An acquaintance wrote to ask how to get experience teaching English in China, after having been turned down (in an application made from overseas) for lack of a TEFL degree. I thought my advice to this person might be useful to others.
To summarize at the outset, I think you may have better luck and a more interesting experience if you visit China first on a tourist visa and (rather than doing nothing but touristy things) try to make contacts there. Don't mention the prospect of work when you apply for a visa; the government doesn't necessarily want people coming on tourist visas to look for work. Just choose a plausible place to visit and then plan your own visiting time as described below.
Many schools — official and unofficial — as well as businesses and private people are in sore need of competent language instruction, and you would be much likelier to have luck getting hired by one of them if they could meet you in person and look you over first. They may not necessarily be able to get you a visa as a teacher, but I suspect that is secondary to what you are looking for right now. Once you get settled and have met enough people, you might well have more offers than you have time to pursue, and then you could start thinking about what is really best for you.
How to proceed?
One option is to go to a big city, hang around cafés and libraries near expensive high schools or prestigious colleges, and meet people there who would like a tutor and are able to pay for the service. You would aim to build up a number of clients and you would probably give them conversation practice or drill them on usage and idiom at their homes or offices. You would probably find Chinese kids fun to know at first, but in time professional people and their spouses may be more interesting and lucrative.
Another option is to go to a small city or county seat — where you will learn a great deal more about the real China than in a big city — and visit the local colleges and teaching companies and introduce yourself to the administrators (not the English faculty, who might possibly see you as a rival) as a willing English teacher. The administrators will know what the hiring rules are and how to get around them if they want you.
Either way, it will take time for you to find people who are willing to trust you and who you can trust, so I suggest you choose a single plausible region to visit, go there, and start networking patiently as soon as you possibly can.
Chinese society is not based on law or due process, whatever people may tell you, but on "face" (public prestige) and the exchange of favors and personal contacts. As a gentleman, your word is absolutely your bond, but other people may not feel the same way and an important part of learning to interact with China is figuring out how to deal with that situation — without actually making the other party look bad (a definite no-no). So I recommend not committing yourself by contract to an organization unless you absolutely have no other choice. Visitors who get institutional appointments, including jobs with teaching companies, often find themselves massively overburdened at the last minute with extra courses that they have been "asked" to teach as a "favor" to the institution, and I frankly do not recommend going that route unless you really want to experience the Chinese face-and-favor system first-hand.
1. Bring at least one good suit and two shirts and a good pair of shoes — things you would not be embarrassed to wear to an Embassy dinner or to meet an important person. Keep them clean and accessible and ready to wear.
2. Try to get a decent name-card printed as soon as you can — something on which you can put "[name], [degree] / [institution] / [permanent email]" at a minimum, so that everyone who meets you has an easy way to remember you and to reach you if they want to.
3. Network, network, network.
4. Beware of experiencing culture shock. You, rather than the Chinese, are responsible for how you handle the emotional stresses of living in their country. You will definitely experience such stresses, no matter where you live or who you spend time with.