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Country Facts about Hong Kong

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What you should know about living costs and more in Hong Kong

What colors are lucky? Which number signifies prosperity? As well as practical Hong Kong facts like the cost of living and transportation, the country facts section covers all the little details you would need to fit into your new host country, and how to make the most of this vibrant place.

Space is at a premium in Hong Kong, and it continues to be one of the most expensive cities in the world.

As well as looking at the cost of living for practicalities such as accommodation, driving, and public transportation, we cover some of the many ways you can spend your time in Hong Kong.

Whether you enjoy shopping, tucking into dim sum. or partying until the early hours, Hong Kong has something for you.

We also share top tips on social etiquette, religion in Hong Kong, and the challenge of learning a language with nine separate tones.

Cost of living

In many international surveys, the cost of living in Hong Kong is consistently among the highest in the world. According to the 2012 and 2013 Mercer surveys, the city ranks 9th or 6th, respectively, among the cities with the highest expenses for expatriates.

It is especially accommodation, healthcare, and international schooling that contribute to the elevated costs. However, according to a recent ECA International survey, the big cities in mainland China may now be overtaking Hong Kong.

As in most other places, there is a clear distinction between the cost of living in Hong Kong for an expat lifestyle and local standards. The best way to slash your budget is to embrace a local attitude. For example, leaving the “expat bubble” or using public transport instead of owning a car can decrease your regular expenses.

Moreover, you should take the higher costs into account when negotiating your salary. If your company pays for your children’s schooling and your family’s healthcare, your cost of living will become dramatically lower.

Housing

One of the main factors which contribute to the high cost of living in Hong Kong is housing. It is not unusual for families to spend 50% of their overall budget on accommodation. The reason for this is simple: Hong Kong covers barely 1,100 km2, but it’s home to a population of 7.2 million people – a number which keeps growing.

The general shortage of land is reflected in the excessive property prices. Furthermore, using utilities adds up as well, particularly in summer when you need air conditioning. Most people live in apartment buildings, as suburban family homes are something that only the wealthy can afford. But your rental expenses also depend on where exactly you would like to live.

Many expats move to Hong Kong Island. The Mid-Levels are a popular area among very well-off residents from overseas. The neighborhood is close to the central business district and offers a good infrastructure, for example the prestigious Island School.

Families with younger kids tend to settle in the southern part of Hong Kong Island or in specific areas elsewhere, such as Discovery Bay on Lantau Island. Choosing one of these expat enclaves, however, you may expect to pay a HKD 50,000 (per month!) for a three-bedroom apartment. As for higher rents, the sky’s the limit.

Nevertheless, you can save quite a bit of money on rents if you are willing to move off Hong Kong Island. There are a number of expats who prefer to settle in Kowloon or in the New Territories due to cheaper rents. Single people on a budget should also think about sharing an apartment.

For more information on renting apartments, please refer to our article on renting in Hong Kong.

Cars and Public Transport

Buying a car in Hong Kong is not much more expensive than anywhere else. However, keeping and using a car on a daily basis can contribute a lot to your expenses per month.

Gas prices are high, and parking space won’t be the cheapest item in your budget, either. Moreover, there are annual fees for license renewal, which can amount to over HKD 10,000, depending on your type of car.

On the other hand, public transport is not only very reliable: It is also very cheap, compared to what you’d need to spend on a car. Rides on buses and the MTR start from HKD 4.50; tram rides require a flat fare of HKD 2.30 for adults.

You can thus reduce your daily expenses by using public transport in Hong Kong. Some expats also find it cheaper to frequently use a taxi rather than drive their own car.

Healthcare and Schools

On average, food and consumer goods tend to be a bit more expensive than elsewhere. Nearly everything has to be imported, for instance from mainland China. However, if you insist on buying goods from back home, you might have to pay even more for your food shopping.

Healthcare adds a hefty sum as well. A decent health insurance plan is essential if you want to make use of the private healthcare system – or your expenses will suddenly skyrocket in case of accident or illness.

If you ask expats whether it is possible to live on a decent budget in the city, you might get the answer, “yes – unless you have children.” As local schools are only an option if your child speaks a fair amount of Cantonese, foreign residents generally stick with a Hong Kong international school.

Annual tuition for international schools can be anywhere up to HKD 190,000 for high school graduates. For some more popular schools you need so-called debentures as well, which may require up to several hundred thousand dollars.

However, debentures are often held by multi-nationals for their international staff’s kids. If this is the case for you, you needn’t be afraid of facing horrendous fees for schooling in Hong Kong.

Practical information

Traditional Chinese vacations are the most important Hong Kong holidays. They take place according to the lunar calendar, which means they are scheduled on different dates every year. To find out the dates for a specific year, check the government website.

Hong Kong Holidays: Chinese New Year

In late January or early February, when the New Year begins according to the lunar calendar, you will experience the most exciting of all Hong Kong holidays: Chinese New Year. Daily life comes to a complete standstill while the city indulges in spectacular celebrations. The International Chinese New Year Parade and the fireworks on the second day are definitely a must-see.

Chinese New Year is the Hong Kong holiday equivalent of Christmas, with plenty of family time, visiting friends, and traditional meals. Temples are open 24 hours, allowing constant worship. This is meant to bring luck to you and your family for the following year.

Rituals are also designed to bring you success and prosperity. You shouldn’t clean your house, in case you sweep the good luck out. You should eat lots of candy, to bring in a sweeter year, and use plenty of the color red: the ultimate lucky charm.

One other important tradition on Chinese New Year is the giving of so-called “Lai See” gifts, which literally translates to “lucky money”. These are small red envelopes containing a single banknote, and given to people to provide both giver and receiver with luck.  Generally, seniors give the envelopes to juniors, parents to children, and married couples to single friends.

Hong Kong Holidays: Other Traditional Chinese Holidays

Other fascinating traditional Hong Kong holidays dominate the calendar. A key one is the Ching Ming Festival on April 5th, for ancestral worship. Locals visit the graves of their ancestors, cleaning them and offering wine and fruit. Chung Yeung Festival, one of the autumn Hong Kong holidays, is also for paying respect to ancestors.

The Dragon Boat Festival, in early summer, is also one of the most important Hong Kong holidays. Watch dragon boats race off the shore, as locals commemorate the death of Qu Yuan, a Chinese hero who drowned himself in protest of corrupt rulers over 2,000 years ago.

On the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated as a popular Hong Kong holiday.  Lanterns are lit and families enjoy ‘moon cakes’.

Finally, the Chinese Winter Solstice Festival is celebrated on December 22nd, and is the last of the annual Hong Kong holidays. It marks the date on which the Northern hemisphere experiences the shortest daytime and longest nighttime, so it is considered the turning point of the year, after which darkness and cold will give way to light and warmth. For locals, this is a day to wear brand-new clothes, visit family and celebrate together until late at night.

Hong Kong Holidays: Political Holidays

There are two specifically political Hong Kong holidays: July 1st, which is the holiday to commemorate the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in 1997 and the National Day of China on October 1st.

The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Establishment Day means a day off for everyone and is usually celebrated with gigantic fireworks down at Victoria Harbor. However, the political significance of the day is also used as a platform for annual rallies organized by the Civil Human Rights Front, demanding universal suffrage and calling for the preservation of civil liberties.

Since the handover in 1997, National Day is celebrated in Hong Kong as a statutory holiday. During the day, there are a variety of ceremonies, parades and community events throughout the city, once again finishing off with one of Hong Kong’s spectacular firework shows.

Hong Kong International Airport

Chek Lap Kok: Hong Kong’s International Airport

Hong Kong International Airport, also known as Chek Lap Kok Airport, is located in the southwest of Hong Kong, just north of Lantau Island. Built in 1998 on a large artificial island, it replaced the older airport located in densely populated Kowloon. The new airport is connected to Lantau Island by several bridges, and it’s easily accessible from every part of Hong Kong.

From the airport, over 100 airlines offer flights to more than 170 destinations worldwide, including 44 cities in Mainland China. There are direct connections to major cities in North America, Europe, Australia, South Africa, India, and other places. Flight time from London is 12 hours, while you can get to Melbourne in 10 hours, as well as to New York in circa 16 hours.

The biggest domestic airline is Cathay Pacific, which has its main hub at Hong Kong International Airport. Cathay Pacific, a member of oneworld Alliance, serves close to 170 destinations in more than 40 countries all over the world.

Other major airlines offering frequent flights to Hong Kong include Lufthansa, British Airways, and Emirates. Some airlines, such as Singapore Airlines or Air India, also use the city as a stopover point.

Getting ThereAirport Express

One of the easiest ways to get to the international airport is the Airport Express operated by the MTR, which also runs the urban railway network. The Airport Express takes you to the airport from Hong Kong Island in 24 minutes and runs about every 10 minutes from 5:50 am to 1:15 am daily. You can find the detailed schedule online. A single ticket costs between HKD 60 and HKD 100, depending on where you are leaving from.

To make things easier, you can check in at any of the Airport Express stations in Kowloon and Hong Kong Island between 24 hours and 90 minutes prior to your plane’s departure. Make sure to check the time and deadline with your airline beforehand.

Furthermore, the Airport Express has a free shuttle service. The shuttles take you from major hotels and railway interchanges to the nearest Airport Express station.

Other Transportation Options

Of course, you can always take a taxi or a private shuttle to and from the airport as well. Taxi prices range from about HKD 20 to HKD 390, depending on your destination. The Chek Lap Kok website provides an overview of taxi prices from the airport to different areas of the metropolis.

Various public bus connections to the city center offer a more inexpensive way of reaching the international airport. The airport website provides you with further information on these services.

Taking your own car to the terminal? There are three car parks with more than 3,000 parking spots available for short-term or long-term parking.

Connections to Mainland China

If Hong Kong is merely a transit point on your way to the Chinese mainland, you can use the SkyPier cross-boundary ferry service. Passengers who use these ferries are treated as transit passengers and do not have to go through customs and immigration. Bear in mind, however, that the ferries are for international transfers only. You cannot use them if you are staying in Hong Kong and merely want to go to the Chinese mainland for a brief trip.

Hong Kong International Airport isn’t your only option for flights in and out of the area. Nearby Shenzhen International Airport  on the mainland is becoming more and more popular as a starting point for regional journeys. While long-distance flights to global destinations are usually more convenient from Hong Kong, traveling from Shenzhen might be the better option when you’re heading to mainland China. Flights are usually cheaper from there, and you have the option to fly to more destinations within China.

For some other destinations in Asia, it might be worth comparing prices and options between Hong Kong and Shenzhen. Keep in mind, though, that for in order to get to Shenzhen, you need a valid Chinese visa.

There are several direct express bus services to Shenzhen. The direct shuttle bus to Shenzhen Airport takes about 75 minutes (not including customs clearance at the border) and costs circa HKD 100. You can find more information (in Chinese only) on the website of Chinalink Bus Company Limited.

Culture and Social Etiquette

Hong Kong culture is built around unspoken customs. For example, don’t unwrap a gift in front of the giver, don’t discuss politics, and don’t act drunk in public. Find out the reasons behind these examples by checking out this article.

Hong Kong Culture: Greeting People

Greet people with a light handshake, and observe the Hong Kong culture of lowering your eyes. This is a sign of respect, as is waiting to be introduced to someone. These rules are particularly important if you are applying for a job or are in a subordinate position. If, however, you hold a higher position than your guests, feel free to initiate the handshake and maintain slightly more eye contact.

Addressing someone by name is also confusing. It is typical, in Hong Kong culture, for locals to have three names: the family name, then a generational name and a given name. However, some locals have adopted Western names in addition to their Chinese ones, because Westerners have difficulty pronouncing Chinese names.

Usually, then, you should use the family name and a title (“doctor”, “professor”, “Mr”, “Madam”) to address someone. Do not switch to first names until you are specifically invited to do so by your host or colleagues. Usually, once you begin talking on a first name basis, your friend will tell you which of their names to use.

Hong Kong Culture: Body Language and Small Talk

It is typical Hong Kong culture to stand close to one another during conversation. However, body contact does not occur. Therefore, never hug or kiss another person, or pat someone on the back.

This is especially true if the person in question is older, or in a position of authority. This is perceived as offensive and rude, as is winking at someone.

You might experience some Hong Kong culture shock, as you realize that small talk and friendly greetings are not common. Do not be offended if the cashier at a supermarket does not strike up a conversation, or if waiters in non-touristic restaurants do not even say “thank you” when you pay your bill.

Shouting a greeting to a stranger on the metro or at a tram stop is also likely to earn you a few strange looks. This is also true of such basic things as holding the door open for a stranger.

If you do strike up a conversation with someone you don’t know well, avoid politics and expressing your opinion freely. This may be seen as vulgar: therefore, communicating with people from Hong Kong culture requires careful attention to what is both said and unsaid.

Hong Kong Culture: Gifts

Hong Kong culture dictates that, if you are invited to someone’s house, you should never show up without a gift. Flowers, imported spirits, and good quality sweets are all suitable choices. Be careful to never present four gifts – “four” means “death” in Cantonese – and try to give three (similar to the word “life”), eight (sounding like the word “prosperity”) or nine (another word for “eternity”).

Try to wrap gifts in the lucky colors of gold and red, and make sure you hand it over with both hands. It is polite for the host to refuse the gift a couple of times before accepting it, and it is also part of Hong Kong culture that the gift is not unwrapped for some time. The host does not want to discredit the giver if the gift is something inappropriate.

Hong Kong Culture: Public Behavior

Always avoid loud and obtrusive public behavior to blend into Hong Kong culture. Avoid holding hands and public displays of affection, too, as these are frowned upon. Try not to drink too much in public, and be careful with smoking: it is even forbidden in some outdoor areas, such as beaches and parks.

Driving

It’s hardly surprising that lots of people prefer using the public transport system to driving. Nevertheless, the number of fatal driving accidents per resident is actually lower than in other countries. The government is continually making driving regulations stricter and penalties more severe to maintain safety.

If you are sure you want to be driving in Hong Kong, check our section on cars in Hong Kong to learn all about importing your own car and buying cars. There you’ll also find information on driver’s licenses.

General Facts

A major nuisance of driving in Hong Kong is the fact that there seem to be more cars than space in the city. The density of cars is among the highest in the world, and due to the limited amount of space, it is difficult to build new roads to accommodate the increasing numbers of vehicles.

As a consequence, the streets are usually extremely crowded and traffic jams are a common phenomenon. To get real-time information on traffic conditions on the major routes, you should check these snapshots of traffic condition and live webcasts.

Road signs are both in English and Chinese, so finding your way around town should not be more difficult than in other major cities. If you are looking for a specific route, go to the convenient Driving Route Search Service provided by the Transport Department.

Local gas prices are relatively high, especially when compared to those in other major cities on the Chinese mainland or in the US. Generally speaking, you can expect to pay as much for gas as you would in most European countries.

Parking

Parking spots are also relatively rare and very costly – unless you happen to know parking spaces that many others have not yet found. For a list of car parks, have a look at the parking section on the Transport Department website.

Furthermore, there are almost 18,000 parking meters and other short-term parking options. Do not park illegally if you do not want to risk having your wheel clamped or your entire car towed away.

Toll Roads

On the upside, there are no tolls for the usage of all major roads in Hong Kong, except for some tunnels. The Department of Transportation gives you details on toll rates.

If you already know you are likely to pass a toll tunnel regularly, and you do not want to start rummaging through your pockets for change every time you go driving, you can use the Autotoll prepaid electronic toll collection system.

The Chinese Border

Even if you have a local Hong Kong driver’s license and a vehicle registered in Hong Kong, you cannot simply drive across the border to China. It is necessary to get permission from the Chinese authorities first. This government website on cross-boundary driving in Hong Kong tells you exactly what you need to do in order to obtain that permission.

Transportation

Buses

Buses in Hong Kong are operated by different companies. Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and the New Territories are served by Kowloon Motor Bus Company and New World First Bus & Citybus. Lantau is exclusively served by the New Lantau Bus Company.

Many buses are double-deckers, offering great views of the city as an extra treat. Route searches and specific prices are available on the respective company websites.

Usually, a single ride is less than HKD 10, depending on the distance travelled, although some fares can be as high as over HKD 40. You might have to pay a steep markup on Sundays and public holidays when using some Hong Kong public transport options.

You either need to have the exact amount of cash or pay via Octopus Card, which is valid for most Hong Kong transportation options. On the front of most buses a sign in both Chinese and English shows the destination.

Stops are clearly marked. However, you must raise your hand to signal you’d like to get on the vehicle. When you’d like to get off the bus, the driver will only stop if you press the buzzer.

Minibuses

In addition to regular buses, there are also lots of so-called minibuses in Hong Kong. These are very popular among locals, especially when the MTR and regular buses are no longer running. Unless the other available options are not exciting enough for adventurous expats in Hong Kong, we recommend the use of these vehicles only for those who speak at least some Cantonese and are familiar with the city.

Minibuses carry around 16 passengers. Green minibuses have fixed routes and prices listed on the front window (Chinese only). You normally pay once you get on.

Red minibuses do not always have fixed routes – they can be altered according to demand. Passengers can then get on and off anywhere along the route. The Hong Kong Transport Department provides more detailed information.

Trams

If you prefer a cozier, scenic way of getting around Hong Kong, try one of the historical double-decker trams. They have rambled through the streets since 1904. Several attempts to shut down the oldest of all Hong Kong transport lines have been thwarted by resistance from the local population.

The flat fare for the tram is HKD 2.30, once again payable with your Octopus Card or exact change. More information is available from Hong Kong Tramways. Another special treat is the Hong Kong Peak Tram to Victoria Peak, a popular tourist attraction and recreational spot, which offers spectacular views of the cityscape.

Ferries

If your city is made up of hundreds of islands, as is Hong Kong, travel cannot only take place in the streets or underground. Whether you need to get somewhere or just want to enjoy the scenic views of the harbor: Using a ferryis a very popular way to get around here.

The most famous route is probably the trip across the harbor from Hong Kong Island to the Kowloon Peninsula with the legendary Star Ferry. A trip from the Central Star Ferry Pier on Hong Kong Island to Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon costs HKD 2.50, slightly more on weekends and public holidays. The service operates approximately every 10 to 20 minutes between 7:00 am and 11:00 pm daily.

Other ferries provide service to some of Hong Kong’s main outlying islands such as Peng Chau, Lamma, Cheung Chau, and Lantau, as well as to Discovery Bay, making them an irreplaceable part of the Hong Kong public transport network.

All of these operate from the Central Ferry Piers on Hong Kong Island. On most routes, there are standard ferries and more expensive fast ferries. For some of the ferries, you can also use the Octopus Card.

InterNations GO!
by InterNations GO!
02 March 2016
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