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What qualification do I need to teach in Korea? CELTA, TESOL, and TEFL explained

Korean scholarsWhat degree do you need to teach in Korea?

As regular readers know, I like to explore things in depth. But I know that’s not for everyone. So, first, here is the very short version of this article: the answer to the question in the title. For all the reasons why these things are true, I go into much more detail later.

The short version

One question I am often asked is, “What qualification should I get if I want to teach English in Korea?”

Here is the short answer:

1. If you are interested in teaching in one of the public school programs such as EPIK, you should get a TEFL/TESOL qualification. If it’s at all possible, you should do a course that has a 20-hour, in-class component. Read why here.

f you are happy to work in hagwons, an online course is all you will need. Read why here.

If you think you might want to teach in other places in the world, or if you want to make a career out of teaching English, you should look at CELTA. Read why here.

The longer version

To newcomers, the world of TESOL qualifications can be confusing. Not only is there a bunch of acronyms – TESOL, CELTA, etc – but there is also a lot of misinformation on the net from shady companies who would like to sell you a very expensive piece of paper. There is also the question of accreditation, and whether anyone will take your degree seriously or not.

This post will attempt to make it a little less confusing for you. It is particularly aimed at people who want to teach English in Korea.

The acronyms: CELTA, TEFL, TESOL, TEFL, etc…

There are a lot of acronyms. Here’s what they mean:

CELTA stands for Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults. It is a specific course created by Cambridge University. This is the “gold standard” qualification for teaching English to non-native speakers and is recognized all over the world.

TESOL stands for teaching English to speakers of other languages, and means to teach English to a non-native speaker. A “TESOL certificate” is just a qualification for doing that.

TESL stands for teaching English as a second language, and means to teach English to a non-native speaker in an English speaking country.

TEFL stands for teaching English as a foreign language, and means to teach English to a non-native speaker in a country where English is not a primary language.

So technically, teaching English in Korea is TEFL, not TESL. This is a useful distinction if you are doing an academic study, or want to smugly correct somebody, but doesn’t make a lot of difference in choosing a course – you will learn the same things whether the course calls itself TEFL, TESL, or TESOL, and nobody in Korea will care which you did. For most purposes, the terms are interchangeable.

So, what qualification do I need to teach English in Korea?

Technically speaking: none of them. The only official qualification you need to teach English in Korea is a Bachelor’s degree.

Despite this, if you do want to teach English in Korea, you will certainly want to get yourself a TESOL/TEFL qualification, for reasons I will explain.

So why do I need a language teaching qualification, then?

There are a few reasons why you will want to get some kind of TEFL qualification, even though it is not theoretically required for teaching English in Korea:

Reason 1: Teaching English is not as easy as you might think

When you see it portrayed in movies, teaching English as a foreign language looks easy. Hey, you already know English, right? According to movies, it involves standing in front of a class and saying sentences, which students then repeat. A great teacher is one who teaches the students “real English”, too, like in this Robin Williams clip from Good Morning Vietnam:

It’s a funny scene, but… if you actually taught a language class the way Robin Williams does it here, the result would not be a bunch of students laughing uproariously and loving you. It would be a sea of confused, silent students who occasionally look at each other and ask in their own language, “What is he saying? Why does he talk so fast? I don’t understand – is he a crazy man?”

Reality is very different from the movies. For example, do you know the difference between “I go to work” and “I am going to work”? Can you explain that difference, using only English that is less complex than those two sentences? Why do we say “I want bread” but “I want a milkshake”? How can you teach English to people who don’t know any English at all? What’s more effective – having students listen and repeat sentences, or having them practice together in groups? Why? When would you use one, and when the other?

You owe it to your future students and yourself not to be a fumbling incompetent when you step into the classroom.

Reason 2: Money

Did I successfully appeal to your desire to be a good teacher? I hope so. But if I didn’t, here is another very good reason why you will want to get some sort of TEFL or TESOL qualification:


Getting a TEFL qualification will give you a net profit of around $2000 in your first year alone.

Here’s how the math works:

Whether you are in a public school program or a hagwon, your salary depends on a combination of qualifications and experience. Almost everyone, including hagwons, follows the EPIK pay scale.

So, let’s assume that you don’t have teaching experience or a degree in Education. If you came to Korea with those qualifications and no TEFL certificate, teaching with EPIK in, say, Busan, you would be paid 1.8 million won a month. (Actually, EPIK is no longer hiring teachers with these qualifications at all, as I will explain later. However, it is still listed on the EPIK pay scale, and you could still theoretically be employed in a hagwon with these qualifications using the same pay scale, so the exercise is worth doing).

If you have the same qualifications plus a TEFL certificate for a 100 hour course, you will be paid 2 million won per month. Including the standard end of contract bonus, and using a conversion rate of ₩1000 = USD $1, this is a difference of $2600 a year. An entirely online TEFL course will typically cost only a few hundred dollars. So you can see that even if you only teach in Korea for one year, having a TEFL or TESOL qualification will result in a net profit to you of thousands of dollars.

Reason 3: Job prospects

I mentioned earlier what you would be paid if you came to Korea as an EPIK teacher with only a Bachelor’s degree. But the truth is that these days, you won’t be coming to Korea as an EPIK teacher at all if you don’t have a TEFL/TESOL qualification, or a degree in Education.

These days, EPIK will simply not accept applicants who don’t have a TEFL/TESOL degree, unless they are Education majors or have a teacher’s license. If you’re not in one of those two categories and want to work in the public school system, you’ll need to get a TEFL/TESOL certification.

For GEPIK, too, all recruiters will insist on a TEFL or TESOL qualification before they will try to find you a public school position.

As I said, hagwons differ, and there are still hagwons that will hire people based on no more than an American accent and an attractive Caucasian face. But these are not the sorts of places you would want to work, anyway – most of the decent places will insist on a TESOL/TEFL qualification.

OK, you’ve convinced me – so what qualification should I get?

Option 1: CELTA

As I said earlier, CELTA is the “gold standard” in English language teaching qualifications. CELTA takes one month full time, or three months part time to complete. It is challenging (as you would expect from Cambridge University) and expensive. If you do it full time, prepare for a frenzied month of writing assignments while teaching real lessons which will be brutally critiqued by your teachers and peers. Doing it part time is probably equally challenging, if you are also working full-time.

Because it is expensive, many people do CELTA while traveling in places like Thailand or Cambodia, where it is cheaper. Despite (and partly because of) its frenzied nature, people often find it a memorable experience and become close friends with their classmates. It will also give you a thorough preparation for teaching English as a second or foreign language.

In most of the world, a job teaching English requires a “CELTA or equivalent qualification”. But, here is the important thing to know about qualifications for teaching English in Korea:

CELTA means almost nothing in Korea.

Despite its rigour and fame, in Korea it is just another TESOL qualification. It will earn you no more money, and won’t make you any more employable.

The reason for this is historical. In most of the world, the history of teaching English as a foreign language traces back to Britain and the work of the British Council, which is closely associated with the development and teaching philosophy of CELTA. So, for most of the world, CELTA is the standard.

South Korea, of course, is historically tied to the United States. So, CELTA means very little in South Korea. It might help you in the unlikely event that you are being interviewed by a knowledgeable person from a Commonwealth country, but for EPIK, GEPIK, SMOE, hagwons, and most recruiters, it will make no difference whatsoever. Given the expense and difficulty of it, and given that nobody will give you any special credit for having done it, CELTA is overkill and unnecessary for someone who only wants to teach English in Korea.

Recommended for: people who would like to teach English all over the world, or people who would like to make a career out of teaching English.

Option 2: An online course with at least 100 hours of instruction, and 20 hours of in-class instruction

This is the qualification which EPIK specifically recommends. They have noted that while an online-only course meets the minimum requirements, a course with an in-class component is “highly preferred” by the Offices of Education. (20 hours of in-class instruction, by the way, just means what it says: you study 20 hours in an actual classroom with a teacher, and not online. Usually this is done over the course of a single weekend.)

For a long time, EPIK has wanted to make this sort of qualification compulsory, but they’ve never quite managed to do it. Recently, there have been strong suggestions that from 2016, a course with 20 in-class hours will be required. So if you are planning to apply in 2016 or later, I would strongly urge you to do one of these courses.*

*As of 2018, they still haven’t bit the bullet on this one. I’m not sure if they ever will; regardless, if you want to make a strong application to EPIK, I would still recommend a course with an in-class component.

At present an online-only course is still acceptable, and people are still admitted to the program with an online-only course, however standards have increased and EPIK is becoming more competitive. You do an online-only course at your own risk.

There are a few organizations which offer courses with the required in class hours. The one I recommend is the i-to-i 140 Hour Professional TEFL Certificate which features the required 20 hours of in-class instruction, in addition to the online component.

i-to-i offers these courses in many cities around the world:

Australia: Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Perth
USA: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco, and Washington DC.
Canada: Toronto
New Zealand: Auckland
UK: Birmingham, Brighton, Bristol, Cadiff, Coventy, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Sheffield, Southampton, St Andrews, and Swansea
Ireland: Athlone, Belfast, Cork, Donegal, Dublin, Dundalk, Galway, Limerick, Sligo, Tralee, Waterford and Wexford
South Africa: Capetown, Durban, Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth, Pretoria.
Other: Hong Kong, Utrecht

Recommended for: Anyone who is interested in a job in a Korean public school. You might still be able to get a public school job with an online only course, but it is a risk.

Learn more about the i-to-i 140 Hour TEFL Certificate


Option 3: A 100 hour online TEFL qualification

This is the minimum requirement for teaching in Korean public schools, unless you have a teacher’s certification or a degree in Education.

As I’ve said, if you want a job in the public school system, I strongly recommend choosing a course with the 20 hours of in class instruction. However, an online-only TEFL qualification is good enough for hagwon jobs.

There are a lot of these courses around. Many of them are a joke, featuring generic, plagiarised material which the students “learn at their own pace” before completing a multiple choice quiz – the answers to which are widely available on the internet. You can take one of these cheap courses, which are really no more than money for a fancy certificate, if you want, and you can probably get away with it, but I won’t recommend it – I think they are one step above outright fraud.

If you only want to get a 100 hour certificate but want something more than a very expensive piece of paper, I again recommend i-to-i, who offer a 120 hour online only course. It covers the same material as the course above, but without the real-life component. It’s not difficult, and will give you a good overview of teaching English as a foreign language.

Recommended for: people who are mostly interested in hagwon jobs, or who are willing to take a chance with a public school position.

Learn more about the i-to-i 120 hour online course


Why do I recommend i-to-i courses?

For a few reasons:

1. Because if you order through them, I earn a small commission. Full disclosure – the money I earn from this helps maintain the running costs of this site.

2. I’ve recommended them for a while, and have had feedback on their courses from a few people. I won’t lie to you or give you a bunch of false endorsements – the feedback has been, “I got what I expected and what I paid for, and there were no problems”, rather than “It was a mind-opening experience that changed my outlook on life”. The people who have got these qualifications have had no problem having them accepted in Korea, and many of them are teaching in Korea right now (I always ask anyone who takes one of these courses to drop me a note and let me know how they found it.) EPIK and recruiters all accept the i-to-i certification.

One reader even kindly sent me a scan of their i-to-i certificate, which as they said “looks impressive enough, and even has a raised seal!”:

i-to-i 120 hour online TEFL certificate

If you do take any of the i-to-i courses mentioned here, I’d love to hear about it – please send me an email and tell me about your experience with these courses.

Sorry for the length of this – I wanted to give you all the information you might need. If you have any other concerns, feel free to ask me a question, and I hope to see you soon in Korea!