Teaching English in Korea: FAQs

Hello, and welcome to my FAQs! The following are frequently asked questions, including questions I had when I started this journey, as well questions that my family and friends had of me. I figured it would be a good idea to put everything in one spot, thus working as a resource for prospective teachers as well as bringing together important posts from my blog.

If you have a question that hasn’t been answered here, please feel free to leave it in the comments below or send me a message. As I get more questions, I’ll update this page.

Deciding to teach English abroad

Is teaching English right for me?
Well, that depends on you! If you’re creative, have patience and enjoy children, you’ve already got the foundation for becoming a great teacher. And if you’re a native English speaker with a fair grasp on the grammar, then you’re in high demand in many countries around the world.

There are a few qualifications, of course. Being a native speaker is one, and having a four-year degree (in anything, your major doesn’t matter) is the other. Depending on where you’re hired, you may or may not also need a TEFL certificate and teaching experience. (see: “Should I get certified?” below)

Teaching English abroad could be a great gap year experience, an exciting opportunity if you’re floating aimlessly, or a legitimate entrance to a TEFL career.

Why work abroad?
If you’ve always wanted to see the world but didn’t have the money to satisfy your wanderlust, getting a job abroad will accomplish two things: 1) you’ll get to travel, and 2) you’ll get money to travel. Best of all, you won’t be just another tourist — you’ll get to live a local! On top of that, you’ll be adding a valuable service to your host country, which is more than many travelers can say.
What are the steps to becoming an EFL teacher?
This depends on the country, the school, and maybe even your current credentials. To figure out the best plan of action for you, find other people doing exactly what you want to do (try the forums at Dave’s ESL Cafe) or talk to a recruiter (there are many, but the one I used for awhile and enjoyed was Teach Away).
What's the difference between ESL and EFL?
It’s a small but important distinction. ESL stands for “English as a Second Language,” while EFL stands for “English is a Foreign Language.” If a student is living in an English-speaking country and therefore is immersed in the language, that student would be taught ESL. If a student is not living in an English-speaking country, meaning the only time the student is exposed to English is through an English class, that student would be taught EFL. The reason it’s an important distinction is because it changes the way you’ll approach the language in the classroom.
Should I get certified?
Like the steps to becoming an EFL teacher, whether or not you have to get certified will also depend on the country, the school and your current credentials. However, unless you already have a TEFL degree, getting a TEFL certificate is highly recommended both professionally and financially. In many countries, having the certificate will qualify you for a higher salary, so the certificate will eventually pay for itself. Plus, do you really want to be thrown in front of a classroom without any idea of what you’re getting into? Getting certified will expose you to many teaching tips and resources, so not only will you be more comfortable doing your job, but you’ll also be a better teacher for your students.
Why teach in South Korea?
Let’s just put this straight: Korea pays well. Couple that with the low cost of living, and you’ll feel downright rich! It’s a wonderful opportunity to easily pay down debts and student loans, or save up for a future down payment on a house or a round-the-world trip.

But wait! There’s more! If you get a job as an English teacher in South Korea, your school will pay for your plane ticket, give you free housing, and most likely offer a settlement allowance. They’ll also help you with health insurance, and you’ll get a bonus if you complete your contract.

With all of the benefits and your salary combined, you’ll be making at least the equivalent of $30,000/year in South Korea. Oh yeah, and if you’re a U.S. citizen, you get to keep all of it because that money is tax-free.

Applying to EPIK

There are countless teaching opportunities in Korea, but for the most part, they can be divided into two groups: public schools and hagwons (paid after-school academies). The public schools are run by the government and use EPIK for hiring, whereas the hagwons are private businesses and use recruiters or current teachers for hiring.

There are many pros and cons to both, but overall, the public school jobs offer the best benefits package and the most security. You’ll work a regular 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. schedule, Monday through Friday, with all holidays off and 18 days paid vacation, and you’ll be paired with Korean co-teachers so you’re not all alone in class. However, you will probably be the only English teacher in your school, and your classes could be pretty large.

Here’s a good rundown of the benefits of working with EPIK: ILoveESL.com: Why EPIK?

By contrast, hagwon teachers work whenever the public schools are closed, meaning your working hours will be in the evenings and possibly on the weekends, and you’ll only get 10 days paid vacation, which will often be chosen for you and cannot be used consecutively. You’ll also be alone in the classroom, and you’ll be subject to intense parent pressure, all of whom want their children to get the most of this paid education. However, you might have many other English teachers in the school with you, and because you’re teaching more classes than a public school teacher would, your salary could be higher.

The biggest difference between public schools and hagwons, though, is that public schools put learning first (since they’re funded by the government), while hagwons put business first (since they must fund themselves). There shouldn’t be any moral weight attached to either, but by working for a hagwon, you’re at risk of being completely stranded should the business go under. Aside from that, there are good and bad hagwons, and by going the hagwon route, you really, really, really need to do your research to make sure you don’t get screwed over.

Can I choose where I'm placed?
EPIK hires for public schools, and to ensure that all public schools get a teacher, you do not get to choose where you’ll be placed. You will get the opportunity to put down a preference, and from what I understand, the coordinators at EPIK will do their best to honor this, but nothing is guaranteed. At the very least, if you don’t get your preference, you have the option to opt out of the program.
Should I use a recruiter?
When I first applied to EPIK, I did use a recruiter. However, I quickly realized that using a recruiter in this situation is really just adding a middle man to the mix. Recruiters are free for you to use, but if EPIK decides to hire you, they must pay the recruiter a fee. As a result, EPIK gives priority to those who apply directly to the program, and with no middle man, you’ll get all the information you need directly from EPIK the very moment it’s available. Also, after you apply, EPIK will assign you a coordinator who will help you through the rest of the process. Personally, I am so glad that I applied directly because I LOVE my coordinator!

If you don’t feel comfortable going through the initial application process on your own, go ahead and use a recruiter. They’ll hold your hand through the entire application, give you a mock interview, and will always be available to answer your questions. Plus, if you don’t get accepted to EPIK, they’ll be there to help you find a different TEFL job.

When should I start applying? How long is the process?
Apply as soon as possible! EPIK is on a first come, first served basis, so they sooner you can get you application in, the better off you’ll be. The application process takes around 4 months, and much of that wait will be due to gathering documents, so make sure you’re on top of everything. This general timeline offers a bit of an overview.
What are the steps in the application process?
If you apply straight to EPIK, here’s what your application process will look like:

epik application processSee that third box, the one that says “documents received by EPIK office”? That’s the big one, the one that will take the most time and energy. All gathered up, those documents are going to be a massive stack! Here’s the list off all the documents you’ll need to get: EPIK Required Documents

If you’re a U.S. citizen, I can tell you from experience that you’ll want to do your FBI background check as soon as possible, but not too far in advance. You’ll have to get fingerprinted, then send them in for your background check, then wait around 4-6 weeks to receive your background check, then send your background check to the U.S. Department of State to get apostilled, then wait another week or two to get it back. Once issued, the background check will expire after 6 months, so time it just right to make sure you’ve got a bit of leeway before you intend to step into a classroom. For me, since I’m part of the spring intake, I know I’ll start teaching March 1, so I sent in my fingerprints in the second week of September.  That gave one week, plus the 4-6 weeks processing time, as my leeway.

Getting to South Korea

What kind of visa do I need?
You can’t just show up in South Korea and find a job — you need to have your job already lined up before you arrive, that way you’ll qualify for a working visa. To teach with EPIK, you’ll need an E-2 visa, which requires your teaching contract, notice of appointment and passport, along with the visa application and the processing fee. You’ll need to send all of this to the nearest Korean Consulate in your own country (mine is Chicago – check out their website, scroll down to “EPIK applicant” for more details), wait a week or two, then receive your visa. Finally, you can teach!

Take note: if you plan to have any friends or family come visit you while you’re in Korea, they can stay with you for up to 90 days without needing a visa (that is, if they’re a U.S. citizen – other nationalities may have different restrictions).

Do I need any vaccinations?
Not necessarily. You’ll definitely want to make sure you’re up-to-date on all your immunizations, especially Hepatitis A and typhoid. As a teacher, since you’ll be in Korea long-term, you may also want to look into a couple other vaccinations, like Japanese Encephalitis. For more info, see the CDC list.
How long does it take to get there? And how much does it cost?
Obviously, this will greatly depend on where you’re traveling from. For me, coming from Denver and going to Seoul, I’m looking at anywhere between a 15-hour and 20-hour flight, costing between $550 and $900 for a one-way ticket.

The best place to check flight prices, in my opinion, is Google Flights. If you’re flexible, you can look ahead to see when flight prices are cheapest. Just click the “Lowest Fares” icon, and it will show you a graph going as far as 11 months into the future. Awesome!