The Guide to Teach English in China

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China is by far and away the number one destination to teach English abroad, with job opportunities for everyone. What are the requirements, how can you find a job and what is daily life like for ESL teachers in China? This post helps you to break into Chinese TEFL market and start teaching 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.

China on the map
China is the fourth largest country in the world and has the largest population.

Some Facts About the Chinese TEFL Job Market

The easiest place to find a job teaching English is undoubtedly China. It is an enormous country with roughly 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 the Chinese work culture can be brutal. There are plenty of fly-by-night schools in China, reports of English 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. This post introduces you to your options to teach English in China, salary, the requirements, and the decisions you will have to make and provides (almost) everything you need to know before you will board your plane and be heading to the Middle Kingdom.

Specific info about teaching English in China

In addition to this comprehensive guide, you could check these posts:

Where in China Do You Want to Teach English?

Firstly be aware that China is big, I mean really big. I know we all know this, but getting a grasp of the vastness is hard, even when you live there and it is almost impossible to understand this before you arrive. Therefore, it is advisable to get acquainted with the map and the location at least of the main big cities when looking for a job.

There are, of course, many different options available, depending on where you fancy living and what kind of school you want to pick, and honestly, once you start looking at job advertisements, you will be running to Google maps to find where the places are.

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Big Cities vs. Rural Areas

But more importantly, you might do well to ask yourself if you want to live in a rural place, which means few foreigners, more isolated, fewer “Western comforts” and more “authentic Chinese experience” – or whether you prefer to be in a big city where you can get Pizza Hut and Haagen Dazs ice cream.

If you teach in an isolated town or rural area, you may not find many other international expats to hang out with. Some people manage with this just fine, whereas others may find themselves going stir crazy after a few weeks or months. Can you survive in an environment where you most likely can’t speak to people or even read a road sign? Do you need familiar foods or are you fine eating whatever the locals eat?

Many expats choose to head for the big Chinese cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen or Guangzhou so that there will be after-work entertainment, bars, clubs and places where they can be with other foreigners. There are also “middle-sized” cities (and I am talking about 6-10 million people) like Hangzhou or Nanjing, which also have plenty of shopping malls and other “Western” features.

The Climate

An important factor which cannot be overstressed is the climate. If you hate the cold, there are many locations you will immediately discount. Be advised that there are cities which are considered to be in the South of China, where public buildings will not be heated in winter, but which have below zero temperatures and get snow. This is because the Chinese define “south” as “south of the Yangtze River” and this is something you should take into account.

Of course, if you are Canadian, you won’t care about that, right? Well, actually I met Canadians who suffered more from the cold than others because they assumed everywhere would have winter heating when in fact this is not the case.

Doing Research About Different Chinese Cities and Regions

On eChinasities you can find lots of information about the different regions of the country and most big cities have an expat forum, for example, Shanghai has Shanghaiist, Beijing has the Beijinger and Kunming has GoKunming. Find the forum for your prospective city and get signed up there, and then you can ask people what it’s like to live there before you go.

What Types of Teaching Jobs Are Available in China?

Another thing to think about is, what kind of place you prefer to teach in. There are various types of teaching positions in China.

Private Language Centers

A large number of positions can be found in private language centers, sometimes referred to as English training 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.

Teaching English in China: Does this really look like work? (Photo: Molly Oberstein-Allen)

A significant amount of work teaching at private language centers 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. A typical training center job would be 25+ teaching hours, and maybe some office hours, too.

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.

The public Chinese education system is not very different from the American K-12 system. Jobs can be divided into three categories.

Middle and High Schools

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.

Colleges and Universities

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.

Primary Schools

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.

The Expectations of ESL Teachers in Chinese Schools

Of course, this will depend a lot on the type of school you have chosen. But what almost all the schools want, is someone to help students to speak and to give them a chance to hear an authentic native speaker, which in many cases they have never had before. Usually, they have another Chinese English teacher to do grammar, reading, etc., and your job is just to get them talking.

You can use songs, games, discussions, anything you like and they will (hopefully) love you just because you are a foreigner. Most classrooms will have computers and overhead projectors so you can show short video clips and Powerpoints to get them talking. Just remember that in China there is no access to Websites like Facebook, Youtube, or Slideshare, so you may have to look for alternatives or use a VPN (Ask your employer first, as VPNs are somewhat controversial in China).

Some private language schools, especially those catering for young learners, will provide you with the teaching materials and tell you how to teach. There are some chain schools across China, such as Aston, Meten, Shane, English First and others that don’t expect you to have experience and offer training on-the-job. As a novice, they can be a good jumping-off point.

View from above on the famous Skyline of Shanghai
View from above on the famous Skyline of Shanghai.

What Are the Average Salaries of ESL Teachers in China?

The money question – how much is the English teacher salary in China – is a bit like “How long is a piece of string?”. Firstly it depends on where you are located. China is quite diverse from a social-economic perspective, and so is the cost of living and salaries to maintain that cost of living.

Your pay will also depend on the type of school, the number of hours you teach, your degree and years of experience. If you teach at a University, you will only be teaching around 16 hours a week, but you may start with a salary lower than $1,000. Private schools pay a lot more, around $1,600 but you will have little free time. Also, some expect you to find your own accommodation.

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 there 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.

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What Are the Basic Requirements to Teach English in China?

For most schools in China, you need to be a Native English speaker between the ages of 21 and 60, to have a Bachelor’s degree and a TEFL certification. Some schools demand teaching experience, especially in the more popular locations, but many do not. If you are energetic, open and enthusiastic, you will find a job quite easily. Basically, that’s all!

How Can You Get a Z Work Visa for 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 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.

Again, 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 18 to 60,
  • 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 take a TEFL course online, but make sure that it does not state the word ‘online’ somewhere. Teachers lacking a TEFL can sometimes take a TEFL course in China sponsored by the government in exchange for signing a longer contract.

The Great Wall of China, crowded by tourists
The Great Wall of China, crowded by tourists

The Z Visa Application Process

Any reputable school which is licensed to hire foreign teachers should process all the paperwork to get a work visa as soon as you have signed a contract and sent in all your copies of your documents (CV, Diploma). If the school say they can’t do it then you should steer clear.

Don’t be alarmed when they demand a photocopy of your passport. That is standard in order to secure a work visa.  The school will then send you a “Letter of Invitation” by registered mail, and with that, you will go to your local Chinese Embassy and get a visa allowing you to enter China. This is not a work visa. Two weeks after arrival you will have a health check and exchange the entry visa for a Z work visa, and you are good to go.

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.

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 years in issuing Z visas as well as cracking down on those working illegally without one.

How Do You Avoid Being Scammed by Shady Recruiters?

It is tempting to reply to the many job postings made by the myriad recruiters who pop up as soon as you google “TEFL jobs in China”. However, this can be a risky business. By far not all recruiters are untrustworthy, but there are lots of stories on the internet of people trusting disreputable companies and ending up in schools they didn’t want to be at, unable to leave.

You should thoroughly be checking out any school or agent before signing anything. A crucial thing to do is to ask your prospective school to give you names and emails of past teachers so that you can ask them all your concerns and get reliable answers. If a school doesn’t provide this information that would be a definite red flag. You should chat to people at your school online and get a good idea about what to expect.

Be wary of “recruiters” using a Gmail address and posting their “job offers” randomly to any online job board. Only apply with recruitment agencies who have a professional website including comprehensive information about the company, job offers, and the application process.  Make sure they give you all the information about your prospective job and put you in contact with schools directly upfront. If they refuse, you should wonder why.

You are making a contract with the school so you should be able to contact them directly and ask any question you want concerning the exact terms of your contract: how many hours total you will be working, what exactly is included in your apartment, where it is located in relation to the school and the city, how to get around etc. Don’t leave any stone unturned.

You should find out if your apartment has heating and a/c, internet, what is included, who pays the utility bills and who takes care of maintenance. Many apartments belonging to public Universities, for example, come complete with microwave, washing machine, TV, fridge and bed linen. The good schools will take care of you, assist you in your daily life and all the things you will need help with for your smooth transition to life in China.

Also, ask the school about classroom conditions – is there a computer? How many students are in a class? How much paperwork is required of you? Don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions.

Watch Pandas in the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base, nearby Chengdu
Watch Pandas in the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base, nearby Chengdu

What Are the Costs of Living for Expats in China?

How excessive or frugal you can live on your teacher’s salary 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.

A Sample Budget

Below is a sample budget and sample prices for an English teacher living in a larger urban area of China:

Monthly Budget

  • Gross Income (Salary) : $1,700
  • Rent : $600
  • Utilities (electricity, gas, water) : $30
  • Phone & Internet : $50
  • Food: $220
  • Insurance: $50
  • Remaining Disposable Income: $750

Food Prices

  • 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

Transportation Fees

  • 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
A small store with cheap (and mostly tasty) local foods
A small store with cheap (and mostly tasty) local foods

Can You Save Money While Teaching English in China?

You noticed the remaining disposable income at the bottom of the monthly budget. 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 of 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.

Lifestyle is a big factor in your banking power. Live like a local, prepare your meals with cheap local foods or take the bus or the subway to travel around, and watch your bank account balance growing gradually. Use all Western amenities as you did in your home country and drink a Starbucks Cappuccino every day and you’ll very likely break the bank.

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 English teachers, however, do it without telling their primary employer.

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How Do You 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 was considerably low by Western standards for a long time, 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 $1,000, 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.

Savory Sichuan-style hot pot is just one of the many delicacies you’ll have to try
Savory Sichuan-style hot pot is just one of the many delicacies you’ll have to try. (Photo: Molly Oberstein-Allen)

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. Whether you are teaching for a public or private school, you will have to foot the bill for utilities (electric, gas, and internet).

Are Discrimination and Racism an Issue?

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 (Caucasian) 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 in 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.

Do You Have to Learn the Chinese Language as an ESL Teacher?

On arrival in China, most schools will send someone from their “International Office” to collect you from the airport, introduce you to the school and show you around. From then on you are pretty much on your own. It may seem a bit intimidating, but with a bit of luck, there will be other newbies at the school or other experienced teachers who will show you the ropes. Pretty soon you will be hanging out with multicultural groups of teachers, students and having a great time.

In the big cities, as an average smart person, you will be fine without speaking any Chinese. It is easy to find Chinese friends who will help you with everything you need in everyday life – if you are a nice person it’s likely you will quickly have a “fan club” of students and fellow teachers who are happy to accompany you to the store, the bank, the post office, and assist you with anything you need.

But especially if you do choose a more isolated rural environment, you are going to have to work on your language skills pretty hard, because most locals will know little if any English at all. Also, if you want to make “genuine” Chinese experiences and immerse yourself in the culture, mastering the Chinese language to a certain extent is a must. It is essential to realize that if you do take the plunge and head off for a Middle Kingdom adventure to teach English, it is wise to do a bit of homework beforehand.

What’s The Best Method to Start Learning Mandarin?

Even the finest of linguists who have already mastered French, German or Spanish can come up against a brick wall when trying to make progress in Chinese. Even studying full-time, it is hard to get past the beginner stage. If you are working, you will not be able to learn full-time, and even after a couple of years, you will still be talking like a toddler. You will have your ups and downs, experience immense frustration and self-doubt.

A boat trip through an old, picturesque Chinese village in Xianxi District, Hunan Province
A boat trip through an old, picturesque Chinese village in Xianxi District, Hunan Province.

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 non-tourist areas, 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. Ask your schools about that. It would also help to get a good Chinese learning app or books and find the motivation to study daily. 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.

So if this all doesn’t discourage you and you are up for the challenge of being basically illiterate and dependent on Chinese friends to go to the hair salon and the bank for a long time then go ahead!

Is Teaching English in China Worth it?

For you, China may 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. This country is way too large and diverse to answer every possible question about living or teaching there in a post.

Is it a good idea to teach English in China and will this adventure turn out to be an enriching experience for you? 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.

You will get to see amazing sights, sample exotic foods (have you ever eaten a 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.

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.

If you are an adventurous soul who is not looking forward to a 9-5 job in a cubicle, this may be the job for you. Now you know the essentials about teaching English in China. It’s up to you now, to take action and make your dream come reality. We’d love to hear some of your experiences, so leave a comment below.

2 thoughts on “The Guide to Teach English in China”

  1. This is a great article with valuable information. I have been teaching English in China for a year now and it has been the best experience of my life. I teach at a Middle School in Jiangsu Province and the students are always eager to learn and to share their experiences. There are many benefits to teaching at a public school and I’ve had the opportunity to travel to Thailand and Vietnam. I plan to teach at a University in the future and I’m eager to share my experiences with the students. China is an amazing country and I would recommend this to anyone who would like to expand their horizon!

  2. Thanks for sharing valuable information. China is a good place where you can build a bright career. Before 2 months ago my younger brother got a teaching job at China through the help of Hebei New Times International with loveable salary.

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