An ESL Insider’s Ultimate Guide to Teaching English in China

Ahh, China. The land of ultimate dichotomy, fascinating controversy and governmental conflict is also a land of outrageous landscapes, rich culture and family traditions, and a seemingly endless history.

When I was getting started teaching English abroad, I saw China as dollar signs. It wasn’t a place to get rich as a teacher, necessarily, but the benefits TEFL teachers in China are often afforded can mean a quite comfortable lifestyle with a pretty laid back schedule and the potential to save enough to pay your bills back home.

That sounded good enough to me.

I found a job teaching in the Guangdong province, just outside of Guangzhou. It was a city I’d never heard of, yet I’d come to know it as the third largest in China (some reports say it’s the second largest now). The “village” I taught in had some 20,000 students and teachers living there, and I was dumbfounded, having grown up in a town of 700 residents and no neighboring towns.

People in China, one quickly learns, are everywhere, gelling together like some symbiotic wave along the rollercoaster of life, pushing their way towards ever higher standards of living.

We’ve done our best in the article below to capture the differences that exist across regions and within schools, but the truth is China is too big and too varied to capture every little nook and cranny, every exception to the rule, every kind of employer and employee.

But since the rate at which the country is growing and changing is difficult to deny, there’s no better time than now to gain an up close and personal glimpse behind the scenes by immersing yourself in culture and tradition and teaching English in China.

-Jessica Hill, Founder — globalU


About the Country

teaching english in china

China is not just the Great Wall. China is not just the big city lights of Shanghai, Beijing, or Hong Kong. And China is certainly not only some of the most unique flavors and types of food you will find in the entire world. Some of the oldest roots in human history (about 4,000 years!) can be found there—meaning there is a ton to explore, experience, and take in.

All these things are important to Chinese history, cultures, and customs because they all contribute to a larger energy throughout the country, perhaps one that is best left a mystery until after you have visited yourself. But what would this guide be if we didn’t try to distill the mystery for you a little bit so you can determine if it’s a place you want to go — and not just travel to, but to teach English in?


Climate

Since China is such a vast country with multiple types of landscapes and altitudes, it’s hard to pinpoint a “climate”, but we’ll try! Way down south are the tropics (including Hainan Island, with common summer temperatures of 82 degrees F, and pieces of Yunnan). Far north are the subarctics (with Heilongjiang getting to be as low as -22 degrees F in winter, as well as inner Mongolia), and you can find alpine climate within the Tibetan Plateau (sunny weather).

Guangzhou, in the southeastern part of the country about 75 miles from Hong Kong, has a humid subtropical climate with wet summers and high temperatures, and mild winters with some precipitation. Monsoon season is from April to September.

Shanghai, on the central coast of the East China Sea, also has hot and humid summers, but unlike Guangzhou, experiences four seasons with relatively dry falls and rainy springs.

Beijing, the country’s capital in the north and where all of our teachers get their start with orientation, has a temperate climate with four distinct seasons ranging from hot and humid in the summer and cold and dry in the winter.

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Language

The official dialect of China is Mandarin. There is also Cantonese (widely spoken on the islands of Hong Kong and Macau, as well as most of the Guangdong province), Huanese, Min, and at least four others. You’ll find that most people you encounter on the mainland speak Mandarin, but the diversity of dialects from region to region will fascinate you! English is often used in business settings and obviously in schools (that’s where you come in). But don’t worry — a common component of you teaching English in China is getting the opportunity to learn some Chinese along the way!


Religion

You may already know this, but just like its regions and inherent customs, the religion in China is just as multi-faceted. China has a very long history, which is precisely the reason it has so many religious influences. We’ve all heard of the Chinese Buddhist monks, right? Well there exists also Taoism, Islamism, Protestantism, and Catholicism. What a mix! You’ll find a freedom of religious belief there, so no wonder.


Why Teach English in China?

China is the epicenter of economic growth and opportunity. Why is this important when you consider teaching English there? Because you will have those same economic opportunities if you go there! Not only is the English teaching market booming and demand for teachers increasing, but China is really an endless experience of exploration in yourself, in your teaching, in your students, and in the landscapes. With rich history, a motivated population, and decent-to-great wages, China is a hotbed of opportunity.

 

I consider this experience a wonderful and extraordinary life lesson and I would not hesitate to do it again. Apart from getting to know the language and the lifestyle of China, I have grown as a person and as a traveller. I have learnt to understand and coexist with different cultures and personalities and I will be going back home with many beautiful memories. If a journey should not be measured in miles but with friends, then I certainly have come a long way. Beijing is such a cool city and I really recommend living here for a couple of months. China is both very difficult to get to know but also very interesting. To stay here as an Au Pair in a Chinese family is a very good way to learn about the country and the language.” ~ Elliot (U.K.), Language Exchange Program

 


Kinds of Schools You Can Work In

There are public schools, language institutes, international schools, universities, and private tutoring opportunities available in China. Each school and/or program will have differing requirements for qualifications as well as teaching hours and duties asked of you. In general, here’s a breakdown of the differences:

Public/Government Schools — Teaching English in kindergartens is pretty common in China, especially in and surrounding Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. Because of the young age, pressure is certainly lower to develop lessons, but you will still be expected to have a general plan for engagement.

Language Institutes — Language institutes in China are somewhat a wild card in the country, in that ages can vary drastically from grade school to adult business people. Choosing the right language institute that you feel comfortable in will be important, and keep in mind that your typical school day hours are going to occur at night and on weekends in order for students to practice conversational English skills.

Universities — Though this could potentially be a comfy job with benefits, keep in mind that your competition may be stiff because of that. Having as many qualifications to teach English in China as you can will come in handy when applying for jobs at universities. We’ve already mentioned how serious China is about its English teaching market, and its universities are no exception, with departments devoted to foreign language or only English.

Private Tutoring — Larger cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou will have more opportunities for private English instruction, and native English speakers have an advantage here. Because the instruction is so intimate, you might get all of the good vibes teachers crave, and the money might be worth it, too. Make sure you’re both clear about the terms of agreement before entering into it.

teaching english in china
Exploring the Great Wall while teaching English in China

China by Teaching Opportunities

The majority of the Chinese population is located in Eastern China. Western China contains some of the most remote communities in all of Asia and thus very few travelers visit there.

Most ESL positions are found in the northern portion of the country, with cities like Beijing and Hangzhou. In the South, Guangzhou and its neighboring city of Shenzhen have teaching opportunities galore. And in the middle of Eastern China lies Shanghai, providing many opportunities to teach English to adults due to its international lifestyle, as well as all of the other kinds of schools mentioned above.


Qualifications for Teaching English in China

A full-time teaching position in China is not an easy grab. We’ve mentioned several times how developed and booming the market is here, and one of the reasons is for its competition. If everyone wants to go there, they’ve gotta make it a little tough to get in, right? In order to get a full-time teaching position, you (typically) need these qualifications to get your foot in the door:

  • A bachelor’s degree (But fear not! This degree can be in any subject.)
  • A TEFL certificate OR two years of teaching experience
  • Must be between 18-50
  • Should be a native English speaker from the U.S.A., Canada, U.K., Ireland, New Zealand or Australia. Western Europeans and South Africans are sometimes considered on a case-by-case basis.

Don’t meet one or more of those requirements? There are often other opportunities such as teaching internships, language exchange programs or volunteer positions that will allow you to experience teaching English in China, and perhaps you can convert to a semi-permanent position following that experience.

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Teaching English in China Without a Degree

While a traditional, full-time teaching position will typically require a degree no matter where you’re looking in China, there are ways to work there without one. Many people get their foot in a door through teaching internships such as this one that offer all the experience of a regular, short-term position but don’t require the Work Visa (which is the part that requires a degree). Once you’re in China, you’ll meet people all over who are teaching there without a degree. You’ll have to ask them the tricks of the trade 🙂


Teaching English in China as a Non-Native Speaker

This is a bit trickier than the degree, unfortunately. The Chinese government is quite strict about age as a visa requirement, and in order to get around it — you’d likely need already be in the country before you turn 55 and then prove you’re as healthy as a youngster by getting a health checkup.


Teaching English in China in Retirement

Since China is so strict on age, it’s unlikely to find a position there after you’re retired unless you’re a qualified teacher in your home country and are seeking a position with an International School.


What You’ll be Required to do

Again, this will differ with the kind of school you decide to work for, but there shouldn’t be anything your TEFL certification course won’t prepare you for. In public schools and universities, you can expect to teach 20-30 contact hours each week, with the remaining hours meant for planning, prepping, grading, etc. You can expect the hours to be Monday – Friday from 7:30-3:30.

In English language institutes, you may work closer to or more than 40 teaching hours per week and your schedule could have less time for planning, etc. built in. Be prepared to work nights and weekends, since most of your students will be attending after school/work hours.  

If you set up private tutoring, you’ll be able to work with your student to set up the hours and times per week.

In any case, you’ll be meeting your students where they’re already at. Are they A1 level in English, or B2? You should be prepared to gauge their level and determine where they need to go from there to improve. In some cases, you’ll be teaching only conversational English (simply getting them to use the skills they already have), and in lower levels you may be teaching vocabulary and grammar. With advanced levels, they may already be communicative and wanting to perfect their grammar and vocabulary while adding in your cultural slang (yes, they love to learn about that!).


What the Students are Like

Chinese students are typically shy and well-mannered. They hold teachers in high regard and are rarely disruptive. They are curious if not engaged, and typically put their education at a high priority (or their parents do it for them).

The Western style of teaching — seeking student engagement, laughter, debate, etc. — is unfamiliar to the Chinese style they’re used to, one of listening to the teacher talk, taking notes and then memorizing them.

A phrase you’ll hear often in China is to “save face” and you’ll notice this in your students when you give instructions for a task and ask them if they understand. When nobody says anything, you’ll assume the understand but then it quickly becomes apparent they don’t. Rarely will they say they don’t understand something, because that could make the teacher look bad, or lose face. It’s best to have them demonstrate their understanding of the directions.

 

One of the things I would say to anyone who is considering coming to China is that you need to be a Yes Man. Do you want to go to a bar the night before classes? Hell yes! Do you want to play laser tag? Sure thing! You get a lot more out of life here in China if you are willing to go along with the plans, although you do need to be aware that no one ever makes plans more than about an hour in advance. Sometimes life in China can get overwhelming, but overall, it’s one of the best experiences and I wouldn’t change a thing.” ~Susie (U.K.), Work Visa Program 

 


Salaries to Expect

Now because there are various kinds of positions in China and because there are different costs of living from region to region, salaries are going to vary.

As a jumping off point, for a full-time position, you can expect anywhere from 6,000 to 15,000 RMB per month (local currency). Your pay may also come with a few benefits: things like airfare reimbursement, a completion bonus once you reach the end of your initial contract agreement, either provided accommodation or a housing allowance, and meals or a meal allowance on workdays. Paid public holidays are also typically a perk.

For internships, language exchange programs and volunteer opportunities, you may encounter upfront costs for the program. However, during your teaching, you will likely be offered a similar benefits package, including a living allowance or provided accommodation, meals on work days, and a completion bonus at the end of your initial contract.

teaching english in china


Getting a Work Permit

Obtaining a work permit for China, as you may have heard, is not an easy process to understand for many because of the different types of visa they have. The governmental restrictions for obtaining a Z Visa, or a Foreign Expert Permit, from a Chinese Embassy are also why the qualifications to teach in China have become so strict.

Ask your recruiter or employer if they will walk you through the process, provide you with the necessary documentation and reimburse you for the fees associated with this process or not. The application will take a bit of time and dedication, but once the Z Visa has been secured, you’re in the clear to book a flight and wave your homeland goodbye!


Getting a Bank Account & Getting Paid

Setting up a bank account as an English teacher in China may also sound like a daunting task and in fact it can be. There’s just one piece of crucial information to remember: you need proof of residence before you can apply for an account. With a valid passport, your work permit, and an at least a temporary address, setting it all up should be a breeze.

Hot Tip: Assume the bank employees don’t speak English and ask a Chinese co-teacher or counterpart to accompany you to the branch you have selected. Having someone who has been through it before and who can translate will make the process much simpler.


Finding Accommodation

First, remember that decent jobs and internships will either provide accommodation for you, or you will be expected to find accommodation on your own with an allowance. If not, ask your local contacts for their suggestions, or book a nearby hotel so you can check out your options in-person when you arrive. If you enter the country on a program that has accommodation provided for you and you plan to stay after your contract ends to search for more work, use your newly ascribed community of teachers to your advantage! Network and find potential roommates.

You also need something called a residence permit while living in China, even if only for 6 months. There are three types: permanent, temporary, and foreigner. And because you are entering China to work (and travel!), you will need to choose between a temporary or foreigner residence permit, and you will need to obtain it within 30 days of entering the country. These are the kinds of details your agency can provide information on, either ahead of time, or after you’ve arrived. Which permit you apply for depends on the length of your working contract, as temporary permits last only 6-12 months, and foreigner permits are valid for one year and then can be renewed. Let your agency or employer guide you on this process!


Holidays for Teachers in China

You’re in luck! We know we’ve gotten you excited (or at least piqued your interest) about the possibility of traveling within China, and we’re here to tell you that, yes—you’ll get enough time off while teaching English in China to explore the beautiful country!

You may see a difference in allowed time off between public schools and private establishments, but both participate in public holidays. You must also note that China follows the lunar calendar, so dates may vary from year to year.

Be sure to mark these dates on your calendar for some in-country travel:

  • Chinese New Year, mid-February 
  • May Day, April 29 – May 1
  • Tomb-sweeping Day, early April
  • Dragon Boat Festival, mid-June
  • Mid-Autumn Festival, mid-September
  • National Day, early October

Not to mention, if you work in the public sector or in a university you’ll also get two months of summer to look forward to in between semesters: first semester is August through January, and second semester is February through June. This is unlikely to be observed in a language institute.


Political Climate and Crime Rates in China

Now we know that no matter which country you choose to teach English in, you will have a few naysayers in your inner circle of family and friends about the whole thing. They may pose questions like, is it dangerous? What if you get into trouble? I heard x and y on the news, what if that happens to you? It’s not that these questions aren’t valid. Of course they are! But we find that making comparisons can help ease the conversation into something lighter.

If you live in the United States, for example, and want to show your parents what the violent crime stats are like in China go here. Overall, China has an incredibly low crime rate, there are no guns allowed, but traffic accidents are frequent (do you really plan on driving there?). If you’re coming from a different part of the world, just change the comparison stats to get a good idea! It’s important to note that the main safety concerns in China have little to do with people and more to do with nature — natural disasters strike this country in a profound way. Always pay attention to strong weather predictions, and ask around if you don’t know where to get access to them.

The political climate in China is not going to be what you’re used to back home. This is part of the beauty of China — nearly everything is different than what you’ve seen before! Xi Jinping assumed power in 2012-13 and appears to be working on modernizing how the rest of the world perceives China, but things remain Communist-esque from back in the 40’s when nationalists were defeated and relocated to Taiwan (see how this affects you as a foreigner in China in Communicating with People Back Home).

Though you certainly are taking a risk by relocating to a foreign country where you don’t speak the language (don’t worry, you’ll learn!), most likely don’t know anyone (you’ll be gaining a wonderful community of fellow teachers), and have never visited before (super exciting!), these are all positive aspects of your desire to teach English in China, too!


Communicating with People Back Home

Speaking of web restrictions, let us give you some advice in order to feel a little bit more at home while you’re in China: you need a VPN. Don’t know what that is? We got you! A VPN is a Virtual Private Network and it allows you to connect your private network to a public one. This is key because even though you’re teaching English in China, you want to be able to access nearly everything you do at home, right? A VPN allows you to appear as though you’re somewhere else in the world than where you actually are.

The reason you need a VPN is because the political climate in China is (still) expressed through Communist restrictions. While one of the biggest online populations comes from China, you will find that the government has a lockdown on outside social media and many other sites. When we say “social media” we’re talking about the kind of platforms you’re used to using, like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, blogging, etc. However, China has developed their own platforms to replace these. Keep reading to find out how to make this work for you!

If you want to do what the locals do, there are more than a few sites that you can access legally to have fun online: Weibo, WeChat, Youku, and more. To find out more about each, read this.  

For friends and family, it might be difficult to share with them what you know about China’s lockdown on social media. They might think there is no way to contact you on a regular basis. Calm their worries by telling them you will get and set up a VPN before leaving the country, and that good old fashioned email will have to work in the interim. There is also Skype (VPN required for use) for when you want to set up a good time to call, and hey, what’s traveling if you don’t send a postcard or two or three or a hundred?

I really loved my time on this programme. I stayed with a lovely family who made me feel very welcomed from the beginning. They had a daughter who I grew very close to. I enjoyed reading to her and teaching her piano. The mum and dad were very kind and we became good friends. They showed me different parts of Beijing and took me on vacation to Shanghai which was the highlight of my trip. I was very sad to leave them but we have stayed in touch. I loved my time in China.” ~ Helen (U.K.), Language Exchange China


Obtaining Health Insurance in China

Well let’s just be upfront: if the position you have acquired in China does not include at least some basic health insurance plan built in, you might want to consider a different position, as it is incredibly common for English teachers in China to receive some sort of coverage. If you decide to go forth with a position because you feel really great about it, but it does not include health insurance, you should be able to set this up to be deducted from your paycheck (typically $25-50/month).

It’s common for those who travel to also purchase an international insurance plan to supplement what you get in-country. This would be important if, while you are teaching English in China, you pan to venture out for some travel/vacation.


Dealing with Taxes

What would this guide be if we didn’t also discuss dealing with taxes while you teach English in China? If you’re coming from the United States, what you earn as an English teacher is considered foreign earned income and therefore, you are eligible for a foreign earned income exclusion benefit. This site will walk you through the process of filing the benefit, and ensure you meet all of the qualifications. If you’re coming from another country, do research on your national tax collection agency’s website, or try to reach out to a teacher who has gone through the process before, either through Facebook groups designed to connect foreign English teachers, or through inquiries on chat posts.

Note: You will be paying local taxes while teaching English in China. It’s very likely that taxes will be removed from your paycheck ahead of time, so when you’re scoping out jobs or programs, be sure to ask if the salary is pre- or post-taxes.

teaching english in china


Dealing with Student Loans

Dun-dun-duuuun! Don’t forget about your pesky student loans, too, while teaching English in China! For Americans, we have that nifty income-based repayment plan option that is your saving grace when life takes you to teach English abroad. Read more about it here. Your adjusted gross income (AGI) and student loans are connected, so be sure to understand just what you’re getting into after moving abroad for work.

This circumstance also has to do with your student loan interest deduction, and whether you will qualify for that when tax time rolls around. When on an income-based repayment plan, be sure to discuss the changes (if any) working overseas will do to your monthly payments with your loan servicer, as the answer to this question can vary.


Sending Money Home

Perhaps the most important thing to note when considering sending money back home to friends or family from China is that they have restrictions and regulations to keep in mind. They are specifically trying to prevent money laundering and all kinds of nasty stuff, so you will need to provide documentation that states you paid money on the taxes you are sending before the transfer, regardless of which method you choose. Also, exchange rates are going to apply.

Xe.com

This website is recommended because of its transparency. It’s not a bank or financial institution, but still allows you to track where your money is online after you’ve made a transfer. There are fees associated (you’re not going to get around that one!), so be sure to pay attention to what you need before selecting a transfer route.

PayPal

Good old PayPal could be your friend in a situation where you don’t need to transfer large sums of money, but perhaps something you owe a family member or friend. There are cross border fees to take into consideration, but recognize that no matter which option you choose (the websites in this guide or a creative solution you’ve researched), you will have to pay an associated fee.

Ready to jump in?

Explore our teaching programs in China.

 

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How to Make Extra Money while Teaching in China

If the low cost of living and cushy teacher salary aren’t quite enough to satisfy your financial status while teaching English in China, then there are ways to supplement your income. There’s always teaching online in your spare time by setting your own schedule, or choosing to tutor privately on the side. Many foreign English teachers choose to tutor, because you can make those connections with students who require or wish to get more help with their English through the institution you’re already working at. Once you’re all set up in China, making those connections and learning where to find tutoring possibilities will come naturally.

There are also other ways to earn more money while teaching in China that have, well, nothing to do with teaching! Have you ever considered becoming a virtual assistant? Small businesses are often in need of help with scheduling, technical assistance, and anything in between! You may be more qualified for this type of job than you think! In order to find jobs, there’s always Craigslist, but a large portion of quality positions can be found within Facebook groups. Just pop “virtual assistant” into the search bar, select groups, and join up! 


Potential Downsides to Teaching English in China

Restrictions

Internet restrictions are no joke in China, as we’ve so aptly highlighted. But for every site or social media platform you can’t access is another in its place. If you’re really worried about the amount of time you won’t get to spend on your idea of social media while you’re teaching English in China, perhaps it’s time to reevaluate why you’re on social media in the first place. If it’s to keep a connection with friends and family, we totally understand. That just means you’ll have to work a little bit harder to keep those ties strong (and get a dang VPN!).

Pollution

The amount of pollution is serious. While so many parts of the country are gorgeous, there is also a lot of smog in the bigger cities. Keep watch on pollution levels while you’re there, and act accordingly. If you’ve ever wondered if it’s a good idea to get a face mask to protect you from inhaling too much smog in other parts of the world, do it while you’re in China.

Language Barriers

Though a huge chunk of the population is learning English, there are still so many populations who will not be able to communicate with you due to language barriers. For some people this is a total thrill because it shakes your comfort level(s) to the core. And for some, this might seem like a scary and vulnerable fact. It’s okay to feel shy about your capabilities to communicate! This is just more of an incentive to learn some basic Chinese for when you are in situations like these. And for those who love being thrown out of their element: you will certainly find it in China.

Don’t let these downsides turn into unnecessary fears of living your dream life. Click here to get our free e-book on how to overcome those hesitations you’re surely having and live your best life.


The door is open. Step in!

While you might be thinking that getting to China and staying there is somewhat complicated (we get it), there’s something else you should absolutely keep in mind when considering China as your choice for teaching English abroad: it’s so worth it! If you’ve been looking for a way to grow and change as a human being, China is your answer. If you’ve been looking for ways to expand your comfort zone past your normal in order to learn more about the world, China is your answer.

There is so much to be learned in China. You just might find that the biggest teacher isn’t you while you live there — it’s the country itself.


Words by Jessica Hill and Jayla Rae Ardelean.