Teach English in China – Beginners Guide

By Editorial Staff •  Updated: 11/01/21 •  Teach Abroad

China is diverse and immense. Your experiences will vary quite a bit depending on where you are and the quality of city you find yourself in. Like a lot of countries, the north and south vary greatly in terms of climate and attitudes.

China goes on a tier structure, with cities ranging from tier 1 to tier 3. Tier 1 cities are modern, developed, international cities that offer anything you can find in the West. This is not to say tier 2 or 3 cities are worse, they’re just not as developed.

The Internet is blocked

China implements a digital firewall for the internet. Most foreign websites are blocked. Most notably Google, YouTube and Facebook. This is quite a frustrating aspect as a foreign English teacher as you’re not Chinese, you can’t read Chinese or understand anything spoken in Chinese.

The only way around this firewall is through the use of various VPN services for both your laptop and phone. I strongly suggest downloading a VPN to your phone before landing in mainland China.

No English

China is akin to America in this regard. A monolithic society that speaks one language. Once you’re outside of a tier 1 city it become highly unlikely that you will encounter a Chinese national capable of speaking English.

In addition, signs and menus are also in Chinese and your average Chinese person speaks no English. This makes taking taxis, trains and buses a challenge with the internet being blocked and you being unable to communicate.

The Pay and Work Life Balance is Excellent

One selling point of China is that this country provides some of the best pay and lowest working hours in the ESL industry. It’s normal to be paid a few thousand dollars per month while only teach 3 classes per day and following a standard work week of Monday-Friday, 8 am to 4 pm.

This allows you to save over $1,000 USD per month in China with ease.

Legal and Educational Requirements:

China is a big country and while the State Administration of Foreign Expert Affairs (SAFEA) dictates the requirements on a national level, local provinces and cities are free to interpret these standards as they see fit.

This leads to some places having more hurdles to get employed by. The above is what SAFEA recommends. Some employers are more or less strict. The stricter ones usually have a health check and insist on 2 years of work experience.

Bachelors Degree in Anything

You simply need a bachelors degree. The area of focus does not need to be in education. This is to ensure a quality foreign national who has the intelligence and work ethic to complete school is teaching Chinese children.

Two Years Work Experience

China requires this but again provinces, cities and employers are free to interpret SAFEA as they wish. Some schools and companies will overlook a lack of experience if you have a TEFL cert or your bachelors is in education. It really depends on a case by case basis.

Z Visa

You’ll need a Z visa to work legally in China. This Z visa will allow you to get a residency permit which is the permit that actually allows you to work in the country. The Z visa simply let’s you enter China.

Native English Speaker With North American Accent

Chinese want teachers with a North American accent. If you’re American or Canadian you and meet the other requirements, you can find a job easily in China.

This is the strictest requirement in China as parents want their children to learn with native speakers. Not Filipinos or Europeans with a strong accent.

What if I’m a non-native speaker?

It’s always possible to find work, it will just be more challenging as American’s and Canadians are preferred.

Optional Requirements

Stereotypical look

China is a closed country. As such they hold some antiquated beliefs that Americans, Canadians and native English speakers look a certain way. If you’re non-white or Asian you’ll have a more difficult time getting a job simply because they hold the belief of a native English speakers from America are white.

If you’re white and female you have the easiest time finding work. But again, as long as you’re American or Canadian you can find work in a tier 1 city regardless of the way you look.

TEFL/TESOL Certification

Another benefit to getting a TEFL certificate is that it not only helps you be a better teacher, it gives your employers some flexibility with the 2 year work experience requirement in that they can use your certificate in lieu of having the 2 years of experience.

Health Check

Schools will often ask you to have a blood work done to check for diseases as well as over all health. While not a legal requirement, it’s something schools themselves may impose on you when applying.

Experience in your country of origin

Test prep and university position will expect some sort of previous relevant experience that you’ll need to prove. Not normally required for new teachers. This is not the same as the 2 year requirement. This requirement you need to demonstrate you have specific experience to properly fulfill the position.

Average salary for an English teacher in China

The average salary of an English teacher with no experience is roughly 12,000-14,000 RMB per month. You will not be paid less than this anywhere in China. Now, unlike Thailand where no matter how experienced you are, the starting salary is always the same. Schools in China will pay more if you have the right experience.

I have a South African friend who worked in Thailand for 10 years and moved over to Shenzen China making a monthly salary of about 40,000 RMB. He was able to save almost 1,600 USD a month.

While jobs in China are plentiful, take the time to find a job that is willing to pay you the most, preferably in a tier 1 city. This is not to say lower tiers are bad or under developed. I’ve been to Guilin and Lozhou (tier 3) and they’re just fine.

It’s just that the quality of life is highest in tier 1 cities in terms of clubs, bars, expat friends and food. China is a rapidly changing country and you will be surprised by how nice it actually is.

What does the average English Teacher Make?

The minimum monthly salary for an English Teacher in China is 12,000 RMB. But it depends on the tier of the city so let’s cover the different tiers, salary expectations and where you will work.

Tier 1 Cities

Tier 1 cities are major cities in China that you’ve heard of: Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzen are considered tier 1 cities. These cities have large populations and are the most developed economically. Teachers in these cities can find anything from the west. The only issue is that the cost of living is higher. Shenzen being one of the most expensive cities in China for example.

Average cost of living in a tier 1 city: 8,000 RMB a month

Where will you work and how much is the pay?
Public Schools 11,000-18,000 $1,600-2,600
International 15,000-30,000 $2,200-4,500
University 8,000-11,000 $1,000-2,000
Kindergarden 10,000-20,000 $1,500-3,000
Language Centers 12,000-21,000 $1,800-3,000

So that’s it for tier 1 cities. You’ll be able to find the right mix of affordable living with a good salary and moderate work hours. Now on to tier 2 cities.

Tier 2 Cities

Tier 2 cities are developed cities that are not as big or developed as tier 1, but are still developed. Think of it as a big city in your home state and compare it with a more popular, well known city. That’s basically the difference between tier 1 and 2. Tier 2 cities are growing and have a strong demand for English teachers.

Average cost of living in a tier 2 city: 6,000 RMB a month

Where will you work and how much is the pay?
Public Schools 9,000-15,000 $1,300-2,200
International 13,000-22,000 $2,000-3,000
University 7,000-9,000 $1,000-1,300
Kindergarden 8,500-15,000 $1,250-2,200
Language Centers 10,000-12,000 $1,500-1,800

Tier 2 cities are a great option for English teachers. They offer the right mix of being developed with all the offerings of most cities in the world and a lower cost of living than a tier 1. Allowing you to save a good portion of your salary.

Tier 3 Cities

Tier 3 cities from my travels tend to be developed, they’re just smaller cities with less bars, clubs, expats and foreign offerings. It’s not uncommon for tier 3 cities to have McDonalds and Starbucks and what not. Don’t have the impression that because a city is tier 3, it’s 3rd world or something. It’s not.

Expect to be immersed in Chinese culture, food and language. If you’re looking for a place to live and work that is very Chinese, check out tier 3 cities.

Average cost of living in a tier 3 city: 3,000 RMB a month

Where will you work and how much is the pay?
Public Schools  7,000-11,000 $1,000-1,500
International  10,000-20,000 $1,450-2,900
University  5,000-9,000 $750 -1,400
Kindergarden  7,000-12,000 $1,000-1,800
Language Centers  5,000-10,000 $750-1,500

Types of Schools to Work at

Public schools: Pay Depends on Tier

Like most school in Asia, public schools in China are large and overwhelming. Class sizes are big with 40+ students in one class not being uncommon. The advantages of working here are the light teaching schedule and the public holidays as well as a paid break in both summer and winter. You should expect to have a teaching assistant to help maintain order in class.

International school: Pay Depends on Tier

The ideal place for most teachers. You get the same work load, holidays and paid break as a public school, but class sizes are smaller, the school is better funded with better resources and you get paid more on top of it.

To obtain a position at an international school takes experience and patience with job hunting as these sort of jobs are not as readily available as public school jobs. Make sure to check that the school is actually an international school as it’s common for schools to simply throw in the word “international” to seem more professional.

Universities: Pay Depends on Tier

Chinese students work extremely hard in elementary and high school to pass the Gaokao. That infamous test that heavily impacts a young Chinese persons life. Because Chinese work so hard at all the other levels, when they get to university it’s time for them to relax and enjoy life a bit more.

This is reflected in the University work ethic. Lower hours, lower pay. Now, this does not mean you can be a lazy teacher. You’ll be promptly dismissed if you don’t do your job. But Universities are less strict for both teacher and student and this is why the pay is much lower.

Kindergarden: Pay Depends on Tier

It takes a special sort of person to teach Kindergarden. Silly, goofy, patience, caring. Teaching Kindergarden is a completely different experience than teaching a class of 8 year old’s in elementary or 16 year old’s in high school. Expect a schedule where you’ll have a morning class and an afternoon class.

In China Kindergardens are privately owned and NOT apart of the school system like other countries. Because of this, make sure to research as best you can the school and the experiences of teachers who have worked their.

Language Centers: Pay Depends on Tier

Language centers exist as a place for students to study at night and on the weekends. The pay is good, but the hours are nights and weekends. So not ideal if you’re looking for normal work hours. The advantages however are that the centers are private. Because of this class size is smaller and the centers are typically more modern with better equipment.

English Teacher Benefits

Teaching English in China does afford you some benefits. Again, it’s on a case by case basis but here are some options that are open for negotiation.


In China it’s the norm to be provided with housing for free. In the rare case that a school does not provide housing you’ll be either paid a higher salary or you’ll be given a stipend for rent. The stipend is between 1,000-3,000 RMB depending on the city you’re in. If you go the route of finding your own place expect to pay a standard 3 month deposit.

Bonus Pay

Schools in China pay a bonus. This is normal. If a school is not offering a bonus keep looking. The bonus is usually a months salary provided at the end of your contract.

Paid Flight

School who do not pay a monetary bonus will instead offer you a free flights. Some school pay a bonus and provide free flight, but these sorts of perks are only found at international school and top positions at universities.

The Z Visa For Teachers in China

While other countries have some sort of long stay visa+ work permit for those who wish to obtain employment, China has a class Z visa which you then turn into a residency permit.

You’ll need this visa to legally work in China. You can not work in China on any other type of visa no matter what you read or are told. So perhaps it’s not a “big deal” in other countries to work for a bit on a tourist visa before switching over the proper work visa, in this instance to a Z visa (think Thailand because the process takes too long), it’s too risky to do in China.

If caught you will be fined and you will be deported. Being deported from a country is a big deal because it will make future travel to other countries impossible.

Just get the proper visa and ignore any job offer or recruiter that says it is fine to work on a tourist visa or a business visa. It’s not. If the school is actually a registered school they can go through the process of obtaining a Z visa. If they make excuses, then that should be a red flag.

Requirements for the Z Visa

To obtain a Z visa you need:

That is it. The two years work experience is often the biggest hurdle to new teachers. You can overcome this with relevant experience or if you have some sort of teaching certificate. China simply wants good, experienced teachers.

What is the visa process like?

Simple, but it takes a month or two to complete from start to finish so just be aware. The process is you sending documents (scanned copies of your passport,  diploma, TEFL certificate, any proof of work history) to your school so they can get you an invitation letter (needed for any Chinese visa, I obtained a hand written letter from my Chinese friend to visit China as an example) and a Foreign Expert Certificate.

Once the school gets all of the documents, they will ship it to you visa UPS which you can then take with a few other documents to obtain a Z visa at your nearest Chinese embassy or consulate.

You will need:

WHERE do you apply?

Any embassy or consulate. Though you need to check as the rules change. When I applied for my visa in Bangkok I was told I could not apply there and could only apply in America. Why? No reason.

For that month they simply changed the rules and told me I could apply next month but not this month. Lucky for me there was 1 exception. If you had a valid Thai work permit as an American you could apply in Bangkok.

If you live far away from an embassy or consulate you may have to use an agency to apply. Totally safe and normal. Many Americans use an agency in America simply because our country is big and your nearest embassy can be a 6 hour drive away.

How long does it take?

Once you have all your documents and are ready to proceed to the embassy, the visa processing takes about 5 days. There is a rush service available for all visas however. If you live near an embassy simply apply and return next week to pick up your visa. If you’re using an agency they will worry about this and simply inform you as to when your visa will be ready.

Once in China You’ll Get a Residency Permit

The Z visa is a single entry visa. Once you land in China you’ll have 30 days to register at your local police station and turn your Z visa into a residency permit. Once you have a residency permit, you can leave and re-enter China as often as you like.

Your school will help you with this process of getting a residency permit as all the forms are in Chinese and Chinese people do not speak English (which is why you’re there as a teacher!).

Teach English in China – Conclusion

So that is what you can expect to experience if you decide to teach English in China. It’s a beautiful, massive and a bit strange country. Most teachers enjoy living in China for a year or two then move on to somewhere a bit less restrictive in terms of the internet.

If you’re looking for a truly foreign place with great pay and a rich culture consider teaching English in China.

Editorial Staff

I'm David Unwin and I head the editorial staff here at Teach and GO. I've taught as an ESL teacher in Thailand for 5+ years at all levels of education, from elementary to University. I was also one of the first 1000 VIPKID teachers. I and my team now share my extensive experience as a teacher here at Teach and GO. Learn more.

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