Understanding the Requirements to Teach in China Legally
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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 to Teach in China
As of 2020, there are 4 primary and common requirements to teach in China:
- A Bachelor’s Degree
- Two Years Work Experience
- Native English Speaker
- Criminal Background Check
These are what SAFEA recommends and the ideal candidate will usually need to meet all four. However, 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
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.
Criminal Background Checks
Over the past couple of years, the Chinese government has tightened its border security measures and has now imposed a mandatory background check for anyone applying for a Z visa.
This is slowly (still province-dependent) becoming a national criminal check (much like the FBI check for South Korea), though some areas still accept a statewide check.
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.
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.
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 interpretation, 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.
What if I’m not a native speaker?
Surprisingly enough, finding work in China as a non-native speaker is not as hard as one may think. Although it’s true that holding a passport from an English-speaking country can represent a huge advantage, some schools are open to hiring non-natives as long as their English is fluent and they don’t have a thick accent.
Just bear in mind that as a non-native speaker, your chances of landing a job will probably be greater in second and third-tier cities where competition is not so fierce.
What if my country doesn’t use a Bachelor’s Degree?
If you are from a country that uses a different qualifications framework and are unsure whether or not your degree corresponds to a Bachelor’s Degree, the easiest thing you can do is check what the equivalent of your certification is on a website such as this one.
If you’re from Australia, New Zealand or South Africa, just know you’ll need a level 7 AQF, NZQF or SAQA to meet the visa requirements.
What if I’m past retirement age?
The current retirement age in China is 60 for the men and 55 for the women, and regardless of whether you’re a Chinese citizen or a foreign worker, schools are unlikely to hire you if you’re past that age. If you are already working for a Chinese school and would like to continue teaching there even after turning 60, you can ask your school to see if they’re willing to make an exception although that’s not the norm.
What if I don’t have a degree?
Unfortunately, the Chinese government has been tightening their requirements to work and teach legally in the country and a Bachelor’s Degree is now required if you want your Z visa application to be successful. Nonetheless, you may come across job offers that advertise positions that do not require a Bachelor’s Degree – if you do, be cautious and do a little more research before applying. If you’d like to work in China, you should not consider going on anything other than the Z visa and if a school cannot guarantee that to you, just keep looking.
What if I don’t have any experience?
Although some classroom experience can definitely give you a head start when it comes to looking for a job in China, some schools are willing to forgo this requirement as long as you have a TEFL certificate.
What if I don’t have a TEFL?
A TEFL certificate is not considered a strict requirement and, for some schools, proving you have at least two years of teaching experience may be enough to hire you anyway. However, getting a TEFL degree nowadays has never been easier and a small investment of time and money can go a long way both in helping you find work and giving extra support throughout your teaching career.
If you would like to get your Z visa application started but are still in the process of completing your TEFL course or you have plans to finish it before moving to China, you can always do so.
What if I’m already in China with a different visa – can I change it to a Z visa?
The short answer is yes – going from an M or L visa (business and tourist) to a Z visa is possible but it might be a little trickier than you think. First of all, keep in mind that you can only hold one visa at a time, meaning if you decide to apply for a Z visa, this will automatically cancel your other permit.
Now, as we mentioned above, in order to get a Z visa you will need to present a few supporting documents, such as a background check and a copy of your degree and, in order to get all these papers, most people will have no choice but to travel back to their home country, which can end up being pretty expensive.
A workaround that some people seem to have found and had luck with is to apply for the working visa through an agency in Hong Kong, which would spare you a 10+ hour return flight and quite a bit of money.
What if I have a blemish on my criminal record check?
Our research shows that any infraction, no matter how small, will likely disqualify you from a visa if it shows on your background check. It doesn’t matter if you weren’t convicted, even an arrest will be a red flag and China is very strict in these matters.