English is not spoken too widely in the Land of Morning Calm, but that’s something that South Korean politicians want to change. While people working in hospitality are largely able to recite some English, South Korea has a mediocre ranking for proficiency worldwide, according to the English Proficiency Index.
With a high-performance economy and a booming tourism sector, South Korea’s natural beauty and modern metropolises are attractive enough in their own right. However, the country is attractive in another sense – it offers English teachers very decent wages, especially in comparison to other Asian countries.
South Korean educators are a discerning bunch, and you’ll need excellent credentials to get a work visa. However, with a comparatively cheap cost of living, and very decent wages, it’s entirely possible to put away decent savings while you try to improve verbal and written English in South Korea.
What do you need to teach English in South Korea?
So, before we talk about saving money by teaching English in South Korea, it’s important to establish how you get there in the first place.
Much like neighbouring Japan, South Korea operates a strict immigration policy. This is true for TEFL teachers as much as for anyone else, so it’s important to know what hoops you’ll need to jump through to land a teaching job in South Korea.
Firstly, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university, or college. That’s just the first part, though – you’ll also need TEFL certification from an accredited course provider. The industry standard is 120 hours, so it’s important to ensure you choose a course with at least those hours.
Also, you’ll need citizenship from an English-speaking country. These countries include the US, the UK, Ireland, New Zealand, Canada, Australia and South Africa.
Finally, you’ll need to pass a background check, showing a clean criminal record with no charges or convictions, as well as a health and drug test.
It’s a lot of admin to get through, sure, but the wages and experience on offer in South Korea makes it all worthwhile.
How much do TEFL teachers earn in South Korea?
Now, let’s get to the most crucial part of all – what can you earn in South Korea while teaching English?
First off: the currency in South Korea is the won. At the time of writing, 1 won is worth £0.00064, or $0.00076, so after your first pay slip, you can genuinely call yourself a millionaire!
Full-time English teachers on a permanent contract can expect a basic monthly salary of around ₩2 million – 2.5 million won (£1,280 – £1,600 / $1,670 – $2,000) per month.
The wider range goes from ₩1.6 million to ₩3.7 million ($1,350 to $3,100) per month, which is highly dependent on the institution you work for and your level of experience. For example, hagwons (private language schools) will in most cases pay the highest for first-time teachers (around ₩2.3 million or $2,000 per month), while public schools tend to offer more modest initial salaries (around ₩1.6 million or $1,350 to ₩2.3 million or $2,000).
It’s also worth considering the enormous benefits of teaching in South Korea. Many institutions will offer a signing bonus of ₩300,000 – about $230, or £192. More excitingly, free accommodation for teachers is extremely common, as well as a “severance” payment at the end of the school year, equivalent to around a month’s wage.
The average outgoings for a TEFL teacher
Let’s break it down in terms of what you’ll be spending your won on while you’re out teaching English in South Korea.
Though the wages don’t translate to mega-bucks, there’s plenty of opportunity to save, due to the relatively modest cost of living in South Korea. With excellent incentives for English teachers, there are huge savings you can make, and put into a pension, travel fund, or for anything else!
The huge advantage of working as an English teacher in South Korea? Your accommodation is free!
Generally speaking, institutions will sort accommodation out for you, whether it’s adjacent to the school/university, or in a city. With South Korean educational facilities hollering out for high-quality candidates, this is an excellent incentive.
In South Korea, income tax rate is extremely flexible based on your earnings. At the lowest end, it’s 6%, and it reaches 45% at the top bracket. Compared to income tax in other countries (20% in the UK between £12,571 and £50,270, 12%-22% in the US for equivalent salaries), that’s exceedingly low.
Essentially, that means more money in your pocket at the end of each month. As for pensions, KPMG states that “9 percent of an employee’s gross salary (4.5 percent contributed by the employer and 4.5 percent contributed by the employee)” goes towards a national pension fund.
Also, depending on the nation you’ve come from, you could be eligible to receive all of your pension contributions back before you leave South Korea. The National Pension Service of South Korea has all the information you’ll need to find out whether you’re able to take your pension back out once you’ve left.
Though accommodation is provided – by and large – for English teachers in South Korea, you’ll still have to spend a penny or two on keeping your flat heated, air conditioned and all the rest.
Let’s have a look at the cost of utilities in South Korea, and how they compare to US dollars and Pound Sterling.
For utilities such as electricity, heating, cooling, water, and garbage (for a regular apartment), you’re looking at an average outgoing of ₩174,540. That’s equivalent to $144.87, or £110.67 in British money. Meanwhile, a regular prepaid mobile tariff (per minute, local without discounts) is ₩165, $0.14/£0.10.
The internet costs, meanwhile, are cheap in comparison to the US, Canada or the UK. For a standard internet connection (60 Mbps, unlimited data, cable/ADSL), it costs about ₩26,914: that’s US $22.34, £16.93 in sterling.
South Korean food just happens to be some of the most delicious on the planet. Whether it’s street food or fine dining you’re after, South Korea has plenty to offer. You might have already tried Kimchi, Bibimbap or Japchae!
Thankfully, it’s also surprisingly cheap. A modestly-priced meal works out at the equivalent of $6.64, or just under a fiver in Pound Sterling. For more day-to-day stuff: a litre of milk costs $2.05, or £1.54. A loaf of bread? Glad you asked: it’s £1.86, or $2.87. A dozen eggs will cost less than $3-£3.
Fine, it’s not as cheap a grocery shop as you’d get in Vietnam or Thailand, for example, but it’s still pretty inexpensive to do a weekly grocery trip. If you’re going out for a beer, expect to spend the equivalent of just under £2.50 – Hite is the most popular brand.
As for transport? It’s great news whether you’re getting a bus within a city, or a cross-country train.
If you’re going one-way on public transport in the city, you’ll get change from the equivalent of £1. A monthly transport pass is likely to set you back as little as £33, or $45 in American dollars.
The crux? Transport in and around South Korea is incredibly cheap. On your downtime from teaching, you can travel the length and breadth of the southern part of the Korean peninsula and still save money at the end of the month.
If you’re pursuing a life of leisure outside the classroom, South Korea has it all, and at no great expense.
One of the biggest evening activities is their equivalent of Karaoke, named Noraebang. To rent out a “singing room” for an hour, it costs between 7,000 to 30,000 won – the equivalent of just under £20 at the top end.
Cafe culture in South Korea is absolutely massive. Lucky, then, that the average cappuccino costs about $3.75. Pubs and clubs are wildly popular, too, with a pint of beer costing even less than a cappuccino!
The South Koreans are also big into cycling and renting scooters to whizz past the beautiful scenery. Bike hire typically costs about 3,000 won an hour, which works out at just under £2.
There’s a litany of other stuff to do – as we’ve covered, street food is really cheap, as is travelling around the country. Sport is also a big part of life in South Korea, whether it’s martial arts, football, baseball or any other sports that pick your fancy. To do this to the optimum, gym memberships are very affordable, and generally come as 3, 6 or 9 month packages, ranging from 120,000won for 3 months, to 850,000 won for 9 months at top of the range gyms.
How much money can TEFL teachers in South Korea save?
With all this in mind, how much money can you really save as a TEFL teacher in South Korea?
Well, it can’t be understated how fantastic the accommodation situation is. Without having to pay rent, you can save a huge amount. If you’re feeling strict with your budget, put whatever you’d have spent on rent at home into a savings account and watch your money grow.
Not only that, it’s inexpensive to go to work. Even if you’re driving, the price of petrol is far lower than the UK or US. Why would you, though, when public transport is reliable, and a comparative pittance to pay for?
If you’re making the equivalent of $2,000 a month, you could feasibly save at least half of that. With a low cost of living, no rent to pay and inexpensive food and travel, a teacher’s salary will provide more than enough for a comfortable financial situation.
If you’re careful with your money, you can still have a fantastic life in South Korea, and save at least £10,000/£11,200 over the course of a year.
Check out our guide to teaching English in South Korea to find out more!