China is by far and away the number one destination to teach English abroad, with an enormous amount of job vacancies. At the same time, it’s not the easiest country and culture to settle down for a Westerner. This post helps you to break into Chinese TEFL market and teach English in China successfully.
If you are like the majority of those that want to teach abroad, you likely prefer to teach in a country where there are plenty of English teaching jobs, the ability to financially support yourself, maybe even save a little, have a great time and experience a culture that is uniquely different than your own. If that is you, then teaching English in China is the option to consider.
The easiest place to find a job teaching English is undoubtedly China. It is an enormous country with over 1.4 billion people (2018) and the world’s largest economy after the United States, which means a sea of English teaching positions. Almost anyone with a degree and a passport from a native-English-speaking country can find a teaching gig in China simply by speaking English.
The more difficult task is finding a quality position to teach English in China, and Chinese work culture can be brutal. There are plenty of fly-by-night schools in China, reports of teachers not getting paid on time and fraudulent work visas administered by schools that cannot legally sponsor a visa. However, there are also many solid teaching positions and opportunities even for those that have little or no teaching experience.
Are you the kind of person to thrive in China?
For you, China may just be a place to teach for one year, for another five years and yet others may decide to stay a lifetime or as they say, “go native”. You can find yourself in the jaw-dropping megacities like Shanghai or the tranquility of the countryside. Pay, positions and situations to teach English vary throughout the country. It just depends on where, how and why you want to teach, live and exist in China.
I’m not going to tell you that you will have a fantastic experience in China, pay down your student loans and land a killer job when you decide to head back home. How you live and fair in China or anywhere abroad is entirely dependent on you. If you are a person that can make the most of any situation, then you’ll likely thrive in China.
China has undergone an unprecedented “march to modernity” in only three or four decades. As a whole, Chinese culture has without a doubt been influenced by Western ideas for better or worse. But beneath that superficial layer of modernity, concrete, convenience and technological innovation, China is still China.
Don’t be fooled by materialism. Under the surface is an ancient, complex and complicated culture. There is no doubt that you will offend, be misunderstood, understand and then feel completely clueless all in the same day. But hey, that is part of the adventure, isn’t it? If that is something you cannot handle, then I would advise not teaching abroad. Keep your expectations low and learn to navigate the business to your advantage.
If you are in the situation and point in life where you are seriously considering to make the move, here is what you need to know about teaching English in China in 2018.
How to get a work visa to teach English in China
If you want to teach English in China legally, you need to take the necessary steps to get a Z visa. That is the visa that will allow you to work as an English teacher in China legitimately.
If you are unable to obtain a Z visa and manage to find another route to teach and work in China, then I wish you all the best, and I am not here to judge or hate on anyone for trying. You should keep in mind that the Chinese government has gotten stricter in the past two or years in issuing Z visas as well as cracking down on those working illegally without one.
Remember that China is a giant country, and each province may have slightly different laws and thus process visas somewhat different than the other. But in general, if you meet the following criteria, you should be able to get a Z visa, and if you can qualify for a Z visa, it is very likely that you will be able to land a teaching job somewhere. To qualify for a Z visa you will need
- a passport from a native-English-speaking country (USA, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa)
- an accredited four-year degree,
- to be between the ages of 22 to 55,
- a minimum 120-hour TEFL, TESOL or CELTA certificate, or at least two years of proven teaching experience.
China is cracking down on online TEFLs. Immigration offices are rejecting certificates with the word ‘online’ written on it. You can still use an online TEFL, TESOL or CELTA certificate, but make sure that it does not state the word ‘online’ somewhere. Teachers lacking a TEFL can sometimes pay to take a TEFL course in China sponsored by the government in exchange for payment and/or signing a longer contract.
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The whole process from first applying for a job, getting the proper documents, getting a Z-visa and finally arriving in China to start working usually takes anywhere from four to six months.
Can you teach English in China without a degree?
Without a 4-year college degree, it is technically impossible to teach English in China legally. But there are options. Read more on that topic in our post: Teaching English in China without a degree – is it possible?
If you are unable to obtain a Z visa and manage to find another route to teach and work in China, then I wish you all the best, and I am not here to judge anyone for trying. You should keep in mind that the Chinese government has gotten stricter in the past two or years in issuing Z visas as well as cracking down on those working illegally without one.
The salaries for teaching English in China
Salaries depend on the type of position, your experience, and your location. China is quite diverse from a social-economic perspective, and so is the cost of living and salaries to maintain that cost of living.
Generally speaking, salaries to teach English range from $1,000 to $2,500. You can expect to make upwards to $2,500 if you are living in a large city like Shanghai or Beijing, but you will likely make the lower end in places like Henan and Sichuan provinces, which are smaller locations in the middle of China. You may not make a lot in rural areas, but the cost of living is significantly lower.
Most of the money you spend will probably end up being for traveling to larger cities on holiday. It can get boring out in the country, but the autonomy at times can be liberating, not to mention a more affordable and spacious apartment compared to what you will get in Shanghai or Beijing.
Types of teaching jobs available in China
Private Language Schools
There are various types of teaching positions in China. A large number of positions can be found in private language schools. There are large chain schools, regional chains and family owned language schools. The larger ones will have a more corporate structure since it is a business.
Whether large or small, you will be expected to sell the school to some extent. Since you are the face of the school as the Western teacher, don’t be surprised if you are asked to do a demo class or greet parents of potential new students. Remember that a good smile goes a long way not only in China but in all of Asia. You may not like this type of “selling” arrangement, but it is part of the game, so it is better to accept it rather than become jaded and use it as an excuse to do half-ass work.
The business side of language schools in China and the rest of Asia can be ugly at times, but you still have a responsibility as a teacher to do good work and look after your students. Keep in mind that if you feel like you are getting somewhat screwed by your private language school, the students are in the same boat.
A significant amount of work teaching at private language schools in China is teaching children, including little children. However, you can also expect a fair amount of classes filled with junior high school and aged high school students. Some kids enjoy English while others are summoned there by their parents. In general, kids in China are easy to deal with, but you will get a brat from time to time.
Your schedule will also consist of one-on-one and group adult classes as well. The percentage of adult versus children classes depends on the school. Teacher turnover rate tends to be higher at private language schools compared to public ones.
Public Schools in China
Public teaching jobs in China and the rest of Asia are usually more sought after since they tend to be cozier positions, offering more paid vacation, sometimes better pay and overall better benefits. You will generally be treated with more respect at a public school, which also means that you will be expected in most cases to develop your own curriculum and be a bit more passionate about teaching than say you would at a private language school.
Th public Chinese education system is not very different from the American K-12 system. Jobs can be divided into three categories. The first are jobs in Chinese middle and high schools. In some cases, you may be the only foreign teacher at the school, while there may be one or two others in larger schools.
The second category for public teaching jobs is in colleges and universities. In my opinion, these are generally the best English teaching jobs in China simply because you are teaching in a university environment. They don’t require as many hours and offer a great deal of vacation time. However, they tend to pay the least. So if you want to enjoy your lots of leisure time, go out or travel around the country, you will need some money on the side. The turnover rate for university teaching jobs is low, so these types of positions take a lot more effort to acquire.
In some cases, you will also need a master’s degree or even a Ph.D. to teach at a university in China and the same is true for most of Asia. You will find some teachers at this level that have literally ‘married into’ the culture and are in China for the long-run.
The third category are teaching jobs in primary schools. They are a good choice if you love children! The kids seem to be treated quite harshly by their Chinese teachers, so it does not take much to earn their affection. All you have to do is to smile at them and keep their attention high by varied lessons by using songs, rhymes, and movies.
Costs of living in China
It really comes down to your location. There are parts of Shanghai and Beijing that have a similar cost of living as say a large city in Japan or South Korea, while rural areas are closer to parts of Thailand or Vietnam. If you are in a rural area or a smaller town, you are probably looking at $200 per month in rent. Expect to pay around $500 to $600 per month in center of large metropolitan areas.
A sample budget
Below is a sample budget for an English teacher living in a larger urban area of China:
- Gross Income (Salary) : $2,000
- Rent : $440
- Utilities (electricity, gas, water) : $30
- Phone & Internet : $45
- Food: $220
- Insurance: $40
- Remaining Disposable Income: $1.200
- Milk (1L): $1
- Eggs (12): $1
- Carrots (1kg): 80 cents
- Chicken breast (1kg) : $2.20
- Rice (1kg): $1.20
- Bottle of water (1.5L): 50 cents
- Bottle of Chinese beer (.5L): 75 cents
- Metro Ride: 50 cents
- Taxi rate per km : 35 cents (start fare ~ $1.30)
- 20-min taxi ride across town: $4
- City bus: 35 cents
- 3-hour bicycle rental: $1.25
- Ferry crossing: 25 cents
Can you save money while teaching English in China?
You noticed the remaining disposable income at the bottom. What you do with the rest of your money is up to and will ultimately determine whether you save or not. During my first year teaching, I didn’t save a dime, mostly because I was out every night. But I did manage to save and travel during the second, third and fourth years.
Another trick you should remember is the ability to do private lessons as a side hustle in China. Actually, you can do private lessons on the side in any country where they will pay you to teach English. You could easily make an extra $100 or $200 per month doing private lessons in China. Even better, you could also find non-teaching side gigs, which would give you a much-needed break from the daily grind of teaching.
But be aware, many contracts ban you from taking on outside work and your school can take legal action against you if you decide to take on a second job or side tutor without consent. Many teachers, however, do it without telling their primary employer.
Find and rent an apartment
If you are going to teach English in China or anywhere in Asia, expect to live in a small apartment. The farther you get out to the sticks, the more spacious your apartment will be while flats large metro city centers tend to be smaller due to higher cost and more people.
As far as the price of the apartment, it depends on your school. If you are teaching a public school, they will likely cover your accommodation or provide a stipend that will cover a good portion of the rent.
Public schools are also more likely to pay the security deposit. Understanding how the security deposit in China or anywhere in Eastern Asia works is essential if you plan to live there. In places like China, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, most landlords want at least 2 or 3 months up front. So if you want to save on accommodation, carefully read over that teaching contract before you sign in.
While rent in China is considerably low by Western standards, it has been steadily increasing during the past decade. The reality is that markets grow and inflation inevitably creeps in, coupled with an ever-increasing population. You are not going to find any dirt low rental price in China nowadays, and rent will still eat up a portion of your salary.
In larger cities like Beijing or Shanghai, a one-bedroom flat can be as much as $700 to $1000, while you can probably still find a one-bedroom in a rural area for $300 to $400 per month.
If you sign up to teach at a private language school in China, they are likely to provide a monthly stipend that covers a good part of the rent. However, some private language schools will cover the entire security deposit, while others may only cover half of it.
Although uncommon, you may also find a position that provides no housing assistance at all. In other words, not only do they not pitch in for rent, they don’t even help you find an apartment. In such cases, you are on your own.
If you can’t speak Chinese, then learn to smile and be patient. You will have to go through a property rental agency and foot the entire bill. On the flip side, such positions may pay a higher salary and then you can choose an apartment of your liking as opposed to being dictated as to where to live by your school.
Your new Chinese apartment likely will come with basic furnishings, such as a bed, table, small TV, etc. You will have to buy small items like dishes and other appliances. (Personally, I would buy an Alexa, which is great for a small apartment. Plus, if you get lonely, you have someone to talk to.)
Whether you are teaching for a public or private school, you will have to foot the bill for utilities (electric, gas, and internet). I would advise against being cheap and not paying for internet service. One of the advantages of the Internet is that it has made life so much easier for the Westerner living in Asia and vice versa. That extra $35 or $40 a month for a high-speed connection will be a lifesaver.
Discrimination and racism in China
You would think that in the 21st century, racism wouldn’t be much of an issue when it comes to teaching English abroad. Unfortunately, many schools and institutes in China and other parts of Asia are under the impression that only White Westerners qualify to teach English. However, if you are a person of color, don’t be discouraged as there are thousands of positions that need to be filled throughout China.
But you should be aware of this issue and understand that some recruiters or institutes may not respond to your application for this reason. Also be careful with recruiters that try to stick you into second-tier schools and offer lower salaries. Fortunately, many schools and parents throughout China are beginning to understand that global society is changing quickly.
As a non-white, you may experience moments of blatant racism in parts of China and other areas of Asia as well. While there will never be physical danger, people may be rude. I can also tell you that this could happen to anyone simply because you are a foreigner.
If you do experience blatant racism in parts of China or from the staff of a school, the best thing to do is to ignore it and not to let it bother you. In the end, you will probably become quite popular, and you’ll make a lot more friends than enemies.
Learning the Chinese language
It is damn hard to learn Chinese! That is an honest answer. Is it fun? I’m sure it can be, but you will have your ups and downs, experience immense frustration and self-doubt. This is the case with studying any language, but the Asian, Arabic and Slavic Languages tend to give the Westerner fits.
If you want to learn Chinese, then my advice is to befriend some Chinese that don’t speak any, if little English. Another tip is to venture out into the smaller cities and the sticks without a phone or a computer. Just get lost entirely in the rural parts of the country, and you will start to pick up the language, just for survival.
I would also recommend paying for a Chinese course and also looking into any free classes that the local government may have set up for Westerners. It would also help to get a good Chinese dictionary, a book on grammar and find the motivation to study. It can be a rewarding experience when you begin to handle a language as complicated as Chinese. It won’t be easy, but that is just part of the adventure of being far away from home.
Teaching English in China, is it worth?
Now you know the essentials, what it takes to teach English in China, and how to start off. This country is way too large and diverse to answer every possible question about living or teaching there in a post. Will your adventure in China be worth your efforts and turn out to be an enriching experience?
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The ESL industry in China is booming and there are not enough teachers around to meet the demand. The Chinese have been taught to respect their elders so as a teacher, you will enjoy a high level of respect from your students. At good schools, Chinese students are well-behaved, hard-working and a pleasure to teach.
You will get to see amazing sights, sample exotic foods (have you ever eaten snail, chicken feet or sea cucumber?), make new friends and learn to deal with a completely alien culture. They say what does not kill you makes you stronger, so learning how to adapt to the culture shock that you will undoubtedly experience will make you grow as a person.
These are some of the benefits, but is teaching English in China for you? Only you can decide the answer to that question. Or even better, go there and find out yourself.