Teaching ESL in Asia

Having just gotten back from a 5-week trip in Asia, I've been thinking about my experiences there. My friend Glenn, who I've known since high school, has been teaching English to Korean students for about 5 years now. Many of the people I met while in Korea were teachers: James, a Korean-American from California; Nick and Justine from Australia; Marcus, also from Australia; and Luigi, from New Zealand. As I got to know these people, I saw that they had a really great life. It made me think that I too should consider teaching ESL in Korea. The benefits can be truly incredible.

Benefits of Teaching ESL in Korea

I learned that work can be hard to come by in places like New Zealand. Many people who live there turn to other localities to try to find work, and many of those become ESL teachers in Asia. For them, the difference in lifestyle between doing that and working at home can be remarkable. But so too can it be for Americans, who have had little luck fostering successful careers at home. There are many benefits. Here is a partial list, in no particular order:

Not all of these may appeal to everyone, of course. Still, they bear some consideration.


The typical contract is for one year, and pays between 1.6 Million and 2.4 Million Korean Won per month, depending on many factors, including how rich the school is, how many hours you work, and how much experience you have. Additionally, at the completion of the contract, most schools also pay a one month severance bonus. In total, this adds up to between roughly $17,000 and $25,000 for the year. Korean living expenses are very low, so this is a lot of money. Most people should expect to live a reasonably nice life style, and still save 50-80% of their salary.


Most schools will provide teachers with a single apartment, rent free, though at many schools it may be a studio apartment. It will be difficult for you to move all your stuff to Korea, so you probably won't need much more than that anyway. However, some schools (usually more expensive, private institutes) provide nicer housing than that. Also, however, some larger institutes run by big companies may want to put you up in shared housing, with another teacher. This option isn't for everybody, but if you enjoyed living in the dorms at college, it might be for you. Fortunately, there are lots of schools which don't require shared housing. And because this expense is paid by the school, it doesn't impact your expenses at all.

Work Schedule

Typically, contracts are for 90 to 120 teaching hours per month, with overtime pay for working over what is specified in the contract. A teaching hour is usually 45 or 50 minutes, though may be 60, depending on the school. If you do the math, this translates into 3 to 5 hours per day, teaching. The typical day is usually 5 to 7 hours in total, depending on the school, with breaks between classes. Many schools require the teacher to work on Saturday, but many do not. So the salary you are paid is for (typically) a 25 to 30 hour work week. This translates into a higher rate of pay, and also into lots of free time. Who doesn't want more free time? Speaking of which, schools generally provide 2 weeks of vacation, plus all national holidays, of which there are roughly as many as in the U.S.

Living Expenses

As I said, the cost of living is very low in Korea. Your housing is paid for. Utilities are cheap. A nice dinner at a typical Korean restaurant will cost you about $8, and typical dishes usually run more like $3-4. For the extremely cost-concious, dishes like kimbap (like a sushi roll, only about twice as much as you'd get here in the states) can be as little as about $0.80 US. Clothing can be very cheap or very expensive, depending on what you want, and various forms of entertainment are closer to their U.S. counterparts in price, but still less expensive. If you are frugal, your monthly expenses might be as little as $300 (on a salary of roughly $1800, on average), leaving you with about $1500 per month to save (or blow). More realistically, with entertainment and some really nice meals thrown in, your expenses might be $600, leaving you with $1200 or so in savings per month. Times 12, plus bonus. Even with a good job in the states, that's hard to beat.

Medical Insurance

Most schools provide the standard Korean National Health plan, which is better and cheaper than most American companies provide. Additionally, if you should actually require medical treatment, the cost to you will be almost negligible for most things. My friend Glenn had a cavity filled for about $5.

Income Taxes

If you are a U.S. citizen, you are required to file U.S. income taxes. However, unless you somehow manage to earn more than $70,000 as a teacher in Korea (which is highly unlikely), you will generally not be required to pay taxes to the U.S. on the money you earn. Korea does have income tax, but it is a flat 3%, which is taken out of your pay by your employer.

Travel in Asia

With holidays, vacations, and weekends free, teachers who so desire (like me) have ample time to explore not only Korea, but all over Asia. Traveling from Korea to say, Thailand, costs a fraction of what it would cost to visit from the U.S. And with the salary teachers make and low living costs, it's easy to afford such trips. Having been bitten by the travel bug, this appeals to me greatly.

Cultural Experience

As westerners, much of Korean lifestyle is very different from what we're accustomed to. For some this can be intimidating; but if you have an interest in exploring other cultures, there's no better way to do it than to immerse yourself in it. If you like to learn languages, there's no better way than to speak it daily with native speakers. This, incidentally, is the premise behind the ESL programs at most schools. Some specialized schools even go so far as to teach students all subjects (math, science, etc.) entirely in English.

If you like Asian food, you will be surrounded by it everywhere you go, from restaurants selling galbi or bibimbap with sides of kimchee and raddish, to treet vendors selling apples, freshly fried katsu (like tempura), to bundaegi (roasted silkworm larvae). Korea also has much to offer in terms of temples, museums, cultural performances, etc. Modern Korean pop culture is very similar to that in America, albeit in Korean.

Koreans Like Americans

In general, Koreans are interested in westerners, and can often be seen peering curiously at foriegners as they pass by. Many bolder Koreans, especially the children, will approach you and speak to you, usually in English. One Korean child came up to me on the sidewalk in Daegu and brushed the back of my leg with his hand, because I have hairy legs, which is uncommon amongst the Korean people.

By and large, the Korean people are very polite, and can be very friendly as well. Many teachers find that it is quite easy to find a Korean girlfriend or boyfriend, if they so choose.

These are some of the things that I personally find very appealing about teaching ESL in Korea. There are no doubt potentially many others, and each individual will find others of their own, without a doubt. When I look at everything that teaching ESL provides, I can't even conceive of finding a better job here at home. It's no wonder to me that so many enjoy taking these jobs...

ESL Elsewhere in Asia

Many other countries in Asia, and all over the world in fact, are looking for native English speakers to teach ESL. Japan, China, Taiwan, etc. all actively seek such people, and generally most such places prefer native North Americans. This includes Korea.

The benefits of teaching in all of these places are basically the same. The main difference is that the pay is less and the cost of living is higher, in most of the other places. Japan, for example, tends only to subsidize your housing costs, rather than providing it outright, and also has a higher cost of living. Teaching ESL in Japan is a great way to see Japan, but not a great way to make money. Other countries generally fit in somewhere between Korea and Japan.

My Personal Situation

I am seriously considering teaching ESL in Korea. Having been out of work at home for almost a year now, teaching in Korea all at once solves my lack of income problem, and also provides me with the ability to travel to other parts of Asia, which I find very appealing. I have been telling friends and family for years now that I would like to do some travelling... After finally visiting Korea and Japan, I definitely want very much to travel more. Having seen how Glenn and his friends live, and how easy that would make it for me to travel in Asia, it's hard not to consider this seriously. It will allow me to have lots of free time to learn new things and enjoy myself, make enough money to go back to school when I get back if I want to, and see more of the world while I'm there, which I would very much like. How can you beat that?

Last modified 5/13/2003 © 2003 Derek Martin us2asia at yahoo dot com