How and Why to Open a Bank Account in Hong Kong

Hong Kong today remains one of the best offshore banking jurisdictions. It offers a great combination of bank secrecy, corporate secrecy, a financially and politically stable environment, and strong banks. But perhaps most importantly, it’s a secure offshore investment haven for those who want to diversify out of sinking western currencies into booming Asian markets, and China in particular.

So how can you go about opening an offshore bank account in Hong Kong? Do you have to travel there? This article will answer these questions and give you some practical hints and tips. But first some background.

A Successful Free Market Experiment For East and West Alike

Hong Kong, in my opinion, is the only practical example in the world of a major city that has been developed from scratch and run as something of an offshore, free market experiment – first by the British, then by the Chinese.

The main Island (and later Kowloon and the New Territories, parts of the mainland) was a British colony for most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. During this time it grew from a fishing village and opium trading hub, into a city-state of seven million people. It became known as a free-wheeling, free market paradise for capitalists, with an economy characterized by low taxation, free trade and no government interference in business.

In 1997 the British returned sovereignty over Hong Kong to China. The former colony became one of China’s two Special Administrative Regions (SARs), the other being Macau. Many people were initially doubtful about one of the world’s capitalist bastions being run by a communist power, and at the time a lot of investors pulled out, many taking their dynamic business acumen heading to places like Singapore and Vancouver.

However, the “one country, two systems” model adopted by Beijing to coincide with free market reforms and the growth of China into an economic superpower has proven very successful. The Basic Law of Hong Kong, the equivalent of the constitution, stipulates that the SAR maintains a “high degree of autonomy” in all matters except foreign relations and defence. The SAR today operates as a major offshore finance center, discreetly oiling the wheels of commerce between East and West.

These days, rather than being put off by the Chinese influence, most international investors who are attracted to Hong Kong are coming precisely because of this Chinese connection. Hong Kong is the point of access to Chinese trade, without the legal and cultural difficulties of doing business in mainland China.

Those who do not trust their own governments are reassured by the fact that under the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s foreign relations are run from Beijing. While most offshore jurisdictions humbly submit to demands from the USA and other western countries, in the case of China, the relationship is definitely reversed. Hong Kong does have a number of Tax Information Exchange Agreements (see below) but these are sensibly policed and do not allow for fishing expeditions.

Offshore Banking in Hong Kong

The region’s population is 95 percent ethnic Chinese and 5 percent from other groups, but English is very widely spoken and is the main language in businesses like banking.

One thing I like about using Hong Kong for offshore bank accounts is the same argument I have used for Panama and Singapore: it’s a ‘real’ country with real trade going on. The Hong Kong dollar is the ninth most traded currency in the world. Compare this to doing business on a small island or other remote banking jurisdiction, where everybody knows your only reason for doing business there is offshore banking. It also means that there is no problem doing your banking in cash, if you so wish.

For now the HKD, the local dollar, still tracks very closely the US dollar, but this appears to be changing as the Chinese Yuan circulates freely in Hong Kong, both in cash and in bank deposits. We think this represents an excellent opportunity to diversify funds out of the US dollar now, gaining exposure to Chinese growth in the meantime. (Of course, you can also hold HKD in banks in other parts of the world too)

Bank accounts in Hong Kong are almost all multi-currency by default, allowing all major local and international currencies to be held under one account number and exchanged freely and instantly within the account at the click of a mouse.

There is no capital gains tax, no tax on bank interest or stock market investments, and no tax on offshore sourced income. This, combined with a welcoming attitude to non-resident clients in the banks (including US citizens by the way, who are generally unwelcome in traditional offshore banking havens like Switzerland), and strong cultural and legal respect for financial privacy, makes Hong Kong one of Asia’s best offshore banking jurisdictions.

For those who want to establish a small offshore account under reporting limits, or simply to have the bank account established in view of future business, Hong Kong is also attractive given the low minimum deposits demanded by the major banks there. The minimum bank account balance can be as low as HK$ 3,000. Of course, you can’t expect red carpet, VIP private banking at this level – but you get a perfectly good functioning bank account with all the technological trimmings.

Offshore Corporate Bank Accounts in Hong Kong – Do’s and Don’ts

Typically, offshore clients choose to open accounts using corporations, as opposed to personal accounts. This not only offers greater privacy, but also flexibility and can – depending of course on how things are structured – offer significant tax and asset protection advantages.

Accounts can easily be opened both for pure offshore companies like Panama, BVI, Nevis or Marshall Islands, or for local Hong Kong companies that are set up using nominee directors and shareholders.

When contacting local corporate service providers in Hong Kong, you’ll find that most of these corporate service providers will recommend you use a Hong Kong company to open the account. The reason they do this is that it’s simpler and more profitable for them. They can incorporate a local company at low cost, opening the bank account is smoother and faster with a local company, and they can carry on billing nominee director fees every year. But it may not be the right thing for you.

Whilst it is true that Hong Kong companies do not have to pay any tax provided they do not make any local source income, administering such a company is not so simple. For example, Hong Kong companies are required to file audited accounts every year. They must file pages and pages of documents to convince the Inland Revenue Department (HKIRD) that they don’t have any local business, and, from practical experience, the HKIRD is getting much stickier about this. Long-established companies are normally left unmolested but newly established companies can expect a lot of compliance work in their first few years. Again, this suits the Hong Kong corporate service providers who charge handsomely for such services.

Another factor to consider is Controlled Foreign Corporation (CFC) legislation in your home country. (For an explanation see Wikipedia ) Many clients choose to set up LLCs as they can be treated as passthrough entities, vastly simplifying reporting requirements in some countries like the USA. Hong Kong corporations are not LLCs and cannot be treated as passthroughs for tax purposes.

My advice – assuming you don’t intend to do any business in Hong Kong besides banking and perhaps the occasional trip to visit your money – would be to open the account in the name of a company from a foreign offshore tax haven. It’s a little more work and expense at the beginning, and the bank might ask you more questions, but it will save you a lot of money and headaches in the long term. If you want a local look and feel for your company, numerous virtual office services are available.

Hong Kong Tax Information Exchange Agreements

Contrary to what you will read on some out-of-date websites, Hong Kong has signed a number of Tax Information Exchange Agreements (TIEAs). However, the HKIRD is at pains to point out that fishing expeditions are not going to be tolerated.

The HKIRD has issued Practice Note 47, available on the internet, which usefully explains how the HKIRD seek to achieve a balance between the requirements of compliance with the OECD requirements, whilst providing checks and balances to protect the rights of businesspeople.

The HKIRD are professionals and should be well positioned to deal with TIEA requests properly and justly in accordance with the treaties and guidelines. I am confident not going to allow their ‘clients’ rights to be trampled on.

Regulation of Banks in Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s Banking Ordinance was revamped in 1986. It has since undergone several amendments to improve prudential supervision. The Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA) was formed in 1993 as a one-stop financial regulator, responsible for everything from banks to stored value anonymous debit cards.

The SAR maintains a three-tier system of deposit-taking institutions, comprising licensed banks, restricted license banks, and deposit-taking companies. Only licensed banks may operate current and savings accounts, and accept deposits of any size and maturity. RLBs are only allowed to accept deposits of HK$500,000 and above, while DTCs are only permitted to accept deposits of a minimum of HK$100,000 with original maturity of not less than three months.

Both these latter categories provide an opportunity for overseas banks to conduct wholesale, investment or private banking activities in Hong Kong without having to jump through the hoops of applying for a full banking license. In addition, some foreign banks have chosen to open representative offices in Hong Kong, which are not allowed to take deposits but can assist in opening accounts at other offices within their groups.

As Hong Kong is an international financial centre, it is an explicit policy of the HKMA that the regulatory framework in Hong Kong should conform as much as possible with international standards, in particular those recommended by the Basel Committee.

Hong Kong’s five largest banks, in terms of total assets, are as follows:

– Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC)

– Bank of China (Hong Kong)

– Hang Seng Bank Ltd

– Standard Chartered Bank

– Bank of East Asia Ltd.

A full list of updated Hong Kong banks can be found on Wikipedia.

Visiting Hong Kong to Open a Bank Account

If you are visiting Hong Kong to open your account, it can normally be opened the same day provided you have made some arrangements with a local service provider, or directly with the bank, in advance. This is assuming you use one of the major banks, that nearly everybody does. You can then simply visit the bank, sign documents and receive the bank account number immediately. This will be a full multi-currency account and you will typically receive a digital token for internet banking, a password and a debit card.

The documents required for opening offshore bank account are:

1) Formation documents (in the case of corporate accounts. Apostilles are required in the case of foreign corporate accounts – your offshore provider will know how to obtain these.)

2) Bank forms and business plan/expected activity (a corporate service provider will normally supply these as part of the service)

3) Passport copies of each director, signatory and shareholder (take special note of this requirement if you are using nominee directors – if the persons are not present, copies will have to be notarized.)

4) Proof of address (such as updated bill statement which shows up your name and address) and signed (of each director and shareholder)

A bank reference is generally required if you are dealing direct with the bank. If you go through a corporate service provider, they normally write a reference so you do not need to supply a bank reference. However, if you can obtain a bank reference it is better.

Opening an account without visiting Hong Kong

It is also perfectly possible to open accounts without visiting Hong Kong (known as ‘remote account opening’) though this process tends to take substantially longer as banks will ask a lot more questions. In this case, your bank or service provider will generally e-mail you the forms, that you will need to print out and sign.

Depending on the bank, there may well be certain special instructions about how and where to sign – for example, HSBC in Hong Kong will typically request that you have your signature witnessed in the HSBC Bank nearest to you. As with all foreign bank accounts, you should be sure to use the same signature that appears in your passport, otherwise the documents will be rejected.

In the case of remote account opening the bank will normally courier the password, debit card, and token direct to your address in your home country. Then you need to activate them via the bank’s website.

Conclusion

Hong Kong competes very favorably with Singapore, the other Asian banking jurisdiction we favor. If you have not yet diversified your offshore holdings into Asia, you should seriously consider doing so. I hope this article will be helpful in this regard.

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