EF China: A Serious Warning
EF China

EF China: A Serious Warning

I applied to teach with English First China in August 2009. I’d actually been browsing jobs teaching English in Japan when I saw a sidebar ad that read “Teach English in China.” I clicked it and arrived at the EF home page.

Unlike the majority of ESL job postings online, language school English First’s website was organized, informative and beautifully-designed. It explained in crystal-clear detail what I could expect from the application process, upon my acceptance as a teacher, after my arrival in China and on the job.

I didn’t hear anything for the first several days after submitting my application, but within 48 hours of EF’s response, I had a job offer and placement in Shanghai. I hope this isn’t too good to be true, I thought as I clicked the “Send” button.

As you can probably guess, it was indeed too good to be true. Although English First Shanghai is far from the worst place I’ve ever worked, little about the company separates it from any of its multinational competitors.

Get a Job Teaching English

The Good

I like to start with the positive whenever I can, so I’ll begin by telling you what was good about my experience teaching English in China with EF. Overall, English First’s strong suit is that it has money, which it uses to make sure teachers’ bare necessities are covered.

English First was always on-time direct depositing my salary into the Bank of China account the school set up on my behalf. By contrast, many smaller English school pay teachers late, or not at all. These school sometimes even cease operations without prior notice.

As promised, EF promptly reimbursed me for expenses I incurred during the application process, such as obtaining my online TEFL certification and Chinese “Z” work visa.

English First also facilitated the conversion of my work visa into a residence permit. The school provided me with a work permit, medical examination and a chaperoned transfer to the office where I had to submit my paperwork. EF paid all associated costs.

Furthermore, EF’s “welcome package” was excellent. My liaison Apple met me at Pudong Airport and escorted me to the four-star Rayfont Nanpu Shanghai Hotel, where EF had prepaid a two-week stay for me.

Before Apple left, she provided me all the materials I’d need to start with the company the following Monday, including instructions as to where to meet her colleague, who’d be taking myself and my future colleagues to orientation.

The Bad

EF offered teachers a salary of 12,350 RMB (or about $1,850) per month as of November 2009. That’s enough to live well in Shanghai or other large Chinese cities, but it isn’t enough to both save and spend. Allow me to explain.

First of all, China taxes expat employees in this income bracket at a rate of 20%. In other words, my take-home pay was only 9,880 yuan per month.

EF does not provide you with an apartment or compensate you for yours. Instead, I paid about 3,000 yuan (~$450) per month in rent, and 700 yuan, or $100 in utilities. I spent 200 yuan ($30) per week on groceries, 50 (about $7) on lunch at work and 100 ($15) filling up my Metro card. My recurring expenses totaled 4,050 yuan (~$625) per month.

EF China also doesn’t reimburse you for your flight up-front. Rather, it pays you monthly installments of a set, 8,000 yuan ($1,200) employee transportation allowance that doesn’t come close to covering the actual cost of a round-trip ticket from anywhere in North America or Europe to China.

The Ugly

EF China Work Environment

You might notice that I haven’t mentioned much about my work environment yet. You know what that means: It sucked.

As a disclaimer, I will say that I loved my students more than you can ever imagine. I taught adults, so many of my students became friends. They showed me parts of Shanghai and China I’d never have been able to see otherwise. For this alone, I am forever indebted.

That being said, EF is surely not the only English school in China with good students.

EF China Management

Unfortunately, EF is one of the worst managed places I’ve ever worked. I’m speaking about my work location in particular: The EF “Megacenter,” the company’s national headquarters in Shanghai’s People’s Square district.

Friends who worked in other English First centers throughout the city and country, teaching both kids and adults, had varying reactions to their workplaces. The vast majority of them were as disappointed as I was.

This was particularly true for kids’ teachers, who were unwittingly forced into working two six-week sets of seven-day work weeks during EF’s seasonal “Summercourse” and “Wintercourse” modules, without overtime pay or time off in lieu of worked weekends.

EF Professional Development

Several job-related irregularities irked me. First and foremost was the issue of “Feedback.”

About half of a given SMART teacher’s schedule is composed of four-person “Face-to-Face” classes.  The primary benefit students reap from taking these classes is individualized instructor “Feedback” within 72 hours of class completion.

Being the overachiever and generally good worker than I am, I made a point of entering feedback immediately after each Face-to-Face class. I got zero recognition for my promptness. By comparison, all but a couple of the other teachers were chronically late.

To add insult to injury, I was also made to stay in the office during unpaid “office hours,” even though I was finished with my work. Because of this, I ended up being “at work” approximately 50 hours per week, while getting paid for just 25.

My supervisor used his quarterly conferences mostly to remind me that he didn’t personally like me very much. The subject matter of these conferences only tangentially related to teaching or learning, and usually focused on matters of office gossip.

He also frequently criticized my wardrobe. This was curious, since I was the only male teacher in the office to adhere to EF’s dress code, which requires a belt, tie, dress slacks and a shirt tucked into them.

Hate sales? I don’t, but it got really fucking old have to put the EF logo on every piece of content I produced for my students, as well as having to use official product and course names whenever I mentioned any linguistic concept even nominally related to them.

Technology at EF China

Technology-wise the Megacenter was also lacking, a problem I imagine is much worse at English First satellite centers. Computers both at teacher desks and in classrooms were sluggish, resulting in regular delays in class starting time for which teachers usually took the blame.

Alternatives to English First China

EF’s main competitor in China is Wall Street English, a decidedly more corporate-oriented language school that have at least as many centers as EF nationwide, if not more.

Wall Street English has a reputation of working its employees even harder than English First (34 classroom hours per week vs. 25), but also pays significantly better, in addition to a rent-and-bills stipend each month. Like EF, Wall Street is a multinational company, so it’s conceivable you could take your job to another country if you make it long enough.

Once I’d finished with English First, however, I had no desire to work directly for someone again. By virtue of my friend Kyle, who worked for British Education Ltd. at the time, I was able to procure several high school-aged students as private clients, eventually making as much per month as I’d made with EF working only half the time.

Teaching private English lessons is ideal if you’re experienced enough that you don’t have a problem making lesson plans from scratch. It’s also important that you be OK with working under the table, since you might not have your residence permit any longer.

Canceling Your English First China Contract

If you’re unhappy working English First language schools, you’re probably worried about being “under contract.”  First thing’s first: The only thing you need to do to get out of your EF contract fair and square is to provide your supervisor written notice at least 30 days before your last planned day of work. End of story.

But what about my residence permit? What about it? Although company drones will tell you otherwise, you are under no obligation to allow EF to cancel your residence permit, regardless of whether or not they paid for it as they did mine.

Thanks to the China’s Stone Age information technology infrastructure, Chinese authorities are unable to cancel any entry document without physically having it in their possession. To be sure, Chinese immigration officers are usually too busy with other issues to bother tracking down teachers who quit their jobs a few monthly early.

Although your residence permit will eventually expire, you can remain in China if you so please. Simply obtain a Chinese tourist visa in Hong Kong.

After you’re out of EF’s grip, Shanghai (or wherever in China you’re based) is your oyster. Ample opportunities are available both within and outside the ESL industry. Or, if you’ve managed to save money, you can get on the next plane out and never come back.

About The Author

is the author of 630 posts on Leave Your Daily Hell. Robert founded Leave Your Daily Hell in 2010 so that other travelers would have an entertaining, reliable source of information, advice and inspiration at their fingertips. Want to travel more often? Subscribe to email updates today!


  informs, inspires, entertains and empowers travelers like you. My name is Robert and I'm happy you're here!


Get Email Updates

Like what you're reading? Sign up to receive my weekly email newsletter – it's like a trip around the world to end every week!

Upcoming Trips

  • Costa Rica November 18-25
  • Iceland December 6-14
  • Myanmar January 25-February 6, 2016
  • http://leaveyourdailyhell.com Robert Schrader

    What a thoughtful, helpful comment! Thanks a lot.

  • Natalia

    Preachin’ to the choir!

  • http://leaveyourdailyhell.com Robert Schrader


  • Stephen Ford

    THANK YOU for voicing the unrealistic expectations of expats looking for work in China. I’m currently applying for a position in EF Qinhuangdao, hopefully to move to China and begin teaching immediately after I graduate college in a few months. From everything I’ve read, I have no expectations for quality treatment and resources in the position. But the fact that I can move to the other side of the world, with little classroom experience and only an online TEFL certificate, and make more money than the local standard is still an incredible privilege many people in the world would never have. Keeping your perspective in check is the most important thing in any experience living or working in another culture. I am sorry that so many people have had horrible experiences with EF, but I can’t help but hear the whining of people still living lives and having experiences many people could never dream of.

  • Ryan

    I applied to this program before I had the chance to check out this page and now I’m having second thoughts. Because a large amount of these posts were made 2-3 years ago, I’m wondering if things have changed or if this is still an opportunity it would be best to pass by. I’m currently working for a small university in Hebei and although there are some issues it doesn’t seem near as bad as what workers at EF are describing. I think I may look into finding another university to work at when my contract expires.

  • http://www.blackgirlintherok.com iamnieshasharay

    I wouldn’t. There are tons of local teachers. Even thouse from Hong Kong.

  • lordblazer

    I’m working with EF right now and am in probation period. EF gave us only two days to find a place. Likewise, I found out we get paid significantly lower than our counter-parts. they keep our schedule too busy. I’ll probably find something else soon, EF is good if you are low on funds and need a way to get back on track. Otherwise, it isn’t a career job. It feels more like a McJob than anything else.

  • lordblazer

    those are normal questions to ask when you receive a job offer. I’m with EF right now. I didn’t have this experience, but it is interesting to see. I have a cousin who is about to quit and go work in Turkey for a bit. I might head out in that direction sometime soon. Maybe to UAE.

    Anyway during orientation HR flat out lied to our faces about our residency visa. regarding having to give them our passports to cancel the visa. they state it’s their policy to not assist us in transferring the visa to another employer. I found out all they really would have to do in that case is issue the employee a letter of release stating that the employee is no longer employed with them. IE: they give this to you ANYWAY. So lying to you and telling you that you cannot transfer is a lie, you are able to do so with that letter as everything else will be on the hands of the new employer. They rely upon people being new to China, and having no prior contacts in China and no social life in China prior to arriving. By getting those types of people you can ensure they are able to control the information a lot more tightly. And they ensure it by making sure our schedule is too busy to do anything else.

    With that being said I am glad to have contacts here, and am happy to know I have friends here too. If something better comes along I have the support to take it and not worry. The rest is smokes and mirrors. With that being said, EF does invest a lot in their employees. So They’re not the evil corporation that everyone set out to make them seem like. It is simply put, people can get a much better deal outside of EF which makes EF looks bad. Which to be fair, yea it does and it should. As long as you don’t get exploited by EF then you’re fine. But don’t let EF trap you into their cocoon.

  • lordblazer

    it’s a fair comparison. though it stops right at the numbers. lifestyle. being able to afford a certain type of lifestyle. even Expats who cannot eat at local joints. then yes it becomes more expensive to be an expat.

  • lordblazer

    it comes from ASians feeling like blacks aren’t good enough. I mean Jim Crow America was like this. businesses didn’t want blacks inside because the customers felt nervous around black people or didn’t like them. those businesses were only trying to meet consumer demand. you can’t blame them can we? /s

  • lordblazer

    I think working above the contracted hours is a big deal here. to require it is a bit insane. Just include those hours into the contract so people know what they’re getting themselves into.

  • lordblazer

    having worked at a school in dallas with cutting edge tech like that. it’s just the pitfall of working in a classroom or work environment dependent upon technology. when it doesn’t work, you can’t work. luckily in education the show can still go on. which is what EF is, a show.

  • lordblazer

    yea my friend told me that EF will keep you busy during the weekends mostly because that’s their busiest times. it’s when people have free time to take lessons. hence the weekends. though EF does give you days off. I Dunno. I am working for EF now. I am about mixed about certain things. AS HR did lie about the visa thing, and gave us only little time to find an apartment. they wanted me to use an EF approved agency. I instead said “okay that sounds good” then went and did exactly what I Wanted to do which was get in touch with a few friends who helped me find a place that was reasonably priced, foreign friendly landlord, and no agency fee or agents used. pretty much the plan is to save money and find a new place first so in a few months I’ll be moving. But I’ll stay at EF for the one year contract. Then move on to brighter horizons. Having taught at an inner city school in America before. I can tell you the bad and the ugly on your life IS NOT NEARLY AS BAD AS IT CAN GET. Trust me dude, working in China is paradise compared to being a teacher in America, especially if you are a teacher in a GOP state that’s hell bent on making life impossible for teachers. being a teacher in China is more respected, and also puts you in a position to save. Don’t take it for granted even if you are working in a language mill. You could be teaching in America where I was and have a student threaten to shoot you and get attacked physically by a parent for giving their child a bad grade. teaching in america = everything you say is not to be taken seriously. You are to be held accountable for things completely out of your control.

    I’ll say EF is reasonable. There are better options out there too if you’re more than qualified, but if you are new to China and need to figure out the market (no matter the industry) then EF is a good way to get your foo tin the door and get on the ground here in China and discern things for yourself. Nothing is wrong with seeing your time there as temporary. Just do your thing. EF is bringing in teachers by the truckloads it seems. which hints to me that turnover is quite high.

  • lordblazer

    look into Fullbright.

  • lordblazer

    dude EF china pays atleast $15 an hour. which was how much I was making as a teacher in America.

  • wifienabled08

    I completely understand where you’re coming from. I’m having this EXACT issue right now.

  • http://grandadmiralgame.blogspot.com/ TheGrandAdmiral

    I’m going back into the fire to teach English in China again. I’d like to set up a business to make more money though. 5,000 RMB after taxes and rent doesn’t sound too good.

  • henrietta slain

    I am currently doing a part time job as an online English tutor and I will have to say that indeed working for such does have lotsa, well, unpleasant”ness” there. The boss is often inconsistent with his words though he is a well- tempered man. Another thing, salary is ALWAYS late and in fact not in full. Yes and yes, you are not paid fair and square for all your rendered hours and all those statutory benefit they are obliged to pay is not given. And yeah I have to add that my students are the only precious stones I have in this company I am working for right now other than me needing money.

  • Pingback: How I Can Afford to Travel…And How You Can, Too! | Vagabond Heels()

  • http://leaveyourdailyhell.com Robert Schrader

    Thanks for your feedback! Sorry you’re experiencing this, though.

  • lordblazer

    I ended up leaving EF because the CD in my center kept interrupting my classes to yell at me. he was chinese. and apparently he doesn’t want black teachers at his center. EF did nothing to help me. and they have harassed other black teachers out of their positions before.

  • lordblazer

    also I am keeping in mind that expats have bills back in their home country to pay especially Americans with student loans to pay back.

  • Pam

    Thanks for honest feedback about the perils of teaching ESL in China and EF in particular. I have a read a few websites and comment boards and I notice that they are overwhelmingly negative about places to work and all the lies and scams of recruiters and schools. Although I’m grateful to have this honest info I wish I could find all the alternatives and great opportunities that people talk about listed so that I have somewhere to go. I know Wall Street English was mentioned here but what about some good recruiters or other small schools or training centres or universities or middle schools were people found good people and at least a decent work environment free of lies and scams.

  • http://leaveyourdailyhell.com Robert Schrader

    Honestly, if you are looking for a “sure thing” with hiring and job placement in advance, Wall Street Journal is your only other realistic option.

  • Red Panda Paws

    I am having so many problems with EF ! I want out of the contract but they want to cancel my work visa and make me pay for everything they paid for, even though they owe me reimbursements. What can I do?

Previous post:

Next post: