Teaching English in Korea – the big guide
Are you thinking of coming to Korea to teach English? This page aims to tell you everything you need to know to become an English teacher in Korea.
This article is updated regularly. Most recent update: February 15th, 2016.
- 1 Can I teach English in Korea?
- 2 Can I actually get a job as an English instructor in Korea?
- 3 Do I need a TESOL/TEFL qualification?
- 4 What English teaching jobs are available?
- 5 Should I work in a public school or hagwon?
- 6 Do I need to speak Korean?
- 7 What documents do I need?
- 8 Where can I find job advertisements?
- 9 Should I use a recruiter?
- 10 Where can I teach?
- 11 How much can I save / what’s the cost of living in Korea?
- 12 Application form
- 13 Application essay
- 14 Interview tips for teaching jobs in Korea
- 15 Any other tips?
- 16 Getting the job
- 17 Prior to coming
- 18 Arrival
- 19 After arrival
- 20 The end
Can I teach English in Korea?
According to the Korean immigration website, you can teach English in Korea if you are:
– A native of a country whose “mother tongue” is English. In practice, this means England, Ireland, the United States, Canada, South Africa, Australia, or New Zealand
– Have a Bachelor’s Degree from an accredited university
– Have a clean criminal record.
You can probably think of a thousand different types of people who don’t meet the above qualifications who would make excellent teachers. What of a doctor from Jamaica, or a white lawyer from Zimbabwe? What if you’re a CELTA graduate with 5 years experience, but no university degree? Unfortunately, you’re out of luck.
Can I actually get a job as an English instructor in Korea?
If you meet the above requirements, I’d say the answer is yes: I’m sure even the most hopeless slob from an English speaking country with a Bachelor’s degree can get a job somewhere, in some desperate hagwon. I’ve met enough malcontents, drunks and oddities to be confident of that – assuming you are willing to take a job anywhere.
Having said that, the market for English teachers has become more competitive over the last couple of years. If you don’t want to work in “some desperate hagwon”, then any of the following is likely to help:
- a Master’s degree
- an English, education, or linguistics related degree
- teaching experience
- an Anglo-Saxon appearance
- Being young
- Being female
- Being attractive and thin
You might find some of these things discriminatory and unfair, and I wouldn’t disagree with you. But they are the basis of what constitutes employability for someone wishing to teach English teacher in Korea.
The public school programs – EPIK, SMOE, GEPIK, etc – are less likely to be concerned about irrelevent aspects of your physical appearance, while hagwons are less likely to be concerned about additional qualifications.
People of Korean descent
If you have at least one parent or grandparent who is Korean, you can get an F-4 visa. This will allow you to live and work in Korea, but won’t necessarily qualify you for some teaching jobs: EPIK, for instance, still requires a Bachelor’s degree.
Do I need a TESOL/TEFL qualification?
This is an important topic, and I strongly recommend you read the main article: What qualification should I get to teach English in Korea? CELTA, TEFL, and TESOL explained. This will help you understand the differences between the various qualifications, the financial reasons why you are better off getting such a qualification, and advice on which qualification to choose.
But here is the short answer: Technically, and somewhat surprisingly, no, you don’t need such a qualification. But you should almost certainly get one anyway. Unlike most parts of the world, where a CELTA degree or equivalent is required, the Korean government believes that having a Bachelor’s degree in, say, Sports Science equips you to be an English teacher.
However, if you want a job in the public school system (and generally these are considered better jobs) you will need some sort of TESOL/TEFL qualification. EPIK now says that all applicants, excluding those with an Education degree or a teacher’s license, must have a TEFL/TESOL/CELTA qualification. In addition, they would really, really like you to choose a course that has at least a 20 hour, in-class component, as well as 100 hours of online instruction. I recommend some such courses here. GEPIK recruiters, too, will insist on a TEFL or TESOL qualification before they will try to find you a public school position.
There are still hagwons that will hire people based on no more than an American accent and an attractive Caucasian face. But most of the decent places will insist on a TESOL/TEFL qualification. Also, any advertisement that lists a range of salaries “based on experience and qualifications” will most likely offer a salary bump that makes acquiring such a qualification profitable (for details on why this is, again, see the main article).
What English teaching jobs are available?
I’ll classify them in five categories:
- University jobs
- Jobs in public schools
- Jobs in hagwons
- Summer/winter camp positions
- Weird things
University jobs are generally considered the best teaching jobs in Korea due to their high pay (at least, in terms of an hourly rate, although the total salary may be not much different to other positions), short teaching hours, and long vacations. But be careful: there are also many advertisements for “university jobs” that are really just glorified hagwon jobs, teaching in a language center attached to the university. These “unigwon” jobs can be distinguished from real university jobs by the required teaching hours and vacations: they will want 22-30 teaching hours a week with two weeks vacation, as opposed to the 10-15 hours and 8+ weeks vacation you generally see with real university jobs.
University jobs are not easy to get. It was once possible to get these jobs by knowing the right person, but a series of changes has made this a much less common way to get a university job. However, the requirements have become so strict that if you do qualify and can present well in an interview, you may find yourself fielding multiple job offers from different universities, as finding good candidates who meet these requirements is quite difficult, particularly for regional universities.
The most common listed requirements for university jobs are:
- A Master’s degree, preferably in TESOL, Education, Linguistics, or English
- Two years of teaching experience at a university, not during the time you were studying for your Master’s degree (although they’ve been backing off lately from the Catch-22ish, “at a university” requirement)
- All the other requirements for teaching English in Korea
Many advertisements also suggest that a Bachelor’s degree with four years teaching experience is acceptable. However for complex reasons involving government funding such candidates are hired rarely, and only out of desperation.
I wrote a lot more about the topic of how to get a job in a Korean university here.
Jobs in public schools
I believe that these are all the programs for working in public schools in South Korea:
- EPIK – most of the metropolitan cities and provinces. EPIK has also recently started hiring for Gyeonggi and Jeollanam-do provinces, which were previously covered by GEPIK and JLP, although the specific programs for those provinces still exist and hire people.
- GEPIK – Gyeonggi province
- SMOE – Seoul. Hires through EPIK.
- TaLK – Regional after-school program.
- Gnet – the English Program in Gimhae – For some strange reason, the small city of Gimhae has its own tiny program.
- Employment direct with Incheon or Busan city, or Gyeongnam and Chungnam provinces, which do some of their hiring outside of EPIK. Recruiters who specialize in public school positions are the best source for these jobs.
- Jeollanamdo Language Program – essentially just EPIK for South Jeolla province. They don’t seem to have a website and seem to hire only through recruiters. The contract is here.
- The Fulbright ETA program – for high-achieving types from the USA.
Jobs in hagwons
Demand still outstrips supply for these jobs, at least in regional areas. Of course some positions are more competitive than others; some positions in Seoul might demand higher qualifications and pay equivalently more. But if you’re flexible about where you are willing to work, hagwon jobs are still open to any bum with a degree who can stumble off a plane. You can find job listings on Dave’s ESL Cafe Korea job board, or go through a recruiter, which is advisable.
These come in two flavors. Firstly: seasonal summer/winter camp positions, which are generally looking for a moonlighting teacher already in Korea. These pay well for a couple of weeks of intense work, but don’t usually provide airfare. Type number two: English villages, which will rotate new groups of students through the “village” every week or two. At these places you can experience the joy of teaching identical lessons to new groups of students, week after week like Groundhog Day, until you eventually go insane and blow your brains out. (None of these places, by the way, are likely to resemble whatever the word “camp” conjures up in your mind).
Unclassifiable other jobs. There are jobs in private schools (I mean real private schools; not hagwons) and American/International schools. In some of these you will teach an actual subject, like science, but in English. If you are a certified teacher with teaching experience I would look out for these jobs, as they usually pay well and have good holidays.
Other things that you sometimes see advertised: English language trainer for large Korean companies, adult classes run by people like Berlitz, teacher training, textbook writing. There are some other weird things that you see from time to time. Often these turn out to be hagwon jobs in disguise, but sometimes gems turn up.
Should I work in a public school or hagwon?
For the vast majority of people looking to teach English in Korea, the main choice will be between public schools and hagwons.
If you are well-qualified, know what you are looking for, and your main reason for coming to Korea is to save money, a hagwon job may be right for you. If you are dead-set on working in Seoul or some other specific city, you may be limited to hagwons, as EPIK will only let you list a preference – and these days, they don’t look kindly on people who aren’t willing to work in any location. For most people, a public school job is likely to be more enjoyable than a hagwon job. See the main article: public school jobs vs hagwon jobs. Of course, the public school positions are generally more competitive, too.
Do I need to speak Korean?
No. Nobody will expect you to speak Korean anyway. Of course there will be some frustrating moments at first but you can go a long way with pantomime and pointing. I do, however, think you should take the time before you come to learn the alphabet and simple greetings. Of course, the more Korean you know, the easier you will find life here and the more possibilities will open up to you.
Once you’re here, I do think you should make an effort to learn the language. You might be interested in some of the various ways I’ve tried to learn Korean.
What documents do I need?
Heol (Korean weary sigh). For immigration purposes you will need:
- Sealed copies of your university transcripts
- An apostilled copy of your bachelor’s degree
- An apostilled national level criminal record check
- Self-health statement
Additionally, for EPIK and possibly other positions, you may need:
- Proof of teaching experience (necessary for higher pay)
- Copies of TESOL and teaching certificates (required for admission)
- Letters of recommendation – ideally professors. Also good: religious and community leaders, Koreans in good standing. Not so good: your supervisor, your cousin.
You will also, for various purposes, need a number of passport photos.
Getting these documents in order is a pain, takes a long time, and is expensive.
The one that seems to cause the most problems is the criminal record check. For some reason, even though it only involves putting your name into a computer and printing out a piece of paper, it takes a ridiculously long time in the US, and may take a long time in other countries, too. Fortunately, for EPIK you can now use FBI channelers for this.
If you want to teach in Korea, applying for your criminal record check should be the first thing you do. Seriously. Every year people miss out on EPIK positions because they are still waiting for their criminal record checks.
Also note that the original criminal record check is apostilled, but the university degree is an apostilled copy of your university degree, which may have to be notarized first.
How to get these things done in different countries is painful to think about, and certainly painful to write about. So here I will just direct you to these external resources:
- Official Korean government E-2 visa requirements, in English: this is the place to go for definitive answers.
- EPIK required documents
- Gone to Korea Required documents, Criminal record checks in each country, International apostilles, US apostilles
- ESL starter Criminal record checks in each country
Where can I find job advertisements?
There are many websites, but the main one is the Korea Job Board at Dave’s ESL Cafe. Most other job listing sites just seem to carry a scraped feed of this list, or feature very few advertisements.
Should I use a recruiter?
See the main article: Should I use a recruiter to find a teaching job in Korea?
Short answer: No for EPIK, SMOE, or Fullbright. Probably yes for everything else.
Where can I teach?
You will probably want Seoul or a big city, but I urge you to consider regional Korea. See: Teaching English in Korea – city or country?
How much can I save / what’s the cost of living in Korea?
There are a billion web pages on this question, and I don’t see any reason to repeat them here.
The short answer to your real question is: a single person can afford a comfortable middle-class lifestyle and still save money, if they make reasonably smart choices. A year teaching here should leave you with more than enough money for a whizzbang tour of South East Asia, or to pay down a lot of student debt. I can save almost $1000 a month without trying too hard. And the more time you spend in Old Korea, the more money you will save. Traditional Korean restaurants, markets, inter-city buses, etc will all save you money. Western restaurants, ice-bars, taxis and the KTX will eat through your money quickly. Some people manage to never have any money, which seems difficult to manage for me, but they do it somehow.
One of your required documents is a health self-assessment. You will be asked some personal questions about health issues, mental health, drinking, smoking, and tattoos and facial piercings. As part of the hiring process for EPIK and possibly other programs, these might be considered prior to you being hired, so you will want to be careful with your answers.
To look at them in order:
Health issues: as you will be provided with medical insurance, having significant medical issues may be a barrier to employment. I have heard of teachers being rejected for things like obesity and diabetes.
Update: There are a number of people coming here looking for information on teaching in Korea with diabetes. The above was a somewhat throwaway comment. The best internet resource I can find on this issue is this forum thread at ESLcafe. I’m not informed enough about the issue to say with certainty whether or not you should disclose it on your application form, however I do believe that you run a risk of being rejected for this reason if you do disclose it, particularly as positions have become more competitive.
Mental health: Korea is less understanding of things like depression and anxiety than Western countries. If you are in a rural area, it can be hard to find counselors. I can also understand that these programs don’t want people who are going to bug out midway through the school year. If you think these things might be a problem for you that you can’t overcome, I would recommend not applying in the first place. If, however, you have had minor issues in the past but are confident in your ability to handle things on your own, then you may want to carefully consider how much you need to disclose here.
Smoking and drinking: Korea is a drinking culture, and it is fine to say you drink socially; in fact you may get asked more questions if you say you don’t drink at all (what will you do when your principal offers you a drink at a school dinner? etc). Smoking – I met many smokers at EPIK orientation and asked all of them what they said on their forms. They all said they lied and claimed they didn’t smoke, except for one who said he smoked two cigarettes a day. So – either everyone lies, or some people don’t lie and don’t get selected.
Update: EPIK now requires you to sign a declaration saying you will not smoke at your school, anywhere students or teachers might see you, and any other place your school designates, including possibly your home. Be aware that this may make it extremely difficult for you to find anywhere you can smoke. If you smoke more than the occasional cigarette, I recommend quitting before you come to South Korea.
Visible tattoos and facial piercings: In Korea tattoos have historially been associated with gang culture, although that’s changing these days. However, Koreans also know that foreigners are weird and different, and I know many people teaching here with tattoos. You will be asked to cover them up when you teach, but other than that it is not a big issue. Expect to take out any facial piercings for your time here.
Birth control: You may be asked on your health check form if you take any prescription medication. I recently heard a story of someone who wrote “birth control” on this section and left the reason blank because they “thought it was obvious”, and was subsequently asked about it in the interview. Some Koreans have pretty conservative attitudes about pre-marital sex, and while the EPIK interviews are mostly done by Korean-Americans, and I wouldn’t think such a declaration would affect your chances, you might want to consider sparing yourself the awkwardness of dealing with questions about this.
Of course, lying on your application form is grounds for dismissal, so think carefully before doing so.
For EPIK, and similar programs, you will need to write some kind of essay about why you would be a good English teacher. Mention anything you can find related to teaching or being good with kids. You can see my own EPIK application essay here.
Interview tips for teaching jobs in Korea
If you’re not in Korea, most interviews will be conducted on Skype. Take the time to prepare your background. A messy bedroom with beer bottles and ashtrays visible is obviously not a good idea.
In addition to the health and lifestyle-related questions mentioned above, all the usual interview tips apply. Appearance is very important in Korea, so go for a smart, professional look.
I’ve had a few Korean job interviews, and have been asked some standard interview questions such as “What are your weaknesses?” and “Where do you see yourself in five years?”, so you will want to have answers to those questions.
I’ve always been asked about disciplining students – obviously you will do it firmly but with love. Don’t say that you will beat the students. I’ve been asked what I know about Korea, so do your homework. I was once asked for my teaching philosophy, which threw me a bit, although I did get the job.You will definitely be asked about how you will handle cultural difficulties and being away from home. “I’m excited about encountering new cultures – that’s why I want to do it – of course it will be difficult at times but I’m looking forward to the challenge – blah blah blah.”
A while back i had the chance to participate in some teaching job interviews from the other side, as an interviewer. If you’re interested in reading about why we ended up choosing the candidate we did, and what some others did wrong, go here.
Any other tips?
Despite this article being a big compilation of tips and advice, the main question I get asked is, “Anything you can tell me to help my chances?”
OK – the reality is that the public school programs continue to become increasingly competitive, and I think you need something that makes you stand out a little. As I mentioned before, anything that can relate to actual teaching experience is good, but if I was applying as a newcomer today, I would try the following things:
Pay attention to application dates, and get your application in early
EPIK in particular seems to use a quota system in which the gates are closed as soon as enough suitable applications are received. Get your documents ready, and apply as soon as applications open.
The same is true for postings on job boards. Everything is last minute in Korea – they may only consider applications received within 24 hours of posting the job, interview candidates the next day, and make their choice by the weekend.
Start studying Korean
It will show some commitment. Even if it’s just numbers and greetings, having made a start on it will look good, and will give you something to write about in your essay and talk about in your interview.
Learn something about Korean culture
Koreans love talking about how wonderful their own culture is. They are proud of their cuisine, the Korean Wave, their alphabet, and any Korean who has ever received international recognition for anything. Talking about these things always goes down well.
Don’t go on about North Korea or the Korean War
A corollary of the above point. While North Korea and the Korean War probably still dominate Western coverage of Korea, South Koreans don’t talk about either very much. They are also a little… something… about talking about them with foreigners. I still haven’t worked out what the something is, despite thinking about it a lot. But bringing it up will probably win you no points.
If you’re applying to EPIK, be open to teaching anywhere in South Korea
Yes, you want a big city. So does everyone. Fact is, EPIK gets enough applicants these days that they don’t want or need to waste their time with someone who is going to drop out if they don’t get their preferred placement. The piece of advice I give which nobody ever listens to is this: Korean country is better than city. Accept that you don’t know what it’s going to be like. Embrace randomness.
Getting the job
You will be told you have the position at a time that seems ridiculously late to you. Try not to freak out too much while waiting or bombard your recruiter/application officer with questions; it won’t hurry things and won’t help your chances. Get used to it – everything is last minute in Korea.
Prior to coming
Stop taking drugs
Seriously, don’t be an idiot. At EPIK orientation there were people wandering around in a panic before their medical check-up because they smoked weed at their farewell party. If you can’t stop for a couple of months beforehand, how will you stop when you are here? Wikipedia drug test detection times.
There were also people who had problems because they had been legitimately taking codeine-based pain killers. Stop if you can – and make sure you have signed letters from your doctor. Also avoid cold and flu tablets and cough medicines.
Packing for Korea
Incheon airport is fast and nice.
You should be met when you get off the plane. If you’ve gone with a recognized program or recruiter, you will be met when you get off the plane. If you’ve ignored the advice here and contracted directly with a hagwon, you still should be met when you get off the plane – but have a backup plan.
At this point, paths will start to diverge depending on your job, so the remainder of this article is general things about your early days in Korea.
You will need to prove to the Korean government that you are not an AIDS-spreading drug addict by having a medical checkup at an approved hospital. With EPIK this will be part of the orientation program; for other positions, your employer should help you with this.
You will need to register at your local immigration office for your foreigner card within 90 days. However you will want to do it much sooner than that, as you will need your foreigner card to get a cell phone or open a bank account.
No matter who you are teaching with, they should help you with this process. You will need:
- Your medical certificate
- Your passport
- A copy of your school’s business registration
- A completed copy of the application form
Weirdly, the immigration site doesn’t say you need a copy of your contract, but I feel that you do. I would take one.
Relevant page at the official website, application form and required documents. Click on “Foreigner registration” on the menu on the left.
If you are with a big program like EPIK, realize that everyone will go to the immigration office on their first or second day. It will be crazy-crowded. Go early.
That’s it – you are now a legally recognized English teacher in South Korea. Hopefully you will get a lot out of your time here. Try not to be an ugly foreigner who spends all their time in the local waegukin bar. There are better ways to spend your time. There are a lot of other articles on this site about how to get the most out of your time once you are here, and I urge you to check them out. Two in particular are What to do in your first year in Korea (for stuff outside of your work life) and How to have a good relationship with your co-teachers (probably the thing which will make the most difference to how your work life goes). Good luck!