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As seen in the Transitions Abroad 2014 Latin America Webzine Issue

How to Teach English Abroad

A TEFL Certificate and a College Degree Are Common Requirements

By John Clites
TEFL Abroad Columnist

John teaching Mariana
John teaching Mariana.

Editor's Note: The following is part of I of John Clites' series of columns as our TEFL Abroad Columnist, where he approaches in practical ways issues relating to teaching English abroad. John has spent many years of his life traveling abroad, visiting 25 countries at last count. John has a particular penchant for travel off the beaten path and for mixing with the locals. Through the years he has sponsored numerous children abroad through, in Bolivia, India, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, and currently in Colombia.

In previous columns, we discussed whether teaching EFL (English as a foreign language) could be right for you and the types of EFL jobs. In this column, we look at the various types of teaching certifications and other potential job requirements.

Teaching Certificates

First, it’s important to understand the alphabet soup of acronyms that you will encounter. Refer to the box below for definitions of common terms.

Should you obtain a teaching certificate such as the TEFL? The answer is “It depends.” Here are a few factors to consider:

  • Where would you like to teach? In some countries it will be difficult to find work without a TEFL or similar certificate. In most of Europe, you’ll need a certificate. The same is true in Japan. In other oriental countries, a certificate is desirable but may not be required. Note: Even in these countries, you may be able to obtain work in rural areas without a certificate, simply to a lack of teachers. In Latin America, a certificate is not generally a job requirement.

  • Time you plan to spend teaching. If you are only planning to teach for, say, 6 months, then likely it won’t be worth your time and money to obtain a certificate — unless you have your heart set on teaching in a country which expects a certificate. Also, an online certificate (discussed in the box) could be an alternative.

  • What type of teaching do you plan to do? When I earned my TEFL certificate, we focused on many things, from reviewing grammar to different learning styles to theories of language learning. However, there was a heavy focus on preparing to teach in a classroom — and I never intended to do that. My goal was always to teach adults one-on-one. If you are planning to teach in a classroom setting, you’ll likely find a certification program to be of greater value.

  • Cost and time. Obviously, to be able to earn a certificate, you have to be able to devote the time and money to it. There are many types of programs available. Many are 4 weeks in duration. Some, for those who plan to make teaching EFL a career, are longer. Many are shorter, and it’s even possible to earn a certificate online (although not every school will recognize online certificates).

In the end, you’ll need to weigh everything and decide. Again, if you think you’ll only be teaching a short time, a certificate will have less value than if you plan to teach EFL for years — and perhaps in different countries.

As a final note, there are volunteer programs through which you can earn your TEFL certificate. A quick search online should reveal if there are such programs in your targeted country. A side benefit of such programs is that they typically handle the paperwork, meaning that you’ll be teaching legally but without having to wade through governmental bureaucracy.

Many Online TEFL programs are listed on this site as well as TEFL programs in countries around the world.

Other Requirements

A TEFL or CELTA or similar teaching certificate is one common requirement for employment. However, there are others that may apply, depending on the type of job you are pursuing. Some of these include:

  • University degree. Most potential employers will want you to have a completed university degree. The discipline generally is not important, that is, you don’t typically have to have a degree in English or Education.

  • Education degree/teacher certification. However, if you would like to teach in a primary or secondary school abroad, whether private or public, you will probably be required to have a degree in Education and to be a certified teacher in your home country. Exception: Some countries (such as France) have formal teacher’s assistant programs in the public schools; because you will not be the primary teacher, requirements are less stringent.

  • Advanced degree. There are job openings at universities abroad, teaching in English. For these, you’ll almost invariably need a Master’s degree or higher. Often you’ll be teaching classes in your discipline (for example, Business or Mathematics) in English.

  • Age limits. Sometimes there are age limits for certain programs, such as France’s teacher’s assistant program. However, don’t be deterred if you are not right out of university. Many EFL teachers, myself included, began teaching EFL as a second career. Many students I find like having a teacher with business and life experience.

  • Host country language. For some governmental programs — again, France’s teacher’s assistance program is an example — you’ll need at least basic skills in the language of the host country. And regardless, you’ll find that having some of the local language will make your time in country easier and more enjoyable.

  • Home country. Schools in some countries require teachers to be from one of the following countries: Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, the United Kingdom, or the United States. This requirement is particularly common in Asian countries. Furthermore, in some countries (many in Europe) a British accent may be preferred, while in others (Latin America) a North American accent is preferred.

  • Work experience. Some schools, particularly primary and secondary schools, may require you to have teaching experience; two years seems to be a common requirement. Also, if you have training or work experience in business, aviation, any of the medical professions, engineering, and some other fields, you’ll find yourself in higher demand.

  • Visas/work permits. Most countries have laws requiring foreigners to obtain a work visa or permit in order to work there legally. How strictly these laws are enforced depends on the country. Some may actually deport illegal teachers who are caught. Others turn a blind eye. As a generalization, you can expect countries of the European Union and in Asia to be more strict about having proper documentation. In Latin America, it is easier to work off the books.

Requirements within a country will also vary depending on the particular teaching situation there. You can expect hiring requirements to be stricter for primary and secondary schools. Private language schools, on the other hand, set their own requirements. These will certainly vary from country to country and even within a country, but overall you can expect them to be less stringent than for primary and secondary schools.

But in the end, supply and demand rule: If you are in an area where demand for teachers exceeds the immediate supply, you’ll benefit. The reverse of course can also be true. And if you decide to go independent and teach private students, you’ll find that the main requirements are salesmanship and references from existing or past students.

English Teaching Definitions
  • ESL: English as a Second Language, which is English taught to non-native speakers who live in an English-speaking country, for example, Guatemalans studying English in the U.S.

  • EFL: English as a Foreign Language, which is English taught to non-native speakers who live in a non-English-speaking country. This article focuses on EFL teaching.

  • CELTA: This stands for “Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults,” offered by Cambridge University and the most widely internationally recognized teacher qualification.

  • TESOL: Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages, is a non-standardized course offered through various universities.

  • TESL: Teaching English as a Second Language. Same as the TESOL.

  • TEFL: Teaching English as a Foreign Language. These courses are offered by a variety of institutions and businesses. Often programs are one month in duration and conducted in a non-English speaking country; however, TEFL programs are not standardized, so you’ll need to do your homework before enrolling. Look for an established program that is accredited internationally.

  • ONLINE TEFL: These days you can also earn a certification online – which is handy if your budget doesn't permit a month-long residency program in another city or country. There are accredited online courses available, such as the CELTA, Bridge TEFL, and TEFL Online. Requirements differ. CELTA and Bridge Online require only that you be academically prepared for university, at least 18 years of age and to have a proficiency level of English equivalent to a score of 280 or higher on the computer-based TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language — the most common requirement for university entrance). Note that some schools, notably in Asia, may not recognize online certifications.

  • TOEFL: Noted in the previous bullet, this test is typically required of students of English to study or work abroad. It would typically only be required of an EFL teacher if English were not the official language of the teacher’s home country.

John Clites is a U.S. citizen who caught the travel bug as a small child. He has visited almost 30 countries, with more to come. John moved to Brazil in 2008, where he teaches English and writes freelance. Here you can see more of his articles as TEFL Columnist for

More by John Clites
Is Teaching English as a Foreign Language Right for You?
The Many Types of English as a Foreign Language Jobs
How to Create a Great Resume for Teaching English Abroad: A Comprehensive Guide to Landing Your First Job
Teach English and Live in Brazil
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