Teaching Abroad: Going Solo vs Using an Agency

teaching abroad

Overseas travel has become more popular than ever in recent years. From backpackers to digital nomads, people are finding more ways to explore the world. If you haven’t found a way to fund your travels digitally, and you aren’t keen on the idea of backpacking, exploring the world can seem like a pipe-dream. It doesn’t have to be.

Have you ever given consideration to teaching abroad?

A more traditional way to fund overseas travel is by teaching English. In most cases, all you need is a college degree and a passport from an English-speaking country.

There are generally two ways in which you’ll find a job teaching abroad. You can go on your own, or you can opt to go through a program. For those do-it-yourself types, this is a no-brainer, but everyone else, we’ll explore the merits of each option.

Going Solo:


  • You have complete control over your location and school. If you decide you want to work in a specific part of Thailand or some other country, you can exclusively search in that area. You also pick the school in which you’ll work. There are few things worse than an underwhelming work environment. Those issues are compounded when you’re teaching abroad, and you don’t like your boss. When you go solo, you get to do a bit of recon on the school, the neighborhood, and your boss before you decide to take the job or not. There is an industry-standard for English teachers in most parts of the world, but sometimes, you can negotiate your contract. If you possess a set of particular skills that the school plans on utilizing in addition to teaching English, you can try to negotiate a bump in salary.
  • You won’t pay agency fees. Agencies are very helpful, but we cannot forget that they’re in the business of making money. Avoiding agency fees will go a long way to funding your travel while you’re teaching abroad.
  • You work on your timetable. The pressure of agency deadlines can be quite stressful. You might not want to deal with the prospect of losing your deposit because you missed a drop-dead date.
  • There is no application process. One of my pet peeves is an essay question. Nobody wants to write a thesis statement in which they have to wax poetic for 500 words about why they’re choosing a particular agency or location. The answer is usually quite simple. I think this place is cool, and I need you to help me get there. When you go solo, you usually don’t have to answer those tedious essay questions.


  • You will be on your own. A lack of in-country support is one of the primary negatives of teaching abroad without an agency. There’s no better feeling than making a phone call to have a situation handled on your behalf. If you choose to go solo, you are the support system, so you’d better do your research and examine your contract carefully.
  • You will likely have to handle the visa process yourself. Certain countries have difficult and tedious visa processes that will leave you sucking your thumb in the fetal position. You’ll need to spend a lot of time reading about the visa application process instead of having it spoon-fed to you by your agency.
  • There won’t be an intermediary between you and your school. In some situations, it’s helpful to have a third-party involved in any work-related issues you have while abroad. It isn’t uncommon for schools to steamroll English teachers who didn’t use an agency, because they know there isn’t anyone watching them. They practically have free-reign to do as they please. If you educate yourself on the rules of the region and learn your rights as a foreigner, life can be difficult for you. It’s something you should take into consideration.

If You Choose to Go Alone:

If you choose to find a teaching job on your own, be sure to research standard teacher contracts for that region. Schools will try to get away with paying you below market value. Get to know the market for your services before hunting for a job.

Find Facebook groups and forums that will connect you with people who are teaching or have taught in your desired location. Talk to them and learn about the questions you should ask prospective employers. Learn about common practices in that part of the world, and use your new contacts to get an idea of what you should expect.

Using an Agency:

using an agency
Photo courtesy of Pexels


  • You are practically guaranteed to find a job. Agencies have large networks, so they can cast a wider net than you could ever hope to on your own. One of the primary benefits of working through an agency is the peace of mind that comes with knowing you’ll have a job waiting for you upon arrival.
  • You’ll receive in-country support. I cannot emphasize enough how crucial in-country support can be when you feel like the walls are closing in on you, and you have no idea of what to do. Visa issues? Housing issues? General questions? Make a call to your friends back at the agency, and everything usually resolves itself.
  • The agency will function as an intermediary between you and the school. If you have difficulty at work, the school is less likely to treat you poorly. Schools that hire English teachers through an agency sign a contract and pay a fee for access to teachers. Schools that violate the terms of their contract or receive bad ratings from teachers get blackballed by agencies. Because of this, schools normally do everything they can to make your situation tenable for the duration of your stay.
  • You will get help obtaining your visa. Your visa is probably the most important document that you’ll have while you’re abroad. It indicates that you have a right to be there and are not in the country illegally. Also, you can’t start working without it. If you are trying to navigate the visa process on your own, it’s very easy to make a mistake and potentially cost yourself a job. Good agencies take the guesswork out of it and will at least provide you with a step-by-step guide to the process. Cons:
  • You will pay for agency fees. As I mentioned earlier, these guys are in the business of making money, so there’s no way around that. Some agencies are more expensive than others, but in most cases, you will get what you pay for.
  • You might get a lower salary from your new employers. Since schools must also pay agencies a fee for access to their teachers, it’s common practice to recoup that fee from your salary. When I found my first teaching job overseas through an agency, my salary was $230 per month lower than the teachers who came on their own. You’re essentially paying the agency twice.
  • You may not get to pick your location or your school. When you choose to have an agency do the hunting for you, they usually ask you for a list of preferred locations. They guarantee you a job, but they don’t guarantee your placement in any of them. Agencies keep you from bypassing them and dealing with the school directly by withholding important details. If the agency was to put you in direct contact with the school, you wouldn’t need them anymore. There would be a temptation to renege or your end of the agreement. Because good agencies are aware of this, you generally won’t find out everything about the school until after you’ve accepted the job and paid the rest of your agency fees.
recruitment agency
Photo courtesy of Pexels

If You Choose To Use an Agency:

If you decide to find a teaching job through an agency, do your homework! When I was researching agencies for my first trip abroad, I read numerous accounts of people who had been scammed out of their money with nothing to show for it.

One “agency” sent me an e-mail with a fraudulent job offer full of photos, salary information, and neighborhood information. It was too easy, and it appeared too good to be true, so I went on ripoffreport.com and did my homework on the agency. Sure enough, there was a story from a person who had paid money for the service and purchased his plane ticket to Spain.

When he showed up to work on the first day of school, the institution had no idea who he was. There was no job, and they had never even heard of the agency that he used. This poor man was stranded in Spain with no job, no money, no return ticket home, and no prospects. I wish I could remember the name of the agency because I would surely tell you.

This person made a couple of big mistakes that I’ll quickly address. First, he never made contact with the school. You should always establish contact with your prospective employer. Even if it’s only to confirm your position and expected arrival date, make contact before you purchase a plane ticket.

If you find the job on your own, you’ve likely made contact with the school already, so you don’t have to worry about this part. If you’re using an agency, doublecheck before hopping on that plane. Be careful!

Second, he didn’t save enough money before getting on the plane. You should always have more money than you think you’ll need. I recommend saving three months of your expected salary before heading abroad. Your goal should be to have enough money to absorb an unexpected financial hit while maintaining the flexibility to leave the country in an emergency should you have to.

In addition to ripoffreport.com, I also like to check agency reviews on gooverseas.com. You should read customer reviews, go through the company’s website with a fine-toothed comb, and reach out to people in the travel community if you can.

Here is a video with some helpful tips on avoiding scams. The speaker is a bit monotone, but he offers some good advice:

Final Thoughts:

Whether you’re taking a break from the “real world,” or you have a genuine passion for education, finding a teaching job abroad can be problematic.

For my first attempt at teaching abroad, I chose to go with an agency. I had no idea where to start, and I wasn’t big on research either. Going through an agency allowed me to relax and have someone else do the heavy lifting for me. Now that I’m an experienced traveler, I do everything myself. If I had it to do over, I’d probably make the same choice. I wanted the reassurance and support that came with an agency.

I recommend going solo for people who are self-starters. You may have a bit more trouble dealing with the visa process, but you’ll save a lot of money on agency fees. The money you save will help you establish yourself in your new home or fund a few adventures.

Have a question or concern that wasn’t addressed in the article? Leave your question(s) in the comment section.

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frustrated teacher looking at chalkboard
A teacher leading a lesson in the forest

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