Population: 7.2 million (Census and Statistics Department)
Government: Special Administrative Region of China
Currency: Hong Kong dollar (HKD, HK$)
Main languages: Chinese (Cantonese), English
Main religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity
Hong Kong is a city-state that consists of the Kowloon Peninsula and New Territories, which border the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, and several islands including Hong Kong Island and Lantau Island. A former British colony and protectorate, it was handed back to China in 1997 and is now governed as a partially-autonomous ‘Special Administrative Region’. Although the capitalist reputation of Hong Kong might seem incompatible with the principles of China’s communist leadership, the handover agreement guaranteed this ‘one country, two systems’ state until 2047.
Renowned as centre of commerce, Hong Kong is lively and cosmopolitan in character, with a healthy fusion of eastern and western culture. The majority of the population are ethnic Chinese, but the British influence is still very prominent, while a transient population of international business people help to redefine the cultural identity of Hong Kong.
Hong Kong’s modern architecture and neon skyline are perhaps its most distinctive features, but beneath the skyscrapers lies an equally vibrant entertainment scene. Pubs, bars and clubs cater for both Chinese and western tastes in nightlife, and there are over a hundred cinemas showing the latest Hong Kong and international movie releases. Despite its urban reputation, Hong Kong has large areas of public parkland where regular sports and outdoor activities take place, and its museums and arts venues are also well known. For more information, visit the Hong Kong Tourism Board website.
Food and drink
With the largely Chinese population, much of the everyday food in Hong Kong is Cantonese in origin. Fishing is plentiful in the region and locally-sourced seafood features heavily on menus. Hong Kong’s fashionable dining scene boasts over 12,000 eateries with a large number of Michelin-starred restaurants, including branches of brands from top western chefs alongside the best of Asian cuisine. Perhaps surprisingly given its Chinese and British influences, Hong Kong has a unique tea culture all of its own, with Hong Kong-style milk tea a famous speciality.
Hong Kong has two official languages: Standard Chinese (as spoken in mainland China) and English (due to the colonial heritage). However, the dialect of Chinese commonly spoken on the mainland is based on Mandarin, whereas the majority of Chinese speakers in Hong Kong actually use the Cantonese dialect. As such, Cantonese is considered the de facto language of Hong Kong.
Hong Kong has a generally temperate subtropical climate with four distinct seasons. The temperature range is usually between 15°C (59°F) and 35°C (95°F), although winter temperatures do drop lower at higher altitudes. Hong Kong is affected by both cool northeast monsoons and warm maritime airstreams, and can experience cyclones and tropical storms in summer months. Most of the rainfall occurs between May and September, which are regarded as the region’s rainy season.
Safety and security
Hong Kong is considered a safe place to live and work, with low levels of violent crime and fairly low levels of petty crime. The police in Hong Kong are highly visible and patrols will regularly check identity cards. This might sound threatening, but they also have a reputation for being polite and efficient, which helps the community feel extremely safe. However, visitors should still be aware of thieves and pickpockets, as well as scams involving fake goods or currency exchanges. For more information on crime prevention, visit the Hong Kong Police Force website.
Occasional extreme weather conditions may pose a risk to public safety. Typhoons and cyclones are monitored by the Hong Kong Observatory and public safety guidance is issued regularly, so make sure you are familiar with the emergency processes and follow the advice you are given.
In the past the Hong Kong schooling system was modelled on UK education. However, since the handover to Chinese governance in 1997, a number of reforms have taken place to move the education system closer to that of mainland China. At the age of six, students begin nine years of compulsory education – six years at primary school and three at junior secondary school. It is also becoming increasingly normal for children to continue for at least another three years in senior secondary school and perhaps continue to university or enter vocational training.
In Hong Kong most primary and secondary schools operate a three-term academic year that runs from late August through to June. Universities usually run two terms from September through to May, although depending on the course type some students may not finish until July.
There are currently 18 degree-awarding institutions in Hong Kong, including some of the top-ranked universities in Asia. Eight are publicly funded through the University Grants Committee (UGC), while others are privately or independently financed. Although the majority of university students in Hong Kong currently come from mainland China, there is a growing international student community there too. Applications for university are administered by the Joint University Programmes Admissions System (JUPAS). Most institutions are oversubscribed and competition for places is high, but unsuccessful applicants have the alternative to enter vocational training.
Despite the relatively substantial public funding on offer, universities in Hong Kong do charge tuition fees. These vary between different intuitions and course types, and international students often pay significantly more than Chinese students. Scholarships may be available to help students pay for their studies, while the Student Financial Assistance Agency provides a range of financing options too.
The recent educational reforms have made a major change to university courses in Hong Kong. Where previously undergraduate students studied for three years, most now remain for four. Institutions offer a full range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses. English is the main language of tuition, although most establishments also offer taught courses in Chinese and will provide language tuition to those who need it.
As in mainland China, research is a growing area in Hong Kong and carries considerable prestige. There are a number of public and private research funds available through the government and the UGC, and universities are increasingly trying to attract corporate funding to help raise research standards even further.
Primary and secondary education
Since the education reforms, Hong Kong’s state primary and secondary schools have followed a new curriculum with the aim of improving standards and adjusting the system to be more in line with that of the rest of China. The curriculum content is broad and is mostly taught in Chinese. However, large numbers of private and international schools remain and they primarily teach in English. Expats often choose to send their children to these schools to study specific qualifications such as British GCSEs or A-Levels, American Advanced Placements (APs) or the International Baccalaureate (IB). Private and international schools are usually fee-paying, although some employers may subsidise education for the children of staff members.
Preschool and childcare options
Although not compulsory, children in Hong Kong may attend kindergarten for up to three years before starting school. Early-years education is regarded as high priority and there are various schemes in place to help parents to cover the cost, including the Pre-primary Education Voucher Scheme, which can be accessed by foreign nationals with right of abode in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is notoriously expensive, with limited space and high demand from its large international community driving up the cost of housing. Everyday items including groceries and fuel are also expensive, especially when compared to the relatively low average cost of living in mainland China. Kowloon or the New Territories are usually cheaper than the more prestigious Hong Kong Island, so it pays to be open-minded when considering where to move to.
With the high cost of housing, it’s estimated that expats in Hong Kong can spend up to half of their income on rent or mortgage payments alone. The limited area for building means that over 90% of the available accommodation is in high-rise flats or apartments, and while some can be more reasonably priced, they tend to be extremely small. One tip for finding a cheaper place to live is to look for a fourth-floor flat, as many Chinese are superstitious about the number four and will avoid taking rooms on this level.
Buying property in Hong Kong is also extremely expensive and prices have continued to rise despite the global financial crisis. On the positive side, there are few obstacles to foreign nationals purchasing property in Hong Kong. Estate agents’ fees are typically around 1%, and there is a 15% stamp duty to pay.
Deposits for accommodation in Hong Kong are typically between one and three months’ rent, and you are usually asked to pay rent for the first month in advance too. There is a standard process for agreeing a tenancy agreement and the government provides a template lease, but many landlords will add their own clauses to this so use a reputable estate agent to ensure you know what you are signing. Remember that most apartment-type buildings will also require you to pay management fees for communal amenities and maintenance.
Rates and government rent
Both owners and occupiers of properties in Hong Kong are liable to pay rates to contribute to general tax revenue. Rates are decided annually but are typically around 5% of the estimated rental value of the property. Government rent is usually the responsibility of the property owner. For more information visit the Rating and Valuation Department website.
Most tenancy agreements in Hong Kong do not include utilities. There are a relatively small number of suppliers in Hong Kong, so you are unlikely to have a choice of provider for electricity or mains gas. Some suppliers will request a deposit payment at the start of their service. Water is supplied centrally by the Water Supply Department and is quite reasonably priced. The communications sector is more competitive, so shop around for internet and telephone contracts.
Despite being a former British colony, Hong Kong does not have a TV licence system. However, free-to-air services can be limited so many expats pay for a wider choice of channels.
Healthcare and medical costs
Both public and private healthcare in Hong Kong is of a generally high standard. Public health services are administered by the Hong Kong Department of Health and the Hospital Authority, and are usually available to foreign nationals for a relatively small fee provided that they hold a Hong Kong identity card. However, waiting lists can be quite long so many people prefer to use private services. Private healthcare can be very expensive, but medical insurance schemes can cut this cost dramatically and many employers in Hong Kong offer private medical insurance as part of their employee benefits package.
Hong Kong’s shops are a top tourist attraction and despite the high cost of day-to-day items there are bargains to be found in other areas of the retail sector, particularly on branded goods. Most products are sold without taxation, while regular sales also attract shoppers.
VAT and sales tax
There is no standard VAT or sales tax in Hong Kong, with the majority of goods and services untaxed. The exceptions are alcohol, fuels and tobacco products, which do carry a duty.
- Rent on 1-bedroom apartment in city centre – HK$15,942.86 (≈£1,212.30) per month
- Rent on 1-bedroom apartment outside city centre – HK$10,166.67 (≈£773.08) per month
- Price of apartment in city centre – HK$137,027.98 (≈£10,419.63) per square metre
- Price of apartment outside city centre – HK$85,426.42 (≈£6,495.84) per square metre
- Loaf of bread – HK$14.37 (≈£1.09)
- Milk (1 litre) – HK$20.95 (≈£1.59)
- Bottled water (1.5 litre) – HK$12.32 (≈£0.94)
- Draught beer (0.5 litre) – HK$30.00 (≈£2.28)
- Packet of cigarettes – HK$50.00 (≈£3.80)
- Petrol (1 litre) – HK$16.97 (≈£1.29)
- Cinema ticket – HK$76.26 (≈£5.80)
Source: www.numbeo.com (accessed June 2014)
Budgeting and savings
The high cost of living in Hong Kong makes budgeting really important. Websites like Money Hero can be really useful in finding the best deals to help you keep spending in check.
Although relatively modern, the road network in Hong Kong is very congested. The geographical limitations of the country make increasing road capacity very difficult, so government policy is geared towards encouraging people to use public transport to minimise the number of private vehicles on the roads. This means that driving in Hong Kong can be expensive, with high fuel taxes, toll charges, insurance and vehicle import tax all raising the cost of owning a car.
If you do decide to drive in Hong Kong, you will need a valid driving licence and vehicle insurance. Temporary residents may be allowed to drive on international licences for up to 12 months depending on their nationality. Otherwise, you will need to apply for a Hong Kong licence by direct issue or by taking a test. In a nod to its British heritage, vehicles are still driven on the left-hand side of the road in Hong Kong. Motor vehicles can be imported but are subject to various restrictions, and left-hand drive vehicles are not usually permitted unless there are exceptional circumstances.
Taxis and minicabs
There are three types of taxi in Hong Kong, with each identifiable by their colour:
- Red – Urban taxis
- Green – New Territories taxis
- Blue – Lantau taxis
Each type of taxi has a limited operating area, although all are allowed to serve Hong Kong International Airport. Fares are metered according to a centrally-set rate scale for each type of taxi.
Bus services in Hong Kong are efficient and very cheap, although exact change is usually needed if you are paying cash. The main bus services are divided into franchised (the public timetabled services run by regional operators within a locality) and non-franchised (additional services targeting specific passenger groups).
Minibuses, known as public light buses (PLBs) and carrying around 16 people, offer another alternative. Green minibuses operate specified routes at fixed prices, while red minibuses run flexible routes, more like a taxi service. Red minibus passengers can get on and off anywhere along the route and pay as they leave the service. Once full, minibuses don’t stop for new passengers until someone else gets off.
Although public transport is sufficient for most journeys within Hong Kong, coach companies such as China Travel Service offer cheap long-distance services to cities in Guangdong and further afield in mainland China. Be aware that you will need the correct paperwork to travel to the mainland – depending on your visa status this may be more or less difficult to obtain.
Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway (MTR) is the backbone of the public transport network. Transit across the ten major lines accounts for a large proportion of all journeys made in Hong Kong each day. The network covers much of Hong Kong, including stops at the border with mainland China. Tickets are very reasonably prices and the trains are difficult to beat for speed and comfort.
Hong Kong Island has a historic tram system, which has been operating since 1904. It is the only tram fleet in the world to be made up entirely of double-deck trams, and the cheap fares make it a very attractive way to travel.
As the only way to reach some of Hong Kong’s smaller offshore islands, and a cheap way to move between the major islands, ferries are a vital part of life in the region. There are many operators providing different routes within Hong Kong and to mainland China too.
Hong Kong International Airport is a major international hub, with over 100 airlines operating services to hundreds of destinations around the world. Built on an artificial island to the north of Lantau Island, the airport is among the busiest in the world.
Planning a journey
Good maintenance and investment means Hong Kong’s public transport network is by far the most efficient and popular way to travel in Hong Kong. The Transport Department’s eTransport Planner is a useful tool for planning your journey, and can also be downloaded as a mobile app. Most regular travellers pay with an Octopus card, a universal smart payment card that is accepted by almost all public transport providers in Hong Kong, including some taxi and ferry companies. The card is also accepted for a huge range of other services.
The working week in Hong Kong is from Monday to Saturday, although many companies work half days on Saturday. With no legislation to restrict the working time for most employees, long hours are typically expected. However, workers aged 15 to 18 are limited to a maximum of 48 hours a week, and the Standard Working Hours Committee is currently reviewing the implications of capping working hours for adults too.
In Hong Kong, employees on a long-term or permanent contract are entitled to annual leave after completing 12 months of continuous service. Leave entitlement runs on a progressive scale from a minimum of 7 days to a maximum of 14 days depending on length of service. Sick leave and maternity leave may also be paid, although pay durations may be limited.
There are two types of public holiday in Hong Kong: statutory and general. The Employment Ordinance states that all permanent contract workers are entitled to paid leave on the 12 statutory holidays. If employers require staff to work on these days, they must give notice of at least 48 hours and a day off in lieu. General holidays include the 12 statutory holidays, an additional five holiday dates and every Sunday.
Statutory holiday dates
The first day of January – 1st January
Lunar New Year’s Day – 5th February
The second day of Lunar New Year – 6th February
The third day of Lunar New Year – 7th February
Ching Ming Festival – 5th April
Good Friday – 19th April
The day following Ching Ming Festival – 20th April
Easter Monday – 22nd April
Labour Day – 1st May
The day following the Birthday of the Buddha – 13th May
Tuen Ng Festival – 7th June
Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Establishment Day – 1 July
The day following the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival – 14th September
National Day – 1st October
Chung Yeung Festival – 7th October
Christmas Day – 25th December
The first weekday after Christmas Day – 26th December
Visas and eligibility to work
Hong Kong is a bustling commercial hub and large numbers of people make short business trips there on a regular basis. To encourage international trade, the immigration regulations for short visits are more accommodating than in mainland China. People of many nationalities may be granted a visa-free visiting period of between 7 and 180 days. Business activities including negotiations, conferences and contract signing are usually allowed within this period, but if you intend to take employment or remain in Hong Kong for a longer period, you will need to apply for a visa. For working visas, you may require your employer’s sponsorship.
Once you arrive in Hong Kong, you will need to apply for a Hong Kong identity card. This card is mandatory and must be carried at all times by anyone aged 11 and older. The type of card issued will depend on your visa type and residency status. For the most up-to-date information on immigration laws in Hong Kong, visit the Immigration Department website.
Foreign nationals working in Hong Kong are liable for salaries tax the same as permanent residents, although taxes are comparatively low and various allowances mean that not all of your income will be taxed. Unlike many countries, tax is not taken directly from workers’ wages. Instead, employees are provisionally taxed based on their previous year’s salary, and must file a tax return to correct the figures. Visit GovHK or the Inland Revenue Department website for more details.
Employees and self-employed workers in Hong Kong are required to contribute at least 5% of their total earnings, including salary, holiday pay, commission, fees, bonuses, gratuities and allowances (excluding housing) to the Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF). If you are a member of a retirement scheme in your home country, or if your visa for Hong Kong runs for less than 13 months, you will be exempt from joining an MPF scheme. If you later extend your visa and remain in Hong Kong for over 13 months, then you must enrol.
Social security benefits in Hong Kong are controlled by the Social Welfare Department. Most schemes are not accessible to foreign nationals in the short-term, but are worth understanding if you reside in Hong Kong on a long-term or permanent basis.
The rights of disabled workers in Hong Kong are protected under the Disability Discrimination Ordinance (DDO). For more information on the law as it relates to a specific disability, visit the Equal Opportunities Commission website.
The structure of businesses in Hong Kong depends very much on their cultural influencers. Chinese businesses tend to be hierarchical in nature, and decision-making very much top down. However, the large numbers of western businesses operating within the territory often retain their parent-country’s flatter organisational structure or show a compromise between the two styles.
Personal reputation is very important in Hong Kong, and managers do command a great degree of respect. Employee’s positions are also respected though, and it is unusual for anyone to be told to perform a task which is below someone of their stature as this would reflect badly on both the employee and their manager. Although business in Hong Kong is considered more westernised than in mainland China, many managers prefer to maintain a professional distance from their staff and tend not to socialise with them outside work.
Politeness and honour are important values in Hong Kong, so it’s best to remain relatively formal, particularly with new contacts. Address people by their title and surname. People of Chinese heritage who do business in Hong Kong often adopt a western name to make it easier for their foreign contacts to address them correctly. Beyond the customary handshakes, physical contact is unusual in Hong Kong business culture, so avoid exaggerated gesticulation, backslapping or hugging.
Although perhaps less important than in mainland China, networking and relationship building remain integral to doing business in Hong Kong. It can be tricky to develop rapport with new contacts, so giving and receiving appropriate gifts in line with Chinese culture can be helpful. The value of a gift is not particularly important, but the ritual will create a good impression. Gifts should be wrapped in a sensitively-chosen colour and are not usually opened in front of the giver. Don’t be surprised if your gift is refused initially – persist and it will most likely be accepted.
In Hong Kong, business dress is fairly conservative, with both men and women typically choosing dark business suits. Men should wear a collar and tie, while women tend to go for a blouse or modest top in muted colours. Remember that colours have specific meanings in Chinese culture – for example white is the traditional colour of mourning.
Most business associates shake hands on meeting, although a small bow may also be appropriate. Try to greet the most senior person first, and if your contacts speak Chinese it will create a good impression if you take the time to learn a local greeting. Business cards are usually exchanged as part of the greeting, so ideally prepare some with one side printed in Chinese and one in English. Show your respect for the person by accepting their card with both hands and reading it carefully rather than putting it away immediately.
Punctuality is important, but deadlines are often flexible in Hong Kong. Make sure you confirm meeting details well in advance and keep checking deadlines with the various stakeholders in case there are any changes.
Patience and contemplation are valued highly in Hong Kong and despite the perceived fast pace of life there, meetings tend not to be rushed. Don’t be surprised to find you are discussing the same topic repeatedly, or if there are periods of silence while people consider the situation. Avoid the hard sell or high pressure tactics – remaining patient and selling modestly will almost always give better results. It’s vital to be well-prepared for meetings and to support your presentation with facts and figures.
Be aware of Hong Kong’s multiculturalism. In the course of your business dealings there is every chance you will meet people from all around the globe and open-mindedness will be really valuable. Discussions of political history or the relationship with mainland China or Britain are probably best avoided with new contacts as these topics can still provoke a lot of emotion in Hong Kong.
As the most international language in the world, English is most commonly used for business dealings in Hong Kong. However, the majority of local people are Cantonese speakers, so it’s always best to check whether translation will be required when you arrange a meeting.
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