HSK Test in 2021: The Complete, Ultimate Guide

If you are learning Chinese or interested in pursuing a Chinese course, you might be aware of a Chinese language test called HSK, which you can take in over 150 countries across the globe. But what is the HSK test exactly? How does the test work? What’s it used for? And what do you need to know to take the HSK test?  

Have no fear if you are confused. In this one-stop guide, we’ll walk you through what the HSK test is, its levels, formats, structure, and whether or not you’ll need to take it. You’ll find all the details about the HSK – test dates, fees, testing centers, study tips, resources, and everything you need to know to register and prepare for the HSK test.

Sounds good? Let’s dive in!

What Is HSK Test?

HSK stands for Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (汉语水平考试), meaning “Chinese Proficiency Test”. It’s the world’s most well-known and acknowledged test for Mandarin Chinese proficiency.

The organizer of HSK is Hanban (汉办), an affiliation of the Ministry of Education of China that also runs the Confucius Institutes worldwide.

HSK predominantly test learner’s listening, reading, writing skills in Chinese, and has no speaking section. HSK is a 100% written exam.

HSK Chinese proficiency test

Who Can Take the HSK Test?

HSK test-takers

HSK is designed for non-native Chinese speakers (foreigners and Chinese ethnic minorities) as a way of certifying their knowledge in Mandarin Chinese. 

Typically, those who take the HSK want to attend university or graduate school in China.

But anyone who wants to assess their proficiency in Chinese or need to demonstrate a mastery of Chinese for professional purposes can take the HSK. Test-takers that pass the HSK test will get an HSK certificate at their corresponding level.

HSK Test Levels

HSK is not just one single test. It consists of six independent tests at different levels, namely, HSK 1HSK 2HSK 3HSK 4HSK 5, and HSK 6. HSK 1 is the lowest level in terms of ability and HSK 6 is the highest.

In the HSK system, HSK 1 and HSK 2 correspond to very basic Chinese skills. HSK 3 and HSK 4 introduce more sophisticated knowledge of Chinese. HSK 5 and HSK 6 serve as indicators of high proficiency and fluency in Chinese.

(A single advanced HSK test for levels 7-9 is scheduled to be added to the current HSK system in 2021 or later. Meanwhile, no change will be made to the existing HSK tests for levels 1-6. Read the updates here)

Since language proficiency is something highly subjective, Hanban provides short descriptors for the six HSK levels, explaining what you can do at each level.

  • HSK 1can use simple Chinese words and phrases
  • HSK 2 can communicate simply and directly on daily topics you are familiar with
  • HSK 3can handle basic communication in daily life, study, work, and travel with ease in China
  • HSK 4can discuss a relatively wide range of topics and communicate with native speakers fluently
  • HSK 5 can read Chinese newspapers, magazines, watch films, TVs, and write and deliver a full speech
  • HSK 6 can easily understand what you read and hear, and express yourself smoothly both written and orally

Requirement per Level

LevelCharactersVocabulary
HSK 1150*150
HSK 2300*300
HSK 3600 600
HSK 41,0001,200
HSK 51,5002,500
HSK 62,5005,000
* Knowledge of Chinese characters is optional for taking HSK 1 and HSK 2, as Pinyin (Mandarin romanization) will be provided along with characters on the test papers.

How Do I Know My HSK Level?

Contrary to popular belief, HSK levels do not have a one to one correspondence to CEFR levels (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages –  the world’s best-known language proficiency scale). 

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 and fail the test. 

To help you work out your current HSK level more accurately, use the self-assessment tool we shared on this page to gauge where you’re at in your Chinese study. 

If you are looking for something a little more formal, you can take a free HSK sample test. We’ve created 70+ free, full-length HSK sample tests (for all levels) on our website using real questions from past HSK exams. Click here to try them out online or download and print out the test papers.

HSK Test Formats

If you need physical proof that says you actually have reached a certain level in Chinese, then you need to take a formal HSK test.

You can take the HSK test either on paper or over a computer. The two formats (paper-based, internet-based) are identical in difficulty level, test content, and scoring criteria. When you register for an HSK test, you have to make a choice between the two.

Paper-Based HSK Test
You will be required to sit at a desk with the question papers and answer sheets for the listening, reading, and writing sections (level 3-6 only) in an official HSK test center. You will need to write your answers in either 2B-pencil or pen.

Internet-Based HSK Test
You will sit the test in front of a computer connected to Hanban servers with the questions presented on the screen in an official HSK test center. You will need to submit your answers through the use of a keyboard and a mouse.

HSK Test Structure, Content & Time

An HSK test lasts 35-130 minutes depending on the level.

HSK 1 and HSK 2 are designed for basic learners, therefore, are quite short. The tests consist of only two sections: listening and reading. Each section is broken down into a number of questions that are presented in both pinyin and characters. There is no writing section.

Each section is scored out of 100. The scores of the two sections are then added together for a final, total score of 200 points, and you need to score at least 120 to pass the tests.

On HSK 3, HSK 4, HSK 5, and HSK 6, all questions are presented only in Chinese characters. The tests consist of three sections: listening, reading, and writing. The total score is 300 (100 for each section), and you need to score at least 180 to pass the tests.

Here’s a table that summarizes the HSK test structure, content, and timing information.

LevelTest StructureTest TimeTest Scoring
ListeningReadingWritingFull GradePass Grade
QuestionsTimeQuestionsTimeItemsTime
HSK 12018mins2017minsNot Tested/35mins200120
HSK 23528mins2522minsNot Tested/50mins200120
HSK 34040mins3030mins1015mins85mins300180
HSK 44535mins4040mins1525mins100mins300180
HSK 54535mins4545mins1040mins120mins300180
HSK 65040mins5050mins145mins135mins300180

HSK Certificate & Score Validity

At each HSK level, you either pass or fail. To obtain an HSK certificate, you just need to reach the passing grade – that’s all that matters.

The HSK certificate has permanent validity. It’s like a diploma. Once you receive it, it becomes your property and is valid forever. However, if you wish to use your HSK scores to apply to a college or university in China, your HSK scores are valid for two years only from the date you take the test. 

HSK Test Dates 2021

The HSK test is organized 14 times a year across the globe, giving you plenty of dates to choose from. The tests are all administered on a Saturday or Sunday, with no exception. HSK Level 1, 3, 5 usually start at 1:30 pm, while HSK Level 2, 4, 6 normally start at 9:00 am.

The following are the HSK test dates in 2021. These dates are the same anywhere around the world.

HSK

Test DateRegistration DeadlineScore Release
Jan 09 (Sat)Dec 13, 2020Feb 09
Feb 06 (Sat)Jan 10Mar 13
Mar 20 (Sat)Feb 21Apr 20
Apr 10 (Sat)Mar 14May 17
May 15 (Sat)Apr 18Jun 15
Jun 19 (Sat)May 23Jul 19
Jul 18 (Sun)Jun 21Aug 18
Aug 22 (Sun)Jul 26Sep 22
Sep 11 (Sat)Aug 15Oct 18
Oct 17 (Sun)Sep 20Nov 17
Nov 20 (Sat)Oct 24Dec 20
Dec 05 (Sun)Nov 08Jan 05, 2022

HSK

Test DateRegistration DeadlineScore Release
Jan 09 (Sat)Dec 30, 2020Jan 25
Feb 06 (Sat)Jan 27Mar 01
Mar 07 (Sun)Feb 25Mar 22
Mar 20 (Sat)Mar 10Apr 05
Apr 10 (Sat)Mar 31Apr 26
May 15 (Sat)May 05May 31
Jun 19 (Sat)Jun 09Jul 05
Jul 18 (Sun)Jul 08Aug 02
Aug 22 (Sun)Aug 12Sep 06
Sep 11 (Sat)Sep 01Sep 27
Oct 17 (Sun)Oct 07Nov 01
Nov 06 (Sat)Oct 27Nov 22
Nov 20 (Sat)Nov 10Dec 06
Dec 05 (Sun)Nov 25Dec 20

HSK Test Fees 2021

The HSK test fee differs according to the level and varies depending on which country you’ll be taking the test in. The cost typically falls into the 20-100 US dollar range.

Here are the prices for taking the HSK in China, in 2021. (The prices are the same for the paper-based HSK and the internet-based HSK)

Test LevelPrice in CNY
HSK 1150
HSK 2250
HSK 3350
HSK 4450
HSK 5550
HSK 6650

Where Can I take the HSK Test?

HSK exam

For both the paper-based and the internet-based HSK, you need to go to an official HSK testing center. Though the name “internet-based” may suggest it, you won’t be able to take the HSK test on your own computer at home.

As of 2021, there are over 300 authorized HSK testing centers in China and nearly 1,000 outside of China, giving you plenty of options. You can focus on selecting the testing center most conveniently located to where you live.

Just note that not all testing centers administer HSK tests on every test date throughout the year. How often a center administers the HSK test depends on their funding and on how popular the test is in that region.

So, always double-check with the testing center in your area to see your available options before registration.

How to Sign up for the HSK Test

Signing up for the HSK test is a quick and easy process. 

The easiest way to register is with your HSK account on the test website. It allows you to register 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You’ll be able to choose the test level, date, testing center, and register for a test that fits your schedule.

Follow our step-to-step tutorial here to complete your HSK registration online. We’ve included screenshots to make the process easier to follow.

Top Tips to Pass HSK

HSK is known to be easier than other official language tests, such as the TOEFL or IELTS exams for English learners or the DELE exam for Spanish ones (even the highest level – HSK 6 is not terrifyingly difficult). If you approach it with the right plan and strategies, there is a good chance that you’ll pass the test in one take.

Here are our top preparation tips for passing HSK. They will not only help you feel ready for the test but will also give you the confidence you need to get a high score on test day!

#1. Practice HSK Characters

Knock out the characters at an early age! 

It’s a good idea to practice writing Chinese by hand. Though you don’t have to physically write down the Chinese characters in the writing section if you take the internet-based HSK test, you still need to know which character to apply. Constant practicing on handwriting Chinese helps you memorize characters and vocabulary better, and you’ll become more at ease with spontaneous reading and writing. 

#2. Memorize HSK Vocabulary

Vocabulary plays a vital role in any language test. It is arguably the most important thing to study and understand.

As required by Hanban, the HSK organizer, you need to master 150 to 5,000 words to pass the test, depending on the level. Luckily for you, we’ve created a full HSK vocabulary list for each level per Hanban’s guideline, complete with Chinese characters, Pinyin, and explanations. 

Just note that the HSK vocabulary lists do not represent “the most common Chinese words” that you’ll hear or read in life by frequency, instead, they’re lists crafted specifically for passing the HSK tests. These vocabulary words could pop up anywhere on an HSK test, so you have to memorize them.

#3. Study HSK Grammar

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Grammar is the glue that holds the pieces of language together. In the HSK tests, you will be quizzed extensively on your knowledge of Chinese grammar.

ImproveMandarin Grammar Channel is by far the best resource for studying HSK Grammar. It’s a free reference portal you can go to for a quick recap and overview of the Chinese grammatical patterns and structures required for the HSK tests.

#4. Take Full-length Practice Tests

To get a better idea of how much you’ll need to study for the HSK test, it’ll be smart to take some practice tests. That way, you can see where your current areas of strength and weakness are and see how the test works before you take the official HSK test.

Make sure you take the practice tests in full length. This allows you to get used to the HSK test time and steadily build up stamina for test day. 

We’ve created quite a few helpful HSK practice tests with authentic listening, reading, and writing questions from past HSK exams complete with answer keys. Access them for free here.

#5. Make an HSK Study Plan

Learning and retaining Chinese happens over time, and you can’t really cram for it or just study for one or two hours a week.

Look at your daily and weekly schedules and see how many hours a week you can spend studying for HSK. Even if your test date isn’t for months, you’ll still want to set aside at least 3-5 hours each week for studying Chinese  – and we highly recommend that you do, because it will help you immensely down the road.

Studying Chinese doesn’t always have to mean textbooks and grammar drills. Try incorporating Chinese into your daily routine bit by bit:

#6. Learn from Former Test-takers

One of the best ways to ensure your HSK test experience goes smoothly is to learn from those test-takers who’ve already passed the test.

Many test-takers share their experiences of the HSK test in online forums. For some test-takers, the test was easy and had no surprises. But for others, it was challenging and more stressful than they thought it’d be.

What is it really like to take an HSK test? And what does it really take to pass the HSK test?

To shed light on these questions, we invited a few students who have taken the HSK tests before to share their test-taking tips. No doubt, you’ll benefit from their knowledge of the test format, and experience to help you get a higher score on the test!

Top HSK Resources

Whether you’re a beginner just starting to learn Chinese or an advanced learner looking to pass HSK 6, the huge number of HSK resources out there can be overwhelming.

But we’ll keep things simple for you. Our list is short. We only mention the top HSK resources – those we have tested and recommend to our readers.

Let’s have a look at these resources for getting started on your HSK study and preparation. 

HSK Books

Though you can’t learn everything from a book, they definitely help you prepare. An HSK textbook can give you the structure to work your way through the Chinese language and make sure that you have learned all the required characters and understand all the grammar points. 

The Hanban-endorsed textbook series HSK Standard Course is used in many Confucius Institutes and Mandarin schools around the world. The entire series comprises six levels matching the HSK test, with one volume each for Level 1-3 and two volumes each for Level 4-6. They’ll take you through all the grammar, sentence structures and provide you with all the necessary vocabulary that you need for the HSK tests. You can also invest in the accompanying workbooks to do the exercises and check your progress. 

Online HSK Courses

Let’s get real. No one can learn a language from a textbook alone. Using Chinese is never the same as reading a book. One of the best ways to study HSK/Chinese is with an online course created by native Chinese teachers.

Here are our top recommendations:

ChineseFor.Us has made a brilliant online HSK course. The content is explained well, in a simple manner, and with a lot of depth. Although they don’t yet offer courses for intermediate and higher levels, the beginner content (HSK Level 1-3) is excellent.

The online HSK course created by Chinese Zero to Hero covers Level 1-6 of the HSK Standard Course textbooks. It’s a great option for those looking to add structure into their independent study routine or are preparing for the HSK tests. 

HSK Classes & Tutoring

If you find it challenging to study or prepare for the HSK on your own, why not take some HSK classes with a professional teacher face-to-face or online? 

Here are our top picks.

MandarinRocks is one of the oldest, best established Mandarin schools in China. Their award-winning HSK Course boasts an extremely successful history (95% of the students have passed the HSK after completion). You can take the course in Shanghai, Beijing, and online. 

The renowned LTL School has several campuses in China and Singapore. Their HSK classes are taught by experienced teachers who know exactly the tools you need to pass your HSK test. You can also take the lessons online. 

ShanghaiTutors is known for its high-quality tutoring service. They have some well-priced tutors that excel at HSK preparation and are happy to work out a personalized solution to help you. HSK tutoring can be arranged on-site in major cities in China as well as online. 

Great HSK Resources

Want more? Don’t miss out on our full list! 

We’ve drawn from our extensive personal experience, in addition to large amounts of independent research, to formulate these thorough guides, available to you for free!

You’ll find resources for every HSK level of your Chinese learning journey from beginner to advanced. And more importantly, you’ll discover how to make them work for you and your HSK goals. 

Unlock Your HSK Success!

Ultimate List of the Best HSK Resources

Frequently Asked Questions

HSK certificate never expires and will always be an excellent testament to your Chinese proficiency. Even if you’re currently undecided about your academic or career plans, you might still want to consider taking the test, regardless. It will give you some flexibility for your future. Besides, the certificate will come in handy when you apply for a work permit in China.

In a more casual learning environment, or if you’re learning Chinese because you enjoy it, then HSK levels are just another tool to help with your Chinese learning. Essentially, HSK is only necessary if you want to define which stage you’re at with Chinese.

Sitting an exam requires lots of study. In preparation for an HSK test, you have to set aside time to study specific materials that might be unrelated to your goal. 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 the test.

HSK Levels don’t fully correspond to CEFR. Though Hanban claims on its website that the HSK levels have a one to one correspondence to the CEFR levels (e.g. HSK Level 6 = CEFR C2 proficient), the statement is an overestimate and was refused by CEFR. Below is a more objective HSK-CEFR conversion chart based on our research. 

HSK1=A1- (newbie)
HSK2=A1+ (basic)
HSK3=A2 (elementary)
HSK4=B1 (intermediate)
HSK5=B2 (upper-intermediate)
HSK6=C1- (advanced)

Read here for our full report on HSK levels.

Any non-native Chinese speakers can take the HSK test. There is no age restriction. However, we recommend that students be at least 7th grade (or 14 years of age) before attempting to take HSK 5 and HSK 6. These tests require you to read some difficult passages and be familiar with some sophisticated vocabulary. Most students are not exposed to this type of language before the 7th grade. We advise younger Chinese learners to take YCT (Youth Chinese Test) instead.

If you’re taking the HSK test to attend a university in China, 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 HSK 5 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.

If you’re taking the HSK test for employment purposes, you might want 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.

If you merely want to assess your Chinese skills in a formal setting and have some time to spare, you are free to take whatever level test and as many times as you like.

Just a quick note: it’s easy to overestimate your abilities and fail the test, especially when you’re aiming high. And if you fail, you don’t get any certificate. So you might want to take a free practice test first to find your current level (and save money!)

No, you don’t have to pass a lower level HSK first to take the higher level HSK.  It’s not mandatory to take the HSK tests in level sequence. You can register for any level that you like.

The two HSK formats are exactly the same in difficulty level, test content, and scoring criteria. The only difference is that if you take the internet-based HSK, questions will be presented on a computer screen and you will be required to submit answers through the use of a keyboard and a mouse. 

We generally recommend taking the internet-based HSK if you have the option, especially when you are signing up for a high-level HSK test, as you don’t have to physically write down every character in the writing section, which many learners find hard. But the paper-based test also has advantages such as note-taking and section-skipping (read the full comparison of the two formats). If you feel more comfortable taking a test with paper and pencil, then we encourage you to do it.

Hanban, the test organizer, only offers HSK tests in simplified Chinese, but you are allowed to answer in traditional Chinese in the writing section on the test.

Your HSK test score will be available on the HSK website two weeks after the test date (or one month if you take the paper-based test). Simply enter your test registration number (as shown on your test admission ticket), and you can access your score online.

The physical score report and the certificate (you’ll get one if you pass) will be sent to your test center 1-2 months after the test date, and you should be notified either by email or telephone for a pickup. (They will be kept at the test center for up to 2 years after the test date)

The HSK certificate has permanent validity. It’s like a diploma. Once you receive it, it becomes your property and is valid forever.

HSK scores in the accompanying test report, however, do have an expiration date of sorts. If you wish to use your HSK scores to apply to a college or university in China, your HSK scores are valid for two years only from the date you take the test.

Yes. You can take the HSK test at any level as many times as you like to until you are happy with your score. There is no waiting period. The test fee is due each time you register for a retake.