Teaching English in China: Everything You Need to Know

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Teaching in China has been great – not only is the job rewarding but my schedule has allowed me to work on other projects and see a good bit of the country.

Kristine

Primay School Teacher

About Teaching in China

Teaching English in China is always an adventure.

With the country being as big and diverse as it is, there are limitless opportunities for teachers and jobs available in almost any city you can think of.  However, with this immense size, China can prove to be overwhelming for some as different cities and provinces seem to play by different rules.

Not to worry though – we’ve done our best to break it all down in the sections listed above in the menu!

China is just one of the awesome countries in which you can teach English – view other countries here or start browsing jobs here.

What It’s Really Like to Teach in China

The following was written by Kristine, a primary school teacher in China.  Check out the interview we did with her here.

Miss Ice Cream! Miss Ice Cream!

I walk into a classroom with 50 tiny students sitting at their tiny little second desks chanting my name. Or, rather, what they think sounds like my name. If I’m not Miss Ice Cream, I’m Miss Crazy or, simply, Wai Jao (which means foreigner in Chinese).

My name’s not really Miss Ice Cream, of course, it’s Kristine (I know, I know. Can’t this girl at least teach her students how to rhyme?) Anyways, I’ve been an ESL teacher in 3 different public primary schools in China for 3 years.

Why did I start teaching English in China? Similar to probably 90% of the 20-somethings who move abroad to teach English, I had a yearning for travel and doing some work that didn’t involve sitting in a cubicle for 40 hours a week. When I first had the idea to teach English abroad, I was working a job in a cubicle for 40 hours a week and was craving something more. In 2012, I was finishing up my first year at my first “adult” job after graduating university and one day found myself googling “teaching in Thailand” while I was at work. And that’s when the seed was planted.

Not long after my initial research of teaching in Thailand, I had a friend refer me to a guy he knew that had recently come home after teaching in China. I called him one day and we talked on the phone for over an hour. When I hung up the phone, I was convinced.

I’m going to teach in China.

Here was a brief summary of what I had learned over this phone call that made up my mind in under 60 minutes to teach in China (over other countries):

  1. Teaching in China is very lucrative: You will make more in China than most other countries you want to teach in. Thailand is cool, but you won’t have the same amount of disposable income to travel outside of the country. And side tutoring gigs can pay more than $40USD an hour.
  2. Teaching in China offers about 1.5 months of paid vacation: A glorious time in China is the Chinese New Year, where teachers can get paid vacation anywhere between 4-6 weeks (as well as a week off in October.)
  3. Teaching in China offers lots of down time: The program I was about to enter required maximum 12 hours of actual teaching per week. Office hours varied from school to school.

 

What’s The Work Like?

Teaching primary school students is not a walk in the park. There are 50 kids in a classroom and half of them are flying out of their seats they are so excited to see you and the other half are picking their noses, completely oblivious to your existence. The problem with teaching ESL is that the students have less motivation to listen in your class, because there is no grade given in this class nor is there homework. The classes can be complete chaos, even when the required teaching assistant is in there helping. The teaching assistant sometimes is awesome and keeps the kids in line. The other times they are usually on their phones or grading homework. I’ve had super helpful teaching assistants who will sometimes translate what I say for further comprehension as well as keep constant control of the classroom. I’ve also had poor assistants who will not even sit in the classroom because it’s too noisy.

I’ve taught grade 2 all the way up to grade 6. The lessons are 40 minutes long (sometimes it feels like 40 minutes, sometimes it feels like hours.) I’d never taught before moving to China, and was extremely nervous for my first class.  The good news is, the students tend to be quite receptive to your lessons and many are genuinely excited to play English games or try speaking. I’ve created all of my lessons from scratch and learned quickly through trial and error what kinds of lessons students like and what kinds they don’t. The good news to not having a grade or homework in this class, however, is that you have the freedom to create lessons that the students truly enjoy. Want to play a throwing game? Dance to a song? Listen to rap? Any of these ideas will generally fly in the classroom and allow you to enjoy your time more.

Each school I have lived at set me up with what they call a “contact teacher.” This teacher is the designated go-between for all things related to paperwork, getting your bank accounts set up, and informing you of any events at the school. I have always had very helpful contact teachers who will go with me when I have a problem. I’ve gotten sick a couple of times and my contact teacher found another teacher to take over her class so that she could take me to the doctor. And in case you don’t speak fluent Chinese, having someone who can help translate for you at the hospital is A-W-E-S-O-M-E.

 

What’s The Living Like For A Foreign Teacher In China?

Teaching ESL in China can offer an amazing lifestyle. As mentioned, there are boatloads of paid holidays, the work-life-balance is fantastic, and there is an entire continent filled with new places that you can visit during your time off. During my time living in China, I have visited 10 other countries in Asia, several more than once!

That being said, every time I’d get back to China, I question why I am living here and not Taiwan or Vietnam (two of my favorite places). Everyone is so friendly and polite. I don’t have to question the food I’m eating. People don’t cut in lines! Well, the answer almost always boils down to the benefits of being a native English speaker in China – good paying work (and side gigs) are everywhere if you are willing to teach.  

Note: while China is super affordable there are some things to bring from home that will make life much easier – check out our guide on what to bring to China for some suggestion!

 

Would I Go Back And Do It Again?

Yes. Without a hesitation.

Looking back on teaching as a whole, I’ve really enjoyed the experience and gained a lot more patience as well as flexibility. In China, things won’t always go your way, and you have to learn how to deal with that. And trust me, this is a skill of mine that continues to get sharpened to this day.

Want more? Here’s the in-person interview we did with Kristine from her school in Shenzhen:

Requirements to Teach in China

If you’ve spent even a little time looking for jobs in China, you’ve likely already realized there is a wide variety of teaching English in China requirements.  No, this is not a mistake and is the product of a system that is both hard to understand and changes on a school, city, and even province level.

 

What You Need to Know

  • On a national level, the requirements to teach English in China are overseen by the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs, or SAFEA.  This state body sets the recommended requirements for all foreign workers looking to work in China.
  • On a local level, each province is free to enforce and interpret these requirements as they see fit, something that leads to some cities being more lenient than others when it comes to allowing foreigners to work.
  • In order to work legally in China, you need a Z Visa, and the primary goal of these requirements is to ensure that you are eligible.

 

The Basic Requirements

As of 2016, there are 3 primary and common requirements to teach in China:

  • A Bachelor’s Degree
  • Two Years Work Experience
  • Native English Speaker

Please note that these are what SAFEA recommends, and there is no reason to be alarmed if you don’t meet one of them.  Also, meeting these requirements does not ensure you will be able to get your dream job right off the bat, different employers are free to impose their own requirements (more on this below) and it’s not uncommon for the best jobs to be just as strict as those back home.

 

What They Mean

Bachelor’s Degree

The Chinese government wants to ensure that the teachers who are educating their youth have gone to school as well.  With this goal in mind, they prefer teachers have at least a bachelor’s degree, though the subject does not matter.  In the US this is generally referred to as a 4-year degree whereas in the UK it only takes 3 years.

 

Two Years Work Experience

China prefers their teachers have a bit of work experience under their belt before jumping into a classroom.  However, there are plenty of schools and recruiters, including powerhouse EF, that accept less or are willing to trade experience for a teaching certificate.

 

Native English Speaker

In our experience, this is the most enforced of all the requirements, but not for the reasons you’d think.  It’s usually the schools that insist their teachers be native English speakers due to the fact that the students and their parents demand it.  If you’re a good teacher then the work experience might not matter so much, but if you can’t speak fluent English or have a thick accent, you will find it harder to get a job.

It is not, however, impossible, and if you fall into this category we don’t suggest giving up hope – there are plenty of good (and bad) teachers in China that can’t claim English as their native language.

 

Other Requirements

As we mentioned above, there are often other requirements imposed at the school level for their incoming teachers.  They are generally a result of the immediate area in which the school is located and not city- or province- wide.  For example, if a school is competing for students with another school that employs native English teachers with verified teaching experience, you can bet they will want to hire teachers that are at least comparably qualified.

 

TEFL Certificate

This is a certificate that qualifies a person to teach English as a second language and is often accepted in lieu of the needed two years work experience.  While it’s always a good idea to get some form of training, these certificates (also known as ESL, TESOL, CETLA, DELTA) have the added benefit of removing the need to work for two years after graduation before you can apply.

 

Teaching Experience in Your Home Country

While this isn’t’ common to see for new teachers, those of you applying to university teaching jobs or test prep like IELTS should expect this to be a normal requirement.

 

Sex/Race/Gender

Unfortunately, there are still schools that prefer one sex, race, or gender over another.  But before you go bemoaning what an injustice this is and vowing to teach in another country, I hope you’ll take solace in knowing that is becoming less common and is usually to appease the parents.  China is a big place and there are still some cities and neighborhoods where they think a teacher has to fit a certain profile.  If you believe you are getting turned down because of the color of your skin or sex, please don’t get too down and trust that there are plenty of welcoming schools out there.

 

Too Good to Be True?

While many of these requirements are subject to interpretwary, be wary of a job that has little to no requirements or says they can hire you no matter what.  The reason many of these requirements exist is to ensure you are eligible for a legal Z working visa and any school or recruiter that seems too good to be true may be expecting you to work illegally.

Here’s a great video breakdown on the requirements to get a Z visa:

What Is the Average Salary for Teachers in China?

The average teaching salary in China is 12,000 RMB.

That wasn’t so hard, was it?

But before you go counting your unearned money, know that there are a lot of variances when it comes to different types of schools and even different cities.  China is a big place and one where both the teaching requirements and salaries take some time to understand.

This page will explain the different types of schools in China, the average salary for each based on city, and any other perks or benefits you can expect.

 

Understanding the Tier System for Chinese Cities

Cities in China fall into 3 different tiers based on their populations, economies, and overall development in relation to other cities.  Both what you can earn and what your employer will provide vary widely based on the city so it’s important to keep that in mind when job hunting.  Here’s a quick breakdown:

 

Tier 1

Cities: Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen
Average Cost of Living: Around RMB 7500/mo

Tier 1 cities in China rival any other developed city on earth and are the most advanced, affluent, and cosmopolitan in the country.  Teachers working in these cities will have no issue finding comforts from home like foreign foods and Western apartments, but expect to prices to be higher than other tiers.

 

Tier 2

Cities: Nanjing, Chengdu, Kunming, Wuhan, Xiamen
Average Cost of Living: Around RMB 5000/mo

The best way to describe Tier 2 cities ‘up and coming’ – these cities have many of the same attributes as tier 1 but with far less recognition.  These cities are the fastest growing in China and there is a significant demand for all things foreign, making it an easy city for teachers to get a job while still saving a good chunk of their salary.

 

Tier 3

Cities: Yangzhou, Zhongshan, Guilin, Foshan
Average Cost of Living: Around RMB 3000/mo

Tier 3 cities fall behind the other tiers in both economic and structural development, but are still a good option for those looking to live cheaply in an authentic Chinese environment.  Don’t expect too many frills here, housing can be basic and specialty food hard to find.

It’s important teachers take the city, salary, and cost of living into account when looking for a job so we have broken out each school salary into tiers to make it easy.

 

Schools and Salaries

Kindergartens

Kindergartens are not for everyone though they do tend to pay well.  Expect a Monday to Friday schedule with classes in both the mornings and afternoons.  Because these schools are privately owned experiences vary, so it’s best to speak to some current or foreign teachers if possible.

CitySalary (RMB)Salary (USD)
Tier 110,000-20,000$1,450-$2,900
Tier 29,000-15,000$1,300-$2,200
Tier 37,000-12,000$1,000-$1,800

 

Training Centers

Training centers abound in China and are seemingly on every corner.  They exist as a sort of after-school program where kids can go and get more help and generally operate at night time and on the weekends (you will not have Friday and Saturday off here).

The centers are almost always smaller than regular schools and most tend to be newer and better equipped with smart boards, etc.  These schools are privately owned and motivated by money and it’s common for teachers to receive bonuses based on performance and student retention.

CitySalary (RMB)Salary (USD)
Tier 112,000-20,000$1,750-$2,900
Tier 210,000-12,000$1,450-$1,800
Tier 35,000-10,000$725-$1,400

 

Public Schools

Public schools are big, chaotic, and often overwhelming for new teachers.  Class sizes are big (30+ students), but you usually have an assistant to help keep control and your schedule is light at around 10-15 teaching hours per week.  You also get quite a few paid holidays, including a month for both winter and summer holidays.

CitySalary (RMB)Salary (USD)
Tier 111,000-18,000$1,600-$2,600
Tier 29,000-15,000$1,300-$2,200
Tier 37,000-10,000$1,000-$1,450

 

International Schools

International schools are the holy grail for a lot of teachers – they are generally well-funded, well-built, and have a great teaching and learning environment.  Teachers are expected to be experienced (often with specialized degrees or licenses) and the pay and benefits reflect that.  Schedules follow traditional schools back home but class sizes tend to be small.

A word to the wise – countless Chinese schools simply attach ‘international’ to their name with no accreditation or proof, these schools aren’t all bad but it’s worth doing your homework to ensure you’re applying for a registered international school.

CitySalary (RMB)Salary (USD)
Tier 115,000-30,000$2,200-$4,350
Tier 213,000-25,000$2,000-$3,600
Tier 310,000-20,000$1,450-$2,900

 

Universities

Universities aren’t for everyone as they tend to justify their low teaching hours with an equally low salary.  Still, teachers can generally expect students with whom they can converse and interact with and a support system comprised of other professional and caring staff.  Overall, they tend to be a great place to start or further your teaching career and are quick to dismiss teachers that don’t take the position seriously.

CitySalary (RMB)Salary (USD)
Tier 18,000-10,000$1,150-$1,450
Tier 27,000-9,000$1,000-$1,300
Tier 35,000-8,000$725-$1,150

 

Other Perks and Benefits of Teaching in China

If you’ve looked at even one job in China then you’ve seen that most of them offer more than just money.  Things like accommodation, flights, and year-end bonuses are the most well-known, but the details of each can vary just like your salary.

The good news is that you can always negotiate on these if you feel they are unfair or lacking compared to what other jobs are offering.  Here is what to expect:

 

Housing

As long as you are working full time, housing is almost always provided with a few exceptions, namely companies that claim to pay more so that you can find your own housing.  Generally, housing is either provided for you or you are given a stipend and support to find your own.

If your school provides housing, great, you can stop reading.  If your school provides a stipend, you can expect it to be anywhere from 1,000-3,000 RMB depending on the city.  If you have expensive tastes, this might only cover a portion of your rent and you are still expected to cough up the deposit and rental agency fee.

 

Flights

While some schools try and dress a free flight up as your year-end bonus, the only really free flights come from true international schools or top university positions.  If you’re applying for those positions it’s not uncommon to also receive a moving allowance for you and your family.

 

Bonus

Bonuses come in all shapes and sizes in China and I’d suggest making it a requisite for potential jobs, even if it’s in the form of a flight allowance.  The most common bonus is based on your monthly salary and is generally 75% to 100% extra awarded at the end of your contract (basically one-month extra pay).

Other schools might offer less or reward teachers based on enrollment or retention, but the idea remains the same: bonuses are awesome and you should make sure one is factored into your contract before you sign.

Interested in saving some of your salary?  Check out this video:

The Visa Process for Teachers in China

Despite what you may have heard, the visa process for those looking to teach in China is usually pretty straightforward.  There are minimal forms involved and your school should really be doing all the heavy lifting on your behalf.

Required Forms

Do You Need a Visa to Teach in China?

Everyone, no matter if they’re coming to teach, visit family, or just to see the sights needs a visa in China.  While this guide will focus on the process needed to get a work visa, there are multiple types of Visas for China and Lonely Planet has a great write up on some of the other options.

 

What Kind of Visa do You Need?

To work legally in China, regardless of profession, you need a Z Visa.  While there are plenty of schools and recruiters out there reassuring job seekers that it’s ok to teach on a business (M) or tourist (L) visa, doing so is illegal and the risks are real.

Even if you ignore the threats of fines and detention, there is no shortage of horror stories out there about teachers getting caught and deported.  Our advice is to be smart, do your homework, and insist on a Z Visa if you meet the requirements.

Only registered schools are authorized to provide Z visas to their teachers, so if you are speaking with a school that either says they can’t or is giving you excuses, be very weary.  After all, if they can’t even guarantee you legal employment, how can they be trusted to live up to the rest of the contract?

 

What Are the Requirements for a Z Visa?

We go into more detail on the requirements teachers need in order to teach in China here, but they revolve around three main components:

  • A Bachelor’s Degree
  • Two Years Work Experience
  • Native English Speaker

In addition, applicants are also subject to the same retirement ages as Chinese workers: 60 for men and 55 for women.  While these ages are still being revised, it will be more difficult to get a visa if you are older than that.

 

What Do I Need to Apply?

Assuming you received a job offer (if you’re still looking make sure to check out our China job board) and your school is authorized to hire foreigners, the paperwork needed to apply for a Chinese work Visa can be broken down into two parts: the forms that you’ll need to send to your school and what they will send you in return to be used in your application.

Most schools will ask for the following:

  • Scanned copy of your passport
  • Scanned copy of your diploma
  • Scanned copy of your teaching certificate if applicable
  • Other proof of work history if applicable

Upon receiving all of that they will go to the government office in China and apply for both an invitation letter and Foreign Expert Certificate on your behalf.  This step can take anywhere from 1-4 weeks, so be patient.

After they receive the invitation letter and certificate, they will mail it to you, usually via UPS or DHL.  When it arrives, you’ll need to package it with a few other things before submitting your application:

  • Passport with at least 6 months validity remaining
  • Completed Z Visa Application (download here) – Note: these forms are updated often, please check to make sure you have the current version before applying!
  • Passport Photos – you’ll need a few of these over the next month so it’s best to get about 10 made at once.
  • Fee – the price for a Visa varies depending on your citizenship but a breakdown can be found here.

 

What about a Background and Health Check?

As of 2016, health checks are no longer required for Visas but can be administered by officers once you arrive in China if they deem it necessary (this is rare).  Some provinces/cities also require a health check done in-country in order to process your residency permit, but this is far from standard so it’s best to check with your school.

Similar to health checks, background checks are only required by some provinces/cities and come in two forms:

  • A background check from your home country
  • A background check from where you lived last, including China

As background checks can take a long time to acquire, it’s best to ask your school if you will need one as early in the process as possible.

 

Where Can You Apply for Your Visa?

Now that you have all the paperwork in order, you need to actually apply for your Visa.  The easiest place to do this is in your home country at the Chinese Embassy or Consulate.  If you don’t live near one then it is also quite common (and safe) to use an agency.

For a fee, agencies apply for visas on your behalf and handle everything from submitting the paperwork to picking up the final result and mailing it back to you.  I have used VisaHQ in the past with no issues but a simple Google search will yield plenty of options if you’d like to use an agency.

Another option for those already in Asia is applying for your Visa in Hong Kong.  Reports vary on this option and it doesn’t seem to always work for applicants, but still, if you are already in China or Hong Kong it’s worth a shot to prevent either having to return to your country or pay for an agency.  Make sure to ask your school if this is an option before deciding on it!

 

What Is the Z Visa Application Process?

If you are applying at your local Chinese Embassy or Consulate then you will simply submit your forms in person and come back and pick up your passport at the specified date.  Typical processing time is 4-5 days but you can pay for rush service.

If you are using an agency then you will mail everything to them and they will keep you informed via email when it has been submitted, approved, and put in the mail back to you.

 

What Is the Process Once You Arrive in China?

Upon your arrival in China you will have 24 hours to register at your nearest police station and 30 days to turn your Z Visa into a residency permit (the Visa only gets you into China, the residency permit ensures you can stay).

Your school should help you with both of these and some may even take your passport and do it for you.  As your Z Visa is single-entry, you will not be able to leave China until you get your residency permit, but after that, you are free to exit and enter as often as you like.

 Common Questions about Teaching in China

 Can You Teach in China with a Criminal Record?

  

  

     

Can You Teach in China without a Degree?

       

      

 

Can You Teach in China without a TEFL Certificate?

Yes, it’s quite common that jobs in China do not require a TEFL or other certificate.  While they will open the door to better and more lucrative positions, not having one will not impact your hirablility as long as you meet the other requirements.

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