I taught English in Thailand for almost seven years and, during that time, always had a work permit. Many western teachers in Thailand, however, teach English illegally or ‘under the table’, collecting their payments in cash, not paying taxes and without permission to do so. This type of illegal teaching also happens in other countries all over the world, with tens of thousands of would-be English teachers deciding to teach illegally every year – for whatever reason. But is it a good idea?
Frankly, no, it’s not, and here are several reasons why:
Don’t believe what a TEFL school tells you – I’ve lost count of the number of TEFL schools in Thailand that have told friends of mine who cannot get work permits “Don’t worry, just teach without one. Everybody does”. I’ve also seen articles on the websites of American and British TEFL schools telling would-be students the same thing.
Other than the fact that, no, not everybody does teach overseas illegally, when a TEFL school tells you it’s alright to do something illegal in any country of the world, keep one thing in mind. The TEFL school just wants you to pay to take their TEFL certification program, so they don’t care if a) you will be able to get a job with a work permit in the country you want to go to once you’ve completed their course or b) if you get arrested for working illegally once you’re there.
They may tell you it’s “okay to teach under the table overseas”, but if or when you get caught, you will be the one sitting in a jail cell or paying a heavy fine. Not them.
Not only working illegally but in the country illegally – In some countries, teachers who aren’t qualified enough to teach English and, therefore, not able to get a work permit often go there on a tourist visa. Some renew the tourist visa when it expires after three months, but others just let it expire and continue on with their lives as normal.
In Thailand, for instance, if you arrive on a tourist visa and then work while you’re on it, you are already immediately doing something illegal. If a Thai turns you in (and it has been known to happen), it’s often immediate arrest and a large fine, and usually deportation.
Someone I know in Bangkok had this happen to him a couple of years ago when he got into an argument with a Thai teacher and, in retaliation and knowing he was working illegally, the Thai teacher turned him into authorities. Days later, police arrived at his school and asked for his visa and work permit. When he couldn’t produce them, he was arrested and put in a jail cell awaiting trial.
Soon after, he was charged with both working and being in the country illegally – both of which carry separate punishments or fines if found guilty, After a fine of more than 35,000 baht ($1,130), he was deported. If he hadn’t have been able to pay the fine,however, he would have remained in jail for quite a bit longer.
Thailand is actually one of the countries that is often quite lenient on this matter, with nothing more serious than a fine and deportation as the consequence. Authorities, however, can be much stricter if they wish to be as the Thai Alien Working Act allows a judge to give up to five years in jail to any non-Thai caught working illegally, as well as a fine of up to 100,000 baht ($3,340).
In other countries, it can be an immediate mandatory jail sentence of several months or longer, so be very sure you want to take that risk before you teach under the table anywhere in the world.
Deportation can have long-term consequences – If you are deported from a country for working illegally, officials of that country have a record of your deportation as does the United States government or any other country’s government you might be a citizen of. That means it stays on your record, and could come back to haunt you at a later time.
Some countries also have a list of people who have been deported from the country and who are not allowed to re-enter for a set period of time. That could mean you get a legitimate job offer in that country at a later date, but cannot accept it as you’re not allowed to be there.
Thailand has a list your name will go on if you are deported and you will not be allowed back in the country for 10 years.
No benefits or vacations – In many cases, people who teach illegally overseas or ‘under the table’ don’t earn benefits or vacations, just the cash-in-hand salary. That means while fellow teachers who do have a work permit and are working legally are getting paid for three to four weeks vacation every year, you won’t be. Neither will you be getting health care, cash bonuses or any of the other perks teachers with work permits often get.
Teaching overseas illegally might sound like it’s an acceptable thing to do, as so many people do it. In reality, if you are one of the thousands of teachers worldwide who are caught, jailed, fined and deported every year, you may not think it’s acceptable at all.
Go overseas to teach English and get a work permit and, if you don’t have the qualifications to do so, either get them or go to a country that does allow you to work legally. It really is the right thing to do.