When considering the idea of teaching English abroad, one of the first countries that comes to mind is China. China has long been a mecca for teachers due to its massive population of English learners, affordable cost of living, and benefits like reimbursed airfare and easy travel throughout Asia.

The demand for English teachers is unparalleled, with 400 million Chinese currently learning English – and more joining the ranks every day. The hiring season is constant in China throughout the year, so you can pack up and move any time without worrying about missing the hiring peak.

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The benefits of teaching English in China are countless, but what if you don’t have a four-year degree? Is teaching abroad still an option for you? In this article, I’ll delve into the legalities, challenges, and expectations surrounding teaching English in China without a degree.

Is it possible to legally teach in China without a degree?

Technically, no. The Z visa is the only official visa to teach for pay in China, and requires a four-year degree. Not only that, but the visa process can be quite lengthy. To start, you must be sponsored by a teaching organization or school that is allowed to employ foreigners.

Apart from a four-year degree, you should also have English as your first language and two years of teaching experience. Male teachers should be between the ages of 18 – 60, and female teachers between 18 – 55. Even though the official requirements make teaching in China sound inaccessible, there is flexibility as long as you have an employer who wants to hire you.

Technically, it´s not possible to legally teach English in China without a degree, but…

Visa alternatives

While not technically legal, it is possible to be hired to teach in China through the F or M visa. The F visa is the “non-commerce visa”, typically used for visits related to education, cultural exchange, sports, or health. The M visa is the “business visa”, and applies to commercial or trade activities while in China. Both the F and M visa require assistance or sponsorship from a business, government, or academic institution.

The F and M visas allow people to live in China legally for an extended period of time. Even though you aren’t allowed to work for pay with them, employers may prefer to hire teachers on these visas rather than the Z visa for a number of reasons: the time and cost involved in the Z visa is daunting, the demand for teachers is huge and immediate, or they don’t see the Z visa as a requirement that is actually enforced by the government.

The Bureau of Foreign Experts Affairs released recent data showing that the current Chinese market requires about 100,000 foreign teachers, but there are only 30,000 teachers who are legally recognized by the government. According to Go Overseas, 25% of the English teaching jobs in China require a legal visa and work permit, while 75% of them are willing to hire teachers without all of the requirements.

This discrepancy is not likely to change as long as the demand for teachers greatly overshadows the supply, and it means that teachers in China who lack the Z visa still have a good chance of getting hired.

There are risks of teaching “under the table”. It’s up to you to do your research and decide whether they’re worth it or not.

Consequences of teaching English in China without a degree

Although rare, if you’re caught working and earning money without having the Z visa, you can expect a few unpleasant consequences. You may be detained, fined, asked to write an apology letter to the Chinese government, and/or deported. There are a number of stories online written by teachers who either had close calls with the Chinese police or ended up getting deported.

However, the vast majority of people teaching illegally do go undetected throughout their tenure in China. These are the risks of teaching “under the table” in any country, so it’s up to you to do your research and decide whether they’re worth it or not.

What are the job prospects without a degree?

If you decide to take the leap and search for work in China sans degree, here are a few things that you can expect. Your job search may be more time-consuming because certain jobs won’t be available for you. Although plenty of schools hire teachers on the F or M visa, some simply won’t consider you as a candidate without the Z visa.

You also may not get paid as much as your teaching counterparts who do have degrees. On the bright side, the cost of living in China is generally very affordable – so you can still survive on a reduced salary.

Additionally, you may actually have to fly to China and apply for jobs in person. The majority of teaching jobs in China that are advertised online, like EF and Disney English, will not hire teachers without a four-year degree.

You may actually have to fly to China and apply for jobs in person.

If you’re someone who balks at the idea of moving to a foreign country without a job lined up, consider emailing language schools in China directly. At the very least, you’ll get your name out there and start making connections. Even if some of the schools you contact aren’t hiring, they can refer you to others that are.

You may also avoid paying the third-party fees often required by the organizations that find jobs for you. By doing the legwork yourself, you’ll interact with the schools directly and save a bit of money in the process.

All of these challenges are not to say that it’s impossible to find work in China and teach English in China without a degree. Hordes of people have done it successfully over the years and will continue to do so. Teaching under the table is common in many countries, especially ones with as many knowledge-hungry students as China.

How to make yourself more marketable

So, you’ve chosen to pursue teaching English in China without a degree in spite of the challenges – and you want to know how to better market yourself. First, you should get a TEFL certificate with 120 hours of study or more. Ensure that it is accredited and that you’ll be able to use it to teach internationally. Getting a certification may help you find a job faster and earn more money once you do begin teaching.

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Second, get as much classroom experience as you can. TEFL certificates certainly provide you with valuable training, but you’ll learn even more through actually teaching. A great way to boost your teaching credentials is to find a language school near you to shadow teachers, help out as a teaching assistant, and eventually lead your own classes or tutoring sessions.

You should document your hours, class sizes, and lesson plans so that you can reference them in future interviews to teach English in China.

Get as much classroom experience as you can.

Finally, connect with people who will help you in your job search. Join online groups for people teaching in China, reach out to friends who have connections there, and network with expats and locals once you arrive in the country. The more people you’ve connected with people who know you’re searching for work, the better.

Another thing to keep in mind is that it will be far easier to find a teaching job without a degree in the more rural parts of China, rather than big cities like Beijing or Shanghai. Smaller towns tend to have fewer expats and a larger demand for teachers. If you’re open to living in rural China and having a more authentic, cultural experience – then this option could land you a job much faster.

More resources on living and teaching in China

Final thoughts

This article is meant to provide you with accurate, up-to-date information about teaching English in China without a degree. If you’re interested in spite of the challenges, there’s a wealth of additional resources and personal stories online from past and current teachers.

Thousands of people teach under the table in China every year, and only a small fraction of them run into legal consequences. China is a diverse and fascinating country, and you’re sure to have an unforgettable experience there.

If you’re passionate about the idea of teaching abroad but want to do it on a legal visa, consider other countries that have more lenient requirements. Cambodia is a fantastic option if you’d like to stay in Asia. There are countries across the globe that will welcome teachers without a four-year degree, so you shouldn’t feel limited by requirements that don’t suit you.

Brooke is a girl in her mid-twenties who loves her home in the U.S. but still leaves as often as possible to explore the world beyond. She's lived in Costa Rica and Spain, and has been teaching with her TEFL certification since 2015. When she's not traveling, you can find her hiking, trying new recipes, reading, and teaching herself yoga. Read her Upbeatatlas Blog or follow her on Instagram.

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