I always wanted to buy a one-way ticket to the unknown. When I finally saved my money and did just that five years ago, my life changed forever. The ticket was to Santiago, Chile, and I lived in that vibrant, colorful country for a year. Traveling around Chile and across the border to Peru and Argentina were just perks of my location.

After a year of teaching experience, I took another chance, and applied to teach in South Korea. Getting to actually move to Korea is a process and one must have the patience of a saint to get through it. Somehow, I did it all within one month. Here are the steps and recommendations I have for moving to Korea to teach ESL.


How to get a job as an ESL teacher in South Korea:

1. Where and when to apply
2. Finding a recruiter
3. Requirements and paperwork
4. In the classroom


1. Where and when to apply for an ESL job in South Korea

There are many websites available for researching potential employers and schools to work for. I personally went through EPIK my first year. EPIK is the Korean government-sponsored teaching program. If you apply late, choices for working in bigger cities will disappear. However, applying at an appropriate time (six months in advance), you’ll have a chance to work in Seoul or Busan, which are amazing cities full of expats, restaurants, and the latter has a beach. I applied late and because of that, I was the lone foreigner in a tiny town, but I made the best of it. If you want to go the hagwons (private Korean schools) route try waygook.org or Dave’s ESL Café. Both provide great advice on how to secure a job and offer helpful tips on schools that one may want to avoid.

So, EPIK or hagwon?

With EPIK, you will work with public schools. You can be placed anywhere in the country and teach several classes during the day while still having at least four hours of downtime. Yes, there are vacations, but also “seat-warming”. “Seat-warming” refers to the downtime during the kids’ vacation when teachers still have to go to school. Find a hobby or a good book.

Hagwons (private schools) are busy. Time goes by fast because you have children to teach from morning until evening. The break times may differ, but they aren’t huge.

2. Find a recruiter

The first thing I did after researching what type of school I wanted to teach (public or private?) was find a trusted recruiter to guide me in my project. Having a person who has extensive experience with the teaching world in South Korea was extremely helpful. Not only does a good school recruiter help you with the application process, but they also explain what is expected of you during the Skype interview (which you will inevitably have) and host you for your first days in the new country. There are many recruiters out there. I was guided by Korean Horizons and they were wonderful. I was even picked up at the airport once I landed. The cost was free as they are paid by the government for recruiting English teachers. If you decide to go another route, here’s a list of several more companies who help with the process of applying and teaching in Korea.

3. Requirements and paperwork

This part can suck. I still have my Korean visa and I love it, but the process is intricate. Let’s break down a list of what is needed:

  • A BA or MA
  • A TEFL/TESOL certificate
  • A background check (FBI background check for those from the US)
  • Your college transcript
  • Two letters of recommendation
  • Drug tests

The TEFL/TESOL certificate

First and foremost, to qualify for your TEFL or TESOL diploma, you need to have university BA.

I already had my TEFL Certificate from working in Santiago. When I took the class, it was all online. I had loads of help and a great teacher to guide me when I had questions. I learned to make lesson plans and brushed up on my English skills. It’s a class that zapped my brain into English mode. It motivated me to think about how to teach and speak to non-English speakers, adults and children, and how I could become more assertive in my native language. Remember that it’s easy to speak English but explaining grammar to a six-year-old child with no prior knowledge is intimidating. There are many routes to go through to obtain your TEFL or TESOL certificate. Consult their website (TEFL and TESOL) for more information about courses and check the website of the colleges in your area.

FBI background check

Whether you’re a felon or not, it can take ages for your fingerprints to get analyzed. The test itself takes a minute, but receiving the results you need to send in your application for Korea can take months. Do it as early as possible. If you think you may want to take the plunge into the Korean school system but aren’t sure, just get your background check as soon as soon as possible. It’s never bad to have a document that says you aren’t a criminal.

College diploma and transcript

If you graduated from college, you have a diploma. To get your transcript, contact your university. You may have to pay a simple fee, but it arrives fast. Everything needs to be notarized so go to your closest law firm with all your documents to get everything in order. Note that your college diploma and your transcripts have to be notarized in the state where you graduated.

The Apostille

Getting an Apostille is the worst. Still, I understand why it’s important. It federally authenticates your papers. To get documents apostilled, you must go to your local government place and the government has to advocate that it’s a legitimate document. The office opens early and it can be done in a few days. When I had to do it, there were many people in line and I had to wait a day to get it back with the proper authorization. It can’t be done at a law firm and finding a location to get this done is not easy, so get Googling.

Drug Test

Just don’t do drugs, especially before you move to South Korea. Upon arrival in South Korea, your Korean co-teacher will take you to the hospital for several tests:

  • A blood test which tests for illegal drugs and liver function
  • A lung X-ray for TB
  • A basic eye exam
  • Hearing tests
  • Blood pressure
  • Weight and height

Don’t worry about getting tested for drugs unless you are doing something illicit and unhealthy. If you take Lexapro or anti-anxiety medicine, disclose it to the doctor. It won’t be spread around the school, and you can’t lose your job because of it.

4. In the classroom

Your work in the classroom will differ depending on what kind of school you decide to work.

With EPIK, your role is only English teacher. You won’t have the same class every day; instead, you will most likely move from class to class teaching many different levels of students. Discipline is handled by your Korean co-teacher and everything is followed from the book. Sometimes your job is to be a sidekick to the Korean co-teacher. Other times, your co-teacher will let you take the reins and have control of the class. It’s hard to determine until you start your new job.

At a hagwon, you are the main teacher. You will have full control of the classroom, how to discipline students, and you’ll teach almost every class. The days are busier but fulfilling as you get to bond with your students whom you have in your classroom all year.

In both situations, a majority of students behave well and respond to discipline. In both cases, there’s a lot of book work so it’s important to make sure you can sneak in some fun every once in a while.