In some cases, a teacher will be free to enter and exit a particular country with the minimum of hassle. For example, a teacher from Liverpool in England will be able to travel and work freely in any country which is part of the European Union (EU) so long as he or she pays his taxes in the proper manner. In this example the teacher usually does not even need to show a passport!
In other cases, it can be a long process. Thousands of ESL teachers go to South Korea each year, and the vast majority of them need to start the application procedure up to six months in advance of starting the actual job. This applies to teachers of all relevant nationalities (i.e. those from English-speaking countries).
In almost all cases you will need a passport, and it will need to be valid for at least six months plus ideally the length of the contract. Most teaching contracts last for one year, so it is best if you passport is valid for a minimum of 18 months. Note that you can apply for a new passport from overseas but it is much simpler to get a brand new one before you leave your home country. Who knows how long you will be away?
One thing is for certain, some countries have immigration stamps and stickers that are so large they take up the best part of an entire page in your passport. If you can order a ‘jumbo’ 48-page passport for an extra fee then it is probably worth it. It could amount to an extra 3 years or more of global travel.
In some countries, you will normally enter on a standard Tourist Visa. It may be technically illegal to work on a Tourist Visa but in many countries in Asia it is difficult to start the Work Visa process before you arrive. Tourist Visas can last for a variety of periods, depending on your nationality, but are generally between 30 and 90 days for most native English speakers. You may have to pay a fee such as $25 when you arrive but once again this depends on the country and your own nationality.
Native speakers from outside the EU often work in Europe on Student Visas or Working Holiday Visas for those aged between 18 and 30. These generally need to be arranged many weeks in advance and are reliant upon bilateral agreements between different nations. With regard to Working Holiday Visas, Americans are at a disadvantage here when compared to those from Australia, New Zealand and Canada who typically have more options in Western Europe.
It is often possible to obtain a Spousal Visa to live and work in your wife or husband’s country. Some countries allow this as soon as you have married whereas in others it can take up to five years for you to be eligible.
If you have children and they will be following you overseas then they will ordinarily be eligible for a Dependent Visa. Once again, it depends on the specific country.
In addition to entry visas, you will also need various other documents. The most obvious one is the original copy of your TEFL certificate. In some countries and in some schools it will have to have been notarized (to prove that it isn’t a fake).
In some nations you need a recent criminal records check. This is the case in Vietnam, Korea and Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This document has different names depending on where you are from but the aim is the same in all cases: to prove you do not have a criminal history.
Immigration rules in certain countries require you to have a recent health certificate proving that you are free from serious illnesses. Sometimes you need to take one with you from your home country, but usually you will be taken to see a local doctor once you have arrived.
In many cases you will need your original university degree certificate (and transcript, if applicable).
It is a good idea to take original, signed reference letters from at least two different referees.
Also remember to take several passport-style photos with you. It seems you can never have enough of these when travelling and working abroad. Rules in certain countries demand that the background is a certain colour. In Indonesia, for example, the photo should have a red background.
Most of the documents mentioned above are very important and difficult to replace. It is essential that you make good quality colour scans of all of them before setting out, and leave a USB thumb drive in your home country with them on and send an email to yourself with them all attached in case of emergency and/or for later use.