The Complete Guide To HSK Levels: From HSK1 To HSK6
“My Chinese is at HSK3 level”, “I want to reach HSK5 in Chinese”.
You may often hear people in the Chinese-learning community throw around the terms when they talk about their level or aim in Chinese.
If you don’t know it yet, the HSK system is commonly used by Chinese educators and employers to measure foreigner’s ability in Chinese. That’s why the HSK level is something that every Chinese learner should be familiar with.
In this guide, we’re going to talk about what HSK levels are, their correspondence to CEFR scale, why they matter, how you can pinpoint your Chinese proficiency to an HSK level, and how you can get officially certified with HSK when needed.
What Is HSK?
HSK stands for Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, the Pinyin version for 汉语水平考试, meaning “Chinese Proficiency Test”.
As the name suggests, HSK is a series of tests for non-native Chinese speakers to certify their knowledge in Mandarin Chinese. It consists of six independent tests at different levels. Depending on which level you can pass, HSK certifies your proficiency accordingly, from HSK1 to HSK6. And since HSK is widely recognized and accepted, every time you refer to your HSK level, people can quickly evaluate your Chinese skills.
The organizer of HSK is Hanban (汉办), an affiliation of the Chinese Ministry of Education also in charge of the Confucius Institutes. HSK levels and scores are primarily used by Chinese universities as part of the admissions process for international students, but anyone who wants to define their Mandarin level or need to demonstrate a mastery of Mandarin for professional purposes can take the HSK.
What Are the Six HSK Levels?
According to Hanban, the HSK organizer, in this system, HSK1 and HSK2 correspond to very basic Chinese skills. Then, HSK3 and HSK4 introduce more sophisticated knowledge of Chinese. Finally, HSK5 and HSK6 serve as indicators of high proficiency and fluency in Chinese.
Since language proficiency is something highly subjective, Hanban offers short descriptors for the six HSK levels and explains what you can do at each level.
You can understand and use simple words and phrases.
You can communicate simply and directly on daily topics you are familiar with.
You can conduct basic communication in daily life, study and work. You can manage most communication when traveling in China.
You can discuss a relatively wide range of topics in Chinese and can communicate with native Chinese speakers fluently in common situations.
You can read Chinese newspapers and magazines, watch Chinese films and TVs, and can write and deliver a full speech.
You can easily understand what you read and hear, and express yourself smoothly in written and oral Chinese.
Furthermore, Hanban gives a guideline for what you should know at each HSK level in numbers:
|Level||Words you need to know||Characters you need to know|
|HSK 1||150+||150 (optional)|
|HSK 2||300+||300 (optional)|
*You don’t actually need to know any Chinese characters to pass the HSK1 and HSK2 tests, as Pinyin (Mandarin romanization) will be provided along with characters on the test papers.
Minor Problems with the HSK Levels
#1. HSK Levels Don’t Reflect Your Speaking Ability
When it comes to learning a new language, there are four essential skills that you need for complete communication. You usually learn to listen first, then to speak, then to read, and finally to write. These are called the four “language skills”.
- Listening (a receptive skill in oral mode)
- Speaking (a productive skill in oral mode)
- Reading (a receptive skill in written mode)
- Writing (a productive skill in written mode)
Most language tests in the world are designed to assess all the four language skills, but that’s not the case with HSK. HSK is a 100% written test only concerned with listening, reading and writing and has no speaking section. There is no way to measure test-taker’s speaking ability based on HSK levels and results.
If you’re seeking to certify your proficiency in spoken Chinese, then you need to take a different test called HSKK (Hanyu Shuiping Kouyu Kaoshi, or “Chinese Proficiency Spoken Test”) instead. HSKK is a relatively new test organized by Hanban that specifically assesses learners’ pronunciations, tones, clarity, continuity, variety, and fluency in speech.
With a much longer history and wider influence, it is thus only natural that many people argue that the HSK test is more important. As a matter of fact, barely any school in China would ask for proof of oral Chinese proficiency during the admissions process.
Consequently, many of the students who wish to get admitted to a Chinese university only work on the three language skills needed for HSK and totally ignore speaking. Crazy as it may sound, we’ve seen a couple of Korean students that passed HSK6 and yet can barely communicate at all in Chinese, not even things like “how’s your weekend?”
Obviously, passing an HSK test is one thing, speaking Chinese is another.
#2. HSK Levels Don’t Fully Correspond to CEFR
If you have learned some other foreign language before, you may be familiar with the better-known language proficiency scale called CEFR (the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages).
Established by the Council of Europe, CEFR is the world’s most influential standard to validate foreign language ability. It’s not a certification or language test itself, but rather an assessment framework within which many language tests function when pinpointing the scores to corresponding proficiency levels.
CEFR also has six levels, the same as HSK. They are:
- A1 | Basic
- A2 | Elementary
- B1 | Intermediate
- B2 | Upper-Intermediate
- C1 | Advanced
- C2 | Proficient
CEFR also offers short descriptors for each level.
In short, a person at A1 is able only to use simple phrases; a person at A2 is able to use simple sentences; a person at B1 is able to hold limited conversations; a person at B2 can hold longer conversations and is able to function in a native speaking environment; a person at C1 has begun to master the language but lacks knowledge of its subtleties; a person at C2 can function in the language to the same ability as an educated native speaker.
As its name suggests, the CEFR scale predominantly works with tests for Indo-European languages (40+ languages) such as DELE exam for Spanish, DEFL/DALF exam for French, but has no connection to HSK.
Though Hanban, the HSK organizer, claims on its website that the HSK levels have a one to one correspondence to the CEFR levels: HSK’s level 1-6 to CEFR’s A1 (beginner)-C2 (proficient), the statement seems more like their wishful thinking as it was refused by CEFR.
Many language institutes share the same thoughts. For instance, the Fachverband Chinesisch in Germany (an organization similar to the Confucius Institute) thinks that HSK6 – the highest level of HSK corresponds to something between the upper-intermediate B2 and advanced C1 CEFR level. And that’s 1 and 1/2 level down the scale.
We happen to agree with this.
According to CEFR, a person at C2 level should be able to function in the language to the same ability as an educated native speaker. However, we interviewed many international students who have passed the high-level HSK tests (HSK5 or HSK6) and enrolled in Chinese universities, as well as many native Chinese students from local middle schools, high schools and colleges, and they unanimously concluded that the 1 to 1 HSK-CEFR correspondence claimed by Hanban is an overestimate.
For starters, the HSK level descriptions by Hanban are somewhat self-contradictory. For instance, according to their official guideline, you only need to know 2,500 words at HSK5 level. In the meantime, they expect to be able to read newspapers and magazines, watch films and TVs in Chinese with this vocabulary, which sounds like mission impossible to us. And for HSK6, 5,000 words is a very low estimate of the vocabulary needed to be considered at an “educated native speaker” level.
It’s actually tricky to apply CEFR standards to Chinese because the writing presents such different issues and there are no cognates or shared base of vocabulary. Engineering, chemicals, biology, pharmaceuticals, social sciences, philosophy… many words in all those areas are similar in most Indo-European languages and many non-Indo-European ones as well, but they’re different in Chinese. Names of countries, names of companies, names of current and historical foreign political and business leaders… many of those are also very different in Chinese, and it’s a non-trivial amount of work as a foreigner to learn enough of all that to understand serious written material.
Based on our research, the level of Chinese used in Chinese universities is actually higher than HSK6. Some top universities in China often set a minimum cutoff score (higher than HSK’s official passing score) applicants must earn on the test for admission to their programs, since they have higher academic standards and require students to have a genuine mastery or near-mastery of Chinese.
We happen to know why Hanban made the HSK levels appear more advanced than they really are. The reason is simple: to encourage more people to learn Chinese and take the tests!
You may not know this, but there was this old HSK test series before 2010 that had 11 proficiency levels, and Level 11 was much harder than the current HSK6, which only corresponds to level 8-9 in the old HSK scale. Problem was, it was too hard and scared most people away! Therefore, Hanban (over)corrected it and intentionally made the new HSK tests a lot easier than before.
The old HSK was often criticized by foreign learners for being impractical and using too many sophisticated vocabulary and idiomatic expressions, but hey! That’s indeed how educated native Chinese would use the language in social and professional settings! To put it differently, the old HSK11 did match the C2 Level of CEFR. (Ironic, isn’t it?)
With the constant undeserved praise from Chinese locals combined with the assessment inflation from Hanban, it’s easy for foreign learners to overestimate their Chinese skills.
HSK vs CEFR (Real Version)
Luckily for you, we decided to go out of our way to write a more accurate, objective description for each HSK level in correspondence to CEFR, so that you’ll have a better idea of your current Chinese level and what your expectations should be when taking an HSK test.
Here it goes.
HSK1 | Newbie
Correspondence to CEFR: A1-
Knowledge of words: 150+
Knowledge of characters: 150 (optional)
A1 is at the bottom of the HSK levels hierarchy.
At this level, you’re not too occupied with grammar and stuff. You’ll be more like reciting isolated phrases and pre-packaged sentences. You can exchange very basic information, like greetings, introducing yourself, or leading a small talk around “where are you from?” and “do you have a dog?”. With a vocabulary of only 150 words, there is not much else you can do.
HSK2 | Basic
Correspondence to CEFR: A1+
Knowledge of words: 300+
Knowledge of characters: 300 (optional)
You are now getting more accustomed to the sounds and tones of Mandarin, but the plane hasn’t really taken off yet.
You can talk more about yourself, your family, what you like, what you hate…You can understand certain things as well, but the person you are talking to will probably have to slow down by like 3 times and use very simple words and sentence structure. The communication is slow and heavily dependent on repetition, rephrasing and repair.
HSK3 | Elementary
Correspondence to CEFR: A2
Knowledge of words: 600+
Knowledge of characters: 600
Things start to improve on the HSK3 level.
You have actually expanded your vocabulary to the point where you depart from simple pointing and naming things to more direct information exchange. It can be asking ways on streets, giving directions to taxi drivers, ordering food and drinks in restaurants, talking about your holidays with friends…and all this is again in a simple language.
Not all HSK levels have a point of reference in a real world, especially when you’re still on the basic proficiency level. So don’t expect any institution that would actually ask you for the proof of your HSK3 proficiency, sorry.
HSK4 | Intermediate
Correspondence to CEFR: B1
Knowledge of words: 1200+
Knowledge of characters: 1000
When you’re at HSK4, you start feeling the progress.
You’re not perfect, not even good, but at least you are independent to go about your business in your Mandarin. Your vocabulary is wide enough to meet all your needs when dealing with familiar matters and points of personal interests (whether it’s at work, at home or in a social gathering). Your speech starts to resemble the one of a sane and cognitively developed person, since from now on you can express your desires, give reasons and explain your ideas. Plus, you begin to understand the native Chinese speakers much better (if they don’t have a heavy regional accent, of course). You can deal with most situations likely to arise when traveling in China.
HSK5 | Upper-intermediate
Correspondence to CEFR: B2
Knowledge of words: 2500+
Knowledge of characters: 1500
On HSK5 level you actually get this feeling of freedom when speaking Chinese.
Here, you can start to read and understand more complex things (with constant look-ups) like news stories that you are familiar with or your favorite books from childhood translated in Mandarin. You become more at ease with spontaneous speech, since words no more get stuck in your brain as before. On HSK5 level you actually start reasoning and give logical and coherent explanations to things. And, you are more comfortable writing things down in Chinese now.
Something between HSK5 and HSK6 is usually required to get admitted to a university in China. The more proficient you are, the better, but the requirements vary from school to school. Fudan University in Shanghai, for example, requires all applicants to pass HSK5 with 210/300 or above to attend any undergraduate degree program, and 240/300 or above to attend MBA. And, Peking University in Beijing requires minimum 210/300 on HSK6. (the passing grade for HSK5 and HSK6 is 180)
HSK6 | Advanced
Correspondence to CEFR: c1-
Knowledge of words: 5000+
Knowledge of characters: 2500
To show your proficiency at HSK6 level, you usually have to read and understand something that you’d never read for pleasure: ocean pollution, pet economy, archaeological findings…
The point is, that at HSK6 you should start to get familiar with the vocabulary that is out of your personal circle of interests. Even if you don’t care about the property bubble problem in China, you can produce a clear, fluent speech about it without much obvious searching for expressions. At HSK6, you should be at ease with most aspects of Mandarin in personal, academic or professional settings.
In case you are wondering, HSK6 roughly corresponds to the language level of a 6 to 7th-grade school kid in China. At HSK6 level, you can without a doubt express yourself fluently and spontaneously, but unfortunately, due to the lack of sophisticated vocabulary and idiomatic expressions, you might still sound “under-educated” to natives when you try to deliver a serious speech in a formal occasion. As for reading, it’s one thing to be able to read articles on test papers which are designed for foreigners and mainly use only heavily-restricted vocabulary; it’s another to read wide-ranging material written by and for educated, adult natives.
Beyond HSK6 | Proficient
Correspondence to CEFR: C2
Knowledge of words: 10000+
Knowledge of characters: 3500
If you keep on learning from the point of HSK6, progressing further to total proficiency in Chinese won’t be too hard. If you live in China, make full use of your time and immerse yourself in the environment. If you don’t have the chance to use much Mandarin in your daily life, then start incorporating the language into your daily routine bit by bit.
Watch TV shows, movies, YouTube videos in Mandarin. Read news, magazines, novels, or blogs in Mandarin. Jot down the characters you don’t know. Learn big words and idiomatic expressions. Find people to practice using them, and ask them to correct you whenever you say wrong.
Learning and retaining a language happens over time, and you can’t really cram for it or just study for one or two hours a week. But if you can budget 6-8 hours of studying Mandarin each week and stick to it, you should be able to reach true proficiency in 1-2 years.
By then, perhaps only native speakers can use Chinese better than you. You won’t run into the problem of not understanding something anymore (or maybe only in the case when some technical terms are used). Your Mandarin proficiency allows you to do cool things: summarize ideas and construct strong arguments. But what is more important, Mandarin at this point is a faithful tool that you’ve mastered completely.
A point of reference is that the highest level – Level 11 in the old HSK system (before 2010) required a vocabulary of 10,000+ words. And according to the 9-year education curriculum framework established by the State Education Commission of China, Chinese students should have a mastery of 3,500 characters by the time they finish middle school (9th grade).
Note: Since HSK does not assess speaking skills but CEFR does, this model is based on the assumption that the test-taker’s spoken Chinese is on the same level as her other language skills reflected on an HSK test.
When Do the Different HSK Levels Matter?
HSK is often used in academic settings and by employers.
In the present era, you can barely get anything at all without pointing someone at the corresponding paper with a stamp on it, especially in China. So an HSK certificate can be a real asset.
For example, Chinese universities use HSK as a standard metric for your Chinese proficiency. To make sure you can handle the course load, most of them would require you to pass a high-level HSK test such as HSK5 or HSK6 before they can accept you into an academic program based on Mandarin. You won’t get your application approved if you only reach HSK3 or HSK4. That’s how the system works.
HSK also helps you to get a scholarship from the Chinese government. The Ministry of Education of China awards students who achieve excellent scores on HSK tests to further their Chinese studies at universities in China or Confucius Institutes abroad.
For professionals, HSK can be used as proof of language competency for job applications to Chinese companies and multinationals. Similarly, when filling up your resume/CV, you cannot simply claim to speak Mandarin on an upper-intermediate level according to your own estimations. Especially, if the knowledge of Chinese is not just a bonus point but a job requirement (for example, a job description might ask for foreign applicants with “HSK5 or better”). In this case, you want to prove it by demonstrating an HSK certificate that is widely recognized.
Besides, the HSK certificate never expires and will always be a good testament to your Chinese proficiency. Even if you’re currently undecided about your career plans, you might still want to think about taking the test, regardless. This will give you some flexibility for your future, whether or not you think you need an HSK certificate right now.
The HSK certificate also comes in handy when you apply for a work permit in China. China now implements a work permit scoring system through which every foreigner is graded according to their background, qualifications, and skills. You need to reach at least 60 points overall in that system to be granted the work permit/visa in China, and depending on the HSK level acquired, an HSK certificate can bring you 1-5 points.
HSK1=1 work permit point
HSK2=2 work permit points
HSK3=3 work permit points
HSK4=4 work permit points
HSK5 or HSK6= 5 work permit points
You can view the official work permit points table here.
Outside of the academic and professional realm, the HSK may not seem that important on the surface, but it can still be very useful. Many Chinese learners use HSK levels and HSK test reports for self-assessment so that they can define more clearly what they need to work on, and work out what they would like to achieve at the next stage of Chinese studies.
Aiming for higher HSK levels is also a great way to make the transition from an intermediate learner to an advanced learner. If you’re looking for an extra push or for a way to break through a plateau, HSK could be an effective way to do it. Motivation in language learning always matters.
So…take a test!
When Do HSK Levels Not Matter?
HSK is only necessary if you want to define which stage you’re at with Chinese. In a more casual learning environment, or if you’re just learning Chinese because you enjoy it, then HSK levels are just another tool to help with your Chinese learning.
Sitting an exam requires a lot of study. In preparation for an HSK test, you have to set aside time to study specific materials that might be completely unrelated to your goal. If your goal is speaking Chinese, that time you spend listening, reading, writing, doing grammar drills and practice tests to meet the HSK test requirements will be the time you could have used to improve your speaking skills.
So, if your Chinese-learning goal does not align with the HSK scale, and you don’t need an academic or professional qualification, then you can safely ignore it. After all, the only thing that matters in the real world is your true language skills, not a test grade.
How Do You Work Out Your HSK Level?
There are a few ways you can work out your HSK level. Many learners opt for self-assessment, using the descriptions (the revised version) we shared above to gauge where they’re at.
If you are looking for something a little more formal, you can take a free HSK sample test.
You can find and download the official HSK sample tests (available at all levels) in PDF format for free on the HSK website. We’ve also created a few HSK practice tests with extremely realistic HSK questions on our website. Check out ImproveMandarin HSK Channel.
Just remember that HSK levels cover three language skills (HSK1 and HSK2 only measure listening and reading abilities). That’s why some learners segment their abilities, for example stating that their listening is at HSK5 level but their reading or writing is only at HSK3 level. Others just average out their abilities and say that they’re at HSK4 level overall.
How Do You Get Certified with HSK?
Right, you don’t even have to take an exam to get an idea about your Mandarin level with the self-assessment tools. But if you need some physical proof that says you actually have reached that level in Chinese, then you definitely need to take the HSK test.
Before you plunge into the test, you need to determine what HSK level to take.
if you’re taking the HSK test as part of a school application, make sure you know the exact HSK level requirement for each school you are applying to. Most universities in China require their applicants to pass HSK5 for admission to degree programs, but some may want a little more or less. They might also waive the requirement if you meet other criteria.
First, make a list of all the Chinese universities to which you want to apply. Next, go directly to their websites or Google “[school name] + international admissions.”
Almost always, the first link that pops up will be the page you’re looking for. Here, you can check to see their HSK level/score requirements and other policies. If the school doesn’t say them clearly on the admissions page, then contact the school’s admissions office directly. After all, you don’t want to study and pay for a test if your school of choice won’t accept it!
If you’re taking the HSK test for employment purposes, it’s wise to skip the low-level HSK tests (1-3) and aim for higher levels (4-6). For the certificate to work, it’s common to aim for the highest levels: Level 5 or 6.
Well, if you simply want to assess your Chinese skills in a formal setting, you are free to take whichever HSK level you like. Just a quick note: it’s easy to overestimate your abilities and fail it, especially when you’re aiming high. And the statistics say that more than half of HSK5 and HSK6 test takers do exactly this thing: fail.
And if you fail, you don’t get any certificate. This really differs from various international tests like TOEFL and IELTS in which they simply assign you a level. It may be lower or higher than your ultimate goal but at least you get a certificate. With HSK, you get nothing if you fail.
There are certainly no ramifications if you fail, and you can take any HSK test as many times as you wish. That said, you might want to avoid wasting money and time on the wrong level. And the best way to find out your HSK level is to take a free sample test.
For those who are interested in getting an HSK certificate, we’ve written the world’s most complete, helpful guide to HSK tests. We’ll walk you through the HSK test requirements, formats, structure, scoring… You’ll find all the details about the HSK test – test centers, dates, fees, and everything you need to know to register and prepare for the HSK test.
Recap: HSK Levels
HSK is a test designed by Hanban for non-native Chinese speakers to certify their knowledge in Mandarin. It’s a 100% written test and does not assess speaking proficiency. There are six HSK Levels: HSK1, HSK2, HSK3, HSK4, HSK5, and HSK6. HSK1 is the easiest and HSK6 is the most difficult. Despite Hanban’s wishful claim, HSK levels do not have a one to one correspondence to CEFR levels. You can find out your HSK level through the self-assessment tools we provide or by taking an official HSK test.