Living in Hong Kong
Hong Kong has long been a favourite outpost for western expatriates and those from neighbouring countries. It's a major banking centre that attracts talented high flyers and executives from all over the world. In many ways, it is also a gateway to the Chinese mainland and many international organisations choose to situate their regional headquarters here. Hong Kong's superb communications network, good strategic geographical location, well developed infrastructure, low taxation compared to it's competitors, stable currency and free port status, leave the territory in a very strong position to attract expatriates and investment.
This page details the key information most often sought by new arrivals and those living here already.
What does this mean for you? Experienced expats are often what hiring organisations are likely to favour when compared to a fresh graduate candidate, that is to say, they favour upgrading staff rather than increasing staff numbers. Hong Kong is increasingly doing business with the Chinese mainland. Foreigners with good language skills in both Cantonese and Mandarin are going to have a significant advantage.
A short distance from the high rise architectural masterpieces of this densely populated city, you'll find that 40 percent of the HKSAR is parkland. Even Hong Kong Island itself has a number of walking trails. There's plenty to amuse those keen on getting close to nature and greenery. Everything you could want can be found in Hong Kong, cinemas, theme parks, numerous restaurants serving food from the world over, energetic and lively nightlife, the worlds finest hotels, great schools, you name it.
Expatriate communities here range from the outgoing, to the insular and close knit. Largely British and American, many working in the financial sector, they tend to socialise in the highly westernised districts of Lan Kwai Fong and Wan Chai, the two major entertainment areas on Hong Kong Island. There are also significant expatriate communities from other East Asian countries, in particular Indonesia, The Philippines, India, Thailand and Japan. Many choose the expensive hotel bars and discotheques as their meeting place. Many large multinationals choose Hong Kong as the base for their Asian headquarters and as such, there are a fair number of affluent expats living in the expensive Mid-Levels area above Central district.
Central is where you'll find Lan Kwai Fong, the traditional expat hangout. Even though it's a small and compact area, it is host to a large variety of restaurants, trendy bars and nightclubs, all huddled into this popular expat haunt. Drinks are fairly pricey with even your basic beer costing $60 and up. The area has quite an upmarket feel to it but it's relatively relaxed in terms of dress code.
A short taxi ride will take you to the other expat hangout on Hong Kong Island. Wan Chai is a major commercial district and this short paragraph doesn't do it justice. Regarding night life, Wan Chai is an example of the seedier side of Hong Kong. Home to a handful of discos, many of which are open until the sun comes up, you'll never be short of female company of various nationalities working in the sex industry, only too happy to let you buy them an overpriced drink, for which they will earn a commission from the bar (the women are allowed free entry to the clubs as the management know very well that they will attract male clients). Also, you will find a strip of gogo bars along the main road near the MTR station. If you're into that scene, be prepared for a hefty bar bill.
The variety and pace of this vibrant, ever changing city should keep even the most demanding expat satisfied. It's a place where East truly meets West.
Generally, property is very expensive in Hong Kong. You should carefully consider what type of property you are willing to live in and the package you are offered by your employer. If you choose to live further from the central business district, you are likely to find more affordable prices. While there are large numbers of expatriates living on Hong Kong Island, many choose to find accommodation on the smaller surrounding islands, where relief can be found from the hustle and bustle of the city. Cleaner air, open spaces and a slower pace of life can be enjoyed but the trade off is a longer commute to work.
You should make sure you are choosing the right property and that you are able to break your contract if you are transferred, as lease breaking (usually 2 years with a bond of one months rent) can be expensive.
As you'd expect in a large city, Hong Kong has quite a few housing areas that expatriates tend to favour and they vary considerably, depending on the lifestyle of the expat. For example, families with small children may favour housing on the southern part of Hong Kong Island. Those seeking a more exclusive and up market environment may seek an expensive apartment or townhouse on a private park estate at the Peak (with very good access to the Central business area). Single expats or young couples without children would likely rent a property in or around the mid-levels, giving them a short walk to Central and very near the restaurants and entertainment hot spots of Lang Kwai Fong.
Generally, apartments in Hong Kong are leased in good order, will most likely be unfurnished although you may find appliances such as washing machines and refrigerators etc are already fitted. Air conditioners are a certainty but make sure you check first, as air conditioners are vital for comfortable living during the summer months, when temperatures and humidity can soar.
For shorter periods, you may be interested in the many serviced apartments available, usually with excellent facilities. You will of course be paying a premium for this.
Invariably, rentals are payable monthly. You should budget at least 12 percent to cover management fees and government rates. Serviced apartments will not have such charges added. Deposits are always required and may be the equivalent of up to three months rent, will be held by the landlord until the end of your tenancy and refunded minus any charges for damage. You should not have any charges made for what should be considered fair wear and tear. Interest will not be paid on the deposit.
As stated above, tenancy agreements in Hong Kong are usually for 2 years and if you wish to continue living in the apartment, you have the right of first option after each tenancy period. This is the law in Hong Kong and should be at the prevailing market rate.
It is almost always up to the tenant to arrange the connection of utilities.
Moving to Hong Kong
Many people, particularly families on a long term contract, will be interested in shipping their possessions. You should consider very carefully the pros and cons of shipping. It will be expensive, investing in new furnishing upon arrival may be much more cost effective and certainly more practical. There is the heat and humidity to consider, furnishings suitable for cooler climates may be totally unsuited to Hong Kong and may even be damaged from the moisture in the air.
Electrical items may not be compatible with local systems. 220 Volts, 50 Hertz, 3-Pin square British Standard plugs are used everywhere. Most mobile phone chargers and similar portable devices, such as laptop computers, are designed to run on every voltage and frequency around the world. However, if you ship your 110 Volt desk lamp and use it here, it's life will be reduced to about 500 milliseconds. Check carefully. With televisions, there are also broadcasting systems you need to check. Hong Kong uses the UK PAL-I system, although future development of digital services are likely to be compliant with the Chinese mainland, rather than European standards. After all, it's no longer British territory.
Shipping should really be limited to sentimental or high value items that you just cannot part with.
Bringing your Pet
It is possible to bring your pet. In fact, it is possible for you to do all the paperwork etc yourself but I wouldn't personally recommend it as the pitfalls are many and the process can be complicated.
Your best bet is to employ a pet import/export agent. Such agencies will have partnerships and affiliations with co-op companies at the other end of the export and are likely to have a good working relationship set up already. Of course, this may well be more expensive than going through the process yourself but the time, headaches and worry that will be saved will be well worth the fees involved.
Consider all the things that need to be coordinated. Crates, paperwork, permits, latest import/export regulations, language barriers, all of this can be taken care of by the experts. It is not hard to meet the requirements but considerable planning is involved and complex details are required, including certification from your vet. I would suggest you let the experts take care of things for you.
A couple of things to note however. You should be aware that Hong Kong is a densely populated and built up place. Apartments are often small and there may be little open space nearby to exercise a large dog, unless you live on one of the outlying islands or the New Territories. Consider carefully where you will be living. Also remember that your pet's journey over to Hong Kong and their subsequent stay in quarantine may be very traumatic.
Have a look at the Hong Kong Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department website and navigate to the Quarantine and Pesticides section for more information.
Owning or Leasing a Car
The fact is, car ownership is completely unnecessary for nearly every expat here. However, there are groups of people that simply can't live without a car. For some Americans, life without a car is the equivalent of a return to the stone age. There are some realities about car ownership in Hong Kong that you should be aware of.
The decision to run a car or rely on public transport is a key lifestyle choice and this is particularly true in Hong Kong. Public transport is outstanding and is made even more effective by the compact size of the territory. Furthermore, the ease with which the transport network can be navigated leaves many new arrivals wondering why people bother with a car in the first place. People that are used to seeing graffiti stained trains in New York, or chewing gum on the seats on the London Underground are pleasantly surprised by the cleanliness of Hong Kong's buses and trains.
Even so, you might still want a car of your own. Many expats change their mind at the point they realise how expensive it would be to run a vehicle. For starters, Hong Kong is very short on space. Where are you going to park the car? Even if you can park it, it's going to cost you a lot of money (thousands of HK$ per month). Parking really is a big problem. High road tax, high gasoline prices, many expats prefer to do away with a vehicle completely. It's probably cheaper to use a taxi to get around after all is considered.
There are few reasons to justify the expense of having your own vehicle. If you're living in Kowloon or Hong Kong Island, I struggle to think of a good reason to have a car.
What? You still want a car?!
OK, admittedly there are some advantages, especially if you're living in the New Territories. Even though many parts of the public transport network run around the clock, you have much more freedom to set your own schedule and assuming there is no traffic jam, a car can save you time. Some of you may even be lucky enough to be allocated a parking space at your workplace.
If you live right in the city, you can get out to the more rural open spaces with ease and this is especially true if you have a bicycle and want to exercise on the surprisingly quiet roads out of town. If you like hiking, you can get to the good places without too much planning.
To summarise, if you're living somewhere like the Mid-Levels, you can walk everywhere but if you're a way out of town and have a family, you would probably want to try and absorb the cost of having a car.
Vehicle leasing is actually very rare in Hong Kong, due mainly to the comprehensive, clean and efficient public transport. If cars are leased, it's more likely to be done by a company, or if a car is rented by an individual it's to facilitate transport for a special event or occasion. Many hotels have their own vehicles and can therefore arrange airport transfers etc. There are also many companies offering limos for weddings and similar occasions.
You need to be over 25 years old to lease a vehicle.
Getting a Hong Kong Driver's Licence
If you do decide to run a car, you'll obviously need a locally issued license, as you can only drive for up to one year in Hong Kong on a foreign issued licence. The good news is that for people from many countries, a test is not required. All you need do is present your original valid licence along with your passport, the fee (900$HK at the time of writing) and you will be issued with a 10 year Hong Kong licence, providing:
- You have resided in the country of issue for at least six months since it was issued
- You have held the licence for at least five years
- You present your passport, issued in the same country as the licence
Full details and an up to date list of approved countries is at the official http://www.td.gov.hk/ website. At the time of writing, the approved countries are:
Australia, Austria, Bangladesh, Belgium, Bermuda, Canada, People's Republic of China, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Pakistan, Portugal, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, South Africa, United Kingdom (including Channel Islands and Isle of Man), United States of America.
To apply, you need to go in person to the Hong Kong Licensing Office at: 3/F, United Centre, 95 Queensway. Take with you:
- The current fee
- The originals, AND copies of, your home licence, passport, and HKID card (Note: Official translation required if home licence is not in English/Chinese)
- Those over 70 years of age must complete medical form TD256
- Proof of address, no older than 90 days
If your country is not on the approved list, you can still get a temporary licence entitling you to drive for three months while you arrange to take a local driving test.
Opening a Bank Account
Opening an account is pretty straightforward. The banking system is fast and efficient. International transfers are fast and reliable (it's a major international finance centre). Nearly all major banks are represented in Hong Kong. To open an account, your passport and a recognised proof of address will suffice, although some will expect to see a work or residence permit. If you already have your Hong Kong Identity Card, this can be used instead of your passport.
It is even possible to open an account as a tourist, you don't even need to be resident. Non-residents will need to prove their overseas address and normally a letter will be sent to it, which you must then present at the branch on your next visit to complete the opening of the account. Not all branches will be fully up to speed with their own regulations and requirements, so it's advisable to go to a branch that's more likely to be frequented by foreigners, such as those in Central, the Mid-Levels, Discovery Bay and other areas popular with expatriates. Here you will also find the staff have better English proficiency.
If you're travelling around the region frequently, you'll probably opt for a large bank such as HSBC to make use of their facilities as you travel. They also have their international headquarters in Central. Other good choices for expatriates are Standard Chartered, Hang Seng, DBS (probably a good choice for those that also have affairs in Singapore) and Bank of China.
ATM's are everywhere. All of the ATM networks are represented. VISA, MasterCard, AMEX are all widely used and accepted. Debit cards are issued for both current and savings accounts.
Banking hours are Monday to Friday from 09:00-16:30 and on Saturdays from 09:00-12:30, closed on Sundays/public holidays. Some branches open earlier and close later.
Unusually for such an expensive city, mobile communications in Hong Kong are very cheap. Coverage is just about universal on the bigger networks and many people opt to use a contract SIM rather than a land line at home. Coverage varies between networks, as do service features but in general, coverage is very good all over Hong Kong. There is even a signal in underground stations and cross harbour tunnels. There are also a vast array of prepaid options and promotions available to everyone.
Personally, I use SmarTone, who are one of the big networks with outstanding coverage. The signal is usually so strong that it even penetrated elevators and worked in basement bars and clubs.
There are however other networks and you should study the latest deals and promotions.
Prepaid SIM cards can be purchased everywhere and all branches of 7-Eleven for example have cards from all networks. This is a good option if you are bringing your existing phone with you and need to get set up with a local number quickly.
Competition is so fierce, there is usually little to distinguish between the offers and many people simply go for the best network coverage... and as for expats, the international call rates are often the most important consideration. Most SIM cards will cost around HK$100 and come with some stored credit.
Long term, it will likely be more cost effective for you to go to a contract SIM card, or annual plan. If you already have a prepaid SIM with a number you like, you won't lose this number if you go to a contract plan, as number portability is available, even between operators.
It's worth noting that in Hong Kong, it is often the person receiving the call on their mobile that pays for the call but it is so cheap it's hardly an issue.
Will my existing mobile work in Hong Kong?
The answer is almost certainly yes. However, phones purchased in some countries on certain networks (UK being one example) may be locked to their home network. If that is the case, it is quite straightforward to get that phone unlocked to work on any network in Hong Kong.
Is Hong Kong Safe?
Hong Kong truly is one of the safest places in the World. In fact, crime is so low, it might as well be non-existent. After you've got over the odd feeling of living in a strange city during your first few weeks, you'll actually begin to 'feel' safe. The streets just don't feel menacing.
This is reflected in the crime statistics, far lower than those you would find in European or American cities and by a long way. In particular, violent crime, including muggings, are very rare indeed. Your biggest threat is from pick pockets and even then you would have to be very unlucky indeed to become a victim.
You may have seen movies from Hong Kong, depicting blazing gun battles and violent criminal activities from triad gangs. These are just movies and have almost nothing in common with real life here. People are compliant with the law and generally hostile towards crime and corruption.
Hong Kong has quite a large police force and a high number of private security personnel. The Police have a very good reputation, are efficient, polite and corruption is rare. Hong Kong offers expatriates and their families a very high level of safety all round.
Is It Safe to Drink the Tap Water?
The tap water is pretty safe. However, the pipes that supply the water, especially in older buildings, may have issues. For this reason, locals invariably boil tap water before drinking it. Some people argue that the water is perfectly safe to drink straight from the tap. Some claim there is heavy metal/mineral contamination. Some people point out the fact that much of the tap water comes from reservoirs on the Chinese mainland and that this fact alone is cause for concern... everybody has an opinion.
You could have the water coming from your taps laboratory tested but that won't help much if something goes wrong with the water next month. Also, boiling won't remove contaminants like dissolved rust or heavy metals.
In truth, the tap water is safe and far exceeds WHO standards but as alluded to above, ageing pipes and header tanks in residential buildings are the main source of problems. Nearly all people are satisfied with 15 to 20 minutes boiling. However, if you're still not happy, you can have bottled water delivered in bulk or have a water cooler installed in your home. In the long run, a cheaper option may be to have filters fitted to the tap water supply.
Hospitals and Healthcare
Medical facilities, both public and private, are highly developed and of a very good standard. As an expatriate, you'll likely favour private facilities because of good English skills of the staff and more personal attention. That said, Hong Kong's public hospitals are very good indeed and you can usually turn up without an appointment.
Hospital fees are very high. Adequate insurance, provided by your employer or arranged by yourself, is particularly important. There are a wide variety of expatriate insurance providers to choose from and it's easy to arrange. There is no excuse for neglecting this, everyone should have good insurance.
If you require emergency treatment, the ambulance will take you to the nearest public hospital unless they are told otherwise.
You should seek advice on a good family doctor from the Community Advice Bureau. Asking a neighbour or your friends and colleagues should also lead you to a good doctor. This is important because if you find yourself in need of specialist treatment, you'll probably be better off being referred by your doctor.
Popular expat hospitals include:
- Adventist, 40 Stubbs Road, Mid Levels
- Canossa, 1 Old Peak Road, Mid Levels
- Matilda, 41 Mt. Kellett Road, The Peak
Xpat.Life Member Stories
The following are experiences from our forum members. Feel free to send us your own story for publication.
Rob's Expatriate Life
"Applying for a position as a language school manager in Hong Kong was unexpected but I saw it by chance in a small box advertisement in a trade magazine. Six weeks later I was standing in Hong Kong airport, feeling lost and out of my depth.
I'd never stepped out of Europe before and finding myself in a big Asian city was both scary and exciting. I relished the adventure but I knew deep down that it was full of ordinary people doing ordinary things in a setting I was unfamiliar with, so I headed to my hotel determined to keep a cool head. I spent a month living out of a hotel room. It was a bubble that protected me from reality for a while during my localisation process, Hong Kong seems way off the scale for a first time expat.
I found an apartment in Tin Hau on Hong Kong Island but it was a small place for the money and I was unhappy there. My window simply looked out on the wall of another tower block. Uninspiring and claustrophobic. I guess some people would thrive on living in a downtown area with all the action within easy reach but I hated it.
Before long, I found myself moving into a nice little house on Lamma Island, just South of Hong Kong Island itself. This was a wonderful change! Open spaces, friendly expat faces. The only drawback is when the weather is rough and the crossing to Hong Kong Island can be very unpleasant. In fact, if there is a typhoon, the crossings may be suspended completely, leaving you stranded. This is something you should consider when deciding where to live.
I've been here for three years now and I really don't know what I was so worried about when I arrived. It's truly wonderful to be an expat here. Sure, I've had my low times but that's more to do with my personal state of mind than anything to do with where I am. Bear in mind that even though this is one of the most densely populated places on Earth, it can be so very lonely if you don't make friends and more importantly, the right friends. What I mean is, make sure you have a regular social life with good people. I guess that applies wherever you are but I feel it's even more important if you're in a place like this as a foreigner.
Speaking of socialising, like most expats here I like to spend a night out in Lan Kwai Fong because it's safe, vibrant and there are plenty of other expats to talk and network with. Sometimes I will venture to Wan Chai a bit further along the Island but that's only if I have to meet a specific friend there.
More recently, I've been spending time with local residents and I really wish I'd started doing this sooner. I started learning Cantonese, the local Chinese dialect spoken in Hong Kong and most overseas Chinese communities. It's been a real eye opener and a new exiting journey for me into the lives of the locals and they've been so friendly to me. It's also taken me deeper into the New Territories. The local friends I've made here are kind enough to involve me in their family gatherings in towns not normally frequented by expats and I feel privileged to be invited.
On the whole, I think I made the right choice coming here. I don't know how long it will last either. My contract is renewed annually but I hope it will continue for a long time. I really don't want to go home. Not yet anyway!"