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6 Things I Wish I Knew Before Teaching English in Korea

Are you considering teaching English in South Korea? With an abundance of English teaching positions in Asia, you have a choice of a few different countries. Korea is at the top of many lists for a variety of reasons. In this article, seasoned English teacher CJ Haughey, otherwise known as The Digital Crusader, offers his expert advice for anyone wanting to teach English in South Korea. Below, he shares the six things he wishes he knew before teaching in Korea.

You can also teach English online to Korean students using different platforms if you want to be more of a digital nomad. Just read some of the best books about South Korea before you go so that you’re prepared for your trip.

Did You Get Travel Insurance Yet?

The Insurance companies I recommend are Hey Mondo and Safety Wing

Hey Mondo is great if you are looking for a great value flexible policy. They offer single-trip cover, annual multi-trip cover, and long-term travel cover. Safety Wing is great value, with monthly coverage starting at $39. It’s super easy to use, and it just renews each month. I currently use them as they offer me free cover for my son as part of my policy.

Read my full travel insurance post here, where I go into detail about all companies. 

Teaching English in Korea: What to Know About Being an English Teacher in Korea

So, You Want to Be an ESL Teacher?

Teaching English in Korea is easy. It’s so cheap there, you’ll make a fortune! You can go out all the time, eat out, party, and still save a ton of money!

A simple internet search on the life of an English teacher in South Korea will reveal posts aplenty laced with promises such as this. It’s no wonder the “Land of the Morning Calm” has long been the undisputed king of the ESL (teaching English as a Second Language) industry. Teaching in South Korea is one of the best ways to work and travel the world—it’s the perfect way to launch your digital nomad life.

6 Things I Wish I Knew Before Teaching English in Korea

The Dream

The vast majority of newbies going to teach in South Korea are fresh out of university. Many have a totally unrelated degree with little to no knowledge of how to teach, let alone how to teach one of the most complex languages in the world to Korean children.

I set out to Korea in August 2015 to earn my golden ticket, lured by the prospects of saving $20,000 in one year and believing that in 12 short and easy months, I’d be living my real dream of a Latin American slow-travel odyssey.

The Reality

Over two years later, I’ve finally made it to South America. Looking back now, I can see what teaching English in South Korea is really like. In the hope of saving you from some of the problems I had, here are six things you should know before teaching in South Korea.

Quick Tip: Book accommodation, tours, and transport ahead of time online to save money and stress. 
Best Korea ToursClick here to check out the top Korea tours
Best Korea Accommodation: Click here to check out the best accommodation in Korea
Best Korea Transport: Click here to book a bus, ferry, or train in Korea

Teach English South Korea: 6 Things I Wish I Knew Before Going

1. If You Teach in South Korea at a Public School, You Could End Up Anywhere!

The English Program in Korea (EPIK) is the most popular choice for becoming an English teacher in Korea and, in my opinion, the best choice to teach English abroad for the first time. The one (reasonably large) catch to their system is that you could be placed almost anywhere in the country. Yes, you can narrow it down somewhat by listing your preferred cities or provinces on the application form. However, that isn’t always guaranteed to happen.

6 Things I Wish I Knew Before Teaching English in Korea

If you apply late, you should prepare to go rural—really rural! You might even get placed on an island like the beautiful Jeju, Korea’s version of Hawaii. Also in the running is Ulleungdo, a beautiful but sparsely-populated, rocky home of many aging Koreans and less than five Westerners.

On one hand, this may encourage you to learn Korean faster and save more money. You’ll get an experience quite unlike your friends in Seoul and will grow immensely from it. On the other hand, you might spend more money going to the big city to meet up with other English speakers every weekend. Either that or turn into “The Crazy Teacher from the Island.”

2. You Might Get More Than One School

One of the main reasons I chose to teach English in Korea over the main ESL rivals of Taiwan and Vietnam was that I wanted to have just one workplace—as a newbie, I felt one school would be plenty.

Imagine my surprise at orientation to discover I would have four schools rather than one! Again, this was a side-effect of a late application. Rural areas have small schools, and one alone will struggle to satisfy the demands of the EPIK contract.

6 Things I Wish I Knew Before Teaching English in Korea

Even in Seoul and Busan, it isn’t unheard of to teach at several schools. Get used to several commute routes, especially long ones, if you live in rural Korea. I endured two-hour bus rides (each way) every Wednesday and Friday to my most rural schools.

As the old saying goes, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade! By that, I mean you don’t have to let all your time go to waste just because you’re stuck using public transport. That gives you plenty of opportunities to read books, listen to inspiring podcasts, or brush up on your teaching plan.

3. Korean Alcohol is Terrible

You’ve probably heard wonders of how great soju is because it’s cheap and you can get it everywhere. This is true—it costs less than $2 at most Korean convenience stores.

Here’s something all those other blogs about teaching English in Korea don’t tell you: soju is cheap because it tastes like liquid soap! It’s awful the moment you taste it and much worse the next morning. Thankfully, there’s a wide range of fruit flavors that are better than the original (I recommend apple).

What’s worse is that most of the beer in Korea sucks, and it’s hard to find bars that serve wine by the glass.

Before you think this is a total boo-fest, I’ll let you know that it is possible to find good craft beers, foreign imports, spirits, and wine in big cities if you look hard enough. The issue is that these options are more expensive—as a result, teaching English in South Korea might not be the goldmine you hoped for.

4. You Can Save Money Teaching in Korea, But at What Cost?

Let’s put the record straight on this one: in Korea, whether you work for a private academy or a public school, you’ll earn around $2,000 USD every month. Most opportunities to teach English in South Korea offer rent-free living and even help pay for flights, so expect to earn about $24,000 each year.

Stories of people saving $15,000 or $20,000 are amazing, and I don’t doubt the honesty of such tales. However, after living as an English teacher in Korea for a year, I have to wonder what it took to bank that much!

Yes, you get some bonuses at the end of your teaching contract that will make your savings look more robust, but you’d have to follow a strict weekly budget. If you want to shop and cook like I did, expect to pay $60-80 to fill your cupboards for a week. Eating out is cheap, and if you can live without quality alcohol (or any booze at all), then it’s quite doable.

However, if you live in the city, you’re sure to develop other interests and a thriving social life. You may eat out more, go to events, join clubs, and be tempted by shops and entertainment options on a regular basis.

6 Things I Wish I Knew Before Teaching English in Korea

On the other hand, if you live in a rural area, the monotony of small-town life can grind you down, and every few weeks, you’ll crave a taste of that big city life. A long weekend in Seoul can easily set you back $300 once you factor in transportation, accommodations, dining out, and more.

The bottom line is, if you want to save big money while you teach in Korea, prepare to make some sacrifices.

5. Personal Space is a Figment of Your Imagination

Korea is a busy place, especially in Seoul. With more people, naturally, you can expect some hustle and bustle, which comes as no surprise.

However, I wasn’t fully prepared for how busy the big cities are. Korean people are very kind, but there seems to be a universal disregard for personal space.

Young or old, complete strangers will think nothing of standing or walking incredibly close to you. So, expect your personal space to be encroached upon or even nonexistent during your time teaching in Korea.

6. Koreans Are (Sometimes Brutally) Honest

In many countries like the US and UK, if you leave your wallet or phone lying around in the wrong place, you can’t always be sure you’ll see it again. As someone who suffers from bouts of absent-mindedness, this is a situation I’ve found myself in more than once in Korea. In fact, I managed to misplace my wallet several times and my phone once!

I quickly learned that Korean culture values honor and honesty. Every time I retraced my steps to where I’d left my belongings, I’d find a happy, smiling face that returned my valuables, no questions asked.

It took me a while to fully grasp this, so, looking back on my early days, I probably came off as an untrusting foreigner, eyeing people with suspicion anytime they got close to me. Once you relax and realize that Korean people are not only very friendly and curious but also extremely honest, you will enjoy life here so much more.

Korea Travel Guide Planning

🚗 Where can I book bus or private transportation while I’m traveling?

I strongly recommend using Bookaway. You can book almost all transport in the major tourist destinations through them online. They don’t just cover buses they also cover shuttles, ferries, and private drivers.

🎫 Where can I buy tickets for museums, attractions, and tours?

I recommend either Viator or GetYour Guide. They have a lot of options!

👩‍⚕️ What is the best insurance to have while traveling?

I recommend using Heymondo for a great value policy. The app also offers you 24/7 Dr Chat. For Digital Nomads check out SafetyWing digital nomad insurance.

I have also written a blog post covering all my recommended travel insurance here

✈️ Any flight recommendations?

WayAWay offers you cheap flights with cashback. You can use this code CLAIRE22 to get 10% off. Otherwise Skyscanner or Expedia are my go-to flight searching platforms.

📱What do you use for internet connection while traveling?

I’m a big fan of personal WiFi devices and they have saved my ass so many times when traveling. I wrote a full review of the top travel WiFi devices you can read here. I personally use GlocalMe as I can either pop in a physical sim card or use their local carrier.

With regards to my phone connection, I use e-sims while traveling, so rather than having to swap out my regular sim card I can download the app and buy a virtual sim card. I recommend using eitherAirhub or Alosim. Both have great coverage of multiple countries and are very easy to use.

🛏️ What is the best platform to use for booking accommodation?

The 3 best platforms that I normally use are Booking.comHotels.com, and Expedia They offer great deals and multiple options. I always check all three to be sure of the best deals.

🛅 Do you have any luggage recommendations for traveling?

I do have a complete list of the best packing and luggage products that I recommend, you can check the list here. I’m currently traveling with this suitcase and this backpack. 

Do I Regret Teaching English in Korea?

Absolutely not!

Most of the gripes I had about going to teach in Korea were minor and took little away from the experience of a lifetime. Korea was everything I hoped for and more, and while the issues above would have been nice to know beforehand, you can only be so prepared before experiencing it for yourself. At least now, I can pass this valuable advice for teaching English in Korea along to anybody considering it.

Committing to a year as an English teacher in Korea will be one of the best experiences of your life, and for many, it can be the start of a career or a life abroad teaching English in various countries.

There are many stories that give you all the stardust and glitter about life in Korea but know that it isn’t always a walk in the park, and you aren’t guaranteed to leave with riches. No matter what happens though, you’ll struggle to find somewhere as safe or secure as Korea to launch your teaching adventures. In the end, it’s the perfect place to try teaching ESL for the first time.

CJ Haughey is a slow-traveling introvert whispering tips and tales about creating a location-independent lifestyle on his blog, The Digital Crusader. If you liked this post, then check out his Kickass Guide to Teaching in Korea for the full toolkit to launch your ESL career.

Considering teaching English in China? Read this!

Looking for other ways to make money to feed your travels? Read this!

This post was proofread by Grammarly.

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Kyu Lee

Thursday 26th of December 2019

Great post! I taught in South Korea for 3 years. You should read this book if you are interested in teaching and living in South Korea.

SOUTH KOREA: The Price of Efficiency and Success

AlexFW

Friday 21st of May 2021

How and where did you teach in South Korea? How many months are we allowed to stay there? Do we need a specisl visa?

Mike

Monday 8th of April 2019

So what's a realistic amount to save in a year for the average person who doesn't drink or go out a ton but would like to travel and go into the city one or two weekends a month? Maybe $500 a month savings? Are you teaching ESL in South America? That sounds amazing but many people have told me it's difficult to make enough money.

Claire Summers

Wednesday 10th of April 2019

Hi Mike, this was a guest post so I can't answer your questions. But I'm sure if you contact him he will be able to help you :-)