your contract. Look at other job postings in the same city to get an idea of the average contract. At the time that I was applying for English teaching jobs abroad, this was roughly what could be expected in a contract with a private school:
- 12 month contract
- Monthly salary between 2 million KRW for new teachers and 2.3 million KRW for experienced teachers
- Completion bonus equal to one month’s salary
- 10 days of paid vacation (set by the employer) plus national holidays
- Accommodations and 50% of medical expenses covered
- One-way flight from your home country to South Korea covered (a return flight is less common, but can be negotiated)
Step 7: Get Ready For the Big Move
Once you sign an English teaching contract, things can move pretty quickly! I was filling an empty position, so I left home within a few weeks. It’s also common to have a few months’ notice, though. Whatever your timeline is, here are some things you can do to prepare for your move:
- Book a flight. If this is included in your contract, arrange the details with your employer.
- Talk to someone who’s already in South Korea. Get in touch with another teacher at your school, or reach out to other expats through online forums and Facebook groups. These people can give you the most current advice on what to expect (and what to pack!).
- Pack strategically. Remember that Korea has four distinct seasons, uses different power plugs, and may not carry brands or products you rely on.
- Pick up some souvenirs from your homeland for your future South Korean students and friends!
- Take a look at hangul (the Korean alphabet) and try to learn some Korean phrases before you takeoff. It isn’t essential, but it will definitely be helpful once you land.
- Give this article on things to do before leaving home for an extended period of time a read.
- Evaluate your insurance situation. You don’t need proof of insurance for your working visa (see below), but insurance should always be considered before traveling. If your contract includes medical coverage, look into what it covers and decide whether you want to supplement it. If you have coverage at home, find out how it will be affected by your absence.
Note: If you are planning on buying travel insurance we (and Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, National Geographic Adventures) highly recommend WorldNomads. They cover emergency overseas medical treatment, evacuation transportation, trip cancellation, and even lost or stolen items. You can get an travel insurance quote here (it takes less than a minute) and full details on what they cover.
Step 8: Apply For a Work Visa in South Korea
Getting your hands on a visa to move to Korea is a lot of work, but on the bright side that work is quite straightforward. Your employer and recruiter will likely guide you through the process, and the Korea Visa Portal website is very thorough and easy-to-use. If you are coming to Korea to work as an English teacher, you will apply for the ‘Foreign Language Instructor (General) E-2-1’ visa. Your Korean employer will sponsor your application.
You begin the process in your home country by having your documents notarized at the Korean Consulate (this can be done by mail if you live too far away). Once your documents are ready you mail them to your employer in South Korea, who will continue the application process. If all goes well they will contact you in a few weeks with a Visa Issuance Number. Once you have this you can complete the application on your end, submitting your passport to the Korean Consulate to get your official visa.
The visa you will get in your passport is for a single entry into Korea within three months of the day it’s issued. You aren’t finished yet, though! When you arrive in Korea you will need to have a medical check at a hospital and have your fingerprints taken at an Immigration Office. Once you can submit proof of these things, a full visa valid for the duration of your contract will be granted. You’ll also receive an Alien Resident Card, which is the key to setting up everything from a bank account to cell phone service. Congratulations, you are now really living in Korea!
Fees will crop up throughout this process, for everything from notarizing your documents to mailing them to the medical check. Amounts will vary depending on where home is for you, but set aside between $200 and $300 to be safe.
The documents required for a Korean work visa:
- Valid passport
- Six passport photos (3.5cm x 4.5cm, white background, ears not covered by long hair)
- Proof of education (degree, diploma, or certificate notarized by a lawyer or notary public and then the Korean Consulate)
- Sealed academic transcript
- A national criminal record check issued within the last six months (also notarized by a lawyer or notary public and then the Korean Consulate)
- Self-Assessment Report on Health (available online)
- Contract signed by you and your employer
So there you have it: how I got a job teaching English in South Korea, from start to finish. Once the idea was in my head and I began to act, I couldn’t believe how many opportunities I found. And I’m only speaking for myself: I’ve met an amazing array of expats here (3.4% South Korea’s population are foreign residents), and each one has a unique story about the path that brought them to South Korea. If you’ve entertained the idea of working abroad, trust me when I say that you can (and should!) do it. I personally recommend South Korea, but there’s a whole world waiting for you.
Claire calls Canada home, but she’s building a life abroad. She currently lives in Incheon, South Korea, where she teaches English. She’s a certified yoga instructor and an uncertified coffee enthusiast.
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