Getting a child into an international school is not a task to be taken lightly. There are fees to calculate, language requirements to consider, entrance tests to prepare for and schools to visit. Pressure on places has eased in the last two years, making it possible to apply to some schools within weeks of joining. But competition to enter the more sought-after schools is stiff, particularly for the early primary years. For these it is necessary to plan well in advance. 'The sooner you get in the queue the better because the allocation of places is based on the date the application is received,' said Vicky Seehafer, director of admissions at Hong Kong International School (HKIS), one of the most popular international schools. At the French International School the waiting list for reception classes in the international section runs to 2007. Parents are putting their children's names down at birth. A spokeswoman for the English Schools Foundation (ESF) said: 'We don't have a strict first come, first served policy but it's better to apply sooner.' ESF takes applications twelve months before a child's anticipated start date. At HKIS, parents can apply two years before their child is ready to join the school. But being top of the list does not guarantee a place at any school since most administer priority rankings. At HKIS, priority is given to debenture holders, then students of any nationality coming from accredited US schools, and next siblings of children already in the school, returning students, and children of alumni. Similarly, nationality is taken into consideration at the French and Australian (AISHK) international schools, while German, Swiss and Austrian nationals take precedence at the German Swiss International School (GSIS). At ESF, candidates who are English speakers and who have difficulty entering the local system because they do not speak Cantonese are given priority. Many schools are also selective. Sue Howcroft, the French International School's admissions secretary, says all children have to pass the entrance exam. The waiting list ensures priority to take the test, 'not to get a seat', she says. Entrance tests vary in format and content from school to school, although written tests are rare for younger children. Written maths and English language examinations are common for older students. Children trying for the kindergarten at GSIS, for example, attend a 20 to 30 minute interview which focuses on English fluency, social skills, independence, good behaviour and the ability to respond to questions. Primary school candidates at ESF are interviewed in English, and at secondary level they take a paper and pencil test to assess, primarily, English ability. Not every school insists on formal written assessments. Sue McMillan, head of AISHK, says admission, a process the school describes as 'intimate', is based entirely on interviews. 'We want the kids to be successful and we don't want them cramming for an entrance test,' she said. 'We want a conversation with the child.' For parents whose children do not speak native English, the language requirement usually causes the most anxiety since top international schools demand a high level of proficiency. There is a common misconception that children can go to these schools to learn English, says Elaine Goddard-Tame, principal of Hong Lok Yuen International School. Most schools resist this, because standards will suffer if a language barrier prevents students keeping up with the curriculum. 'One requirement is that children should have a positive attitude to English,' she said.