For some time now I’ve been thinking about all the things I wish someone had told me about before I chose to teach and live overseas.

Not only are there many things I wish I could have been warned about, and given some things to think over and research, before starting my first contract but also things that expat teachers who teach beyond a one year ‘tour of duty’ or ‘tourist-vacation-teaching’ need to know as they move on to new jobs/second contracts/multiple contracts . . .

Something that I’ve now experienced that I didn’t give enough thought and research to is when an expat teacher changes countries after spending multiple years in one country and education system.  The application process, work visa process, and several other issues are written about in this post.

Anyways, I’m sure there are several items that are not mentioned below.  I invite other long-term expat teachers to add to this post comments, items I’ve missed, and their own two-cents of hard-learned experience about the things we have all dealt with while living and teaching overseas.


1. Make a short term and long term financial plan.

Short Term

Decide how much money you will send home each month and stick to it.

Do not assume you will only stay for one year–many teachers change their minds.

Long Term

a) Think about what you need/want to do after you finish your time living and teaching overseas–then think about how much it will cost you to get home, ship everything you’ve accumulated, etc.

NOTE: It’s important to remember you CAN’T TAKE “IT” WITH YOU! Everything you buy once you’re in the country you move to will likely not be something you can put in a suitcase and take with you on the airplane.  You can ship stuff home via container ship or air mail but keep in mind the costs and research these things when making major purchases or many small purchases when nesting in your new apartment.

b) Consider your cost of living for at least 6 months (and save this amount!) after arriving back in your home country until you find a new job and place to live.

2. Before leaving your home country make digital scans of every document you might possibly be asked to submit for your job.

Research the work visa application process.

50 days to China . . . the invitation letters arrive.

3. Before leaving your home country get extra copies of the following documents.

a) original university degree (have one original at home, one original with you)

b) university transcripts (bring at least 3 extra SEALED copies, and if possible bring a half dozen because they will save you time, money, and shipping if you need them when applying for your next job)

c) criminal background check

4. a) Before choosing a recruiter do your research! Look for EFL/ESL teacher bloggers who have been living and teaching overseas for years and ask them if they can refer you to a reputable recruiting website/company/recruiter.  Do not just use the first item that comes up on a Google search.

b) Before accepting a job do your research! Use search engines like Google and Yahoo for multiple key words related to the school/institute/center/university that has offered you a job.  Use a metasearch engine like . . . do your research!

5.  Before leaving your home country get 2-3 copies of your primary documents notarized.

a) university degree

b) university transcripts

c) criminal background check

NOTE: There may be other documents the job and country require.

6. Find out how you can apply to get a criminal background check done from OUTSIDE of your home country, and how long it takes to complete.

7. Before beginning your job search find out how much each fee will be during the paper work/visa process.

a) Getting a copy of your university degree

b) Getting university transcripts

c) Getting a criminal background check

d) Sending documents to your employer overseas by FEDEX, Purolator, etc

e) Getting a medical check done in your home country

f) Getting a second medical check done after you arrive in the country you’ll be working in (yes, even after submitting a medical check from a doctor in your home country you’ll usually be asked for have another done in the new country)

Today I renewed my E2 Visa for a 5th year in Korea without any problems—OTIKE!!!

g) Getting vaccinations

h) Getting an apostillee letter (if applicable)

South Korea E2 Visa — frustrations getting my criminal background check (the sensitive position one) and notarized degree stamped to send to Korea…

8. Find out about airplane ticket contract conditions

a) Does the employer pay for your ticket to the new country?

b) Does the employer pay for the WHOLE ticket price, or just a part of it?

c) Does the employer ask you to pay for the ticket and then reimburse you? How much of the ticket will they reimburse? How long does it take to get the reimbursement? (Do NOT trust the amount of time you are told for reimbursement.)

d) Does the employer pay for your ticket to go home at the end of the contract? If so, how much of the ticket cost do they pay for?

9. Before you go to the airport weigh your luggage.

10. Before you pack do a search for what items are easy to find and available, not expensive to buy, and/or what items are hard to find (or impossible) and expensive to buy.

Before Coming to Teach English in Korea–Things to Bring with You on the Plane

11. For women, do research on what kinds/brand names of birth control are available and if there are any special conditions required to purchase them (e.g. visit a doctor first, get a prescription).

12. If you plan on driving while overseas get an international license.  Research what the process is, and how much the fees are, to get a license in the new country you will be living in.

13. Research what over-the-counter medications are legal in the new country and then plan on what you will bring with you on the plane.

a) anti-nausea meds

b) anti-diarrhea meds

c) Neosporin

d) headache and fever meds

e) cold/flu/cough

14. Before you leave your home country get at least a dozen (yes, 12!) extra passport photos made to take with you. If it is very expensive in your home country to get official passport photos made then consider just having a ‘passport style photo’ done and get copies that are the official size (and that follow as many of the rules for passport photos as possible) made and printed at Walmart or somewhere that can do them cheaply.

Some countries and immigration/custom/government departments require official passport pictures and others will let you use pictures you took of yourself in a coin operated photobooth . . . often it seems that in spite of the rules stating explicitly that the pictures ‘must’ be passport type pics the practice is anything but that . . . but with everything overseas be prepared for some places to demand the real thing and others to not care.

15. Discuss and organize with family and friends who will be willing to send care packages to you of things you cannot get in the new country.

16.  Do research on shipping fees from your home country to the new country, and from the new country back to your home country. 

17. Do research on how reliable the new country’s shipping and mail system is because you may find that your item is a) lost, b) damaged a little, c) damaged a lot, and d) the packaging (and contents) are destroyed.

Also be aware that the box/package can and may be opened by customs AND your employer without your knowledge and/or permission!

18. Do research about housing conditions with your employer and the contract.

Foreign/Native English Teacher Apartments in South Korea — Videos of a wide range of sizes, quality, and conditions.

19. Do research about housing conditions and the country’s cultural expectations/taboos.

20 Do research about housing conditions and the country’s laws. DO NOT ASSUME that the laws will be enforced–especially for expats.

21. If you are LGBT, do research about the country’s culture and social norms, laws, and how your employer/land lord/and others will treat you.

22. Before you get on the plane research the general air quality conditions of the new country and/or region you’re going to be living in.  For example, if heading to China you may be putting yourself at risk if you have asthma or any kind of respiratory condition or illness.

23. Before you leave your home country find out the availability of any medications you need access to regularly.

24.  Research the quality of medical care according to western cultural standards and expectations in the new country/region you will be living in.

H1N1 and visiting a South Korean Hospital — Do NOT pick your nose and then hand out sterile masks!

The Nurse Who Could Speak English — Visit to Seoul National University Hospital International Foreigner Clinic

New Foreign English Teachers in Korean Public Schools — Health and Homesickness in Korea

Visiting a Korean Emergency Room — Gangwon National University Teaching Hospital: a nurse gave Julianne a needle full of “red stuff” tonight . . .

First hospital trip in Changsha, Hunan, China — “You wanna do WHAT with that?! Uh-UH! We’re outa here!”

25. Register with your country’s embassy in case of an emergency/war and evacuation.

26. If your passport must be renewed while you’re overseas find out how you can renew it while in the new country, how much it costs to do it, and how long it takes to do it.

27. Do a search for “What it’s like to live and teach in _____?”  Look for blogs, expat forums, message boards, and articles about the living and teaching conditions in the new country/region you are considering.

What’s it like for native English teachers/expats to live in Changsha, Hunan, China?

The End of Your First Contract

1. Get a Proof of Employment” letter from each employer you work for while overseas.  Make a digital scan of it. Make photocopies of it.  If you plan on changing employers, and especially changing countries, you will likely need it during the next employer/country paperwork process.

2. Get a reference letter from at least 2 supervisors at your place of employment.  Ask for at least 3 original copies that are also signed.  Make a digital scan of them.  Make photocopies of them.

3. Begin the process of getting a new criminal background check early enough that you’ll have it finished and ready for when you need it for the next contract/employer/country.

4. Research if it is possible to get documents notarized within the country you are now living and working.  Find out what the fees are.

Living and Teaching Overseas

1. Talk to family and friends before you go and explain to them that you need their support while you are 10,000 kilometers away (more or less) from them in a culture that may be the complete opposite of your own.  Set up how often you will call (Skype is free computer to computer), how often you will email each other, etc.

2. Expect that you will discover who your ‘real friends’ back home are when you live overseas.

Different time zones and distance often are more challenging than you can imagine.  Also, people who have never been outside their home country cannot imagine or understand what you will be going through.  They will likely not understand why it’s so important to keep in touch, and make efforts to maintain a relationship/friendship with you.

3. Expect that missing birthdays, weddings, births, deaths, and other major events in your family and friends’ lives will cause you homesickness, stress, and unhappiness.  Make a plan and develop strategies to help you manage your feelings and stress.

4. Expect your employer (the majority, anyways) will not be sympathetic to homesickness and personal issues.  If a relative dies, unless it’s an immediate family member you will likely not be given time off to go home for the funeral.  For example, if your grandfather or grandmother, uncle or aunt, die you will likely not be given time off to fly home for the funeral.

5. Start a blog and write stories and upload pictures about your adventures and experiences overseas.  Be careful, however, not to use the blog as a place to vent about anything and everything.  Keep in mind that current employers and future employers (overseas and back home) will be able to see what you write and the pictures you post.

2010 Lotus Lantern Festival Saturday Evening — Mini-concert in front of Jogye Temple

Nighttime in China Street Scene – Shirtless, Beer, Snacks, and Girlwatching . . . this is China! II

6. Be cautious in what you write and what pictures you upload onto social networking sites like Facebook.  If a student hacks your Facebook wall and you’ve been posting all the extremely negative thoughts and feelings you may have about culture shock and the people you work with, students you teach, etc . . . you may find yourself on a plane going home.

Also be wary of friending students on Facebook.  Cross-cultural awareness and English language and cultural background info are often poor in the students you’ll be teaching; all it takes is one status update that a student you’ve friends misunderstands and shows to his/her peers, parents, and possibly other teachers you work with and you could find yourself terminated and sent home.

7. Western cultural teaching professionalism does not exist overseas.  This may seem like a gross over-generalization–try living overseas in multiple countries and then reconsider that perspective. Remember this and try to avoid using words like “should,” “should never,” “why” and more.

Cultural Taboos and Native English Teachers in South Korean Public Schools

What’s it like to teach English in a high school in Seoul, South Korea?

EFL/ESL Native Teacher Schedules in Korean Public Schools — Day 9 of the semester and I still don’t have a ‘permanent’ class schedule…nice.

Foreign/Native English teacher first day of spring/summer semester back at school — a detailed account

8. Western cultural education ethics should not be applied when working overseas.  Cheating, for example, is often an institutionally accepted reality in the education system of many countries.  Officially, it is forbidden, but in practice there will often be a ‘look the other way’ unofficial policy that everyone but you knows about and follows willingly and/or unwillingly.

9. Be willing to invest a little money in teaching resources and supplies.  These things will help you do your job better, reduce your stress, and help you to get your next contract too.

“Must Have Books” for EFL/ESL University Instructors

List of EFL/ESL teaching methodology, lesson plans, games and activities, and cultural background books in my personal teaching library

What are good EFL/ESL lesson plan, activity, game, resource books for teaching English in a Korean high school? – Here’s my list.

10.  Learn and know what your signs are that it’s time to go home, change countries and cultures, or make some kind of changes in your living and teaching conditions.

How do you know when it’s time to leave Korea? — Julianne and Jason are going to China, WOO!

11.  Remember that you will need to ask for reference letters at the end of your contract.  Use this simple fact to calm yourself down when something happens that makes you angry or upset.  If you say or do something that upsets the person you’ll be asking to write you a reference letter at the end of your contract–you may find it difficult to get that letter due to something that may, or may not, have been worth expressing your anger or being upset with them about whatever situation you found yourself in.

12. Expect that your housing conditions will be different than back home, and that there will be surprises.

Bugs and Apartment Life in South Korea – A giant cockroach visited my girlfriend today . . . no, really.

Foreign/Native English Teacher Apartments in South Korea — Videos of a wide range of sizes, quality, and conditions.

Because almost stepping on a dead rat barefoot first thing in the morning is fun–NOT

12. Expect that banking will be different and possibly like nothing you can imagine.

What’s it like exchanging money and doing an international money transfer at a bank in China?

13.  Be aware that in many countries it is possible for your visa sponsor and/or work supervisor to stop you from leaving the country with a phone call.  Also be aware that some places have set up automatic messages that let your visa sponsor and/or work supervisor know that you are at the airport waiting for a flight–and that they can stop you from leaving.

If you end up in a workplace and living conditions that are beyond what you can tolerate and need to leave the country . . . not knowing that you can be stopped at the airport can make leaving impossible until you have the permission of your visa sponsor and/or work supervisor.  In many cases they will not let you go until they have found a replacement, paperwork has been completed, money has been paid for legitimate reasons (and non-legitimate! some teachers find themselves forced to pay a bribe to get out of the country), etc.

NOTE: In places like Saudi Arabia,  you are a woman and married, you must have written permission from your husband to leave the country.

The End of Living and Teaching Overseas

1. Research what documents your home country employers need/want when you apply for a position after living and teaching overseas.

2. If you have pets find out what medical records they must have to get on the airplane.  What vaccinations are required and how much they cost to get? Where can you get these things done in the country/region you are in? For example, in China I saw a friend go through hell to get these things done.

3. If you have pets find out how much it costs to get them to your home country.  It could be THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS.  If you don’t consider this before adopting a pet you’ll then have to either find someone to take them from you and/or give them to an animal shelter.