The Ultimate Guide to TEFL Certification for Americans Who Want to Teach Abroad

by Published

Everything you need to get TEFL certified

Earning your TEFL certification is the first step every aspiring ESL teacher must take toward landing their first job teaching English abroad. Far more than just a necessary qualification, English teaching certification programs will equip you with a fundamental toolkit that will be essential to finding success in the early days of your TEFL job abroad. 

Yet the sheer amount and diversity of programs out there that offer TEFL degrees can, understandably, make this first step feel overwhelming. Where to even begin? Here we’ve compiled some key pointers to help you make sense of TEFL requirements, the accreditation process, and ultimately finding a job abroad. 

Group of students smiling, sitting, listening to TEFL instructor who is handing out worksheets

Class is in session! Don’t forget to bring something to write with and on.

Here’s a snapshot of all the TEFL goodness that is to come:

  1. What is TEFL?
  2. What is TEFL certification?
  3. Getting your TEFL certificate online
  4. Getting TEFL certified abroad
  5. The importance of accredited TEFL programs
  6. TEFL requirements
  7. The cost of TEFL certifications
  8. Who provides the best TEFL certification?
  9. Advice to help you choose your TEFL course
  10. Alternatives to TEFL, like TESOL & TOEFL
  11. BONUS: About TEFL jobs abroad
  12. Additional resources

Wow! Let’s get this TEFL party started. Here’s a complete guide to TEFL certification for Americans who want to teach abroad:

What is TEFL?

Now then - exactly what is TEFL? TEFL stands, rather straightforwardly, for “Teaching English as a Foreign Language.” It is the most commonly used acronym for this broad field of global education, but there are a few others you should be familiar with from the outset. TESOL, which stands for “Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages” is typically used interchangeably with TEFL. 

You will see many programs offering TESOL certifications or TESOL degrees; the technical difference is that TEFL implies teaching English to second-language speakers in a non-English speaking country, while TESOL implies teaching English to second-language speakers in a native-English speaking country. This difference has become largely etymological, though, and TEFL and TESOL degrees are accepted interchangeably by most employers.

[Get matched with TEFL programs]

Some other important acronyms to know: ESL stands for “English as a Second Language” and is often used in reference to students of the language. ELT stands for “English Language Teaching” and is used inversely. TOEFL stands for “Test of English as a Foreign Language” — this is an English language proficiency test that your pupils will often be working toward, administered by schools and employers worldwide.

For more information the differences between the different types of certification, check out our article breaking down what makes each degree unique. You’ll see these acronyms crop up a lot as you delve into your research TEFL courses, so it’s good to have an idea of what they mean in the literal sense. Now moving on to the substance behind them.

What is TEFL certification?

TEFL certification is the training during which you will learn the fundamentals of teaching English as a second language. Over the course of a minimum 120 hours, you will be equipped with a deep well of linguistic knowledge and educational skills ranging from lesson planning to classroom management and beyond. Most entry-level ESL teaching jobs around the world will require a TEFL or TESOL degree in order for you to be considered for employment, so this should be considered a mandatory prerequisite if you are serious teaching abroad.

What are the types of TEFL certification?

While a TEFL and TESOL degrees are industry standard qualifications, there is a good deal of variation within the training process itself. TEFL certification demands a minimum 120 hours of course study, which commonly correlates to a four week intensive program (six hours of classroom study per week day). 

Many accredited TEFL courses will thus offer four-week courses as the standard option, with the opportunity to add on top of this additional hours practicing in front of a classroom or specializing in a specific area of ESL teaching, such as business English. These more in-depth options will often be listed as”premium” courses and may also offer a higher level of TEFL or TESOL accreditation. 

There are many more variations to the basic 120-hour TEFL certification course: part-time courses lasting for multiple months, courses for college credit that will earn the equivalent of a TEFL degree, hybrid courses that blend in-classroom sessions with supplemental computer lesson, and even paid internships that can offer TEFL or TESOL accreditation. 

These are all well worth exploring as part of your research in finding the right program. The most common alternative, however, is undoubtedly the TEFL course online.

[TEFL Certification Online vs. Classes: Which is Right for You?]

Students sitting in front of whiteboard working independently, chatting, etc.

Earning your TEFL certification is the first step every aspiring ESL teacher must take toward landing their first job teaching English abroad.

Yes, you can get your TEFL certification online...

In-classroom accredited TEFL courses are a great option because they offer you the opportunity to learn and practice teaching in person, which is what you will be doing as an ESL teacher abroad. For many aspiring educators, though, a full-time one month course is simply not feasible given scheduling or financial constraints. In this case, a TEFL course online can be a flexible, affordable alternative.

TEFL certification online requires the same minimum 120 hours of ESL training, but allows participants to largely determine their own schedule. This means you can sit down for a lesson whenever you have the time, and at the end of the TEFL course online you will be accredited with the same TEFL degree that you would be awarded for an in-classroom course. Earning your TESOL or TEFL certification online is therefore a perfect option for those who are already busy with their studies or a full-time job.

… You can even get your TEFL abroad

If you really want to go all in for your TEFL certification, thought, then why not start the travel leg of your journey early? Many English teaching certification programs have branches all over the world, meaning that you can enroll to earn your accreditation in the same country you plan on getting employed for TEFL abroad. Of course, you aren’t restricted to this option. Earning your TEFL abroad is the opportunity to weave a one-month residency in your global city of choice into the teaching ESL abroad experience.

Not convinced? Here’s 10 more reasons why you should look into enrolling in a TEFL course abroad.

Why you should care accredited TEFL courses

Now that you know the logistics, you might ask yourself, is it really worth it? Quite simply, yes—because it’s the best way to get employed. It’s true that there are some loopholes out there that will enable you to get a gig teaching English abroad without earning a TEFL or TESOL degree, but these are mostly unreliable. Enrolling in an accredited TEFL or TESOL course is the only way to ensure that you will be accredited to land a job teaching English abroad. And once earned, your qualification will never expire.

What’s more, beyond the logistical aspect, an accredited TEFL course will actually qualify you for a position teaching ESL students. Teaching is a two-way street, and you want to ensure that both you and your students are getting the most out of the experience. Throughout the duration of your TEFL course, you will be trained rigorously to a point where you are genuinely qualified to teaching English as a second language. You could wing it, but in the end this will likely only shortchange both you and your students.

[Here’s Why You Need an Online TEFL Course with Teaching Practice]

Woman in grey sweater with maroon headphones, smiling and working independently on laptop

Online TEFL classes allow you to move at your own pace and work more independently.

Are there TEFL requirements?

There are no hard set pre-requirements to enrolling in English teaching certification programs; just being a native English speaker and willing to pay the program fees is typically enough to get you started. However, upon graduation, many schools abroad may impose additional expectations upon potential employees.

Many, for example, will require that you also possess a college degree in order to be considered for employment in an ESL teaching job abroad (a high school degree will be enough in regions where demand is high enough). Prior teaching experience and additional credentials could also be expected in certain countries. Be sure to do your research and familiarize yourself with some of these post-graduation expectations before you sit down to decide on the best-fit TEFL program, so there are no surprises along the way.

How much is TEFL certification?

Like any other degree or accrediation, TEFL certification isn’t free. In-classroom English teaching certification courses generally cost $1,000-$2,000 in program fees; this price will fluctuate depending on factors such as the specific TEFL accreditation company you enroll with, if you enroll in a course at home or abroad, and if you take on additional hours or upgrade to a premium program.

As mentioned, online TEFL certification is the more affordable option, generally costing a few hundred to several hundred dollars, with a wide variation between program providers. You can expect more highly-esteemed TEFL certification providers to charge more for accreditation. For a detailed explanation of different cost estimates on how much it is for TEFL certification, check out our article on Breaking Down the Cost of TEFL Certification.

[Save & compare your favorite TEFL courses with MyGoAbroad]

Two TEFL students in discussion with instructor

In-class TEFL certification courses allow you to work more collaboratively and have discussions.

Who provides the best TEFL certification?

ita logo

1. International TEFL Academy

International TEFL Academy is one of the most best TEFL certification course providers in the industry, training thousands of educators every year to land ESL teaching jobs abroad. Offering dozens of on-site locations worldwide in addition to flexible online courses, this is a certified company with which you can rest assured you’ll get a complete return on your investment. They also offer lifetime job search guidance worldwide.

RELATED: Read Reviews of International TEFL Academy Programs |

i to i tefl logo

2. i-to-i TEFL

I-to-i TEFL has been around for over two decades and has trained over 150,000 ESL teachers in that time. It has been one of the best TEFL certification course providers for many years running, and continues its trend of excellence with positive reviews across the board. Upon graduation, you can benefit from exclusive access to their jobs board featuring hundreds of listings for TEFL abroad employment.

RELATED: Read Reviews of i-to-i TEFL Programs |

premier tefl logo

3. Premier TEFL

Premier TEFL helps to set the industry standard high for a TEFL course online. If you’re looking to get your TEFL certification online, then look no further. You’ll have three months to complete the training at your own convenience, after which you’ll be read to trek off into the world and begin your TEFL abroad journey.

RELATED: Read Reviews of Premier TEFL Programs |

maximo nivel logo

4. Maximo Nivel

Maximo Nivel is perennially considered one of the best TEFL certification providers, and differs from other TEFL abroad training courses in that it specializes within Spanish-speaking countries. With TEFL qualification programs located all across Latin America, you’ll have a unique chance to familiarize yourself within the region before you jump into a teaching position abroad.

RELATED: Read Reviews of Maximo Nivel Programs | Visit their site

ittt tefl logo

5.  International TEFL and TESOL Training

International TEFL and TESOL Training gives you the chance to either enroll in a TEFL course online or go become certified for TEFL abroad. With programs all over the world, you’ll be ensured one of the best TEFL certification trainings on the market whichever way you go. They also offer professional guidance throughout your TEFL abroad career after graduation.

RELATED: Read Reviews of International TEFL and TESOL Training Programs |

Which TEFL course should I take?

It’s important that you don’t just settle on the first provider you come across; do your research into an array of different TEFL and TESOL programs to ensure that you land on the best fit for your own personalized learning experience. Some questions you should be asking yourself along the way are: How much time do I have to complete my program? How much am I willing to spend? Am I a better audial or visual learner? Do I learn better in a group or by myself? How experienced of a traveler am I? Do I have teaching experience? How familiar am I with the language and culture of the country I want to teach in? Would I feel comfortable jumping immediately into a position, or will a training period be helpful?

The big thing is, simply  to make that first step and get started looking. Scan through as many programs as you can, flag the ones that stand out to you, then go back and read reviews on all of them to narrow down your list even further. A world of opportunity is out there teaching English abroad, just waiting to be filtered down to the perfect landing spot. 

[How Far in Advance Should I get TEFL Certified?]

Three TEFL students working independently on assignments

Practice lesson planning and learn the best tactics for classroom management.

Other English teaching certification programs

Here, we break down the subtle differences between TEFL and TOEFL certification, TESOL programs, TESL, ESL certification, and TEFL degrees.

TOEFL - TESOL - TESL - TEFL Certification — What’s the Diff?

Earning a TEFL certificate isn’t the only way to get trained to Teach English abroad. Many accredited providers will offer a degree that is equivalent to a TEFL qualification, with some small twists and specializations. There’s a whole lot of acronyms out there in the field of teaching English abroad - we’ll try to clear some more up here, but check out this in-depth article for a more detailed breakdown. 

ESL Certification / ESL Certification Classes

ESL stands for English as a second language, and is used equally to apply to both students and teachers of the English language. While a ESL certification is often accepted in lieu of its TEFL counterpart, and vice versa, the technical difference between the two is that ESL certifications are geared toward teaching non-native English speakers that are living in an English speaking country. If you’re planning on teaching English as a second language in your home country, then this could be a good option to look into.

TOEFL Certification

TOEFL stands for Test of English as a Foreign Language, and is often a must-pass for ESL students who intend on studying or working in an English-speaking country. The TOEFL certification is what many of your students will be working towards, especially if they themselves intend on living abroad someday. TOEFL teacher certification trains teachers not just to educate their students in the English language, but also instill in them the strategies needed to master the all-important test itself.

TESOL Programs

TESOL stands for Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, and is on par with a traditional TEFL or TESL certification. TESOL programs are the newest variety of ESL teaching accreditation, aiming to instill in their teachers strategies for teaching English to second-language speakers in both native and non-native English speaking countries. TESOL certification is often accepted as an equal alternative to ESL and TEFL certifications.

TEFL Degree

Lastly, if you want to go all in with the field of teaching English as a second language, then you may consider pursuing a TEFL degree. TEFL degrees are mostly conferred at the Master’s level, for which an undergraduate education in a field such as linguistics, English, or education makes a great pairing. A TEFL degree can be a very valuable and useful product if you are bent on becoming an expert in the field. That being said, it may not hurt to get some field experience with TEFL abroad before you fully commit.

[5 TEFL Programs that Basically Guarantee Job Placement]

Two young black women standing against wall and going over worksheets

We know you’re going to ACE your TEFL course!

BONUS: The lowdown on TEFL jobs abroad

Finally, after you get TEFL certification, the natural next step is to begin looking for TEFL jobs abroad. Many TEFL and TESOL programs offer lifetime job placement assistance after graduation, meaning that you’ll always have a primary resource to go to for help with connections to employers across the world. Online resources such as GoAbroad’s Teach English Abroad Directory also feature hundreds of TEFL jobs abroad that you can apply to directly.

As you begin looking for jobs teaching English abroad, you’ll discover there is significant variation in availability, requirements, and compensation for jobs between different regions of the world. For example, there are large markets for ESL teachers in China and Southeast Asia, so TEFL jobs are widely available and compensation is fairly good in these regions. Europe, on the other end, is a more competitive market for ESL teaching jobs, so pre-requisites are often higher and compensation relatively lower.

For more information jobs teaching abroad, check out GoAbroad’s extensive collection of teach abroad articles — including those on the best programs for teaching English abroad and the highest paid teaching jobs abroad.

More articles to help you get TEFL certified

Now that you’re ready to roll with some background knowledge on English teaching certification programs, it’s time to get go out and get TEFL certified. Check out some more articles on earning your TEFL certification — such as 

Read up on an array of programs and reach out to your top few choices. Then, once you’ve landed on a final decision and are ready to apply, it’s time to pull the trigger. 

Yup—TEFL certification is the new black

Becoming TEFL certified is just the first step toward what will be a deeply impactful experience teaching abroad, both for you and your students. As our modern day lingua franca, English is an extremely valuable skillset that will open up entirely new avenues of success for your pupils. At the same time, you will likely find yourself learning more from your hosts than you could ever hope to teach them in return.

Some ESL teachers choose to live abroad for a year or two, while others make a career out of teaching English to second language speakers. The only way you’ll know where you fit into that spectrum is by taking the first step; enroll in a TEFL certification course, study hard to absorb as much material as possible, then set out to land a job in the destination of your dreams. This is just the beginning; from here on, let your educational path unfold as it will.

Find TEFL jobs abroad y’all