So you want to teach English in Hong Kong?
A dizzyingly high skyscraper, much as you might see in the financial district of any world-class city, stretches to the heavens. The suit-clad businessmen that work there weave in between packed street stalls, woks blazing away, that look more like something from a small province in the mainland. Almost as dizzying as the tall buildings are the intermingling of smells in the Fragrant Harbour; sizzling pork and beef, boiling noodles, dried herbs, fresh fish, burning incense from a temple, fresh-washed laundry out on a line, and a hundred other things you won’t even be able to identify. Cantonese (and to a lesser extent) English are the lingua franca, but as you navigate through the crush and press of humanity you’ll hear a little something of every language on Earth being spoken. Welcome to the colorful and oddly orderly chaos that is Hong Kong.
Hong Kong differs from mainland China in that the government is quasi-democratic and the economic system driving it is almost fully capitalist, but it has a very different social environment as well. As a British holding for over 150 years, the territory has developed a unique intermixed culture that persists to this day. It’s really not too much of a stretch to call it the NYC of the East.
Though it’s an easier cultural transition for those used to living in Western cities, finding a teaching job and making the move to Hong Kong can still be a confusing process. The sections below will answer your questions about what employers are looking for, legal requirements, salary, cost of living and other important concerns.
Requirements to teach in Hong Kong
Each school has a fair degree of latitude to set their own requirements for English teachers, but you’ll find the main division in guidelines comes down to whether you want to teach at an institution of higher education or public school, or at a private “language learning” school meant as a supplement to primary/secondary education.
The government does set a couple of basic requirements for all teachers, however:
A bachelor’s degree (in just about any subject)
Either two years of previous ESL teaching experience or a 120-hour TOEFL certificate from a verifiable source
In the past, actual enforcement of this standard was very lax and spotty, but the government has put a particular focus on enforcing it in the larger cities in recent years so it is dicey to attempt to gain employment in Hong Kong without these things.
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Jobs at universities are much fewer in number and the standards for getting them are more rigorous. These are primarily salaried full-time positions with benefits, however, with a smaller amount of part-time adjunct jobs available that have lower pay but also lower required teaching hours.
These positions will generally want to see:
A Masters degree in TESOL or linguistics
A teaching certificate
At least two years of prior experience in teaching English
This listing is a recent example from the City University of Hong Kong, a well-regarded public school in the city. As you can see, the requirements are similar to what one would expect from any other full-time university position, such as a PhD in English and some prior teaching experience at the university level.
Private and Language Learning Schools
Most of the ESL jobs available in Hong Kong are at the private “language learning” schools. The requirements for employment at these schools tend to hew to the basic government requirements:
A bachelor’s degree of some sort
Either a good TOEFL certificate or a couple of years of verifiable prior teaching experience
While you do not necessarily have to be a native speaker of English, citizens of English-speaking countries who are native speakers and do not have a strong accent tend to be the most desired candidates
Jobs that involve teaching young children will also usually give preference to (or even outright require) that teachers be female, which is legal and not considered discriminatory in China.
This is an example of a recent job posting from Wall Street English, a major employer throughout both Hong Kong and mainland China. Their requirements for teachers are fairly standard: any bachelor’s degree from an accredited university, either a CELTA or TEFL certificate and two years of prior ESL teaching experience. They also require that teachers be native or bilingual English speakers from one of the primary English-speaking countries; while this requirement isn’t universal with these types of schools, it is very common.
How much do teaching jobs in Hong Kong pay (and what is the cost of living?)
A realistic salary expectation for teaching jobs in Hong Kong is HK$18,000 to HK$25,000 per month. That translates to a monthly salary of about:
- 16,000 to 22,000 Chinese yuan (RMB)
- $2300 to $3200 USD
- $1900 to $2600 GBP
- $3000 to $4200 AUD
While that is markedly better than the China-wide average salary of 12,000 RMB per month, you have to take into consideration that Hong Kong has the highest cost of living in China and is among the world’s most expensive (and crowded) cities. Rent in Hong Kong tends to begin around HK$10,000 per month for a small apartment to yourself, so finding a company that provides housing (or tacks on a significant “housing allowance” to the base salary) is an almost indispensable perk for ESL teachers. Without a good housing allowance or having housing provided, you’ll likely be looking for roommates. Shopping in Hong Kong can also be expensive – if you plan ahead and bring some key items from home (see our guide to What to Pack for Hong Kong for more information) you can save money in the long run!
At the private schools, performance bonuses are also not uncommon, and most employers will subsidize at least part of your travel costs in and out of the country provided you complete your contract. They will also usually cover the costs of obtaining your visa, and you can expect some form of paid health care and paid sick days/holidays.
What are the visa requirements to teach English in Hong Kong?
The work visa needed to legally be employed in Hong Kong is called the “Z Visa.” When your new employer agrees to hire you, they will sponsor you for this visa and handle much of the initial paperwork. You’ll need to provide them with scans of your passport, diploma, teaching certificate (if applicable) and anything that demonstrates relevant teaching experience, like a letter of recommendation. A scan of your passport should be fine; if a company asks that you mail them your actual passport, it’s a big red flag that it’s a scam.
You don’t need a health check to get into Hong Kong, but there is a basic background check, which can take anywhere from one week to a month. You’ll need a reasonably clean criminal record, and it helps greatly to be under the age of 60 (for men) and 55 (for women), as these are the retirement ages in China.
The hiring company uses the documents you sent to obtain an invitation letter and Foreign Expert Certificate. You then need to take these to a Chinese consulate or embassy to actually apply for your visa, or pay an agency to handle this part of the process for you. If all your paperwork is in order it should take less than a week to get the visa in hand. The Z Visa grants you entry to the country, but within 30 days of arrival you’ll need to convert it to a residency permit.
The visa process for Hong Kong is very similar to the process required to enter the rest of China, so please refer to our China page for more detailed information.
What’s it like to live and teach in Hong Kong?
Unless you are working at a public school or university, you can expect to be given part-time hours. However, in many cases these hours are “technically part-time”; you’ll spend somewhere between 20 to 30 per week in the actual classroom, but will probably need another 10 or more of prep and office time, so in many cases you are looking at a regular full-time schedule of 30 to 40 hours per week.
Settings can vary greatly, from teaching children as young as age three to teaching a mix of middle-aged businessmen and university students in a “business English” school. In most cases, however, reputable schools in Hong Kong have very modern classrooms and also attempt to keep class sizes low. You’ll also generally work out of one classroom throughout the day, with different classes coming to you rather than having to move around.
Young students tend to be well-behaved, and students at all age levels have a genuine desire to learn English as mastery of it is seen as a major competitive advantage in China.
While it’s possible to find six-month contracts, expect most schools to want teachers to commit for one full year at a time. If you’re looking to stick around and teach English in Hong Kong for multiple years, schools will usually offer pay bumps and bonuses for renewing your contract with them.