What is the TOEFL test?

The TOEFL is a standardized test that measures your English language skills. This guide shows you where, why, and how to take the TOEFL.
Written by Nate Delesline III, Staff Writer

The Test of English as a Foreign Language measures your ability to read, write, and speak in English. It's known as the TOEFL for short. A nonprofit organization called the Educational Testing Service, or ETS, creates the test. 

What does the TOEFL measure?

ETS offers five versions of the TOEFL: Primary, Junior, ITP, Essentials, and iBT. All versions of the TOEFL measure the same type of skills: your ability to read, write, and speak English. 

The Essentials or iBT versions are usually taken by undergraduate or graduate-level students who want to study abroad. High school or elementary school students take the Primary, Junior, or ITP.

Here's a brief look at the content of the iBT and Essentials tests:


This test measures your ability to communicate in English in a university setting. It has about 90 questions divided into four sections. Students have about 3 ½ hours to complete the test. There is a 10-minute break between the second and third sections. The TOEFL iBT is not computer adaptive. That means the difficulty of the questions doesn't change based on your responses. 

The TOEFL iBT measures your ability to:

  • Speak using formal and informal language in response to questions
  • Listen to a recording, then respond to questions about the recording in writing
  • Read a passage, then answer questions in writing about what you just read

TOEFL Essentials

This test takes about 90 minutes to complete. It has four sections and contains about 130 questions. The test measures your ability to communicate in both academic and general English. Academic English is more formal. People who study at the undergraduate and graduate levels usually use academic English. General English is less formal. General English might include slang, for example. 

The TOEFL Essentials measures your ability to:

  • Answer questions about conversations in various settings
  • Answer questions about academic and non-academic writing
  • Create sentences and write responses for daily situations

The Essentials test is computer adaptive. That means the questions get harder or easier depending on the answers you give during the exam. This test also includes a five-minute personal video statement. In this section, you answer questions about yourself. The video allows you to introduce yourself to a school or an employer. This section is not scored.

Here's more information about other versions of the TOEFL:

TOEFL Primary

This test is designed for students around 8 years old. It has about 80 questions divided into two sections. Students have one hour to complete the two sections.

TOEFL Junior

This test is designed for students around 11 years old. The test has about 125 questions divided into three sections. Students have about two hours to complete the test. 


This test is designed for students ages 16 and older. The test has 140 questions divided into three sections. Students have about two hours to complete the test.

How and where do I take the TOEFL?

The TOEFL is available in about 190 countries. 

You can take the TOEFL Essentials or the TOEFL iBT at home or from any place with a reliable, high-speed internet connection. The Essentials test is only available virtually. The iBT test is available online, at home, or in a paper edition. 

You may register for the test online, by phone, or through the mail. In some cases, you may need to provide identification. Doing this allows the testing organization to verify your identity.

You must pay to take the TOEFL. The Essentials test was $120 in late 2021. 

Alternatives to the TOEFL

According to ETS, the TOEFL iBT is "the world's most accepted English-language test for study, work, and immigration." But it's not the only exam that allows you to show your English language skills to employers and schools. Consider these alternative tests:

International English Language Testing System 

The International English Language Testing System is also known as the IELTS. The organization behind this test says it is "the world's most popular English language proficiency test for higher education and global migration." Two different versions of this test are available: the IELTS Academic and the IELTS General Training. 

The academic version is for people who want to study at the undergraduate or postgraduate levels. The general test is for people who want to move to an English-speaking country. The general test is also good for people who want to continue their education below the degree level. "All test takers take the same listening and speaking tests but different reading and writing tests," according to IELTS.

The IELTS costs about $250 in the US as of late 2021.

Duolingo English test

Duolingo is well known for its mobile app and website. Some universities now accept Duolingo's English test along with the TOEFL or the IELTS. 

Duolingo lets you share your score for free. You can also practice the Duolingo test for free once you create an account. About 3,000 organizations accept the test, which you can take online at any time from anywhere in the world.

This test has two parts. First, a 45-minute-long section measures your reading, writing, speaking and listening skills. Then, you complete a 10-minute video section. In this part of the test, you respond to open-ended questions.

Duolingo's test costs $49 as of late 2021.

This article was reviewed by Lauren Albano, M.Ed.

lauren albano, a woman with dark hair and glasses, smiles at the camera.

Lauren Albano is the Assistant Director and Designated School Official (DSO) at Seattle University's International Student Center, where she advises international students and alumni on maintaining F-1 status. She holds a bachelor's degree from the University of California, Irvine and a master's degree in student development administration from Seattle University. 

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