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Offshore Legal And Tax Regimes

Hong Kong is not an offshore center in the traditional sense of the word but rather a territory which offers a non-discriminatory low tax regime governed by the "territorial principle" under which only income arising in or derived from Hong Kong is taxable in the jurisdiction. As such its attraction lies not in the tight secrecy and minimal corporate disclosure and administrative requirements which characterize a number of offshore common-law island jurisdictions but rather in low tax rates, generous tax deductible allowances, a policy of only taxing income sourced from within the jurisdiction and the complete absence of capital gains taxes, withholding taxes, interest taxes, sales tax & VAT.

Corporate and trust laws are virtually identical to the corporate and trust laws of the United Kingdom and most business activities are carried out behind the vehicles of limited companies, limited partnerships and sole proprietorships. Being a common law jurisdiction trusts are also widely used and understood.

Hong Kong Low-Tax Treatment Of Business Operations

Since profits tax is levied only on Hong Kong-source income, other types of revenue flow will escape taxation. The residential or non-residential status of an entity is irrelevant. Advance tax rulings are available on the question of whether or not for profits tax purposes trading income is deemed onshore and taxable or offshore and tax exempt. The Profits Tax Ordinance in itself is not that helpful on the subject, beyond giving a definition of taxable income as follows:

  • The entity must trade in Hong Kong
  • The income must arise from such a trade
  • The income must arise in or be derived from Hong Kong

Hong Kong is a common law jurisdiction, and there is a considerable amount of case law that bears on the question of taxability. Much of this is summarised in the Inland Revenue's Practice Note No 21. Some of the rules that have developed are as follows:

  • The establishment of an office does not of itself render a company liable to profits tax where that office is not generating profits from within the territory. A key criterion is the place where the contract was negotiated and signed. Income relating to a sale contract negotiated by the seller from the territory by way of facsimile or telephone where the negotiation did not require travel outside the territory is deemed Hong Kong source income for profit tax purposes. Likewise if the contract is negotiated and signed outside the territory and the goods sold are not sourced from within the territory then any income arising is not deemed Hong Kong source income for profits tax purposes. This is often achieved by utilizing an offshore company which re-registers in the territory as a foreign company but whose directors both remain non-resident and negotiate and execute the contract from the offshore jurisdiction.
  • Where the Hong Kong entity is merely a booking center in the sense that it does not negotiate or draft the sale agreement (which is carried out abroad) but merely issues an invoice on instructions, operates a bank account and maintains accounting records covering the transaction then the income from such a transaction is not deemed Hong Kong source income for profits tax purposes.

Advance tax rulings are available in the SAR and are particularly favored and recommended on the question of whether or not for profits tax purposes trading income is deemed onshore and taxable or offshore and tax exempt. There are a number of specific full or partial exemptions from profits tax (NB the rate of profit tax has 16.5% since 2008/9):

  • Interest on a loan made available to the borrower in a foreign jurisdiction is not deemed Hong Kong source income and is therefore not taxable.
  • An entity whose business is to grant rights to use a trademark, copyright, patent or know how pays a flat profit tax of 30% of 16.5% (4.95%, or 4.5% for an unincorporated business) of the payment received with all related expenses being non tax deductible. If the recipient of the payment is a related offshore licensing company the Hong Kong company must withhold and hand over 4.95 % of the fee paid over.
  • Income from the international operations of shipping companies is exempt from tax unless the ships are operating in Hong Kong waters or proximate to the same in which case only that proportion of income earned in Hong Kong is subject to local tax of 16.5%. Shipping profits meeting the conditions of the double taxation agreement with the USA are exempt from profits tax in Hong Kong.
  • Dividend income received by a Hong Kong parent company from either a resident or foreign subsidiary is not deemed income in the holding company's hands and is thus not subject to an assessment to profits tax.
  • Interest or capital gains made on qualifying maturity debt instruments are taxed at 50% of the normal profit tax rate.
  • The re-insurance of offshore risks is taxed at 50% of the normal profit tax rate on assessable profits
  • Life insurance businesses are assessed at 5% of the value of the premiums arising in Hong Kong.
  • For airline companies, irrespective of whether or not the company is managed and controlled from Hong Kong assessable profits are the proportion of income arising within Hong Kong (from the uplift of passengers and freight locally) to the proportion of worldwide income. Under a number of international aircraft double taxation agreements the government has agreed to include income arising abroad for taxation in Hong Kong where that income is exempted abroad under the agreement. Likewise profits meeting the conditions of the double taxation agreements are exempt from profits tax locally.
  • The sale of goods on consignment from Hong Kong on behalf of a non resident is subject to a tax of 1% of the turnover without any deductions unless the non resident can produce accounts to show that he would have paid less profit tax than consignment tax in which case a normal rate of tax will apply .The selling of goods on consignment is deemed to be the equivalent of creating a permanent establishment.
  • Profits remitted to a Hong Kong parent which represent the profitable disposal of its shareholding in a resident or non resident subsidiary are not assessed to tax in the territory both because the gains are capital gains and because (in the case of a non resident company) income arising outside jurisdiction is exempt from tax under the principle of territoriality.
  • The profitable disposal by a Hong Kong entity of foreign real estate is not assessed to tax in the territory both because the gains are capital gains and because of the principle of territoriality. This includes a disposal effected by means of the Hong Kong entity selling 100% of the shares in a company whose sole asset is the foreign real estate.
  • The transfer by a Hong Kong entity of capital assets to a foreign or resident subsidiary or branch at market value and at a profit is considered a capital gain and thus does not attract tax in Hong Kong (unless the assets are classified as revenue assets).
  • Rental income from foreign real estate is not assessable income in Hong Kong for profit tax purposes. (However depreciation & interest payments on loans made to finance the real estate tax are not deductible in the territory).
  • Interest income received by a resident or non resident business entity on deposits lodged with a financial institution are exempt from profits tax (By way of exception if the deposit was made by a "financial institution" then any interest received by the financial institution is deemed trading income for profits tax purposes and taxed accordingly).
  • The following sources of trading income are exempted from profits tax
    • Interest received or capital gains made on the purchase, retention or sale of a Government bond issued under the Loans (Government Bonds) Ordinance;
    • Exchange fund debt instruments;
    • Hong Kong dollar denominated multi–agency debt instruments;
    • Specified investment schemes which comply with the requirements of a government supervisory authority are exempt from tax. Specified investment schemes include investments in unit trusts and mutual funds
  • The repayment by a foreign subsidiary to its Hong Kong parent of the principal of loan capital or share capital is free of tax in the territory including where the repayment is by way of a capital reduction or a final dividend distribution in a liquidation.

In the February 2008 budget, Financial Secretary John Tsang announced that small and medium businesses would be in line for a one-off tax reduction, with a proposed 75% concession of profits tax for 2007-08, up to a maximum of HKD25,000. Business registration fees were also waived for 2008-09.

Concerns expressed by offshore hedge funds located in Hong Kong that their tax status may change were relieved in June, 2005, when the Revenue (Profits Tax Exemption for Offshore Funds) Bill 2005, which seeks to amend the Inland Revenue Ordinance to implement the proposal to exempt offshore funds from profits tax, was gazetted.

First proposed by the Hong Kong government in the 2003/2004 budget, the idea to exempt offshore funds from profits tax is designed to reinforce the status of Hong Kong as an international financial centre, and bring the territory into line with other major financial centres across the globe.

"The proposed exemption will help attract new offshore funds to Hong Kong and to encourage existing ones to continue to invest here," noted a government spokesman, continuing that: "Anchoring offshore funds in Hong Kong markets could also help maintain international expertise, promote new products, and further develop the local fund management industry. The proposal would lead to an increase in market liquidity and employment opportunities in the financial services and related sectors.

"Hong Kong is facing keen competition from other major IFCs in attracting foreign investments. Major financial centres such as New York and London as well as the other major player in the region, Singapore, all exempt offshore funds from tax. The financial services industry has expressed the view that it is vital for us to provide tax exemption for offshore funds, or otherwise some of these funds may relocate away from Hong Kong, leading to loss of market liquidity and a negative read-across impact on other financial services, including downstream services such as those provided by brokers, accountants, bankers and lawyers."

Under the Bill, offshore funds, i.e. non-resident entities (which can be individuals, partnerships, trustees of trust estates or corporations) administering a fund, are exempt from tax in respect of profits derived from dealings in securities, dealings in futures contracts and leveraged foreign exchange trading [as defined in the Securities and Futures Ordinance (Cap. 571) (SFO)] in Hong Kong carried out by specified persons such as corporations and authorized financial institutions licensed or registered under the SFO to carry out such transactions.

The exemption provisions would apply with retrospective effect to the year of assessment commencing on April 1, 1996, in order to provide legal certainty on the tax liability of offshore funds in respect of past years, which was much called for by the industry as otherwise there would be huge problems for offshore funds to finalise their tax liabilities for past years.

In March, 2006, Hong Kong's Legislative Council finally passed the Revenue (Profits Tax Exemption for Offshore Funds) Ordinance 2005.

Budget 2010/2011 brought about clarification by the Inland Revenue Department of the meaning of "central management and control" in the Departmental Interpretation and Practice Notes No. 43 to address the industry's concern about the residency requirement for directors of the management committee of offshore funds in their applications for profits tax exemption.


Hong Kong Taxation Of Foreign Employees Of Business Operations

There are no special rules for foreign employees of Hong Kong businesses; the territorial principle governs salaries tax with the consequence that salaries tax is only levied on income "arising in or derived from a Hong Kong employment". The definition of income includes wages, salaries, bonuses, commissions, payments by the employer into a pension fund for the employee and gratuities. It does not include either a pension from a source outside Hong Kong or compensation for loss of employment.

The territorial principle of only taxing income arising or derived from a trade within Hong Kong results in reduced or nil tax being levied in a variety of situations. Thus:

  • Income paid in Hong Kong but which relates to services rendered outside the islands is exempt from salaries tax if the fiscal authorities are satisfied that tax has already been paid on that income in a foreign jurisdiction.
  • An individual with Hong Kong source employment who works abroad but renders services in Hong Kong for less than 60 days in any tax year is exempt from salaries tax in the jurisdiction.
  • An individual with Hong Kong source employment who works abroad but renders services in Hong Kong for more than 60 days in any tax year is assessed to tax on that proportion of his income as is represented by the number of days he worked in Hong Kong as a proportion of 365.
  • Tax is not payable on that proportion of income earned in relation to work done outside Hong Kong by the Hong Kong based employee of a non resident corporation on a contract governed by the laws of a foreign jurisdiction, where the employees are paid outside Hong Kong and where the employee's activities are not limited to working within the territory.


Hong Kong Exchange Control

There are no exchange controls in Hong Kong.


Hong Kong Employment And Residence

All nationals require visas to enter Hong Kong (with the exception of British nationals who are allowed visa free entry for a period of 6 months). The rules governing residence and employment visas in Hong Kong are extremely complex, and have become even more so since 1997

As a general rule any person other than those having the right of abode or right to land in Hong Kong must obtain a visa prior to arriving in Hong Kong if they wish to take up employment in the Special Administrative Region. Very roughly speaking, there are three categories of expatriates who might need employment visas:

  • Inter-Company Transferee: This is usually an individual being transferred by a group or company for a short or long period to work in the Hong Kong office. Visas of this type are usually issued fairly readily, although the full administrative process still has to be endured.
  • Locally Recruited Expatriate: This is usually a visitor who has been offered a job while staying Hong Kong, and is the most difficult type of visa to obtain. It's necessary to convince the Immigration Department that there is no-one in the SAR who can do the job in question, and this is not easy.
  • Specifically Recruited Expatriate: This covers individuals recruited abroad for a job in Hong Kong, and can again be quite difficult, with a need to convince the Immigration Department that the required skills are not on offer in the SAR. Presumably, few employers would go to the expense of overseas recruiting if they were, but try telling that to the Department!

Every employment visa applicant requires an offer of employment from a Hong Kong registered business entity. In all cases this must take the form of an offer to employ (as opposed to a confirmed employment contract per se) on condition that the Director of Immigration grants the requisite employment visa permissions. The Director of Immigration can not and will not condone any employment contract which appears to show that an employment has actually begun, prior to the issuance of the correct visa.

In October, 2007, Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang announced new plans designed to ensure that Hong Kong's position as a leading global finance hub is consolidated and strengthened. He observed that China's rapid development and the opening up of its financial sector have presented unprecedented opportunities for Hong Kong's financial-services sector.

Tsang added that with these large-scale development projects, Hong Kong will need to expand its pool of skilled workers, and will "require talented people from everywhere". Consequently, to help attract more qualified people, the Quality Migrant Admission Scheme's requirements will be relaxed and widely promoted. in 2006, 28,000 foreigners came to work in Hong Kong and settled in the jurisdiction, including about 5,500 from the Mainland.

In January 2008, changes were announced to the Quality Migrant Admission Scheme (QMAS) in order to cast a wider net for quality migrants. The changes included: lifting the upper age limit of 50; adjusting the marking scheme under the 'General Points Test' so that younger degree holders have a better chance of meeting the minimum passing mark for further assessment; giving marks to applicants with two to five years working experience; and giving extra marks to those who are proficient in a foreign language in addition to Chinese (Putonghua or Cantonese) or English. The extension of stay requirement for entrants admitted through the Achievement-based Points Test (APT) was also streamlined. The Immigration Department will grant an extension to an APT entrant and his/her dependants if it is satisfied that he/she has the financial means to sustain their living in Hong Kong.

Capital Investment Entrant Scheme

Hong Kong also runs the Capital Investment Entrant Scheme, which facilitates the entry for residence persons who make capital investment in Hong Kong but would not be engaged in the running of any business in the SAR. The entrant is allowed to make his choice of investments amongst permissible assets without the need to establish or join in a business. The scheme is available to all foreign nationals (excpet nationals of Afghanistan, Albania, Cuba and Democratic People's Republic of Korea), Macao Special Administrative Region (Macao SAR) residents, Chinese nationals who have obtained permanent resident status in a foreign country, stateless persons who have obtained permanent resident status in a foreign country with proven re-entry facilities, and Taiwan residents.

During the Chief Executive’s 2010-11 Policy Address it was announced that the investment, net asset and net equity entry requirements for admission to Hong Kong under the Capital Investment Entrant Scheme have been increased.

After a review of the scheme, during which the government took into account overseas practices, changes in economic indicators, and the views of the public and Legislative Council members, the requirement is raised to HKD10m (USD1.3m) from HKD6.5m. In addition, real estate is suspended temporarily as a class of permissible investment assets under the Scheme.

Following the amendments, it was said that the Scheme remains competitive compared with similar overseas programmes. The investment threshold, net assets and net equity requirement will be reviewed every three years. The arrangement of the temporary suspension of real estate as a class will also be assessed at the next regular review, or earlier as necessary.

The amendments will not affect applications received before the commencement date, whether already approved or still being processed. Since the Scheme’s introduction, 8,200 investors with 15,500 dependants have been admitted to Hong Kong, bringing in HKD58bn in investment.

For applications submitted after October 14, 2010, entrants under this scheme must invest in one or a combination of the following permissible investment assets:

  • Equities - shares of companies that are listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange and traded in Hong Kong dollars.
  • Debt securities - denominated in Hong Kong dollars including fixed or floating rate instruments and convertible bonds which are issued or fully guaranteed by the HKSAR government, the Exchange Fund, the Hong Kong Mortgage Corporation, MTR Corporation Limited, Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation, Hong Kong Airport Authority and other corporations, agencies or bodies wholly or partly owned by the HKSAR government as may be specified from time to time; or by companies referred to under (A) above.
  • Certificates of Deposits - denominated in Hong Kong dollars issued by authorized institutions as defined in the Banking Ordinance with a remaining term to maturity of not less than twelve months at the time of purchase (such purchase should take place after approval in principle has been given by the Immigration Department for the entrant to join the Scheme and that such instruments, on reaching maturity, should be replaced by Certificates of Deposits with a remaining term to maturity of not less than twelve months or by assets in other permissible investment asset classes).
  • Subordinated debt - denominated in Hong Kong dollars issued by authorized institutions which satisfies sections 42(1) (e) and (g) of the Banking (Capital) Rules (Chapter 155L), a subsidiary legislation under the Banking Ordinance.
  • Eligible Collective Investment Schemes.




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