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So you’re thinking about teaching English abroad? South Korea is a great place to start for a number of reasons, which we’ll explore in this guide. We’ll first talk about how to become an English teacher in Korea and what qualifications and requirements are necessary to apply.
If you meet the specified qualifications, we’ll then move on to what types of schools you can apply to, what the jobs are like, and the application process. This guide will then move on to social life in Korea, things to do, and the overall experience while teaching and living there.
As a note I will refer to South Korea as Korea for the blog, but please be aware I am only referring to South Korea, not North Korea at any point. But if you are interested in visiting North Korea, there are ways to do that.
About the Author: I lived in Korea for over two years in the city of Busan which is the second largest city in Korea. It’s in the southern part, and is a city lined with beaches and mountains. Koreans who live in other parts of the country like Seoul often come to Busan in the summer to vacation. It’s a beautiful city, with lots of things to do for all types of personalities. You can be outdoorsy and always find something to do, and there are also plenty of social activities with other ESL teachers and locals. Throughout this guide I’ll talk about my experiences to give a more human perspective on the entire process. If you’re feeling anxious about moving to Korea, I would highly recommend contacting people who have already taught there and learn from what they have to say.
Teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) in Korea is not only a great experience, but compared to other ESL jobs, it also pays really well. Cost of living is relatively low in the country, ESL teachers receive fair pay, and many other perks as well (like free accommodation!).
For this guide, let’s first start with the basics, what type of qualifications do you need, and what type of process should you expect?
There are several criteria that need to be met before applying to teach in Korea. Make sure you qualify to apply before you actually begin the process. You don’t want to skip this section only to find out later you couldn’t have applied anyway! The visa you are applying to is called an E-2 visa, which permits you to stay within the country based on sponsorship from an employer. The visa has to be renewed yearly, either by the same sponsor or a new employer willing to sponsor you.
In order to teach in Korea, you must have citizenship from one of the following countries:
Citizenship from any of these recognized English-speaking nation: U.S., U.K., Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand or South Africa.
In order to teach in Korea, you must have the following educational requirements:
A Bachelor’s degree or diploma from an accredited college or university (4 years in US/3 years in UK). When you apply to a job, you will be required to supply the Korean government a notarized copy of your degree or diploma.
You MUST complete a national-level criminal record check to apply to teach in Korea. The record check must be free of any charges or convictions—DUIs, DWIs and any other misdemeanors or felonies will likely disqualify any prospective teachers from receiving an E-2 visa (minor traffic violations will not disqualify you). Please see the following list for individual country requirements:
Canadian teachers MUST secure National level FINGER-PRINT based checks from the RCMP. Name and DOB based checks or provincial level finger-print checks are not accepted by Korean Immigration.
The Korean authorities currently accept 4 different types of criminal record checks from British teachers – Basic Disclosures, Standard Disclosures, Enhanced Disclosures and Subject Access Reports. How to order a Basic Disclosure: Visit https://www.mygov.scot/disclosure-types/?via=http://www.disclosurescotland.co.uk/ for more information and step-by-step application process.
Australians must submit Federal Level Police Check, download the Australian National Police Check Application Form directly from the Australian Federal Police website: http://www.afp.gov.au
Background Checks in Ireland are usually referred to as: Police Check Certificates. Please visit http://www.garda.ie/
CRC’s are usually referred to as Police Clearance Reports in New Zealand. The Ministry of Justice does not issue Police Clearance Reports over the phone. In most cases, New Zealand teachers will need to download the proper form from their website, http://www.justice.govt.nz and submit a written copy which has been signed and dated with an ink signature.
The South African Department of Foreign Affairs currently issues Police Clearance Certificates that are accepted by the Korean Immigration office, http://www.dfa.gov.za/consular/policeclear.htm
All Americans must submit national level FBI criminal record checks – no exceptions. Note: State level CRC’s are NOT accepted by the Korean Immigration Office. FBI checks can take upwards of 2 months to process when ordered directly from the FBI, however, they can be issued in as little as 2-3 weeks when ordered from ‘Approved FBI Channelers’. Please see this resource for entire details on process, steps, and who to contact http://www.gone2korea.com/background-checks-for-teaching-in-korea/
When you arrive in Korea, you will be required to submit a health and drug test. Current tests are conducted via blood samples, urine samples and chest x-rays. You cannot take the test before arriving in Korea from your home country. You must be prepared to for this health examination when you arrive in Korea (usually within 3-7 days). According to Korean law, if you do not pass the drug test you will be immediately deported from the country, and barred from returning for five years. In some cases, employers will also request for the employee to reimburse them on the airfare that was paid to bring the employee to Korea. You will undergo tests contagious diseases and narcotics.
Narcotics and contagious diseases: The medical exam will check to see if you have any contagious diseases such as AIDS, HIV, Hepatitis, TB, STDs, etc. Secondly, you will submit a urine sample for drug testing (marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy, speed, etc).
In some cases, there are medical drugs that may be legal in the U.S. for example, but not in Korea. If you are taking any sort of medication it is strongly advised that you ensure it isn’t considered a narcotic drug in Korea. If it is considered a narcotic drug, and the drug test is failed as a result, you will not be permitted to stay in Korea.
Congratulations if you meet all the above requirements! One step closer to the application process! Once you begin looking for jobs, sometimes the process can happen faster than you expect. I applied for a job at the beginning of June, and had secured a position and was submitting my visa documents to the embassy by the end of June.
It’s important that you have the following documents prepared because once you secure a contract, the visa process will begin and these documents are necessary to get the E-2 visa.
You should be able to produce the following documents:
If you are applying to positions in public schools or universities, applicants should also have:
When it comes to teaching English in Korea, there are plenty of jobs! You have the choice between metropolitans like Seoul and Busan, or smaller cities such as Ulsan and Daegu. When I was searching for jobs in Korea, I really thought about the type of place I’d like to live. Did I want a really big city like Seoul, or a beach city like Busan? Moving to another country can be difficult, but if you move somewhere suited to your personality, the transition will be much easier.
Korea is an economically prosperous country, and there is an extreme importance placed on education, and learning English. For this reason, there are many jobs in South Korea teaching English, and perks English teachers can expect. Most English teachers in South Korea are able to save around 50% of their salary each month because of low cost of living and other expenses paid, such as housing and airfare. The following are typical expectations:
The Korean education system is different from most of the countries ESL teachers will come from. I’m from Canada, and I know when I moved to Korea I was struck by the difference. In Canada, most children go to a public, private, or religious school, and usually only for the school day. Some children will have afterschool activities, and some will take private classes as well, but it isn’t the norm. I worked entirely at hagwons, both full-time and part-time. I did one semester as a university instructor, I wasn’t actually teaching ESL, but I’ll get into that more in the university section.
Education is stressed in Korean society. As an ESL instructor, there are several different places you can work: hagwon, public school, international school, and university. Each place has its own perks, and teachers have their own reasons and qualifications for the places they decide to work at. I’ll start by discussing hagwons because they are the most likely place English teachers will begin, and they have the highest availability of jobs.
We are currently only hiring for Hagwons but once you finish your contract you can search for other teaching jobs as well
Students will attend their public schools during the day, and following that they will also attend schools called Hagwons (pronounced more so hog-wons), which are in essence private institutions. Most new teachers arriving in Korea will be employed at a Hagwon because that is where the most demand is for English teachers. All hagwons have predetermined programs and books, so there is no full class planning. It would be wise to do a little extra planning around the books that you have already been provided just to make the class more dynamic and fun for students. The perks that were listed to English teachers above are most standard for teachers at hagwons.
Hagwons vary in terms of hours, and also the age of students. At most places you will work six to eight hours a day, but there is no set work time. I know some teachers who looked for jobs in the afternoons, so they would start at 1:00 or 2:00 and end at 8:00 or 9:00. I had a job where I worked 10:00-12:00 in the morning, then had a 2.5 hour break, and started the afternoon 2:30-7:00. I’m more of a morning person so that worked out better for me, and since I lived near my work, I really enjoyed the break in the middle of the day to run errands, go home, whatever I wanted.
So in the mornings I taught young children, ages 4 to 6, and in the afternoon I started with the youngest to older students (ages 8 to 13 roughly). Most hagwons are set up this way where teachers will have the youngest students earlier and older students later on in the day.
When you have your first interview, make sure to have a list of questions ready for the potential employer. If you don’t like teaching really young children, you need to know the ages of all the students at the school before taking a position. It’s totally okay to have your own preferences and try and find a position that is suitable for you.
It’s well known in Korea that one of the most coveted places to work at is public schools. There are several reasons for this, but most people I know like working at public schools because the schedule suits their needs, and the pay is good. Unfortunately, in the last five to ten years the Korean government has been reducing the number of English teachers it allows to teach at public schools, and most teachers are now replaced with Korean equivalents.
Although teaching in the public school may be ideal, for a first job choice, it would be wise to look for a Hagwon to first gain experience, and then search for a job in a public school.
International schools are really only for those who have a specified degree in teaching. So if I was coming from Canada, it wouldn’t be enough to have just an undergraduate degree, I would also need to prove that I have a teaching degree (which comes after the undergraduate in Canada). International schools are the highest caliber of teaching in Korea, and therefore, teachers MUST have appropriate teaching qualifications.
I would highly recommend applying to an international school if you are a qualified teacher. I know in Canada we have a surplus of trained and qualified teachers who can’t find work at home. Teaching at an international school is not only a great opportunity, but it also goes towards teaching experience on your resume.
My experience teaching at a university is different from most of my friends who also taught at universities. I have a post-graduate degree, which qualified me to apply for positions that were not considered ESL courses, but the students were Korean and took the course in English which presented its own challenges. I taught a course in the International Studies department, Human Rights and Democracy, which was for students in their last year of university.
If you want to teach at a university as an ESL instructor, you need a post-graduate degree and two years of teaching experience, or a bachelor’s degree and four years of teaching experience. Some places can also be specific about the type of degree you have, and what your previous experience is.
English teachers have the opportunity to teach full-time or part-time. For first time teachers, a full-time contract when first entering the country is definitely the way to go. Not only will you receive the airfare to get to Korea, but it also gives some sense of stability and gives you an opportunity to adjust to living in a new country.
When I first moved to Korea I took a full-time contract, and completed it with bonus and all. I knew I wanted to stay in Korea longer, but I had many friends who had already lived there for several years and said, “Why don’t you try part-time work? You just need to find a sponsor.” So I set off! I found a part-time job that sponsored my visa, and took other part-time jobs. I had to report to Korean immigration all the places I was working (if you don’t you will be fined), and I found I really loved the part-time experience, but I could also see that it might not be for everyone.
I enjoyed going to different schools, and meeting so many different students. Not only that, but I worked with wide range of age groups I might not have been able to otherwise. In the end, I still worked full-time hours, they were just spread out to different places. For this reason, I was also able to make a lot more money than if I had worked one job.
The following section focuses exclusively on social life in Korea, which is incredibly important when you’re living in a new country, sometimes it can make or break the experience! You’ll meet friends at the place you work, and you can also meet people on online groups, or social get togethers at restaurants or bars.
When I first moved to Korea I ended up working at a hagwon where I only had one other English teacher, so from the start I didn’t have a friend group to join. And I’m not going to lie, this made the beginning of my time there very lonely, but I was determined. I knew there were tons of expats in Korea, I just had to find them! I started going online, using Facebook and Google to find different groups in Busan, and started going to these events to meet new people. But where I really ended up finding my friend group was when I joined a bowling league! Haha, I know, it sounds funny—bowling?! But yes, in Busan there was an expat bowling league and we bowled once a week. From this, I had a team I met every week, and then got to meet new people in the league.
Now I’m a good bowler, so joining wasn’t really too intimidating for me, but that’s also besides the point. I think what most people need to takeaway from this story is that you have to be open minded, and that might mean joining in activities you maybe wouldn’t have signed up for in your home country. But that’s okay! You already took the biggest leap by getting to Korea in the first place. Once you have activities, friends, and a social life, trust me, it only makes it harder and harder to leave.
Traveling around the country is easy! Not only is their transportation system efficient (I mean great, if you live in a large country like Canada or the U.S. you will understand), and it’s a small country so you can also even take weekend trips. I just want to mention a few places I visited, and events I attended that were just great experiences. Korea has a rich cultural history, and there is so much to learn and explore when you live there. You can learn a lot about the country from your students and Korean co-workers, and there is no shortage of places to visit.
Jeju Island is off the southern coast of Korea, and is known as the “Hawaii” of Korea. Flights are cheap, and it’s a great place to go for a couple of days. I went to the island twice, first to do winter hiking, and second to bike around the entire island. There is plenty of natural beauty on the island, with an endless number of hiking trails to check out. I climbed Mount Hallasan in the winter (ice studs and all attached to my boots), and I did a bike trip around the entire island in five days on another trip (this was for my one week summer holiday). The island is largely broken up into four different parts: North, South, East, West, with each side of the island having its own activities and things to see. If you’re going to go to Jeju, I would definitely recommend giving yourself enough time to check out everything you can, and not try to rush through it.
This is a very important holiday in South Korea, it’s similar to North American thanksgivings. Depending on what days the holiday falls on, most teachers will have at least three to four days off. It’s a great time to plan a trip within the country because there are plenty of cultural festivities and events happening. When Chuseok came I would spend the time doing outdoor activities such as hiking, going to the beach, and also having a meal with my friends. Most expats in Korea will also celebrate the Korean holidays in their own ways, usually with a group meal.
This is most definitely a spectacle to see! The international fireworks festival is so cool to witness, and it takes place on the beach over the famous bridge in Busan. Other countries in the world come to compete for who has the best fireworks display, and all the while the fireworks are also timed to music. The weather is also still warm out, so it makes for an overall pleasant day. A word of caution—the fireworks festival is BUSY, I mean busy!
The first year I made the mistake of not getting there early enough and so I really didn’t have a good view of the fireworks. The second year my friends and I made a plan, got our blankets and everything we needed for the day, and set up camp around noon (even though it didn’t start until eight at night!). We took turns watching over the stuff, some people went and played volleyball, others swimming or eating, and once it finally started to really get busy on the beach we have a prime spot for viewing.
Another very exciting event, for Koreans and expats. The only way to explain it—it’s a big area with obstacles, activities and games, all covered in mud. So you’re covered in mud doing an obstacle race, your sliding down a big blow up slide with mud. It’s also a pretty big partying event. I’ve met people who like it—and some people who really didn’t. It all comes down to your personality and what you like. But even if you go and don’t want to party, you can still have a lot of fun! Plus, Boryeong is known for its seafood, just another reason to visit!
Here are some other highlights that also deserve a shout out:
These events and festivals don’t even begin to highlight how much variety and options there are. If you want to see an entire list, visit http://www.korea.net/Events/Festivals
*Note that currently there are only positions available for native English speakers and citizens of the United States of America, Canada, The United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia, or South Africa.