Legalising a TEFL, TESOL or CELTA certificate – What’s the difference?

If you've just completed a course in teaching ESL, or you're thinking about moving into the field, one of the biggest questions on your mind might be - what is the difference between TEFL, TESOL and CELTA? Is one more "valid" than the other, and will they all be accepted for teaching positions overseas?
melanie clarke TEFL specialist

Melanie is our TEFL Legalisation Specialist at Vital Consular and is here to answer everything you need to know about what to look out for when choosing courses, and how to process your certificate for your new job overseas.

What is the difference between TEFL, TESOL and CELTA?

When it comes to teaching English as a second language, there are many terms used which can cause a lot of confusion for potential students. Firstly we will look at some of the most common terms and what they mean:

ESL – This is an acronym for English as a Second Language. This doesn’t refer to a course of any type, but is used to refer to this specific sector of language teaching.

TEFL – The most common term for a course where students learn to teach ESL. It stands for Teaching English as a Foreign Language and the vast majority of companies use this course title. It can refer to any training where a speaker of English is learning to teach the language to students whose first language is not English.

TESOL – More often than not, this is simply used interchangeably with the term TEFL. It stands for Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. It’s a term more often used in the US markets than in the UK, but not exclusively.

There can also be some distinction made between teaching English to non-native speakers within an English-speaking country, and teaching non-native speakers in a non-English speaking country. This is the difference between teaching non-English speaking students at a language school in the UK, or teaching students in China. A quality TEFL or TESOL qualification should equip you to teach in either of these situations confidently.

CELTA – A CELTA is the only award which is exclusively issued by a singular awarding body; Cambridge English Assessments. It stands for Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults and although different companies can offer the training courses, they will all be accredited and verified by Cambridge English. The CELTA is more heavily geared towards teaching adults as opposed to children.

Choosing which course type to study

So which is the best course? It’s not possible to give overall preference to one course type over another, as your circumstances and where you wish to teach plays a large part in determining which course is best for you. It’s certainly true that the CELTA’s reputation is highly respected in the ESL sector, but more often than not, a TEFL qualification is just as sufficient. If you are more likely to be applying for teaching roles in schools where your students will be mostly, or all children, a CELTA may actually be counterproductive to your search.

The title of your course is less important that the quality of the course itself. If you choose a respected and recognised TEFL qualification provider, this can be just as valuable as gaining a CELTA. Most job roles now require at least 120 hours of ESL learning in order to apply, with practical teaching experience being a bonus.

Choose a well-established company with students who are currently teaching overseas after graduating from their courses. As there is no singular regulating body for TEFL qualifications, having genuine feedback from graduates is a huge help.

With so many courses out there, it can be a minefield separating the quality courses from the sub-par. Avoiding very cheap “Groupon” courses is generally a good call to make, as these don’t tend to offer the student support you’ll need to build your confidence in teaching beyond your studies.

Is an online or an in-person course better?

There are definitely two schools of thought on this question, which has been an ongoing discussion for a long time within the ESL sector. It’s beneficial to have in-person experience of teaching students, if that’s what your aim is once you get your teaching position. However, some people already have some form of teaching experience, or feel confident enough to jump in to teaching feet-first.

Then there are those whose goal is to purely teach ESL online. For these students, in-person experience isn’t too much of an issue. With the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become the norm for teaching to happen this way and will likely stay a popular option for many going forwards.

Legalising a TEFL, TESOL or a CELTA certificate

Once you’ve completed your course in teaching ESL, you’ll either choose to teach online or relocate overseas to an in-person role. If you have decided on the latter, you will likely require your certificate to be legalised in order to present it for your work permit. This essentially involves obtaining verification of the certificate’s authenticity by having a series of government stamps applied to the document. There are some key differences when it comes to legalising these three award types.

To read more about what the legalisation process is and what to be wary of when presenting your document for processing, read our dedicated post on legalisation for TEFL certificates here.

TEFL – This award type is the most commonly used in the UK. They can be legalised by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and the Embassy of the country you’re relocating to as long as they meet certain guidelines. As many TEFL companies aren’t too familiarised with the nuances of the legalisation process, there can often be issues with the certificates when submitted to the FCDO. This can range from the wording on the certificate, the award level issued, or even information being omitted. Some issues can be resolved by simply contacting the TEFL company and advising them of the amendments needed, though this can cause delays.

TESOL – Although almost identical to a TEFL, this award type is more widely issued by US companies than those in the UK. If you’ve studied or plan to study a TESOL, it would be beneficial to find out where the company you’re using is based. This is due to the certificate requiring legalisation in its country of issue. If you’re in the UK, but the company you choose is actually based outside of the UK, then this could be much more costly for you when it comes to having the certificate legalised.

CELTA – As these awards are approved by OFQUAL, there are rarely any issues when it comes to legalising them within the UK. Because they are government-recognised, they are authorised to issue award levels which other companies aren’t. As the CELTA also requires a certain level of in-person teaching as part of the course, they are generally more widely respected in the ESL field.

So which company should I go with?

As discussed earlier in the article, it depends on what and where you plan to teach when you pass your course. If you have an idea in mind before you start an ESL teaching course, this can inform your choice much more clearly. There are additional points to consider in addition to which company would suit your teacher training the best, but it’s wise to be mindful of where the company you’re doing your course with is based.

If you opt for an online company who are based outside of your country of residence, this can cause issues and further time and costs down the line. Choosing a company with little experience in issuing documents fit for legalisation is also a concern and could cause further delays if your document is rejected by the FCDO.

Bearing both of these things in mind will stand you in good stead when deciding on the right course for you. If you’ve already completed your course and you’re unsure if your certificate will meet the requirements, just get in touch with our friendly team of specialists who can assist you. We have more experience processing these certificate type than any other company in the sector!

Getting help with document legalisation

Get in touch with our specialist team who can deal with legalisation of documents from over 150 countries. You can give us a call on +44 (0) 330 088 1142, send us a message via WhatsApp on mobile, use our live chat system, or e-mail us at

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Ashraf Vachhiat
Ashraf Vachhiat

Ashraf is the Marketing Technologist at Vital Consular, which means he handles all the technicalities involved in bringing this blog to life! He also enjoys creating in-depth articles around current affairs which impact the travel and relocation industry. In his free time, Ashraf relishes travelling as much as possible, and is always looking for quirky spots to take some great photos.

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