Given its beautiful and convenient network of riverside bike-ways, breathtaking views for mountain hikers, pristine beaches, world-famous cuisine, and fascinating language and culture, one need not be a K-pop fanatic to be interested in moving to South Korea. Though fifteen years ago foreigners were hard-pressed to find familiar foods or communities of friends, it did used to be much easier to find a university job. Now there are thriving communities of English teachers in every major city, and they can go to Costco buy cheese, Fritos, or whatever foods they miss from home. Naturally, this comes with skyrocketing job competition, and a government clamp-down on certain kinds of teaching positions for foreigners. Nonetheless, South Korea remains one of the most popular destinations for those looking to earn money teaching English abroad. Taking the average cost of living from the average teaching salary, it is possible to save several hundred dollars each month- unless one prefers to enjoy traveling the world (or the local bar-scene).
Unfortunately, many have begun job-hunting only to encounter some disappointing prejudices. For many North Americans, as long as they have a bachelor's degree and some qualifications for teaching English, there are countless schools that would hire them eagerly. However, recruiters and employers usually request a photo with an applicant’s resume, and are often less enthusiastic to interview equally-qualified people with darker skin. Also, many employers will want to do a Skype interview, and might even say directly that they want to hire someone with a standard American accent. That makes finding a position more difficult for people with the same qualifications from one of the commonwealth English-speaking countries. For anybody over the age of 40, it can be surprisingly difficult to find a teaching job; and for anybody from outside the prescribed list of native English-speaking countries (the UK, North America, Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand) , it may be next to impossible to find an English teaching position at a public school or academy.
Public schools and academies are the most common employers for English teachers in Korea. Academies are called “hagwons” and have the least stringent requirements for employees, as well as the lowest pay and least vacation time (one to two weeks). Citizenship from a native English-speaking country, a bachelor’s degree or the equivalent, and some qualification for teaching English will usually be enough to guarantee a job. Public schools offer slightly higher pay and more vacation than hagwons. They hire through the EPIK program, which requires a BA in education, a BA with some years of teaching experience, or a BA with a TESOL certificate of least 100 hours plus teaching practicum. There are also international schools, which will hire certified teachers with two years full-time teaching experience in their home country. They offer a few months of vacation, often with the highest salary of all teaching positions. University positions are the most sought-after, offering less pay but more vacation than international schools, with a fraction of the working hours. They also have very low turnover, which means people may have to pick up a hagwon job while waiting for an opening at a university. They also have the most stringent hiring requirements: almost always a masters degree, preferably with a focus in TESOL, plus two years teaching experience in public schools.
Those who find a job in South Korea must also be prepared for the hiring process, which can take up to a few months. The work visa requires a completed criminal background check before entering Korea, as well as a drug test and general health examination within a couple of weeks of arrival. Typically, applicants initially cover the cost of their own flight and then are reimbursed, and housing is usually provided, though people can ask to find their own if they wish. The flight home is also usually paid for by the school with the completion of a contract, along with one month’s salary as severance pay. Some schools may provide all of these perks, while the most desirable jobs may not provide any.
Though people have mixed experiences, and some have left schools mid-contract due to complications with employers, most will agree it is a great opportunity for anyone wanting to travel and save money. Many people go to Korea with debt from student loans and get it paid off within several years of frugal living. Many people leave Korea only to return again after finding it hard to match the quality of life they enjoyed there. Above all, the English teaching community in South Korea is an environment where people build their own social circles around shared interests, making connections with others from around the world, some of whom remain close friends for life. To say the least, it is a great adventure, and it will be most beneficial for those going in informed, with the right qualifications.