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On Being an EPIK Ex-pat: Teaching English in South Korea

Teaching English in South Korea: Why All the Excitement?

The main reason to teach abroad is for the experience, but wouldn’t it be nice if you could make a generous living and even save money in the process?

While teaching in South Korea you can make enough money to cover your day-to-day expenses, travel, and save. The salary in South Korea is much higher than in China and the cost of living is much lower than in Japan. For example, a typical salary for an English teacher in South Korea is about $2,400 a month with housing included. In China, a typical monthly salary is only $750 with or without housing. In South Korea the cost of living is much less than in Japan, even in major cities. For instance, a train from Tokyo to the city of Kyoto, about two hours away, is around $113. A train traveling roughly the same distance in Korea from Seoul to Busan costs around $35. Daily costs to use the subway in Japan are at least one dollar per connection while in Korea you pay the equivalent of 50 cents for each trip. Shopping for food, clothes, and electronics is also a lot less expensive.

The Perks of Being American

Korea is not a popular tourist destination like Japan and China and therefore not the place to go if you want to see a lot of other foreigners. You will be a novelty and everyone will want to know what you are doing in their country and where you come from. If you are American, chances are you will be bombarded with Korean parents trying to get you to give their children private lessons. The American accent is in high demand and Americans usually receive a higher salary than other Western teachers. Many Koreans can be shy at first, but once you get to know them, they are some of the most honest, generous people you will ever meet.

Enjoying Life in South Korea

I lived in a goshitel, which is a dormitory, with several Korean university students. Koreans like to work hard and play hard. During the day goshitel are meant to be quiet while students study for their exams. On the weekends, a typical night in Korea consists of drinking the Soju, the tasty national liquor, and going out to sing karaoke. Koreans take their karaoke very seriously, so brush up on your singing skills! I lived in Seoul, so there were also endless opportunities for dancing and going to different restaurants. Most foreigners I have talked to love Korean food. My favorite dish was galapi, tender meat that is fried on your tabletop and served like fondue.

The architecture in Korea is an eclectic mix of pencil-thin skyscrapers, breathtaking Buddhist temples, busy 6-way intersections, and winding cobblestone streets. The subway system is cheap, simple, and punctual, making it quick and easy to get around. Most of the signs written in Hangeul, the Korean script, are translated into English. South Korea is a small country but has diverse places to visit, from mountains, to cities, to beaches. JeJu Island is its most famous touristy spot, especially for Asian honeymooners. It is said to have some of the most beautiful sunsets in the world, and it is common to see people taking mud baths on the beach and eating sea slugs and escargot for dinner. If you want to meet other foreigners and Koreans to travel with, adventurekorea.com offers many great trips.

Getting the Job in South Korea

Finally, let’s talk about what you will probably be doing for work in South Korea: teaching. There are several different types of schools and programs, depending on what you are looking for. Dave’s ESL Cafe is the most popular website in the world for ESL work abroad. It has an entire section dedicated solely to South Korea and there are a handful of new jobs posted on it every day.

Englishspectrum.com is another great website. This site even has information on other types of jobs in South Korea such as acting, modeling, and writing. If you would rather work or volunteer for a short period there are several great programs I have used at www.onlinetefl.com. This site will help place you in a school and organize most of your trip for you. I also recommend going to South Korea first and then looking for a job. Just bring your resume to different schools until you find a desirable situation.

Visa Requirements

Updated 7/27/2012 by Chris Murray.

In order to teach English legally in South Korea (besides having a University degree) you must obtain an E-2 or E-1 visa. E-2 visas are for teachers in public schools or private academies (hagwons). An E-1 visa allows someone to teach at the University level. A criminal record check (FBI check) is needed in order to obtain a visa and a copy of the University degree should be notarized. Health forms are completed and then on first arriving in Korea a prospective teacher will go to a hospital or clinic for blood work/x-rays, etc.

Presently there are seven English-speaking country nationals who can obtain work visas for South Korea: U.S.A, U.K., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Ireland. Teachers may also enter South Korea on a tourist visa but will have to go to either Japan or China to get an actual work visa. You can also get the visa in your home country (at the Korean Consulate) before leaving for Korea. Getting the visa in your home country might be easier for first-time teachers. First-time teachers to South Korea might be requested to have an interview in person or over the phone with staff at the Consulate. The cost for just the visa can range from $45 to $75 depending upon your nationality.

Public or Private School?

There are two different types of schools to teach at in Korea: a private school, which is called a hagwan, and a public school. Public schools have more vacation time, but you normally work more hours than at a hagwan, where salaries tend to be lower. Most teachers try to teach at hagwans, as I did.

My hagwan held classes six days a week, where I taught seven classes a day to children between the ages of six and 16. I made up my own lesson plans and created my own tests. I liked this because I enjoy working independently and being able to have a more creative personal approach in the classroom. Other schools offer more structure with their own textbooks, set lesson plans, and tests. You can also easily find a school with less work time and no weekend responsibilities.

What Is There to Lose?

Teaching English in South Korea is probably one of the easiest jobs to obtain, and one of the most challenging and rewarding jobs to hold. You may work long hours. You will probably be homesick at times. You will have difficult situations to deal with every day. But it is all well worth the experience and the differences that you will make. It opened my eyes to a wonderful culture and people completely different from my own.

I had no prior teaching experience before this trip, and now I am a full-time teacher and feel more open-minded toward other cultures. I will continue teaching, traveling, and sharing my stories with others in the hope that they too will embark on adventures such as teaching English in South Korea.

Note: See Transitions Abroad's section on Living in South Korea for a plethora of articles and resources which elaborate on teaching in South Korea.

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