Many new ESL teachers enter the job field straight from university or from unrelated professions. Whether you are taking an extended vacation or switching career paths to pursue an ESL career, deciding if you need to get a TEFL certificate is one of the more common dilemmas that you will face.
TEFL certification is different from traditional teaching certification (as required in many US schools) in quite a few ways that we will explore later on. With the exception of some international schools that require teaching certifications or licenses, the vast majority of schools abroad are referring to TEFL when they discuss “certification.”
Possessing a TEFL certificate is usually helpful (and even necessary) in many contexts for getting hired at a respectable, high-paying school. Here is everything you need to know about teaching English abroad without a TEFL certificate.
General Requirements to Teach English Abroad
Each country has a unique set of requirements to qualify for an English-teaching visa and/or to get hired by a local school. Even more complicated, the teaching requirements within a given country will vary between regions (as in China) and between types of school (public vs. private, kindergarten vs. university, etc.).
Such variability makes offering a universal set of requirements to teach ESL abroad difficult. In general, though, most jurisdictions require some combination of the following.
Bachelor’s Degree (or Higher) from an Accredited Western University
The standard education requirement for foreign English teachers abroad is a bachelor’s degree. Occasionally, an associate’s (2-year) degree will suffice (like with some teaching programs in South Korea). At some international schools (the highest rung on the ESL ladder) and universities, a master’s degree is required. Some countries and schools have no degree requirements for foreign English teachers at all.
Passport From a Native-English-Speaking Country
While effective ESL teachers come from across the globe, some governments and school administrators insist on native English speakers based on the belief that they teach superior English.
Examples of nationalities that are generally recognized as “native” English speakers include the UK, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, and South Africa.
Clean Criminal Record
If you have any convictions for criminal offenses (especially serious ones such as felonies), then you may have difficulty finding ESL employment. Many governments and schools require certified criminal background checks from law enforcement in an applicant’s home country before offering any teaching position.
After an allotted time frame, most jurisdictions in the US and elsewhere allow for expungement, meaning the removal of the arrest and conviction from the individual’s record. Contact a local attorney or local law enforcement agency for more information on the relevant laws in your locality.
Teaching Experience (Sometimes)
If you browse ESL job sites, you’ll notice that a large proportion of ads express a desire for previous teaching experience. Some of these advertising schools genuinely do require teaching experience backed up by references.
Many schools, though, simply express a preference for teaching experience and are more than willing to seriously consider candidates that they like who do not have any teaching experience.
TEFL Certification (Sometimes)
As with teaching experience, many schools may prefer candidates with TEFL certification – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will pass up a candidate who presents themselves well and who has other attractive qualities.
What TEFL Certification Means and Why Having One is an Asset
TEFL is an acronym that stands for “teaching English as a foreign language.”
Earning a TEFL certificate is affordable and easy. A standard online TEFL course from a reputable provider generally takes about 120 hours with an average price tag of around $300. That’s a small but significant investment, so it’s natural to wonder whether enrolling in a TEFL course is worth the cost and effort.
TEFL Certification vs. Teaching Certification: Understanding the Difference
TEFL instruction is intended to train teachers in best practices for interacting with new cultures and for effectively engaging their future students in the English-learning process by using up-to-date teaching methods.
As a discipline, TEFL is distinct from other English-teaching training programs because it carries the element of providing English instruction in non-English-speaking lands – which is quite different in important ways from, for example, teaching English in California to children who have immigrated to the state.
Teaching English abroad comes with its own set of considerations that sets it apart from other English-teaching environments. A proper TEFL course addresses them head on.
It’s important to understand the distinction between TEFL certification and teaching certification. Teaching certification is much more time-intensive and is generally required only within the context of your home country. Aside from a handful of international schools, nearly all schools in the foreign context are discussing TEFL certification when they refer to “certified” teachers or “teaching certification.”
The Benefits of Having a TEFL Certificate
The many benefits of having a TEFL certificate include the practical knowledge that you gain from the course, the ability to establish yourself within a professional network of ESL professionals, the edge that certification gives job candidates, the seriousness that it demonstrates to employers, and more.
One of the biggest benefits of TEFL certification, though, is the help that the TEFL provider can offer in locating a rewarding job.
Many TEFL courses offer assistance after completing the course in finding high-quality employment. A handful of TEFL providers go even further with guaranteed employment following completion of their course.
What Material Is Included in a TEFL Course?
A standard TEFL course will include a comprehensive overview of various theories behind language teaching, practical teaching methods in the classroom, and issues regarding how to navigate an unfamiliar cultural environment.
To finish the course, some TEFL providers round out their instruction with additional hands-on teaching experience in the classroom, under the supervision of an ESL expert who offers insights and feedback, to practice “in the field.”
What TEFL Certification Means to Employers
To an employer, TEFL certification means that you have made a serious financial, time, and energy investment that demonstrates your commitment to teaching English, as well as your sincerity in making the shift to the ESL profession.
A Note on Finding a High-Quality TEFL Course
Due to the growing ESL industry across the world, scores of companies now advertise their TEFL courses heavily. Most of the TEFL courses advertised on the web are legitimate; some are not.
Unfortunately, as a teacher, the burden falls on you to make sure that, if you decide to earn your TEFL, you are enrolled in a recognized TEFL course.
Practice your due diligence – if you are considering taking a TEFL course, take time to do the proper research by reading reviews and/or participating in online ESL teacher forums.
Should You Teach Without a TEFL Certificate?
To decide whether you should pursue an English-teaching employment without TEFL certification, you should ask yourself a few questions.
Do you have previous teaching experience and/or a higher education degree?
If you have one or both of these qualifications, then you may not need a TEFL certificate to prove your potential value to an employer.
Are you a native speaker?
TEFL certification is beneficial for native speakers, but it is much more important (and often required) for non-native speakers. If you do not hold a passport from one of the native English-speaking countries listed above, then you will likely need a TEFL certificate to compete for jobs in a challenging marketplace.
How long-term is your commitment to teaching English?
The hundreds of dollars and hours that you will spend on TEFL is well worth it if you plan to teach English long-term, but you may have more trouble justifying that investment to yourself if you only plan to teach English for a season or two.
Where Can You Teach Without a TEFL Certificate?
There are dozens of countries around the globe where TEFL certification is not necessary to land a well-paying job. Here is a list of the “highlights” — popular destinations for ESL employment which have attracted non-certified teachers for years.
No TEFL Needed in China
Advertised ESL jobs in China are legion and most of them are legitimate. The demand for English teachers in China is high. Parents of the growing Chinese middle class have a strong appetite to afford their children English skills early in life as a way to advance economically. As a result, schools are often willing to overlook a lack of TEFL certification to find a teacher.
Notice the “preferred” wording – this employer would likely forgive a lack of TEFL certification when making a decision about a candidate they are interested in.
No TEFL Needed in Japan
Japan is arguably the most peculiar (and to many, fascinating) cultural centers of the Far East. English-teaching jobs in Japan are generally well-paid and the Japanese employers that operate them are typically professional and responsible in their commitments to teachers.
No TEFL Needed in Thailand
Thailand is a popular destination for ESL professionals – not for the pay perhaps, but rather for the laid-back culture, great food, and expat-friendly local population.
It’s also quite easy to find a full-time English-teaching job that pays well enough to live comfortably – regardless of whether you have TEFL certification.
No TEFL Needed in United Arab Emirates
The UAE is one of the wealthiest nations per capita on the planet, and they pay a premium for ESL teachers – especially female teachers who are more difficult to attract than male teachers.
Adjusting to the culture may be difficult for some, but many teachers find their ESL experiences in the UAE and neighboring gulf countries rewarding, both professionally and financially.
In fact, it’s possible to earn $3,000-$5,000 or more monthly in the UAE or another gulf state without any TEFL certification.
No TEFL Needed in Russia
Russia — along with several neighboring Eastern European countries such as Ukraine, Romania, and Bulgaria — is an attractive destination for expats from North America and Europe.
Teaching requirements in this region are generally lax, so native English-speaking teachers with no TEFL certificates stand good chances of finding employment.
No TEFL Needed in Mexico
For Americans without TEFL certification, meaningful ESL employment might be available just across the border. The spacious landscape of Mexico, which ranges from coastal beaches to mountainous jungles, offers an exciting terrain and rich cultural legacy that are worth exploring for adventurous ESL teachers.
No TEFL Needed for Online Teaching
Online ESL teaching is increasingly popular – all the more so since COVID-19 shutdowns have interrupted in-person learning and forced the outsourcing of education to the web.
Major online ESL companies like Dada do not require TEFL certification (provided that the candidate has other qualifications). Some online ESL outfits, like Teacher Record below, provide TEFL certification for free as part of the employment package.
The Takeaway: Do I Need TEFL Certification to Teach English Abroad?
To find a well-paying, stable English-teaching job, you do not need TEFL certification in some regions/countries – provided that you have some combination of native speaking skills, a passport from a native-speaking country, and higher education. In the long run, the small investment in a 120-hour online TEFL course from an accredited provider, though, will pay dividends as you progress in your ESL career.