Should You Live in Hong Kong or Shenzhen, China?

Michael MicheliniBlog, Lifestyle, Living43 Comments

Many people ask me why I live in Shenzhen, China, instead of Hong Kong?

In a way it feels a bit strange that I have a Hong Kong blog and podcast but don’t live there.

But then again that is my audience as well – a lot of the readers and listeners on the GFA podcast leverage the power and benefit of a Hong Kong company without residing there.

But alas, I am often asked why I choose to live in Shenzhen instead of Hong Kong. So today I will break down the thought process for you.

Update: This post is a top post on the blog! We have since added quite a few specific posts for your specific situation, feel free to check these out too:

OK, now, back to this awesome guide!

Cost of Living in Hong Kong Is Much Higher than Shenzhen

The costs of living in Hong Kong are some of the highest in the world. While there are places to find cheap dinner, the apartment costs are sky-high. And don’t even think about buying an apartment; those costs are the highest in the world. Those of you who remember Occupy Hong Kong may not realize, but it was mostly students and younger generations. This is because they are restricted heavily on where they can live as the cost of housing is so high, and yet the salaries they can earn don’t closely match it. Oftentimes younger Hong Kongers live at home for much longer than Westerners to save money on rent and save to buy a house. I think this was a major reason for those Occupy protests – the cost of living compared to the salary of a recent graduate is out of whack.

Shenzhen has always been a cheaper option, but the costs are steadily rising to match Hong Kong. To provide some numbers, I live in a 3 bedroom / 2 bathroom apartment in Futian District with an awesome view, about 100 square meters (1,075 square feet) in a nice gated community and pay about $1,200 US dollars per month. If I were to get this in Hong Kong, well it depends on which district, but if in on Hong Kong island it would be at least $4,000 US dollars per month. In the outskirts of Hong Kong I could maybe get it as low as $2,500 US dollars, but have as long of a commute to downtown Hong Kong as I do now from Shenzhen.

When I was first deciding where to live in China, I scratched Hong Kong off the list pretty quickly as it cost almost the same as my days living in Manhattan, New York City!

Most Entrepreneurs in Hong Kong Are Freelancers

If you go to a networking event in Hong Kong and ask what people do, either they are working at a financial institution or they are a freelancer in web design or marketing. Normally, over 75% of the business cards I collect at events are this ratio. And this is because the cost of living is so high compared to the opportunities for an entrepreneur to raise seed funding to support their “shoot for the stars” startup idea.

I lived in Hong Kong for six months, and yes, I had to be a consultant during that time to support the rent and cost of living. I may be conservative, but I can’t imagine burning through my life savings on rent while I work on a startup idea. If I’m bootstrapping, I am going to live in an area with a cheaper cost, and I think this is a reason for the lower number of full-time entrepreneurs in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong Speaks Cantonese – Shenzhen Speaks Mandarin

This is a big one for me – language. While I sadly can’t say I am fluent in Mandarin Chinese, I have been able to be in the environment and practice my Mandarin more in Shenzhen. Even though Guangdong Province (southern region of China) still uses the Cantonese dialect, Shenzhen is a special place. Since it is only a bit over thirty years old, when Deng Xiaoping called it a Special Economic Zone and allowed migrants from around Mainland China to come here to build their businesses. As a migrant city, there weren’t many local Cantonese people (well, a handful of fishermen from what I’m told, who are extremely well off now!), and as the rest of China speaks Mandarin, Shenzhen spoke the language from the beginning.

Hong Kong has Cantonese deep in its roots, as does Guangzhou (the capital city of Guangdong Province), and this is another reason I wouldn’t live in either of these cities. Hong Kong has been adapting to Mandarin more and more (upsetting some of the locals in the process), but taxi drivers, restaurant staff, and local businesses will still primarily speak Cantonese.

Though I do have to say, if your main purpose to move to China is to learn Mandarin Chinese, I’d recommend a city in northern China. The Mandarin language is based off the Beijing dialect, and you will have a more “pure” Mandarin accent. One of the issues here in the south is that this “fusion” of languages and dialects makes it difficult to practice.

Now Can Get China E-Channel

As of August 2016, foreigners can now get the China e-channel. This is a fast way to cross the Hong Kong and China border. Plus it saves stamps – no more passport stamps.

We have a guide about how to get the China e-channel here. Basically you need a work permit in China to get it.

We have a guide on crossing the Hong Kong / Shenzhen border here.

So, this is another big positive for living n Shenzhen. I have a China e-channel for the China side, and then I use a APEC card (guide here) for the Hong Kong special lane. Talk about fast and easy.

Shenzhen Is Mainland China

When I first was deciding where to live, I wanted to be in “mainland” China and Hong Kong is an SAR (Special Administrative Region) and not “technically China” (I don’t feel like getting political). I wanted to do business in Chinese Yuan (RMB) and have easy access to factories and domestic Chinese flights to other cities in China.

Over the years I have had less and less desire to be “deep” into China, but I still like being able to quickly take a train or plane if I need to and not have it be “international.”

Granted, those in Hong Kong can almost as easily cross the border back into Shenzhen and take flights or trains as well.

I just wanted my daily experiences in Mainland China.

Hong Kong Gives You More Pressure to “Make or Break It”

I had a long taxi ride chat once with a friend who lived in Hong Kong, and I went through some of the points I outlined here. His counterargument was valid enough for me to include in this post, which is that having a higher cost structure will give you more pressure to make it happen. He said he had lived in Mainland China for years living off one dollar noodles and cheap rent, but it made him lazy and didn’t give him the urgency to succeed. Once he was in Hong Kong, the hustle and bustle and the higher costs of doing business gave him the motivation to take his business to the next level.

This is a valid point, not only for comparing Shenzhen to Hong Kong, but for location independent businesses that choose low cost cities like Thailand for their business. I have seen many get caught in the mindset they have enough income to live and don’t push themselves to their true limits.

You need to look at yourself and see what motivates you. But if you need the high cost of living pressure to make or break it, then Hong Kong is a good place. Plus, there are businesses with more money to spend and you can make more as well.

Be aggressive, anywhere! But there is the logic that having a higher cost structure forces you to be on the top of your game.

Hong Kong Has Both Western & Chinese Holidays

A cool perk about Hong Kong is that it recognizes both Western and Chinese holidays. For example, in Shenzhen, Christmas Day is just another day of the year; offices are open, as are banks, post offices, etc. But in Hong Kong it is recognized and celebrated; businesses are closed as well as banks. Chinese New Year (which is approaching) is going to be at least 2 weeks of total shutdown in Mainland China, but for Hong Kong it is only a week.

For those working in Hong Kong, they get the “best of both worlds” with holidays everywhere, but just a shorter number of days off on both calendars for each holiday. Employers may not like it because this means more paid holidays, but let’s not be all Scrooge-y here.

Hong Kong Internet Has Top Speeds Worldwide

Hong Kong internet rocks! Seriously fast. Maybe Korea is faster from what I’ve heard, but I never hear people complain about slow internet in Hong Kong, ever! And hopping on the other side of the border in Mainland China, it is the slowest in the world. Like night and day.

This is the biggest setback to living in China as a foreigner – the filtered and slow internet. But you also need to note that to a Mainland Chinese outside of China, their internet is slow too. If you are in China accessing Chinese websites, it is super fast. But obviously most of you reading this today don’t care about reading Chinese websites or streaming Chinese online videos – so yeah, the connection to the international internet in China is as slow as molasses.

Whenever I go to Hong Kong, I soak up as much of this amazing fast, unfiltered internet before crossing back into Shenzhen. Honestly, I keep a to-do list for websites and files I need to access and download when I am on “pure” internet.

Yes, this is the reality. And this is why doing an internet business in Mainland China is a real challenge, unless it is dealing with domestic Chinese internet. Hong Kong internet rocks, and it attracts a lot of the foreigners from China and other parts of Asia.

Are You Single or Married?

I think the reason to choose Shenzhen (or Mainland China) or Hong Kong also depends on if you have a family. Being a new family man myself now, I am constantly going to Hong Kong to get the “real” and “safe” food for my child and family.

The food safety is much better in Hong Kong. Also the prices for it are cheaper as the import taxes aren’t as steep as those in Mainland China. My more popular social media posts are of me carrying baby milk powder from Hong Kong into Mainland China. It’s a funny post, but also a reality. Sure I can buy it in Mainland China, but it will cost more and I may not be sure if it is really authentic.

Join the club

Children’s Education – More Options in Hong Kong

Hong Kong has some amazing schools, and residents there are lucky to have these opportunities. But there is quite a waiting list, and my friends who have kids starting school now have to go to interviews with the schools to see if they can be selected for enrollment! Honestly, I am not totally sure of the exact education system in Hong Kong, but for the purpose of today’s article – without question – it is better than the choices we have in Shenzhen.

But, of course, in Mainland China, there are international schools that are top notch. But these will cost top dollar too – from what I am told, $25,000 US dollars per year per student. That is more than college!

Healthcare and Insurance Are Better in Hong Kong

Hong Kong is a first-rate city, and, as a Westerner, you will feel much more at ease than you will at most hospitals in China. I had a nightmare experience with my wife giving birth at a public hospital in Shenzhen – it was my mistake for thinking we could save money.

Those who are familiar will constantly hear of friends going to Hong Kong rather than Shenzhen or any hospital in China when there are serious matters to be taken care of.

Again, the perks are much better if you are a Hong Kong resident (holder of a Hong Kong ID card), which requires you to have the proper employment or investment visa (or student visa).

Constantly Weighing the Options in My Own Situation

I’m a new family man, and, as I mentioned, the education and insurance is much better in Hong Kong. So I always wonder, should I stay in Futian, Shenzhen, China? The rent is much lower in China than Hong Kong. Here is my breakdown analysis:

Living Situation

  • Work in Futian 3 days a week
  • Married to local Chinese
  • Have an 8-month-old son with US passport
  • Her family is here helping
  • Currently renewing Chinese residence permit under my WFOE
  • Seeking healthcare for my kid and me (maybe wife too)
  • Total Monthly Living Expenses: 7000 + utilities + management = 8,000 RMB/mo

Commute Agenda

  • Taxi to office – 25 RMB each way.
  • Bike to office normally
  • Hong Kong sometimes, maybe once a week via Huanggong border: 30 RMB/taxi * 2 + 50 RMB MTR/bus to central HK * 2 = 160 RMB / week * 4 = 640 RMB
  • Commute cost: 1500 RMB/mo

Should I Move to Hong Kong?

Here are the pros and cons of the decision to be made.

Positive

  • Public healthcare
  • Free education (Is it good, will he learn English?)
  • Quality food and life
  • Air quality (or is it the same as Shenzhen?)

Unknown

  • Can I get my visa approved?

Negative

  • Living costs will be higher
  • Still need to commute to Futian
  • Wendy’s family can’t stay and help
  • Moving cost and time and stress

It’s something constantly on my mind, as well as many other foreigners in my situation here. Especially for a new father, our instinct is to do what is best for our family.

Or Be a Constant Border Hopper?

Many just choose to spend half their time in Shenzhen and the other half in Hong Kong. For me, I am almost at that point – at least once a week or so I head to Hong Kong. I can see it from my window and it isn’t such a big deal.

I want the best of both sides of the border – I hear that these borders will come down more and more over time. Maybe that is another reason there were those Occupy protests in 2014; Hong Kong is getting more and more blended with the Mainland Chinese culture and system. Then some of the perks above may no longer apply. This can be a reality as the years go by.

Did I include everything? What do you think – I’d love to hear your feedback and comments below.

Update: This post is a top post on the blog! We have since added quite a few specific posts for your specific situation, feel free to check these out too:

Best of luck on making your decision where to live for the foreseeable future, its a tough call!

Note from a Reader

Got some questions from a reader:

Hey! I read your post. I am planning to move to Shenzhen but i have few questions in my mind 🙂
1 ) Would you recommend to anyone to move to Shenzhen?
2) How is public transportation in Shenzhen?
3) What are the things you don’t like in daily life in Shenzhen?

Thanks from now on! 🙂Dilara

Thanks for the questions Dilara, I’ll post them on the actual blog post so that everyone can benefit from them.

1. Would I recommend ANYONE to move to Shenzhen – well that is a very wide range question. Maybe not those who need a country lifestyle with a quiet home and not much street traffic. It is a bustling city and lots of construction and happening all day long. If you like New York city or other busy urban lifestyles, this is a place you should consider. If you can be a bit patient dealing with culture differences and language barriers, this is a good place for you. The costs keep on rising, so you shouldn’t move here to lower your cost of living – it is a growing economy so you should be able to find a good job if you have the right background.

So I would recommend it to people who are energetic, open minded, adventurous, and willing to work hard to make a better life for themselves.

2. Public transportation has been GROWING LIKE CRAZY. Literally a couple weeks ago (November 2016) so many new subway stations opened up. There are 11 subway lines now – and when I moved here in 2007 there was 1! If you don’t like subway trains, there are taxis everywhere, MObike (bike sharing / Uber for Bikes), and so many other options. You really don’t need a car to live here.

3. Things I don’t like about daily life in Shenzhen. There is always some concern about food quality. As China has grown over the years, so has the demand for food. This means supply is getting stretched and unforutanlty there are bad business people who cut corners and bad food can get into the food supply. You’ll occasionally read a news article about fake eggs, or tainted beef in the marketplace, so this is always a concern we have. Pollution used to be worse, but with the factories moving out of the city, the air is pretty clear most of the time. And back to point one, there are times when I wish I could get some peace and quiet – sometimes the crowds and construction can get on one’s nerves.

Again, like anywhere in the world, some people love it, others leave after a few months. It is a rapidly growing city with a lot of opportunities, but at the same time challenges you need to overcome. The ones I have seen succeed here are those who keep and open mind and learn to adapt. I’d love to hear if you end up moving here and wish you all the success whereever you end up!

What Time Is It In Shenzhen or Hong Kong? Same time.

Some ask, but I thought it is pretty clear – the timezone is the same in both Shenzhen, China and Hong Kong SAR.

They are North and South from each other – so in the same geographic position for timezones.

It is UTC +8 on the world clock, check here for the latest, rea-time, time.

Where Is Shenzhen?

Also another question I’m asked more and more – where is Shenzhen?

It is right above Hong Kong!

Food Differences!

A great comment from a Linkedin reader:

The Western food is much, much better in HK. But the Chinese food is much better in SZ! And in SZ, half the businesses you walk by are restaurants (the other half seem to be hotels), but in HK, they like to hide restaurants. I think HK people must not eat out near as much. You’re right about the mainland internet. I can’t stream anything from outside of China. It just starts and stops every few seconds. That’s the thing I hate most.Jeff Hill

Question: Airports, Visas, VPN & More!

We get an overwhelming amount of questions on people moving to Shenzhen for the first time. Here’s one with a million questions inside that I will try my best to answer below:

My partner is moving to Shenzhen next Month. When I travel to Shenzhen from Sydney is it better to fly to Shenzhen or Hong Kong? Plus what visa do I get? Also is it possible to get a VPN to access internet for work in shenzhen? Is the internet very slow? Anything that can be done to speed it up? Thank you for this great website. Brilliant information so thank you for your time.Emma in Australia

Is it better to fly to Shenzhen or Hong Kong? I normally fly to Hong Kong when doing international flights – but the new Shenzhen international airport is pretty massive and more and more flights are going there direct. But in my experience HK airport has more options and is a bit cheaper – check our Hong Kong airport guide for the full details.

What visa to get? We have an extensive guide on passport China visas here. Hong Kong is a great place where you can get it, or you can of course get it in advance from Australia with visa agents or the Chinese embassy.

What VPN to use? We have a full VPN guide here but it is always changing as the regulators in China don’t want you to be using a VPN! Speed varies as well.

Best of luck and hope this is helpful.

What’s Your Preference? Shenzhen or Hong Kong?

Shenzhen vs. Hong Kong – something I have been discussing over beers and meals for close to a decade now. Both have great positives and negatives and the idea is they will continue to merge.

Let’s keep this article alive! Have you lived in one side of the border or the other? Leave your comment.

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