Teach English in Asia

Why You Should Teach English Overseas

Several college friends of mine had decided to teach English in Japan, Korea and China after graduation. Teaching English abroad, they told me, affords you a high salary compared to your cost of living, free or cheap accommodation and reimbursement for your plane ticket, cultural immersion and opportunities for travel notwithstanding.

I first considered teaching English overseas in early 2009, after losing my job during the heat of the financial crisis. Although I initially sought new employment here in the U.S., I’d had enough after more than nine months of joblessness. I applied for a position with a large school in Shanghai, China — and got it.

Whether you’re unemployed, professionally stuck or just want a change of pace in your life, I cannot recommend highly enough that you teach English overseas. Working abroad as an English teacher allows you to repair your finances, travel frequently and immerse yourself in a foreign culture in a way most people never will.

Need help finding an ESL job abroad? Let me help.

Teaching English Abroad Salary

Generally speaking, first-time English teachers in Asia can expect to make between $1,500 and $3,000 per month depending on where they teach. The teaching English abroad salary tends to be higher in more expensive countries like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan to offset high costs of living. Likewise if you choose to to rough it in Cambodia or Vietnam, expect your pay to reflect that. Teaching English in countries like China and Thailand generally results in a teaching English abroad salary slightly less than you might get in Korea or Japan, but you earn more than teachers in poorer countries.

Working for English First (a large company) in Shanghai (a large, expensive city), my gross teaching English abroad salary was 12,350 yuan per month, which was equivalent to about $1,850 at the time I signed my contract. Deductions wise, I was responsible for paying a 20 per cent flat tax, as well as health insurance premiums that ended up running about 500 yuan monthly, which left me around 9,000 yuan (or $1,400) per month before expenses.

The highest teaching English abroad salaries in the world are without a doubt found in the Middle East, where multinational oil companies are in desperate need of educated native English speakers to help local executives become better at communicating with Westerners. Take-home pay for English teachers in the Middle East ranges anywhere from $5,000-7,000 per month — and is usually tax-free for at least the first two years.

If you want to teach in Europe or South America, plenty of opportunities exist. Keep in mind, however, that your salary will almost certainly be lower — there is a lack of demand for English jobs in Europe; and many schools in South America are too poor to pay teachers fair salaries. This can cause problems in Europe especially, where living costs are often even higher than they are in the United States. You might need to hire a firm such as Glenmore Investments to manage your money so you have more of it.

Benefits of Teaching English in Asia

One rumor that seems to have made its way around the Internet is that people who teach English abroad always have free room and board. Although this is usually the case if you teach English in Korea, Japan, Taiwan and the Middle East, it’s far from the status quo in most other places. Even in countries where schools offer you an apartment, you must keep in mind that the school chooses the apartment — and they don’t choose with you in mind.

Another false assumption is that schools who don’t provide an apartment — or who provide an apartment that doesn’t meet your expectations — will give you a cost of living stipend. My friend Kale and his girlfriend taught English outside of Taipei. His job gave him an apartment; hers didn’t. Within weeks of arriving in Taiwan, he was paying half her rent, fed up with the closet they stuffed him in.

I was responsible for procuring my own apartment in Shanghai when I went to teach English in China. It was an arduous task, but I ended up finding a one-bedroom less than 10 minutes from my school by subway for around 2,800 yuan or about $400 per month. Utilities comprised an average of ¥350, or $50 extra per month.

Of course, not all things are too good to be true. For example, I’ve almost never heard of a school (in Asia or the Middle East, at least) that doesn’t at least pay for your flight over to your new country. This being said, “pay” is a subjective term. While a small percentage of schools book a roundtrip ticket for you when you sign your contract, the best you can usually expect is to be reimbursed for the first leg of your trip when and if you actually arrive — many teachers don’t.

My contract stipulated that I would reimbursed a flat 8,000 yuan stipend spread out in monthly payments over the length of my one-year contract. Although I can see where the school was coming from — incremental reimbursement provides an incentive for a teacher to complete his contract — the amount they provided wasn’t enough to cover the cost of even the discounted ticket I purchased. Some of my fellow teachers purportedly spent over double this amount. Furthermore, the 667-yuan (or about $100) monthly payments went almost unnoticed, thanks to the rest of the aforementioned deductions from my check.

Teaching overseas — and, more broadly, living overseas — also affords you greater and cheaper access to exotic destinations your counterparts at home probably don’t know exist. Examples of cities within four hours flying time of Shanghai, for example, include Bangkok, Hanoi, Hong Kong, Seoul and Tokyo.

Don’t say no to a school if they make you pay for your own apartment. Press the person to whom you speak if they won’t pay you outright for at least the inbound portion of your air ticket.

How Much Can You Make Teaching English Abroad?

As is the case at home, the rate at which you save and, ultimately, how much you save depends completely on you.

To recap, my monthly financial breakdown in Shanghai was as follows, with all amounts in Chinese yuan:

Base salary          +12,350
Flight allowance     +667
Rent/Bills               -3,150
Tax/Deductions   -3,350
GRAND TOTAL 6,517 (or about $1,000)

This doesn’t include groceries or other monthly expenditures; but to be fair, those things are cheap in China, particularly if you’re willing to live like a local, like I was. Regardless of the fact that almost half my monthly salary was consumed by bills and taxes, however, I nonetheless had around $1,000 of disposable income each month. By the time my birthday rolled around — roughly three months after I arrived — I had completely paid off my credit card debt, bought a roundtrip ticket to Bangkok in cash and saved enough to live well once I arrived in Thailand.

Where to Find ESL Jobs

One good place to start your ESL job hunt is teflSearch, a new resource that combines a smart search engine with simple navigation and clean, beautiful design. It gives you all the information prospective teachers expect to find, from sample budgets for living in different countries, to guides on local taxes, to general job search tips. It’s also worth checking out Dave’s ESL Café, the longest running ESL job site.

Expat Life in Asia

Part of my having saved so much of my income, of course, has to do with the fact that I lived very frugally. One tactic schools use to lure prospective teachers into contracts is the prospect of living lavish lifestyles, thanks to salaries several times higher than the average worker makes.

Attempting to live a Western lifestyle overseas, at least full-time, is a bad idea for a number of reasons. For one, many of the creature comforts foreign expats long for have to be imported, something that reflects at the cash register. A box of Cheerios in Shanghai, for example, costs no less than ¥60, or around $9. Alcohol is uniformly expensive throughout Asia and many bars and clubs charge high covers to limit access to locals.

There are other reasons for aspiring to live more like a local besides financial ones. If you get in the habit of hanging out only with fellow foreigners, you will likely miss out on the immersion experience that’s so central to living and working overseas. Dining and drinking out frequently may make your wallet slimmer — but your body will almost certainly plump up.

The bottom line is that unless you luck into an extremely high salary (or accept part-time, freelance gigs like I did the last couple months I was in Shanghai) you have to choose between saving money and living lavishly — don’t expect to be able to do both, at least not as a new English teacher.

Is There a Catch to Teaching English in Asia?

In a word: Yes.

Now this doesn’t mean you should expect to be overworked, paid behind schedule and otherwise taken advantage of. What you should keep in mind, however, is that everything comes with a price.

For every moment of pause or enlightenment you enjoy as a result of being so far from home, you’ll have a corresponding (and hopefully fleeting) feeling of utter cultural alienation. My first time shopping for groceries in Shanghai, for example, I wasn’t aware that I had to have someone weigh all the produce I purchased. And the cashier didn’t show me any mercy when she sent my ass back to square one, even after 20 minutes of waiting.

There are other catches, too, some specific to where you teach. Many Middle Eastern schools, for example, expect Master’s or even Doctorate degrees in exchange for their higher salaries. As a result, it is highly recommended that you earn an advanced degree before attempting to teach in this part of the world. Luckily, you can earn a Master of Arts in Teaching English as a Foreign Language from an online university, giving you the credentials that are necessary to secure a higher paying job. The good news about this degree is that it even qualifies you to teach at the post-secondary level in the United States. Therefore, you can head overseas for a few years to make some money and gain experience, and then head home once you find a good job at an American university.

In some Central and South American schools, you not only receive no pay in exchange for your time and trouble, you must actually contribute in order to be able to work. If you’re a first-time ESL teacher or even worse, a first-time teacher in general, don’t expect to be able to bargain on your salary much — and don’t feel offended if most of your co-workers make more than you do for doing the same job.

And what for the promise of easy travel? For me, living in China was conveniently for traveling through Asia — this is most of what sold me about teaching in Shanghai. Schools aren’t always generous about allowing you to take leave, however, even if you offer to do so without pay. Therefore, although teaching ESL makes it easier to travel than it would be at home, you shouldn’t expect to travel every week or even every month.

Catches aside, however, I will repeat what I said at the beginning of the article: If you need to repair your finances — and prefer to do so with reasonably easy access to travel and with living costs low enough to treat yourself like a king from time to time — teaching is ESL is without a doubt your best means of getting the job done . Still have doubts about teaching English in Asia? Leave a comment and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.

About The Author

is the author of 847 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!


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{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

Christina January 30, 2012 at 10:33 am

Hi Robert, this is a great introduction article to teaching English overseas. I understand there are a few certification courses for teaching English overseas such as TOEF, TEFL and CELTA. May I know what are the differences for these?

In addition, is there high competition for a female to get jobs teaching English overseas?

Robert Schrader January 30, 2012 at 11:13 am

Hi Christina:

To answer your questions —

1) TELF and TOEFL are the “basic” certifications the majority of schools require, while CELTA and DELTA will help you get jobs at more prestigious schools, even American international schools. While you can typically do TEFL and TOEFL online, the upper-echelon certificates are usually awarded after a weekend (or more) of workshops and are uniformly more expenisive — but also arguably more valuable.

2) RE: Gender, I wouldn’t say it’s any more competitive for women than for men, to be honest. We had a pretty even split at my school and that seemed to be the case at most schools I visited.

Where are you thinking of going?

Jalisa April 28, 2012 at 6:52 pm

great article! I’m currently a Chinese major at the University of Florida… do you think it would be better to try to negotiate a job teaching English in China through my university or doing it on my own? Since I’m not finished with my degree yet, I haven’t really been looked at all the job requirement variations between countries, but would you presume being able to speak their native language as well as English may generate a pay increase?

Robert Schrader April 28, 2012 at 7:44 pm

Hi Jalisa:

Absolutely go for it yourself. Unless you have a particular school you want to teach at and someone at your university personally known a person who can get you the job, you will probably do a better job selling your qualifications that any school employee will do. I have a post coming up on ESL job search tips, so stay tuned for that.

To be honest, I think being able to speak their language would benefit you more in terms of getting a corporate-type job there. Most ESL teaching in China (and, increasingly, around the world) is done in an immersion setting — they don’t want the students to be able to speak their original languages. The only exception to this rule at the school where I taught was for “Level 0” and “Level 1” beginners, but those classes were usually taught by local teachers who are fluent in English, who were ironically paid significantly less! Hope this answers your question.

Paul May 17, 2012 at 6:26 am

Brilliant article. Exactly the information I was looking for. I’m considering doing the CELTA and teaching English in Shanghai. Like you I want to get a leg up financially while immersing myself in a foreign culture. Can i ask did you have any special kind of experience that helped you get your position? Do they differentiate wages based on your BA grade or other qualifications? And finally, is it a case of keeping yourself to yourself while over there, or can you integrate easily with locals/expats?

Robert Schrader May 17, 2012 at 7:50 am

Hi Paul:

Thanks for your comment! First off, I had zero special qualifications. Secondly, pay is the same unless you get a different position, i.e. Senior Teacher or Director of Studies. And finally, you are very much allowed to integrate easily, although you have to temper your going out in order to avoid blowing all your money.

Beverley July 9, 2012 at 7:10 pm

Love these tips! I’m planning on doing a TEFL course while I’m in New Zealand (which is basically now until next June) and then teaching English in Thailand. It’s great to know what kind of rate I can expect to get paid etc and I love the encouragement to just DO IT!

I think the upsides definitely outweigh the downsides anyway 🙂

Stephanie Raley September 27, 2012 at 7:22 pm

Thank you so much for this, I am amazed at the salary of English teachers in the Middle East! Do you know if the degree/masters need to be in English or any subject?

Robert Schrader September 27, 2012 at 7:54 pm

As far as I know, it can be in any subject!

Rachie November 1, 2012 at 9:13 am

Hi. I found this post really helpful. Do you happen to know if it’s possible to get a teaching job in China without a degree?

Guest November 1, 2012 at 6:52 pm

How do you deal with the language barrier in other countries when teaching?

Robert Schrader November 2, 2012 at 7:31 am

It is possible, but most of the institutions who will accept you with no degree/verification of a degree aren’t going to pay very much or be very good workplaces. Alternatively, if you have teaching experience or a certficate of some kind, some schools might work with you.

Robert Schrader November 2, 2012 at 7:32 am

Well the thing is, most schools use an immersion method, which means the students’ mother language is not permitted in the classroom. So, in this way, the language barrier is actually advantageous! But as far as daily life goes, making local friends helped a lot. I also studied Mandarin when I was living in Shanghai.

Sweetiecaramel101 December 17, 2012 at 5:54 am

Hi, I’m a freshman in college and I was going to major in English and. Then get a masters in ESL and I was wondering if it would be a good career to travel to the middle east to make good income. My finance is ok but I want to do this as a long term degree and not a side job to fix things.?

Rose February 20, 2013 at 6:50 pm

Where can you apply for a job like this, and can you do so without a degree in ESL?

Robert Schrader February 21, 2013 at 4:19 am

Hi Rose:

You don’t need a degree in ESL, but you do need a bachelors degree of some kind.

Aria February 22, 2013 at 1:28 am

Do Asian schools have summer breaks like Western schools do? Also, are women given equal opportunity and pay?

Robert Schrader February 24, 2013 at 12:10 am

Hi Aria:

Private schools don’t have summer breaks, but public schools do. Women are given equally opportunity and pay!

Trevor April 4, 2013 at 8:36 pm

Thanks for that Robert.So informative.

Dave April 5, 2013 at 5:02 pm

you forgot to mention most school only hires white people/ Americans.

Bill Gryan April 7, 2013 at 7:45 pm

“…most schools only hire…”

Elisa Snyder April 17, 2013 at 10:31 am

Do you need a TESOL certificate to teach abroad? I have a Masters in Instruction and Curriculum/ESL – Bilingual from the University of Colorado, and have been teaching ESL in a Colorado high school for 10 years. Thank you, Elisa Snyder

Robert Schrader April 17, 2013 at 10:43 am

Elisa, you don’t necessarily need a TESOL, but most schools require some kind of alternative certification. Check with the institution(s) for which you want to work to learn more about specific requirements.

Cindy Denny April 26, 2013 at 6:53 pm

I am a 55 year old female with a lifetime teaching certificate in Texas. I have been teaching English at the secondary level about 30 miles from the border with Mexico for the last 19 years. The last four years I have been the librarian. I have completed about 1/2 of my masters in information science online with the University of North Texas. I am healthy, energetic, and love teaching. However, my lifelong dream of travel is not being fulfilled, hence I can not stop thinking about teaching abroad.

My biggest concern is my age. Will being 55 years old be a problem? Also, my husband of 33 years will need to come with me. Will his accompanying me be a problem?

I truly appreciate you straight forward information, insight, and advice. I have no problem getting a TESOL certificate if necessary. Thank you for you assistance.

Cindy M. Denny

Sandy May 14, 2013 at 5:05 pm

Did you know any chinese when you first went to china? I’d love to travel by teaching ESL, but I only know spanish and english.

Robert Schrader May 14, 2013 at 8:42 pm

Actually, many schools prefer you know no Chinese, so as to create an immersion environment for students.

John Hennessy May 15, 2013 at 4:53 pm

Hi! I live in England, and am married to a Chinese lady for almost ten years. I lost my full time job in 2009 and have been teaching martial arts full time since then. I’ve authored one book and penned two more, but I’m still only ticking over. I need to make progression on my finances. I have visited China 5 times, and love Shanghai in particular. I had been advised by my wife to work in China before, but the job offered was about 3000 yuan a month back in 2003, so I didn’t take it. My Chinese is basic but functional….do you think I should go for it and teach English after all? I am 40 in July…and need to get on top of things!

Ellie May 20, 2013 at 2:14 pm

A friend of mine is teaching ESL in Korea, I’m considering doing the same. I’ve also been looking into teaching in China and have had a few repsonses back from recruiters. After reading about the 20% in taxes though I’m not sure about China. Any thoughts on China vs Korea???

Red Dragon May 24, 2013 at 2:21 pm

Thanks Robert for the insight! What was your reasoning for the follow up to Thailand? Would you have gone there first instead?
Secondly, I’ve heard that ESL often times becomes a gateway to get hired from companies needing business consulting etc….have you seen ESL as a link to other industries?

Nick June 10, 2013 at 3:53 pm

I stupidly got a DUI in 2009 right after I graduated from College. I was able to teach in Korea right after that as all of the paperwork had already gone through. I want to go teach abroad again but I am finding the DUI holding me back. Korea definitely will not allow me back. Has anyone had any experience with this and getting a job in another country?
Also, the health care provided for us in Korea was excellent and easy. What have you experienced in other countries.

ankur June 18, 2013 at 2:47 pm

can a non white person get esl job? i m indian

Robert Schrader June 20, 2013 at 6:23 am

Yes, Ankur, certainly!

ankur June 20, 2013 at 7:07 am


Kathleen Ahern July 3, 2013 at 10:04 am

I was offered a position with EF in Shanghai recently as well, to teach in one of their online learning centers. Are you familiar with these types of centers? I taught ESL for 6 years in Spain, now being grossly under-employed, thinking of checking out Asia…. any input would be greatly appreciated.

Robert Schrader July 5, 2013 at 7:54 am


I am not personally familiar with these types of centers – they were just being rolled out when I worked there. I wish you good luck, however!

quesararara July 8, 2013 at 11:50 am

Robert would you mind giving me the answer you gave Red Dragon?

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