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Moving to Hong Kong? Three common expat traps to avoid.

Updated: Oct 17, 2020


It’s nearly April. Every day, I receive enquiries from families who just got word that they’ll be relocating to Hong Kong in July/August and they need school places for September. This is not easy!

An application submitted in April is VERY late.

Of course, parents may not know this when they sign on the dotted line and make the deal to move. The employer and/or headhunter should know this, but it may not be in their interests to spell out the challenge.

If you are thinking of moving to Hong Kong, don’t fall into these three common expat “traps”:

1. Late

This is by far the most serious and most prevalent trap and encompasses a few elements.


Of course, the more time the family has, the better. A normal, on-time, school application is at least one year ahead. Any application submitted less than a year in advance is usually considered late. Many schools give families relocating to HK fair consideration even if their application is late. However, an application will only result in an offer if places are available. This is much more normal at secondary level, rather than primary.

If the child or children are not able to secure satisfactory school places at very short notice, the family has two choices:

1)  Kids can stay in school in their home country until school places in preferred schools become available. All applications are duly submitted and the children will likely need to attend interviews/assessments in HK when invited. The working parent relocates to HK first.

2) The kids can accept less than preferable placements as an interim solution while they wait for offers from more preferred schools.

Most families choose the first option since it’s unsettling to move the children twice in a short period of time.

Relocation Packages

Many companies do provide a relocation package to families which includes a schools consultant. However, this is too little, too late in our experience. It isn’t activated until the deal is done and many months have been lost. Also, this consultant works as part of a team to include property consultant and orientation which can create internal conflict. We always recommend choosing a school first and a home second.


Families with children of pre-primary age are often not thinking about the schooling issue and the relocation package will not provide a schools consultant. It’s true that admission into a preschool is much easier since they are more abundant. However, primary schools will often take applications two years before entry, or even earlier. So, even parents of a one year old or a two year old will benefit from some early planning. As we said, the earlier the better.

Visas, etc

We know that parents may ponder a possible move for many months. So, even when it looks VERY likely that they’ll be moving, they wait for confirmation after confirmation. Then, they wait for all kinds of paperwork to be finalised.

It is NOT necessary to wait for work permits, dependent visas or a HK address before applying to schools. Anyone can apply to a HK school from overseas without any of this. As and when your child is assessed and an offer is made, you’ll need to have the visas for the school to confirm enrolment. But, since this process can take many months, the visas will normally be issued by then.

Moving to Hong Kong without a school place for a child aged 3+ is very risky.

2. Under-funded

When discussions begin, it’s important to understand what schools cost in Hong Kong. Often, a family moving from, say the UK or the US, is not paying for schooling at all. To find a roughly equivalent school in Hong Kong, it means choosing a private school.

Some firms agree to pay ALL related school costs, including debentures. Some pay some costs and some pay none.

When a parent is negotiating a salary package that includes (or doesn’t include) housing and schooling allowance, it’s essential to understand what the actual costs are. A package that looked great at first can start to look quite sad once schooling is factored in. Even preschool is costly in Hong Kong.

Of course, every child is entitled to free schooling but this is rarely an option for children of primary age without the requisite Cantonese language skills.

3. Misinformed

Apart from timing and costs, parents are often unaware of the competition in HK to enter the top private schools. They may have experience of Singapore, the Middle East or Mainland China, but admission to private schools in those countries is far easier than HK. Don’t underestimate that, despite having the time AND the funds, you may not be able to enter your first choice school in the first year.

Lastly, if the children are not fully proficient in English or have had some individual educational or behavioural needs, private schools in Hong Kong will be very reluctant to admit them on the whole.

That said, we have 100% success rate in gaining admission for all our clients’ children into private schools. We recommend hiring an expert schooling consultant as soon as a move is seriously being considered. Top Schools HK provides full support for relocating families. We:

  • Analyse your needs as parents for your children’s education

  • Generate a long, detailed list of preschools, primary and/or secondary schools meeting requirements to consider and discuss to shorten the list

  • Advise on applications to submit for immediate placement, for the following academic year and beyond

  • Advise on debentures

  • Arrange and accompany parents to school tours/group meetings with principals, teachers or admissions staff

  • Advise on the content of applications to be submitted, including sourcing supplementary reports to include, such as external tests.

  • Liaise with schools to follow up on applications submitted and understand actual vacancies and waitlist length.

  • Advise on parent interviews, if required

  • Advise on choosing a school, if multiple offers are received.

Call us on +852 3565 5865 or email for more information.


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