Teaching abroad can be an enriching and fulfilling experience.
Choose the right country, and it can also be quite lucrative. The highest-paying destinations for foreign teachers offer some truly impressive salaries, the kind most of us can only dream about earning in our own home countries.
While being paid an impressive salary is undoubtedly a good start, it’s imperative you consider a host of other factors before deciding where you’d like to teach abroad. Especially if you’re looking for a lucrative position that allows you to live comfortably and save quite a bit of money. The overall picture must include salary, sure, but also living costs. Because, as we all know, your saving potential in any job is not about how much you earn but rather the difference between your salary and your day-to-day living costs.
Aside from living costs, lifestyle and personal freedoms should also be considered. After all, if a high salary comes at the expense of restricted freedoms or lack of choices, that may be a high price for many. While teaching salaries can vary significantly from one country to another, several nations stand out as the highest-paying destinations for foreign teachers. They are South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and China.
This article will explore teaching salaries and living costs in these countries. But not only. We’ll also delve into their lifestyle offerings, what that might mean to your day-to-day life outside the classroom, and the standard of living experienced by foreign teachers.
The highest-paying destinations for teaching in 2023
The following countries have one thing in common – they share healthy economies and a commitment to elevate their education system and create graduates who’ll be competitive in a global market. Competition is fierce, both in commerce and in recruiting foreign teachers. Some countries, like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, also know they must go the extra mile (or three) to attract Western teachers. Lifestyles vary significantly among these nations, and some need to offer a little more incentive than others.
Now, let’s go ahead and see what these destinations offer.
1. South Korea
South Korea has jumped leaps and tremendous bounds in the last two decades and has long been a popular destination for English teachers. Salaries aren’t all that flash (that’s why the country is at the bottom of our list), and the cost and standard of living have been increasing consistently over the last few years.
South Korea is a modern, easy, enjoyable country in which to live, with a healthy expat population and an enticing culture that’s worthwhile getting to know. South Korea is a relatively small nation, yet travel options – with Japan to the East and China to the West – are considerable. The North is out of bounds, obviously.
The country’s public schools and private language institutes, known as hagwons, offer salaries of between USD 1,800 and USD 2,500 a month.
Entry-level teaching jobs in South Korea are pretty much on par with other high-paying countries, yet the top teaching positions lack a little (economic) oomph. And in a country that's becoming increasingly more expensive, the extra oomph is what you’ll need to live (and save) well.
Life is becoming increasingly more expensive in South Korea. What was once a ‘super cheap’ place to live is no longer, especially in major cities. Your standard living costs in Seoul are higher than in Sydney and Toronto, trailing just behind London and New York. If you have experience visiting or living in these cities, you’ll know that even a salary of USD 2,500 requires some seriously modest living.
At the time of writing, South Korea is roughly 40% more expensive than China (Expatistan). Although it remains one of the highest-paying teaching destinations in the world, it is also swiftly becoming one of the most expensive in which to live.
Japan has traditionally been a highly coveted country for fresh teaching recruits and an expensive place to live.
Japan was perhaps one of the first well-developed Asian countries to appeal to foreign teachers and, for many years, was considered a beginner’s rite of passage destination. However, between increased global knowledge and more precocious youngsters, Japan seems to have somewhat slipped in favour. Both teaching salaries and living costs are comparable in South Korea.
On par with South Korea, so averages are between USD 1,800 and USD 2,500 per month, depending on qualifications. The overwhelming majority of foreign teachers in Japan work as Assistant Language or Private Language School teachers, taking in about USD 2,000 per month. However, a few highly qualified teachers working in International Schools can earn up to USD 6,000 monthly. Foreign university lecturers make just a little under that but require advanced teaching degrees.
Although living costs in Japan are comparable to South Korea, Tokyo comes out as a slightly more affordable place to live than Seoul. Something not many would’ve imagined just ten years ago. Nevertheless, Japan remains a cheaper country in which to live when compared to the USA, and you can live comfortably on about USD 1,500 a month anywhere but Tokyo (unless you manage to score free housing with your salary package). That could translate to a monthly saving of USD 300 to USD 1,000.
Japan and South Korea keep trading 1st and 2nd places of the Asian countries with the highest living costs.
Singapore consistently ranks as one of the top countries for education globally. Yet Singaporean schools don’t routinely offer a housing stipend or free accommodation with their teaching salary packages, so the onus on finding (and paying for) a rental rests squarely on the teacher.
Education standards are very high in Singapore, and teachers are likewise expected to be highly qualified. Average teacher salaries range between USD 1,800 and USD 3,600 per month. Most teachers supplement their income with private tutoring, which is in high demand and well-paid. Just be careful: most teaching contracts preclude you from teaching anywhere else. This includes private tutoring. Singapore’s best paid teaching positions can demand USD 5,000 per month – usually earned in the most prestigious international schools.
In a city-state with such high living costs – cheaper than Japan, South Korea and Qatar but more expensive than all the others – that ‘impressive’ salary can dwindle pretty fast. Rent is phenomenally high in Singapore, so (once again) fighting for that included accommodation or housing stipend is important.
Qatar has made substantial investments in its education system and has been actively recruiting foreign teachers to help improve the quality of education. Teachers in Qatar receive competitive salaries, free housing or housing allowances, health insurance, and annual flight allowances. The country’s emphasis on bilingual education (Arabic and English) has created opportunities for language and subject teachers. This great beginner’s foot-in-the-door destination offers an excellent combination of competitive salary packages and lower living costs.Moreover, as opposed to the UAE (which has become genuinely international), local Qatari culture is a lot more prevalent, and this can be a wonderful experience. Qatar is on the rise internationally and is still a lesser-known teaching destination. Few teaching positions are available here, but salaries are good for the few on offer.
The averages are between USD 1,800 and USD 4,000 per month. Even brand-new teaching recruits can demand a decent salary here – the demand is that high. The nice catch? Your salary in Qatar is tax-free. This is, by far, Qatar’s most favourable enticement. Add to this included housing, and it’s easy to see how attractive the country is, especially for newbie teachers.
Qatar is a decently affordable place to live, about 30% cheaper than Singapore – rental properties cost nearly half as much as Singapore. This can make it a pretty profitable teaching destination.
However, the one major downside of teaching and living in Qatar, much like the following two countries on our list, is the substantial lifestyle restrictions. Most good schools hiring foreign teachers in Qatar are in Doha, so you’ll need to be comfortable living in a fast-paced, bustling city. There are almost no chances to teach in ‘smaller, traditional villages’. Most expats also live in gated compounds in Doha – some with ten or up to 100 villas. Some cost more than others or are in more desirable locations. Alcohol is allowed for expats, but only once they gain a special permit as temporary residents. Alcoholic beverages are also served in licenced hotel bars and restaurants. Living and teaching in Islamic countries isn’t for everyone, and this is where the ‘salary vs. lifestyle’ considerations come into play.
5. The United Arab Emirates (UAE)
The UAE is renowned for offering some of the highest teaching salaries in the world. With a rapidly growing education sector, particularly in cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi, foreign teachers are in uber-high demand. Much like Qatar, the UAE offers tax-free salaries and additional benefits. The education sector is well established, and the two major cities above host many prominent international schools.
Foreign teachers in the UAE take home between USD 3,000 and USD 4,000 monthly, making this a top-3 contender for the highest-paying teaching destinations worldwide. With a better-developed education system than in Qatar, there’s a much greater array of teaching opportunities to be had here. Starting salaries are higher than elsewhere (USD 3,000), yet teachers are only considered if they have a minimum of 2-3 years of teaching experience. The UAE is not regarded as a beginner’s destination.
The UAE is significantly more expensive than Qatar, with an even faster-paced, cosmopolitan vibe. Rents are high, as are prices for entertainment, although there are many more options for fun stuff to do here than in Qatar. Living here is very much about fancy shopping malls, 3-hr lunches with friends on Fridays in swanky hotels and dune-bashing on 4WD tours on weekends. Those rather impressive salaries help you keep up with the high cost of living in the UAE.
Aside from the lifestyle restrictions mentioned in the Qatar section above, there’s also the consideration of climate when teaching in the Arabian Peninsula. This ain’t a region for the faint-hearted. Summers are brutal, and the relentless heat and glaring sun will drive even an Irishman to tears. For several months every year, life is carried out inside an air-conditioned ‘something’, be it a house or a shopping mall. This can get old pretty quickly.
Being an expat teacher in an Arab country also means fewer chances to develop friendships with locals. Not only are the cultural differences immense but in the case of Dubai, over three-quarters of the population is foreign anyway.
6. Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia has been on a sprint to reinvent itself (or at least its reputation) in the last year or so. As part of this new evolution, the country’s education system is also being spruced up. Today, Saudi Arabia offers the highest paying positions for English native-speaking teachers of any country. And it would want to. Living and working here isn’t easy, nor is it for everyone.
Overall, Arab countries are paying more to foreign teachers in 2023 than any other as they vie for the best teaching candidates from Western countries. The tax-free offer is undeniably good, yet teaching in the Middle East takes some serious consideration.
The financial rewards for teaching in Saudi Arabia are undeniable. Here, you can earn between USD 2,500 and USD 6,000 monthly tax-free. That’s a hard one to beat! Add free accommodation, health insurance and a return trip home once a year.
Saudi Arabia boasts the cheapest living costs in the Arabian Peninsula when it comes to rents and utilities. Living and teaching here is much cheaper than any of the above regional neighbouring countries. However, since you are in the heart of a desert, everything needs to be brought in – prices for food, goods, and general consumables reflect this need. To maintain a decent standard of living (and indulge in some imported Western goods), you’ll need about USD 2,500 per person per month. As with Qatar, most expats live in gated community compounds.
China’s rapid economic growth has led to an increased demand for English teachers, pandemic hiatus notwithstanding.
In 2023, China boasts the largest ESL teaching market in the world and is the second-highest-paying teaching destination.
China might not be able to compete with Saudi Arabia when it comes to baseline salaries, but what makes the country unique and exceptionally attractive for foreign teachers is its sheer size and array of teaching options. In China, as opposed to all the Gulf States, you can opt not to teach in a megacity. You have a variety of provinces from which to choose, each with its own culture, cuisine, climate and highlights. You can teach in the mountains or by the sea, in a small traditional village or a bustling metropolis. Both your salary and living costs will fluctuate to match your choice.
Fully qualified and experienced foreign teachers in China can earn up to USD 5,000 a month, with entry-level ESL teachers taking home around USD 2,000. A good salary package in China comes with airfare and relocation reimbursement, a generous housing stipend and even paid yearly vacation, with a return flight ticket home.
Living costs & lifestyle
Of all the highest-paying teaching destinations, China offers the most desirable living costs. Even in major cities like Beijing, Shenzhen or Shanghai, where the living prices are highest, you can spend less on accommodation, eating out, and grocery shopping (arguably the most considerable costs you’ll have). And, as opposed to what our media back home might have you believe, you’ll be free to live as you wish in China. You can travel freely and easily, eat and drink what you like, dress as you would at home and live as you want to. This is, undoubtedly, what continues to make China the #1 teaching destination in the world.
In our humble view, there are no comparable destinations between the high salaries, low living costs and lifestyle freedoms. When it comes to the highest-paying teaching destinations in the world, there’s a LOT to consider. The bottom dollar isn’t always the be-all and end-all of ‘costs’.
Other factors to consider:
Teachers with good negotiating skills often receive free housing, airfare reimbursement at the end of their tenure, and health insurance (in addition to their base salaries) in almost all countries listed above. These salary package ‘extras’ can add up to a considerable amount, so negotiating extra inclusions is essential. In more expensive countries, like Qatar, South Korea and Japan, these inclusions can make the difference between making ends meet and living your best life while saving money. Because the kind of teaching job you apply for is perhaps a more significant determiner of salary than a singular destination:
Your qualifications will affect your options
While many might think that the only option abroad is teaching English as a foreign language (ESL), the sphere is much broader than that. Head off to a foreign country as a qualified and experienced teacher, and you’ll have many options – usually much more lucrative.
Yes, you can teach English to kids and adults, but you can also teach other subjects and use your math, geography, art, music, science (or other) teaching skills well. You can teach an international curriculum encompassing an array of subjects, be a homeroom or substitute teacher, work for a prominent international school, or immerse yourself in your new home country by teaching in a local public school. The choices are endless and only limited by your skills and qualifications.
But not every job is exceptionally well-paid, even in one of the highest-paying countries for foreign teachers. So, when it comes to financial rewards, the kind of teaching job you choose is as vital as the country.
ESL vs. fully qualified teachers – who earns more?
And now, a broad statement that will surprise absolutely no one: the higher your teaching qualifications, the more you are likely to earn teaching abroad.
Generally speaking, fully qualified teachers, especially those with years of experience, can earn much more teaching abroad than someone who has just completed a 100-hour ESL teaching course online. That’s to be expected. Yet nuances abound.
ESL teachers don’t always need a formal teaching degree or teaching certification to gain a working visa in foreign countries, although having a TEFL/TESOL certificate helps. In China, for example, you need a minimum of a Bachelor’s Degree to get a Z Visa (the only visa type that allows you to teach in the country), yet the degree need not be teaching-related. In this regard, requirements can vary quite a bit among the highest-paying destinations.
ESL teachers often work in private language schools or training centres, and if they can keep their living costs low, they can still earn a decent salary.
Yet when it comes to earning the BIG bucks, nothing compares to fully qualified teachers who earned a Bachelor of Education degree back home and complete teaching certifications. These teaching candidates can (and do) demand the highest salaries from the most prominent schools, usually ones offering international, American or British curriculums.
The caveat? While fully qualified teachers generally have the potential to earn more when teaching abroad, TEFL teachers can still make a very comfortable living in many countries, especially if they choose destinations with a lower cost of living. The decision between the two paths often depends on your qualifications, career goals, and the kind of experience you seek. Many new teachers opt for TEFL teaching to gain a foot through the international door before pursuing a long-term teaching career. Others, who might already know education will be their future, become fully certified to enjoy more opportunities (and more lucrative positions) in international schools worldwide.
We hope this guide has given you invaluable info. Ready to embark on a teaching journey to the best value teaching destination? Then devour our Complete Guide to Teaching in China and Contact Us to know more!