Picture of someone looking up about working illegally abroad.

Working Illegally Abroad As An ESL Teacher

Many teachers at some point in their career may find themselves faced with the prospect of working illegally abroad for one reason or another. Some will flat-out refuse the offer, not wanting to do anything illegal. Other teachers may go ahead and take the chance of working illegally abroad. Still, others will not even realize they are working illegally or may have been misled about the fact that they are working illegally. To be very clear we at ESL Job Exchange do not recommend working illegally at all in any circumstances. So, while I can’t prevent anyone from working illegally abroad I can make sure that you are well-informed so that if you find yourself in any unfortunate situations you understand what is going on and what your options are.

What consists of working illegally abroad?

The simple definition of working illegally abroad is anything that violates a country’s labor laws or any instance where fraud has taken place in order to secure a job.

In most cases, this is going to involve teachers who are working without the proper permits or who are not on the correct visa. This may or may not be the fault of the teacher as there are schools who have been known to hire teachers under the premise of everything being on the level and then never holding up their end of the agreement for helping the teacher to obtain the correct visa. We will talk more about this later.

Every country has their own laws regulating foreigners who wish to work and what procedures they must follow. These laws can vary greatly from country to country so the onus will be on the teacher to make sure they understand all of these rules. Most countries will require a teacher to have a diploma and to have a copy that is certified. Some may also require teachers to complete a health examination or HIV testing before being allowed to obtain a work permit. Others still may require you to get a TEFL certification or other type of professional ESL certification before you are allowed to work. All of these procedures must be followed and all documentation must be authentic.

If in the course of trying to obtain a work permit, you lie or submit any false documents then you are committing fraud which, on top of being a crime itself, means you are working illegally as your work permit is invalid. This is a major crime and can carry some severe consequences which we will go more in-depth about further on. The main point is that in order to be legal you must have a work permit or visa and all of the documents and information you submitted in order to obtain that permit or visa must be valid and truthful.

When might you find yourself working illegally abroad?

If you purposely committed fraud in order to secure a job or if you know you must have a certain visa and you accept a job without having it then you obviously know that you are working illegally. However, what about the grey areas when a teacher is in between landing and obtaining their visa or when a school or recruiter purposefully lied to them and now they are stuck working without the proper documentation?

There have been quite a few instances in many countries throughout the world where schools have been less than honest with the teachers they have hired and promised a visa then not delivered. This is more common with smaller private language schools that don’t necessarily have the funds to cover the cost but can happen at any level. Usually, it will be quite apparent to you that you are not going to get the visa or permit you were promised and that you were lied to. However, it sometimes may not be quite so obvious. In some situations, the school administration may assure you that everything is okay and that you are not breaking the law if you are working while waiting for the visa to come through. The simple rule to follow is if you do not have a work permit in hand and you are teaching you are breaking the law and working illegally abroad.

Is it safe to work illegally abroad?


That’s the most honest and upfront answer that you are going to receive. If you look around enough you are going to find numerous sources where people talk about their experiences teaching abroad illegally and how everything was just fine for them. You may also find many people giving advice that it is okay as you won’t get caught. Just because someone else was working illegally abroad as an ESL teacher and didn’t get caught doesn’t mean you will be so fortunate.

The thing you are going to have to remember is that working illegally abroad is very different from many other types of illegal activity. If you like to speed in your car then you are only at risk when you are actually speeding. If, however, you decide to work illegally in a foreign country then you are at risk of being arrested 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for as long as you are in that country and working illegally.

This means that every time you go to work you are going to have to worry about immigration authorities or regular police performing checks and finding you working illegally. Or maybe one of your students finds out that your documentation is fraudulent and decided to report you to the police. You can be arrested anytime and anywhere and every month around the world teachers are.

So, don’t think that just because someone else did it that you will be okay too. Maybe you will and maybe you won’t. But, do you really want to have the stress of always having to look over your shoulder and worry that immigration police are going to raid the school you are working at?

What are the consequences of working illegally abroad?

Different countries are going to have different penalties for breaking immigration and labor laws with some being more severe than others. However, you can almost guarantee that you will be deported and potentially blacklisted for a period of time from reentering the country.

In some countries, you will be required to stay in jail until you can appear before a court to be sentenced. This could be days or weeks or in some cases even months. Many countries that are popular with ESL teachers are also infamous for having some of the worst prisons in the world. You may come across corrupt officials who will demand bribes from you to keep you out of trouble.

At the very least, as mentioned above, you will be barred from entering the country for a number of years, if not permanently. This will also be stamped into your passport so that wherever you go immigration officials in other countries will be able to see that you have been blacklisted for violating immigration laws.  

Also, most people who are caught working illegally abroad will be forced to pay steep fines as a penalty for working illegally. In some countries, you may be required to stay in jail until that fine is paid.

What do we recommend instead?

Let’s start off with what you should do if you are working illegally abroad. Stop! The best thing you can do is to stop working and leave the country at once.

If you have been lied to by your employer then the best thing that you can do is to stop working for them and leave the country to seek employment with a more reputable school. Aside from the fact that you are in danger of being arrested as mentioned above, you also run the risk that the school might not pay you and there is no recourse available to you as you shouldn’t have been working in the first place.

Are you considering lying about your qualifications or purchasing a fake degree? If so then you should think twice about this as countries such as China are cracking down on these activities. After it was discovered that the child of a prominent education minister was being taught by a teacher with a fake TEFL certificate, the Chinese government came down hard and stepped up efforts to combat others from doing the same. Thousands of people have been arrested in the process and more will continue to be caught as the net tightens.

If you do not have a degree or a TEFL certification but still wish to teach English abroad there are options. Obtaining a TEFL certification is quite easy in the modern age and can even be done online. There are also a number of countries where teachers can still find employment without a degree as long as they are native English speakers. Always consider your options before you make a decision that could impact you for many years after.

What are some final tips?

As you can probably tell from the above information working illegally abroad is a very serious matter. Even though you may read other people telling you it is no big deal, it won’t be them in jail and out thousands of dollars should you get caught. Don’t do it. Before accepting any job offer make sure to do your due diligence to ensure there haven’t been past complaints against them. Remember, if you are working in a foreign country without the proper permits or visa, even if your employer guaranteed them but didn’t follow through, it is you that is in the wrong and you alone that will face the consequences. There are shady schools around the world that thrive on a churn and burn mentality of hiring tutors illegally and then quickly getting rid of them. This is probably not going to stop anytime soon so always make sure that you are only accepting job offers from schools with a good reputation. If you follow this advice you should have nothing to worry about as you enjoy your time teaching English abroad.

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