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What Is Teaching English Abroad 'Under the Table' Without a Work Visa?
Teaching English abroad can be a rewarding experience, but before embarking on this journey, it's important to understand the legal requirements for working in another country and the reality on the ground.
Written By: John Bentley | Updated: June 29, 2023
Written By: John Bentley
Updated: June 29, 2023
One common question among prospective English teachers is whether they can teach English abroad without a work visa. In theory, the answer is generally no. In reality, however, the lines are blurrier. Let's explore this matter further below.
Teaching English Abroad Without a Work Visa: What You Need to Know
Do I Need a Visa to Teach English Abroad?
In most cases, a visa is required to teach English abroad. Teaching English is considered work, and foreign workers must obtain the appropriate visa or work permit before working in another country. It's best to research and consult with the embassy or consulate of your destination country to ensure you have the correct paperwork.
Before you go any further, you need to understand that there are different types of visas that you will use to teach English abroad and that regulations vary from country to country.
Can I Teach English Abroad without a Work Visa?
It is generally not legal to teach English abroad without a work visa. Most countries require foreigners to obtain the appropriate work visa before they can work in the country legally. That being said, in practice, thousands of English teachers are routinely teaching abroad 'under the table' in dozens of countries across the globe.
There are thousands of Americans teaching English abroad in dozens of countries around the globe like Italy and Argentina. What do 90% of them have in common? They are teaching English “under the table.”
What Does Teaching English Abroad “Under the Table” Mean?
Teaching English abroad "under the table" means working as an English teacher without the proper work permits or documentation in the host country. This is commonplace, even routine, in dozens of countries around the world, but it is often not technically legal.
Typically, teaching English abroad under the table without a work visa means that:
- You don’t have official permission to work in that country.
- You are likely officially working illegally.
- You probably entered the country where you are teaching on a tourist visa (in many countries a tourist visa will enable you to stay legally in the country for 90 days) and in many cases, you will stay on and teach English on a tourist visa that has expired or lapsed (this will be the case in countries like Italy where tourist visas cannot typically be renewed). In such cases, you are not only working illegally, but you do not have a valid visa to legally be in that country either.
- In other cases, such as in Argentina, you can renew your tourist visa or get a new one before your original visa expires (example day 85 of your 90 day visa), often by leaving and re-entering the country.
- You will be paid cash “under the table.” (You and the company do not file taxes).
- You won’t sign a legal, binding contract.
- You won’t receive benefits like national medical insurance.
Why Don't Schools Offer Me a Work Visa in Some Countries?
Different Countries Means Different Visa Policies
The government in each country will maintain different policies regarding issuing work visas to foreign English teachers - some make it difficult or impossible; others make it a routine process.
For political or economic reasons, many countries (including the U.S.) make it difficult for foreigners to live and work legally in that country. Many governments simply don't have a policy for processing work visas for foreign English teachers, or they make it extremely difficult, expensive, and/or time-consuming.
In other countries, there is a clear process that foreign English teachers can follow to gain a work permit or a work visa. Example: Germany (an EU country) offers work visas to Americans for teaching English, and while it can be time-consuming, the process is pretty straightforward.
Money and Time
In some countries like in Argentina, it may take 6 to 12 months to get a visa processed and the cost of processing a work visa may equal 3-6 months' worth of wages.
In addition, the process may include an incredible amount of paperwork and bureaucracy. Argentinian schools just are not going to pay that type of money nor can they wait that long for a work visa when the teacher may be gone in 6 months anyway.
If a school had an easy and affordable way to help you get a work visa they would. In light of that, it's common in high-demand countries to just work under the table.
Why Are So Many People Teaching English Abroad “Under the Table” If It's Illegal?
- Thousands of schools worldwide are in high need of qualified (TEFL-certified) teachers. Many schools prefer to hire Americans or Canadians because the demand for North American dialects is extremely high.
- The bottom line is that English language schools are in business to make money. The American dialect is what students want to pay for and the schools want to hire Americans and other foreign English teachers regardless of work permits.
- Americans and others teach English “under the table” because schools will hire them and pay them enough to make a decent living wage that enables them to pay their rent, cover their living expenses, and to enjoy life in the country where they teach.
- The risk to both the school employing the teacher and the teacher is very low. Thousands of Americans and other foreigners teach English abroad in dozens of countries without a work visa, and only a minute percentage ever get in any trouble over it; the same goes for the schools hiring them.
- Schools would not hire American English teachers under the table in places like Italy, Argentina, etc. if it presented a serious threat to the viability of their business. Authorities in these countries just aren’t spending their time looking for American English teachers; they are far more concerned with actual criminals and illegal immigration from Africa and the former Soviet republics. It is important to note that in many countries, a very high percentage of the economy generally is “underground” and not legally sanctioned by the government.
- In many countries where Americans teach English “under the table,” native English speakers are almost never asked to produce a visa to authorities once they have arrived in that country. They are living there just like any other tourist going about their daily life.
- Schools do not pay taxes or into national benefit funds (social security, health care, etc.) for teachers that are not legally “on the books.” This means it can be 40%-50% cheaper to hire English teachers “under the table” rather than “on the books.”
Will I Get in Trouble and What Happens if I Get Caught Teaching English Abroad without a Work Visa?
- If schools and teachers routinely got in trouble with authorities for employing and working under the table, then nobody would do it. In truth, only a minuscule percentage of English teachers working in a nation like Argentina ever get into any trouble at all, but in most countries teaching English without a work visa is illegal and there can be consequences.
- Other European countries such as France, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, and Scandinavia are less likely to hire under the table. It's important to know which countries will hire and which countries do not. Our advising staff will give our expert opinion and give you the bad news along with the good news about the country prior to registering for a TEFL class.
TIP: Download a Country Chart to see which countries where schools employ English teachers on a tourist visa & which countries offer the possibility of an official work visa.
- Potential penalties vary from country to country. Typically, somebody who is caught by authorities overstaying their tourist visa and/or working without a work visa or work permit may be subject to modest fines and/or deportation. In some cases, they may be banned from re-entering that country for a period of time. In a nutshell, if you are caught they will probably put you on a flight back to your home country right away and just get rid of you (they aren't looking to pay money to put you in jail, just get you out of the country). The language school may have to pay a fine. For some schools, this is just the price of doing business that they are willing to pay in order to have qualified teachers that their students want.
What if I Only Want to Teach English in a Country Legally?
TEFL-certified English teachers can get work visas and teach English completely legally in many countries around the world. It is typical for Americans to receive work visas to teach English in many countries around the globe, including:
- Asia - China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia, to name a few.
- Europe - Russia, Turkey, Germany, and the Czech Republic are major European nations where most English teachers obtain work visas. American English teachers participating in government teaching programs in France, Spain, and the Republic of Georgia also receive work visas and in many European nations, including France, Spain and Italy, those on student visas also have a right to work.
- Canadians, and often Australians and New Zealanders who meet certain criteria can get working holiday visas for many European nations that allow them to work as English teachers as well. Citizens of the U.K. and Ireland are not required to obtain any work visa as they have automatic working privileges throughout the European Union, though they may need to fill out residency and tax forms.
- Please review International TEFL Academy’s Working Holiday Visa Chart to learn more about where it may be possible for you to receive a working holiday visa to teach English abroad.
- Latin America - The vast majority of Americans teaching English in Latin America do so with no work visa, but in Chile and Mexico a high percentage of English teachers do receive visas, and in Costa Rica, foreign English teachers can receive a tax number and permission to earn income even though they are in the country on a tourist visa.
- The Middle East – Receiving a work visa is the norm for English teachers in Persian Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E, and Qatar, while in other Arab countries like Egypt, Jordan and Morocco, most teachers do receive work visas, but some teachers work “under the table” as well.
The key is to conduct your research and to consider carefully your options and know your options.
John Bentley is Co-Founder & Senior Writer for International TEFL Academy (ITA), the world leader in TEFL certification for teaching English abroad. A graduate of Harvard University and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern, John is a recognized expert in the field of TEFL. His articles have appeared across the field's top websites, including GoAbroad.com, StudyAbroad.com, InterExchange, GoOverseas.com, Adventure Teaching, & many others. He has also spoken as an expert on Teaching English Abroad & TEFL certification at major conferences like MeetPlanGo and Lessons from Abroad (LFA) in Portland & San Diego.
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