The internet has made us more connected today than ever, and amongst the memes, cat videos, and every-so-often a viral challenge that makes us question how humanity got so far (tide-pod challenge, we’re looking at you) it has also created an abundance of new opportunities for everyone who can access the world wide web. For many people, e-commerce (the selling and buying of good and services using the Internet) has opened up new avenues, giving them a chance to escape from the traditional 9-5 job with a flexibility and control over their lives that they might never have had before. Online tuition is a highly lucrative and burgeoning industry of this sector, and teaching English online is one area in particular that is rapidly growing.

how to become an esl teacher

With more than three hundred million Chinese taking English lessons, and approximately two billion people learning the language worldwide, one can see how English language instruction is a billion-dollar industry. With the right equipment and a little bit of guidance, you can have a piece of it too. Whilst it may seem daunting, it’s easier to get on board the teaching-train than you might think. In this guide, we’ll take you through the ins-and-outs of how to become an English online teacher, and before you know it, you’ll be up and running in no time.

If you’ve been looking for a career change because you feel stuck in a rut, want more control over your time, or are just searching for something more rewarding, then teaching English online could be for you!

What is Teaching English Online?

teaching esl online in 2020

Simply put, teaching English online is teaching English as a second language (ESL) to non-native speakers via the internet, with the use of a webcam and microphone (and a whole lot of patience). So, how to teach ESL online? It is usually done on a one-to-one basis, but it is possible to take group sessions also. Most people who teach English online do so via internet-based teaching platforms that connect teachers with students. Of course, you can be a wholly independent tutor also, but that requires a bit more setup from your side. Being an independent tutor has its pay-offs: not only will you be able to take home 100% of the revenues you earn, but you also have control over pricing, and so have the potential to make more.

However, you will have to find your pupils yourself which can be tricky especially if you have no established background or recommendations in this area. Signing up to an online teaching platform means a part of your student’s tuition fee (usually 10-15%) goes to the company rather yourself. However, these platforms do come with their ready-made client-base, making it easier to get started and get earning. Not only that, but you won’t need to spend time marketing yourself or navigating any commercial rules or regulations. Because of these reasons we strongly recommend at least starting with an established online platform first, before possibly moving on to an independent business model.

How Much Can You Make Teaching English Online?

The money that one can earn teaching English online varies, depending mostly on which company you sign up with, and how much time you want to dedicate per week to it. As an hourly rate, most companies look to pay between $12 and $25, but there are some slightly lower and some higher rates available. 

Do note that some companies (such as Palfish and iTalki) allow you to set your rate – however, if you set these too high without the commensurate experience, then you will find it harder to form a decent client-base. 

Cambly and Palfish are really popular apps that don’t actually require any teaching for their chat features. Here, you can simply log in and then talk with people to help them practice their English. This can be fun and interesting (although it gets boring after a while) and it is really easy to make money, but you won’t get much. You’ll probably earn a little below $10 per hour, which is half of what you could make at most teaching jobs. Still, there are no lesson plans and no bosses listening in on your calls. It’s probably your best shot at getting paid to talk about movies and football!

Real Numbers

VIPKid, one of the most well-known online tutoring companies out there, pays $15-$22 per hour, with the rate you get determined by several factors:

  1. Experience
  2. Application Interview
  3. Bonuses

Most companies will have certain minimum requirements (which we’ll come on to later), but this does not usually include history as a teacher. If you do have prior English teaching experience you should be placed at the higher end of VIPKid’s base-rate. In addition to any relevant experience, your application interview (which you can use to show off your natural teaching talents) will also determine where you end up on base. For VIPKid, base pay is $7-$9 per half-hour class (equating to $14-$18 per hour). 

(You can see some more advanced calculations about how much you could earn by teaching English online here.)

The rest of your hourly earnings will come down to incentive bonuses – these do vary from company to company, but with VIPKid it’s based on how many lessons you have taught in a month together with how many lessons you have taught overall. For Palfish, another online English teaching company, you receive bonuses for turning up on time, perfect attendance, and if one of your trial classes purchases further lesson packages. As you can see, you can boost your earning potential by the bonuses you accumulate, so it’s important to find a company that pays a decent bonus that works well with your skill-set.

Online ESL Referrals

One of the problems with the current state of ESL is the referral issue. In the past, when people only learned in classrooms, you had to watch out for crooked agents that would promise you the world and then deliver you to some hellish hagwon in a South Korean backwater (or was that just me?), but nowadays you even have to watch out for your fellow teachers.

If you go to any online forum or Facebook group, you’ll see what I’m talking about.

online esl teaching facebook group

The problem is that these companies want more teachers, so they offer referral bonuses. Now, you are bombarded with “teach for X company!” messages by people who swear blind that it’s a great company. Of course, they are only interested in getting as many sign-ups as possible in order to make more money.

What is Required?

A common question is what kind of experience or education is required to teach English online. By and large, the minimum education standard is a bachelor’s degree (in any subject), and a TEFL certification (a teaching certificate for Teaching English as a Foreign Language). No teaching experience is required usually. There are exceptions to the rule of course, so if you do find yourself without a bachelor’s degree, for example, don’t think the door is closed. For some employers, being enrolled in a four-year college program is sufficient, or having a BA is not even required.  

When it comes to getting TEFL-certified, there are many options available: online classes, in-person, or even a combination of both. You can participate both in your home country or abroad, with the standard duration being a hundred to a hundred and twenty hours of learning time. On average, that equates to ten to twelve weeks. As mentioned, whilst most employers will want to see a TEFL certificate on your application, not all do.  


ESL and TEFL qualifications are not always particularly hard to get and so you find a lot of people picking up cheap ones online. For some jobs, these are ok, but for serious schools you will need a reputable company to issue you with a certificate. You might want to try going for a CELTA but this will only qualify you to work with adults. (However, it shows that you are a good teacher and many places will still consider it for teaching kids.)

If you want to learn how to be an online ESL teacher, you might consider this course at FutureLearn. It’s run by Cambridge Assessment English. It will not count as a serious ESL qualification, but it might help you to teach better when you do get a job, and maybe it will put you a little above a similarly-qualified candidate.

Where to Find ESL Jobs?

There are loads of ESL job boards online nowadays and as there are so many companies dealing with online teaching, you’ll easily find something. One of the classic boards is called Dave’s ESL. I know, I know, it’s not a great name but its’ a good site. You can also find jobs advertised on Facebook but again please be careful not to simply believe people’s promises. You might want to check Google to find out if the job is legitimate or not. Here is a good Facebook group for finding ESL jobs.

After you know you’ve met the minimum requirements, you’ll want to apply. The application and interview process (up to employment) tends to go as follows:

  1. Register online and fill out an application form, detailing your previous experience and qualifications (you might need to submit a resume also)
  2. Initial interview or recorded introduction video (or both)
  3. Demonstration Lesson
  4. Orientation
  5. Start Teaching!

Can I teach English to A Non-Native Speaker If I Don’t Speak Their Language?

One of the biggest markets for teaching English online is China – but what if you don’t speak Mandarin? There’s no need to worry since the students and their parents are looking for an immersive learning experience where the class is taught 100% in English, making it easier for the student to pick up on accents, mannerisms and essentially develop a more natural fluency in the language than they might otherwise receive.

When I first began teaching in South Korea, I learned Korean and used it in my classes. Unfortunately, this actually hurt the students’ progress because they would try to speak with me in Korean too often. When they think you cannot speak their language, they will push themselves to speak yours.

However, it does help to know some of their language. Even if you don’t speak to them in it, you can listen to their problems and offer help more effectively.

What Are the Kind of Students, Class Sizes, and Hours Can I Expect?

Students can be from anywhere in the world and over a variety of age groups, but the target demographic for most online English teaching companies is Chinese students aged between four and sixteen years old. Class size will mostly be one-on-one sessions, perhaps with some small groups from time to time. It’s important to note that the peak teaching times for these students will be Beijing time after school during the week (6 pm-10 pm), or over the whole day at weekends (9 am-10 pm). If you are in Europe, the timings are probably going to be more ideal as they will mostly fall in the mornings or middle of the day. If you’re in the US, however, these timings roughly translate to early mornings (4 am-10 am) during the week or late evenings at the weekend (from 8 pm onwards).

The class itself can be anywhere between half-an-hour to an hour, but most will be thirty minutes. You might also be expected to fulfill a minimum number of hours during the week, such as seven-and-a-half hours, or perhaps two hours per day at least two days a week.

Should I be an Expert in English Grammar?

Quite simply, no you don’t need to be an expert… but it helps!

When I first started teaching ESL in 2007, my grammar was not great. Like most native speakers, I intuitively grasped it through experience but I had no formal training. Over the years, I have given myself a full education in English grammar and I now understand it well enough to teach it without a textbook. In fact, I wrote my own books:

I would strongly recommend picking up a textbook, going on a good website, or watching a YouTube playlist about grammar. Let’s face it, it would only take you 1-2 days to pick up a really good knowledge, and that’s not much time when you consider the potential benefits.

Do I have to Pay Taxes on My Earnings as an Online English Teacher?

Like any other independent, self-employed contractor you will indeed have to pay taxes as per your country’s regulations, and it will be up to you to file your taxes on time and report your earnings to the tax authorities. What this looks like differs from country to country, and will be determined by your citizenship and residency status of the country you are teaching from. Don’t forget that because you are teaching online, you can work from anywhere you like, and don’t have to be in your home country. This can have its tax benefits that you should take into account so that the money you earn goes a little further. 

NOTE: I am not a financial advisor so please consult with your accountant, financial advisor, or the laws in the country that you reside. The responsibility falls on your shoulders and no one else’s.

Americans and ESL-related Taxes

Let’s take the US as an example: if you are a US citizen teaching English online but earning this money abroad, then you might be able to pay less tax on your income. The “Foreign Earned Income Exclusion” (FEIE) means you won’t have to pay tax on the first $105,900 of your income earned abroad (rather than the $400 threshold it usually is if you’re working and earning in the US). To qualify for the FEIE, you need to be living abroad 330 days out of the tax year. Of course, if you are working in a different country to one that you are a citizen of, always check the relevant labor/visa laws.

If you are self-employed and working from home, you might also be able to take a tax deduction on your living expenses and housing costs such as mortgage payments, property taxes, the cost of electricity and internet, so when it comes to tax-time don’t forget to do your due diligence! 

Taxes will, unfortunately, affect how much you can earn from teaching English online, but at the same time, a good knowledge of how to make your earnings more tax-efficient will minimize the impact.

What Equipment Do I Need?

When it comes to the practical requirements of the job, technology is your friend. A fast and reliable wireless internet connection is a must, as well as a decent microphone and a well-lit room. Some companies require minimum internet speeds (e.g. a download speed of 20 Mbps) and make sure that you have a decent laptop or computer that performs well enough. The internet shouldn’t just be fast – it should also be reliable. I currently live in Cambodia and I can watch Netflix easily… but a Zoom call might cause problems because there are occasional moments when the connection dies.

Speaking of which, you should find out what platform you need to use. Most freelancer online ESL teachers are now using Zoom, but Skype used to be the most important. Others use WeChat, Messenger, or WhatsApp. However, many big teaching companies have their own platform that you should log into.

Beyond your technical-requirements, some of the students you can end up teaching will be young, some even four years old. Needless to say, young children do not always have the most focussed mindset even at the best of times, so flashcards, toys, and a whiteboard (with colorful markers) will always be helpful. 

When it comes to lesson materials and curriculums, these are provided by most companies – nonetheless, teachers are encouraged to prepare for classes by reading the materials beforehand. 

Coronavirus and Teaching English Online

All industries have in some way or another been affected by the coronavirus pandemic, and teaching English online is no different. With the uncertainty that surrounds the global economy together with the job losses that have been realized, it is a tough trading environment for everyone. The demand for English lessons has not gone down considerably, however, there is less money that can be afforded to teaching – that being the case, some teaching companies are starting many people off on lower base rates than they might have done previously, even when taking into account relative experience. Whilst that’s not great news, ESL companies are at least still very much teaching and hiring, and one feels that this (much like any other storm) should pass by eventually.   

Already, it seems to be passing in China, where life is more or less back to normal. As time goes by, we will probably see more and more people switching to online modes of education and so teaching ESL online will become a more attractive option… albeit a more saturated marketplace. Make sure that you get in early in order to avoid the crowds!


Whether you’re looking to provide a supplemental income to your current job or build a career that is both rewarding and flexible, teaching English online is a great option to take up. Indeed with the number of companies out there to help get you on your way, students willing to learn, and parents willing to pay, it is an exciting time for the industry and potential teachers too.

Let’s end on a summary of the benefits for people who teach English online:

  • Freedom to live/work anywhere
  • A good way to make money
  • Make a difference in someone’s life
  • Become independent
  • Cancel the commute and work from home

I think that just about sums it all up. Let us know if you have any questions. If you are specifically keen on teaching IELTS rather than basic ESL, you might find this post helpful.