How to Teach English Happily (and Legally)

by Brendan Monroe

Teaching English is big business, and it can also be a lot of fun… under the right circumstances. If you love traveling, teaching English is your ticket to go just about anywhere! The majority of companies these days require their employees to learn English, just another reason why English teachers are in such demand these days, from Bali to Rome, Buenos Aires to Shanghai, you are wanted and desired!

A group of friends abroad

However, as excited as you undoubtedly are about moving to another country and experiencing a new lifestyle for the next six months or more, it is important not to let your eagerness to travel get in the way of asking the important questions when it comes to choosing the right school to work for.

With so many schools, the right one is just around the corner, but how do you find the perfect teaching job abroad for you?

A lot of it depends on where you want to go and how easy it is to obtain the right to work (aka a visa).

Do I need a Visa?

Europe is and always has been a hot destination for potential English teachers, and why not? When you’ve Paris, London, Berlin, St. Petersburg, and so many other world class cities crammed into the same continent, there’s bound to be a feeding frenzy! But teaching English in The Old World is a bit different than teaching elsewhere.

The European Union makes it possible for the citizen of any E.U. country to work in another E.U. country. This is great for British nationals as they can jet over to Spain and work, and already have nearly all the documentation they need in place, but it’s quite another thing if you’re coming from North America. The convenient language schools that assemble all the necessary documents and visa materials for you, like those in China or South Korea, are much harder to find in Europe, so you'll have to do the necessary research yourself.

Schools may attempt to lure you in with the promise that once you’ve arrived your visa will be taken care of, only to inform you, three months after you’ve started working, that securing a visa isn’t possible in your case and that they’ll have to pay you “under the table.” But what exactly does that mean?

Working “under the table,” or simply “nero” (black) in Italian, means that there’s officially no record of you working in a particular country. If you receive all your payments in cash at the end of each month in a little white envelope, this likely means that you are “working under the table.” During your teaching experience, regardless of where that takes you, you will surely meet many people who are working in this way; although many of them face few problems, there are still some who have unfortunate problems arise.

What if I don’t get a Visa?

Finding an apartment can be a challenge as many landlords require official papers to ensure that you are in the country legally. A U.S. Passport won’t cut it here because it only allows you a stay of three months in any particular country within the E.U., though other countries may vary.  Chances are you’ll be living abroad longer than three months, so you will need proper documentation to find a place. Further issues arise if you at some point need medical care or any other form of government assistance. Even if you manage to get through your stay unscathed by your illegality, you will still have to go through immigration in the end and your passport stamp dating back to last August is going to require some explaining when you exit in May.

All of this isn’t meant to scare you, only to emphasize the importance of choosing a school that isn’t going to hang you out to dry when it comes to giving you visa support, especially as that is indicative of the school’s character and the length with which they are willing to go to accommodate you. With as many schools as there are, eventually you will find one that’s right for you, so don’t think after one or two “sketchy” interviews that you just have to cave in and forgo the possibility of working legally. Instead, stick with it and ask the important questions, such as those outlined below:

Will you offer me support in getting a visa? Honesty is always the best policy, so just coming out and saying something straight can’t hurt, especially if it provides the best possibility of gauging your potential employer’s thoughts and feelings on visa matters.

What documents do I need in order to obtain a visa? Always cross check this with your own research, that way you know your school is on the same page and has really done their homework. If you’ve just spoken to the Italian Embassy and they tell you that you need ‘x’, ‘y’, and ‘z’ but your potential school doesn’t make mention of any of these things, then it might be a red flag.

Is there another teacher I can talk to who went through the visa process, who can explain it to me? This varies according to the size of the school, but if it’s a relatively established school you’re likely not the first person they’ve hired who has undergone the process. Alumni teachers hold valuable information not only about the visa process, but about payment methods and the general experience of teaching at the particular school or location.

Does the school have a website? It’s the 21st Century and if your school doesn’t have a working, functional website then they likely aren’t going to have a working, functional plan on how to get you your visa. It isn’t always the case of course, but it’s a good overall indicator to access before your interview.

Ensuring you can obtain the appropriate visa isn't necessarily the most fun part about teaching abroad, but it is a necessity to having a wonderful, worry-free teach abroad experience.