For nearly two years Chris and I have been teaching in Korea, and it was probably the best decision we’ve ever made. But I remember being super overwhelmed before we decided. There was tons of information, but also seemingly little going into any specific detail about living as an English teacher in Korea, or which program or area to choose. So I’ve put together what I hope is a comprehensive post that takes a deep dive into our experience. If you are hoping to teach in Korea, or looking for some in depth detail about what to expect, read on!
Teaching in Korea: the requirements
Teaching in Korea comes with some fairly strict requirements, that you need to be aware of before you go further. You will need to be in possession of a 4 year Bachelor’s degree in any discipline, come from one of the approved English speaking countries (South Africa, Canada, USA, Ireland, UK, Australia, New Zealand), have a clear police record and have a TEFL qualification. For South Africans looking to do the EPIK program, you’re also going to have to prove that your schooling was in English, which means getting a letter from both your primary and high schools.
If this has gotten you worried, remember that there are a few countries that don’t require these things, and you can start looking there. If you get offered a job in Korea and they tell you these requirements don’t apply to you, run away! These are Government regulations put in place to get the proper visa, and you don’t want to be here illegally.
Teaching in Korea: the country
The TEFL industry is booming, and there are tons of different places you can consider teaching English as foreign language. Before you decide, you need to think about Korean culture, and whether or not it seems like a good fit for you. There is nothing worse than landing your dream job only to realise that you can’t stand the location, so this is not a decision you should make lightly. Have a look at this article with different TEFL options that don’t require a University degree.
If you google Korea you will get a mix of political news and awesome photos of temples and lanterns. Korea is so much more than this though! Yes, you can expect to see some weird and wonderful festivals (think apple festivals, squid festivals, even mud festivals! Read our recommendations here), but Korea has many more cultural experiences to be enjoyed and explored.
For example, Koreans love the outdoors, so hiking and camping are big deals over here. The hiking trails are mostly well maintained, and the hiking culture is pretty friendly. There are national parks to be explored, and in the Winter, you can enjoy some top notch skiing and snowboarding. If you enjoy getting outdoors, Korea may be a good fit for you. Check out more about hiking in Korea here and here.
Drinking and eating together is also a huge part of Korean culture. If you end up teaching in a public school, you will likely be invited to staff meals and get-togethers in the evenings. These are pretty much mandatory, as all Korean workers must attend these functions and drink with their bosses. It may sound strange to Westerners, but Korean workplace hierarchy often means that you party with your bosses, and can only leave when they do. This can include dinner, coffee, and even sometimes Noraebangs, the Korean equivalent of Karaoke.
I mention this because it is important for foreign teachers to be a part of these meals as well, as teamwork and community is valued in Korea. Although you will get away with not drinking or staying out as late, you need to know that this will likely be a part of your job.The meals are generally super delicious, but unless your Korean skills are up to standard, it can also be quite lonely, so keep it in mind.
Not everyone is going to be happy to see you. I write this because I have friends who are People of Colour, and they have experienced some racism in Korea. A friend of mine had people get up and move away from her on the subway, and another friend has been refused service in a store. Korea is an incredibly homogeneous society, and so foreigners stick out like a sore thumb, even more so if you are a POC. Not every Korean is racist, in fact I think the younger generation is becoming far more globally minded, but be aware, it’s not a perfect place either.
On the flip side of this, you will also be asked a crazy amount of super personal questions by people you have just met. The number one question is about age, and there is a reason for this. Korean language has different registers for people who are older, younger, or the same age as the speaker. So people are not being rude when they ask you how old you are, they are checking where to place you so that they don’t address you inappropriately.
Koreans will probably also ask you about your height, weight, relationship status, and anything else under the sun. I honestly think they are just super curious to see how foreigners live, although it can be a bit intrusive. I work with one lady who comments on how she thinks I look all the time, as in ‘why do you have terrible spots on your face today, are you stressed?’ Well, I sure am now, thanks! But really this is just their way of showing care and concern, it just takes some getting used to.
Also, people spit in the streets here. Like, seriously, you can be walking around and have someone cough up a spitball worthy of youtube right next to you. It is an accepted part of the culture, so avert your eyes! Another quirk is that old people pretty much do whatever they want here, so don’t get in their way. Little old ladies will elbow you off the bus, and have no respect for your personal space if they want to stand where you are. There’s nothing you can do about it, just try to avoid them.
You are also going to be taking off you shoes a lot, and doing much more sitting on the floor than you’d expect! Koreans have ‘indoor shoes’ which are used only at school or home, and shoes that you where outside will need to be left at the door of some restaurants, shops, and schools. You get used to this, but it helps not to bring shoes that take forever to lace up.
At restaurants expect to sit on the floor and eat only with flat chopsticks and a spoon. I’ve heard of people traveling with their own little knife and fork, but if you’re here, why not try to pick up the chopstick skills? At least it gives your brain a workout, and Chris swears that chopsticks are awesome to cook with.
Communal eating is big here, so if you are at a restaurant, often there will be one big main meal to share and an abundance of side dishes to nibble from too. You also will have to cook your meal at the table at a lot of restaurants, like a mini barbecue (or braai for my Saffa friends!). This is a really cool cultural tradition.
If you go to a restaurant with a group of people, often the oldest person will pay for everyone. The youngest person is expected to give out the cutlery (often it is in a little box on the side or under the table), and generally pour drinks and cook. Often, if you are the only foreigner, (which happens a lot teaching in Korea), the Koreans will step in and help you out, they are pretty aware that you may not know how to act, and they won’t take offense, so don’t stress out. Koreans love teaching people about Korea, so you will make friends by asking questions and keeping an open mind.
As far as knowing what to do when, often the oldest or most senior person gets served first, and they decide when the night is over. This is not a strict rule with friends, but definitely applies to work gatherings. In Korea, no one should pour a drink for themselves, so don’t be surprised if someone hands you a bottle of alcohol and asks you to pour them a drink, they will pour yours for you too.
In terms of what food you can expect, we have an awesome food post here. Generally if you are in a bigger city you can find tons of Western food, and even fast food chains that you are used to at home. In the countryside there will be fewer of these, although there is normally at least one hamburger joint in town!
Expect a ton of veggies as side dishes, tons of stuff that is pickled and fermented, and a mix of meat and seafood. You will not be fed dog by accident. Seriously, it’s a really expensive meal and there are very few restaurants nowadays that serve it, don’t stress out.
Restaurants may not have English menus or English speaking servers, but there are sometimes little models of the menu outside that you can decide from, or pictures inside the restaurant itself. When you are teaching in Korea, or just visiting as a tourist, food Korean is probably the first survival skill you will need to learn!
I would definitely recommend you take up some sort of Korean language course while you’re in the country. Although you’ll be teaching in English, a basic knowledge of Korean will really help, as your coworkers may not know much English.
The Korean language is super different to English, so it can be really tough to learn, but having even just a little will improve your life here immensely. Not a lot of people here are comfortable trying to speak English to you, so you’re going to need a good translator on your phone and tons of patience for your first few weeks (or years…)
We took classes at our local YMCA that were cheap and awesome, and there are tons of language classes you can join. You can also invest in Talk to me in Korean books and courses, if you can’t get to a physical class or just aren’t that into people. Check out these here.
At the very least, take some time to learn the Korea alphabet, Hangeul, as most signage will use it, and you can impress your friends 😉 Check out a how to video here. You can also find an awesome survival Korean video here.
This is a big deal-breaker for me when I’m looking to move to a new country, and it should be for you too. What will your living arrangements be like teaching in Korea?
The answer depends a lot on where your school is. For our first year, Chris and I were living in a tiny farming town, so rent was obviously cheaper than in the cities. That, combined with the fact that we are married, so the schools could pool our housing allowance together, meant that we were living in a gorgeous apartment. We had 2 bedrooms, a lounge/kitchen, and a bathroom. It was equipped with 2 air conditioners and heating, and it was brand new.
For this year, we are living on a tiny island, with rent prices through the roof, so we only have one room and a bathroom. I don’t mean one bedroom, I mean one bed/living/kitchen room! It’s tiny! So things can really vary widely. I have heard horror stories of old apartments in the city that are tiny and falling apart, and I’ve heard of people having to share with other teachers. In the end, it really is up to you what you want and what is a deal-breaker. If you get here and hate where you are living, you can try and negotiate, or you can find another job, it’s not easy, but it isn’t impossible either.
Your apartment will not have a bath. Also, your shower will not have walls. The bathrooms here are wetrooms, meaning that your whole bathroom gets wet when you shower. It’s not something I love, but it’s not awful.
You will probably have to pay for your utilities. This is one instance that makes the small apartment you get better, less money to spend on gas and electricity! In general, rates are pretty reasonable, but in Winter your heating will probably be a gas powered ‘ondol’ which is Korean underfloor heating. This gets expensive fast, so invest in blankets and don’t leave the heating on!
Teaching in Korea: EPIK vs Hagwon
Once you have decided that teaching in Korea is the way for you, you’ll need to decide what kind of teaching you want to do. There is the public school, Government run English Program In Korea (EPIK), or there are private after-school academies called hagwons. I have only worked for EPIK, so I am biased towards it, but I will try and give you the rundown on both so that you can make your decision.
EPIK is the Korean government’s program to get native English speakers teaching in public schools across the country. In my opinion there are some awesome aspects to being a part of the program, as well as some annoying points. It really is up to you whether any of those are deal-breakers for you.
Epik is the safest option for teaching in Korea. By this, I don’t guarantee you will have a great time, I just mean that you will get paid on time, you will know how much you are earning, and you will have a clear contract that ensures you have vacation (18 days a year plus public holidays), sick leave, and bonuses for renewing or completing your contract.
You won’t have to fight about how many hours you work, as EPIK will have you in school from 8:30-4:30 Monday to Friday, although your actual teaching will only be 22 hours a week, and may be much less. If you have more than 22 hours they will pay you overtime.
That being said, your actual experience can vary greatly, I teach at 5 elementary schools this year, 2 schools last year, and I have more than my 22 hours a week. My husband, teaches at 4 middle schools this year, and teaches far less than the required 22 hours. It’s awesome if you get less teaching hours, as your pay is set in stone, and not dependent on how much you teach.
EPIK also has very few afterhours events. You’ll need to go to the school dinners that I talked about previously, and sometimes there are sports days or fieldtrips to be a part of. As I was working at an English centre last year, I got to go on awesome business trips with my supervisor to visit other centres. We would get a daily stipend for this in addition to our salary, and we would always check out some temples on the way, which was awesome! Chris has had to do some extra lessons on weekends, generally around holiday time for the students, but these have always been paid, and are few and far between.
When you are not teaching you are ‘desk-warming’, one of the unfortunate things about EPIK. Your contract requires you to be at school, even when the kids are on vacation, so sometimes it is just you and the admin lady! However mostly you can use this time for anything you want, which is great if you want to take a part time course or catch up on your netflix.
The biggest problem that people have with EPIK is the fact that you cannot choose your school or even your city. You can apply for a province, or a big city like Seoul, but you are not guaranteed that area. If you, like us, decide to apply for a particular province, you will be told if you got it, however, the actual details of your school(s), and your city will only be told to you in your last few days of orientation.
This can be super scary, especially if you aren’t here with your spouse! As only married couples are allowed to live together, it can also mean that you are separated from your partner and friends, and you’ll only know the day before you leave orientation to go to your placement. This was okay for me and Chris because we didn’t want to be in a big city, and we knew we would be together, but I can completely understand if this is a deal-breaker for you. Think about it carefully!
EPIK has a months long hiring process, and a ton of documentation requirements that you can find here. I have loved being a part of the program, but really you need to think if it is something you want before you start the process, as it does take ages! Hiring is done for Spring and Autumn seasons, and the faster you get your documents in the more likely you are to get your preferred placement, so get going! We applied directly to EPIK when we started teaching in Korea, but you can also consider getting a recruiter like Korvia.
I have a lot less experience here, but this is what I know. Hagwons are privately owned academies that run afterschool to enrich students’ English learning. One of the great things about Hagwons is that your hours won’t necessarily be office hours, and often your lessons will be back to back, so that you aren’t wasting time in an office desk-warming. It also means that you can choose a more flexible timetable for yourself, so that you could teach only mornings or evenings and have the rest of your time free.
Hagwons also allow you to apply directly so that you have pretty good control over what city and even what suburb you’ll be working in. So for example, if you have your heart set on working in Seoul, a hagwon might be a better bet than the super competitive EPIK Seoul program.
Whereas EPIK works with students from grade 3 and up, hagwons can have Kindergarten classes, so if you love the tiny tots, you should consider a hagwon! Finally, hagwons vary much more in terms of what curriculum you use. Public schools almost always have a textbook to work from, which can be a little stifling at times, whereas hagwons sometimes have more freedom to create your own lessons.
The downside in my opinion, is how variable your experience teaching in Korea at a hagwon can be. It is incredibly difficult to know which hagwons are legit, and which hagwon owners are trash before you get there. I have heard of people who love their work, but I also have heard of horror stories where people don’t get paid, have awful living conditions, or are emotionally abused by terrible bosses.
All I can say is DO YOUR RESEARCH. Google the name of the hagwon beforehand, get yourself on some teaching in Korea forums and ask for peoples’ advice. You really cannot do enough research! It is difficult but totally possible to change your job once you are already in Korea, so don’t let hagwon horror stories get in your way, just be sure to prepare yourself as much as possible.
Teaching in Korea: the logistics
Teaching in Korea you will need to get used to using the local currency of the Won. There are no cents in the Won, so amounts will be larger than what you are used to. 1000 Won is about equal to $1, and is the smallest note you can get. It’s between 3000 and 5000 Won for a coffee, depending where you go.
The Korean counting system is super different to ours, and takes a bit of practice. The essentials are:
10 Won: ‘Ship Won’
100 Won: ‘Bek Won’
1000 Won: ‘Cheon Won’
10 000 Won: ‘Mahn Won’
100 000 Won: ‘Ship-Mahn Won’ (10 ten thousands)
1000 000 Won: ‘Bek-Mahn Won’ (100 ten thousands)
It is a little confusing, and counting in general in Korean is a mess to untangle, so have a look at the awesome site over at 90 day Korean, specifically to help you with numbers, here.
If you are coming over and teaching in Korea, you need to make sure you have enough money to tide you over until your first payday. Chris and I had about $1500 dollars between us, and that was enough for our first month. Granted, we didn’t have to pay anything for accommodation, and we got some money to help us set up our flat. You have to look at what kind of lifestyle you are used to. If you are going to want to spend extra on going out to eat, or attend social events, you will need more money. If you are a bit of a homebody like us then you can get by on $1000.
I also recommend getting some cash converted to won, either before you leave or at the airport when you arrive. Check with your home bank to see if their cards are okay to work in Korea, because not all of them are. In general, if you have a Mastercard or Visa you will be fine, but still let your bank know you will be using it overseas so that they don’t cancel it on you!
It will take a few weeks to set a bank account up here, so make sure you can survive for a while. Also get hold of your bank’s address, telephone number, and SWIFT code, because you will need these details if you plan to send money to your home bank account.
I recommend KEB Hana bank, as they have English speaking hotlines, and specific foreigner friendly branches, so I have always had an easy time dealing with them. Your school will push you to open an account with a certain bank for their own tax purposes, which is fine, just open another one with KEB, and you can transfer your salary around using bank apps or ATM transfers.
Generally salaries fror teaching in Korea range from 1.9 million won to 2.5 million won a month, depending on where you teach and your qualifications. If you are teaching in Korea at a public school and you’re from South Africa, you won’t have to pay tax in Korea for your first 2 years here. You’ll need to get a tax clearance form from SARS though, and this can take a few months, so do that ASAP!
Teaching in Korea also means that you will get an apartment to stay in, or a housing allowance. Don’t take a job that doesn’t offer you one or the other! Your employer should also be paying 50% of your health insurance as well as your pension (although, South Africans don’t qualify for pension here, don’t let them dupe you!)
All things considered, Chris and I manage to send around $1000 home a month each, and we still travel internationally twice a year and spend too much on internet shopping. Teaching in Korea is definitely a great way to save money, or to pay off any debt you have while still having a good quality of life.
Korea has an awesome public transport system that makes getting around pretty easy and safe. You can take the subways in bigger cities, and buses and taxis in smaller places. There are also trains and buses that run between cities, and Korea is a tiny country, so commute times are only hectic if there is traffic!
Get yourself a Tmoney card from any convenience store and load cash onto it. You can tap these to pay for tickets at subway stations and on buses, it is super convenient. You can also get your bank card enabled to make these transactions too which is a time saver!
Generally the healthcare in Korea is pretty good, the struggle mostly is to find people who can talk good enough English to help you out. I have found that pharmacists have some of the best English around, and are super helpful people. If you are teaching in Korea and find yourself in a bind, you can use bbb Korea’s volunteer translators service to help you out, just give them a call and they can help you have the conversation you need. Find them online here, or call 1588-5644 and press 01 for English. The bigger university hospitals will have an International department too, so google which one is closest to you and check.
There is unfortunately quite a stigma against mental health problems in Korea, although you can still find great psychologists and psychiatrists. Consider looking in the expat groups for expat therapists that often do work online, as this means you can speak to an English therapist who often has experience in all sorts of issues you may be having as an expat. If you need a referral, please send me an email and I’ll see if I can help. You can also take a look at my posts on self-care, anxiety, and struggles with being an older TEFL teacher.
What to bring
One of the biggest worries people have is what to pack for a year in Korea. While I can’t go into all the details here, my first advice is: don’t panic. Korea is a place that thrives on shopping, so you’ll be able to get by even if you need to try some new brands. Here is what I’ve personally found to be difficult to get hold of:
Plus size clothing: I’m an 8 US/12 UK and I struggle to find pants that fit me. I shop at Uniqlo when I’m on the mainland, or my personal obsession is ASOS, who offer free delivery to Korea, and their stuff is good quality!
Body spray. People from South Africa know what I’m talking about! The sprays you get here are almost all anti-perspirants, and you can only get dove or Nivea, so bring your favorites! Same goes for toothpaste, the Korean brands are mostly fluoride free so bring your favs from back home.
Spice blends. If you absolutely have to cook with your favourite curry blend, bring it, you won’t find it here. Basic herbs and spices are available, but specific blends from home are harder to come by. That being said, if you’re South African and missing a good braai or some biltong, head to Braai Republic in Seoul for a taste of home.
If you are a POC, bring along your hair products. I have heard that you can get some products if you shop near one of the military bases, but other than that it’s order online or bring from home.
Full-sized towels. Koreans use hand towels as bath towels, so finding a full sized towel can be difficult and expensive. For us, it was worth bringing towels from home, even though they took up valuable space.
If you are worried about finding anything else while teaching in Korea, take a look at Gmarket, Korea’s version of Amazon. If you can find it on there you can get it shipped to you no problem. Also be willing to try Korean skincare and beauty brands, as they really are some of the best in the world. You never know, you may be converted!
Here are some awesome Facebook groups that are super helpful
I hope that you have found this article interesting and helpful. If you have any other questions about teaching in Korea, or you think I should add anything, chick me an email! I hope that you find your dream job, whether it is teaching in Korea or not.
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