Your Ultimate Guide to Teaching in Korea

So you’ve decided. Of all the professions in all the countries in the world, you’re going to teach ESL in South Korea. You’ve made the decision, and now you’ve just got to figure out the how. How is this going to work? Well, in this very long post, I’m going to detail everything you need to know about going from the decision to teach to how your salary and budgeting is going to work. Often times different sites or companies break up the information in various PDFs or sections, but I’m going to lay out everything I know right here. So if you want something to reference quickly, bookmark this page because here’s your ultimate guide to teaching in Korea.

PHASE I: WHERE TO TEACH?

1. Decide what kind of setting you want. There’s the classic hagwon vs. public school debate, but here’s what you should decide you want before you even begin applying.

  • English Program in Korea (EPIK)- This program covers pretty much all of Korea, including Seoul and Gyeonggi-do. However, I’m assuming do to the size of Seoul and Gyeonggi, they broke it down further. I’m personally in EPIK. This program deals totally with the public school system in Korea. Hours are typically 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. with weekends off and normal vacations. You work for the government.
  • Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education (SMOE)- EPIK for Seoul. The contract is pretty much the same with a few small differences that can often lead to slight pay differences.
  • Gyeonggi English Program in Korea (GEPIK)- EPIK for the Gyeonggi Province, which surrounds Seoul. Same as SMOE, similar contract to EPIK but with some smaller changes. I know a friend who just switched from working in Gyeonggi to Jeollabuk because it was a 200,000 won pay difference per month.
  • Hagwon- Also known private academies. The hours are typically after school and can go to 9 or 10 at night. It’s much more of a business than a school, and it’s a very mixed bag of experiences.
  • Teach and Learn Korea (TaLK)- With this program, basically half everything outlined in an EPIK contracts (hours, pay, vacation) and add in a few incentives. It’s geared more towards people wanting to learn more about Korea as they often have conferences, culture funds, etc. However, it’s been cutting back a lot recently, and was supposed to shut down totally this year, but was saved by school cuts.

Keep in mind, you frankly won’t know your situation whatsoever in terms of schools, class sizes, quality of the programs until you’re actually walking in to your first day.

2. Find a Recruiting Company and Apply. There are an abundance of recruiting companies that cater to Korea, some with better reputations than others. I went with Adventure Teaching because their website is incredibly straightforward, and I really enjoyed working with the recruiters. They’re newer than most companies, so you won’t find a ton of reviews, but I can’t recommend them enough. You could also apply to a Fulbright if you’re fresh out of college, but frankly speaking, the only advantage you might get with it is using the name for whatever PhD program you apply to in the future. If you want to go the Fulbright route, I recommend using it to go to less accessible countries.

3. Now Figure Out the Geographical Location. Maybe not so much with Seoul or Gyeonggi-do, but think about whether you’re okay with being in a more rural location than in a major city. Keep in mind, when Koreans use rural, you’re still going to be able to get around easily and find what you need.

GUIYou’re not typically in the middle of farm fields where you have to bargain outside for your fruits and vegetables. But if you listen to any Korean interviewing you, you’d think you have to help milk a cow to get milk, and you definitely don’t. You’re more likely to get a small city vibe more than anything else. I personally prefer countryside because the air is cleaner, you get paid a little more, and class sizes will be smaller. Plus you get a bit more of a community feel that just can’t happen in bigger cities.

4. Apply! With your recruiter’s help, apply to various postings for whatever program you choose and qualify for. When I applied as a new teacher with an English major and a TEFL degree, my choices were pretty limited. I could only apply to the Jeonbuk Office of Education. The application included:

  • generic information (name, DOB, etc)
  • qualifications (degrees, experience, etc)
  • essay (why do you want to teach?)
  • sample lesson plan (about 1 page and supplemental materials if needed)

PHASE II: ALLLLLL THE PAPERWORK

1. Documents. Documents. Documents. So with AT, I had to get in a bunch of documents so they could create a profile for me to send to different schools. Mine worked out in that I got the callbacks as my documents got to Korea, so I wound up not needing them as quickly as I did. Documents included:

  • Notarized copy of diploma with an apostille
    • If you’ve never gotten something notarized, it’s super easy and should only cost maybe $10 or less. Google where a notary might be in your town, and there should be a few that pop up (FedEx usually can). I got mine at a used car shop because that’s how random notary publics can be.
    • For the apostille, you follow whatever your state follows. I just went to Harrisburg on one of my days off and they had it ready in a few minutes. You can mail yours in, but I was kind of rushing, so I didn’t want to have to wait a few weeks when I knew I could do it in an afternoon.
    • MAKE SURE: if your diploma isn’t in English, you need an official translation in print from your school
  • FBI background check with an apostille
    • This is a totally different apostille than your diploma. It’s federal level, so it’ll go through the offices in DC. You can typically go through channelers, but I went in person to the office because I don’t live that far, and I could stay with friends and make a small weekend out of it.
    • Don’t send to the Department of State if you do mail in because it can take so much longer.
  • 2 letters of recommendation (preferably from professors)
  • Resume
  • Photocopy of Passport Information
  • E-2 Health Statement (your company should have a PDF of it)
  • 4 Official Passport Photos
    • Don’t wear white to get your photos done because they won’t do them… *cough*

2. If Needed, Take a TEFL Course. Okay, you probably shouldn’t have waited this long to take an actual TEFL course, and I thinkkk Korea changed to not wanting online TEFL degrees. However, if you’ve found you can take an online course, and you need or just want a TEFL degree, then be prepared to take a 120 hour TEFL course.

3. Phone Interview. You’ll most likely have a phone interview with your province’s coordinator as the final step to getting the job. Just be honest, genuine, and earnest. Show your flexibility and your adaptability to new culture and environments. They’re basically looking to make sure you’re a) not a psychopath and b) you’re not going to up and quit 6 months into your contract. Also keep in mind you won’t get an official interview time, it’ll be a broad time frame. (I told them I was available after 8 p.m., and instead of them setting up a specific time, I got a call from a +82 number while on the treadmill…)

4. Make a Short Video. You’re going to have to make a brief video introducing yourself. This way they get a feel of what you look like and how you sound. You’ll never be able to find mine because I deleted it right after I came to Korea.

5. MORE DOCUMENTS. Fun times, right? You need more documents. You’re going to cringe at the trees you’ve killed, and cry at the amount of times you’ll want to slap your printer, but just know this is the worst of it. You’re not only going to need to send in some documents, but you’ll probably need two copies of each. You’ll send this to Korean immigration, and when they’ve received it, they’ll send the official contract in the mail. And yes, the shipping costs will make you want to tear your hair out. ($60 for paper….)

PHASE III: THE VISA (OR PAPERWORK CONT.)

1. Look up your Korean Consulate.  Google your state and the Korean Consulate. The NYC Korean Consulate was insanely confusing to navigate. I did a lot of outside googling to figure out what I needed, and I made a plan to physically go to NYC to hand everything in rather than mail.

2. Gather the Necessary Documents. I know, I know. More paperwork. There’s lists everywhere of things you need and don’t need, but here’s what I brought with me to the consulate.

  • my contract (signed, sealed, delivered)
  • my notice of appointment (NOA)
  • e-2 visa application
  • passport sized photo
  • consulate checklist (which I didn’t need…)
  • my passport
  • $20 in cash only

*Things I didn’t need: a VIN (since my NOA replaced that) or a sealed transcript

*MAKE SURE: Make copies of your NOA and your contract just in case.

3. Tell Your Agency You’ve Got Your Visa. Two days after I went up to NYC, I had my visa in my hand. Let your agency know so you can start preparing to go.

PHASE IV: GETTING THERE

1. Book Your Flight. If your agency recommends you a place to book your flight with, just don’t do it. Use Expedia or Skyscanner and find a flight from your hometown to Incheon. For your sanity, don’t use American Airlines or United Economy because that flight is going to be tight and uncomfortable. If you can score Asiana or Korean Air for a reasonable price, go for it.

2. Ask for Your Post-Flight Itinerary. I asked for mine just so I had a general outline of what to expect. Some may differ, but I essentially had to take a bus down to Jeonju and then a taxi from the bus terminal to a guesthouse, and then a taxi to the provincial office the next morning.

3. Packing. I’m not going to tell you how to pack your bag, but you should probably take out half of whatever it is you’re thinking about bringing. Usually you’ll be allowed two checked bags, a carry-on, and a personal bag. You. Do. Not. Need. More. Than. That. I swear you don’t. Korea has a lot of foreign products for not too much more than if you brought them from home. It’s not some isolated third world country. Here’s what you don’t need:

  • The majority of your shoes. chances are you’re going to be changing into slippers in your school, so you do NOT need fancy flats, riding boots (which are a pain to take on and off quickly), or even heels. I’d bring a good pair of black flats, ankle high snow boots for winter, running sneakers, casual sneakers, and sandals.
  • Toiletries. You’re going to be fairly close to either a Home Plus, a Lotte Mart, or an E-mart. They have tampons, pads, toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoos, conditioners, razors, shaving creams, lotions, and all the Western branded stuff you’re used to. Save the space.
  • Clothes that will fit after you lose ten pounds. Just don’t do that to yourself. Save the space.
  • Books. Take those books out. right. now.

I do recommend bringing your own fluoride toothpaste, though. I haven’t heard anything great about Korean toothpastes, and I’ve met a lot of people who have head dental problems after a few months here. When I went home in August, my dentist told me that while my teeth were in good shape, they did have some signs that cavities could be on their way if I wasn’t a bit more careful. So I packed a bunch of fluoride toothpaste and mouthwash.

4. Figure out your airport to guesthouse/home situation. My company recommended using a limousine bus from the airport to Jeonju. Which is fine if you’re new. If you can, though, get on the metro to either the train station (Yongsan or Seoul Station) or the bus terminal (Express Bus Terminal or Nambu Bus Terminal). It’s cheaper and faster. The metro is insanely easy to use even with a bunch of suitcases, and if your Korean is half decent, you’ll be fine.

5. Things to do before you go to Korea: 

  • download the Seoul Subway app and Google Translate app
  • learn Hangul. Learn Hangul. LEARN HANGUL.
  • seriously, you better be familiar with Hangul.
  • learn about the culture. Check out Eat Your Kimchi, Dom and Hyo, and My Korean Husband for different perspectives on living in Korea. So many videos, comics, and posts to help you minimize your culture shock.

PHASE V: ADAPTING

1. Adapt this Motto: Just roll with it. Don’t try and plan. Don’t try and figure out what exactly you’re going to be doing, what kind of school(s) you’ll have, what will happen when you first get to Korea… It’s all so different for every person, you’ll tear your hair out trying to figure out what to do. I didn’t even know what city I’d be living in until I was in the car with my co-teacher and she asked me why I was teaching in Namwon. I had to ask her what Namwon was…

2. Medical Check-Up: As soon as you meet your co-teacher or within the first few days you’ll get a medical check-up. This should go without saying, but don’t do drugs, even marijuana. If it shows up, you’ll be shipped straight back to the US. And yes you have to pee in a cup, get blood taken, and get chest X-rays. It was a little jarring mixed with jetlag.

3. Alien Registration Card (ARC): After you get your  medical check-up results, have your co-teacher take you to get your ARC at the immigration office. While you won’t get your card right away, you will get your ARC numbers. You also need passport photos, but you can usually get them done there if you forget.

4. Bank Set-Up: After you get your ARC numbers, get your bank set-up. Your co-teacher 100% should help you with this, and if she/he doesn’t, pester them until they do because you need it to get paid. I didn’t need my official ARC, just the numbers. If you can, set-up a Citibank account both in Korea and the US. You can transfer your money for free and online very easily, and it’ll make your life so much easier.

5. Your Apartment: You have your apartment. Yay! Peruse your contract to make sure you have everything it says you should have (yes, you definitely should have a bed), and then get to work cleaning it and making it feel like home. Buy plants, hang up photos, and more. I bought things off the Arrival Store when I was coming because I wanted it there as soon as I arrived, but if you’re G-Market savvy or up to shopping around, you can get everything in town.

6. Phone Plan: Just get a 2-year plan with your co-teacher with one of the KT or SKT shops. You can get a SIM card if your phone is unlocked or get a whole new phone. At the end of your contract you can cancel with a few fees or, hey, you’ll have it for your second year! There are other short term options, but I find the 2-year plan is the easiest and the cost differences aren’t that much.

7. Your First Day: You probably won’t know what’s happening on your first day, so definitely make a Powerpoint describing yourself and a worksheet to get to know your kids (i.e. favorites, birthdays, etc)

PHASE VI: TEACHER! TEACHER! 

1. This is it. You’re an official teacher! Congratulations, congratulations! Every teacher has a different job experience. Important to Note:

  • While elementary school is most likely, it is not a guarantee. You could teach elementary, middle, or high school and not know it until you arrive.
  • Curriculum vs. Free Class vs. After School: You also won’t know what you’ll be teaching until you talk to your co-teacher. It could be a mix, straight curriculum, or all after school/free classes.
  • You won’t always have a co-teacher with you. In some schools you may be the extra foreign teacher who simply comes in to provide a different experience. In some schools you might be responsible for teaching curriculum and are, in fact, helping unload some of the burden off your co-teacher. For example, in my middle schools, I teach a small speaking section in each chapter with my co-teacher. In my elementary schools, I coordinate with my co-teacher to teach certain sections or whole chapters with the homeroom teacher to ensure discipline. You never know.

2. Lesson Planning: I had no idea what I was doing until the new school year, a few months after I got to Korea. Make sure you have a teacher’s version of every book you need to teach, and sit down with your co-teacher to make sure you understand where the kids are at and what you’re responsible for.

  • Each lesson should be broken up into at least 4 parts, sometimes 7. You can split the chapters with your co-teacher so that you teach even, and s/he teaches odd numbers, or you can coordinate so that you’re each teaching in order.
  • There are specific vocabulary words and phrases for each chapter, make sure you know what they are.
  • Lessons should typically be 20 minutes of book work and 20 minutes of an activity you create to help reinforce the vocabulary. Middle school for me is typically 10 minutes book work and 35 minutes of an activity.

3. Use Resources:

  • waygook.org– great for ideas for specific lessons, free lessons, and just expat life in Korea in general
  • greatschools.org– great for free worksheets
  • mrprintables.com– has cute craft ideas
  • naver dictionary– for translating anything into Korean that might need clarification
  • boggles world esl– also good for free worksheets
  • kahoot!– if your kids have smart phones or tablets, this is a super fun way of reviewing, and they get really into it.

Are you a teacher in Korea? How’d you get here? Any tips for those not from the US?

Your Ultimate Guide to Teaching in Korea

Photographs and Words by Samantha

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  • Thank you! Thank you! This is the most helpful guide ever. I’ve been looking to go teach next year and i have been so overwhelmed by figuring out documents and all the different recruiting companies :/ Just wanted to know do you have any recommendations for areas to teach in? Like Busan, Seoul, Daejeon etc.

    • Of course! I actually need to add more to this now that I re-look!

      So I’ve taught in a small city (Namwon) and now I’m in a slightly larger one (Suncheon). If you want a big city, Seoul is my favorite city in the world! But it’s HUGE both in terms of crowds and actual square space. You also might not get paid as well as if you go somewhere outside of the city. I would recommend teaching in the more southern areas just because the weather is slightly better than up north.