HSK vs HSKK: Which Chinese Test Is Right for You? (Full Comparison + Advice)

HSK vs HSKK

If you are new to Chinese language testing, you’re probably wondering what the difference is between HSK and HSKK, and which one to take.

In this post, we go in-depth into all the differences between HSK and HSKK to help you make a better-informed decision. But before we do that, here’s what you need to know in a nutshell:

HSK is a written test. HSK stands for Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, literally “Chinese Proficiency Test”. It tests your listening, reading, and writing skills. When you pass HSK, you’ll get an HSK certificate.

HSKK is a spoken test. HSKK stands for Hanyu Shuiping Kouyu Kaoshi, literally “Chinese Proficiency Spoken Test”. It tests predominantly your speaking skills. When you pass HSKK, you’ll get an HSKK certificate.

A common misconception is that HSKK is just a part of an HSK test, as the “speaking section”, but this is not the case. HSK and HSKK are two independent tests that can be taken separately and selectively, at any level.

Now let’s jump into HSK vs HSKK comparison in detail.

Here’s what we are going to cover:

HSK vs HSKK #1: Organizer & History

Both HSK and HSKK are organized by Hanban, the part of the Chinese Education Ministry also in charge of the Confucius Institutes.

Admittedly, HSK is better known since it has a much longer history and more test-takers. Hanban initially developed this test in the 1980s to assess the ability of China’s 55 ethnic minorities (e.g. Tibetan, Uyghur) in using Chinese in their daily, academic and professional lives (yes, they too learn Chinese as a second language). In the 1990s, HSK became an international test, with hundreds of testing centers gradually set up outside China.

There is just one problem with HSK: it’s a written test.

There is no way to measure test-taker’s speaking ability based on HSK results. However, for more than two decades, HSK was the only solid language prerequisite for international students to apply for degree programs at Chinese universities, hence many students chose to study Chinese along the specific, quick “HSK route” at the expense of their speaking abilities. (We’ve actually seen a couple of students from Japan and Korea that passed HSK6 – the highest level, and yet can barely communicate at all in Chinese, not even things like “how’s your weekend?” )

To answer the complaints from educators and employers, as well as to encourage Chinese learners to spend more time working on speaking skills, Hanban developed the separate oral test HSKK in the 2010s as a complement to HSK. It assesses test-taker’s pronunciations, tones, clarity, continuity, variety, and fluency in speech. It serves as an objective way to measure learner’s overall speaking ability in real life.

HSK vs HSKK #2: Test Levels & Requirements

written vs spoken

So, why there have to be two separate tests and not make them one? You have to ask.

It’s simple. Two tests can better segment learners’ abilities and meet their needs. For example, to qualify as a translator or editor, one only needs certification in written language, speaking skills are less important. For other jobs like a sports coach, a certificate in spoken language will be a lot handier.

Therefore, the requirements for taking HSK and HSKK are also different.

HSK

HSK consists of 6 levels: HSK1, HSK2, HSK3, HSK4, HSK5, and HSK6. HSK1 is the lowest level in terms of ability and HSK6 is the highest.

It’s not required to take the HSK tests in level sequence. You can just skip ahead to the test matching your level (no one can stop you if you are determined to take HSK6 after learning Chinese for a week)  

What HSK level are you now? Which HSK level test should you take? Here’s the official guideline from Hanban:

HSK Level 1

HSK Level 2

  • You know 300 common words or more.
  • You can communicate simply and directly on daily topics you are familiar with.
  • Knowledge of Chinese characters is optional (pinyin is provided along with characters in HSK2).

HSK Level 3

  • You know 600 common words or more.
  • You can conduct basic communication in daily life, study and work. You can manage most communication when traveling in China.
  • You know around 600 Chinese characters (no more pinyin from HSK3 onwards).

HSK Level 4

  • You know 1200 words or more.
  • You can discuss a relatively wide range of topics in Chinese and can communicate with native Chinese speakers fluently.
  • You know around 1000 Chinese characters.

HSK Level 5

  • You know 2500 words or more.
  • You can read Chinese newspapers and magazines, watch Chinese films and TVs, and can write and deliver a full speech.
  • You know around 1500 Chinese characters.

HSK Level 6

  • You know 5000 words or more.
  • You can easily understand what you read and hear, and express yourself smoothly in written and oral Chinese.
  • You know around 2500 Chinese characters.

Don’t be overwhelmed! HSK is known to be easier than other official language tests, such as the TOEFL exam for English learners or the DELE exam for Spanish ones.

Hanban made the HSK tests a lot easier than before on purpose to encourage more people to learn Chinese and take the tests. (There were 11 HSK levels before 2010. Level 11 was very difficult as it required a vocabulary of 10,000 words, double the figure of current HSK6, and the latter only corresponds to level 8-9 in the old HSK system)

A little side story:

Hanban announces that the 6 levels of HSK correspond directly to the 6 levels of CEFR (the international standard established by the Council of Europe to assess language learner’s ability to use 40+ European languages, but not non-alphabetic languages like Mandarin): 

HSK1=A1 (beginner)
HSK2=A2 (elementary)
HSK3=B1 (intermediate)
HSK4=B2 (upper-intermediate)
HSK5=C1 (advanced)
HSK6=C2 (proficient)

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.

That’s probably the HSK-CEFR correlation you see elsewhere online. However, we are certain (and many, many learners, teachers and scholars too!) this is a massive overestimate. Able to communicate with native speakers fluently with only 1200 words? And able to read Chinese papers and magazines with 2500 words? It’s just too good to be true.

While we agree that the old HSK level 11 before 2010 did correspond to C2 (=educated native speaker), the current HSK6 only corresponds to C1 minus (=Chinese kids in 6th-7th grade). There is still a lot you can learn after HSK6 to reach total proficiency. (you can continue read here to find out more about HSK-CEFR levels)

So, here is our revised version reflecting actual, objective HSK-CEFR Correlations

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

Keep learning=C2 (proficient)

The good news? You can get the Chinese proficiency certificate much easier than before. So take the HSK test while it’s still (relatively) easy!

HSKK

Now that you know about HSK, let’s talk about HSKK.

Unlike HSK, HSKK only consists of 3 levels: Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced.

As a separate test, you can take HSKK independently without taking any HSK test, and you don’t have to follow the beginner-intermediate-advanced sequence. You can just go ahead and take the one that matches your level.

Which HSKK level are you now? Here’s the guideline from Hanban.

HSKK Beginner

  • You know 200 common words or more.   
  • You can understand simple Chinese and conduct basic communication on daily topics you are familiar with.
  • You don’t need to know Chinese characters.

HSKK Intermediate

  • You know 900 common words or more.
  • You can understand daily Chinese and converse quite fluently with native Chinese speakers. 
  • You don’t need to know Chinese characters.

HSKK Advanced

  • You know 3000 words or more.
  • You can understand spoken Chinese well and express your ideas fluently in Chinese.
  • You know more than 1000 characters (HSK4+ level).

While it’s possible to reach fluency in spoken Chinese without learning any Chinese characters (many people have done it), you won’t be able to get an advanced certificate to prove it. This is because in HSKK Advanced, you will be required to read aloud questions and paragraphs written in characters to get tested on your pronunciations and tones, and this constitutes 2/3 of the test content.

So, if you don’t know enough characters, you won’t be able to pass HSKK Advanced even if you can speak like a native. You then have two choices: downgrade to HSKK Intermediate or learn more characters first (reach HSK4+ level).

General HSKK-HSK Correlations by Hanban
HSK Beginner=HSK1-HSK2
HSK Intermediate=HSK3-HSK4
HSK Advanced=HSK5-HSK6

HSK vs HSKK #3: Test Structure & Scoring

Now, let’s look at how HSK and HSKK differ in test structure and scoring.

HSK

taking HSK test

An HSK test is 35-130 minutes in duration depending on the level.

HSK1 and HSK2 are designed for basic Chinese learners. The tests consist of only two sections: listening and reading. Each section is broken down into a number of questions (all multiple choices). Questions are presented in both pinyin and characters. There is no writing section. The total score is 200 (100/100 for listening/reading), and you need to score at least 120 to pass the tests.

From HSK3 onwards, all the questions are presented only in Chinese characters. The tests consist of three sections: listening, reading (all multiple choices) and writing. The total score is 300 (100/100/100 for listening/reading/writing), and you need to score at least 180 to pass the tests.

Here’s a chart that summarizes the HSK test structure, timing and scoring information.

Level Test Structure           Test Time Test Scoring  
  Listening   Reading   Writing     Full Pass
  Questions Time Questions Time Items Time      
HSK1 20 18mins 20 17mins None / 35mins 200 120
HSK2 35 28mins 25 22mins None / 50mins 200 120
HSK3 40 40mins 30 30mins 10 15mins 85mins 300 180
HSK4 45 35mins 40 40mins 15 25mins 100mins 300 180
HSK5 45 35mins 45 45mins 10 40mins 120mins 300 180
HSK6 50 40mins 50 50mins 1 45mins 135mins 300 180

*You’ll be given an extra 5 minutes to fill in your personal information.

HSKK

taking HSKK test

Compared with HSK, HSKK tests are much shorter (only 10-15 minutes long). Each HSKK test consists of three sections.

HSKK Beginner

  • Listen and repeat: listen to a recording of sentences and repeat the sentences
  • Listen and reply: listen to a recording of questions and provide brief answers
  • Answer questions: read the questions (pinyin provided) on test paper or screen and provide detailed answers  

HSKK Intermediate

  • Listen and repeat: listen to a recording of sentences and repeat the sentences
  • Describe pictures: say something based on the pictures presented on test paper or screen
  • Answer questions: read the questions (pinyin provided) on test paper or screen and provide detailed answers  

HSKK Advanced

  • Listen and repeat: listen to a recording of sentences and repeat the sentences
  • Read aloud: read aloud the passage (shown in characters) on test paper or screen
  • Answer questions: read the questions on test paper or screen and provide detailed answers
Level Test Structure           Test Time Full Grade Pass Grade
Beginner Listen & Repeat   Listen & Replay   Answer Questions   10min 100 60
  Items Time Items Time Items Time      
  15 4mins 10 3mins 2 3mins      
Intermediate Listen & Repeat   Describe Pictures   Answer Questions   13min 100 60
  Items Time Items Time Items Time      
  10 5mins 2 4mins 2 4mins      
Advanced Listen & Repeat   Read Aloud   Answer Questions   15mins 100 60
  Items Time Items Time Items Time      
  15 8mins 10 2mins 2 5mins      

Above is a chart that summarizes the HSKK test structure, timing and scoring info.

HSK vs HSKK #4. Test Formats

HSK

HSK tests can be taken either on paper or computer. The difficulty level, test content and scoring criteria are the same.

Paper-Based HSK Test
You will be required to sit at a desk with the question papers and answer sheets for the listening, reading, writing sections (HSK3-6 only) in an official HSK test center. You will need to write your answers in either 2B-pencil or pen.

Computer-Based HSK Test (also known as Internet-Based HSK Test)
You will be required to sit the listening, reading, writing sections (HSK3-6 only) in front of a computer with the questions presented on the screen in an official HSK test center. The computer is connected to Hanban servers. You will need to submit your answers through the use of a keyboard and a mouse.

If you need help deciding which version to take, read our advice here.

HSKK

HSKK exam

You might think the speaking test is sort of like a face to face Q&A session with a teacher, but it’s not. The questions are pre-recorded and read to you on speaker or headphones (in some sections of HSKK Advanced, questions are presented to you in written form). There is no interaction with real people. You answer the questions on a recording device and get scored by examiners later.

Like HSK, HSKK can be carried out either with paper or through a computer in an authorized testing center.

Paper-Based HSKK Test
You will listen to the recordings of statements or questions in Chinese played on speakers and then repeat the statements or answer the questions accordingly. In some sections of HSKK Advanced, you will need to read some questions and a paragraph written on the paper. Your voice will be recorded on a phone-like recording device.

Computer-Based HSKK Test
You will listen to the recordings of statements or questions in Chinese played on the computer through headphones and then repeat the statements or answer the questions accordingly. In some sections of HSKK Advanced, you will need to read some questions and a paragraph presented on the screen. Your voice will be recorded by the computer.

Like HSK, the difficulty level, test content and scoring criteria are also the same in both versions of the HSKK test.

HSK vs HSKK #5: Test Centers, Dates & Fees

exam dates

Most HSK testing centers also host HSKK tests though the situation might differ a bit in different countries.  (We’ve pulled a list of worldwide test centers on our website)

All tests take place on weekends. There are more test dates for HSK than HSKK (generally about once per month). You can take both HSK and HSKK on the same day since the tests start at a different time of the day. Just make sure you book HSK and HSKK tests at the same testing center.  

Here are the HSK and HSKK test dates for 2021.

Test Dates HSK HSKK
Jan 09 (Sat) y (yes) y
Feb 06 (Sat) y  
Mar 07 (Sun) y (computer only)  
Mar 20 (Sat) y y
Apr 10 (Sat) y y
May 15 (Sat) y y
Jun 19 (Sat) y  
Jul 18 (Sun) y y
Aug 22 (Sun) y  
Sep 11 (Sat) y  
Oct 17 (Sun) y y
Nov 06 (Sat) y (computer only)  
Nov 20 (Sat) y  
Dec 05 (Sun) y y

Test registration is usually open until 4 weeks before the selected test date for paper-based tests or around 10 days before the selected test date for computer-based tests. Results of computer-based tests are published 2 weeks after the test while paper-based test results take 1 month to be reported.

The test fee for HSK and HSKK tests is different at each level (the higher level, the higher fee).

Here are the prices for taking HSK and HSKK in China (2021). The prices outside of China are converted into local currency and will vary depending on your location.

Tests Price in CNY
HSK1 150
HSK2 250
HSK3 350
HSK4 450
HSK5 550
HSK6 650
HSKK Beginner 200
HSKK Intermediate 400
HSKK Advanced 600

HSK vs HSKK #6: Validity & Practicality

HSK HSKK certification

Theoretically, both HSK and HSKK certificates are valid for a lifetime. However, if you intend to use them as certification to enter a Chinese university, the results will be applicable for two years commencing from the test date.

Now the questions are: which is more useful, HSK or HSKK? Which should you take?

With a much longer history and wider influence, it is thus only natural that many people argue that the HSK test is more important. Indeed, most of the Chinese universities ask foreign students coming to China to obtain HSK4 or 5 before enrolling in a degree program. It also helps them to get a scholarship from the Chinese government.

Some Chinese companies may also require an HSK certificate when recruiting foreign talents. For example, a job description might ask for foreign applicants with “HSK5 or better”. Most importantly, the HSK certification is taken into account when applying for a Chinese working visa.

However, an increasing number of institutes now start to require HSKK too as a criterion for enrolling international students or granting scholarships. For example, applicants for Confucius Institute scholarships in the U.S. are required to pass both HSK3 and HSKK Beginner first for consideration.

Needless to say, if you plan to apply for a job position that requires frequent use of Mandarin, an HSKK certificate will make your CV or resume stand out from the others (and it doesn’t expire). Even employers that don’t require Mandarin proficiency can get a more complete picture of you, knowing your strengths.

Outside of the academic and professional realm, neither HSK nor HSKK seems that important on the surface, but they can still be very useful.

How well are you doing with the vocabulary and grammar? What about your pronunciation and tones? Can native speakers really understand your Chinese? HSK and HSKK provide an objective assessment of your skills, defining which stage you’re at with your Chinese learning. Plus, tests are useful study techniques to help you improve quicker. When you take a test, you have to recall and apply what you have learned. This process greatly improves your chances of remembering information. It also makes future study sessions more productive by showing what you need to work on next.

Conclusion: HSK or HSKK

HSK or HSKK

As you can see, whether you should choose to take HSK or HSKK really depends on what you expect from the certification, what your priority is, and what sort of learner you are.

Finally, here are some points that might help you decide between HSK and HSKK:

  • 1. If you just want one authoritative Chinese language proficiency certificate for possible future study or job opportunities related to China, take HSK. It enjoys better recognition in academic and business worlds (for now, at the least).
  • 2. If your primary goal is to speak Chinese rather than read Chinese, or your work environment requires more spoken communication than written communication, take HSKK. It’s the only certificate to prove your proficiency in speaking.
  • 3. If you are comfortable with speaking Chinese but your reading skills are lagging way behind, take HSKK Beginner/HSKK Intermediate, or HSK1/HSK2, all of which don’t require knowledge of characters.
  • 4. If you want an objective, standardized way to benchmark your progress in all four language skills: speaking, listening, reading and writing, take both HSK and HSKK. Even if you are learning Chinese out of interest, aiming for certification is a great way to help you make the leap to the next level. Motivation in language learning always matters.