Teacher Background Checks: 6 Mistakes ESL Teachers Make – And How To Avoid Making Them

Are you dreading wading through red tape on your journey to becoming an ESL teacher abroad?

Don’t worry, we’ve all been there.

The amount of work you have to do before you leave the country can seem completely overwhelming, but the good news is that each step is relatively simple.

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That’s why we’ve broken down one of the most complicated steps in the visa process: getting a teacher background check.

Read on to find out the 6 biggest mistakes ESL teachers make when getting their background checks and how you can avoid them.

Teacher Background Checks: 6 Mistakes ESL Teachers Make And How to Avoid

What Is A Background Check, Anyway?

In many countries, ESL teachers need to get criminal background checks to show that they have a clean record.

In the U.S., teachers send two sets of fingerprints to the FBI along with a background check application form stating some basic information, and in return, they receive a document showing some basic information, such as their criminal history (or lack thereof).

If you’re in another country, refer to this guide to legalizing documents for how to request your criminal background check.

The background check may also disclose information such as past federal employment, any military history you might have, and details regarding naturalization if you weren’t born an American citizen.

After receiving your background check, you’ll need to get it apostilled by the State Department, and by possibly the embassy or consulate of the country you’re teaching in, as well.

Steps to get your FBI background check

These steps are each relatively simple, but there are a few common mistakes teachers make that result in a more complicated and drawn-out teacher background check process.

Read the guide on: Can you become a teacher with a criminal record?

1. They Don’t Do Their Research

Every country has different requirements for what materials foreign teachers need to get their visas. This makes it easy to get confused and end up with the wrong materials, or even the right materials but the wrong stamps.

To make matters worse, in countries like China the requirements are constantly changing, so you need to be vigilant and make sure that the documents you’re getting conform to the latest standards.

In order to make sure you have the right documents, research visa requirements for ESL teachers in the country you’re going to, talk to your school or recruiter if you have one, and try to get information from the latest sources.

Don’t just look for information in one place, because some websites might not be updated to reflect recent changes in visa requirements.

Also, if it’s unclear whether or not you need a certain stamp or document, go ahead and get it.

It might be a little pricey or annoying to do, but it’s much easier — and less expensive — to gather the documents you need while you’re still in your home country than it is to try to coordinate shipping them to the country you’re traveling to.

And who knows? Even if you end up not needing that apostilled diploma or third set of fingerprints, they might come in handy when you’re getting your visa renewed or if you travel around in the future.

2. They Try to Get a Background Check Through the FBI Directly

Yes, it’s much less expensive to get a background check through the FBI than it is to go through a channeler. However, it also takes a lot longer — an FBI background check can take 2-3 months to receive, while you can get one expedited through a channeler in as little as one day.

If you have the time to get a background check through the FBI, go ahead, but if you’re like me you’re fighting the clock to get all your documents together before you depart on your international adventure.

So save yourself some research and grief and head to an FBI-approved channeler to get your background check quickly.

3. They Forget to Get Their Background Check Apostilled

You’d think that an FBI background check is official enough on its own, right?


If you’re started gathering documents to teach abroad, you’ve probably already realized that everything — everything — needs staggering amounts of authentication. Yes, it is a total and complete headache, thanks for asking.

Anyway, different countries have different authentication requirements. Hague Apostille Member Countries only require documents to get apostilled by the U.S. State Department, which is easy enough.

Some channelers can also take care of your apostille, or you can get your background check apostilled through a service like this one.  

If you’re headed to a country like China that’s not part of the Hague convention, you’ll need your to get certified by the Chinese consulate after they’ve been apostilled by the State Department.

You can use this list of Chinese consulates in the U.S. to find the consulate it makes sense for you to go to.

4. They Don’t Get Two Sets of Fingerprints

You’ll need to send in fingerprints when you submit your background check, and channelers all require that you send in two sets just in case.

The FBI requires fingerprints to be submitted on a standard FD-258 fingerprinting card, and you must get your fingerprints taken by a trained professional.

There are a number of places where you can get this done, but your easiest and least expensive option is probably to get your fingerprints taken at your local police station.

If you’re in the US, this list of fingerprinting locations might help you figure out where to head to get yours done.

5. They Wait Too Long to Try to Get Their Teacher Background Check

Thankfully, FBI channelers make it possible to get background checks done super quickly if you’re down to the wire. (Don’t worry, we’ve all been there at some point.)

However, the quicker a turnaround time you need for your background check, the more expensive it will be.

Additionally, getting your fingerprints and necessary stamps take time, meaning that you’ll be in a far better position if you give yourself the time to move through all the steps without rushing through, feeling panicky, and spending too much money.

Which brings us to the biggest mistake ESL teachers make when getting their background checks:

6. They Panic

Yes, the steps to getting a background check sound like a lot, but don’t worry. Each one is relatively simple, and there are tons of resources that can help you with every single step of the process.

Even if you forgot to send something in or waited way too late to start everything, you’ll be okay. So breathe, remember that you’re not the first person to walk this path, and get excited to start your life as an ESL teacher abroad!

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4 thoughts on “Teacher Background Checks: 6 Mistakes ESL Teachers Make – And How To Avoid Making Them”

  1. Avatar

    I was wondering if anyone knows of a service that can do both an FBI background check AND get the document apostilled all in one go? It seems inefficient to get the FBI check through a channeler, pay $50-75 and wait 1-2 weeks, and then once I get it send it back to someone to do the apostille for $195 and wait another 1-2 weeks

    1. Avatar
      Molly Oberstein-Allen

      I don’t know of any such services, unfortunately. If you find any I’d love to know about them, though!

  2. Avatar

    I got my background check from the state police department at the courthouse. It was all I needed to teach in mainland China in Hangzhou. I have been teaching for many years in China. I am over sixty years of age and still got teaching jobs at two universities in Ningbo university and ZISU university, both in Zhejiang province. China did not require a background check from the FBI

    1. Avatar

      Hi! I am trying to teach in China and wonder if the Chinese education recruiter will only look for my FBI criminal record. I have a clean record. Will that be sufficient to teach children or does the background check also search for any CPS dispositions too? Thanks!

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