Every year since 1995, Hong Kong has been voted the world’s freest economy by the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal’s Index of Economic Freedom. It also has one of the lowest tax rates in the world. According to the Paying Taxes 2013 study conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers and the World Bank Group, Hong Kong is the fourth-easiest place in the world to pay taxes, just behind three countries in the Middle East. Hong Kong is ideally located in the heart of Asia and serves as a gateway to and from Mainland China. Moreover, Hong Kong signed the Closer Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with Mainland China and is treated more favorably than other foreign investors in many aspects. These advantages make Hong Kong an attractive place for foreign investors.
Hong Kong is an important location for U.S. interests. According to the U.S. Department of State, as of 2012, there are some 1,400 U.S. firms, including 840 regional operations (315 regional headquarters and 525 regional offices), and over 60,000 American residents in Hong Kong. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, as of February 2013, Hong Kong is the United States’ seventh-largest trading partner in terms of imports from the United States, while Mainland China is third.
This article gives an overview of the major issues that U.S. investors should consider when setting up a company in Hong Kong.
The Companies Ordinance (the CO) is the main piece of legislation governing companies in Hong Kong. The CO is being completely rewritten, and the new CO will come into force in the first quarter of 2014. Where changes will be brought about by the new CO regarding the issues discussed in this article, the new CO provisions will be introduced as well.
Types of Permitted Operations in Hong Kong
Depending on the scope of operations, foreign companies seeking to operate in Hong Kong have three alternative permitted forms of business presence.
A representative office is suitable for a foreign company that intends to conduct only minimal activities in Hong Kong. A representative office cannot conduct any trade, professional, or business activities or transactions in Hong Kong and cannot enter into any contracts in Hong Kong. A representative office is appropriate, for example, for acting as a liaison office without creating any binding business obligations.
If a foreign company establishes a place of business in Hong Kong, it will require registration as a foreign company under the CO. A “place of business” includes a place used by a company to transact any business that creates legal obligations. The foreign company is liable for the debts and liabilities of its Hong Kong branch, and a branch office cannot take full advantage of Hong Kong’s tax benefits.
Hong Kong Subsidiary
Due to the limitations of a representative office and branch office as described above, a foreign company usually favors establishing a Hong Kong–incorporated company as a subsidiary to operate in Hong Kong. This is generally the preferred type of business structure because the entity may be sued only to the extent of the limited assets of the Hong Kong subsidiary.
Classification of a Company
Under the CO, a “private company” is a company that restricts the right to transfer its shares, prohibits public subscription for its shares or debentures, and limits the number of shareholders to 50. Any company which cannot satisfy all three requirements is a public company. A public company can be listed on a stock exchange or unlisted. This article does not discuss public companies.
A company can also be classified by whether it is limited by shares or by guarantee, or is an unlimited company. This article focuses on a company limited by shares, which is the most common type and is usually referred to as a “limited company.” A company limited by guarantee in Hong Kong is usually a nonprofit organization.
The new CO makes it clear that there are five types of companies that can be set up under the CO:
- A public company limited by shares;
- A private company limited by shares;
- A public unlimited company with a share capital;
- A private unlimited company with a share capital; and
- A company limited by guarantee without a share capital.
Requirements for a Hong Kong Private Company
At a minimum, a Hong Kong private limited company must have the following:
- One shareholder;
- One director;
- A company secretary;
- A registered office address in Hong Kong;
- An auditor; and
- A business registration certificate.
A director must be at least 18 years of age, must not be an undischarged bankrupt, must not be subject to a disqualification order, must comply with any share qualification requirement, and must consent to act. There is no restriction on the nationality of a director.
A private company can have a director that is a corporation, but under the new CO, a private company must have at least one director who is a natural person (but a company that is a member of a group of companies of which a listed company is a member cannot have any corporate directors).
A company secretary must be either an individual resident in Hong Kong or a company with a registered office or place of business in Hong Kong.
Business Registration Certificate
A one-stop Company and Business Registration Service has been launched by the Companies Registry and the Inland Revenue Department. Applications for both incorporation and business registration may now be undertaken simultaneously.
In addition to the business registration certificate, certain types of businesses may need additional forms of licensing. For example, a company conducting regulated financial services activity (such as asset management, dealing in securities, or advising on securities) in Hong Kong requires licenses from the Securities and Futures Commission.
There is no prescribed minimum paid-up capital. Under the new CO, the concept of nominal or authorized share capital and nominal or par value will be abolished. Instead, the articles of the company with a share capital must include a statement of capital containing some prescribed information and the initial shareholdings.
The same person can be the secretary, director, and shareholder of a company, except that the sole director of a company cannot also be the secretary of the company.
A company’s statutory records should be kept at its registered office. If they are kept at a different place, a notice must be filed with the Companies Registry.
Under the new CO, the memorandum of association will be abolished as the constitution of a company. The articles of association will be the sole constitutional document of the company. Moreover, it will no longer be compulsory for companies to have a common seal. There are new provisions for execution of documents by authorized signatories where the document would take effect as if executed under seal.
Information Available to the Public
Compared to other jurisdictions (e.g., the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands), Hong Kong companies are much more transparent in terms of information that is available to the public. In addition to basic information, one can search for all the documents filed with the Companies Registry in relation to a particular company. One can also search for the registered charges of a company and disqualification orders made. Moreover, one can search for all the companies in which an individual has directorships and the particulars of that director, such as his or her identity number and residential address.
It was originally proposed under the new CO that the residential address of a director and the full identification numbers of any person would not be made available for public inspection. This new arrangement has been subject to a heated public debate over the balance between personal data privacy and information transparency. The implementation of this new arrangement has now been delayed, and will not come into force along with the other provisions under the new CO.
Establishing a Private Company
There are two ways of establishing a private company in Hong Kong: incorporating a new company or buying a shelf (or existing) company.
Incorporation involves applying to the Companies Registry, which then issues a certificate of incorporation within four working days after submission of the application by post (online applications may be processed within an hour). The newly incorporated company then needs to be activated by holding its first board meeting and a shareholders’ meeting, if necessary.
Buying a shelf company is useful when a company is urgently needed. One just needs to acquire a shelf company and then activate it by effecting a change of shareholders and directors and holding a board meeting (and a shareholders’ meeting, if necessary).
Continuing Compliance Requirements
A company should hold an annual general meeting (AGM) each year, and not more than 15 months from the previous AGM, unless everything that is required to be done at the meeting is done by written resolution and the relevant documents are provided to each member. The following matters are usually dealt with at the AGM:
- Adoption of audited accounts comprised of the balance sheets, directors’ report, and auditors’ report;
- Declaration of dividends;
- Election of directors; and
- Appointment of auditors.
The new CO provides that a company is not required to hold an AGM if it has only one member or the AGM is dispensed with by unanimous members’ consent.
Other compliance requirements include, among others, the following:
- A company should keep a register of members and a register of directors and secretaries;
- Various returns have to be filed with the Companies Registry within stipulated deadlines for changes in relation to the company, such as changes in directorship and secretary, registered office, share capital, etc.;
- A company must file an annual return;
- A company must have annual audited accounts. The CO prescribes detailed requirements regarding the types of accounts to be prepared. A directors’ report must also be prepared in conjunction with the annual accounts;
- Shareholders’ or board meetings should be held as may be necessary or required under the CO. The minutes or written resolutions should be filed in a minute book and resolutions or notices should be filed with the Companies Registry as required under the CO; and
- A company also needs to renew its business registration certificate before it expires and file profit tax returns for the company and the employer’s return for its employees with the Inland Revenue Department.
If a company fails to comply with these requirements, the company and every officer of the company who is in default may be liable for a fine and/or imprisonment.
Hong Kong adopts a territorial corporate tax system. Corporations are taxed on profits at a rate, for assessment year 2012/2013, of 16.5 percent. Profits tax is charged on Hong Kong–sourced profits and is collected by the Inland Revenue Department. The tax rate on profit derived in Hong Kong is the same for Hong Kong and foreign companies.
Specifically, domestic and foreign entities meeting the following three criteria are subject to profits tax:
- The entity carries on a trade, profession, or business in Hong Kong;
- The profits are from such trade, profession, or business carried on by the entity in Hong Kong; and
- The profits arose in, or were derived from, Hong Kong.
A Hong Kong resident may derive profits from abroad that are not subject to Hong Kong profits tax; conversely, a nonresident may be liable for tax on profits arising in Hong Kong. The question of whether a business is carried on in Hong Kong and whether profits are derived from Hong Kong is largely one of fact. Profits arising from activities conducted abroad, even if they are remitted into Hong Kong, are not subject to profits tax.
Income received by employees from Hong Kong–sourced employment is subject to salaries tax. Subject to certain exemptions, income subject to salaries tax includes salaries, wages, commissions, tips, bonuses, allowances, perquisites, leave pay, terminal/retirement awards, contract gratuities, and noncash benefits such as housing allowances and stock-based awards.
In determining assessable income, outgoings and expenses (other than expenses of a domestic or private nature and capital expenditure) wholly, exclusively, and necessarily incurred in the production of the assessable income and depreciation allowances in respect of the plant and machinery, the use of which is essential to the production of the assessable income, are deductible. Other permitted deductions include:
- Loss brought forward from previous years of assessment;
- Expenses of self-education paid;
- Elderly residential care expenses paid;
- Home loan interest paid;
- Contributions to recognized retirement schemes; and
- Donations to approved charities.
Salaries tax is computed on net chargeable income at scaled rates between 2 percent and 17 percent for assessment year 2012/13. Salaries tax will not in any event exceed (i.e., is capped at) 15 percent of net income before allowances.
The United States is absent from Hong Kong’s otherwise comprehensive double-taxation treaty network. However, Hong Kong adopts the territoriality basis of taxation, whereby only Hong Kong–sourced income or profit is subject to tax and non–Hong Kong sourced income or profit is, in most cases, not subject to tax. Accordingly, Hong Kong generally does not double-tax its residents. The Inland Revenue Department allows a deduction for foreign tax paid on turnover basis in respect of an income that is also subject to tax in Hong Kong.
General Tax Benefits
Dividends or overseas branch profits repatriated to Hong Kong are not subject to Hong Kong tax. In addition, dividends paid by a Hong Kong company to its shareholders are not subject to Hong Kong tax in the hands of shareholders (tax already having been paid by the company on the profits underlying those dividends), nor is there any withholding tax on dividends paid to shareholders outside Hong Kong. Capital gains are also tax-exempt. A stamp duty is imposed on certain documents such as share transfers, leases of real property, and sale of real property. There is no sales tax, value-added tax, or estate tax in Hong Kong.
For 2012/2013, a one-off reduction of 75 percent of the final tax payable under the profits tax, salaries tax, and tax under personal assessment, subject to a ceiling of HK$10,000 per case, was proposed in the 2013–14 financial budget. This reduction is pending legislative approval.
Under the new U.S. Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), all foreign financial services institutions have to report the activities of their U.S. clients to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service if assets in their offshore accounts reach US$50,000. FATCA was designed to catch tax evasion by U.S. taxpayers overseas. Foreign countries have until 2014 to come into compliance or risk sanctions by the U.S. government. As at this writing, Hong Kong does not have a FATCA compliance plan.
Protection Under the Employment Ordinance
Irrespective of their hours of work, all employees covered by the Employment Ordinance (Chapter 57 of the Laws of Hong Kong) are entitled to basic protections, which include wages and statutory holidays. Employees who are employed under “continuous contracts” are also entitled to benefits such as rest days, paid annual leave, sickness allowance, severance payment, and long-term payment. An employee who has been employed continuously by the same employer for four weeks or more (with at least 18 working hours each week) is regarded as being employed under a “continuous contract.” The definition of “continuous contract” is currently under review.
Starting from May 1, 2013, the minimum wage rate in Hong Kong is HK$30 per hour.
Mandatory Provident Fund
In Hong Kong, all employers and their employees aged 18 to 65 must join an employment-based retirement pension scheme unless an exemption applies (e.g., if the employee earns less than HK$6,500 per month), or if the employee is an existing member of an overseas pension scheme. Mandatory contributions are calculated on the basis of 5 percent of an employee’s relevant income, up to a maximum mandatory contribution of HK$1,250 a month, with the employer matching the employee’s contribution.
Employment Visa Issues
As a general rule, any person, other than those having the right of abode or the right to land in Hong Kong, must obtain a visa before coming to Hong Kong for the purpose of taking up employment. This includes secondees from an overseas office.
This article gives an overview of the main issues relating to setting up a business in Hong Kong. One may also need to consider issues other than the ones discussed above, such as opening bank accounts, entering into leases for office premises, recruiting employees, arranging financing, and protecting trademarks and other intellectual property rights and establishing data protection policies.
Hong Kong has always been keen to attract foreign investment to reinforce its status as an international financial center. Government policies generally favor foreign investment. For example, Hong Kong and Mainland China regularly enter into new supplements to CEPA to give more advantages to Hong Kong. These are the advantages that Hong Kong has that foreign investors should consider when they decide where to establish their business.