Should You Use a Recruiter to Find a Teaching Job in China?

Should You Use a Recruiter to Find a Teaching Job in China?
Dec 23, 2022 By Alex Schofield ,

As the insatiable demand for English teachers has grown in China over the last 20 years, so too has the number of recruiters working to pair schools and foreign teachers together. While a recruiter can help remove a lot of the hassle for first time ESL English teachers, many people (including myself) have horror stories to tell. With this in mind, here are some prudent steps to take if you decide to use a recruiter to find a teaching job in China.

use a recruiter to find a teaching job in China

A cautionary tale

When I first came to China in 2009, I was hired by a UK-based company that worked in tandem with a Chinese recruiter. During my two-month nightmare, nothing that was promised came to fruition. I was lied to about my salary, housing, benefits and school type and never even got a work visa. Worse yet, there were threats of violence that culminated in the recruiter nearly attacking me when I said I was leaving the company and had secured a position on my own.

Obviously, such extremes are rare. When using a recruiter to find a teaching job in China, however, you should always remember that you're merely a commodity in a financial transaction. As a result, you may find yourself becoming a victim of lies and deception if you’re not careful about who you’re dealing with.

Let’s take a look at when you might want to use a recruiter and how you can ensure you’re not taken for a ride.

When should you consider using a recruiter to find a job in China?

In theory, recruiters should make it easier to find a job in China. As you need to do due diligence on your recruiter and any job they put before you, however, I’m not convinced it’s the easy option. If—for whatever reason—you are having tremendous difficulty finding work by yourself in China, however, you may want to consider it.

Unfortunately, discrimination based on skin color, country of origin and/or age is commonplace in China. If you’re looking for English teaching jobs and are “non-white," over 50 and from a country whose native language is not English, there is a chance you might struggle. Many employers will request a photograph with an applicant’s CV simply to ensure the teacher "looks the part.” This is particularly prevalent at private language institutions where there is a long-held belief that white people are best for business. If you find yourself at the mercy of these ridiculous stereotypes, a recruiter with good guanxi could help you get a foot in the door.

Due diligence when using a recruiter

Of course, anybody, from anywhere and of any age and skin tone can use an agent if they wish. If you decide to go down this route, it’s best to use someone who’s been recommended by other expats in China. If you’re going in blind, at least Google the recruiter and their company and try to ascertain if they have any black marks against their names.

If you get to the stage of signing a contract, make sure your contract is with the school itself and not with the recruiter. If your contract is with the recruiter, he or she is basically working as an unnecessary middleman in the teacher-school relationship. The recruiter may even try to make you hop schools regularly to maximize their own returns, as they’ll be paid commission with every new role you take up. In relation to this, never give an agent any money. A reputable recruiter should be paid a one-off "finder's fee" by the school and should not ask you for payment at any point.

Before signing on the dotted line, try to contact the hiring institution directly and qualify every important point in the contract, such as salary, visa provision, working hours, holidays and accommodation. Leave no stone unturned, and don't worry about being perceived as difficult or demanding. Your fact-finding efforts will show you’re serious about your new position and are an efficient and thorough person.

Also be sure that the school itself, not the recruiter, pays your salary. The recruiter should simply be a broker that helps you find a job. Once you are placed in that role, their involvement in the relationship should cease.

Red flags

There are several things to be on your guard against when using an agency or a recruiter to find teaching jobs in China.

If you’re applying for a job from outside China and an agent advises you to enter the country on an L or F visa on the promise that it will be converted to a work visa once you arrive, I seriously advise looking elsewhere. This was exactly what happened to me in 2009 and one of the most common scams that unwitting would-be teachers find themselves targeted with.

Although you can indeed convert a business or tourist visa into a working visa while in China, you cannot work on either and have no real guarantee that your working visa will ever arrive. If it is the school that’s offering this kind of L/F to work visa conversion, they may be concealing the fact that they are not licensed to hire foreign teachers by SAFEA. Otherwise, they might just be unwilling to go through the trouble of getting you a work visa until they’ve seen you teach in person. I’m sure you’ll agree that flying to China for a job interview is hardly worth it.

Also look out for any agency that refers to itself as "government approved.” As nothing of the sort exists, they are lying to you from the get-go. Although there is a license for agencies that recruit foreigners, none can claim to be approved by the government. If such claims are made, you can be sure they are false.

Another tactic used by unscrupulous recruiters is to advertise very attractive fake positions in order to collect applicants' contact information. The bogus positions will boast excellent salaries and benefits, but, when enquiring about them, an applicant will be told they are no longer available. The recruiter will later tell the applicant about other (real) positions that are far less attractive. If you deal with an agent whose most attractive openings regularly disappear as soon as you ask about them, this is likely the reason.

Recruiters on TEFL websites

TEFL websites are the main portal through which teachers (especially those outside of China) acquire their positions in China. As a result, China TEFL websites can be rife with dodgy agents. Remember that an advert is not necessarily endorsed by a TEFL website just because it appears there.

When replying to an ad you see on one of these sites, therefore, do the due diligence mentioned above and be sure to clarify any ambiguous wording. Some recruiters deliberately try to mislead applicants into believing that they are in fact the hiring institution, such as a school. They do this simply because they know that recruiters in the TEFL industry have a deservedly bad reputation. A reputable agent will always be very clear and upfront about who they are and what they do.

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RED FLAG RED FLAG RED FLAG I agree that most recruiters are terrible. One such horrible recruiter who has cheated both me and many of my associates is ISAC Teach in China. They do all the usual ... offer high paying jobs then come back with, sorry, that job isnt available, but a much lower paying one is, or, placing people in jobs where the interaction is so dodgy, you don't even want to bother going to the Chinese labor department. Their website is also fully fabricated, and much of the content on there is a lie. Their institutions and univnersities also ironically change job descriptions immediately following the contract signing. Over 20 cases so far of dodgy dealings with this company. On several occassions, they have provided contracts that are very different to the ones seen and signed when arriving in China to work at the employer. Very very different. They have even requested that some of my associates pay under teh table for better service. STAY AWAY form ISAC Teach in China, they are dirty and shoudl be avioded at any cost.

Jun 27, 2024 21:48 Report Abuse


Thank you for this article. Provides a lot of food for thought and helps with due diligence.

Jan 19, 2023 09:31 Report Abuse


Most recruiters are really bad. There are a few good ones but they are very rare. I think any school that does a direct hire is a cut above the rest. So it's actually better to try and get a direct hire with a school and bypass recruiters.

Jan 04, 2023 14:28 Report Abuse


The problem with recruiters is that the inherent issues with employers in China are exasperated. Contracts provided for inspection are often different from what is actually signed on arrival. Recruiters are there to sell a product.. not to get you the best position based on your desires. They're not there for the candidate, and only really represent themselves. Therefore, there is always a risk. There's the same risk with going direct, but it's increased with recruiters who know better than schools how to play with the rules, or the issues of Chinese/English translation. Saying that, recruiters are often the best chance at getting specialised roles, or particular locations. The candidate just has to do their due diligence.. but that's hard to do with China. TBH considering the way the Chinese TEFL market has developed over the last decade, there's little reason to use a recruiter. It's not like Korea or Japan where recruiters have locked down the market so much.

Dec 29, 2022 17:34 Report Abuse


any 'recruiter' that requires you to sign something on arrival is clearly not to be trusted. On receipt of ANY Chinese document, it should be translated (and questioned) prior to signing. Likewise, never believe someone who says 'trust me' unless they have demonstrated they are trustworthy. The foreigner is a commodity to be traded.

Dec 29, 2022 21:54 Report Abuse