In this article we will look at everything you need to know if you are looking into teaching English in China.
In 2016 while between jobs and thinking about where my life was heading, I took a massive leap of faith and signed up for a TESOL (Teaching English as a Second or Other Language) course in Harbin, China, with the promise of a six month teaching contract upon completion. When I arrived in China four years ago there wasn’t a great deal of support for someone who had just left everything they know behind, and with this in mind I have prepared the following guide to help anyone looking to teach English in China.
First, we will look at the practical side, and everything you need to know before you go then move on to arriving in China and what to expect.
Teaching English in China “Know before you go”
In order to teach English in China you must legally have the following: –
• English as a native language*
• A University Degree*
• A TEFL/TESOL Certificate*
• A clean criminal record
• A clean bill of health
English as a native language
Teachers from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK or the USA are highly desired by schools in China, but as long as you come from any country or territory where English is spoken as a first Language this will be sufficient.
An uncomfortable truth
Many Chinese parents have an image of what a teacher should look like and they believe this to be a white male in his 30s. Non-white applicants will invariably come up against racism when applying for jobs, though attitudes are changing quickly.
Most schools are aware that it’s perfectly possible to be of African or Asian descent and be a native English speaker, but some parents are unable to grasp this and may express “concern” as appearance matters very much in China. It is absolutely not a bar to teaching in China and every school I have worked at has employed teachers of varying backgrounds who are and have been treated the same as everyone else, but it is something you should be aware of before you come to China if you are of African or Asian heritage.
A University Degree
The Chinese government requires all those teaching English in China to be educated to degree level. A notarised copy of your degree certificate is required by all above board employers.
It does not matter if your degree is not related to education or teaching, however if it is you will naturally command a higher salary and have more opportunities open to you.
*Due to the huge demand for English teachers in China some schools choose to ignore and work around the first two requirements. In my city there are English teachers from Eastern Europe and Africa where English is not their native language. They are paid a lot less and have zero protection from shady employers and are effectively breaking the law. So, if you are asking “is it possible to teach in China without a degree or if I am from a non-native English speaking country”, the answer is yes, but there are (big) risks.
A TEFL/TESOL Certificate
Most employers require a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) or TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) certificate.
You can find many courses online but there are some schools in China who provide this training and certification “on the job” which is an excellent way to get the qualification and gain experience. I did my course through WillExcelTesol in Harbin and highly recommend the course.
A Clean Criminal Record
All employers will require a copy of your criminal records check (CRB check in the UK) for each country you have lived in. A copy of which must be notarised by your local police department in order to teach English in China.
A Clean Bill of Health
Before teaching English in China you will need to have a health check to confirm you do not have any contagious diseases. Contact your local GP or hospital to arrange this. Annoyingly, you will have to go through the same procedure again once you get to China before you start work (and every year thereafter that you remain in China).
Do I need to speak Chinese to Teach English in China?
The simple answer is no, not at all, although obviously it would be helpful. I have lived in China for 5 years and don’t speak the language and the same can be said for many foreign teachers. It is not a requirement to be able to speak or understand Mandarin or Cantonese to teach in China. Most schools offer free Chinese lessons as an added bonus and if you want to learn the language, what better place to be?
What types of teaching jobs are there in China?
There are four main types of post:
• Training School
• High School
Teaching English in China – Training Schools
By far the most common form of employment for foreigners in China is at a training school. Training schools are run by a private company that teaches students after school and at weekends. Students are usually aged from 4 to 13 but some training schools may offer adult classes too.
Classes are from 40 to 120 minutes usually with a ten minute break every hour. Standard hours are 2 hours in the evenings and 6 to 8 hours on Saturday and Sunday. Training schools usually only offer one day off per week, but you have a lot of free time during weekdays.
Some training schools require you to do “office hours” where you should be in the office for a set period of time each day to do lesson planning. Check the contract to see what is required of you before signing.
Most training schools will have a native English speaking manager who bridges the gap between foreign teachers and the Chinese management and this is highly recommended when looking for a job. One of the largest franchises is Joy Children’s Language School who have many locations in cities across China. They provide excellent training and benefits and are a great employer (I have worked for Joy for 4 years).
Teaching English in China – Kindergartens
Kindergartens are similar to training schools, but for younger students (usually around 3 or 4 years old). These are usually privately run establishments and have class sizes of around fifteen students.
Teaching English in China – High Schools
State run high schools usually have very large classes of about 60 students. Classes are 40 to 60 minutes and you will be dealing direct with Chinese management so will need basic Mandarin to teach at High School. Some training schools outsource their foreign teachers to high schools.
Teaching English in China – Universities
As with High Schools, university jobs require teaching large classes from 40 to 120 minutes. Again, some training schools will outsource teachers to universities.
Where to look for jobs?
So, you are now all set to start looking for work in China. daveseslcafe is a great resource for teachers and has a section dedicated to Chinese jobs, such is the demand. Another option is to contact schools directly. Be wary of recruitment consultants as some of these charge very high fees and are pretty unscrupulous. You can also contact schools or universities direct if you have the necessary language skills.
It’s always best to work with a school that has native English speaking management which can offer you a lot of protection against unscrupulous employers. Be careful when accepting offers from Chinese run schools as they have a tendency to offer a lot but never follow through on their promises. Make sure that the school will give you a contract and read it carefully before signing.
What city should I choose?
It may well be that you have several offers for jobs in different cities in China. How best to choose where to live? Some things to consider are the climate (in the South very hot with annual monsoons) and in the north it can get very cold in winter (think -40c). I live pretty much in the central area with a nice climate and great transport links to the rest of China, but I started out in the northeast on the border with Siberia.
Some top cities for teaching English in China
If you choose to live in a smaller city there will likely be fewer foreigners (not necessarily a bad thing, but if you want to socialise with English speakers it’s something to consider). The cost of living will be cheap in smaller cities and you may have better accommodation. If you choose to live in somewhere like Beijing or Shanghai the cost of living is going to be very high so ensure your salary can meet your needs.
Are you interested in history, culture, nature or would like to be by the sea? China is a huge country so it’s not hard to find somewhere that will likely be of interest. It’s also good to think about transport links if you wish to travel in your time off.
If you wish to immerse yourself in Chinese culture, then aim for a smaller city. If you want the comfortable trappings of a western lifestyle than aim for the “Tier 1” cities but expect to pay a premium.
What should be included in my contract?
You should ensure that your contract contains at least the following benefits
• Working (Z) visa
• Furnished apartment or stipend to cover accommodation
• Salary of 15,000 to 25,000rmb depending on city, experience and timetable.
• At least 1 day off per week
• 4 weeks paid holiday
• Flight reimbursement equal to one month’s salary
What visa do I need to teach English in China?
So, you’ve found a school, are happy with the contract and ready to embark on your Chinese adventure! What’s next? VISA!
Once you have secured a job in China you need to apply for a China Work (Z) VISA as you will need this in order to travel to China. Once you arrive, your school will take you to the government office and apply for your residence permit which will replace the VISA, which is only valid for 30 days.
Getting a Chinese Visa
You will need to apply to apply in person at your nearest Chinese consulate or embassy. First you must print the visa application form and fill it in.
Attach a current passport photograph to the application (always good to have a few spares with you when applying for a visa).
You will need to bring your current passport (with at least 6 months validity and 2 blank pages) as well as photocopies of the data page so prepare these in advance.
Your employer will send you the necessary supporting documents from their end so print and take copies with you.
Book your flights
Once you have your VISA, criminal and health checks and agreed a start date it’s time to book those flights. Generally speaking Skyscanner is a great website for checking flights, but you can also use Trip.com which will be a valuable resource once you are in China and have competitive rates for flights(you can pre-book trains in China via Trip.com too).
If you will be moving to a city other than Beijing, Shanghai or Xi’an you need to think about how you will complete your journey, whether it be a connecting domestic flight or by train. When I moved to China, I flew to Beijing and then took the fast train (8 hours) to Harbin. Most people would probably rather another short flight, but I love train travel so was happy to continue my journey at ground level and enjoy the new and enchanting scenery along the way.
Things to prepare before you leave
VPN (Virtual Private Network)
If you want to stay connected to the world and use sites like Google, Youtube, Facebook, Wikipedia and even the BBC, you must first install a VPN on your phone and it is a lot easier to do this outside of China. I use Astrill which is the most reliable. Other options include Express and NordVPN.
One month for Astrill costs $20, and Express costs $12. It’s cheaper if you buy 6 or 12 months. Simply go to the App store on your phone and search for Express or Astrill and download. You can then install on other devices such as laptop and tablet.
Read our full guide to the best VPNs to use when teaching English in China.
In China Wechat is King (or Emperor). It is a messaging app like Whatsapp but can also be used for payments for anything from taxis to dinner to your weekly shop and also has a free calling function (phone and video). Download the App before you go, but wait until you have a Chinese bank account before linking your card for payments.
It’s a good idea to add the contacts of your new employer and any other foreign teachers at your new school before you go. Each large city will also have a foreigners’ Wechat Group so try and join this to get a feel of the place and the other foreigners living there (if you dislike social media and the associated drama then I wouldn’t bother), but it can be useful as jobs are advertised as well as get-togethers, photography classes and such like and it’s a good way to make new friends in your city.
As mentioned above, Trip.com is a transportation app that allows you to book trains in China and flights and hotels anywhere, usually at very reasonable rates. You can earn points on your spending that can be applied to hotel bookings. Download the app from your app store.
A very useful map that uses GPS and doesn’t require internet access. I would still be wandering around Beijing now if it wasn’t for this great app.
What to pack?
Bear in mind that you will likely be in China for at least a year, probably a lot longer once you get a taste for the place. As well as the necessary clothes depending on the climate (China is very big, check what the seasons are like in the area you will be living before you go and pack accordingly). Bring some keepsakes from home such as photographs or small ornaments to help ease the culture shock (more on that later).
Have you got your passport and VISA? Copies of your notarised degree and necessary checks? You’ve downloaded Wechat, a VPN and booked your flights? Excellent, it’s time to go!
Arriving in China
Depending on what has been agreed, most good schools will send someone to the airport to meet you and help you get settled. This where having a native-English-speaking manager will be very helpful.
The first few days will be a whirlwind of jetlag, appointments at the police office to register, health checks at the hospital and getting all the relevant administration completed.
Your employer should help you set up a Chinese bank account where your wages will be paid and to get a Chinese SIM card for your phone. China Telecom is the best and you should expect to pay around 50rmb per month for calls and data (though everyone uses Wechat to call and send messages).
Once you have your Chinese bank account and card (Unionpay) you can link this to your Wechat to make paying for things easier.
Once things slow down, take the time to have a walk around your area and familiarise yourself with the place.
Culture Shock and ways to cope
It is inevitable for most people to experience some degree of culture shock when arriving in China. From the sheer amount of people to the constant background noise of traffic, loud conversations and music blasted from road-sweeping vehicles, to the sometimes “strange” food, it can at times be a little overwhelming.
Keep in touch with friends and family back home
Facebook is the easiest way for me to keep in touch with people, but if you get your friends and family back home to download Wechat then you can message and video call them without worrying about VPN outages and slowed connection. Remember the time difference though and don’t call Mum at 4am!
Find a Quiet Place
Even the big metropolises have quiet and shady parks or pleasant little café’s where you can escape the bustle of the city and enjoy a coffee while collecting your thoughts.
Join Foreigner Wechat Groups
As mentioned above, find the foreigner Wechat group for your city (usually called something like “Beijing Laowais” to keep updated on events going on locally. Many foreigners get together regularly for coffee, beer, a meal or the cinema. Even if you don’t meet up it’s a good place to chat and vent!
Go out, make friends!
Food in China
If you are expecting the food in China to be the same as your local takeaway then you may be in for a surprise as western Chinese food is very different to the food on the ground. Every street has restaurants serving a variety of Chinese cuisine from Xinjiang (Muslim) to spicy Hot Pot or bbq and there is something to suit every pallet. Unless you are living in Beijing or Shanghai you won’t find much in the way of “western food” aside from KFC, McDonalds and Pizza Hut (Newsflash!, Pizzas in China don’t have a tomato sauce base!).
When ordering food in a restaurant you will find that maybe desert will arrive before or with the main course and see Chinese people eating a spoonful of ice cream alongside a piece of fish which I still can’t get used to, but each to their own! Service can be a little strange, but dining out is always an entertaining experience. It always pays to heed the old traveller’s mantra about eating at places popular with locals, and if you see a full restaurant then you can’t go far wrong.
To help with culture shock it’s always good to have a few tastes of home and aside from the ubiquitous fast food outlets mentioned above, most supermarkets stock a few foreign brands whether it be Heinz Baked Beans or M&Ms.
You can eat out in China very cheaply, but if you have a kitchen and want to cook, supermarkets and markets stock everything you would be accustomed to seeing at home, and some things maybe you wouldn’t (grubs anyone?)
Waimai is a food delivery app that lets you order from every restaurant (a bit like JustEats but ubiquitous and much better established). You can order anything from a Big Mac to Peking duck or BBQ right to your door. Download the App from the app store and ask one of the other foreigners or a local friend how to order.
Transport in China
Many teachers opt to buy a bicycle or E-bike scooter. Expect to pay around 2,000rmb for a new mountain bike and 3,000 to 4,000 for an electric scooter. Riding in China can be daunting at first and you do need to have your wits about you, but it’s a good way to get around and get to know your city. Please be aware of the risks as traffic in China can be a little crazy and neither I, nor The Seasonals take any responsibility for accidents.
You will also find many shared bikes and electric bikes around the city. Use Wechat to scan and unlock the bike and don’t forget to scan again once you have parked or it will carry on charging you. Cost is 1rmb per hour.
Taxis are plentiful and inexpensive but at rush hour you may have to wait a little. Official taxis are easily identifiable; simply hold your hand out to hail a ride. There is a minimum fare, usually between 5 and 10rmb depending on the city, and then a set rate of usually 1.50rmb per kilometre. Don’t take the unofficial taxis at stations as you will invariably get ripped off. Every station has an official taxi rank.
Buses are a good way to get around the city. The fare is 1 or 1.50rmb no matter the distance.
If you live in a large city then Subway is another great way to get around. Tickets are cheap (usually 4 to 6 rmb) but remember that they tend to close very early by western standards (usually run from 5am to 10pm).
Trains are a great way to experience China and a great alternative to flying. There are super-modern bullet trains or slower ones where you can take an overnight journey and wake up in your destination You can read more about train travel in China here.
For an understanding of how to use the trains and current prices, have a look at our guides:
Some frustrations you can expect when teaching in China!
You are bound to feel frustrated sometimes that things are done very differently from back home, but it’s just something you have to accept and not try and fight it. Remember, you have chosen to come to China and must accept their ways even if you think them different to back home. Here a few things you will experience that you might find a little unpleasant.
At first you may think it novel to be photographed in the street as if you were a celebrity, but it can soon become tiresome, especially if they don’t ask permission. China is very much a mono-ethnic culture and as a foreigner you will be a curiosity to many Chinese. Stares and the occasional photograph are part and parcel of living here and part of daily life.
The Chinese don’t much like silence, so that is something you will have to get used to. Fireworks at 6am? Screaming like a banshee at picturesque scenic spots? Road-sweepers playing Christmas music year-round? Just a few of the things you can expect to hear in China.
There is a strange paradox in China where you will see hoards of street cleaners, road-sweepers and such all-day every day, but yet the streets (and sometimes restaurants) are always dirty and a little smelly.
Spitting is a habit that you will experience in China and just have to try and shut out. There is no escaping it.
That said, China has an amazing culture, history and cuisine, and if you can learn to live with these things then overall you will be rewarded handsomely.
The Job – Teaching English in China
Your TEFL/TESOL course and your new employer should provide you with everything you need to teach effectively, but below are some handy tips to help along the way.
Plan your lesson well in advance. Use the internet to look for ideas, print pictures to help with vocabulary and make/copy worksheets and such to aid you.
Usually you will have a Chinese co-teacher so consult with them about what they want you to teach. Clear up any questions before the class and also speak with fellow foreign teachers who will be happy to give you advice.
It can be daunting entering the classroom for the first time, but your students will be very interested in you. Break the ice by introducing yourself and depending on the age of your students, ask a little about each one. Have a big smile ready and you really can’t go wrong.
Have plenty of fun activities to incorporate into your lessons. There are thousands of websites with ideas (daveseslcafe.com being one of the best) and again, speak to other teachers and borrow games and activities from them. If the students are having fun, they are going to learn more. Chinese school is tough on children and involves a lot of repetition, so ensure you don’t lose their focus. Even if it’s something as simple as throwing a ball when asking a question, keep the students on their toes and just have fun!
Always ensure you have one or two “emergency” back-up activities as if it’s a small class it’s possible the time you allocated will not stretch to the end. A favourite of mine is hangman (guess the word) which can easily fill up 10 minutes at the end of the class and the students love this game!
If you have a very active class and you feel discipline is an issue you can ask your Chinese co-teacher to step in and help out. Reward the good students with points, sweets and such and the boisterous ones will usually step into line when they see they’re missing out.
I hope you have found this article useful and if you have any questions about teaching English in China, please comment below!
About this author: Steve Rohan has lived in China for six years. He has lived in the frozen city of Harbin, ancient capital of Luoyang and tropical paradise that is Sanya.
After teaching English for a number of years, he now blogs full time for this site and adventure travel blog thetripgoeson.com.