HK Expat Survival Guide

How to move to Hong Kong like a pro

Shortcuts: Pre-Move ChecklistArrivalHousingMedicalSchoolsMoneyMisc.

Important Phone Numbers:


Pre-Move Checklist

To Do:

Don't forget to bring:

Try to bring as little stuff as possible.

Hong Kong is a fully developed city and you can find just about everything here. You'll save yourself a lot of logistics headache if you just sell / give away old furniture back home and buy a new set in HK. Yes, there's an IKEA here. One exception: it can be difficult to find oversized clothing and shoes (e.g. Men's size 12 and above).

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Arrival

You'll probably be jetlagged, so take it easy on Day 1!

Useful mobile apps to install

Search for these on the iOS or Android app stores (we're not affiliated with any of them). ↑ Back to Top

Housing (Temporary & Permanent)

"What's a Serviced Apartment? Should I stay in one?"

Serviced Apartments (aka "aparthotels" or "corporate housing") are furnished short-term rentals. While expensive, they are popular with new arrivals due to the sheer convenience factor. Benefits of a serviced apartment include:

Staying for the first 1-2 months in a serviced apartment (or Airbnb) is highly recommended. It will give you time to relax, explore different areas, and lock down a great lease for the long term. Just be prepared to pay double the monthly rental amount when you move in (1 month's deposit is standard).

To browse all the serviced apartment options in Hong Kong, check out YourNewBase.com (no agents, ads, or booking fees).

"How do I rent an apartment in Hong Kong?"

If you're unprepared, finding a place to rent in HK can be a very stressful affair. Let's get you ready for the big day.

The low down:

The steps to renting an apartment:

  1. Choose a neighbourhood: this should happen first (i.e. before you start talking to agents). Agents tend to specialize by district, so it's best to first decide where you want to live. See below for some quick recommendations.
  2. Find an agent: the best way is through a personal referral—ask around at work to see if anyone has an agent they would recommend. Failing that, the next best way is to physically walk around your target area and walk into a real estate agency nearby. They will have the best idea about what's hot and available the market. There are so many agencies that you might even stumble on three at a time.
  3. Optional: find another agent. There's no rule that states you can't work with multiple agents at a time. You may quickly realize that one agent has superior knowledge—or is simply easier to deal with.
  4. Look at some apartments! Your agent will help you put together a shortlist of places to check out based on your monthly budget and other requirements (e.g. number of bedrooms, square footage, desired facilities in building, and so on). Don't be shy: take this opportunity to ask any and all questions about the places you're viewing.
  5. Lock down a place: if you see an apartment that you really like, you may want to strike while it's available! This is typically done through a "Provisional Agreement" (i.e. you pay a deposit to "reserve" a place). Note: Provisional Agreements don't mean all that much, as the landlord is free to scrap it—and return you the deposit—if they can find a better deal from another prospective tenant. (Unfortunately, this doesn't work in reverse—if you forfeit the Provisional Agreement, you forfeit the deposit!)
  6. Sign the rental agreement and pick up the keys. Be prepared to pay 3 months' rent upfront (first month's rent + 2 months' deposit). Congratulations—you're officially settled!

"What utilities will I need to sign up for?"

You will need to sign up for water, gas, and electricity.

Protip: you can use Jetco terminals inside bank branches to pay for tax and utility bills.

"Can you recommend an area to live in?"

Tough question—there are so many to choose from (personal preferences will play the biggest part here). The good news: Hong Kong has an excellent public transportation system, so you can get almost anywhere you want in 30-45 minutes tops. And there aren't any dangerous areas—the city is very safe (even after dark).

As a general rule, Hong Kong Island is more expensive than Kowloon or the New Territories (there's significant price variation within each of them, too). Many expats start out living on HK Island (and may later move to the New Territories to live in a bigger place and/or save on rent).

Make sure you visit an area before committing to live there. To get the full picture, see what it's like during rush hour (if you'll be commuting to work every morning).

Some popular expat neighbourhood choices:

Some "shot in the dark" neighbourhood recommendations:

"I'm OK with sharing a place. How do I find roommates?"

Your best is through Facebook groups such as this one or this one. Listings are snapped up fast, so be proactive and reach out to the poster to arrange a viewing.

Protip: no one really uses Craigslist here and the site gets spammed with scammers and fake listings... so be careful on there.

"But I want to live in a big house on The Peak!! :("

Start gold digging lah. You can do it!

"Which Internet Service Provider (ISP) should I go for?"

Honestly, they're not all that different. People generally prefer HKBN, but it's not available in every building. You'll be paying somewhere around $200 HKD for a blazing fast fiber connection (100M, possibly even Gigabit). Can't really go wrong here.

"Why does everyone have a maid? How do I hire a maid?"

Most expat families employ a helper to take care of everyday tasks—cooking, housekeeping, grocery shopping, babysitting the kids, pet care, elderly care, and so on.

Here are the basics to employing a live-in helper:

Bottom line: hiring a helper is a big responsibility, and not something to take lightly. There are many helpers available for hire, and skill levels / language ability greatly vary. The best way to find a helper is to go through your personal network (referrals are key). If that's not possible, you may elect to go through an agency to find suitable candidates—and talk to at least a few helpers before making a decision. Fair Agency is a non-profit employment agency for helpers in HK.

For more information, check out this informative blog post and the official Labour Department page.

"Where can I buy furniture?"

Protip: don't order furniture until you know the exact dimensions of rooms in your apartment. It's very easy to overestimate how much space is available. Protip #2: make sure any furniture you obtain can be easily carried into your place. This means it must fit through building entrance(s), into available elevators, hallways, and so on. With that said, your options are (in order of increasing price):
  1. Cheap (or free): check Facebook groups or GeoExpat/AsiaXpat classifieds to see if anyone is giving stuff away. Due to the high expat turnover rate in HK, there are always crazy deals to be had on used furniture and appliances.
  2. IKEA: like every other major city, Hong Kong has been graced with IKEA. There are multiple locations around town (most go to the Causeway Bay store on HK Island). They deliver and also offer affordable assembly options (highly recommended instead of doing it yourself). Warning: gets absolutely packed on weekends.
  3. Muji: if you haven't experienced the bliss of minimalist Japanese design, Muji might just be the thing for you. Far fewer options than IKEA, but they've got the basics covered. Check out the website for product listings.
  4. Horizon Plaza: located in Ap Lei Chau (Google Map link), this is a giant complex of over 100 stores. Many expats come here for higher-end furniture shopping or to find specific pieces. Just as in IKEA, beware the weekend crowds.
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Medical (Health & Dental)

Case 1: If you have health insurance

Go to any one of Hong Kong's 12 private hospitals. The most popular expat choices are Adventist Hospital on 40 Stubbs Road (3651 8888) and Canossa Hospital on 1 Old Peak Road (2522 2181).

Case 2: If you don't have health insurance

Don't fret. Hong Kong has excellent public hospitals with professional medical staff and up-to-date equipment. In fact, there's no guarantee that a private hospital will be a better choice than a public one.

What to do: schedule an appointment with an out-patient clinic near you. Full list of clinics (broken down by area) available on the Hospital Authority website.

"I need affordable dental care!"

There are some recommendations on the various forums (GeoExpat, AsiaExpat).

Protip: need extensive dental work done? Try to get a quote from Silom Dental in Bangkok.

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Schools

If you're moving to Hong Kong as a family, it's never too early to plan out where the kids will go to school. Note: primary & secondary education are mandatory in HK (kindergarten is optional).

Broadly speaking, schools in Hong Kong can be categorized as such (in order of increasing cost):

  1. Government schools (aka "Local schools"). The vast majority of schools in HK fall under this category—they are free of charge and admission is typically determined by the district you live in. Instruction is in Cantonese, English, and (increasingly) Mandarin.
  2. Subsidized schools (DSS). The "Direct Subsidy Scheme" schools offer an IB curriculum for a significantly lower cost than ESF schools. Note: not all DSS students enroll in IB. Examples of DSS schools: St. Paul's, YMCA, St. Margaret's (some are much more competitive than others).
  3. Subsidized schools (ESF). The "English Schools Foundation" is a network of primary & secondary schools offering IGCSE and IB curriculums. There are 22 ESF schools spread out over Hong Kong, and fees range from HK$89,200-115,600 (primary) and HK$122,900-129,100 (secondary). Preference is given to non-Chinese speakers, and schools only accept applicants that reside in their respective zones.
  4. Private International schools: these are highly competitive schools focused on preparing children for acceptance into top foreign Universities. These can be further subdivided based on curriculum (e.g. British, American, IB). Costs typically exceed those of ESF schools, going all the way up to HK$210,900 per year (Grade 12 in Hong Kong International School). Most expats tend to enroll their kids into these (or ESF schools).

For a complete list of international schools (including curriculums, fees, districts), please refer to this handy Wiki page.

"What's the admissions process like?"

ESF and international schools are very competitive (long wait lists are common). The process typically begins more than a year before matriculation:

  1. Decide on a curriculum: you can narrow down the options based on where you'd like your child to attend University. For example, there are only a handful of schools that offer the American (AP) curriculum at the secondary level.
  2. Visit the campus: after you have made a shortlist of target schools to apply for, go check them out! Do your research to keep track of upcoming Open Days and Info sessions—it's a great chance to explore the campus, talk to staff/parents/alumni, and get all the details about applying. See if there are schools that may give preference to your child (e.g. based on nationality or family background).
  3. Apply! Families tend to apply for multiple schools at the same time (this partially explains the long waitlists everywhere). Be prepared to come in for in-person interviews. At this stage, many schools will charge a non-refundable application fee.
  4. Pay the deposits: once your child has been expected, schools will expect you to put down a refundable deposit that serves as a reservation fee. This can be as much as 50% of the annual tuition.

Protip: it's not the end of the world if your child isn't accepted into your target school(s). Switching schools is very common here—so you can always try again next year!

"What are debentures?"

Debentures are a way for schools to raise money to fund renovations and expansions. Think of them as 0% interest loans—where you're the lender and the school is the borrower.

Upon admission, many schools in Hong Kong require that the parents pay a debenture. The school then uses this money for capital costs, and only repays it once the student leaves the school. It's worth noting that in some cases the debenture is only partially refunded (or not at all).

Debentures are also a way for parents (or employers of expat parents) to have their child be prioritized in the application process. The monetary value of debentures greatly varies—from HK$25,000 (ESF schools) to HK$10 million (top International schools).

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$$ Money $$

How to find a job in Hong Kong:

The job market here can be very frustrating. Employers routinely post job descriptions with 50+ desired skills (just hoping to get every candidate applying), HR personnel are flaky, quality recruiters are rare, and jobs are often given to the candidate willing to be paid the least. But OK, you're here, and you need a job.

Job hunting tactics depend on your industry experience level:

Protip: the custom here is to give/accept business cards with both hands.

Opening a bank account in Hong Kong

To avoid hour-long wait times, try to do this early in the morning (aim to be the first one in the branch when it opens).

Here's what to bring with you:

  1. Your passport
  2. Another form of gov't issued photo ID (e.g. UK driver's license). Can't be expired. An HKID card works best.
  3. Proof of address somewhere. Can even be a UK utility bill. Ideally, a utility bill from Hong Kong. If you don't have any of these, you can bring a simple Employer Letter (signed and chopped) with your address of permanent residence (Word .doc template).
  4. HK$1,000 to deposit as opening balance. Note: the minimum balance requirements differ across banks, and many won't even require you to deposit any money on Day 1.

Opening an account will usually take between 30-45 minutes (not including the wait time). You'll receive a debit/ATM card in the mail within a week.

Credit cards: all the usual suspects are available (Visa, MasterCard, American Express, etc). Credit card rewards are nowhere near as extensive as in the US, but there are many cash-back and air mile options. Some credit cards are harder to get—HSBC, for example, looks for at least 3 months of income history in HK. Others are handed out like candy to anyone with an HKID and a proof of address.

Protip: you can connect your Octopus card with your credit card to enable auto-refill (so your Octopus never runs out of money). It takes about 2-3 weeks to set this up (see the Octopus card website for more info).

Are you an American citizen? If so, head straight to Citibank (thanks to AML/KYC/FATCA, it's going to be a major pain—if not impossible—anywhere else). In any case, state that you're American immediately so they can direct you to someone that knows how to process those cases.

All other nationalities: the choice is yours. The most popular banks here are HSBC, Standard Chartered, Hang Seng, Citibank, and BOC (Bank of China). DBS is becoming increasingly popular, too. Many just go with HSBC or Hang Seng because their ATMs are everywhere. If you need specialized services, do your research on the bank websites beforehand.

None of the banks are particularly known for their customer service.

Registering a company in Hong Kong:

Note: please consult a professional. The info below does not constitute financial or legal advice.

Note: while it's trivial to register a Ltd company, it's not easy to get a business bank account. Before you go with any company formation service, ask what relationships they have with local banks. For startups that are unable to open traditional bank accounts, Neat HK is emerging as a popular alternative.

For more information, see the Inland Revenue Department website.

"How do I move money to Hong Kong?"

There are a few options to consider, each with their pros/cons:

  1. The ATM method - before you leave, get a debit/ATM card with 0 forex fees and ATM fees refunded. Then, just periodically take out cash in HK until you have all of it. This is a slow process, and won't be really be feasible for large sums.
  2. Peer to peer money transfer systems (e.g. TransferWise, CurrencyFair). Very popular with expats, as turnaround is fast (1-2 days) and fees are competitive. Be sure to read reviews and shop around for the best rates.
  3. Bank wire - the tried and true method. Be careful of outgoing wire fees and possibly bad FX rates (open a multi-currency account in HK so you can avoid the FX for as long as possible).
  4. HSBC Advance or Citi Gold - these banks offer Global View / Global Transfer services as long as you link your accounts. Instant and relatively painless (aside from the minimum balanace requirements and having to open these accounts in the first place).

"Where do I exchange money?"

Go to one of these two locations, depending on which is closer:

  1. Berlin Money Exchange (entrance from Pottinger street, go up to 17th floor). Best rates in town—much better than at the bank. No ID required.
  2. Chungking Mansions (if you're on the Kowloon side). Seems like a place where you'd get ripped off, but surprisingly great for currency exchange. The trick is to go deeper into the building—don't just go for the first exchange shop you see. Go in 20-30 meters, and there should be a shop on your left. Watch out for pickpockets. Good Halal food in the same building.

"Can my wife/husband work in Hong Kong?"

Yes, but they first need to apply for a Dependant Visa. For eligibility criteria and the application process, please see the government website.

Top frugal tips for living in HK

  1. Don't live in Hong Kong. Har har. Also: don't start a family here.
  2. Live in a less expensive apartment. This is the main one, as rent is far and away the biggest expense in HK. Spend more time evaluating places, negotiating the lease, etc. It will pay off in the long run. For bonus points, try living outside expat areas—so you'll be able to avoid everything else that's priced for expats (e.g. bars, restaurants).
  3. Buy second hand furniture (or just get free) from expats that are on their way out. Check classifieds on Geoexpat and Facebook groups for postings.
  4. Party at Club 7/11 Why pay 100$ for a beer in LKF when you can grab one to go from 7/11 for 15$? Be sure to check out the happenin' Club 7/11 location on Staunton Street.
  5. Save on groceries. Try buying local produce at the wet markets (no, Wellcome does not count as a wet market).For more info, see the "Grocery" section below.
  6. Buy a second hand car. It just makes more sense, and there are many great deals to be had. Better yet...
  7. Don't drive at all. Unless you live in a hard-to-access area (e.g. The Peak, South side) you're better off just sticking to public transport. It's arguably the world's best system—and very affordable.
  8. Be a medical tourist (we're in Asia after all). Full-body checkup? Bangkok. Dental work? Bangkok. Transgender transformation? Bangkok!
  9. Marry a local. Nothing cures Expat spending habits faster than finding out how 99% of Hong Kong lives. Or even better...
  10. Marry a wealthy local. Boom! Now items #1-9 no longer apply.
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Miscellaneous

Where to party:

The 6 main expat nightlife areas in Hong Kong:
  1. Lan Kwai Fong (we just call it "LKF"). The epicenter of nightlife in HK, and a complete zoo after midnight on Friday/Saturday (lots of tourists and teeny boppers). If in doubt, just go here for the classic HK clubbing experience. Battle plan: start with drinks and a view at Ce La Vi, continue to Tazmania Ballroom, and end up (ideally after 1AM) at Volar or OMA.
  2. Soho (walking distance from LKF). This is where people go after they've "graduated" from the insanity of LKF. Best known for its brewpubs and restaurants. Battle plan: go barhopping on/around Staunton St, with a drink at Bobby's Rabble, de België, Brooklyn Bar & Grill, and Quinary. Walk down and grab a gelato at Emack & Bolio's (they close at 11). Then, end with a night cap and live jazz at Peel Fresco Music Lounge. Too easy.
  3. Wanchai (things get a bit grittier here). The prices are lower... and so are the standards! Perfect for a night after Happy Valley Horse Race Wednesdays. Battle plan: start classy with a drink upstairs at The Pawn. Pop by Joe Bananas just to tick it off, but make a quick escape to The Wanch for live music and a down-to-earth crowd. Optional: take the night to the next level with a karaoke session at Red MR.
  4. Knutsford Terrace (yes, it's in Kowloon!) A relaxing area to have a drink with friends, with a good mix of locals and tourists. Battle plan: try out some new food in TST, then head to All Night Long for some live music. Move on to Arena Bar for beer pong action, and then for a drink at Dada Bar + Lounge for your cocktail fix. Rule #1: if it's your first night out in TST, you must have a Flaming Lamborghini.
  5. Sheung Wan / Sai Ying Pun (hipster stomping grounds). Venues are a bit more spread out, but think of it as an easter egg hunt. Battle plan: after delicious yakitori at Yardbird, walk up and try the latest brews at CRAFTISSIMO. Then, walk over to Sai Ying Pun and pop by Wine Rack and get a beer for the road. Finish up at either Music Room (inside Potato Head restaurant) or Ping Pong 129 Gintonería.
  6. Kennedy Town (for a quiet night out). Located on the west side of the Island, Kennedy Town is a thoroughly gentrified residential area with great food and drink options. Battle plan: get a bite to eat at Beeger2 (proper burgers), 42nd Davis (great Italian), or Shoreditch (modern British). Then, move on to drinks and new friends at Winstons Coffee or Little Creatures (Aussie gastropub). End with a nightcap at Farmar Bar.

Pro tip: while there is very little physical violence, there have been many reports of spiked drinks in and around HK's bars and clubs. Watch your drinks at all times (that goes for girls AND guys!)

Most popular dating apps:

  1. Tinder is #1 (and it's not even close). Browsing Tinder in HK is extra entertaining simply due to the sheer variety of characters you'll see on there. Guys: be careful of scams and prostitution rings (be suspicious of anyone with a WeChat ID in their profile name)
  2. Everything else. If you're done with Tinder, check out: Happn, Bumble, Hinge, and Coffee Meets Bagel. Each has their quirks, but the basic concept remains the same.

Food recs:

As a general rule, there is no tipping in Hong Kong (a 10% service charge will usually be on the bill).

"Which tailor do you recommend for custom men's suits/shirts?"

There are a few rules for buying tailored clothing in HK:

  1. Ignore anybody that tries to sell you a suit on the street (especially around TST).
  2. Be as detailed as possible when working with tailors. This means telling them exactly what you're looking for in terms of buttons, lapels, pockets, etc. Just saying you want to look like "James Bond" or "Don Draper" will get you nowhere. If you already have a shirt/suit that fits you perfectly, bring it in!
  3. When you come in for the first fitting, wear proper attire (incl. dress shoes) - this will help with measurements and material selection.
  4. If you're getting a bespoke suit made, make sure there are multiple fittings. Also, make sure you arrange to pick it up (vs. getting it delivered) - this way, you can try it on one last time and request any last minute changes.
  5. You generally get what you pay for.

Now for the recommended tailors:

Hipster basic needs:

"Where do I buy groceries?"

Grocery shopping in Hong Kong is like an adventure—you might have to visit 2-3 locations before you find everything you need. Even within the same chain, two different locations may differ in selection.

Your options (from least to most expensive):

  1. The wet market: this isn't a tourist attraction—it's how many locals buy their fresh produce. While it can be hectic inside, you can't beat the prices. At least go inside and take a look!
  2. Wellcome and U Select: the "bang for the buck" supermarkets in HK. They might not have everything you need, but the basics are covered. Pro tip: check out Wellcome's cheap wine promotions.
  3. ParknShop (sub-brands: Fusion and International). The other major supermarket chain in Hong Kong. Will have most of what you need.
  4. Market Place by Jason's: great for harder-to-find imported products. Just a few locations, but generally good selection.
  5. Citysuper: for when you absolutely, positively need some special food from abroad—and are willing to pay anything to get it. The "Whole Foods" of Hong Kong.

"GYMS. Tell me everything!"

Warning: gyms in this city use aggressive sales tactics and will tell you stories about deals "expiring today", "limited time offers" and so on. Watch out for sneaky cancellation clauses in membership contracts.

Even mid-workout, aggressive Personal Trainers will approach you and try to sell you on lesson packages.

Gym recommendations for Hong Kong:

  1. Affordable option: there are government Sports Centres all over HK. They charge by the hour (less than $20 HKD/hour), but many opt to just get a pass (HK$180/month). To join, you need an HKID and attend a mandatory 1-hour orientation/safety lesson. Depending on the location, there are also facilities/courts available for booking (e.g. Tennis, Table Tennis, Squash, Soccer, Badminton, Indoor Golf, Dance Rooms, Volleyball, Basketball).
  2. MMA gyms: many options all over HK. Fighting Arts Centre gyms on Kowloon side, Pow Muay Thai and Espada BJJ on HK Island side. Hong Kong Self Defence & Krav Maga in Sheung Wan for self-defense.
  3. Strength training: Pinnacle Performance in Wan Chai has squat racks and benches, and is a favorite of powerlifters and bodybuilders.
  4. Rock Climbing / Bouldering: Attic V in Wong Chuk Hang.
  5. Yoga: try Kita Yoga or Inspire Yoga.

If money is no object, the popular choice is Pure Fitness (multiple locations, mostly on HK Island).

"So I need a visa for China..."

But you're already in China!

OK, fine. Here's how to do it yourself:

  1. Is this a business trip? If yes, ask your employer if they can sort it all out for you. If no, proceed to step #2.
  2. Get everything ready for the visa application: passport (with >7 months validity), copy of your HKID (or HK landing entry slip), 1 passport photo (white background, 48mm x 33mm), copy of birth certificate and copy of parents' passports (for applicants under 18 years old).
  3. Print and fill out visa application (Link to PDF)
  4. Print out a hotel reservation confirmation letter for your first few days in China (can be refundable).
  5. Go early in the morning (opens at 9 AM, be there by 8:30 AM) to the China Visa office at Capital Centre (151 Gloucester Road, 20th Floor).
  6. Apply in person and pay the visa fee. Visas could be ready as early as the next business day.

Visa fees depend on your citizenship. Full fee table here.

Don't want to do it yourself? Agency recommendation: YZ Travel. Another popular choice is Forever Bright.

"I have friends/family visiting! Where do I take them?!"

Don't panic, we've got you covered.

"What are some basic Cantonese phrases?"

Note: unless you're ethnically Chinese, no one will expect you to know/speak any Cantonese. They will also most likely switch to English immediately. But hey, it's always good to practice!

Want to learn more phrases? Check out this useful page.

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TL;DR

Hong Kong is basically Asia on training wheels. Thousands move here every year. Don't worry—you'll be fine.

Just don't expect it to be like London. Or New York. Or even Singapore. HK is a different beast, and you'll have a far better time if you embrace it for what it is.

Good luck!


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Questions, suggestions, insults? Please email me. Last update: July 2018.