Looking back, 1990-2000 was the last golden age for expats in Asia: booming economies, lots of cash flowing, and a hearty interest in hiring westerners.
Today, teaching English remains the most accessible entry point. However, many expats in Asia make money without teaching English. What do they do? Can you do similar?
In general, there are business, corporate and teaching opportunities in China; teaching gigs and tiny entrepreneurial openings in most other Asian nations.
Inside the Asia expat employment box, salaries are either stagnant or down, for the past several years. There are less executives being brought over by multinational firms, and more expat applicants seeking teaching jobs.
A growing trend in China is internships as a business: young western graduates are lining up to pay thousands to work for free. While that’s a great way for Silver Spoon Timmy to get work experience, it drastically cuts potential opportunities for others.
However, even with the flood of Richie Riches, there is still less competition here than in the west. Further, as an outsider minority, your language, culture and mindset are still assets that can lead to breakthroughs here.
Start with the right focus: “Do what you love, and the money will follow.”
Bottom of the barrel
Expatriating to Asia with $2000 is possible. You need at least a plane ticket, a solid job lead, and a cheap place to crash.
A genuine option – with a legit uni degree and a white face. Without the skin color it can still be done, but will need more effort.
At that level, expect shady employers and grim conditions. Where to go largely depends on visas. In China for example, there are plenty of jobs, but strict visa limits to stay in-country.
Thailand or Cambodia are where most of the desperate end up. In the former, a tourist visa can be stretched for as long as nine months; in the latter, a 1-year “business visa” can be purchased for $300, no questions asked.
Rock-bottom wages start at around $8/ hour. Risks include getting stiffed on pay, getting busted for working illegally and possible long commutes to and from work.
Beach work for room & board
Only for young (20-30) party types: cruise popular beach strips, hit up guesthouses and offer to work in exchange for room and board.
On the southern Thai islands (Ko Phangan, Ko Samui, Phuket) it’s increasingly difficult to score gigs because of sporadic visa crackdowns (illegal workers can get fined or locked up). Conversely, the beaches in and around Sihanoukville are wide open to the concept, with expats working as boat ticket sellers, barkers, bartenders and guesthouse staff. Here’s one example from the Utopia guest-house website:
“Would you like to staying for free? It’s easy, just join Team Utopia and let the party begin. If you are behind the bar, we will cover you living expenses including 3 meals a day, accommodation in the AC staff dorm and drinks for free all night.”
In Sihanoukville, make sure to check out the tourist islands Ko Rong and Ko Rong Samloem off the coast – both employ plenty of expats who simply rocked up and asked for work.
Summary: the best options for the truly desperate are to teach English for survival money or else bartend for free room and board.
- Income potential: next to nothing.
- Trend: most people doing desperation teaching in Thailand & Cambodia seem to be sexpats; most doing the beach thing are young backpackers who are not destitute but prefer to travel on the cheap.
- Suitable for: beach gigs are great for young adults with good social skills and money stashed somewhere for emergencies. Rock-bottom teaching isn’t good for anyone, but at least it can save you from homelessness.
English as a Second Language (ESL)
For westerners with uni degrees, it’s still fairly easy to get legit jobs in Asia. Obesity or dark skin are detriments in most places except China.
In China, a working visa requires two years of work experience, but fresh grads are allowed in as “interns”. South Korea requires criminal background checks. All countries that employ teachers require a Bachelor’s Degree at minimum; most prefer that prospective teachers also have a TESOL certification.
In general, experienced teachers and young white faces are preferred by employers. Unqualified middle-aged sexpats are also in the mix, but these days they must battle third-world competitors – many with superior credentials and lesser wage demands.
- China: there are many ESL jobs available in public schools that pay around $800 monthly with free housing. Non-whites and Asian Americans are welcome to apply. A growing number of non-natives (Philippines, Africa, Eastern Europe etc) are also getting hired. Check ESL Cafe for jobs.
- Taiwan: there are plenty of jobs in the private and public sectors. Pay starts at around $1700 monthly for new teachers. Check out Tealit for jobs.
- South Korea: it is still the heart of Asian ESL, with heaps of jobs in both public and private sectors. Check out this benefits comparison of the two sectors.
- Japan: the glory days are over, with slim picking available in both private and public schools. Check out this tight summary of the situation, then hit up Gaijinpot to browse jobs.
Public school teaching
Public schools typically offer better benefits, less hours and more stable conditions than private language mills.
ESL and subject teaching jobs are on offer. The former are typically filled by fresh grads brought in through government programs; the latter by qualified teachers.
International School teaching
These operations are reliant on multinational firms employing foreign executives, who then bring their families with them on assignment. Top executives once paid big money for international school tuitions but conditions are different now. From the Wall Street Journal about sagging American expat packages:
The cushy expat lifestyle is increasingly a thing of the past. Corporate cost-cutting has been eroding lavish packages — once replete with premium pay and hefty allowances for maids, drivers and schooling — for some time.
Today, competition for international students is fierce, new schools are opening all the time, and benefits for teachers are dropping. On top of that, Planet Asia has been hearing of a toxic environment and grueling workloads as the norm in many schools.
If still game, International School Services is where to start looking for leads. Pay is generally between $2-4000/ month. Expect 50-60 work weeks, paid summers off, lots of extracurricular requirements and demanding parents.
Summary: there are plenty of ESL jobs for young people in East Asia (China, Taiwan, S. Korea, Japan). Continent-wide, there is also lots of better-paid work for qualified teachers.
- Income potential: wages start at around $800 monthly for ESL hacks and go as high as $4500 monthly for certified teachers.
- Suitable for: fresh graduates, career teachers
- Not suitable for: unqualified single men between 35-55 looking for an easy ride.
As is the case in other places that hire lots of teachers (such as Spain, which has a long history of scams), ESL teachers need to be wary when brokering a deal in any new country. A lot of places that hire are independently owned small businesses run by amateurs.
China is a hotbed of scams. The China Foreign Teachers’ Union publishes a regularly updated list of blacklisted schools in China. The list contains the name of each school and a link to the infraction that caused them to be placed on the blacklist.
In general, typical scams include being asked to pay money up-front to an employer in a foreign country. The other big one is to cheat teachers out of pay. WorkstudyTravel.com has a good summary of the main scams to be wary of here. Also check this personal overview of teacher scams, which includes great advice well worth reading.
5-star hotel work
There are plenty of entry-level hotel jobs for westerners in Asia, but most are filled either by unpaid interns (imported and placed by outfits like Absolute Internship) or poorly-paid eastern European hotties.
Despite such odds, Planet Asia knows a few that have managed to hustle a job from off the street. Once on the inside, the MO is to work up the ranks over a decade or so, and then be rewarded with a management position. Those offer low pay, but at least an air of status.
If servitude’s your bag, plenty of swanky operators will sell you (expensive) certifications for various forms of well-mannered subjugation. These schools also serve as intern feeders for the hotels.
Summary: get any expat hotel GM in Asia to open up, and they’ll likely have many stories about the nonsensical directives imposed on them by the micromanaging boobs at the top (typically unqualified gangsters or children of the elite). As one former GM of an Intercontinental Hotel in China told Planet Asia: “If you build it, they will tear it down.”
- Income potential: free room and board and between $0-$2500 monthly, depending on your position.
- Trend: multilingual eastern Europeans working for low pay; fresh middle class grads working for free.
Conclusion: don’t expect much good to result from working in a top-end hotel. You are not being paid to think.
If you’re capable of swinging business deals while assessing industrial goods on Asian factory floors, the bad news is that sourcing is really tough to crack into, without heavy-duty connections.
20 years ago, cheap Chinese and Taiwanese products powered booming western consumption. Then, pretty much anyone with panache could talk their way into a “local representative” gig: finding suppliers (sourcing) and managing their output (quality control).
Today, sourcing has died as a profession, replaced by entities like AliBaba (direct suppliers) and Worldwide Brands (drop ship suppliers). In addition, there are plenty of well-established local firms (example) that specialize in high-end QC services.
That said, for people with legit QC and language skills, there are still available gaps to work as an intermediary for foreign companies. Shanghai and Bangkok are good cities to scout leads, but extremely competitive. If you’re up for it, base in either, hook with local Chambers of Commerce chapters, start attending events, and hustle like crazy.
Summary: it is still possible for bold multilinguals with legit QC skills to cultivate “make your own job” opportunities in Asia.
- Income potential: you can make more money in a month than English teachers earn in two years.
- Suitable for: dynamic networkers with legit skills.
- Not suitable for: fast talkers with no substance.
Interpreters speak, translators write and edit.
In most countries, translations are handled by locals. In China, translating & rewriting from Chinese into English is often done by westerners.
To do the job well, you need both exceptional language skills and sharp English editing ability.
One Planet Asia reporter claims to earn as much as $7000 a week doing translations from home. He says that the work is grueling, and not something he imagines doing for long without burning out.
For those wanting to learn more, Planet Asia suggests contacting Chinese translation firms (example).
Summary: with two skills (fluency in a language plus native English editing) you can find plenty of work.
- Income potential: as much as $7000 weekly.
- Trend: as technological translations become reality, translators will need to specialize in micro-niches to keep making money.
- Suitable for: experienced native English speaking editors fluent in reading Chinese (where most current opportunities are located).
Planet Asia tip: this is not easy money. The biggest barrier is the editing quality in English. While plenty of people can learn a foreign language, not all of them are cut out for editing.
This is the Holy Grail of the Asia expat experience: making money online, living wherever you want.
Plenty are on the bandwagon. Nomadist ranks Chiang Mai as the best spot, and also gives thorough breakdowns of other Asia locations worth considering as a temporary base.
Successful bloggers like Adventurous Kate set an early template for success: reality travel blogs powered by travel advertisers. Today this niche is filled with mainly female-oriented or couple blogs (example).
Advice: copying the success of others is a sure-fire way to burn loads of energy and make zero cash.
If something has already been done, find a different angle.
Here are two broad ideas to help you get started:
- Short term: to truly feel free, you need streams of money coming in. The fastest way to achieve this is by freelancing (editing, writing, web development, coding, design) on sites like oDesk and Freelancer. Choose a service, build up a reputation for providing quality work, and then start applying for better paying gigs.
- Long term: generate passive streams of income by writing “How to” ebooks on topics you know well. Tinker, learn about SEO and promotion tactics, and keep at it until you have money flowing in.
Summary: that others are doing it successfully is proof that you can as well – with the right planning and preparation.
- Income potential: slim. Few make it happen, plenty crash and burn.
- What you need: media skills are obviously required, but these can be learned. Coding is lucrative for freelancers. Traditional arts (writing, design, editing, etc) are more competitive, with many willing to work for ridiculously low pay.
Conclusion: the price of attaining genuine freedom as a Digital Nomad is high, and many get crushed in the attempt. It requires years of skills development, rigid self-discipline, a sizable nest egg, proper equipment and a unique business plan.