E-2 Visas -- Eligibility & Enforcement

There has been a lot of confusion over the E-2 visa (language teacher) and what it allows.

Recent newspaper articles have highlighted foreign teachers given deportation orders from schools without the proper Korean license, and there are reports on Facebook of teachers in after-school programs also being deported due to improper placements: working at locations not reported on their visa, or receiving payments from an organization or individual who is not their visa sponsor. The same has happened in the past when hagwons “second” their employees to other venues, such as business offices or factories.

This article is intended only to clarify some misperceptions. It is not a definitive statement of law… only the Korean Immigration Service can decide how they will interpret and apply the laws, regulations, and guidelines on immigration. Neither is this an official pronouncement from Korea TESOL (KOTESOL).

We should start by recognizing that the Immigration Control Act and other related laws of Korea are only designed to be a framework. As in many countries, the specific visa types, qualifications for the visas, and allowed activities while on those visas are all determined according to the policies and regulations of the Korean Immigration Service and Korean Ministry of Justice. The interpretation and enforcement priorities for these policies and regulations vary according to the local immigration office with jurisdiction for each area. This system also grants a lot of authority and discretion to individual immigration officers. For the most part, these policies and regulations have not been translated into English or other languages, and are not made available to the general public. In many cases, the practical decisions made in one local office differ from another due to guidance provided by the chief of that office. They will also vary according to the interpretation of your situation by the individual immigration officer handling your case. In real terms, this means that your behavior and responses to an immigration official can have a significant effect on the final determination of your case.

There are numerous types of employers, which adds to the confusion when employers misrepresent the nature of their school to teachers, society, and government/immigration. In short, we can identify:

  • Korean K-12 schools, both publicly owned or private, using the standard Korean curriculum, authorized by the Korean Ministry of Education and local office of education;
  • "Special" Korean K-12 schools (science or foreign language high schools, Meister schools, a very few others) that have a special curriculum authorized by the Korean Ministry of Education and local office of education;
  • International K-12 schools operating under both an overseas "state office of education" licensure (authorized to issue credentials under that local governance) AND Korean recognition as an international school;
  • US Military (DOD) schools operating on US military facilities or adjacent;
  • Private Learning Institutes ("academies," aka hagwons) licensed under Korean law by the local office of education to teach "afterschool" programs of specific topics to identified populations, e.g., English conversation and grammar to children or various courses of study to adults (e.g., language studies, test preparation, vocational skills, etc.);
  • Corporate Learning Centers authorized to provide training to current employees (and possibly, to their dependents) outside the K-12 educational system;
  • Colleges and Universities (public or private) accredited under the Korean Ministry of Education;
  • Foreign Colleges and Universities in Free Enterprise Zones or similar, accredited under foreign educational standards and recognized by the Korean Ministry of Education;
  • Provincial/Metropolitan Offices of Education (who then transfer responsibility to local offices of education);
  • Special overseas educational organizations, such as Fulbright and British Council;
  • Other "employment agencies" that provide teachers to schools and arrange visas through one of the above organizations.

One problem has been that there have been some schools operating beyond their Korean licensure, offering K-12 overseas courses without Korean recognition as an international school (see links at bottom of this article for a few recent news articles on this issue). Another problem is the subcontracting of teachers into teaching positions without the proper sponsorship or visa. Alternatively, sometimes through "Independent Contractor" terms. And of course, there can be fraudulent visa sponsorships. All of these issues may be beyond the knowledge of the teacher at the time of visa application.

Unlike some other countries, in Korea an employment visa is "owned" by the employer even while the employee is jointly responsible for any misrepresentations in the application or misuse of the visa. Thus, teaching non-authorized courses such as science, math, literature, translation, linguistics, and others, as well as teaching outside of the authorized classrooms, can be grounds for fines and/or deportation of teachers, as well as fines and/or jail time to the employer.

Although the initial visa is issued through the overseas consulate based on the documents filed by the employer and yourself, your arrival in Korea (airport immigration, generally) is the first chance for immigration to actually see your case. Time constraints at the airport mean a deeper review will take place at the time you apply for your alien registration card (ARC) at a local immigration office, and there can be a re-review each time you visit immigration for a re-entry permit or renewal of your card, or for adjustment (or renewal) of status. Please be aware: just because a visa, renewal, or change in status is approved doesn't mean it cannot be re-examined later, and decisions reversed.

Immigration’s enforcement branch is not involved in the issuing of visas, only in investigating situations within Korea. Please keep in mind that documents such as the "The Sojourn Guide For Foreigners" are meant as general guidance only, and anything outlined in these guides can be over-ruled when you go to the local immigration office. Also recognize that the immigration telephone information service “1345” can only provide general information that is subject to change, and cannot give binding information or advice. “The Sojourn Guide For Foreigners” can be found on the "Hi Korea" website -- the visa and immigration section of the “Hi Korea” website is the official English information source from the Korean Immigration Service, but as noted, is not binding information. We recommend searching for "The Sojourn Guide For Foreigners" on the internet as the specific link can and does change (the link provided in this document was current as of July 11th 2017). Do note the date-mark in the book: as of this posting the most recent issue is roughly two years old! (August 2015.) Normally these guides are only updated when major changes in policy, regulations, or visas are made. 

The E-2 visa, as defined by the Korean Immigration Service, is specifically for "conversational English" (회화).

The E-1 (professor) visa is limited to those with higher education who are teaching at institutions of higher education (junior college and above). E-1 visa-holders may also teach conversation within their designated employer.

Teaching courses other than "conversation" requires a visa other than E-2: teaching courses at kindergarten through high school requires an E-7 visa if you are teaching anything other than conversation.

Some other visas (particularly, F-class visas) are allowed to teach other courses provided they also meet the Ministry of Education qualifications. Teaching "content" courses, such as mathematics or science, is clearly outside the intended authorization of the E-2 visa.

"Conversation" is not well-defined in Korean law, and is one area where discretion may come into play. Different Immigration Inspectors will have different interpretations on this issue!

An “English Debate” class could be interpreted as "not conversation" by officials who have decided to be extremely strict. The course “Understanding Western Culture” (taught in most university English departments) is apparently not a conversation course. Subject-English courses, such as Hotel English or Business English, have been treated as "not conversation" in some instances. Within the 2015 Sojourners Guide, it observes that "conversation skills" under the E-2 "do not include the teachings of certain foreign linguistics, or literatures in the language, or interpretation/translation techniques" (p. 102). Immigration officers can require teaching timetables for past years and the anticipated timetable for the future, along with course syllabuses, in their determination of whether a course fits within visa guidelines.


Note also the "Camp Visa" (C-4). This is a temporary visa (sometimes called a “stamp”) that authorizes work in summer and/or winter camps. E-2 and/or E-1 visa holders who wish to teach in these programs, along with any other employment outside their regular teaching job as identified in the visa application, need a "special activities" rider for their current teaching visa. This is a temporary modification to the allowed activities of your visa type. You must apply for it at the local immigration office. (Note: If the office for the place you live and the office serving the camp locale are different, you might get bounced back and forth once or twice! Happened to me!) Teaching summer courses with the regular employer to the ordinary students of the school (even if labeled a "camp") apparently does not require a camp visa – this includes where you are an employee of the local office of education that runs the camp.

Working at locations not registered in the sponsorship agreement (submitted by the employer) and/or not registered on the sponsor's business license must be added to the allowed workplaces listed in your immigration file. Working for another employer requires a separate contract, and application must be made to Immigration adding the additional employer to your visa as a 2nd sponsor. There are restrictions which apply in these cases, such as number of hours. (Those working for a local board of education are exempt from this requirement if all their workplaces are under the control of the local board of education.) Some university faculty (E-2) teaching in off-campus language centers for students not enrolled at the university have faced issues with this rule.

Volunteer teaching of conversation without intention of profit is allowed (for example, at orphanages) but other volunteer activities might not (a volunteer theater in Busan ran into troubles). To be safe, you should get a letter of permission from your main employer, a letter explaining what you're doing and that it's unpaid volunteer work from the volunteer organization, and present these documents to the local immigration office before you start. Ask nicely at immigration, this is fully discretionary on their part!

Teaching outside the authorization of the visa can result in fines, detention, and deportation. Voluntary departure in lieu of custody and deportation may be granted at the discretion of the immigration official. Yes, you can be deported without the chance to return to your apartment to pack a bag!

Appearing before an immigration officer is a legal proceeding. Teachers must “make their case” for the benefit they seek, or to avoid a potential punishment (even where they feel their role was minor or that they are blame-free). “Ignorance of the law is not an excuse.” Formal attire is not inappropriate (think of it as a court hearing). It is a complicated process that includes: (a) accepting responsibility for their part in the matter, knowingly or unknowingly; (b) apologizing for their role in the violation, knowingly or unknowingly; and (c) providing reasons why the Immigration Officer should not impose a departure order on the teacher. Submit documents to show why you are an asset to Korea, include letters of reference on behalf of the visa holder highlighting the visa holder's character and connections to Korea, how they contribute to Korea, and a personal statement from the visa holder stating why they should be allowed to stay (the letters have to be in Korean).

Appeals are available via 2 methods: (a) you can file an administrative appeal, or (b) you can file a lawsuit that the punishment is too severe. You must hire a lawyer for the lawsuit; a lawyer is a good idea for either option. The appeals process is slow (you may be deported before a hearing is granted) and often unsuccessful without a lawyer. To ensure time for an appeal prior to departure you will need to hire a lawyer to file an injunction in civil court against the departure order.

Teachers should also note that, as teachers, they are held to a higher standard of behavior, and relatively minor police issues can result in deportation or denial of visa renewal. Paying a settlement also leads to potential deportation or denial of visa if a civil or criminal settlement exceeds 700,000won. The improvements in “e-government” in Korea means that traffic fines, non-paid taxes, and lack of proper health insurance are immediately available to the immigration office, and can be cause for denial of visa renewal.

Things you can do:

  1. Verify that your visa type allows the types of courses you are teaching. When in doubt, ask your employer specific questions. Since employers may not be forthcoming on this, you should also ask at the local immigration office or consult with an attorney specializing in immigration.
  2. Verify that your salary is paid from the organization that sponsors your visa. If your salary is not paid by the visa sponsor, then you are working illegally.
  3. Verify that the students you teach are enrolled in the school that pays your salary. Also, verify that the place where you're teaching is registered on that employer's business license.
  4. Question subcontracts and "field assignments." Get "off-site" duties incorporated into your visa.
  5. Practice “good citizenship” in your daily life.

Some recent newspaper articles:

This document was developed principally through the efforts of John Wurth and Rob Dickey.

JOHN WURTH is a labor rights advocate who assists teachers in South Korea with employment and labor issues. He also runs the Facebook PALS (Practical Advice for Life Situations) group.

ROB DICKEY is a past president of KOTESOL (2001-2002), former administrator of Catholic Immigration Services of Los Angeles, and a permanent resident of the Republic of Korea.