Teaching in Taiwan: Is it Worth it?

A lot of recent college grads and world travelers have likely considered the idea that they could move to Taiwan for a while, work in a cram school, learn some Chinese and experience some local culture.

A lot of advice on the internet is that you should move here for at most a year, learn whatever you can and figure yourself out, save whatever you can, don't party too hard, and keep yourself focused on your end goals.

Hard truths before we even start :
You won't learn Mandarin in a year unless you're already gifted in language.
It's not a good place to show up to become Mr. Ladies man and exploit your foreignness. The island is VERY over the exotic foreigner thing. Take our word for it.
You probably will get relatively little in the way of local experience in your first year because you're seen as a long term tourist and can't get access to the stuff you really want because you don't know anyone.
It's not on par with Seoul, Hong Kong, or Tokyo for nightlife, small artists, musicians, 24/7 living or underground culture.
You're not going to save a lot of money.
You won't find a career or experience towards your desired career.

There's more discussion on this blog here.

Can you figure yourself out in Taiwan?

Yes ? Obviously? You can figure yourself out anywhere. Travel certainly can help push your limits, although just seeing a new place likely isn't enough to push yourself. Luckily for you a new language and new food and having no friends to start out will pose enough safe challenges to make you feel good about yourself.

The rest of this article speaks to the question "can you save money working in Taiwan"?

Your total savings in one year while teaching English to kids 20 hours a week, living the most basic life you could safely budget without travel, taking Mandarin classes, and eating locally except one meal a week will leave you with 232,240 NTD in savings.

If you take Mandarin classes, travel one week in Taiwan and take one budget overseas vacation you'll save 128,890 NTD in a year.

If you come for only six months, take no classes or trips and still live a simple life you'll save 70,020 NTD.

If you do 6 months and do the week long trip and one overseas trip you'll save 48,020 NTD.

Expect to save even less if you live in Taipei.
Expect to make even less if you want to teach adults instead of kids.
It is taxing to do even 20 hours of teaching plus Mandarin classes at the same time for most people.

The conclusions about the merits of staying and working in Taiwan are entirely up to you.


Now...

Before you ignore facts and good sense by saying "I'll do a job other than teach if I can find it" you should know that our calculated monthly salary also serves to show (basically) what you'd make as a local hire in a non-teaching profession. We used 48,000 a month for teachers while 50,000NT is the minimum for white collar labor. This is what you'll make for a 40+ hour work week UNLESS you're being hired in the tech sector as a bilingual person holding an advanced degree from a Taiwan based university, or a foreign hire joining a local company.


Here's the basic breakdown using New Taiwan Dollars.

35,000 - Round trip tickets from your home country, assuming that's where you start.

14,000 - Your hostel / hotel expenses for your first two weeks before you find an apartment. 8+ person rooms can be had for as low as 300 a night if your standards are low. If you're a shoestring traveler you'll be surprised how accurate this likely is. Many people struggle to find apartments and are shocked how they're losing cash on accommodations. It also covers travel /agency fees for possible travel for your visitor visa.

Getting in / out and buying time to set yourself set up : 49,000.

Free - 90 day Visa Exempt Entry
8,000 - A visitor visa, placed into your passport at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Possibly requires travel inside of Taiwan or an agent to file. Time needed is up to 2 weeks.
3,500 - One year alien residence with change of purpose to employment at the National Immigration Agency. Assuming your documents are in order it's a two trip process, taking between 15 minutes (place is empty) and 5 hours (peak times).

1300 - Health Check, assuming its your first one and you have no need for extra testing like stool samples, etc. Takes between 1 and 2 hours, depending on the hospital.

150 - Photos for applications / health check from a self-service kiosk, always found in hospitals.

This set of steps will take up to 6 weeks. Active processing time is minimum of 3 hours in person, with wait times for each office reaching up to 4 hours at peak times.

At this point we've covered your arrival and application for residency which you'll need to do unless you plan to work illegally. The best advice is DON'T do this because you're both risking permanent deportation AND hurting the foreign teacher market by lowering standards.


Visa expenses: 12,950 unless fees change.

Housing is another huge expense starting up.

As a Taiwan average we're going to count rent at 10,000 a month. If you live in Taipei expect to pay 12,000+ for a small studio which features a bed with a desk touching it, maybe a TV and an A/C unit.

10,000 - First months rent.

110,000 - rent for the rest of the year

20,000 - 2 extra months for a security deposit. May not be guaranteed for return at the end of your stay if you terminate your contract early. Landlords may charge for repainting, repairs, etc. which you would contest....except you have that flight coming up and litigation takes a LONG time.

6,800 - Utilities for the year including power, water, and gas. Utilities have a sliding fee scale based on perceived demand (gas in winter, power in summer) so you may ultimately spend a bit more / less.

Total Housing expenses for the year : 126,800 assuming you get your entire deposit back.

A quick recap:

49,000 for getting set in and getting time to find your footing.
12,950 for your visas.
126,800 for your house.

188,760 in expenses to have a house and permission to live and work in Taiwan.

How about those other necessary expenses?

12,000 for commuting all year on public transit, or buying a bicycle (not scooter) if you live outside Taipei or Kaohsiung and mixing taxis / transit when necessary.
90,000 for food. This is based on 250 NT a day for 30 day months. Western food costs 250 a meal and will NOT keep you running all day. This is a conservative budget for food for new arrivals.
18,000 for entertainment. This is based on a movie, one night out at KTV, a bar, a club etc. taxis, more expensive dinner with friends. Roughly one low-key social event a week. Budget 500 a week more if you plan to drink or party regularly.

A note: A second hand motorcycle will run 30,000 + and will resell for roughly half its value or less unless you do a lot of work to sell it to a foreign person. Top end bikes, including a Gogoro, can run as high as 90,000. If public transit is good, you'll have a harder time selling to other foreigners. For a single year you are more likely to lose money in motorcycle ownership. Outside Taipei / Kaohsiung you are paying extra for convenience, freedom, and also more responsibility for laws, staying safe, etc. It's not included in this budget.

A cell phone plan, internet at your house, or cable TV is not included in this math.

120,000 for food, getting to work, and having a basic social life / eating something more than simple meals.

Total expected outlay for necessary items: 308,760.

This doesn't account for travel around Taiwan or to other places during holidays. It also doesn't count for things like toiletries, new clothes, etc. overall, the total number above will likely match your one year expenses given otherwise normal living conditions.

Your earnings:

This is the good part, right?! You show up, spend your first two weeks sending out resumes and going to do teaching demos, getting a few call backs only to find there are literally hundreds of potential job candidates. You break down, call a recruiter, and get settled at a school offering 20 hours a week.

Your hourly pay : 600 / hour.
Hours per week : 20 hours.
Average work weeks: 4 weeks.

Expected monthly salary : 48,000 a month.

There will likely be at least 2 weeks a year unpaid vacation time around Chinese New Year and term changes in winter / summer. There are holidays of between 1 to 2 days each month. Some months have more than 60 hours of work due to extra days, but it offsets with these holidays to equal the number above.

Annual Salary : 576,000.

This assumes you take no extra vacation time to travel, etc.

Taxes can get a bit messy. So here's what you'll pay out : 31,320.

How did we get that number?

Your first 6 months in Taiwan you are supposed to pay 18% tax because you're not technically a resident. You need 6 months + 1 day of physically being in Taiwan to qualify for a lower rate, so if you arrive in mid-July or later your earnings for that year are taxed at a fixed 18%. You can receive a tax refund if you qualify, but they are paid out in the spring of the year following your payment. If you're not going to be in Taiwan to collect your money it is VERY hard to get an advance payment.

Assuming you come January 1st, at the average teaching salary you will be paying between 5% (540,000 gross income or below in 2018) and 12% tax on your income.

540,000 taxed at 5% = 27,00 in tax at level 1.

36,000 taxed at 12% = 4,320 in tax at level 2.

You'll also need to pay out a portion of your health insurance. This also gets a big complicated based on earnings and how your boss structures their contract.

Assuming your boss treats you fairly and legally, you'll be paying around 300 NT a month for insurance.

Insurance Premiums : 3,600.

Your Gross income minus your deductions will be :
576,000 - ( 31,320 + 3,600) =  541, 200 income after tax and insurance.

Let's now take your net income and subtract your total expenses.

541,200 - 308,760 = 232,240 in total savings.

Would you spend a year working five days a week every week without a meaningful vacation for 232,240 NTD? That's really up to you, but considering what you could make "back home" the answer is probably no.

Let's look at what happens when you add Mandarin language classes in. Completely anecdotally, most people who arrive and start teaching will likely enroll in at least one term.

Classes run an average of 25,000 a term, and you can usually do up to three terms a year. Let's call it 75,000 for all of your academic expenses per year. This assumes 3 hours of class day so you can work your 20 hour a week job.

232,240 - 75,000 = 157, 240 in savings.

Add the most basic possible cell phone plan at 500 NTD a month, plus an up front 350NTD in phone credit.

6,350 per year for a phone.

157,240 - 6,350 = 150,890.

Let's add one trip to a nearby country on a budget airline bought at lowest fare, with an all expenses budget of 9,000 NTD. Let's also say you travel around Taiwan during your time, for a total of one week out.

Airfare : 3,000
Overseas Budget : 9,000
In-Taiwan Travel : 10,000
Total : 22,000

Annual savings : 128,890

Is a year of your time worth 128,890 NTD? If you value experiences and travel more than money, perhaps!

But this doesn't take into account that much of your free time will be spent during the day waiting to head to work. Your big social plans will mostly be on the weekends, like they'd be back home. After your first month or so, you'll start to struggle to find new experiences in the world you've built for yourself. Complacency settles in, or worse, entitlement. You're in your routine, going about your business in the weekly grind just like back home.

Those first few weeks, the week you travel around Taiwan, and that trip overseas will ultimately come to define an entire year of your life. Ultimately your year is you (hopefully) learning haltingly passable Mandarin (for at best simple social situations), spending your mornings alone watching netflix, raging to anyone who will listen about your students that don't respect you, eating a bunch of bland attempts at comfort food once local food has worn out its welcome, learning most people who stay a few years in Taiwan are a bunch of depressive alcoholics / party people / people who have lost their way (or worse), sweating it out in the humid summer, and trading actual career opportunities back home for the assumed street cred of saying you lived here. Oh, and 129,000 NT.

Yeah, that's a bit bleak, but you should be ready for it. The authors of this blog didn't stay here a decade in such bleak circumstances, but a lot of people find themselves living in the way described above.

Thinking of doing less than a year?

Take the total expenditure above (308,000) cut it in half (154,000)
Add an extra 24,000 dollars in rent for renting less than a year. Expect worse conditions too.
Do not subtract for utilities (they will charge you more per unit).
Add 19,980 in taxes. You'll pay 18% on your 6 months of earnings.

Expected 6 month expenditures : 197,980
Expected Gross Earnings 288,000
Possible savings : 90,020

Oh, but wait. Your boss will definitely try to take 20,000 NTD of your money for early contract termination. When you try to sue them about its dubious legality, if you even try, they'll likely win. When you're new to teaching in Taiwan - even if you've taught elsewhere - and given the market for teachers in Taiwan at the moment you should expect this clause in your contract. No matter its legality this is the kind of thing that once you sign it you'll struggle to win your money back.

So your expected savings is 70,000 NTD for six months of work, without travelling, or classes, or doing almost anything else you wanted to do when you came here.

Still sure it's a place you want to live, instead of visit quickly and then go elsewhere? That is up to you, but at least now you have some idea of what you're getting into.

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