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The Guide to Finding an English Teaching Job in China

China paid teaching in Yangshuo
China Paid Teaching in Yangshuo is a photograph by Frontier Official and adapted by TransitionsAbroad.com.

Let's be completely transparent here. Why paint a picture that does not match reality? Just getting a tourist visa for China can be difficult, let alone acquiring a visa for an actual English teaching job. However, thousands upon thousands do so successfully every year, and China is a country that really wants what you have to offer. Knowing the lay of the land before you dive in can help you clear away obstacles and familiarize you with the unknown. I will provide you with a guide to help you navigate various paths in the process.

So let's jump right into the basics.

What is China's English Teaching Market Really Like?

China combines the world's largest population with an increasingly strong focus on English as it has become progressively more central to the global economy. The British Council estimated that by 2015 the English language market in China will reach RMB50 billion (about US$160 million).

Excellent, so there are plenty of jobs.

Actually, it's not necessarily all good; China's private language market is largely unregulated and is still maturing at this point. The lack of regulation leads to a very wide range in quality in terms of schools.

China's many rules and regulations are complicated. The process of procuring visas is a good example.

Despite problems encountered by some, China's expat population continues to grow. It's now one of the most popular expat destinations. In 2013, China was ranked first in the world's largest expat survey, conducted by HSBC, due to a combination of factors including higher salaries and the increased ability to travel almost anywhere across the huge and varied country pushing it to the top.

Huangshan mountain range in eastern China
Huangshan (UNESCO World Heritage Site) is a mountain range in China.

Who Can Teach in China and What Qualifications Do You Need?

If you want to teach legally in China then you need a Z visa.

The Z visa has three requirements:

  • English as a first language
  • A bachelor's degree
  • Two years of work experience after your degree (OR a language teaching qualification)

It's the final point that causes the most problems, there are plenty of graduates who want to teach English in China but don't have two years work experience following their degree.

The rules are not set by the Ministry of Labor (i.e. countrywide), but are instead set by individual cities and provinces.

As noted in the excellent article on China visa regulations by Gary Chodorow, while two years experience is a requirement in large tier 1 cities (i.e. Shanghai, Beijing etc.), smaller cities will accept a language teaching qualification instead.

Of course, there's no list of what is acceptable. The decision ultimately comes down to what your recruiter or school needs to get you a Z visa.

You may sometimes see age requirements in job advertisements, but again this varies depending upon where you apply. The only age requirement in the visa system is China's mandatory requirement ages.

If You're looking for very detailed information on Chinese visas then Gary Chodorows China Visa FAQ is an excellent source.

Although there are many people working legally in China with Z visas, there are also a fair number who work under the table. Along with the restrictions that the Z visa places on people wanting to teach in China, the system is equally demanding and bureaucratic for those companies looking to employ foreigners in China. The combination of restrictions and a large demand for teachers means that many people still teach illegally in China, though the numbers are inherently hard to bring to light.

You might be able to get away with working in China illegally, but just be aware that most of the worst teaching experiences involve people who are employed illegally and are therefore easy prey for employers. We do not recommend working under the table for this and other obvious reasons.

What Types of Organizations Provide the Most Work?

If you seek a shorter stay of only a couple of months, it's worth looking into summer and winter English camps, both of which are popular in China. Here we are going to be focusing on the longer-term positions, usually 10 months to a year or over.

There are two primary places providing long-term work:

  • Private language schools
  • Public (or private) schools and institutions

Your choice between the two is determined by personal work environment preferences:

Private language schools tend to work you harder, pay better, have smaller classes, more intermittent hours, and more foreign teachers. They generally are not very regulated so conditions and contracts vary wildly.

Public (or private) schools and institutions pay less, work you less, offer more holidays, larger classes, and employ less foreign teachers. Most public institutions are state run and are therefore relatively uniform in terms of contracts and conditions. One thing to be aware of in China is that public schools and universities are considered the most prestigious, while private schools and institutions are held in relatively less esteem.

As a very general rule of thumb for both types of organizations, you can normally correlate reliability to school size as well as to the number of teachers a school/organization employs.

Where to Find Jobs

Should You Go to China to Find a Job? 

You're only allowed to apply for a Z visa in your home country or in Hong Kong.

What this means to you is that if you fly to China on a tourist visa to search for jobs, once you've found one you'll need to leave the country to change your visa.

For those just starting off their job search, I'd recommend finding a job online and coming into the country on a Z visa. Such a path diminishes anxieties when you're trying to become settled in a new country, especially one as different and sometimes frenzied, as is so much of China for the westerner.

Traffic in China
Traffic in China.

Where to Look for Jobs Online? 

Finding good quality job postings, particularly for China, can be difficult. There are a lot of advertisements with very little information so where exactly are the best places to look? 

The Beijinger — It's a monthly listings and entertainment website focused on Beijing. Classified listings always require some work to dig through, but the Beijinger consistently seems to provide a higher quality than many other sites.  

teflSearch — The job search is detailed (although not as many positions as the Beijinger), and it's provides loads of useful information on teaching in China. Disclaimer: It's my site. I'm obviously biased.

ESLcafe — I'm sure you already know about this mega site, but the China job board is well worth a look. Dave's high advert prices work to its advantage, filtering out some of the spam.

ESLJobFeed Top Jobs in China — listings are selected and turned into a feed from a variety of sources, including TESOL.org, TEFL.com, TESall.com, TEFLjobsoverseas.com, TotalESL.com, and many others.

For those who want the comfort of a large company, here are three of the largest English language companies in China:

They are all franchises, so it's worth poking around the job boards to find adverts for and reviews of specific branches.

Many recruiters who advertise will also have their own personal job boards, so if you find a recruiter whose reputation you trust (from either a friend's recommendations or reviews online), then it's well worth checking out their site to see whether they have other opportunities listed.

Getting to China and Sorting Out Your Visa

Once you've found a job, you'll need to go about getting a Z visa.

The general process is:

  • Send the required documents to your employer (resume, photocopy of degree, etc.)
  • Your employer applies for a Foreign Experts Certificate
  • Your employer gets the Foreign Experts Certificate and posts it, along with an invitation letter, back to you
  • You apply for Z visa with those two documents

Depending upon the school employing you this process will usually happen in one of two ways:

Your Company Will Get You a Z Visa Before You Leave

This is your best-case scenario.

Because you'll have the Z visa before you leave the country, you'll have avoided all the possible snafus. Most commonly, this is done by larger companies who bring teachers over regularly as well as schools who recruit for teachers in advance rather than waiting for the last minute.

Your Company Will Want You to Come Over on a Tourist Visa and Convert to a Z Visa

Acquiring a Z visa takes time. If the company is unprepared, recruits at the last minute, or runs into problems of any kind, they'll often want you to come over on a tourist visa and then convert to a Z visa once they've sorted out all the paperwork. Once you're in China, you may find yourself either be training or working under the table while waiting for the visa.

However, as we noted earlier, a Z visa has to be issued in your home country or in Hong Kong. Therefore, when your company is ready in mainland China with their documents you'll need to make a visa run to Hong Kong to switch over to the required Z visa.

The fewer teachers your school or institution has employed before the more likely there will be delays and unforeseen circumstances.

Whichever route you go, when you've landed in China you'll need to take three final steps:

  • Register at a local police station within 24 hours
  • Get a medical exam if you're staying for at least a year
  • Convert your Z visa to a residence permit within 30 days. (A Z visa only gets you into the country; it's the residence permit that allows you to stay.)

Throughout these steps your employer should be actively helping you and making the appointments. Your responsibility is to make sure you receive all necessary information concerning the time of the appointments and what you need to bring.

Once you have completed this final leg of the process, you are ready to go.

Congratulations, you’re now legally working in China!

For More Info

Check out this useful tool to figure out your budget looking at the cost of living in China.

Dominic Woodman runs teflSearch by day, which is a job site designed for teachers of English. There are, of course, plenty of English teaching job sites already, but he was frustrated with the lack of search, cumbersome interface design, and poor information he found in most of them. teflSearch is his attempt to fix all the problems he discovered in the search engines.

In Dominic's spare time he enjoys travel writing, live music, playing music, and reading.

Related Topics
Teaching English in China: Articles and Resources
Living in China: Articles and the Best Expatriate Resources
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How to Choose your First Job Teaching English in China
Teaching English in China: Do You Really Need a Degree and Work Visa?
Teaching English in China: Every Teacher Becomes a Student
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