Quench Your Wanderlust (And Save Some Money) by Teaching English Abroad

A young woman walks in Kuala Lumpur Chinatown district
Getty Image

Maybe you’re stuck in traffic on the commute home from a job you don’t like. Or maybe you’re a fresh-out-of-college grad who is hesitant to jump into the corporate world.

Whatever your situation, you’ve probably said this at some point: Something’s got to change.

Blowing your savings on an international trip isn’t the smartest move. Taking a gap year doesn’t sound like a good fit, either. But you know you want to see the world.

If you are a native English speaker, there’s a really practical solution to this dilemma: teaching English abroad. You won’t have to forego a full year of job experience or drain your bank account to do it. In fact, you’ll boost your resume and very likely save hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars while traveling.

I personally saved up to a thousand dollars a month teaching in South Korea, and my case isn’t unique, either. Jessie Smith, an expert in teaching English abroad for the International TEFL Academy (ITA), saved a similar amount each month when she taught overseas.

It all depends on what your goals are, Raneem Taleb-Agha said. She taught English in Spain shortly after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, and said the experience jump-started her career in writing and editing.

“This is your chance to go and see the world and experience life in another country,” she said.

How to Teach English Abroad

Young teaches an english class in Tottori Prefecture, Japan.
Edward Young is shown teaching an English class in Tottori Prefecture, Japan. Young, who taught in Japan for three years, worked in public schools with students ranging from elementary school to junior high school. He also taught adult night classes on occasion. Photo courtesy of Jessie Smith

If you were born in an English-speaking country, consider yourself lucky. English is the world’s business language, and many countries are scrambling to learn it. That means jobs teaching English are in high demand.

There are a plethora of teaching programs, countries, certifications and jobs to choose from. Below are some of the biggest considerations and steps you can take before booking those plane tickets.

Standard Requirements to Teach English Overseas

When you think of teaching, you might think it requires a bachelor’s or even a master’s degree in the field. That’s because degrees are needed for typical grade school teaching jobs inside the U.S. But because the demand is so high for English teachers abroad, a degree isn’t always needed.

Of course, the requirements vary for each individual job listing, but it’s fairly easy for most U.S. citizens to get into the industry.

To meet basic requirements for international teaching jobs, you must:

  • Be a native English speaker.
  • Be at least 18 years old.
  • Have a high school diploma.

If you prefer to teach in Western Europe, chances are you will need a bachelor’s degree. (Two notable exceptions are Spain and Italy.)

“If you don’t have a four-year degree,” Taleb-Agha said, “I would recommend looking particularly at Southeast Asia or Latin America.”

Even though several countries don’t require a related degree or previous teaching experience, it’s very important to make sure you have the necessary teaching skills for the job.

“Be someone who is going to put in the work, time and effort to give the children a good experience,” Taleb-Agha said. “At the end of the day, their education is most important.”

That’s where certifications come in. And there are a ton of them.

Find the Right TEFL Certification Program

When searching for English teaching programs, you will come across a lot of acronyms, namely TEFL and TESOL. TEFL stands for “Teaching English as a Foreign Language.” TESOL means “Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.”

The terms are often interchangeable, but you’re more likely to see TEFL associated with certifications.This certification is all about practical English-teaching and classroom-management skills.

You can find certification programs, completed mostly online, at universities or through providers like ITA, who offer certification courses and job assistance in the destination country.

The University of Cambridge’s English teaching certification is referred to as the CELTA, short for Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults.

Though it costs more than most TEFL certifications, the CELTA is widely recognized internationally.

“CELTA is the global gold standard,” said Peter Novak, country manager for the U.S. and Canada at Cambridge Assessment English, a nonprofit English-language certification department at the University of Cambridge. “You can hop into any language school and start teaching the next day — and start teaching confidently.”

Not all situations require a certificate from the University of Cambridge, but it certainly won’t hurt. In many cases, it will boost your salary. At the very least, make sure the TEFL program includes a practicum component where you are in a classroom teaching real students.

Both Novak and Smith noted that there are a lot of less-than-reputable, bargain-bin programs, which aren’t accredited.

According to Smith, legitimate TEFL certifications should consist of:

  • 100 hours of coursework.
  • In-person teaching practicum with a non-English speaker, up to 20 hours.
  • Curriculum accredited by Accrediting Council for Continuing Education & Training, College of Teachers or Training Qualifications UK, or through a university.
  • Courses taught by a credentialed professor or instructor of TESOL.

Smith said to be wary of Groupo TEFL certifications taught by “TEFL coaches” instead of professors. Any too-good-to-be-true pricing is also a red flag.

“A true university-level TEFL class could not possibly run under $1,000” or so, Smith said. Sometimes, “you’ll see the words ‘self-accredited,’ which — needless to say — means just about nothing.”

Choose the Country That’s Best for You

Ask yourself what type of experience you want.

Do you want to save a lot of money? Break even financially? Travel to a particular region? Learn a certain language?

“It’s important to keep an open mind,” Taleb-Agha said. “Consider destinations that you never thought you were interested in. Go somewhere even if you don’t speak the language.”

It’s also important to consider the requirements of most jobs in the country. Your qualifications are important to determine which country to teach in.

Smith broke it down into a few categories:

  • For experienced teachers or master’s degree holders, try the United Arab Emirates. She said the pay is high and they really “roll out the red carpet for teachers.”
  • Fresh out of college? Taiwan, Vietnam or South Korea are great Asian options. Germany and the Czech Republic are top European destinations as well.
  • For less experienced teachers, there are plenty of options in Latin America and a couple in Western Europe, like Spain and Italy.

Novak said it may be a little harder to break into the English teaching industry in Northern European countries.

“English is so highly integrated in their societies,” he said, noting that they still require English teachers, just at a very advanced level.

And as with all international travel, make sure to check out the U.S. State Department’s travel advisory scale. Countries are rated on a scale of one to four — the higher the worse. A four rating simply reads, “Do not travel.” Pretty self-explanatory there.

Start Your Job Hunt

You’ve done your research and picked a country. You maybe even got a TEFL or CELTA certification. Now you have to find a job.

Some TEFL providers like ITA and Teach Adventures Asia help or even guarantee you employment after you’ve completed the program. Some countries have government-run English teaching programs, like Japan’s JET program or South Korea’s EPIK program, that place you in a public school.

But most of the time, the job hunt is up to you. Forums, Facebook groups, blogs and travel websites are all fairly good ways to find work overseas.

Taleb-Agha found her teaching job in Spain on her own.

“Using Google, I found a lot of helpful blogs,” she said.

If you’re doing the research yourself, she recommends using Young Adventuress and Go Overseas, which offers program and job reviews. She also writes several helpful articles on teaching abroad for Go Overseas as a topic expert.

And once you’ve found a school, make sure to vet it properly. After all, you’re about to move across the globe to work there.

“Request to speak to another teacher on staff,” Smith advises. “That is standard operating procedure.”

If they say no, that’s your cue to keep hunting.

Adam Hardy is an editorial assistant on the Jobs Team at The Penny Hoarder. He previously worked in international education at the University of South Florida and taught English in South Korea to grade-schoolers and North Korean refugees. Read his full bio here, or say hi on Twitter @hardyjournalism.