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Hong Kong: Social Security and Languages

If you have the opportunity of working in Hong Kong, go for it! You will experience a thriving business world and a competitive job market. With the InterNations Expat Guide on visa, social security and communication skills, you will easily master the adventure of being an expat in Hong Kong.
The proper business etiquette is essential for success in Hong Kong.

Mandatory Provident Fund

The Hong Kong government has only recently established a government-supported retirement plan. Before 2000, these were only provided on a voluntary basis by employers as part of employees’ remuneration packages. Nowadays, all employees are part of a mandatory contribution scheme, called the Mandatory Provident Fund Scheme (MPF).

As an expat in Hong Kong, you should check whether there is a social security agreement between your home country and Hong Kong which regulates social security contributions. This agreement should stipulate whether expats may or must contribute to the MPF during their stay in Hong Kong and what these contributions may mean for future retirement benefits in their home country.

Other Social Security Schemes

There are a number of different additional social security funds and schemes. These are financed by the government on the basis of tax revenues, such as unemployment benefits or additional healthcare assistance.

However, only the part of the population that is in desperate need for assistance will receive support through these funds and schemes. Keep in mind that criteria regarding income and assets are very strict. Furthermore, most additional social security funds have residential restrictions, so they generally exclude expats. As of 2012, foreign employees living in Hong Kong for less than 13 months, or those who are part of another country’s retirement system, are not covered under this social security system.

If you are nevertheless interested in more detailed information on this topic, check out our extended article on Social Security in Hong Kong.

Logical Language Learning 

Even though English remains one of Hong Kong’s official languages and is still very important in the local business world, the use of Cantonese and Mandarin is becoming more and more prominent. For self-made expats looking for work, be it from abroad or on the spot, good language skills in Cantonese and/or Mandarin are essential in virtually all fields.

So should a Hong Kong expat-to-be rather learn Cantonese or Mandarin? As both Chinese dialects are not mutually intelligible, this is a legitimate question.

Cantonese vs. Mandarin

Cantonese is the local dialect spoken in Hong Kong and southeastern China. 90% of the Hong Kong population communicates mainly in this Chinese dialect. Mandarin, on the other hand, has gained prominence in business communications, as it is the established lingua franca in the economic boomtowns of Mainland China.

Therefore, the rule of thumb should be this: If you plan to make Hong Kong your long-term home, stick with Cantonese. If you would like to move on afterwards and learn a language which is beneficial for your future international career, your choice should be Mandarin.

If you transfer within a multinational company, you may not even be required to speak Cantonese. Most of the people at your workplace, at least in the upper management levels, can be expected to speak good English.

Nevertheless, learning Cantonese can be of great value in everyday life. And let’s face it: Even if your job assignment does not require you to be fluent in Cantonese, which Hong Kong business partner would not be delighted if you surprised him or her with some Cantonese or Mandarin small talk?

Living Like The Locals 

However, language skills are not all you need for a successful work experience in Hong Kong. The much-cited concepts of “intercultural communication” and “cultural competence” have important practical implications in Hong Kong’s business world as well. Newly-arrived expats who try to do business as usual may be in for some unpleasant surprises.

First and foremost, living and working in Hong Kong, as in most of Asia, requires a certain ability to read between the lines. Being overly blunt and criticizing others directly is considered extremely impolite. Therefore, people will express their opinion in less direct terms, which is not always readily understood by foreigners.

You will hardly ever hear a straightforward “no” from your Hong Kong business partner when you make a suggestion. This does not mean, however, that he or she agrees with everything you say.

Furthermore, in the business world as well as in general Hong Kong culture, hierarchies are important. Always greet the most senior person first and work your way down the hierarchy. Similarly, only introduce yourself if you are the most senior person in the room. If not, wait to be introduced.

If you want to make certain not to offend anybody by accident, read up on Hong Kong Business Culture and Etiquette in our Extended Guide.


We do our best to keep this article up to date. However, we cannot guarantee that the information provided is always current or complete. 

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