Before I moved to South Korea in 2009, I had about a bazillion questions which I unleashed in full force on absolutely everyone I could track down that I thought might know something (anything!) about the Land of Kimchi. I now feel slightly bad for how intensely I questioned everyone (hey, it was my first time moving abroad to a country on a continent I’d never stepped foot on!), but instead of letting this information go to waste, and especially now that I’ve lived here for awhile… and since so many people have asked me a lot of the same questions – I figured I might as well share them with the world!
So if you’re thinking of moving to Korea to teach English, this list is for you. And if you have a question that’s not on the list – post it in the comments and I’ll add it!
(It should be mentioned here that the majority of my experience in this country is with private schools, or hagwons. I have friends who work in the public school system, but having never done so myself, I may not be able to answer accurately all of your questions. The job-specific answers in this post will be more accurate for those of you considering work in private schools.)
1. What education do I need? Do I need TEFL/TESOL or equivalent?
No. All you need is a Bachelor’s Degree in any discipline from a recognized university. A TESL/TEFL/CELTA certificate is beneficial for a lot of jobs abroad – but not for Korea. Most schools won’t even ask for it. So, unless you’re looking to work elsewhere (and if you are, I definitely recommend getting certified), don’t waste your time or money on this.
2. How long will my contract be?
Almost every job in South Korea is for a year, and most schools will ask you to sign a contract for 12 months. In turn, they will provide you with flights to and from Korea, accommodation, health insurance, pension, and a bonus for completion of the contract (which usually amounts to a full month’s pay). If you get cold feet and leave before 6 months have passed, expect to reimburse your employer for the cost of your flight to Korea. If you stay 6 months but fail to complete the full 12, you won’t have to reimburse your employer for the flight to Korea, but you’ll be on your own for a flight home. Completing the contract means you are entitled to a return flight home to your city of origin (sometimes you will be able to negotiate this for cash if you don’t intend to fly directly home after your term of employment has been completed, but try to mention this to your employer before you sign anything if you know already that this will be the case).
3. I don’t speak Korean.
Neither do any of the Russians, Philipinos, Chinese or American soldiers! Yet, they all seem to have a
grand ol’ time. That being said, it’s worth spending a bit of time to pick up some of the language. You will learn a lot faster once you are here, because, well let’s face it, you’ll have to! The people you’ll need to speak to, like the school director, the head teacher, the immigration officer at the airport, the doctor, etc., will speak enough English to make you comfortable and help you out. Other than that, you can get by through reading (they love English, so many of the products have English names too), and sign language (helps if you love charades). ;)
If you can learn how to read, even a little, you’ll have a huge head start, especially since many things that look Korean are actually just English words written in Korean! This, for example, ( 햄 치즈 토스트 ) really just means (Ham and cheese toast!), which is basically a kick-ass grilled cheese sandwich, a popular lunch thing here. Don’t worry, you’ll pick it up.
Also, numbers are pretty important. So, if you could learn to count from 1-10 (il, ee, sam, sa, oh, yuuk, chil, pal, kuu, ship) and learn the words for hundred and thousand (beck, chun), then you’ll be able to buy things without a problem. Everything else will come to you over time.
4. Does English need to be my native language?
Unfortunately, in most cases – yes. You need to be a native speaker of the English language, and most employers will only accept applicants from Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. If you’re not from one of those countries, you will probably face some challenges finding a job. It’s not impossible, though, so don’t give up just yet!
5. I’ve never taught a day in my life.
The most important thing is that you like kids. Everything else comes easy after that. All schools have a book or series of texts that they want you to follow. These are pretty self-explanatory. In most cases these are just starting points though, to give you some kind of direction and schedule. For instance, Unit 1 is School, Unit 2 is Lunch, Unit 3 is Play. So, you would use that to get started, but could also have them draw their school, copy down a million different food items, or cut and color different sports equipment. It’s your ideas, but their method. So don’t be scared if you haven’t taught before. The kids will love you regardless anyway. =)
6. How much money will I make? How much can I expect to save?
Expect to earn at least 2.1 million Korean won, per month, for your first year here. Don’t accept anything less than that. This works out to approximately $2,000 USD, which isn’t a fortune until you realize your living expenses are very minimal here. You won’t have to pay for your apartment. Transportation is cheap. Clothes are cheap (especially the ones you will find on street corners and in subway stations!). Food is affordable (Western food is substantially more expensive, so learn to love yourself some kimchi!). Beer is cheap. Soju is even cheaper – I’m talking a little more than $1 a bottle (probably because it tastes like old socks! — but you will start to get used to it over time, I promise you). If you’re good with your money, you can expect to save anywhere from $1,000 – $1,500 USD a month. If you suck with money, you’ll still save at least $500. It’s practically impossible not to save any money while working as an English teacher in this country. Which is one of the reasons people come for one year and stay for 5! (Don’t say I never warned you!).
7. I need to stay active or I’ll go crazy. Are there sports teams or gyms I can join?
Wanna go to the gym? There are gyms all over the place, some good and some bad. As a general rule, it’s about $60-$100 bucks a month (I pay $85 for mine) to join for use of the machines, free weights, and cardio bikes, treadmills, etc.. Yes, it’s much more expensive than home. And unless you’re very lucky, you won’t find anything cheaper than this. But if you are an active person and enjoy working out, it’s probably worth it. Some gyms have pools, and most have spas, and some even have spinning classes, taekwondo lessons, yoga and the like (for an extra fee, usually). Inquire at reception if you’re interested.
Maybe you’re a runner. Or you like to bike. Korea has many running and bike paths, usually well marked and often built adjacent to their many rivers and streams. It’s a little weird to run on the street (nobody does it here), but if you can’t find a forest or a lake to run around, there are also a few good running tracks (pink rubber-ized asphalt), around – just keep your eyes open. And I’m not even kidding you – you will find free gyms, complete with workout machines, in the middle of everywhere. Whether it’s a park, a running trail, at the beach or right smack in the middle of a forest. Use them. They are fun. They are hilarious. And they are awesome.
Like to hike? The hills are full of hiking trails. Seoulites love to hike, and the city is surrounded by lots of small mountains which are perfect for this. You can venture out of the city to find more exciting mountains to climb, but a few hours is all you need to get a good hike in and around Seoul.
Soccer player? There are plenty of soccer teams in Seoul, and throughout the country too. Men will have no trouble finding a team to join. Check out the Seoul Sunday Football League. Through them, you can also join the Seoul Saturday Football League, if you’d rather play on Saturdays. They also have info on teams throughout the country, if you’re not planning on moving to Seoul. Many of the teams are comprised mostly of foreigners, just like you, so you’ll meet a lot of cool new people. If you’re a girl, you’re also welcome on a few of the teams in the above leagues, but if you’d rather play with other women, you’re in luck! Check out the Seoul RMT FC facebook page for more info. They’re a great group of girls that we got together last year, after myself and Teddi Labrash voiced frustration at there not being a women’s league in Seoul.
8. What kind of vacation time can I expect?
The vacation periods are usually pre-determined because the school you work for will close completely for a summer and a winter holiday. For private schools, this is usually one week at Christmas and one week at the end of July or beginning of August. Expect a total of 10 working days paid vacation.
If you sign on with a public school, you’ll get more vacation time. Chances are good you won’t be paid for all of it, which means you’ll be making and saving less money in the long run, but if traveling to nearby countries while you’re here is a priority for you and you don’t mind having 30-100 students in a class (or being the only Foreign teacher at your school), the extra vacation time is really nice.
9. What will my apartment look like?
The apartments are compact, like the people and the country. You’ll probably have one room that includes your bed and your kitchen, and maybe a desk or something if you’re lucky. Instead of a shower, your bathroom will probably have a hanging nozzle that you can use to bathe with. In other words, you’ll shower on your bathroom floor, right there beside your sink and toilet. Which is why shower shoes become such a necessity. Just make sure you keep them outside your bathroom when you’re showering. ;) If you like, check out the short video I made of my apartment in Seoul last year for a better idea of what to expect. :)
Sidenote: When they tell you you’re getting a “furnished” apartment, don’t get excited. All that actually means is that they’re providing you with a roof and a bed. Likely without sheets. If you’re lucky, you might have a desk. But you probably won’t have any cutlery. Or towels. (See WHAT TO PACK – No.#22 for more ideas on what to bring). To be clear, the video above was taken after I’d finished furnishing my apartment.
10. I will die without internet.
Yeah, me too. Don’t worry. Internet connections here are lightning fast and make Rogers and Shaw look like a couple of dummy organizations that must have mice or hamsters running in little plastic wheels to keep their connections up. For $35 bucks a month you can get a cable and internet package that gives you heaps of channels, including 3 or 4 that are exclusively English (they love House, Without a Trace, CSI, Psych, Scrubs, etc.), and a cable modem. You can buy your own airport (wireless router) for about $30-$40 bucks and have internet anywhere in your place. It’s not worth bringing one from home, though, because the power source is different. On that note, you should also bring a power bar with you from home. That way you only have to buy one Korean adapter here to plug the bar into, and then you can plug all your Canadian (or English, Australian etc.) stuff into the bar (note: this won’t work for your hairdryer, so leave it at home and get a cheap one here). For internet you can also always wait to see if there are any unsecured signals in your building and mooch internet for free for as long as no one cares (or notices).
11. What about travel/medical insurance?
You’ll be covered by a group plan with all the teachers and staff in your school, so you won’t need added coverage while you’re in Korea. It is a deduction of between 3% and 4.5% from your paycheck. It starts when you start working. This includes little trips to the doctor for colds, flu, stomach pain, etc.. The school really wants you to stay healthy and so will make sure you’re well taken care of. There is no extended medical, though, so you would have to pay for your own medicine, like Tylenol (which they have) and cold medication. But, it’s relatively cheap (about $5 is the most expensive thing I’ve seen). Also, unless you’re saving yourself for marriage, it’s also best to bring your own birthcontrol with you, since they have it here but not likely in the same brand as we can get at home. I’ve never seen Alesse or Tricyclin, for example.
On the other hand, if you do plan on traveling outside of Korea and don’t want to risk not having insurance in Vietnam, for example, you could also purchase a plan (excluding USA) for the year before you leave home. Totally up to you, though.
12. How will I get paid?
You get paid in hugs from the kids. And sometimes bread is involved. Kidding. You will have a Korean bank account opened here and the school will deposit your salary electronically. Your salary will be paid in South Korean won, so you can either take it all out and blow it on prize pencils, erasers, stuffed animals and candy for your kids, like I do, or you can wire money home each month or couple of months. They call it an “Outgoing Cable”, which means wire transfer, and it is really easy. So make sure you get this info from your home bank before you leave: a) your full account number from the bank, b) the branch’s full mailing address, c) your full name and passport, and d) the bank’s SWIFT code. You can get all of this by going into the branch and telling them you’re planning to send money from overseas. They probably have a paper already made up that they’ll fill in with your details. Don’t lose it.
13. I’m thinking of teaching Kindergarten. I don’t have to dress up for work, do I?
The attire for most kindergarten jobs is pretty lax, which is good news for us. Most teachers wear jeans and a t-shirt. Guys are usually allowed to wear shorts, so long as they’re khaki or other nice ones (not supposed to be board-shorts, but it obviously varies by school), and girls can wear the same or skirts knee-length or longer. In the summer, the Korean teachers all wear cute little summer dresses or skirts with a nice top/blouse. Teaching kindergarten is, however, not formal at all. You’re working with kids, right, so you don’t want your best shirt and slacks to have handprints or snot on them at the end of the day! Short-sleeved polo/golf shirts with a little collar are a lot of guys’ fortee. In any case, I recommend just wearing what you would wear to meet a friend’s parents for lunch at Earls! Does that make sense? Not too smart, but not too ghetto either. Unless it’s hallowe’en. ;)
14. Where will I be living in relation to my school?
Most employers will put you up in an apartment very close to where your school is. If it’s not within walking distance, it’s usually only a couple of subway rides away. I always buy a commuter bike (I use Craigslist Seoul) when I’m here – not only does it cut down on travel times, it also saves me money and gets me a bit of exercise.
15. I don’t know anyone there. Is it scary to go alone?
In all honesty, you’ll probably be sad and homesick for a week or so until it turns into excitement of being in a new country. But come alone. Please. Come alone. It’s the best way to do it! (Check out my post on the benefits of solo travel) Once your week of misery is over (it’s not that bad, believe me), you’ll be excited to go out there and have some adventures, and meeting people goes hand-in-hand with that. There is a HUGE expat community here. Some days I forget that I’m in Korea at all because there are so many damn foreigners around! You will probably even work with some people who speak your language – and with any luck, they’ll be as awesome as mine were!
If you still need help finding people, sports teams (see #7), hiking groups, language exchanges etc., are great for putting you in touch with other foreigners. Check Korea4Expats to find out what’s going on in your area. It’s also a good idea to get out there and go on some organized trips with other foreigners. Go alone and you’ll meet a bunch of people. Adventure Korea is great for this. You can sign up for any of the events online, wire transfer the money from your bank account, and show up at the departure location. Easy as that. But if all else fails, navigate yourself to one of the many foreigner pubs in your area. Travelers (in Bundang) – or Rocky Mountain Tavern (in Itaewon – also well known for playing NHL games, so make your way here if you’re a hockey fan like me! – GO CANUCKS – just had to throw that in there :) ) to name a couple. That being said, you could just GO to Itaewon. You won’t be able to walk four feet without running into someone who probably teaches English.
16. When should I start applying?
Most jobs start becoming available 2-3 months before the start date. Until then, take time to research the type of job you’re interested in – whether it be public or private school, kindergarten or high-school, and the location in South Korea that you’re most interested in. You will find a lot of online information on this – so take your time, and figure out what works best for you. You’re going to be here for a year; you owe it to yourself to do the research.
17. Ok, I’m ready. How do I get started? (Where do I apply)?
Dave’s ESL Cafe has a good listing of available jobs to get you started. ESLEmployment.com also places people. Just do some internet research and check out different recruiting companies. There are a ton of them, and they’re ever-changing. Once you get the word out that you’re looking for work, recruiters will be all over you. There are so many opportunities that you should probably secure yourself a handful of offers before narrowing it down to the best one for you. And whatever you do, DO NOT PAY a fee to get a job. Any sites that tell you that you need to submit a placement fee are ripping you off.
A good forum: http://www.esl-jobs-forum.com/
18. I have an interview lined up. What questions should I make sure to ask?
Once you’ve applied to a few jobs and have recruiters contacting you (believe me, this doesn’t take long – recruiters are always looking for people like you!), you’ll start getting telephone interviews. When you do, try to milk out the following questions:
-Schedule (start and finish times, plus an example of what a typical Monday looks like, etc.)
-Curriculum (do you wing it, or are there books, and if so, how closely do you have to follow?)
-Holiday periods (chosen by you or pre-set)
-School holidays –bang-hak– (are there extra classes, will you have more/new students, different hours)
-Apartment location releavant to the school
-Contact info for other foreign teachers at the school (get emails or times to speak on the phone)
PS – Interviewing for jobs abroad is the best. thing. ever. Pyjamas to a job interview? Don’t mind if I do! ;)
19. How will I get around once I’m there?
The South Korean public transportation system is one of the best in the world. If you’ll be living in a major city, and especially if you’re going to be living in Seoul or any of its suburbs, get yourself a T-Money card from any local convenience store (it will cost you about 2,000 won, or about $2 USD) and load 10,000 Korean won on it right away (it’s about $10 USD). Once you have this card, you can use it for the subways and the buses, and you can keep re-loading it as much as you like. I only suggest putting 10,000 KRW on it because if you lose it, you’ll lose all the money on it, too. Plus, it’s easy to re-load at any subway kiosk or convenience store (note: they only accept cash for T-Money re-loads). Check out this awesome, interactive subway map of Seoul.
20. I like clean clothes. Where will I do my laundry?
They have washers either in your room, on each floor, or on the ground floor of every building. They don’t, however, have dryers, so everything is hang-dry. It might be a good idea to get a $15 iron when you get here to speed drying and smooth wrinkles! Machines are free; usually you just pay for soap. They also have lots of dry-cleaners for your favourite stuff – all cheap.
Be warned that if your apartment is as small as mine, you’ll be living with your drying-rack in the middle of your room for the better part of the winter months (clothes take forever to dry in the winter!). Unless you like dirty clothes. I’m not judging.
21. What about phones? I have an iPhone. Will it work in Korea?
Sorry dude, but your iPhone is about to become an iPod. They aren’t on GSM here, which means the phones don’t work with normal SIM cards (believe me, I’ve tried). You might be able to find a carrier that is willing to hook you up with it, if it can run on their system too, but it’ll be stupidly expensive. Rogers and Fido will rape you with their overseas plans, so don’t even think about it.
Just buy a cheap Korean phone when you get here. Even the fancy ones are affordable. And get pay-as-you-go, if you can. Sign a contract if you must, but ask your employer first. They may have some ideas in mind.
22. What should I pack?
Pack for the amazing race! They have every season here. The summer (through June until about September) is hot and humid. October is really nice and pretty. November starts getting chilly. December to March are cold like the interior, but not quite like Alberta (into the minuses for sure, but not ridiculous). April through June are lovely; springtime here is a real treat. As for what to pack: Winter coat, yes. I recommend a pair of long johns for the winter, which you’ll only be able to get in your size at home. Rain boots, probably. Running shoes, yes. Flip-flops, yes. But remember – if you are a man with average size feet, or a female with shoe size 7.5 or less, you can buy all these here – for cheap! Oh, also bring a sheet or two with you. They sell fitted sheets and duvets, etc., but for some reason they don’t have regular sheets! Weird. So, in summer you’re too hot to sleep under a duvet, and too cold too sleep on top of everything with the fan blowing! If you wanted to bring your own duvet cover, that might be good too, because that way you can just put whatever blanket they give you inside that, and it’ll be washable too.
As for packing in general, I recommend packing light, but spreading it across two suitcases. Then you avoid the hassle of one bag being overweight, and you also leave yourself room to bring lots of stuff home with you, which you will.
To summarize – here are a few miscellaneous items I’d recommend bringing:
* Tampons (although these are starting to become more easily available)
* Birth Control, as mentioned in No.#11
* Toothpaste and dental floss (quality here is different)
* Anything that helps to make you feel at home (pictures of family/friends, etc.)
* Any toiletries that you are used to using especially if you’re a little particular. The water is full of chemicals and is really hard on your hair and skin.
* Laptop and camera, other electronic equipment – everything here is in Korean or is expensive
* Favorite CDs or DVDs; books, dictionary…
* Vitamins or any medication that you are used to taking (for a year)
* Underwear for a year – particularly ladies – especially bras and undies.
* Anything woollen for winter (socks, scarves, long underwear, gloves).
* A good coat or jacket, or you will have to buy one here.
* Anything that is part of your daily life that you might miss – maple syrup, Montreal steak spice, oatmeal, Kraft Dinner, gravy, soups..
**Glasses – (Optical) Get them here or have replicas done here with every choice of frames that you can imagine! MUCH cheaper. Contact lenses cost about the same as at home, but Lasik eye surgery is half-price!
23. What if I hate it?
You won’t. And if you do, it’s only a short flight home, right? So what have you got to lose? Also, you suck.