Understanding the Application Processes, Costs and Timeframes  for International and ESF Schools in Hong Kong

by TigerMom.com with contributions from Anne Murphy of ITS Educational Services Ltd

To apply to international schools in Hong Kong you need to understand that most schools have waiting lists, many demand debentures (or having a debenture is clearly an advantage), tuition fees are high, entry interviews/assessments start at a very young age, English fluency is expected even for very young children, and final decisions on acceptance of a place is expected within two weeks.

While this sounds daunting, once you come to terms with it, it is possible to tackle the admissions process efficiently and effectively. In plain language, we tell you the issues you need to understand and pay attention to from the very beginning.

Good luck!


Here are the 5 most important issues to understand:

  1. Waiting lists
  2. Application timing
  3. Admission requirements
  4. English requirements
  5. Tuition fees, debentures, capital levies


International schools in Hong Kong have very long waiting lists and receive hundreds of applications every year.

For example, as of February 2014, Discovery College had a waiting list of 90 applicants for Year 1 and Year 2; 120 applicants on the waiting list for Y5 and 140 for Y6. English Schools Foundation (ESF) received 1,980 applications for Y1 across all their primary schools, but are only able to offer 1020 places. Hong Kong International School received 350 Reception 1 applications for 135 places.

There are many factors that can affect a child’s priority position on a waiting list, including debenture holders, siblings, and children of school staff.  As a result, waiting lists continuously change and applicants may find themselves moving up or down the waitlist even if an application is filed from birth or before others who have gained a place.

It is imperative that you begin your school search as soon possible. Understand that your first-choice school may not have a vacancy for your child, and your child may not pass the assessment.

See also
Hong Kong University To Scrap ChatGPT Ban For Students From September 2023

What you need to know before you begin:

  • British or American Passport holders do NOT receive priority at any international schools
  • The English Schools Foundation (ESF) is one of the most popular school systems in Hong Kong,  Applications are accepted (chronogically by date) starting in September.  Application deadline is in October. (Late applications are accepted, but are put at the bottom of the chronological pile.)
  • Some schools will not accept an application once a deadline has passed and others will put your name on a ‘late submission list’(Canadian International School, ESF, Chinese International School, Independent Schools Foundation Academy, Singaporean International School)
  • British curriculum schools will only accept Y11 (and up) students if they come from the British system, as they have already prepared for the GCSE.

What you need to know when you begin:

  • SEEK PROFESSIONAL ADVICE: school placement consultants, realtors, and relocation agents can offer advice. For example, ITS Education Asia offers school placement services and alternative solutions for interim schooling. They also produce the Unique Asia Schools Guide sold at bookshops in Hong Kong and Singapore, or online through their website.
  • APPLY EARLY: even if the move to Hong Kong might not happen for 2 years, submit applications anyway. The applications submission period is usually from September to November.
  • SUBMIT MULTIPLE: applications to several schools since your first choice may not be available. Ensure all documentation and records are complete.
  • VISIT: schools as early as possible. Meet with the teachers and observe the classes. Always make an effort to meet with a Principal or admissions manager.
  • FOLLOW-UP: with schools at least one week after you submit the application.
  • REACH OUT: to admissions managers frequently and send updated reports and other new information on your child’s achievements.
  • PREPARE: your child for the interview and testing; make sure they are relaxed on the day.

What you need to know if you are placed on a waiting list:

Even if your child is put on a waiting list, there are some excellent alternative solutions. Here are our suggestions.

  • INTERIM SCHOOLING: consider temporary tuition at centres such as such as  ITS Education Asia, registered with the Hong Kong Education Bureau (EDB). At ITS, children can continue their education in a specific curriculum in one-to-one lessons or small-group classes tailored to match a student’s learning needs. Teachers are qualified to teach various curricula, including IB, the UK National Curriculum, and Canadian, Australian and American curricula. As an Edexcel centre, ITS also administers official examinations. Visit their website or contact ITS at es@itseducation.asia for a consultation and to arrange a tour of their tutorial schools.
  • BACK-UP SCHOOLS: have second and third choice schools that you are comfortable with. Consider pre-schools that offer classes for 6 to 7 year olds as an interim solution for your younger children. (Most pre-schools listed on TigerMom.com offer full-day, 5 days options for children up to 6 or 7yrs.)
  • BOARDING SCHOOLS: in Hong Kong and neighbouring countries offer alternative choices for senior students. Click here for a list of boarding schools in the region
See also
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Every school has different application due dates, but here are the general time frames to keep in mind.

September – early November Applications accepted and due
December – March Interviews and testing (in person)
March – April Results announced, down payments due within 2 weeks (no reserves allowed)

Here is an interactive calendar showing application dates as well as holidays, exam dates, etc.Most schools require a fresh (new) application each year. Some schools accept applications from birth (French International School, German Swiss International School, Kellett The British International School), others accept applications for reception classes up to 2 years in advance (Chinese International School).


Interviews and assessments

Almost all schools have interview and assessment requirements for entry at all year levels, including kindergarten. The content and structure of the interview and assessments differ according to school and year level. However, there are some core traits that are similar across most schools:


 Kindy/Pre-school   (up to 4-5 years)  Usually unaccompanied, observation of motor skills and socialization skills Sometimes accompanied
Reception/Lower primary (5-8 years) Unaccompanied, observation of group-interactions, group work Unaccompanied, questions include maths and English/communication skills Maths, English
Upper primary (8-11 years) Unaccompanied, observation of group-interactions, group work Unaccompanied, questions include maths (applied) and English/communication skills Maths, English
 Secondary (11 years and up) Maths, Problem Solving and Reasoning, English, and Mandarin (or other second language)


English fluency expected

Most schools, with the notable exception of Delia School of Canada (Taikoo Shing) require fluency in English. Some schools are stricter than others, but most expect English fluency for entry in to all grades (ages 4 and up) if the primary language of instruction at that school is English.

See also
5 Hong Kong Universities Among Asia’s Top 20 Higher Education Institutes For 2023


How much does it all cost?

Tuition Fees: HK$70,000/US$9,000 and up

All international and ESF school fees are high.  In general, they range from a minimum of HK$70,000 to a maximum of around HK$200,000.

Annual Tuition Costs at international schools (lowest possible in HK$)

Primary LIS: 58,400(Lantau International School) HKIS: 155,700(Hong Kong International School)
Secondary KCCIS: 88,000(Kiangsu Chekiang College, International Section) CIS: 179,800(Chinese International School)

Debentures: HK$70,000 and upIn addition to these fees, debentures or capital levies or often required which means paying upwards of HK$70,000 (and into the millions) for entry per child. Notable exceptions are Delia School of Canada, Kiangsu Chekiang International School, and Korean International School which do not have debentures.

In plain language, debentures are a sort of entry-fee that give priority in the admissions process, provided the child passes the assessment.  They range in cost from HK$70,000 to HK$10,000,000.

Schools have a certain number of debentures they can sell, so sometimes there are simply none available to be purchased. Debentures are usually (not always) refunded when the child leaves the school, though sometimes at a depreciated level.

For more details on the different types and values of debentures, please click here.

Summing it all up

We hope that, with the understanding of the five issues outlined above, you will find yourself very well equipped to make timely, effective, and smart decisions regarding the applications process in Hong Kong.

We sincerely hope that you will be faced with far less surprises and unanticipated situations. Because we know that moving to a new country, or entering a new school, is very stressful. We hope that this guide will have lessened the anxiety and stress involved!

We would like to thank Anne Murphy, Director of ITS Education Services Ltd., who contributed crucial and valuable information to this guide. She is not only a very knowledgeable professional, but her personality and perspectives are refreshingly candid and down-to-earth.




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