3 Steps to Becoming a Qualified ESL Teacher

I first began considering teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) during my senior year of college. I knew that I wanted a career that would allow me to travel the world, but I couldn’t figure out how to make this dream a reality with my Bachelors of Science. After college, I started working as an activities-coordinator for an ESL company based in Seattle, and as I heard the stories of my co-workers who had lived and worked abroad, I became completely fascinated and set on making my dreams a reality.

Here’s the problem–there is so much information out there about teaching ESL, and it took me months to sort through it all. That is why I’ve created this simple step-by-step guide to becoming an ESL teacher abroad. I spent so much time researching the best way to reach my goals, carefully making sure I was making the right time and financial investments for my future career, when I could have been abroad already!  It was a meticulous process and one that I hope to make easier for future generations of ESL teachers.

Step 1: Obtain a Bachelors Degree

I know, I know. Much easier said than done. Depending on where you are in the world and in your education, this first step could take you 3-4 years. This post is mostly catered to those who are towards the end of their undergraduate degrees, or who have already finished them and are ready to take the next step to traveling the world and making money while doing it.

Unfortunately, if you do not have an undergraduate degree, there are not many countries that you can legally teach abroad in. But I’m not going to say that it can’t be done!

If you are interested in working in developing countries in Southeast Asia, it is possible. Cambodia and Laos are your best bets. I even knew a few teachers in Thailand who did not have degrees. Keep in mind that, depending on visa restrictions in your host country, you will most likely be working under the table–meaning that your salary is not guaranteed and that you could be kicked out of the country at a moment’s notice. You will probably also have to complete regular visa runs because you will be living on a tourist visa. I really do not recommend this route, but if you are dead set on teaching ESL and do not have an accredited bachelors degree, it can be done.

With that being said, the country you are going to be working in most likely does not care what your BA or BS is in. As long as you come from a native English-speaking country and hold a valid undergraduate degree, they could care less. Those with English, Linguistics, or Education degrees will have a slight advantage, however, the passport and teaching certificate that you hold are the real qualifiers.

I’m from the USA, but my degree is in biology. So, if you think you can’t teach English because you’re not an English major, this couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Step 2: Obtain a Teaching Certificate

When searching for your TEFL (which stands for Teaching English as a Foreign Language), you will notice that there many types! TEFL, TESOL, CELTA… what do they all mean? If you quickly Google search “TEFL,” about a million companies will pop-up trying to sell you their individually-branded products. This is because, at the moment, there is no single institution that regulates TEFL certificates.

TEFL is a general acronym for Teaching English as a Foreign Language. There are many, many TEFL qualifications that one can obtain and they are not all created equal.

Online TEFL

A standardized TEFL certificate should be at least 120 hours (employers will look for this information). It should also contain a minimum of 8 observed classroom teaching hours. Due to the influx in demand over the past few years, it is now possible to purchase your TEFL online. There are many deals running through Groupon and other websites that allow you to purchase a “120 hour” TEFL for the equivalent of $30 USD. These courses are completely illegitimate, can be completed in a few hours, and will not prepare you for an actual teaching career. However, they are cheap and do provide a teaching certificate upon completion which many companies and schools will accept, depending on what country you wish to teach in.

Most reputable ESL organizations and language centers will not accept an online TEFL, especially if it does not require any in-class teaching hours.

Another option is to take a more legitimate online TEFL course. If you do your research, you can find quality online TEFLs that cover actual, practical teaching methodologies and also require in-the-classroom hours.

Sponsored TEFL & TEFL Packages

Some companies will sponsor your TEFL or allow you to do on-the-job training leading to a TEFL if you are willing to commit to them for a certain allotment of time. This is great for some people, but it does not guarantee that you will receive a reputable or useful qualification. Large companies will sometimes sponsor TEFLS to protect themselves by being able to hire freshly-graduated recruits and sell them to their audiences as “qualified” teachers. Sponsored TEFLs from smaller companies are usually a money-making scheme for the recruitment company.


Your best course of action is to obtain an in-the-classroom TEFL that is standardized by a reputable organization. I personally hold a CELTA (Certificate in Teaching English to Speaking of Other Languages), which is regulated by Cambridge University. This is one of the most reputable TEFLs you can hold. An acceptable equivalent to the CELTA is the Trinity-TESOL, backed by the Trinity College of London.

Companies and schools look for teachers with these certificates, and many of the more reputable language centers and schools will not accept anything else.

These certificates take one month to complete, are rigorous (but informative!), and are definitely not as cheap as other TEFL alternatives. The CELTA is a great choice for those who wish to make teaching English into a life-long career rather than those taking a gap year between degrees or careers, as it is a foundational certificate that can be followed up by other, more advanced Cambridge certificates (like the DELTA) which allow for upward mobility within your ESL career.

Step 3: Decide Where You Want to Teach

Most new teachers opt for China or South Korea, as the markets are currently undersaturated and they are always on the hunt for new teachers. You can find a lot of these recruitment pages online on websites and job boards like Dave’s ESL Cafe. Just make sure you go through a reliable company and not a sketchy recruitment agency. What you don’t want is to arrive in your new host country, only to find that things are not at all how they were described to you. Maybe the accommodation they supposedly provide doesn’t actually exist, or the pay is much lower than you were told, or your class size is huge. I’ve heard such horror stories from other teachers, so make sure you do your research on the company or school you decide to go through, and you’ll be fine.

Keep in mind that different countries also have different regulations for teachers. If you wish to teach in South Korea, you need to get a background police-check from your home country before you leave. It’s a good idea to do this regardless of where you’re headed, as you’ll never know when you might need it. If you’re from the USA, you will need an official FBI background check. It’s important to note that you have to go in person to get fingerprinting done, and the processing can take a while (I’ve heard up to 6 weeks) so it is best to do it in advance of your departure.

If you wish to teach in China or South Korea, it is very easy to find positions online, interview via Skype, and have everything lined up before your departure. In other countries, such as Thailand and Vietnam, it is often best to search for a job once you are on the ground. Next week I’ll be talking more about how to pick a country that’s right for you, and the best way to find a job.

Some tips to keep in mind:

  • It is crucial to bring and keep hard copies of your TEFL, bachelors degree, and passport (that’s a no-brainer). Never let an employer take these from you–they can make photocopies, but you need to hold onto the originals. They can be very difficult and expensive to replace once abroad.
  • Some countries will require that you process a work visa before your departure, and others will allow you to do it upon arrival once you have secured a position at your new job and started work. Look into the laws of your specific country before you go, and ask your future employer if you already have one!
  • be wary of organizations that ask you to pay for a TEFL in a dream destination, like Bali or the Thai Islands, and offer you “guaranteed job placement” after–you likely will not be placed in your ideal work situation and will be paid a very low salary.
  • While a Bachelors degree and TEFL of some sort are the industry standard for entry-level teachers, some higher-paying countries, like The UAE, and higher-level positions, like teaching at University, might require you to have a Masters degree in TEFL.

Wherever it is that you decide to go in the world, I hope that you will find this basic guide to getting started in teaching ESL useful for building your exciting future career.

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