Expat Lifestyle Guide: Schooling Options in Asia

Posted on November 10, 2016 at 12:11 AM

Living and moving abroad brings about many challenges besides just landing the right law firm job.  We have started the Expat Lifestyle Series to help our expat candidates make a smooth transition to what can be a disruptive and stressful process.  It’s important that your family feels at home in their new locale and schooling can play a critical role so we have decided to address these issues with a piece on the educational options for school-aged children.

The educational systems of Japan, Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai and Singapore offer a wide variety of choices for the children of expats. Many of our candidates with school-aged children request information on the various options available to them for schooling in their chosen city.  We have provided a general guide below but please feel free to contact us directly for a more practical and in depth analysis as well as ways to cut the bureaucracy you may face in your new city.  Choosing the right school is an important factor in considering whether to relocate your family and advance planning is highly recommended as many top international schools can fill up quickly.

A key decision for most expats is whether to choose an international or local school and both offer their own set of pros and cons. For the most part, the majority of expat attorneys with whom we work choose international schools and many law firms cover the expense even if they don’t provide a traditional expat package.  Some expats choose a local school to fully immerse their children in the culture and language; however, they will undoubtedly run into different rearing customs and a few unforeseen challenges, both big and small. For example, most Chinese local schools require prolonged naps throughout the day, disrupting the common Western sleeping schedule for children. Also, expat parents may not being able to speak with their children’s teacher or understand their school announcements, homework assignments, etc. Many school officials at local schools do not speak English.  Keep in mind, these are just a few examples and quite broad generalizations and each specific region offers its own characteristic set of choices and circumstances.

As we mentioned, international schools are certainly favored by our expat attorneys given their favorable academic reputations and the comfortable adjustment for both parent and student.  The international school curriculum, culture and disciplinary practices generally coincide with the needs of families who work for foreign owned companies, diplomats, or entrepreneurs making the transition smoother.  Also, the curriculum of international schools (International Baccalaureate, the English National Curriculum, American-based curricula, etc.) offers credits that will transfer internationally to other educational institutions. In many cases, international schools have really become a self-selecting market because the clientele of expat and mixed race households tend to demand education of a high caliber.  Not only do international schools offer this high standard of education but also exposure to students from around the globe.  One of our candidates in Hong Kong noted that his son’s class represents more than 20 countries and this is very common among international schools.  Many parents say this makes their child’s educational experience unique and possibly even better than that they would have received in the US or UK.  Please note that enrollment in international schools can be extremely competitive so it is important that you contact your chosen school as soon as possible after receiving an offer of employment.  And don’t forget, most international law firms do cover this expense.

Here’s a list of your options throughout Asia:


The school year generally runs from April to March, and a few international schools follow the Western academic calendar. According to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, there are 121 registered international schools in Japan, and the estimates are that of the children that attend these schools, approximately 40 percent are expat kids and 60 percent are local children who are either returnees or the offspring of international marriages.

International Schools:

International schools are typically registered but not regulated by the government.  They are an extremely popular option for the children of expats in Japan and all of our expat candidates to date have chosen an international school in Tokyo. International schools offer various curriculums for US, UK, French, German, Portuguese, Chinese and Korean expats.  It is important to consider the curriculums offered by international schools, which vary and include American, British/Canadian and religious based curriculums.

Some Notable International Schools (Tuition Range: can be as much as 2,000,000 Yen (~USD$24,600))

The American School in Japan - ASIJ - Tokyo (Pre-school – Grade 12, American Style Education, Annual Tuition: USD$21,220)

All Boys - St. Mary's International School (Grade 1 – Grade 12, IB Program, Annual Tuition: USD$26,000)

All Girls - Seisen International School (Kindergarten – Grade 12, IB Program, Annual Tuition: USD$13,000 - $25,000)

KAIS International School - Tokyo (Grade 7 – Grade 12, American Style Education, USD$28,500 - $31,100)

Yokohama International School (Pre-school – Grade 12, IB Program,  USD$16,000 - $28,000)


This has been a common option for expats -- but it is an illegal one as elementary school and junior high are compulsory in Japan.  As a result, many expats have opted to technically enroll their children in a school, but request permission to home school them.

Local Schools:

Although it is a less common option, expats who are planning long-term stays may consider local schools, as it offers a chance for a child’s full integration into Japanese culture. Also, local schools are free, even for the foreign children. Generally, the classes are all taught in Japanese and based on a nationally determined curriculum, assigned by location or admission based. Something to consider is the strenuous workload a student may face. Factoring in after-school activities and additional lessons, a student could have a 12-hour school day, not including time for finishing homework.

Hong Kong

In Hong Kong, public schools are known to uphold a high standard of learning, but the curriculum is generally based in the philosophy of learning by repetition.  Again, expat families tend to enroll their children in the private international schools.

UK Foundation System:

This system is based on the British curriculum and tends to be a little less expensive than the international schools. The ESF system is favored for several reasons. ESF offers cultural and language integration, but does not have the same high-pressure culture of mainstream education in Hong Kong. It is also a less expensive alternative because it is subsidized by the Hong Kong government.

International Schools:

School years are typically from September to July.

In Hong Kong, there are many international schools that are based in the British, American or Australian curriculum. Besides these, there are choices, although more limited, for schools based in the Canadian, Norwegian, French, German and Swiss curriculum. Both foreigners and locals attend these schools. The process of enrollment for the well-known schools is often difficult; entrance exams, waiting lists and rejections are common.  Tuition varies widely. Strictly private international schools can be quite expensive. When living in Kowloon or the New Territories, most expat families choose an international school based on proximity to their home in order to cut commute time.

Notable International Schools

Hong Kong International School (Kindergarten – Grade 12, US educational system - Christian based curriculum, USD$12,000-$24,000)

Australian International School Hong Kong (Pre-School – Year 12, Australian educational practices, USD$12,000-$14,000)

American International School (Pre-School – Year 12, Western Assoc. of Schools and Colleges, USD$11,000-$14,000)

German Swiss International School (Kindergarten – Year 13, German and British school systems, USD$116,000-$175,000)

To learn Cantonese: Amerispan, Hong Kong Language Learning Centre, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Local Schools:

Generally, English is taught everyday in most local schools. The culture of the local schools, however, is characterized by a heavy emphasis placed on the ranking systems. Because job and advanced-school placements are rigorously filtered by class ranking, competition is constantly fierce. There are generally strict codes of disciplines, and students must abide by strict dress and behavior codes.  In order to accommodate the high demand for education, many primary schools in Hong Kong offer half-day schooling, splitting into morning and evening classes. And to make up for the time of shortened half days, students are sometimes required to attend school on alternate Saturdays.


International Schools:

Expat children will almost certainly attend one of the international schools in Beijing. Beijing’s international schools are generally considered the best in the nation because of the variety of curricula offered and flexibility of degrees offered. Expat kids can choose to continue with their educational track from their home country. Many international schools are taught in French, Japanese and German. They are extremely competitive, however, so placing yourself on several waiting lists is essential.  Private international schools in China are among the most expensive in the world when compared to the cost of living in the city. At top-notch international schools, tuition can reach up to USD$ 25,000 per student per year. Even in less expensive schools, you will still have to pay US$ 10,000-15,000 per year.

Notable International Schools (Tuition Range: USD$10,000 to $25,000)

Australian International School Beijing (Kindergarten - Year 12, W. Australian Education Curriculum, USD$10,900-$13,800)

Beijing BISS International School (Pre-school - Grade 12, English Language IB Program, USD$3,785-$26,580)

International Academy of Beijing (Kindergarten – Grade 8, American curriculum based in Christian environment, USD$13,800-$20,200)

Ivy Academy of Beijing (Pre-school - Ages 2-6, “Multiple Intelligences” program with Harvard University trained faculty,  USD$5,240-$17,000)

The British School of Beijing (Pre-school – Grade 9, English National Curriculum, USD$7,650-$15,700)

Beijing Eton International School Office of Admissions (Kindergarten – Ages 1-9, English based Curriculum, USD$9,130-$12,850)

Local Schools:

Unlike international schools that are more flexible with their age cut-off, local schools are very strict. Children must be born before midnight on August 31 and they must be 6 by September 31. Navigating local schools is particularly difficult for expat parents, with poor administration often being the major complaint.  Unlike for Chinese citizens, local Chinese schools are not free for expatriates but tuition is much lower than at international schools.  The disadvantage of local schools is obviously the language barrier, and students without a good grasp on Mandarin are often set back a few grades.  The national curriculum allocates most of the day to the study of Chinese and math, specifically preparing students for entrance exams to higher learning. Many expats who may find the local Chinese education system beneficial for younger children, will often opt for international education for higher learning.


As is the case in Beijing, expat children rarely attend public schools in Shanghai but will instead attend private international schools. Increasingly though, young foreign children are attending local kindergartens for the added advantage of integrating into the Chinese culture and learning the language.  In some cases, schools in Shanghai teach in half Mandarin and half English for young learners.  For older children, attending a school in a foreign language can become ostracizing and most attend international schools where Mandarin language classes will be taught.  Depending on the international school, students may be able to continue the curricula from their home country.

International Schools:

Often securing a place in a well-regarded international school is difficult and waiting lists can be quite long. It is highly advised expats attempt to negotiate a slot in the appropriate school before arriving in Shanghai.  If this is not a possibility, families should arrange for education as soon as possible.  International schools can be very expensive.

Notable International Schools

Concordia International School (Pre-school – Grade 12, US educational system - Christian based curriculum, USD$22,000 - $28,000)

Yew Chung International School of Shanghai (Kindergarten – Year 13, IB Program, USD$11,000 - $20,000)

Shanghai American School (Pre-school – Grade 12, US Educational System, USD$11,500-$22,800)

Shanghai Community International Schools (Pre-school – Grade 12, Western Association of Schools and Colleges, IB Program, USD$8,000-$20,000)

Local Schools:

Although international schools are the overwhelmingly popular option, a handful of parents opt for local schools for the Mandarin language immersion for their younger children. However, parents often find difficulty with the Chinese educational emphasis on rote memorization in the classroom.

The standard annual tuition for public elementary school is 6000rmb and 12000rmb for public junior/senior schools (including vocational schools)


Singapore is a diverse, cosmopolitan hub. The four official languages are Mandarin, Malay, Tamil and English. The adjustment for expats overall and in terms of education is significantly simplified given that English is commonly spoken in all settings.  Because of Singapore’s strident laws, which some would even call draconian, it is the safest city in all of Asia for children.

International Schools:

They are a very popular for expats, and so there is generally a very high demand with long waitlists. It is highly recommended to make advanced arrangements in order to insure a guaranteed place at your preferred school. It is important to keep in mind that Singapore constantly has a transient expat population, so waiting lists often change. Thus, it is important to talk directly with the admissions officer of each individual school.  The school year in Singapore generally falls in line with the beginning and end of the calendar year, though there are a select few international schools that follow the Western academic calendar.

Some Notable International Schools (Tuition Range: SG$5,000 to SG$19,000)

Avondale Grammar School (Pre-school – Year 6, Australian Educational System, Annual Tuition: SG$19,000)

Eton House International School (Nursery 1 – Year 6, British Educational System, Annual Tuition: SG$8,000-13,000)

ISS International School (Kindergarten – Grade 12, International Baccalaureate World School, Annual Tuition, SG$10,000-18,000)

Chatsworth International School (Kindergarten – Year 12, British & US Educational System, Annual Tuition: SG$10,500)

Dover Court Preparatory School (Nursery 1 – Year 12, British Educational System, Annual Tuition: SG$11,000-15,000)

Local Schools:

Although the quality of education in local schools is very high, local education systems are often criticized for focusing too much on rote fact memorization, rather than promoting any kind of creative thinking. Thus, this is something to consider as well as the fact that the primary language is English so you may not benefit from foreign language immersion.  Although there are approximately 22,000 international students enrolled, preference is generally given to Singapore students. Incoming students will all need to take the Admissions Exercise for International Students (AEIS) around September or October to join primary and secondary schools in January of the following year.

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