Everything you need to know about teaching English in South Korea

South Korea has long been a favorite teaching English abroad destination. The South Korean government’s export-oriented economic strategy places high importance on education – South Koreans spend US$15.8 billion per year on English language training.

The South Korean economy is bullish and stable, and seemingly able to withstand global economic crises. This is a country where work and study most definitely come first, but it is also a nation of plum brandy and fermented cabbage drink and food lovers and this combination of work hard/party hard makes for an addictive pace of life with the possibility of reaping considerably high financial rewards.

This article looks at the specifics of getting started as an English teacher in South Korea, and in the article we also look at five recommended teaching English destinations.

Where is South Korea?

South Korea maintains its neon-lit position on the southern part of the Korean Peninsula, and shares only one land border with the country that stubbornly remains to this day a doublespeak, Orwellian cliché in progress. But despite the ever constant threat of nuclear armageddon from the north, South Korea refuses to play out its destiny to the drumming of fear and has transformed itself since the end of the Korean War into a peaceful and progressive, internationally-minded nation.

As is similar in Japan, South Korea is one of the teaching English destinations where you will need to jump through quite a few hoops to land a teaching job, and it is also in South Korea where native English speakers are definitely preferred. It is possible to land a job here if you are a non-native English speaker, but it will be a tall order and we do recommend non-natives to consider other alternative locations if they don’t have the patience of a saint/want to work legally, as most schools do prefer native speakers.

The vast majority of teachers who teach legally in South Korea do so by working under the E2 teaching visa. To successfully apply for this visa, you must be a passport holder from one of these countries: Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, United Kingdom, United States.

In addition, you will be required to submit the following documents as part of the application process:

  1. A notarized and apostilled copy of your bachelor’s degree – awarded in any subject. You don’t need to have studied an education-related university degree course.
  2. Three sealed university transcripts.
  3. A clear criminal background check.
  4. Passport photocopy.
  5. CV/Resume.
  6. A copy of your TEFL certificate from a reputable school. Please note here that this is not a requirement of the work visa, but by having a TEFL certificate you can expect to be starting off in a higher paid teaching position.
  7. A signed copy of the school teaching contract.
  8. Four passport-sized photos.
  9. Two letters of recommendation. Please also note here that all tefl online pro graduates receive an official letter of recommendation from us after course completion, so you will only need to find one other letter of recommendation for this work visa process.

Teaching in Seoul

Roughly ten million people call this huge metropolis home, and to the country of course it is the beating heart of the nation. When we last visited the capital two years ago, we were really surprised at how affordable the city was in comparison to our business trip over to Japan. Seoul also came over as being a very friendly city and it is here where the largest concentration of teaching work can be found. As the capital city, it is slightly more expensive than other destinations, but not so noticeably.

Schools almost always recruit from abroad; meaning it just isn’t viable to turn up without a firm job offer and start looking for work while once on the ground.

There are many recruitment agencies that like to peddle their wares and that will claim it isn’t possible to find work in South Korea unless you specifically go through them, but ideally you want to be avoiding these companies as they will not only usually charge their recruitment fee but will often also take a commission from your monthly salary.

The two main types of teaching jobs available in South Korea are either teaching at a public school, or teaching at a hagwon (private school.) While it is possible to draw the short end of the straw and end up teaching at a poorly run public school, this would tend to be the exception and not the rule. Hagwons, on the other hand, tend to be very touch and go and whether you end up teaching for a good school or not really depends largely on the scope of your research and on a lot of luck. There are seemingly endless horror stories floating around the net regarding experiences teaching at hagwons, and much fewer of said such stories regarding public schools. We definitely recommend teaching at a public school so as to avoid any potential pitfalls or complications which may arise from teaching at a hagwon.

The good news is that each area of South Korea has its own education body which looks over, among many other facets, the process of employing foreign teachers of English. The most known are:

  1. EPIK – English Program In Korea – the largest employer, covering the majority of the country.
  2. GEPIK – Gyeonggi English Program In Korea – covers the Gyeonggi area outside of Seoul.
  3. SMOE – Seoul Metropolitan Office Of Education – covers the public schools in the capital.

It is important to note here that public schools tend to pay slightly less than hagwons, but will expect you to work less hours and will offer you more paid holidays.

Teaching in Busan

Busan – known for its beaches, mountains, and temples – is a large port city in the south of the country, and is a hugely popular go-to destination for English teachers drawn to the coastline and away from (what seems like in comparison) the concrete jungle of the capital. The weather is also somewhat more favorable here than in other parts of the country (although not significantly so) and teachers do enjoy the slightly warm winter temperatures here, as well as the solid expat support networks.

So what are the salaries like in South Korea?

As with all teaching English overseas destinations, newly arrived teachers should expect to be earning a bit less than teachers who have been around for longer and who are more established. As a general guideline, teaching for a public school will reward you with approx. 1.9 to two million Korean Won per month, with more established teachers averaging between two to three million Korean Won.

There is also the possibility of teaching at a university in South Korea and earning up to 3.5 million Korean Won per month, but realistically these jobs are just so difficult to land and pretty much out of reach unless you are here for the long haul.

It’s also good to note that it is very common for schools to pay for your flight over (flights back home are not usually paid,) and many schools also provide free accommodation. On top of this, you can expect to receive free health insurance, and you can also expect to receive a completion bonus – equaling one month’s salary – upon completion of the school year.

So given these additional perks, you can easily fathom why South Korea is such a popular teaching location and how it is perfectly feasible to be putting away US$1,000 in savings every month.

It is often stated online that teachers can earn much more teaching English in Seoul, but from the reports we have received from our graduates teaching there, it seems that while you can expect to be paid more, the difference in pay is really negligible. Yes, Seoul is a more expensive location, but there isn’t a significant difference in costs when compared to the rest of the country. 

Teaching in Incheon

People often assume that Incheon is a district of the capital, and Seoul’s subway map does imply this. Actually, it is separate from Seoul and has its own local government and offices of education. The main draw for people choosing to settle down in Incheon is that it doesn’t wear you down so much as the intense city center life of the capital can. Here you can almost have your cake and eat it; enjoying a less congested city experience with that hugely convenient spot on the subway system.

There are though some downsides to teaching English in South Korea, which recruiters and under-the-radar affiliate promoters of TEFL/TESOL courses don’t seem to mention in their appraisals of teaching English in South Korea.

Over the years, we have helped a lot of our graduates find teaching work in South Korea, and we have also heard a lot of feedback on the virtual grapevine from various sources, and it’s pretty apparent that you are either going to love teaching here, or hate it. The feedback really has been as polarized as that.

The main issue teachers have of course is regarding (privately-run) hagwon schools, where you could find yourself at the mercy of a poorly-run school and an employer who will either underpay you or try not paying you at all. And this is predominantly why we only recommend that our graduates teach at public schools. Of course, it is completely up to you where you teach, but please bear in mind that while some hagwons are very professionally run a generous number of bad apples openly operate with impunity.

The most common complaint though is the work ethic. Teaching English in South Korea definitely offers up incredible financial benefits, but you seriously have to work for them. It’s hard work and while you will have time to go traveling around the region in your holidays, don’t necessarily assume that you will always have the freedom of weekend travel too. As a new teacher you should expect to be spending a substantial amount of your time at the beginning planning classes.

On the other hand though, there are not many teaching English destinations where you can simply opt to travel by taxi everywhere because you can afford it and don’t fancy hanging around for the next bus, or where you can pop to the ATM pretty much (within reason of course) whenever you need to and have enough money to go out for dinner multiple nights a week.

We just want you to be aware that yes, the benefits of teaching English in South Korea are excellent. And yes, you will definitely be working very hard for your money/lifestyle.

Teaching in Daegu

If you were to ask us to nail down our number one preferred teaching English destination in South Korea, the mid-sized city of Daegu would be our choice of teaching location. Daegu simply oozes small-city charm, despite being South Korea’s fourth largest city, and is salt and peppered with gorgeous mountains and temples. It’s also in a great location as far as reaching Busan: just a 40-minute ride on the train will take you to South Korea’s second largest city and to its coastal ambience.

As we mentioned earlier, it is definitely recommended to apply for a South Korea teaching English position before you make the trip over. One of the reasons for this is because of the time it can take for the application process to run its due course.

Public schools hire from three to all the way up to nine months before the start of each new semester, so you should definitely bear this in mind when choosing when to take your TEFL course and when you would like to begin teaching in South Korea.

The first semester kicks off around September 1st, and the second semester begins around March 1st. This therefore means that you can technically apply for a September start as early as January, and for a March start as early as June.

Teaching English positions are always allocated on a first come first served basis, so it is really important to get all your ducks lined up in a row early if wanting to teach for a particular school. 

It is also worth noting here that schools follow the general rule regarding your arrival in that they almost always expect you to arrive to South Korea at least ten days before you are due to begin teaching. The reason for this is that it will provide you with enough time to get over your jet lag , and allow you the space and time to become familiar with your new surroundings and with the new culture.

Another reason for wanting you to arrive early is because there will be orientation/training days, which your school should pay you a settling-in allowance for attending. This settling-in allowance given to you for your pre-teaching orientation/training usually runs at between US$200 to US$400. 

Teaching in Jeju City

Teaching in Jeju City will provide you with the perfect opportunity of enjoying the heavenly combination of (relatively) warm weather and (substantial) island bliss. Jeju island is the smallest province in South Korea and Jeju City only has a population of around 400,000 People. Naturally, there aren’t as many teaching opportunities here as on the mainland, but if you can snag a job here then it is here where you will have the opportunity of deeply connecting with people on a regular basis. 

Read more Teaching English Abroad Country Specifics articles on the tefl online pro Blog

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