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How to Start Teaching English Abroad

Have you ever thought about teaching English abroad?

Maybe you want to live overseas for a year, start a career in the education industry, or have an adventure.

Maybe you want to change your life.

No matter what your "why" is, teaching English as a foreign language is a great way to finance your travels. It also gives you an opportunity to immerse yourself in other cultures and make an impact on students across the globe.

We’re here to guide you on your journey, and to help you find the TEFL job of your dreams.

I this guide, you'll learn about the following topics (click to jump to the respective section):

  1. The Requirements
  2. The Job Opportunities
  3. The Regions to Teach Abroad
  4. The Financials
  5. Taking a TEFL Course
  6. Job Search & Application
  7. Moving & Living Abroad

What is TEFL?

TEFL stands for Teaching English as a Foreign Language.

As you might have guessed, it refers to the practice of teaching English to anyone whose first language isn’t English. It’s also the name of the certification people get to teach English abroad.

If that isn’t confusing enough, there are a handful of other terms that people use to describe teaching abroad, English language learners, and ESL teaching certifications.

We won’t go into the details of each acronym right now, but this handy primer will help you recognize and understand them when you see them in the wild:

  • BML = Bilingual & Multilingual Learners
  • CELTA = Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults
  • ESL = English as a Second Language
  • EFL = English as a Foreign Language
  • ELL = English Language Learners
  • LET = Limited English Proficiency
  • TEFL = Teaching English as a Foreign Language
  • TESOL = Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages

Why Should You Teach English Abroad?

Teaching English abroad has a number of benefits.

For starters, when you teach abroad you’re getting paid to travel!

That’s not all you get out of the deal though. You also gain valuable skills like international work experience, cultural awareness and language proficiency, and a global community.

You get to educate people and help them become global citizens while becoming more worldly yourself -- what’s better than that?

Oh, yeah -- getting paid for it.

Seriously, though, teaching English abroad is rewarding on all fronts -- and is well worth your time.

1. The Requirements

Who Can Teach English Abroad?

While some people assume that only recent graduates or certified teachers can teach English abroad, the truth is that almost any fluent speaker of the English language can get a job teaching English overseas!

You can teach English abroad for a season, a couple of years, or a lifetime.

People teach abroad for all sorts of different reasons, and there are programs to fit most anyone.

Read the post Is Teaching English Abroad a Good Idea for YOU? for more information on how to figure out whether or not you should teach English abroad -- and what questions you should ask yourself to find out.

Why Do People Teach English Abroad?

  • To teach in summer camps
  • To take a gap year or take a break after college
  • To learn about a different culture
  • To become fluent in a different language
  • To take the first step toward moving abroad
  • To learn about teaching ESL
  • To make a difference by volunteering

Learn more about the requirements to teach English abroad in the following section.

What Requirements Do You Need to Teach English Abroad?

Some countries have stricter requirements for English teachers, while others welcome just about anyone with open arms.

General Qualifications for Teaching English Abroad:

  • A passport from an English-speaking country and/or English “native-level” fluency
  • A bachelor’s degree
  • A TEFL certificate

Don’t meet some of these requirements? Don’t worry! You can definitely get a job without having a bachelor’s degree or being a native English speaker -- just prepare for a more challenging job hunt.

Besides the hard requirements, a number of personal traits will help you to "survive" in a classroom and in a country far away from home.

Personality Traits of Successful ESL Teachers:

  • Openmindedness
  • An outgoing personality
  • Cultural sensitivity
  • An independent spirit
  • Curiosity
  • Good problem-solving skills

You don’t need all of these traits, but think about what it will be like to set foot in a foreign country and then suddenly be put into a leadership role there.

If that sounds exciting to you, you’ll probably be an amazing ESL teacher. If it scares the bejeezus out of you, though, you might want to look for a job that plays to your strengths more.

And if you’re totally worried that you’re not cut out to teach abroad, here are some things you don’t need to teach English abroad:

  • A teaching degree
  • Wads of cash
  • Fluency in the language they speak in your destination

We know that the requirements we’ve listed might sound like a lot, but at the end of the day: if you’re excited to teach English abroad and have a willing spirit, you’ll be able to find a job and make your way somehow or another -- we guarantee it.

Still wondering whether you meet the requirements for ESL teachers? Check out What are the Requirements to Teach English Abroad? to find out whether or not you’ve got the right stuff.

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2. The Job Opportunities

What Job Opportunities Are Out There?

There are hordes of people all over the world who want to learn ESL -- and each of those people needs a teacher.

So whether you like working with toddlers, teenagers, or adults, in small groups, large classes, or one-on-one, you’ll find a job that corresponds with your interests and needs.

You can teach in universities, at businesses, in schools or training centers, or at people’s homes.

You can opt for a snazzy high-paying job in a wealthier area or make just enough to cover your needs and work with a more disadvantaged population.

You can even teach English online to generate some income as you travel from place to place!

We’ve compiled a list of the 12 best online teaching companies to work for to help you get started if you choose to go that route.

There are tons and tons of job opportunities out there -- enough that it can get overwhelming. But don’t worry -- you can always start with one type of job and then move to a different one if it doesn’t fit you.

Or join our Facebook group if you’re struggling to figure out which job is best for you -- it’s full of new and veteran ESL teachers who can give you advice and help you on your journey!

3. Where to Teach English Abroad

Where Can You Go to Teach English Abroad?

Just like there’s an almost infinite number of ESL jobs you can do, there is an endless number of places you can go to teach. However, teaching English abroad doesn’t look exactly the same the world over.

Get a headstart with our list of the best places to teach English abroad here.

Here’s a quick overview of some of the more popular regions for teaching ESL:

Asia

There are tons of ESL jobs in Asia. China, in particular, is one of the most popular destinations for people who want to teach English abroad (and one of the highest paying job markets), but you’ll find jobs all over the region. 

If you like adventure and super different cultural experiences, you should definitely give Asia a shot.

Popular countries to teach English in Asia:

Read our guide to teaching English in Asia to find out more about what it’s like living there, how to find work, and which other countries in Asia you should consider.

Latin America

Latin America is the place to go if you want to improve your Spanish, love salsa dancing, or want to eat tamales and barbacoa every day.

It’s not the highest-paying region for ESL teachers, but it’s a worthy destination all the same.

Popular countries to teach English in Latin America:

After all, teaching ESL in a Latin American country is one of the best ways to really get acquainted with the culture and learn about life there -- you’re getting a more in-depth look than you would as a tourist.

And don’t worry -- we’ve of course got a guide to teaching English abroad in Latin America to help you figure out how to teach there and more!

The Middle East

If you want to ride a camel, hike through the desert, eat bucketloads of hummus, then set your sights on teaching in the Middle East. You should also consider here if you’re seeking a high salary.

This region tends to have relatively strict requirements for ESL teachers, but if you meet them you’ll be rewarded with a healthy paycheck, really good benefits, and a caring community.

Popular countries to teach English in the Middle East:

Europe

Many ESL teachers want to go to Europe because they want to see the Trevi Fountain, go to clubs in East Berlin, or stuff their faces with pizza and pasta all day. You can definitely get a job in Europe if you want, but be warned that teaching here won’t make you a millionaire.

Popular countries to teach English in Europe:

Our guide to teaching English in Europe goes further into what the requirements for ESL teachers are here, which countries have the most job opportunities for English teachers, and more.

Elsewhere

There are options the world over, including Africa and North America. 

English-speaking countries generally have much fewer ESL positions and tend to really only have positions for nationals who have some type of higher teaching certification.

Many countries in Africa only offer volunteer ESL positions -- you might try going through the Peace Corps or a similar organization if you’re interested in a position like that. 

If you’re interested in teaching English in a specific place, check out our complete list of country guides -- they’ll give you the inside scoop on almost anywhere to save you some personal research.

4. The Financials

How Much Money Can You Make Teaching English Abroad?

There’s no one answer to this question because a number of factors affect how much money people tend to make as ESL teachers.

You can volunteer and get compensated with free housing and food, or you can teach in the Middle East or China and make $2,000-$4,000 a month.

Or you can go a middle way, teaching in Latin America or Southeast Asia and making somewhere around $800-$1,200 a month -- more than enough to live on in those countries, but not enough to save up much.

Figuring out how much money you want to make and how much money it’s realistic for you to make will help you choose a destination and job that suit your financial goals.

There are three factors that will help you make more money teaching English abroad:

Besides salary, though, it’s important to factor in the cost of living in different places. Some countries pay high salaries but are expensive to live in, meaning that all the money you make each month disappears faster than you might think.

Of course, your lifestyle also impacts how much money you’ll actually save. If you go out every night and travel all the time you’ll probably have a super fun time, but you might not save that much money.

Tip: As an ESL teacher, you will be needing to transfer money abroad on a regular basis, and that is costly and often time-consuming. There are simpler solutions for ESL teachers that you could be using. View the currency transfer guide to learn more.

Do You Need to Have Money Saved Up to Teach English Abroad?

You probably need a little money, but how much really depends on what your situation is and where you’re going.

Airfare, getting a visa, putting a deposit on rent, and surviving until your first paycheck can all add up.

If you procure a job before going abroad your costs will probably be manageable, but if you have to spend time searching for a job on the ground you might find yourself eating through your savings at an alarming rate.

So don’t worry if you don’t have a bunch of money saved up: there are tons of places where you can teach English abroad without having much savings.

No, really -- how much money do you need to teach abroad?

Recommended Start-up Money

$1,000 should generally cover you if you move to a destination where you already have a job.

$3,000 should do it if you’re looking for a job on the ground.

Note that these numbers are rough estimates, though, and they vary based on your situation and the cost of living where you’re going.

We’re here to help you pick out the right destination so you end up teaching in the place that’s right for your lifestyle and your wallet.

5. Taking a TEFL Course

What is a TEFL Course, Anyway?

A TEFL course is a class that teaches you how to TEFL, or teach English as a foreign language.

The vast majority of ESL jobs require TEFL certification, and even those that don’t will favor teachers who are TEFL certified.

Looking for in-depth information on TEFL certification? Go this way!

Getting TEFL certified will make you feel more confident as a teacher, and it will also give you valuable teaching skills to help you be a more effective teacher for English language learners in a foreign country or online.

On the fence about getting certified? This blog post about the pros and cons of enrolling in a TEFL course may help you make up your mind.

What Will You Learn in Your TEFL Course?

There are tons of different TEFL courses available, but they all cover the same basic modules:

In a TEFL course, you’ll learn how to teach grammar and language skills, how to plan lessons and curriculum, and how to accommodate different learning styles. 

You’ll also learn about classroom management, time management, and how to structure the flow of your classes.

TEFL courses also discuss cultural sensitivity, and courses which are held on location in different countries often include material about teaching in those places specifically. 

Most importantly, your TEFL course will include a mock lesson that you must plan and teach. This experience is extremely valuable for when you start teaching in the classroom.

What TEFL Course Options are Available?

There are tons of different TEFL courses out there. It can overwhelming, honestly.

To help you muck through all the options down there, we’ve created a guide to help you figure out what characteristics you should look for in a TEFL course, broken down by category:

IMPORTANT: Choose a 120-Hour Course

You’ll find all kinds of TEFL courses out there: 60-hour certifications, 240-hour certifications, you name it.

Here’s the deal: ignore any course that’s shorter than 120 hours. That’s the industry standard for course length, and it’s the certification schools are looking for.

Anything shorter is a waste of time and money because the certification won’t get you hired. You can take a longer course if you want extra practice, but it’s not necessary to find work.

Remember: 120 hours. That’s the length to shoot for.

You’ll find three TEFL course formats: in person, online, or combination. As long as the course is 120 hours long and provided by a reputable institution, all three of these are perfectly acceptable.

Each format has pros and cons, so it’s up to you to figure out which one is right for you.

Online TEFL Courses

Online TEFL courses are cheaper than other options, and they’re also the most flexible because you can complete the modules on your own schedule.

If you work full-time and want to do a TEFL course on nights and weekends or can’t shell out for an in-person course, online is by far your best option.

This guide to online TEFL courses will help you figure out which one is right for you!

Of course, you do lose out on face-to-face instruction and all the perks of being in a brick and mortar classroom if you take a fully online course, but for many people what they gain in time and convenience makes up for those downsides.

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In-Person TEFL Courses

In-person TEFL courses are the most expensive, and they’re also the most time-consuming because you need to go sit in a classroom during designated class times instead of being able to learn at your own pace.

However, in-person TEFL courses (or in-class courses) have the benefit of giving you lots of face-to-face instruction, and they also give you the opportunity to form relationships with the people you’re taking the class with.

In-person TEFL courses also force you to stay focused and engaged during the whole class, unlike online courses where you have to stay motivated and set aside time for studying on your own.

In an in-person TEFL class, you’ll get the opportunity to teach a mock class that you’ve designed to a teacher and your fellow classmates, which is a seriously valuable experience if you’ve never taught in a classroom setting before.

If you’re a hands-on learner who can pay attention best in a classroom setting, an in-person TEFL course will probably be the most fulfilling option for you.

Combined TEFL Courses

Just like it sounds, a combination course is held partially online and partially in person.

With a combination course, you get the best of both worlds: you do some self-study in online modules, learning the basics of teaching, and then you come to a classroom setting to further your knowledge and practice teaching an actual class.

Combination courses are less expensive (not always) and time-consuming than in-person courses, and more fulfilling than online courses.

A Note About Location

If you take a combined or in-person TEFL course, you’ll find that there are options for completing it either near your home or in the country you want to teach in.

If you already know which country you want to teach in, taking a TEFL course on location is a great idea because it’ll get you acquainted with your new home. And the course will probably include some information specific to where you’ll be teaching, which is valuable.

If you don’t yet know where you want to teach, you can take a course in your hometown or online while you decide where to venture off to.

How Much Does a TEFL Course Cost?

As we mentioned briefly above, the cost of a TEFL course will vary drastically depending on whether you’re taking it in person or online. 

You can find an online course for anywhere from $200-$1,500, while an in-person course will run you $1,000-$2,800. 

Our article breaking down the costs of TEFL certification will help you figure out more about the specifics of what different TEFL course options will cost you, and it even includes links to some reasonably priced courses!

Extra Benefits to Look Out For

When you’re considering TEFL courses, it’s important to see what all they actually come with.

Many TEFL courses offer job placement assistance and career guidance, as well as access to alumni networks and helpful resources.

These benefits can make a huge difference as you look for jobs and wade through all the options out there.

If you’re taking a TEFL course in person, it’s also important to note whether it includes accommodation and transportation from the airport.

While the lack of benefits like these isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker, it’s important to keep in mind that a budget course might quickly turn into an expensive one once you’ve paid a bunch of fees out of pocket.

How Can You Find the Perfect Course for You?

The first step to finding the right TEFL course is figuring out what you want to get out of it.

If you want to learn at your own pace and save money, an online course might be right for you. If you want an immersive, hands-on course and the opportunity to network with other TEFL students, however, an in-person course might be a better option for you.

Our guide to getting TEFL certified will help you figure out what’s most important for your situation, and what kind of TEFL course makes the most sense for you to take.

If you want to do more research about different course options, you should read reviews of different courses, reach out to graduates, and speak with advisors from different course providers.

They’ll be happy to answer your questions -- even if you don’t end up getting certified through them.

The final step to getting TEFL certified is, of course, to enroll in a course. Don’t stress out too much about the whole thing: after all, at the end of the day this is only the first step in your ESL teaching career!

6. Job Search & Application

How Do You Start Your ESL Job Search?

Finding a job is the most challenging part of the journey to teaching English abroad, but it can also be the most rewarding.

There’s no one set formula for finding a job: people get work all over using a number of different methods, and in the end, whichever one works for you is perfect!

As long as you end up employed, you’ve done it correctly.

The first step of finding a job is always to start thinking about what kind of teaching you’d like to be doing and where.

It’s okay if you’re not sure of your answer to either of these questions yet, but starting to zero in on what you want your experience abroad to look like will help you narrow down your job search and focus on applying for jobs that fit your goals.

Looking at the different options out there will help you figure out what sounds good to you and what kind of setup suits you best.

How Can You Apply for Jobs?

Once you’ve gotten leads on jobs, the next step is to apply.

Thankfully, applying for ESL jobs isn’t like applying for grad school. Once you’ve created your application materials, you can pretty much bulk send them to different places without doing much editing or altering.

The first step of applying, then, is to get your application materials together.

Resume and Documents

First off, you’ll need a resume geared toward teaching.

What should your resume include?

It should list any past education experience, but it should also include any alternative teaching or childcare you’ve done. 

That means camp counseling, babysitting, tutoring, student leadership, and any other experience that shows you’ve worked with kids and have had leadership/educational roles. 

Schools mainly want to see that you’ve had some type of teaching-adjacent experience that adds up to 2 years, even if it’s not traditional classroom teaching. They also want to see that you’re comfortable with children and with being at the head of a classroom.

You should also include your education history prominently on your resume, because a bachelor’s degree is required for many teaching jobs. And don’t forget to include your TEFL certification!

Our resume tips will help you put your best foot forward and get the teaching job of your dreams!

You may also need a short cover letter introducing yourself and explaining why you’d be a good fit for the job.

At some point in the application process, you’ll also need to deliver some documents to your future employer, including:

Documents You Will Need for Your Application

Interview

Once you’ve submitted your documents, you’ll probably be asked to interview over Skype (or another video call tool).

One of the main goals of the interview is to make sure you’re professional and qualified, so make sure to speak slowly, enunciate, be enthusiastic, and look professional.

You want to show that you have crisp, easy-to-understand English and that you have a personality that would appeal to the students (especially when you will be teaching kids).

Our guide to interviewing has more in-depth tips you can use to make sure you ace your interview!

After you’ve interviewed, the school will probably send over a contract.

Look it over fully, sign it, send it back, and get ready to go teach abroad!!

7. Moving & Living Abroad

How to Get a Work Visa

With your contract signed and your starting date set, it’s finally time to move abroad!

This is the exciting part: starting your new life as an ESL teacher in a foreign country. But like any big life event, this milestone doesn’t come without paperwork.

Your employer will help you figure out what documents you need for the steps in this process, but you’ll probably need stamps on your bachelor’s degree and FBI Criminal Background Check to prove their veracity, and a health check to get your work visa.

Read our primer on getting a criminal background check to find out what to do -- and not to do -- when you’re getting yours.

After you’ve gotten your work visa, it’s time to buy a ticket and set off on your journey!

Note: For some countries, you can enter the country on a tourist visa and apply for your work visa locally once you've signed a work contract. Your employer will assist you in the process as well.

Starting Your New ESL Teaching Job

Your first few months as an English teacher will probably be a total whirlwind: getting settled, exploring your new city, making friends, and starting a new job at the same time is no joke!

If you feel overwhelmed managing a classroom and moving at the same time, don’t worry: you’re far from alone.

Thankfully, Facebook is full of forums where you can find expat groups and people who’ve been in your shoes, people who can show you how to eat hot pot and where to go to turn in your visa documents.

And we’ve got you covered on the teaching side with a compendium of worksheets, tips, and other resources to use in your classroom, so you don’t have to bear the brunt of planning and teaching and figuring it all out alone.

The Next Steps...

As mentioned above, the first chunk of your life abroad will be a total whirlwind.

Once the dust has settled and you’ve gotten into a rhythm with your classmates and neighborhood grocer, you may be ready to push the envelope and look for more.

Many teachers choose to take a side job so they can make more money and explore life outside the classroom a little more.

One great way to make money from home or while traveling is by teaching English online.

On online English teaching platforms, such as VIPKID, you can make a decent salary of up to $22 per hour working from home!

Other teachers pad their wallets with writings jobs, for example, with CustomWritings, an online custom essay writing service for ESL students, or they sell worksheets or online courses.

If you choose to go that route, use our guide to side jobs as inspiration for what possibilities are out there.

Other teachers fall in love with teaching abroad and decide they want to turn what they’ve learned as an ESL teacher into a career.

There are tons of possibilities out there if you want to do that, and our article about what to do after teaching abroad will help you figure out what options are the most exciting (and feasible) for you.

No matter what you do, you’ll find that teaching ESL abroad opens whole new worlds to you.

Teaching English abroad makes you an international citizen, a person standing at the open gates of the world.

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