Do You Need a Degree to Teach English in China?

It is possible to teach English in China without a degree, but there’s a catch.

Because of its economic strength and massive ESL market, a question that often arises about teaching in China is: Can I teach English in China without a university degree?

The answer is yes. Technically, you can teach English in China without a degree. Many people without a degree have gone to China and been hired as teachers. And many of them got by just fine. The thing is – most of them are working illegally. However major or minor they think it is to work illegally, it is a criminal offense that comes with steep consequences, if caught.

Yes, there are people who do it. Yes, there are people who condone it. Yes, there are even employers prepared to offer you a job if you have no degree. What seems to evade the minds of all of these people is that if you get caught, it’s your neck on the line. It’s your life that is affected. And most of all, it’s when you discover all those well-meaning words of encouragement for you to come to China and work without a proper visa and work permit amount to nothing when none of these encouraging people suddenly can do nothing to help you, or worse, leave you hanging when you do get caught.

But I met some people at a hostel who told me they taught for two years in China without a degree. And they had zero issues.

They were lucky. They were incredibly lucky that they didn’t get caught. There are stories all over the Internet of people who have gone to China with no degree, or even fake degrees, and have been hired as teachers. Some recruiters and employers will hire people knowing they don’t have a degree, and knowing full well they will be working illegally in China. At the end of the day, unless hired with a proper work visa and work permit provided their employer, teacher that person is still working illegally and can still be prosecuted and detained before being blacklisted and deported. Traveling across the world to a place where you want to try your luck working illegally is among the most foolish of plans anyone could make.

Anyone expecting to teach legally in China must enter the country with the correct visa, which is the Z visa. To apply for the Z visa, you must satisfy a number of requirements, one of which is to provide a verifiable copy of your university degree. In most cases, you must apply for the Z visa in your country of citizenship, and you must submit several documents, both arranged by you as well as by your employer. For years, many people have arrived to China on other types of visa and made visa runs to Hong Kong. If anyone tells you that they are teaching English in China without a degree, with very few exceptions, it means that person is working without holding the correct visa and work permit. In other words, this person is working illegally.

For a number of years, it was relatively easy for people teach English illegally, using the incorrect visa to enter and stay in China with periodical visa runs. Enforcing illegal workers was difficult for the authorities. This meant that many people could arrive in China without a degree and teach English without the proper visa and work permit. This is no longer the case. Authorities have taken notice, and they’ve gotten wiser about enforcing the rules. Still, people continue to teach illegally in China (and elsewhere) and expect to not get caught. Let’s look at two scenarios in which such people are endangering themselves, and it’s 100% their own fault.

Scenario 1: It’s 10 am and after having already taught two classes at a language center this morning, John has been hired for a year. Naturally, he’s happy now as he has steady work at a language center where he enjoys teaching his students, and earns some money which he can spend on nights out with some friends he’s made while in China. Three months have passed and John is over the moon. He’s making enough money to enjoy a comfortable life and possibly even save some money on top. He hasn’t got a care in the world that he’s on a business visa instead of having a proper work permit and residence visa. His employer also assures him that it’s not an issue. However, this morning some police officers pay a surprise visit to the language center and John’s boss is in a panic. He discreetly tells John to go out the back and not tell anyone he works at the language center.

John was lucky. This time. Maybe not so lucky next time. Now, John is constantly having to look over his shoulder, worrying that he could be caught working illegally and arrested. Authorities have even visited people at their residences outside of teaching hours, so even when not working, the thought of being caught is always on John’s mind. Of course, they don’t catch everyone. But after all, John is a foreigner. Like many other foreigners, he stands out from the local population. Lots of foreigners get stopped and checked. Those found to be working illegally get arrested. And a lot of people have been caught. Sounds awesome, right?

Scenario 2: It’s been six months since John joined the language center. Recently though, the school hasn’t been paying his salary on time, and John is struggling to meet his monthly expenses. Naturally, John is furious that he’s not getting paid on time, but his employer conveniently reminds him that he’s working illegally, and if he makes any trouble, he will be reported to the authorities. Now John is stuck between a rock and a hard place. He has to either arrange a quick exit from China without letting his employer find out, or he has to stay on and acquiesce to his employer’s incessant and increasing demands while continuing to work illegally. After all, the language center is technically not John’s employer, and John is not a legal employee. He has few other options but to pull a runner. Was it worth it, John? Perhaps not.

What are the consequences of working without a degree?

If caught working illegally, foreigners will be arrested and detained. Any money the earned while teaching will be confiscated and perpetrators will remain in an immigration detention facility until they can pay their fines in full. Deportation can be an expensive process, not just in monetary terms, but also in the time spent detained in a holding facility, which could be months, or longer.

What qualifies as a degree?

In order to obtain the Z visa, you must have a bachelor’s degree or higher. An associates degrees will not qualify you for the visa. The good news is that you can hold a bachelor’s degree in any subject to qualify for the visa. It doesn’t have to be a degree in English or education. Although some schools may seek teachers who have a specialized degree in English or education, obtaining the Z visa only requires that you have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

What if I have a degree and want to find a teaching job in China?

There are many teaching job opportunities available throughout China to degree holders who are citizens of US, UK, Ireland, Canada, Australian and New Zealand. South Africans and other nationalities may also be considered for teaching positions, but may face some additional hurdles being considered by employers as well as qualifying for the Z visa in some situations.

You must satisfy the following requirements before you can apply for the Z visa:

  • Between the ages of 18 – 60, some exceptions may be made
  • Notarized copy of university degree from one of the above stated countries
  • Notarized copy of TEFL Certification
  • Notarized copy of criminal record check from your home country
  • Permit for Foreign Experts Working in China
  • A medical certificate may also be required either before applying for the Z visa, or upon arriving to China when applying for your temporary residence permit
  • Typically, applicants must apply for the Z visa in their home country

Naturally, the requirements to legally work in China as an English teacher are revised from time to time, so it’s a good idea to check with the Chinese Embassy or Visa for China Application Service in your country.

If you hold a university degree and satisfy all of the requirements for working legally in China, there are a multitude of job opportunities to teach English. If, on the other hand, you don’t have a degree, consider the time, effort and money invested by those who have completed a university education, as well as the Chinese students who really do expect to be taught by teachers who have graduated from university. University education is of vital importance in China, and teaching English in China without a degree is neither wise nor viable for any extended period.

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