students (and a waterfall!) in South Korea

Elizabeth with students (and a waterfall!) in South Korea.

Today we have a fascinating account from an Irish lass who is teaching in South Korea. Take it away, Elizabeth!

Hi! My name’s Elizabeth O’Hagan. I’m 24 years old, and from Belfast, Northern Ireland… and I’ve recently just moved to Jeju, South Korea!

In my final year of university, I found myself thinking, “What next?” I had always wanted to travel, and over the years had visited many countries, mostly in Europe. However, at this stage in my life I was ready for a real change of scene: for something completely different. I wanted to experience this “culture shock” people talked about.

Unfortunately, like a lot of people in my position, I had finished university with a mountain of debt and wouldn’t just be able to take off into the sunset. When a friend suggested teaching English as a foreign language it seemed the ideal solution.

This way I would be seeing the world AND making some money. Perfect! Whilst I had never before considered teaching as a career, I figured it was something I could certainly turn my hand to. And, hey, kids weren’t so bad, so why not!

I always knew I wanted to live and work in Asia. My fascination with this part of the world began while I was still in school. The food, the people, the style: everything about Asian culture captivated me, and I knew one day I would have to go and see it for myself. This was my opportunity!

Originally, my plan was to work in Japan, as it was the Asian country I knew most about. I had a job lined up for after I finished university with the now infamous Nova Corporation, which went bankrupt a mere month before I was due to depart! Whilst I was devastated at the time, as time passed I was relieved I hadn’t gone only to be potentially stranded with no job or home.

After this time the Japanese market for English teachers became completely saturated by the thousands of ex Nova teachers now seeking work, and many big companies stopped hiring from overseas.

Supply was definitely outweighing demand. Whilst at the time I was hell-bent on Japan, eventually I started considering other options. So when I heard of an old friend from university having spent a great year teaching English in South Korea I began to research a bit more about this mysterious country I knew very little about.

An elaborate demonstration in South Korea.

An elaborate demonstration in South Korea.

After speaking with some people who had visited, and after researching on the Internet, South Korea started to appeal more and more. With its rich, colourful culture steeped in history, it would definitely have the “something different” I was looking for, and combined with the extremely handsome package that was offered (return flights from your own country, free housing, a generous salary, combined with a low cost of living) South Korea sounded awesome! Plus, this way it meant I could also save money: something that may not have been so possible in Japan.

At this stage, I started looking on the Internet, on various websites and forums advertising for English teachers in South Korea. I discovered the 2 main means of teaching in SK was either through the public school system, or through a private school (hagwon).

While there are pros and cons of each, in the end the regular working hours and generous holidays were enough to swing the public sector route. Thus, my application to EPIK (English Programme in Korea) began.

I had previously posted my CV/resume onto and was delighted to receive an email from Reach to Teach Recruiting saying they would like to assist me with my application. I’d looked on the EPIK website and it seemed a rather daunting task, so to have someone’s help would be great.

I must say, the application process was long and arduous. Submitting various applications… making relevant changes… gathering legal documents… references… This all took time, so my advice to anyone considering it is START EARLY.

When you consider all the documents you have to gather and submit, it can also be a very expensive process, so also make sure you definitely want to do it! However, I knew this was what I wanted, and thus figured all the effort would be worth it in the end. I also discovered that having a TEFL qualification puts you in a higher salary scale, which was just as well as I was in the middle of completing a 120hr combined TEFL course with i-to-i.

While it is by no means necessary to have a TEFL qualification for South Korea I would definitely recommend it, especially for those like myself with no teaching experience. It just helps to start “thinking like a teacher,” which can be half the battle!

South Korean food markets

One of many delicious-looking South Korean food markets.

With EPIK, you can request a particular area or city you would like to be placed. I had always visualized myself working in a big city, so I chose Busan as my first option, with other metropolitan cities and Jeju Island as my other choices.

When I was told that all the metropolitan city positions (along with Jeju) had already been filled, I was pretty gutted. I was then asked if I would accept a more rural position if it was available, and while I had never imagined myself living in a provincial area I did accept. I just wanted to come to Korea.

Further disappointment ensued when I was informed that ALL of the positions had now been filled and I would be put on a waitlist. When I initially heard this I honestly thought it was all over. However, the lovely Gillian from Reach to Teach who had assisted my application from the very beginning assured me that everything would be ok, and right enough, 3 weeks later I received a phone call from her at 4.30am (ha, I will never forget it!) offering me a position with EPIK for Jeju Island.

To say I was delighted was an understatement. Especially as Jeju is one of the most sought after placements on EPIK, I could not believe my luck. This was now the 3rd of August, and I was to leave for Korea on the 17th August. As we say in Belfast I was “up to high doe” (somewhat stressed) but giddy with excitement for those 2 weeks, getting everything organized.

My stress was not helped by the fact that my visa only arrived the morning I was actually leaving! But it is all part of the adventure. :) As soon as I touched down in Seoul, all the stress and headache of the heavy admin that was needed for my application melted away. I was in Korea at last!

It’s been 3 months now, and I must say it’s going great. I’ve met a lot of cool people, the food is excellent, and the Korean people are probably the most warm and hospitable people I have ever met.

The teaching was quite challenging at first, but I’ve definitely got the hang of it and am actually quite enjoying it! I’m definitely glad I chose the public school system as well. Already I’ve been taken on many field trips with the students, seeing local places of interest, and experiencing true school life. Also the lunches are great! A real taste of Korean home cooking: much different to school dinners back home!

To anyone considering teaching English in Korea I say go for it! If it’s a new experience you’re after, then you really can’t get any better than this. Also, being in Korea makes it a lot easier to visit other Asian countries. This winter I am fulfilling a life ambition and visiting Japan, a trip that I simply could not have afforded if I stayed at home… so thumbs up all round! :)

So my advice to anyone thinking about applying to EPIK is this: start early. EPIK are said to work on a first come first served basis, so make sure to have your application in as early as possible. As I previously mentioned, getting all the relevant documents signed, legalized, etc. can be lengthy as well as expensive, so make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into.

Also… be patient. My application in total took approximately 6/7 months, with only really 2 weeks of “definite” notice. While this is not typical, it could happen to you, so just be prepared for the unexpected, which is kind of a good attitude to have for coming to Korea in general, actually. All you truly need is an open mind and a sense of adventure, so if this sounds like you, then do it!!

Best of luck!!


  1. Hi I came across an artical on face book about teaching english to travel. While I am still working on my own degree, in education, I love the idea of seeing litterally a new world. I am just now starting to research it. My question is where do i go to get real info? I don’t want to get scammed.


  2. Shakeeb Ahmed May 21, 2015 at 7:03 am

    Hi Elizabeth,

    Great experiences of teaching while traveling.

    I have had 7+ years of corporate experience out of which Teaching has NONE. Now I want to switch my career to the teaching field. I am currently working in Saudi Arabia since last 5 years. I have few doubts to be cleared before I initiate for enrolling myself for the ESL course in UK.

    What are the Job prospects for the NON-NATIVE after completion of the course, because I find all jobs pertaining to English teacher requirement here in Saudi Arabia to be from the Native Speaker from the countries UK/US/Australia/New Zealand/Ireland/Canada.

    As I am an Indian (citizen), please suggest if there are jobs available for the non-native people particularly in Saudi Arabia.



    1. Good questions! I hope Elizabeth or a reader can chime in to help advise.


      1. Shakeeb Ahmed May 22, 2015 at 4:28 pm

        Yes Lillie

        It’s very important for me and the other aspirants from the NON-NATIVE countries to understand beforehand they go for the course. Also after spending the significant amount of money if they do not get the job, then that would be a very sad situation.

        Also I found that INTERNSHIPS are available to those applicants only who are from English speaking countries.

        Elizabeth please throw some light on it.


        1. Hi Shakeeb,

          Thanks for reading and for your comment. So in general from my experience it appears the majority of jobs for teaching English are advertised as native speakers only. However I have heard in certain countries in Asia (China definitely and I think Cambodia also) being a bit more relaxed about this and accepting those people with an exceptionally high level of English. As for Saudi Arabia I really can’t comment on this as I have never researched this myself however from what I gather they too require native speakers.

          Best of luck!


  3. I am so lost. I find myself reading one bit of personal literature stating that gaining a CELTA course is
    preferable. Then the next page I flick onto says online tefl course got me there and into a public school.
    I really dont know what the best choice is. I know also, that public school is my choice, hagwons donot interest me.

    Im worried about handing over $1400 to do an online course that just wont give me that you inch ahead of the competition.


    1. Hi Brittany,
      I hear you! There are so many options to choose from. The purpose of this site is to present a sorts of different real people’s stories to show that many paths are effective. Choose the one that you are most comfortable with, and you can make it work for you. In general, in-person course are more respected than online ones and open more doors, but as you can see, many people are able to make online courses turn into jobs. Best of luck!


    2. Hi Brittany!

      Thanks for your comment. I would echo Lille’s words above and say that in general in-person courses are
      More recognised and respected (and also more expensive) It depends where you want to teach as well. For Asia you don’t need a Celta however in Europe it’s necessary. I’m actually thinking to do one in the next while as I feel it will be a valuable tool and will always come in handy if like me you’re a bit of a nomad. If you have the funds I would recommend a Celta if not an online/weekend course as I did and that will definitely start you off anyway.

      Best of luck!!


      1. Thanks for your reply. Ive been wanting to teach for a couple of years and only the last 2-4 montha been in the position to go for it. Ive been agonosing over which course to do, still work at the same time, pay the courae fees up front etc and how to get a job. My mum wont talk to me about it anymore, she said “yoy’ve driven yourself insane, stop it!” Haha
        id been leaning toward the celta for some reasons you stated above, and hearing your words have helped me confirm it.
        I want an inch above the conpetition.
        I want to be a quality teacher with confidence.
        the flexability to teach adults as well as kids.
        higher pay bracket.
        opportunity to teach in other countries more easily.
        And if im going to pay 2/3 of the price of a celta to do an online basic tesol. I might as well do the celta.
        Saves doing it later.
        Ahhh… sigh of relief knowing what im doing. One step closer!


  4. Melissa Techman June 22, 2014 at 8:41 am

    My daughter will be studying Korean this fall at Ohio State Uni. and may want to teach English in Korea at some point, but she is very worried about her peanut allergy. Have any of you met foreigners in Korea with life-threatening food allergies? My guess is you read labels, don’t worry about offending people by not serving from communal bowls, carry your own alternatives – just as she does here in America! I know it would be helpful for her to talk to someone. Please keep me in mind and share my Twitter handle, @mtechman, or email: mtechman at k12albemarle dot org. Thanks!
    PS Elizabeth, thanks for a great article! Jeju looks gorgeous :)


    1. Hi Melissa! Thanks for your comment and apologies for the delay in getting back to you. As for your daughters peanut allergy, that may be a tricky one. I would advise her to stick to the big cities (Seoul, Busan) where English is commonly spoken and it is a bit more ‘western’ in general. I know in Jeju this would have been a problem as often you would communicate with people in restaurants at the most basic level. The thing with the majority of food in Korea is that a lot of the time it’s a shared communal experience (Korean BBQ for example) which is amazing but not so great when you have allergies etc. On the plus side what you see is what you get (meat, veggies, rice etc) so if peanuts were present they would be visible. The issue would be among their many soups and stews. Whilst they would all generally be made to a traditional recipe (in which you could check the ingredients in advance) you can never be sure what may be added. In general for anyone with any kind of food allergy I would recommend them to learn the Korean phrase of this, so they can tell this to the guys in the restaurants when they enter (I know vegetarians who did they and they generally got their point across!) Hope this helps!!



  5. Actually, I’ve given thought to teaching English in Korea (I’ve done so in Japan – with the infamous NOVA corporation and the JET Program), but as crazy as it sounds, the food scares me (I’m vegetarian). Anyway, I spent four days on vacation in Seoul (in March 2010) while I was in the JET Program, and I loved my time there. So I could see myself in Korea again.


    1. Hi Rashaad!

      Ah cool you were in Japan!! How was that for you as a vegetarian? I’m interested as when I was in Korea I did eat meat however now I do not. I regularly go to Korean food here in Dublin however have to say now my options are rather more limited. Plus, occasionally there have been crossed wires when inquiring whether a dish contains meat or not – a soup I believed was vege friendly once came chock a block full of squid so you just need to make sure you are super clear! However I wouldn’t let it told you back from going as Vegetarianism is on the up anyways so should be pretty straightforward (most of the time) to get something. The problem may just be when out for meals with your school colleagues and school lunches where meat is generally the main attraction. However this will just be another example of you being the ‘weird foreigner’ and believe me you’ll get used to this so you may as well roll with it!

      Best of luck whatever you decide!


      1. Thanks for your response!

        Actually, I’ve shelved any thoughts of teaching English in Korea as I would like to return to Japan (Unfortunately, I haven’t been in the Land of the Rising Sun since leaving in August 2010). But if I do return to Japan, I would like to certainly like to visit Korea again and explore other parts of the country – mainly the south.

        As for being a vegetarian in Japan, I picked up a bible for vegetarians in Japan – and that was a godsend because it mentioned so many vegetarian-friendly restaurants in Japan and recipes for vegetarian dishes. Although eating out in some situations was difficult, at several special occasions, a vegetarian meal was prepared for me, so I was fortunate. When I visited Seoul in 2010, I stayed with vegetarian CouchSurfers, so I was lucky.


  6. The elaborate demonstration in South Korea, resembles a modern day drum-line.


  7. I really enjoyed reading this story! I really like how you (Elizabeth) don’t give up on yourself and try. You said that the application took about 6/7 months! If I were you I would have given up, but you were really patient and in the end it all payed off! I was also very interested because I hear constantly on the news about North Korea and how people can’t go in nor out of the county, which I think is very sad. I’m really happy for you that you are able to follow your dream, although it is not in Japan. :D


    1. Hey Ariana, awh thanks so much for your kind words :) Yeah the process did require a lot of patience, and blind faith in some ways but you kinda just gotta hold in there and believe it’s all going to work out! Which thankfully it has. Yeah all the trouble with North Korea is very sad, but hopefully it wont escalate too much.


  8. Great and interesting story, Elizabeth. I really enjoyed reading it. I ‘ve dreamt a lot about teaching abroad but never had the courage to take action…


    1. Hey thanks! Just thought I’d give a real honest account for anyone considering it, just so you know what’s in store! I’d totally recommend it thou, and if you’re dreaming about it, then… why not make it come true! :)


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