Do You Need ESL Certification to Teach English Abroad?

When I first starting thinking about writing this post, I was going to write about “countries that do and don’t require ESL certification for teaching English,” but it seems that things have changed a bit. Back when I was first looking for a job teaching ESL, that was a big thing. Current research (by which I mean a quick Google search) seems to show that there aren’t really any hard-and-fast rules about this.

But there are still several important things to consider.

You Need to Be Able to Legally Work in the Country

This is where those ESL certification programs could have come in handy. But this can vary widely. In Japan, for instance, Americans will need a 4-year degree to qualify for a working visa. It can be in any subject, and you don’t necessarily need to have teaching experience to legally get the visa. However, you’ll need a company to sponsor the visa, and some companies might have tighter restrictions.

Those who are married to a Japanese citizen and living in Japan on a spousal visa are also eligible to work. In that case, you can get a job teaching without the degree if there’s a company that’s willing to hire you. Since they don’t have to spend money sponsoring your visa, they may be more likely to take a chance on you.

Other countries have their own rules. Look up the country that interests you for more details about that, or check out Dave’s ESL Café, where you might be able to find good resources.

You Need a Company to Hire You

Each company is able to set its own hiring standards. Many of them use the ESL certification as a requirement because it lets them know that you have some background and training in teaching ESL, even if you don’t have a lot of experience. Chinese ESL schools in particular seem to favor this certification.

The question is whether it’s really a requirement or not.

When really pushed, you’re likely to see that the people doing the hiring don’t necessarily require the certification. If you have teaching experience – even just as a tutor – they’ll feel more confident about hiring you without the certification.

I’ve also heard of companies who “require” the certification hiring someone who does not have the certification, but then helping the individual get that piece of paper. I have to admit, it did sound a little shady, but I suppose it could get your foot in the door. I don’t have experience with this.

Hiring is almost always done on a case-by-case basis. If you’re a strong candidate, you’re likely to be hired with or without the ESL certification.

You May Get Better Jobs with Certification

Though it may not be required, the “better” (and higher-paying) schools prefer candidates who have a lot of experience and/or certification. Without the certification, your employment choices may be limited to large corporate chains that offer after-school lessons to kids. Nothing wrong with working for these types of companies, especially if you’re looking for someone to sponsor your visa. But these gigs tend to have lower pay. It will still be enough to live off of, but it’s almost always better to make more money.

In addition to the higher salaries, better schools sometimes offer a bit more flexibility when it comes to teaching. The large chains have a process. They’ll likely give you a set lesson plan that you need to follow. Other schools let you act more like a teacher, developing lessons that meet your students’ exact needs.

You Might Feel Better With the Training

Aside from legalities and making yourself more attractive to employers, you simply may feel better having gone through a specific training program. Getting up in front of a class of young children is difficult, but it can be particularly challenging for those who have never done anything like that. With the training provided in an ESL certification program, you might simply feel more confident about entering the classroom. That’s a big benefit.


If a lot of cases, you don’t really need ESL certification in order to get a job teaching English abroad. However, these training programs are a good move for some types of people. If you think you might need it in order to feel more secure and land a better position.

It all depends on the person. Think about whether it’s right for you.

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