TOEFL vs IELTS vs PTE: What Are the Key Differences?

Picking the right English exam requires considering several factors, and combing through details can be daunting and time-consuming. Below, we compare three popular English proficiency exams to help clarify which one best fits your needs and goals.


The TOEFL, or Test of English Language as a Foreign Language, consists of several tests to assess your English proficiency. The most notable of these tests is the TOEFL iBT (internet-based test), geared toward students looking to study in an English-speaking country.

IELTS stands for International English Language Testing System. This exam assesses English in an academic setting through the Academic test and English in a broader context in the General Training test.

Finally, PTE Academic or Pearson English Language Test is ideal for students looking to study in English-speaking countries since it focuses on language skills within an academic environment.

While the tests have similar purposes and assess similar skills, they differ in several ways from the start of your test-taking process through the end.


Some English assessments pertain to academic study, but others are more flexible and applicable to migrating to an English-speaking country to work or students completing a different level of schooling.

School, Work or Immigration

The TOEFL markets itself as the test for admission to top universities around the world. Similarly, PTE aims to attract students who want to study abroad or move to English-speaking countries.

The IELTS makes this distinction the clearest with the separation of content into two exams for different career and study goals.

The IELTS Academic test fits test-takers who wish to attend college in an English-speaking country. On the other hand, the General Training exam focuses on test-takers migrating to certain English-speaking countries or studying below the university level.


The availability of testing sites and the tests’ affordability are two factors to consider when picking a test.

Test Sites and Cost

The TOEFL, administered over 60 times a year, allows test-takers to register for the exam online with an ETS account, by phone, or by mail. Registration fees depend on where you register to take the exam, but multiple countries administer the test.

You can take the IELTS at one of 1600 testing sites in 140 different countries. In the United States, tests are available four times a month on college campuses nationwide and typically costs $215-240. When it comes to sending scores, you can opt to send your IELTS Academic score to five institutions for free.

Unlike the other two exams, you must take the PTE at a Pearson testing site, with 295 locations in around 60 countries for the standard price of $200 in the United States. However, you can send the score to an unlimited number of institutions without additional fees.


Preparing for an exam takes weeks, if not months, and these tests offer various resources for test-takers to practice the material and master the concepts.

Study Tools

On its website, the TOEFL lists a variety of test preparation tools like practice tests and recommended study books. There is a free practice test, but some other tools come at a cost. The IELTS website lists free sample questions as well as paid materials like prep courses, and the PTE offers a free prep course as well as other practice tests.


While the content itself is similar across the exams, each one formats the content differently to assess specific skills.

Computer or Paper-Based

Tests can be computer or paper-based. You can visit a testing center to take a computer-based test or take a computer-based test at home if this option is available in your country.

Test-takers take the TOEFL and PTE on a computer, but the IELTS allows test-takers two options to take the test – computer or paper format. The speaking portion of the test can happen face-to-face with a test proctor, or with recording equipment for a computer-based test.


Each exam assesses the same four skills in different combinations – listening, reading, speaking, and writing. However, the exams emphasize different sections and use different formats for the questions and answers.


The listening section of the TOEFL focuses on academic language and practical understanding of English. The section includes lectures and conversations, and test-takers have 41-57 minutes to work through the questions in each portion.

The IELTS includes the same listening section for both variations of the test, and this 30-minute section consists of four recordings followed by 40 questions. The topics center around college-related conversations as well as everyday issues.

The listening section of the PTE is the third part of the exam, lasting 45-57 minutes. The portion consists of recorded prompts where test-takers listen to each prompt, answer questions in multiple-choice format, and select words and write summaries.


The TOEFL’s reading section lasts 54-72 minutes and consists of a few passages with ten questions about each passage. These passages resemble topics that would appear in a college textbook.

For the IELTS, the Academic and General Training reading portions lasts 60 minutes and include three lengthy passages with 40 total questions. The Academic reading relates to university topics, while the General Training reading passages are broader in scope.

The reading section of the PTE is the second part of the exam that is 32-40 minutes in length. With 15-20 questions, this section prompts you to answer multiple-choice questions and other question types, like fill-in-the-blanks.


The TOEFL’s speaking section includes four questions that mimic conversations you would encounter inside and outside the classroom. This portion lasts 17 minutes and accounts for the different accents of native speakers in North America, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand.

Like the listening portion, the IELTS’s speaking portion is the same for both versions of the exam. This section is 11-14 minutes divided into three parts, and test-takers answer general questions and expand upon them in later parts.

For the PTE, the speaking portion is Part 1 of the exam and combined with the writing portion. At 77-93 minutes, it’s the longest part of the exam and consists of descriptions and reading aloud.


The TOEFL incorporates two writing tasks giving test-takers 50 minutes to write their answers. Similarly, the Academic and General Training versions of the IELTS last 60 minutes and include two questions—more topical questions for the Academic version and more general questions for General Training.

The PTE writing portion is the first part of the exam, in conjunction with the speaking portion. The writing-centric questions include short answers and an essay.


Each test lasts approximately three hours; the IELTS is 2 hours and 45 minutes in length, while the TOEFL and PTE last three hours.

Additionally, the break times in exams vary. There are no breaks when taking the IELTS. In contrast, TOEFL incorporates a 10-minute break between the listening and speaking sections, and PTE gives you the possibility to take a 10-minute break between the reading and listening portions of the exam.

Receiving Your Test Scores

Test scores for all exams taken on a computer are accessible in a week or less.

For TOEFL test-takers, scores take six days to arrive and view on your ETS account. IELTS test-takers who used a computer for the exam receive results in 5-7 days. Finally, PTE test-takers can expect results as quickly as 48 hours after the test.

The format that takes the longest for test scores to arrive is the IELTS paper test, which comes in about 13 days. For either IELTS test format, you will receive your scores online.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, the right test for you depends greatly on your goals and future plans in an English-speaking country. Whether you’re studying abroad or moving permanently to start a new job, one of these three tests will be a good fit for your intended destination.

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Michelle Tsou

Contributor at ExamCave. Michelle graduated with a BA in English from Portland State University. She hopes to one day run her own test-prep organization.