Work Overseas: Teaching English Abroad

English is globally in control of business, IT, and aviation. Subsequently, it would benefit non-English speakers who aspire to positions higher than lower middle-management to learn the language. This need creates jobs for English Second Language (ESL) teachers to work with adults. Most K-12 schools require a teaching qualification. If, however, you are in-country, schools may consider you for a position.

Teaching English is a viable way to make some money while living and traveling overseas. It allows you to live like a local, supplement your retirement income, or support yourself in another country. There are places — like Santiago – where the fact that you are a native speaker is enough to land a job. In other locations, particularly in Europe, you must have a certificate.

There are many one-month-learn-to-teach-English courses offered all over the world. You can take the class in Spain or other countries in Europe and try to line up a job in Madrid or Paris while you are there. Classes are increasingly offered on-line, so that is another option worth checking.

I’ve never bothered with an ESL course, as I have a teaching degree in English and extensive cross-cultural experience. But everybody I know who has ever taken a one-month ESL course talks about how much work is involved. Maybe, but one-month is a fast-track option for someone who doesn’t want to do a four-year teaching degree.

Teaching abroad options

Armed with your fresh qualification, there are three ways you can teach English overseas: legally, quasi-legally and under-the-table. I’ve done all three over the course of the past few decades, and there are pros and cons to all of them.

When I went to teach at the South West Teachers University in China in August of 1986, I was met at the airport by a representative from the foreign affairs office. She took care of all the details and a foreign-expert visa stamped into my passport – China was still closed at that time – and I didn’t even have to leave the campus.

Teaching legally

When teaching legally, there are negatives.  The main drawback is that you have to sign a contract, meaning you are (more or less) stuck with the institution and have to put in your time. Computing your salary in dinars or leva can be a bit unnerving, as you can’t be sure what you are making relative to what things will cost. If housing is included – as it was in China – that could be a plus. Then again it could be a minus when you find out you have to share a two-bedroom apartment with three other teachers with whom you may have nothing in common. I made enough to live well, and by Chinese standards I was ridiculously rich. I was there more for the adventure than the money, so it wasn’t an issue. Return airfare is something you may be able to negotiate if you go in on a contract.


Teaching quasi-legally

When I moved to Santiago, I got a job two weeks later teaching English at a dodgy school run by a woman with borderline personality traits. She did, however, come across with a letter so I could apply for a work visa. Once the application was in the works, I didn’t have to leave the country every 90-days to renew my visa. I was then quasi-legal.

The drawback with this option, again, is that you are tired to the institution in some countries, but not others. If you don’t like the place you are working, you lose your visa, so check the fine print.  The plus is that at least you know what you are getting into and can make an informed decision about the institute from personal experience.

Working under the table

Another option is working-under-the-table, and this is the option a number of teachers choose. The bonus for this choice is that if you don’t like one school, you can move to another down the road. The downside is that you have to leave the country to renew your tourist visa (how often you have to do this depends on each countries’ visa rules).

If you decide to work under-the-table, adopt the “expect the best, but prepare for the worst” contingency plan.

You can run into problems with this option, as I did in Morocco. A con-artist from Paris was trying to set up e-learning in Casablanca. The whole operation was questionable and smelled bad at ten paces, so I resigned before the on-site tutorials started. He threatened that if I didn’t teach the classes – and he had no way to get the money to me – he would report me to his “friend,” the minister of immigration. After 18 months in Casablanca, a few things were getting to me – and Ramadan was looming on the horizon – so moving to Santiago made perfect sense. I owe the sleaze-bag big time for being a catalyst.

If you decide to work under-the-table, adopt the “expect the best, but prepare for the worst” contingency plan. If, for some wild and wonderful reason known only to the customs officer, you aren’t allowed back in the country, have a back-up in place to get your things shipped to you. Leave a key and instructions with a trusted friend.

Don’t expect to get rich teaching English. Cancellations are frequent, and you will virtually double your teaching time if you use public transport. So although you are making $30USD an hour, it might only come out to $15USD an hour when you calculate the time, and even less when you deduct the transportation costs. Private students are the best paying option, but it may take you a while to build up a client base. Plan on taking enough money to support yourself for up to six months, until you find enough work to cover the bills.

Benefits of teaching abroad

Teaching English is an automatic ticket to meeting local people. As well as your adult students, you will get to know other English teachers who are doing the same as you. So even if you don’t need the cash, you might want to teach for the networking connection it gives you.

In Morocco, for example, I worked with some of the countries brightest and best – the executive vice-president of OCP (the biggest corporation in the country), the directors of CDG (the Chase-Manhattan counterpart), and the monarchy appointed watch-dog of the Casablanca Stock Exchange. I got used to luxury cars and drivers and moved in social circles well above my status as an ESL teacher. Being an English teacher in Casablanca fluctuated somewhere between a princess and the hired help.

The process to teach English overseas is very straight forward:

  • check around for the ESL course you want
  • decide to wing it as a native-speaker
  • sign up for the free weekly ESL positions notices
  • figure out where you want to work
  • go for on the best visa option

Certification options

As with any sort of study, you have the good, the bad, and the indifferent. Do your research and figure out which is the best option for you. Courses that will qualify you to teach English overseas include:


CELTA: Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults 

My recommendation is the Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults – referred to as the CELTA. This certificate is offered by Cambridge University and through the British Council. It is the proverbial Harvard MBA of English language teaching. Be prepared for four weeks of boot camp – 120 instructional hours, followed by numerous assignments. The fee is approximately $1,800 USD.



As the new-kid-on-the-block option, the EDI-CertTEFL course is offered in the UK, Ireland, and Australia. Fortunately, it doesn’t require you to give up your day job, but you have to be available to attend six-Saturday morning sessions. They also offer an on-line option that range from $99 for 40 hours to $599 for 140 hour combination on-line and in-class course.  Call them on 440-871-781-1123 for details. Have a pen and paper ready as the sales people go through the possibilities so quickly that you can’t possibly keep track without notes.

Teaching English as a Foreign Language

TEFL offers both online and in-class options for certification.  They also offer a money-back-guarantee, but be careful to read the fine print closely. Classes range from a 4-week classroom option for $1390 to an online course for $150 or a combination for $1400.

Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages

Teach International offers courses in Australia and New Zealand, and they also “guarantee” a job overseas – but it comes with a lot of tread-carefully-and-be-wary conditions. Tuition is $795 for iTESOL and $995 for Foundation TWO.

Check out the following links for job alerts, cost of living calculators, articles, and other resources about teaching English abroad:

Photo credits:  USNavy, USNavy, Nagyman, Renato Ganoza

Filed under: ESL, featured, Work Abroad