So, you’re interested in taking the plunge and spending a year teaching in South Korea and experiencing a fascinating culture all at the same time? Let me help you out on your short but involved road back to South Korea.
I spent three years teaching English in South Korea, so to say I’ve got a little bit of experience in negotiating the sometimes frustrating path to South Korea is something of an understatement. The how of getting a job in South Korea and arranging your documents for the E-2 teaching visa can be a bit overwhelming at first glance, so I’m going to break it down for you in steps.
Finding a Job in South Korea
You’ve bitten the bullet and decided that South Korea is your destination. You might have come to this conclusion for a number of reasons. Maybe you’re bored with your humdrum existence back home or maybe you’ve become a massive fan of the Wonder Girls and want to see where it all began. Maybe you’ve got student loans or credit card debt that needs paying off, or maybe you want to use a year in Korea to act as a launch pad for future travels.
Or maybe you’ve just stumbled across this entry and you’re giving it some thought. If you are, I’d advise checking out my entry on the 10 Reasons to Teach in South Korea.
Now that you’ve made the decision, you need to find a job. There are basically three ways to go about this.
- Recruiter: A lot of Korean schools will pay a commission (usually around 1,000,000 won) to a recruiter for finding a new teacher and assisting them in arranging their documents. There are a number of excellent recruiters out there, and I’ve listed them at the bottom of this entry. These are ones I’ve had experience with or know people who have dealt with them before. One thing to watch out for is that no recruiter should charge you for the service. If they ask you for money, look elsewhere.
- Job Boards: There are a number of job boards in which schools advertise for positions that need filling. The best of these is Dave’s ESL Cafe, but lately Korea Bridge has gained some ground on the original and the best.
- Word of Mouth: My first two gigs in Korea were both arranged through friends. If a Korean employer can avoid paying a recruiter’s hefty fee, they’ll gladly do it. If you’ve got friends in South Korea or know people who do, it might be worth asking them to put out feelers and see if they can find you something. A lot of great schools hire this way, trusting that their current employee will be able to find a replacement.
What to Look For in a Teaching Job
What you’re looking for in a job depends greatly on what kind of Korean experience you want. I know a lot of people who swear by the public school system, and there’s some good reasons to look at working in the government run program.
The most obvious is that it has the security of being a government initiative – but there are a few other key benefits as well. Public schools offer regular 9-5 hours, a decent amount of sick days (a luxury in Korea), and far more holiday time than a private school job generally will.
An average public school job tends to pay between 1,500,000 and 3,000,000 per month ($1200 – $2500 USD) depending on experience. Most public school jobs are done through EPIK – which has a long and involved application process and places teachers on a first come, first served basis.
Private schools (hagwons) are a mixed bag. You can luck out and find an absolutely fabulous school or you can be like my mate Drew and have two terrible schools in a row.
Hagwons tend to pay a little worse than the public schools (anywhere from 1,900,000 to 2,300,000 won) and offer hours that better suit a night owl. My first job ran from 1.30pm to 9.30pm and my second ran from 2.30pm to 7.30pm. They will offer less holiday time than a public school and only occasionally have a set syllabus.
Be prepared to do a lot of lesson planning.
I personally prefer the hagwon experience, but it’s not perfect. A lot of it hinges on your boss – so don’t hesitate to do a little research and see what others have to say about the school. A bad boss can utterly ruin your Korean experience, so it’s in your best interests not to just blindly accept the first position that is offered to you.
I found this out the hard way in 2011, and had to do a midnight run to get out of a toxic workplace.
A good place to check is the Korean Black List, but don’t let the list frighten you. Bear in mind that sometimes the problem is the teacher and they’re just too narrow minded to see it. Don’t let all of the nay-sayers and the ‘I hate Korea’ brigade turn you off.
As for what you’re looking for, that all depends on what you want. The two options offer different holiday packages, pay rates, and hours. What you want to take out of Korea is going to play a big part in which you lean. Regardless, the key things to look for are:
- Pay: Aim for at least 1,800,000 won. If you’ve got experience, you can aim a little higher.
- Holidays: Make sure the job offers at least 10 working days of vacation a year. This is standard.
- Flights: Most Korean schools will pay for your round trip to Korea. Some will ask you to pay this up front and will reimburse you. This is fine, although obviously them organizing it is better for your bottom line.
- Apartment: All Korean jobs will provide you with a furnished single apartment. Make sure it’s close to your school. If it’s not, make sure it’s near public transport.
- Medical Insurance: It’s a government requirement that your school pays 50% of the cost of your medical insurance.
- Number of other teachers: It’s a scary thing stepping into a classroom for the first time, so it helps to know there are others there. Current or past employees also offer the best idea of what the school is like.
- Number of students per class: I’ve taught anywhere between 2 and 16 students at a time. Anything more than that can be a bit unmanageable in a hogwan, but public school classes are generally around the 30 mark.
- Age of students: This is a big one. If you’re not comfortable teaching 4 year olds to speak English from scratch, don’t take the job!
Applying for a Job
Whether you’re going through a recruiter or you’re directly approaching the school from their ad, you’ll need to submit an application. I’m only going to cover the process from the perspective of a private school, but a lot of these steps will also apply to a public school application.
Your resume should be clear and concise. Bear in mind that a Korean employer will need to read it, so don’t be too wordy. Some potential employers speak fantastic English and might have studied abroad, but others have a far more basic level of understanding. Don’t turn them off with a confusing resume.
Highlight your relevant teaching experience or, if you don’t have any, make a point of highlighting desirable traits you might have developed from your past employment and studies. These include conflict resolution, working in a team environment, creativity, past publications (even if they were in a local newsletter or college paper), working with children, and working with other cultures. Even a call centre job can look good if you word it right.
You’ll also need to send along a photograph of yourself. Since you aren’t likely to interview with your actual employer and definitely won’t do it in person if you do, this is going to be a potential employer’s first (and potentially only) way to form an impression of you. Make sure you look presentable in the photo (clean shaven, hair done, no visible piercings or tattoos, well dressed).
It’s also worth including a brief cover letter explaining why you want to teach in Korea and why you think you will be a good teacher. Again, keep this simple enough to read while highlighting your relevant experience and skills. Be passionate! No potential employer wants to hear that you’re in it for the money or that you’d ‘really like to meet a Korean girl’.
A final, but optional, step is to also create and attach a video interview. This is something that more and more recruiters are asking for and I think it is a fantastic idea. I’ve included mine here for you to take a look at. Mine isn’t a great example, but it got the job done.
Even if you don’t interview with your prospective employer, chances are you’ll be having at least one interview with a recruiter. If the job you’re gunning for is particularly prestigious or cushy, you might have more than one interview as they look to narrow down their field of options.
The interview can be a little daunting, but it doesn’t need to be. I’ve done quite a few myself and had quite a few offers as a direct result of my interview technique – so I’m going to offer you a few pointers.
- Be passionate: As far as a recruiter is concerned, you are passionate about everything. You are excited to experience Korean culture, you are passionate about teaching English, and you are passionate about working with children. Believe this and make them believe it.
- Be articulate: Try and cut down on the umming and aahing. You’ll be teaching people to speak English, so it’s not a good look if you can’t speak it yourself!
- Speak slowly: A lot of recruiters and employers are Korean and they might not be accustomed to the way we tend to rush through our sentences. Speak slowly but naturally. Don’t talk to them as if they’re deaf and you’re letting them lip read.
You’re going to get asked a few stock questions such as “Why do you want to teach in South Korea?”, “Give us one example of a situation where you have had to deal with a communication barrier” and “What is your best/worst feature”. Prepare for these. Do a little research on South Korean culture.
Every interview is going to be different, but if you do a little research and a little preparation – you’re going to do fine.
Understanding Your Contract
If all goes to plan, you’re going to be receiving your first job offer before too long. This is an exciting moment, but don’t just leap in with both feet. Go back to my list of things to look for in a school and make sure that the contract you’ve been emailed ticks all of the boxes.
Don’t get too bogged down in the wording of it, often it’s been written by a non native speaker and isn’t brilliantly edited, but make sure the basics are there.
In addition to the things listed above make sure that you’re getting national holidays off; that your apartment comes with basic furnishings (TV, washing machine, bed, microwave, and gas range are the main ones); and that there are no deal breakers such as lengthy unpaid training, weekend hours, or bizarre requirements.
If you are feeling nervous about it, have a lawyer friend or somebody with experience look over it for you. At the end of the day a written contract in Korea doesn’t mean quite as much as it would here – so don’t spend hours fretting over it. At the end of the day, more of your Korean experience is going to depend on your own relationship with your boss than the wording of your contract.
Once you find and accept a job, be prepared for things to move fast. Things are done a little differently in the land of kimchi and soju, so often they’re hiring for a position that needs to be filled within a month.
Unless you’ve got some Korean in your family, you’re going to be going to Korea on an E-2 visa. Some employers might try to get you to come over on a tourist visa and then get your E-2 when you get there, but if they want you to do some teaching on your tourist visa, this is illegal. It’s not unheard of, but if you’re not comfortable with it, don’t do it.
Bear in mind that applying for a visa from South Korea involves a two or three day trip across to Japan to collect your visa. If you are required to do this – make sure your employer pays for it. Occasionally you might have to meet your employer halfway – so make sure they cover the cost of getting to Japan. If you have to pay for accommodation, there are plenty of cheap options. I’ll post an entry on the Japanese visa run another time.
The requirements for an E-2 visa change pretty regularly, but the below are correct at the time of writing:
- A photocopy of your passport: This needs to be valid for at least another year. If it’s not, you need to arrange this ASAP.
- A copy of your resume.
- Two sets of academic transcripts in sealed envelopes. This is your University seal, and does not just mean the envelope is closed. Request this specifically when ordering your transcripts.
- A notarized copy of your degree with an apostille.
- A signed copy of your contract.
- Five passport sized photos of you.
- A signed health statement
- An apostilled criminal record check.
Most of these are simple enough to obtain. The health check runs through pretty basic things and is there to ensure you’re not disease riddled or a risk to children. Feel free not to declare any minor mental health issues such as anxiety or OCD if you believe it won’t impact your work. South Korea is, sadly, quite a way behind the rest of the world in understanding mental illness.
Criminal Record Check
Obtaining a criminal record check differs from country to country, so I’m only going to cover the Australian process. Visit the website of the Australian Federal Police and click on the What We Do link at the top of the page. On the left hand side a menu will appear, select Police/Criminal history checks, and follow the prompts from there.
Print out the form, fill it out, attach a copy of your passport or driver’s license, and post it off with the required amount of money as a money order. These can be arranged at the post office. The cost of the check you are after is $42. The reason code you need to list on the form is 33. It generally takes two weeks to get back your check.
As for getting your documents notarized, this requires finding and visiting a Justice of the Peace. To find one, locate the relevant state listing on here. It takes all of two minutes for them to witness something or sign it, but call ahead and make sure they’re going to be free to see you before just heading over.
An apostille is a new requirement but it’s easy enough to arrange. The Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade website has details on how and where to obtain one. It costs $60 per document apostilled, so you’re looking at $120 to get things witnessed. Your school won’t cover this.
Mailing Your Visa Application
Once all of your documents are in order you’ll need to send them by express (Fed Ex or DHL) to your employer so they can begin the visa process. Once things on their end are in order, you’ll be sent a visa number. You’ll need to take this in to the nearest Korean embassy along with your passport and the required fee. Last time I arranged one it was $80. This is, again, your responsibility – although a particularly nice employer might pay it for you. But don’t expect (or demand) this. It’s a standard cost of getting to Korea. Given they are paying for your accommodation and flights – a couple of hundred dollars out of your end isn’t so bad.
This will take a few days and then you’ll be able to go back and collect your passport complete with visa. Congratulations! You’re almost done!
What to Pack for South Korea
Packing for your year in South Korea can be a bit of a stressful experience. You’re basically condensing your life into 20kgs of checked luggage. It’s not cheap to ship additional things to South Korea (you cannot do surface mail from Australia, so you’re looking at paying for air mail) – but don’t stress if you’re headed over in winter and can’t fit your summer clothes. You’ll be saving enough money over there that you’ll be able to afford to ship some clothes if need be.
I’m not going to give you a blow by blow list of what to take with you. The few things I will suggest are ones that, through experience, I have learned are quite difficult to track down in Korea unless you’re based in Seoul and able to befriend a member of the US military to acquire it for you.
- Bring deodorant – it’s not cheap or easy to find in Korea.
- Bring your own condoms – it’s a stereotype, but wearing a Korean condom is akin to wearing a tank top.
- Ladies should bring tampons as they’re not common in South Korea.
- Bring your camera!
- Bring photos from home. They’re a great conversation starter.
- Bring a few small touches of home. Your apartment will be a scary place for a little whole, and having a few pictures or items from home can make all of the difference.
There’s a wonderfully detailed list available at this site for you to peruse. Don’t panic if you can’t fit it all. Korea isn’t a third world country and you can find a lot of things there or have them shipped if the need arises. There are a lot of foreigner groceries that will have foods that you’ll be missing, and the larger cities have ‘large size’ outlets at which you can buy regular sizes.
I’m sure I’ve missed a thing or two, so don’t hesitate to ask a question if you’re unsure of anything. There is a wealth of information out there on the topic, and if you’re going through a recruiter than it’s part of their job to help you get to Korea. Don’t be afraid to ask them questions if you’re not sure of anything. The aforementioned Dave’s ESL Cafe and Korea Bridge also have discussion forums if you want to start a dialogue.
Below you can find some links to recruiters that I’ve had experience with. Good luck!
- Footprints Recruiting: I have had a really wonderful experience with these guys. Footprints have a big network that includes China, eastern Europe, the Middle East, and South America. They’re very hands on and great to work with.
- Teach ESL Korea: Dan is another former Gwangju native who has helped a lot of friends find good jobs in South Korea.
- ASK Now: One of the best known recruiters, although from my experience their size counts against them. They typically take a long time to get back to you, so it might be best to look elsewhere.
- Dave’s ESL Cafe: The go to place for all of your ESL teaching information and discussion.
- Korea Bridge: A rising star for ESL teaching in Korea. Has job boards and discussions.
- Go Overseas: A fantastic resource about living, studying, and working overseas.
Looking to find a job teaching in China? Adventures Around Asia has you covered.