Employee, Director, and Freelancer: What’s the difference?

Employee, Director, and Freelancer: What's the difference?
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Editor’s Note: ‘Employee, Director, and Freelancer: What’s the difference?’ is a guest article by Desiree Da Silva from iNCUBEE, a platform for entrepreneurs seeking quality corporate services.

Typically, when a Hong Kong company wants to set up a professional relationship with an individual, they may classify them as:

  • An employee,
  • A director, or
  • A freelancer/independent contractor.

To make the right choice, it is necessary to be aware of what each option implies; after all, it affects where the individual’s payments are reported, how that person is taxed, and more.

(Short for time? Click here for our summary table)


As you may already know, an employee is a person who has an employment relationship with a company. This can exist in the form of a verbal or written agreement of employment between both parties.

Whether based locally or overseas, employees of a Hong Kong company must be registered at the Inland Revenue Department (IRD). That’s because they have to be registered for MPF and compensation insurance, if applicable; overseas employees are exempt if they:

  • are members of an overseas retirement scheme, or
  • have permission to remain in HK for employment purposes for no more than 13 months.

Employers must report all payments made to an employee; e.g. salary, commission, or other fees in the Employer’s Return (ER) to the IRD. If the employer supports any rent for the individual, this should also be reported in the ER.

Payments made to an employee are subject to individual salaries tax. However, if the employee is located outside of and does not visit Hong Kong for more than 60 days of a tax assessment year, regardless of residency, he/she can apply for individual tax exemption. You can find more information on these requirements here.

With the above in mind, it is vital that an employer keeps track of all payments made. The employer will also need to retain supporting documentation to support the expense* (e.g. payslips, MPF records, rent receipts, etc.).


By directors, we refer to a person officially appointed as a director of a company at the Companies Registry. You can find the full details of a director’s role and responsibilities here.

A director usually receives directors’ fees, which are subject to salaries tax; i.e. individual tax exemption cannot be applied for regardless of the residency of the individual.

But what if a director provides company services other than as a director? In this case, the company should treat the director as an employee (as described above).

Any payments made to or supported on behalf of a director should be reported in the ER, and records must be kept.

Freelancer and Independent Worker

Freelancers and independent workers/service providers are persons who have no employment relationship with a company and provide services on a freelance or independent basis rather than as an employee (e.g. no fixed working hours, no office, no annual leave, etc.).

There are different reporting implications, which depend on where the freelancer or independent worker provided services as follows:

  • Based in or provided services while in Hong Kong – Payments should be reported in the relevant specified form from IRD and are subject to individual tax.
  • Based in and provided services while overseas – There are no specific requirements to report payments to IRD. However, IRD may request further detail upon reviewing the company’s audited accounts during tax filing.

Note that persons hired in this capacity should provide invoices or service contracts to a company for recordkeeping and accounting purposes.

The Employer Must Decide

Ultimately it is up to the employer to determine what type of relationship they intend to maintain with the person they will be paying and then decide the appropriate job classification accordingly. Tax implications may be the biggest driving force for selecting job classification, particularly if the employer is also a director or shareholder of a company. A good complementary article to check out in this regard: How To Pay Employees, Directors, and/or Shareholders.

*Note: Hong Kong companies must retain records of all payments as part of their operating records for a minimum of 7 years, in adherence to legal requirements.

For a quick overview, check out the summary table below:

Employee, Director, and Freelancer: What's the difference?

Need help determining the most appropriate job classification or reporting payments to IRD? iNCUBEE can help!

iNCUBEE can also help with other Hong Kong Company needs. Click the link above to get more information!

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