While most foreign employers’ dream candidate generally resembles a native speaker with at least a bachelor’s degree and a TEFL certificate, dreams can’t always come true. The reality — as most job boards illustrate — is that the international ESL industry is largely a teacher’s market, meaning that there are far more positions available in schools desperate for English teachers than the supply of fully-qualified teachers willing to relocate to fill them.
If you have a desire to teach English overseas but have not completed higher education, this article will serve as your introduction to teaching English without a degree and your options for finding rewarding work in the field.
When you know where to look, ESL jobs are incredibly easy to land in countries spanning several continents, regardless of your credentials. Employers are often willing to bend immigration rules that might require diplomas from teachers. In short, as a non-degree holder, you almost always have more choices than you might realize for finding meaningful ESL employment.
Can You Be an ESL Teacher Without a Degree?
When you peruse ESL forums or social media groups focused on ESL, you’ll likely encounter the following common questions: Can you be an ESL teacher without a degree? Where can you teach without a degree?
As it turns out, the answer is a lot of places. Your options increase further if you are willing to skirt visa rules; however, side-stepping visa requirements to gain ESL employment comes with substantial risk that we’ll explore later.
In this article, we’ll introduce you to several ESL job markets that non-degree holders can access and a few aspects of landing ESL work that you should keep in mind while browsing the web for your next position.
What Are the Risks Associated with Teaching on a Tourist Visa?
For many schools in the international community, bending visa rules for foreign workers is a routine part of the hiring process. Visa workarounds have benefits and risks. Although most schools handle the visa paperwork and negotiations with local officials themselves, it can’t hurt to be cognizant of the type of visa the school is applying for on your behalf. Ultimately, violating the letter and/or spirit of local law comes with an obvious risk of displeasing the relevant authorities.
In Thailand, for example, immigration police recently introduced a Good Guys In, Bad Guys Out public relations campaign/crackdown against visa violators within the country. While they seem primarily interested in targeting international fugitives hiding out in the country, they also make public spectacles out of catching, fining, and often deporting foreign teachers who do not have the requisite non-B visa and work permit as mandated by Thai law.
Teachers in countries around the world who attempt to undermine visa regulations run similar risks. Many, however, thrive for years or even decades in ESL jobs with no degree. Because of spotty and often arbitrary enforcement, guessing who will get caught up in a police crackdown on visa regulation-skirters is impossible. As an adult, you are ultimately accountable for your own decisions.
The ESL Profession Is Full of Non-Degree Holders
Before we dive into the promised list of countries friendly to non-degreed teachers, we would like to offer one bit of encouragement: if you stay in the ESL industry long enough, you are bound to encounter multiple non-degree holders who, whether legally or through shortcuts, managed to land a job. Many of these teachers are the most highly respected instructors at their respective schools.
I once worked at a well-known private university in Bangkok, Thailand. One of my colleagues was a British gentleman named Nigel who had taught at the school for more than ten years. He had no formal education beyond high school, a fact that the administration and everyone else was well aware of. His lack of a degree was no obstacle – in fact, Nigel was one of the most genuinely cherished foreign instructors at the school.
Don’t be intimidated by job advertisements that indicate a preference for native English speakers with a degree and TEFL certificate. All three of these requirements can be skirted if the school likes you enough as a candidate. In many instances, listing these requirements is just a way for schools to legitimize themselves.
With those caveats out of the way, let’s dive into the list of countries where you can find gainful ESL employment as a non-degree holder. We’ve included screenshots of real job advertisements that contain no listed requirements regarding educational attainment aside from TEFL certification.
Where You Can Teach English Abroad (No Degree Restrictions)?
In these countries, landing a job without a college diploma is a breeze. In some countries — for example, Russia, there is no official barrier (i.e., visa requirement) mandating that incoming teachers have a diploma.
In others, the job market is so wide open that — despite nominal degree requirements from governments and/or schools — not having a degree makes no significant difference in whether you land a job or not.
They are broken up by region.
Peru is a stunningly gorgeous country situated near Columbia and Brazil. Its high Native American population sets it apart from its neighbors culturally. Modern-day Peru is a fascinating blend of native culture, Spanish colonial influence, and Americanization. Pay for ESL work is considerably lower than many other destinations, including neighbors in the immediate vicinity, but its charm and low cost of living make up for relatively low wages.
The Mexican education system has an insatiable demand for English teachers – even non-degree holders. One of the most attractive features of the ESL industry in Mexico is variety; landing a job with a kindergarten is just as easy as finding one at a vocational institution for adults. As an added benefit for aspirational American ESL teachers, Mexico is just across the southern border.
Due to its high demand for ESL teachers and relatively few available prospects, Russia is notably lax in terms of allowing non-degree holders to legally obtain ESL work. Its high population spread out across the largest country in the world geographically makes it a rich job market for ESL employment seekers.
Unfortunately, ESL teachers frequently overlook this exotic locale with a rich cultural and political history in favor of its more-famous neighbors on the ESL circuit such as Thailand and Vietnam. Cambodia has lagged behind other countries in the ASEAN region economically due to its bloody recent history, systemic corruption, and resource mismanagement, among other internal and external factors.
However, what many adventuring ESL teachers working in this hidden Southeast Asian gem have discovered over the years is that jobs are widely available, even for non-degree holders. As such, Cambodia is one of the easiest countries for finding stable ESL work without a diploma.
Since opening up its borders to international visitors in recent years, Myanmar has entered an enormous transition period in its history. After being essentially locked away for decades by a brutal military junta, it has begun to integrate with the international community – prompting a rapid rise in demand for ESL teachers. In a nationwide attempt to lure ESL teachers to its schools, the country has lax requirements for teachers. Non-native speakers and non-degree holders can easily find jobs in Myanmar.
Where Can You Possibly Teach English Abroad (Some Degree Restrictions)?
As we discussed earlier, many countries have visa requirements on the books that schools have the necessary local connections to get around. In these countries, although they often have official requirements for ESL teachers such as a bachelor’s degree, such regulations are spottily enforced or altogether irrelevant for thriving as a teacher without a degree.
This breathtaking beauty of a nation, straddling the Andes Mountain range in southern South America, is an idyllic choice for ESL teachers with no degree.
Argentina is an increasingly important player on the international stage. As a result, its leadership has invested heavily in the English-language education of its citizens. Opportunity for ESL teachers, in turn, is riper than ever before.
Buenos Aires, the airy capital, is the epicenter of ESL work in Argentina, but you can also find employment in more rural areas.
Western Europe is typically off-limits to non-degree holders because of more stringent and more consistently enforced visa requirements for guest workers compared to other regions of the world. However, if you link up with the right company or school, you can nab a full-time, relatively high-paying ESL gig without a degree, even in a developed country like Spain.
Known as the birthplace of Western civilization due to its enormous historical influence on the cultural development of Europe, this southern EU member state could also be the birthplace of your budding new ESL career. According to experienced ESL teachers in the country, “Greece also favours teachers who originate from the EU,” so it could be a great fit for any European teachers without a degree who might be willing to relocate south.
Thai visa regulations nominally require a university diploma for a foreign ESL employee, but, as in many places, rules were meant to be broken. Roughly a decade ago, I worked with a Latvian teacher with a thick Eastern European accent and no degree. His previous profession in Latvia had been DJ’ing on a local radio station. Despite the absence of appropriate credentials, he managed to get the necessary paperwork to teach English in Thailand legally in the form of a non-B visa.
As you can see from this screenshot, employers in Thailand are generally more interested in hiring native speakers (often abbreviated as “NES” for “native English speaker”) than in teachers’ educational credentials.
Ajarn.com uniquely serves foreign ESL teachers interested in Thailand and Thai employers hoping to connect with potential teachers.
China is by far the biggest ESL market, and it grows daily. Like Thailand, Chinese authorities theoretically require proof of higher education, although in practice this requirement is not so clear-cut.
For Chinese employers that have enough local political influence (called “guanxi” in Mandarin), no visa regulation is too tough to overcome.
Where to Begin Your ESL Employment Search as a Non-Degree Holder
One of the biggest keys to discovering gainful employment in one of the countries listed above is knowing where to look. While ESLauthority.com, TEFL.com, and similar sites focus almost exclusively on “above-board” jobs that comply with all visa regulations, other sites regularly host advertisements for companies and schools that are more willing to bend the rules in their hunt for staff. Due to visa regulations limiting your choices as a non-degree holder, you should typically look at the latter for your specific job search.
A note of caution when using these sites: because of the lax posting requirements (anybody can post a job within minutes), scams are an unfortunate and unavoidable part of the job search. No legitimate school or company will ever ask you to put down a “deposit” or any form of payment to get started, nor will they ask for personal financial information upfront before you ever interview.
Another ultra-successful strategy in your job search could be relocation to your chosen destination to pound the pavement in a physical job hunt. For a number of reasons, many schools prefer candidates who are already physically present in-country – a huge competitive advantage against candidates that are currently abroad. If you have the financial means, your best move could be simply purchasing a one-way plane ticket and, in effect, fully committing to the job hunt.
The Bottom Line on Teaching English Abroad Without a Degree
Finding meaningful, enjoyable, rewarding ESL work abroad without a degree is entirely possible if you know where to look. To exponentially boost your chances of getting the job you want, seriously consider becoming TEFL certified.
A certificate from an accredited provider is incredibly easy to attain entirely online. The web is chock full of affordable TEFL programs that will demonstrate your seriousness as a potential employee once you complete them.
What you lack in formal education, you can make up for in tenacity and dedication in your job search. What many employers understand through years of hiring (and firing) foreign ESL workers is that paper credentials often translate poorly to real-world effectiveness in the classroom – many of the most effective teachers in the world have little in the way of secondary education. Perhaps you could be one of them.