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Living in Hong Kong
What You Should Know about Living Costs and More in Hong Kong
One of the well-known facts about Hong Kong is how expensive the territories are. Property prices here are sky-high, while groceries do not come in cheap as well, as many products need to be imported.
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The lack of space in Hong Kong affects the housing prices as well as other practicalities such as driving. Driving in Hong Kong is a luxury that not everyone can afford both in terms of time and money as parking space costs and legal fees are high and traffic jams are a common occurrence.
A way to cut back on your cost of living and save some valuable time is to use public transportation. Hong Kong public transportation system is well-developed and offers a variety of communication options such as railway, buses, trams, and even ferries.
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.
While Hong Kong is an administrative region of China, it has its own separate government and laws as well as currency (Hong Kong Dollar, code HKD). The official languages here are Chinese, Cantonese being the regional dialect, and English as the territory used to belong to the British Empire.
Because of the dependency to mainland China, Hong Kong does not have any embassies. Instead, the territory has over 120 consulates from all over the world. Some of them report to the main embassies in China, while the consuls of Britain, Canada, and the US report to the respective foreign ministries.
The emergency number for police, fire department, and ambulance is 999. Speech and hearing-impaired individuals can contact the emergency services by sending a text message to 992.
The main airport in Hong Kong is also the only one: Hong Kong International Airport. It is considered to be one of the best airports in the world. It not only offers over 220 worldwide destinations, it also invites you to visit an interactive aviation center with a flight simulator, experience IMAX cinema, and enjoy a relaxing massage at the spa.
Nearby Shenzhen International Airport on the mainland China is your other option, especially if you wish to travel locally Flights are usually cheaper from Shenzhen, but keep in mind that in order to get to Shenzhen you need a valid Chinese visa.
Hong Kong Areas
Hong Kong is split into three regions: Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and New Territories. These regions are further divided into 18 districts:
|Hong Kong Island||Kowloon||New Territories|
|Central & Western(中西區)||Kowloon City (九龍城區)||Islands (離島區)|
|Eastern (東區)||Kwun Tong (觀塘區)||Kwai Tsing (葵青區)|
|Southern (南區)||Sham Shui Po (深水埗區)||North (北區)|
|Wan Chai (灣仔區)||Wong Tai Sin (黃大仙區)||Sai Kung (西貢區)|
|Yau Tsim Mong(油尖旺區)||Sha Tin (沙田區)|
|Tai Po (大埔區)|
|Tsuen Wan (荃灣區)|
|Tuen Mun (屯門區)|
|Yuen Long (元朗區)|
The historic, political, and economic center of Hong Kong can be found in Hong Kong Island. Here you will find all the popular tourist attractions, mountains for hiking, and plenty of shopping centers wrapped in a loud, international atmosphere. On average, people that live here have the highest median income, however, most commodities are more expensive as well.
Kowloon is the urban area of Hong Kong. Considerably cheaper than Hong Kong Island, Kowloon area offers more traditional Chinese culture, big markets, and delicious food served by street vendors.
The land that was negotiated as an addition to Hong Kong back in mid-XIX century is appropriately called New Territories. The least densely populated area in Hong Kong is greener, calmer, and cheaper than the rest of the territory. The expat community here is small, and the region is not that international, so knowing at least a little bit of local language is a necessity.
In total, Hong Kong has 17 public Holidays. If it happens that a public holiday falls on a Sunday, the following Monday is a day off.
Traditional Chinese holidays are the most important Hong Kong holidays as well. They take place according to the lunar calendar, which means they are scheduled on different dates every 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 celebrated with plenty of family time, visiting friends, and traditional meals. Temples are open 24 hours, allowing constant worship. This is meant to bring you and your family luck for the following year.
One of the other traditional Hong Kong holidays is the Ching Ming Festival that happens in the beginning of April and is dedicated to 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.
Tuan NG, or 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 a special delicacy called moon cakes.
Finally, people in Hong Kong celebrate Christmas on 25 and 26 December. And while there is no snow, the Christmas spirit is certainly present around the whole city.
Hong Kong Holidays: Political Holidays
There are two specifically political Hong Kong holidays: 1 July, which is the holiday to commemorate the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in 1997 and the National Day of China on 1 October.
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Cost of Living
According to many international surveys, the average cost of living in Hong Kong is consistently among the highest in the world. Accommodation, healthcare, and international schooling––all contribute to the elevated costs.
Is It Expensive to Live in Hong Kong?
Living in Hong Kong, especially near the center, is likely to cost you more than most major European, American, or Australian cities, with an exception of metropolises like New York. It is considered to be one of the most expensive places for expatriates to live in.
According to the survey by Hong Kong’s Census and Statistics Department, these are the approximate common household (without children) Hong Kong living expenses:
|Commodity/Service||Percentage of Income|
Housing and Rent Prices
One of the main factors which contribute to the high cost of living in Hong Kong is housing. The reason for this is simple: Hong Kong covers barely 1,100 km2, but it’s home to a population of over seven million people––a number which keeps growing.
The general shortage of land is reflected in excessive property prices. In addition to that, you have utility costs, which are particularly high in the summer when you need air conditioning. The prices depend on where you choose to live but expect to spend between 1,000 and 2,000 HKD (130 and 260 USD) per month on electricity, gas, heating, and water. Internet and mobile will cost an additional 200 HKD (26 USD) each.
Most people live in apartment buildings, as suburban family homes are something that only the wealthy can afford. However, your rental expenses depend on where exactly you would like to live. For example, finding a sizeable and affordable place in New Territories will be much easier than doing so in the Central area of Hong Kong Island.
Still, many expats move to Hong Kong Island. The Mid-Levels are a popular area among very well-off residents from overseas. 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 you may expect to pay 50,000 HKD (6,400 USD) per month for a three-bedroom apartment. As for higher rents –– the sky is the limit.
Nevertheless, you can save quite a bit of money on rent 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 might also think about sharing an apartment.
Travel and Transportation Costs
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 the parking space will not be the cheapest item in your budget, either. Moreover, there are annual fees for license renewal, which can amount to over 5,000 HKD (640 USD), depending on your type of car. Some expats even find it cheaper to frequently use a taxi rather than drive their own car.
The public transportation in Hong Kong is not only very reliable but also very cheap. Rides on buses and the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) start from 4.50 HKD (approx. 0.5 USD); tram rides require a flat fare of 2.30 HKD (approx. 0.3 USD) for adults. Buses are usually cheaper with a single ride on the bus costing less than 10 HKD (approx. 1 USD), although some fares can be as high as over 40 HKD (5 USD). You might have to pay a steep markup on Sundays and public holidays when using some Hong Kong public transport options.
The payments are made convenient with the help of the Octopus card, which you can use to pay for any type of transportation as well as parking. The card costs 150 HKD (20 USD): 50 HKD (7 USD) refundable deposit and 100 HKD (13 USD) worth of travel. Octopus card can also be used in supermarkets, various retail providers, fast food restaurants, vending machines, and many other transactions.
Hong Kong Food and Alcohol Prices
On average, food and consumer goods tend to be a bit more expensive than elsewhere. The reason behind the higher price tags is that nearly everything has to be imported. If you insist on buying goods imported from Europe or the US, you might have to pay even more for your food shopping.
These are the common prices for groceries at popular supermarkets:
|Park’n’Shop (HKD/ USD)||Wellcome (HKD/USD)||Market Place (HKD/USD)|
|White Rice (5kg)||60/7||60/7||60/7|
|Pasta (spaghetti, 500g)||17/2||17/2||17/2|
|Fresh Milk (1l)||23/3||23/3||23/3|
|Apples (per piece)||5/0.5||5/0.5||5/0.5|
|Bread (8 slices)||10/1||12/1.5||14/2|
When it comes to eating out, you can choose between picking your favorites from street vendors, going to a small local place, or dining at an upper-scale restaurant. The street food – fast and full of local flavors – will cost you about 30 HKD (4 USD) per dish. The price for a dinner for two at a local eatery (appetizers and drinks included) might be around 400 HKD (50 USD), while a three-course meal at a fancy restaurant will be about double that: 800 HKD (100 USD).
Chain restaurants are also an option: A meal will cost you 55 HKD (approx. 7 USD) at McDonald’s or 45 HKD (approx. 6 USD) at KFC; a regular pizza from Pizza Hut is about 130 HKD (17 USD). Starbucks will charge you around 35 HKD (approx. 4 USD) for a tall cappuccino while the local café chain Pacific Coffee is likely to ask just a little bit less: 34 HKD (approx. 4 USD).
Healthcare and Education Costs
If you opt for private health insurance and you have to pay it yourself, it will add a hefty sum on top of your bills. 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. However, if you choose the public healthcare option, you should not expect high bills. You can find more information about your options in the healthcare section of our guide.
Education in Hong Kong is not cheap either. 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”. That is because the local schools are only an option if your child speaks a fair amount of Cantonese. Foreign residents generally stick with Hong Kong’s international schools.
Annual tuition for international schools can be anywhere from 16,000 HKD (2,000 USD) for elementary education up to 200,000 HKD (25,000 USD) for last-year high school students. When applying you will also have to pay the application fees that are usually about 2,000 HKD (250 USD). For some more popular schools, you need to cover debentures and capital levy as well, which annually may require up to several hundred thousand dollars more.
The Most Expensive vs. the Most Affordable Hong Kong Areas
The cost of living in Hong Kong depends on the province you choose to live in. The closer you get to the center, the more money you should expect to spend living there. The areas near the Chinese border or the Outlying Islands are usually more affordable.
The most expensive area in Hong Kong is Victoria Peak (commonly referred to as The Peak). Panoramic views, proximity to the city center, and impressive greenery make the area incredibly pricy. Apartment complexes here are luxurious and single-homes are owned by the richest people in the territories. A square foot of property in the area can cost around 70,000 HKD (8,950 USD) or more.
The Mid-Levels come in close behind. Fairly central location, great nightlife, and high-quality housing have attracted a big expat community to the area. One should expect to pay 20,000–40,000 HKD (2,550–5,120 USD) per square foot of property here.
Districts in New Territories such as Tai Po and Yuen Long are cheaper with one square foot of property priced at around 10,000–15,000 HKD (1,280–1,920 USD). Outlying Islands such as Lantau and Lamma are more affordable as well, the average price for one square foot of property being around 8,000 HKD (1,020 USD).
How to Make Hong Kong More Affordable?
In general, the best way to lower your costs is to embrace the local attitude. For example, avoiding the “expat bubble” when it comes to housing or using public transport instead of owning a car.
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.
Culture and Social Etiquette
In Hong Kong, “giving face” is considered as important as it is in China. Praising others, giving compliments, and respecting the superiors are the positives that help you earn “face”. You may “lose face” if you cause embarrassment to yourself or others by being disrespectful or openly critical. Find more information refer to the country facts section of our guide to living in China.
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, you should use the family name and a title (“doctor”, “professor”, “Mister”, “Madam”) to address someone. Do not switch to first names until you are specifically invited to do so by your host or colleagues. And do not worry, 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 in Hong Kong culture to stand close to one another during a conversation. However, body contact does not occur. Therefore, never hug or kiss another person, nor pat them 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, as is something as basic as holding the door open for a stranger.
If you do strike up a conversation with someone you do not 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. 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 when blending 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 forbidden in some outdoor areas such as beaches and parks.
Driving in Hong Kong
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 number of vehicles. As a consequence, the streets are typically crowded, and traffic jams are common.
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 spots are also relatively rare and very costly. On the upside, there are no tolls for the usage of all major roads in Hong Kong, except for some tunnels. If you already know you are likely to pass a toll tunnel regularly, to make the payment process more convenient you can use the Autotoll––prepaid electronic toll collection system.
If you wish to drive a rental car in Hong Kong you must be over 21 years old, although you will still be charged extra by most rental companies. However, if you are over 24 years old, you should not worry about extra charges. Keep in mind that when renting a car, you will have to present a valid driving license as well as a credit or debit card.
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.
How to Get Hong Kong’s Driving License
If you are a driver and a visitor to Hong Kong, you can only drive using your foreign driving license in Hong Kong. That means that if you are planning to stay in Hong Kong for more than twelve months, you will have to apply for a full or a temporary license.
To qualify for a full license, you have to:
- Own a valid or an expired (less than three years ago) driving license issued by a country mentioned on this list.
- Have a passport or other travel document issued by the same country; or have resided in the same country for at least six months when the document was issued; or have held the driver’s license for more than five years.
In this case, you will not need to take any driving tests or exams. The exchange of licenses is only available if you are applying for the license of the same class and if you have passed your country’s probationary period. In order to apply, you need to submit a TD63A form to Hong Kong Licensing Office.
If the country that issues your driving license is not on the list, you will need to take a driving test to get a full license. However, while you are going through the process of obtaining it, you still will be able to drive if you apply for a temporary license.
To be eligible for a temporary license, in addition to the valid driver’s license and the above-mentioned documents from your country, you will need to present a proof that you have registered to take a driving exam. You need to do so within three months of arriving in Hong Kong. If you fail the exams, your temporary license will be declared invalid.
The driving test is comprised of two parts: written and practical. The written test (also called Part A) assesses your knowledge of the theoretical Hong Kong driving rules. It is comprised of 20 multiple choice questions that you need to complete in 20 minutes. The wait for the test can take about one month. The wait to do the practical exam, however, can be between a couple of months to nearly a year so, if you need a license immediately, a temporary license will come in handy.
Other documents you need to have with you when applying for a license in Hong Kong:
- Hong Kong ID
- Certified translation of your license if it is not in English or Chinese
- Proof of address (original or photocopy)
You will need to go through a medical examination if you are over 70 years old.
The fee for the full driver’s license is 900 HKD (110 USD) if you are under 60, or 52 HKD (approx. 7 USD) for every year of the validity period. The issuing of a temporary license costs 288 HKD (50 USD). The driving test fee is 510 HKD (65 USD).
If you do not own a driving license but you wish to obtain one in Hong Kong, please refer to the official government site for guidance. Keep in mind that the legal driving age for private vehicles and motorcycles is 18 while for commercial vehicles it’s 21.
Other important information:
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The costliness and inconvenience of keeping a car is the reason why people choose public transportation to complete around 90% of all journeys in Hong Kong. The transportation system is affordable, reliable, and can take you all over Hong Kong.
Public transportation usually runs from 5:30 to 1:00. The peak times are around the start of the working day (7:30 to 9:30) and towards the end of it (17:00 to 19:00).
Massive Transit Railway or MTR is made of underground, overground, and light railway systems that spread all across Hong Kong. This method of transportation allows travels from the city center all the way to the border with mainland China.
The stations are air-conditioned and have Wi-Fi, while several of them have public bathrooms and breastfeeding rooms as well. Platforms provide bilingual information for the passengers.
You can use your Octopus card to pay for each journey you make or buy a monthly pass for your specific route. Note that you are now allowed to eat, drink, or smoke in the trains or at stations.
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.
Most of the buses are double-deckers. You can pay for your fare with the Octopus card or with cash (you will need the exact change).
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 would like to get on the vehicle. When you would like to get off the bus, the driver will only stop if you press the buzzer.
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 regular trains and buses are no longer running. We only recommend the use of these vehicles only if you 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 get on and off anywhere along the route. The Hong Kong Transport Department provides more detailed information.
If you prefer a cozier, scenic way of getting around Hong Kong, try one of the historical double-decker trams that have been on 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 tram flat rate is 2.30 HKD (approx. 0.3 USD), 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, which offers spectacular views of the cityscape.
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 ferry is a very popular way to get around.
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 2.50 HKD (approx. 0.3 USD) (slightly more on weekends and public holidays). The service operates approximately every 10 to 20 minutes between 7:00 and 23:00 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.
Taxis are fairly popular in Hong Kong as well. Most of the companies are privately owned and their drivers serve over one million clients per day. The cars are usually clean, the drivers are fair, but not all of them speak English, so it is useful to know the name of your destination in Chinese.
There are three different types of taxis in Hong Kong that are distinguished by color.
- Red Taxi (urban taxi) – runs in Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and New Territories. Not allowed to enter the southern side of Lantau island.
- Green Taxi – runs in New Territories.
- Blue Taxi – runs in Lantau island.
As red taxis operate in the most central part of Hong Kong, their prices are the highest with the base fee being 24 HKD (approx. 3 USD). Green taxis’ flag down rate is 20.5 HKD (approx. 2.5 USD), while the drivers of the blue taxis will charge you 19 HKD (approx. 2.5 USD). Flat fee includes 2km of driving. You will have to pay additional 1.2-1.7 HKD (approx. 0.15–0.2 USD) for each additional 200m.
The drivers might charge you extra for your luggage and ask you to pay the road and tunnel tolls.
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