One of the great things about living and teaching in Prague, Czech Republic (recently rebranded as ‘Czechia’) is the network of people—both expats and people who want to hang out with expats. (They actually like Americans here!) The city is just small enough and the network just large enough that I see friends and acquaintances around town almost on a daily basis. Sometimes I’ll even spot people at the farmers’ market whom I only know from facebook—“Hey aren’t you the guy who helped me find a mechanic who was open on a Sunday? That sack of cabbage is on me!”
Never to let a good network go to waste, I took a survey of my peeps (Prague Happening Now! Cyclists in Prague! Vegetarians in Prague! Expat Women of Prague! Prague Jobs! Prague Beer Lovers! And of course, the people sitting all around me at the beer garden) to get some real answers for you about what it’s really like to live and work in the Mother of Cities.
What Qualifications do I need to teach English in the Czech Republic?
Language schools in Czechia want you to have a TEFL/TESOL certificate, and while a college degree is not necessary, it helps. Private students are less picky about your certificates or degrees, but do have a preference for native English speaking teachers. The story my students recount is that when Communism ended, teachers swapped their Russian language textbooks for English language textbooks and maintained a 1-2 chapter lead over their students as the whole country tried to catch up to the West. As a result, native-speaking English teachers are seen as highly valuable to employers here. Preschools and summer camps will often have duos of Czech/English teachers for beginning students.
What kind of job opportunities are there?
One a scale of 1-10, 1 being “very easy to find work right out of TEFL,” the average respondent gave Prague a 2. I had two jobs at two schools the Monday after my TEFL graduation, and both wanted me for full-time work. Like a lunatic, I taught 9×60 minute classes a day for the first 6 months until I realized I could work half that much and afford to live just fine.
Most of the teachers polled teach at private language schools; many teach at pre-schools and kindergartens. Business English is in high demand as many Czechs need English to do business with their German / French / Italian counterparts. “In-company” classes are extremely popular, sending students into various companies or offices around town for small or individual classes. I’ve taught at tech companies, law offices and the Embassy of Saudi Arabia.
During the summer, as classes for young learners dwindle, many teachers will work at summer camps in the Czech countryside, Croatia or Slovakia. This work involves corralling kids and fostering language learning through games, activities, etc. The pay is not much, but is enough to pay rent back in Prague, with room and board at the camp provided by the camp. Many teachers look forward to ditching their classrooms for the sunshine during the summer months.
Private lessons are also hugely popular and consist of meeting a businessman or woman at their office or local coffee shop to practice conversational English. These are usually paid by the students in cash (and not always reported to tax authorities), though the “živno” system (see below) certainly allows for this type of work if it is invoiced and reported.
I’ve taught at the same language school in Prague for 6 years now, though for the past year I’ve taught for them completely online using Skype, giving me the ability to travel around Europe more. Combined with several private online students from other countries, it’s more than enough to live on.
How hard is it to get a visa in the Czech Republic?
Getting a visa in the Czech Republic is a good deal easier for Americans than in Western Europe. Furthermore, with the U.K. leaving the E.U. (depending on the deal they negotiate for British citizens living abroad) Americans, Canadians, New Zealanders and Australians may be in higher demand. When I managed a visa company here in Prague, we had a 98% success rate for getting native English speakers visas approved. Applicants from other, non-native English-speaking countries are going to have a much tougher time, as the Czechs are pretty tight with their immigration policies, particularly when it comes to refugees. (See downsides of Czech culture.)
Americans, Canadians, New Zealanders and Australians are given a 90-day tourist visa upon entering the Schengen Zone (a collection of European countries supporting free movement of persons without border checks) and they can apply for a Czech visa during that stay, though I highly recommend starting the process early in the 90 days, because it often takes a few months to complete.
The beauty of the Czech visa system is that your visa it is not necessarily tied to your job. That is, if you lose your job or a school shuts down or you want to work in another field, you won’t have to apply for a new visa or leave the country. This is arranged by applying for a živno, which is basically an independent contractor license, when you arrive. Because of this živno system, many teachers in Prague have contracts with multiple schools and private students and an array of other paying gigs like professional photography, translation, programming, nannying, proofreading and guiding tours. When I started teaching here, I signed a contract for morning classes at one school and afternoon classes at another. After 6 months, when I found I really preferred the second school, I swapped out my morning classes for a job managing the aforementioned visa company.
Work permits are available and offered by some schools after you’ve been teaching there for a little while and develop a relationship with them. That comes with some benefits the živno licence doesn’t offer, like partial or fully-paid health insurance, and paid vacation (20 days a year). But again, your visa is attached to that work permit and the take-home pay can often be lower to compensate for shifting the burden of your taxes and your health insurance to your employer.
To apply for a visa and živno you’ll need:
- Proof of Accommodation: Basically, you move to Prague, sign a lease on a flat, and get your landlord to sign a government form saying you have permission to live there. Seems a bit backwards and risky, I know, but with the high likelihood of getting your visa approved, it’s really not an issue.
- Proof of funds: You have to show a letter from your bank at home (signed in blue ink and stamped) indicating you have at least $6000 in your account. The authorities just want to make sure you don’t end up living on the streets and, honestly, after you get a new apartment and wait for your visa to be approved, it is a good idea to actually have close to this amount of money saved before you come as a safety net. The money can be removed from the account after you get the letter.
- Criminal background check: Americans can get it from the American Embassy here in Prague for $50. Europeans can apply at the živno office in Prague for $10. Other countries must apply in your home country.
- Business Address: Another document you get from your landlord in Prague indicating that you can use your flat for business purposes. Some landlords are hesitant to sign this, but there are many services that offer a business address rental for around $20 a month.
The first visa is good for a year, then you can renew it for long-term residency, which lasts for 2 years. I highly recommend working with a visa specialist for your first go-round, as the Czechs are infamous for their bureaucracy (and grumpy bureaucrats). Missing a signature or a stamp or leaving out a document will have you cashing in your plane ticket home early.
How do you get around Prague?
Prague has one of the best public transportation systems in Europe. Through a combination of metros, trams and buses, you can get anywhere in the city. Over 65% of the residents rely on the system and though I bought a car last year (for purposes of longer distance travel around Europe) I never missed having a car for a second. The airport is less than an hour from the center by metro/bus. The main train and bus station are also central and reachable by tram or metro.
The “Lítačka” (formerly OpenCard) is the public transport pass, good for all modes of transport (even for the ferries, which I have yet to try), and the best deal is the annual pass, which costs $220 and very often reimbursed (wholly or partly) by schools, depending on how many in-company classes a teacher teaches. The Lítačka also gives you discounts on all sorts of goodies around the city like the Charles Bridge Museum, the Venice of Prague boat tour and the Prague Zoo. The metro is open until midnight, though there are night buses and trams which come less frequently.
What about health insurance?
Foreigners are now required to buy the public insurance, which is actually better than the private insurance we were forced to buy previously. It costs about $75 per month with minimal deductibles and the care is quite good. A few anecdotes are fairly representative: an expat friend gave birth to her third child here in Prague and the costs consisted of a $450 deposit for complications, most of which was refunded when everything went smoothly. She even treated herself to an upgraded private room for $60 a night so she, her baby and her husband could enjoy some privacy. Another expat friend admitted herself to the emergency room and ended up staying over a week. The most expensive thing she had to pay for was daily Wi-Fi access in her hospital room.
Overall, the system seems to work well for expats, and is certainly affordable compared to what you’d pay back in the U.S.
How easy is it to travel from Czechia?
The ability to travel far and wide is a huge benefit to teaching in Czechia.The Czechs take about 2 weeks off at Christmas and often teaching can be slow during the summer time. If you anticipate those slow times a year (financially), it’s the perfect opportunity for you to experience one of the biggest bonuses of trading in the New World for the Old Country—extended vacation time! (And meeting cousins you didn’t know you’d had, as both my husband and I have been fortunate enough to do.) 20 vacation days per year are mandated by the government, though if you’re working as an independent contractor (živno) those days are unpaid.
And travel, we do! On average, the respondents had visited 8 new European countries since moving here, often more than once, along with multiple visits back to the States. Some reported traveling every other month, every month and some twice per month. I personally have visited 16 countries in 6 years, several multiple times. Dresden is a 2-hour bus ride, Budapest a 7-hour journey. I often find myself enjoying the splendor of Venice or Ljubliana or Dresden and witness harried American tourists, trying to pack as many cities and sights and museums into their precious two weeks of vacation per year and I’ll think to myself, “This gelato is really tasty, I might come back to this city again next month.”
The most frequently used mode of transport outside the city are “luxury” buses, more glam than anything I’ve experienced in America: Wi-Fi, free cappuccino, free magazines, tv screen for each seat and all the Friends and Big Bang Theory episodes you can stand one the 5-hour drive to Berlin. It’s also pretty easy to catch a cheap flight to London or Paris or Lisbon on an economy carrier like EasyJet or RyanAir.
What do we spend our money on in the Czech Republic?
It’s cliché for a reason: beer really is cheaper than water ($1.50 for half liter). Czechia is home to the original Pilsner. When I arrived 6 years ago, it was hard to find many variations on the gold standard, but in recent years, microbreweries are sprouting up everywhere. The food scene is blossoming as well. A few years ago, the only vegetarian dish was a plate of fried cheese. Now I could throw a Czech dumpling from my flat and hit at least four salad / raw / vegetarian-friendly bistros. The competition for the best burger in Prague is reminiscent of the U.S.-Soviet arms race, igniting heated discussion on various Prague facebook groups. Hipsters abound! Sometimes I feel like I’ve taken a turn into Brooklyn with all the ironic mustaches, suspenders and half-liters of IPAs, but the food scene is better for it. There’s also some of the best Vietnamese food you’ll find outside Vietnam, thanks to the large Vietnamese community here.
I’ve spent several months over the last two summers in Italy and I tell you, the food is better in Prague (save a few heavenly tortellini smothered in sage butter). By better, I mean more diverse, more adventurous and less reliant on old traditions. Of course there are plenty of places to get an outstanding traditional beef goulash & dumplings ($7) or svičková (a thanksgiving-style plate, with pork instead of turkey – $7.50). I have a theory (which I might have stolen from an Anthony Bourdain episode about Prague) that because Communism so stunted gastronomic creativity, they’re now racing toward it at the speed of sound, happy and willing to experiment with new flavors and influences.
Yeah, I’m that teacher whose lessons always devolve into discussions about food—back to expenses:
- Teachers monthly salary: anywhere from $1300-1500 for 25-35 hours of work
- Cost of a central-ish flat per person: $450 including utilities
- Cell phone: $13 per month (data and texting, calling isn’t really a thing here)
- Meal + Beer: $5-15 (Vietnamese food on the low end, Italian on the high end and Traditional Czech in the middle)
- Public Transport Pass: $18.50 monthly
- Roundtrip Bus ticket to Berlin: $45
The Czech crown has been growing stronger against the Euro, pound and dollar for a few years now, so it’s getting a tad easier to repay student debt. When asked how possible it was to pay off student loans on a Prague teacher’s salary, respondents replied “not easy” “difficult” “I can afford $100 a month, tops”. My only comment on those statistics is that these same respondents had traveled outside the country on average once per month. Like anything else with finances, it’s all a matter of priorities. With the proliferation of online teaching, earning a few hundred dollars a month in Euros from students in other countries can certainly help.
Do I need to learn the language?
I think the 6 years it’s taken me to get to a B1 level of Czech is a testament to the fact that English-only speakers do just fine here. Czech is one of the harder languages for native English speakers to learn—it falls into Group 4 of the U.S. Foreign Service Institute learning groups, along with Bengali, Icelandic and Vietnamese. But I strongly advocate the old college try when it comes to Czech language studies. I started out with some listen-&-repeat CDs before I arrived. Learning a few Czech phrases can help you if you get lost, need to deal with the bureaucracy and will prevent you from buying and eating lard instead of butter for three months like I did. You might actually get your Czech waiter to crack a smile if you order beer like a true Czech. Probably not, but at least your refill will come sooner.
Sounds great, but there must be downsides…
Every locale has its downsides, and the Mother of Cities (or City of a Hundred Spires, or Golden City) is no exception. Most respondents were irked by the lack of customer service some feel is left over from Communist times. I have been on the receiving end of a grumpy bureaucrat / waiter / notary and there is definitely some truth to it. But over the years, I’ve developed a few theories:
First, if you don’t speak Czech and they don’t speak English, there’s going to be some resentment. Can you imagine walking into the DMV and firing French at the clerk? The bureaucrats who speak English will try to accommodate you, but the ones who don’t speak English don’t want to deal with you.
Second, grumpiness is relative. When I returned home to California, I was taken aback by the eye contact and smiles in crosswalks and in supermarkets. The checkout girl who asked me how my day was going and if I had plans later that afternoon had me wracking my brain: Did I know her? Had we spoken before? Did she go to my high school? Why was she being so nosey about my day?? I’d gotten so accustomed to just doing my business without the interference of niceties, that I’d turned Czech!
Czechs often think that Americans are overly nice to the point of fakeness, particularly when they ask “How are you?” but don’t wait to hear the answer. I try to explain that this is just an American formality, but the Czechs don’t get it. Why do you want to know how I am? I’m hungry / tired / angry / need a beer! That’s how I am!
Once you transcend the transactional relationship into teacher-student or friends, Czechs are some of the warmest, most sincere people I know. They are curious and educated and I’ve grown to value my friendships with Czechs of all ages.
Another not so great trait is the xenophobia (though not directed at English teachers, truly). The bias against the ‘other’ goes waaaay back to a history of oppression by foreign invaders lasting all the way up until about 30 years ago and continues sadly to today’s reluctance to welcome the refugees flooding European shores. I also think it comes from a lack of exposure to the ‘other’. Czechia is very homogeneous, unlike other European nations, and it suffers for it.
“This dear little mother has sharp claws”
Kafka wrote this oft-repeated description of his hometown of Prague. My favorite question to ask expats is, “What do you love most about living in Prague” because I often find my own answers are mirrored in theirs: The architecture, the castle, the quality of life, the growing foodie and coffee culture, the festivals, the public space, the nightlife, the parks and beer gardens, the low cost of living, the Czech people!
So often do I get asked for advice about living and teaching in Prague that I’ve created a 12-Week Guide to living and working in the heart of Europe for you to download. So take the leap and join me! I’d love to introduce you to my favorite city over a glass of Pilsner. Download your 12-Week Guide to living and working the Heart of Europe here: www.dreamprague.com