ESL Teachers: Here’s What You Need to Know About TEFL Certifications

A young woman is holding a flag for the International TEFL Academy atop of a mountain in South Korea .
Jessie Smith, an expert at teaching English abroad, holds up a banner for the International TEFL Academy during a visit to Bukhansan National Park, on the north side of Seoul, South Korea. Photo Courtesy of Jessie Smith

English is the language of the global business world, which means demand for English teachers is high while requirements to teach remain relatively low, especially so abroad and even more so online.

In recent years, scores of online certification companies have sprouted up to train soon-to-be English teachers, offering credentials in what’s called Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) or Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). For our purposes, they’re interchangeable.

“This is a very, very rapidly growing industry,” said Jessie Smith, a former English teacher in South Korea and Vietnam who now works at the International TEFL Academy. “The demand can’t really be put into words.” 

Teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) online is a relatively new method to help meet that demand. It’s a welcomed side gig for many. Teachers get to set their own schedules and connect with students around the world. And certified teachers can rake in $25 an hour teaching pre-made lessons. 

Not bad for a part-time, entry-level position.

But before you sign up — and pay — to obtain a TEFL certification online, here’s what you need to know.

What to Consider Before Getting a TEFL Certification Online

You might be ready to start shopping for TEFL providers, but do this first: Determine your goals as an ESL teacher.

“You owe it to your students to be a good teacher, to be a trained teacher,” Smith said. “You need to be prepared professionally, mentally.”

Why Do You Want to Teach ESL?

Do a quick pulse check. Ask yourself what you plan to accomplish as an ESL teacher. Do you want a career change? A lucrative side gig? To travel and work in other countries?

Your answer will determine what type of TEFL certification you’re going to need. 

For career changes, proper education is always a good idea. Colleges and universities are big providers of TEFL certifications, and some degrees even include them. If you don’t have a degree in TEFL, the University of Cambridge and Trinity College provide the most comprehensive certifications — referred to as the CELTA and the Trinity, respectively. These programs are only offered in-person.

(Full disclosure: I earned a CELTA before teaching English abroad. It was the most intense program I’ve ever experienced.)

But if you’re eyeing a temporary side gig, you may not want to shell out the money for an expensive, in-person certification to teach ESL online. Almost all accredited TEFL certifications will require an in-person component, usually a 20-hour teaching practicum at a local language center or school. However, as members of ESL advice forums will tell you, most online employers don’t check or require accredited certifications with in-person practicums (for now).

Lastly, one of the most effective ways to earn money while traveling is by teaching English abroad. Requirements vary by country, though it’s good to have a bachelor’s degree plus an accredited TEFL certificate with a teaching practicum. Latin American and Southeast Asian countries have laxer rules and may not require a degree or a TEFL certification.

What Does it Take to Become TEFL-Certified?

The majority of programs simply require that applicants are 18 years old or older and have a high school diploma. Native English fluency isn’t required, as TEFL certifications are popular credentials for foreign English teachers as well. But a high level of English fluency is required to participate in top-tier programs (C1 or IELTS Band 7, for the ESL nerds).

Programs may vary slightly, but quality programs should include at least 120 hours of coursework with 20 hours dedicated to hands-on teaching to foreign-language-speaking students. These lessons should be observed by a qualified ESL professor.

CELTA and Trinity programs are graded on a pass/fail basis while some online hybrid programs may include quizzes and require a passing score of 60%. 

How Much Do TEFL Certifications Cost?

Depending on what program you choose and what your goals are as a teacher, costs will range widely.

A TEFL certification online can run for $9 on Groupon, but you should know that it’s unaccredited. Online ESL teachers tend to purchase Groupon programs simply for a certification code that they add to their job applications, which can boost hourly pay toward the $25 mark. But if you plan to teach in person or long-term, skip the bargain bin programs.

Pro Tip

Plan to teach English in person? Get a TEFL certification with an in-person practicum to boost your confidence and gain real-world teaching experience. 

The “brand name” TEFL certifications, aka the CELTA and Trinity, run between $2,000 and $3,000. These programs are internationally recognized and are more suited for career ESL teachers.

Most accredited TEFL programs are usually half that price: around $1,100.

“A true, university-level TEFL class could not possibly run under $1,000,” Smith said.

How Do You Know If a TEFL Certification Online is Legit?

Young teaches an english class in Tottori Prefecture, Japan.
Edward Young, who taught in Japan for three years, leads an English class in Tottori Prefecture. Photo courtesy of Jessie Smith

Online TEFL providers are everywhere. They’re quick. They’re cheap. And most of the time, they’re unaccredited. Some companies aren’t transparent in their accreditation, which means they probably aren’t legit.

In some program listings, you’ll see the words “self-accredited,” Smith said. “Which — needless to say — means just about nothing.”

Price is another factor. The cheaper the price, the higher the chance the program is unaccredited. That doesn’t mean, however, that expensive programs are automatically legit. Shady providers can just as easily charge more money to give an air of quality.

If the program costs hundreds or thousands of dollars, confirm that it’s run by an experienced professor and that the company holds a recognized accreditation. 

The most popular accrediting bodies for TEFL programs are:

  • Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET)
  • British Council
  • Chartered College of Teaching (formerly College of Teachers)
  • Training Qualifications U.K. (TQUK)
  • The World TEFL Accrediting Commission

Popular accredited TEFL providers include:

  • Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE)
  • International TEFL Academy
  • International Open Academy
  • University-run TEFL programs, including the CELTA and Trinity
You owe it to your students to be a good teacher, to be a trained teacher. You need to be prepared professionally.

The list is by no means exhaustive. If you stumble upon a program that you’re unsure of, search the website for an accreditation seal or license number. Still unsure? Contact the accrediting body directly to confirm that the provider is legit. If you’re only shelling out $9, you may decide it’s not worth your time. But if you come across an expensive TEFL program that isn’t mentioned above, be sure to check for accreditation.   

Most accrediting bodies require TEFL providers to include a practicum to receive accreditation. One notable exception is International Open Academy’s TEFL program, which is fully online. The Penny Hoarder confirmed with TQUK that the program is accredited.

When shopping around for a TEFL certification online, it can be difficult to verify each provider on your own. Be judicious. If you’re unsure about a specific program, don’t waste your money. Apply to another one that’s better vetted.

At the end of the day, quality is what counts. Schools and employers won’t discredit you for accidentally obtaining TEFL certification online that is not accredited, but they will care if you’re lacking the proper skills to teach their students.

Adam Hardy is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. He’s a Cambridge-certified English teacher who taught South Korean grade schoolers and North Korean refugees in Seoul. Read his ​latest articles here, or say hi on Twitter @hardyjournalism.