Octopus card time limits and expiry dates

If you are going to visit Hong Kong for more than a day or two, then a Octopus card is an essential part of getting around. Just load it up with money and travel wherever you like!

Ticket machines at Hung Hom station on the MTR

If you are just doing the normal tourist thing then this guide to using an Octopus card will serve you well, but if you are planning on spending days exploring the rail network like I did, then there are few things to keep in mind.

Time limits

The MTR Conditions of Issue of Tickets details a few time limits on Octopus card journeys that most people will never run into:

Surcharge on Travelling beyond Permitted Time

All passengers must, as far as reasonably practicable, travel to their destinations by the first available train after entering the paid area and all journeys must be completed by leaving the paid area through the exit gate within 150 minutes of passing through the entry gate.

Without prejudice to the application of Paragraph 1.5, a passenger who without lawful authority or reasonable excuse fails to leave the paid area within such 150 minutes is liable to pay a surcharge which is equivalent to the current maximum adult or concessionary fare (as appropriate) for a single direction journey

I ran into the above restriction on a particular convoluted journey across the MTR network, where I aimed to see the most of the network I could for the minimum amount of money!

When I eventually went to leave the paid area, my Octopus card was rejected by the turnstiles, and I had to head over to the customer service desk for assistance. Talking English to them was enough for them to believe that I was a lost tourist, so they did something to my card, and I was only charged for the fare between my origin and destination stations – not the maximum possible fare.

Station concourse at Chai Wan

A second restriction on Octopus cards also applies to trips to and from the same railway station:

Same Station Entry and Exit

A person who, after entering a station of the MTR using a ticket, without leaving the paid area of the URL at any other station using the ticket, leaves the same station through an exit gate using that ticket is liable to pay a charge as follows:

(a) where he/she leaves the station within 20 minutes after passing through an entry gate of the same station, he/she is liable to pay the current minimum adult or concessionary fare, as appropriate, for a single direction journey; and

(b) where he/she leaves the station beyond 20 minutes but within 150 minutes after passing through an entry gate of the same station, the charge payable is:

(i) $10 for any person other than a child, student, PwD or senior citizen;
(ii) $5 for any child or student; and
(iii) the current minimum fare for a single direction journey for a PwD or senior citizen.

I didn’t run into that rule, as all of my “out and back” inspection tours didn’t loop back to the station I started at.

The reason behind this rule is an unusual method of online shopping adopted by Hong Kong locals:

Online shoppers turn MTR into marketplace
Christopher DeWolf

In most parts of the world, online shopping is a straightforward process: find what you want, enter your credit card information and have it shipped to your home. Not so in Hong Kong, where analysts describe the online retail market as “underdeveloped” and consumers have long been sceptical of buying things online.

Here, consumers treat the Internet like a giant catalogue, scouring the web for bargains before venturing out into the real world to actually buy the goods. Vendors advertise products on sites like Uwants and Yahoo! Auctions, which function like online bazaars, where shoppers can browse for products, compare prices and, in many cases, negotiate with vendors.

“People enjoy the social interaction of shopping,” said Baniel Cheung Tin-sau, a marketing consultant and lecturer at the University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Business and Economics. “It’s a chance to spend time with friends, which is why many people like to buy things offline.”

Those habits follow Hong Kong shoppers online. “If you buy something here, there’s usually no refund, and since Hong Kong is small, you don’t need to travel much to reach your destination,” said Cheung. So rather than risk receiving a dud in the mail, shoppers would rather walk to the nearest MTR station to pick up their purchase.

At the busiest time for exchanges, which is usually in the early evening after people get off work, some MTR stations take on the appearance of miniature marketplaces, with customers trying on clothes, chatting about camera lenses and sharing shopping tips.

Exploring the Light Rail

The fare structure for the MTR Light Rail network is based upon zones, and is hard to understand at first glance.

Single Journey Ticket Issuing Machine at a Light Rail stop

Things get even more complicated if you are intending to jump on and off the tram multiple times in a day to take photos of the network – in my case a lots of backtracking was also involved.

If you buy a Single Journey Ticket for the zones you are intending to pass through, a few conditions apply:

Each Single Journey Ticket is valid for 120 minutes after purchase and can be used only for a journey from the stop where the ticket is purchased to another stop in a single direction.

Using an Octopus card makes things a little simpler, but it works out to be incredible expensive if you touch on and off each time you head to the next tram stop down the road.

Passengers must validate their entry by touching their Octopus over an “Entry Fare Processor” before proceeding to board the train. With a green light and a ‘beep’ sound, “Permit to Travel” will appear on the Screen upon authorisation. The journey must be completed within 120 minutes.

When exiting from a Light Rail Stop users must touch their Octopus over an “Exit Fare Processor”to validate the completion of the journey. Otherwise a deduction equivalent to the maximum fare will be made.

Note that whatever ticket you decide to buy, the MTR has ticket inspectors to check that you have a valid one – I saw them in various places a half-dozen times on my exploration of the network.

Hiring a pushbike might be an easier to get lineside photos of the Light Rail!

Expiry date

Octopus cards don’t have an expiry date, but after 1,000 days of no value being added to the card it becomes deactivated, requiring you to visit a MTR Customer Service Centre to have it reactivated free of charge.

Hong Kong's bilingual Octopus cards?

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Transport market share to Hong Kong International Airport

There are many different ways to reach Hong Kong’s international airport from anywhere in the city – but the cost, speed and level of comfort differ. So which one is more popular?

Planes, trains and automobiles

Airport Express train

The Airport Express train operated by the MTR is the fastest way to get to Hong Kong and Kowloon and the most comfortable, with the ‘In-Town Check-In’ service allowing you to drop your bags at the railway station, and pick them up at your final destination airport.

Flight information display at Kowloon station

Unfortunately it isn’t a door to door service, but a complimentary shuttle bus operates between Hong Kong or Kowloon station and major hotels and railway interchanges.

As for the cost – it’s exactly HK$100 for a single journey. By comparison, a journey from Hong Kong to Tung Chung, less than one kilometre short of the airport and sharing the same line, is around HK$18. From the fare tables the most expensive ‘normal’ one I could find was Sheung Shui to Tung Chung for around HK$24 – pretty much one end of Hong Kong to another. The fares from one more station past Sheung Shui on the East Rail line (Lok Ma Chau or Lo Wu) doubles to around HK$50 – these are border crossings with China, so they must follow the airport ripoff rule.

Just goes to show how expensive rail journeys to airports are!

Onboard the Airport Express train

Express buses

Dedicated limited-stop bus routes operate from Hong Kong, Kowloon and the New Territories to the airport, with special areas for bulky luggage being provided. For a one way fare of around HK$20 depending on which area you are traveling from, it is cheaper than the airport train, but about double the price of a ‘normal’ bus across the same distance.

Busy roads in Ma On Shan


Hong Kong’s airport is a long drive from the urban areas of Hong Kong and involves many toll roads, so I’m not sure why anyone would bother. If you did, the ride will cost you around HK$250 to HK$300.

Taxis and trams at Shau Kei Wan.


You have to spend a lot of money to buy and run a car in Hong Kong, so if you were going to drive to the airport, paying HK$22 an hour for parking probably won’t bother you.

'Caribbean Coast' apartment  complex at Tung Chung

Market share by transport mode

The 2006 paper ‘Analysis of Airport Access Mode Choice: A Case Study in Hong Kong‘ by Mei Ling Tam and Mei Lam Tam provides a great level of detail around the transport modes used to reach Hong Kong International Airport.

They collected their data in 2004 by surveying waiting air travellers:

Of the total 496 samples, 50 percent were male and 50 percent were female. Around 55 percent of the respondents were aged between 16 and 35. Hong Kong residents accounted for two-thirds of the samples, while the remaining one-third were visitors from various countries.

The majority (85 percent) of the respondents were travelling for non-business purposes, such as a vacation or visiting friends or relatives. The remaining 15 percent were business travellers.

A quarter of the respondents were air passengers taking long haul flights (i.e. air journey time more than 6 hours). It was noted that 10 percent of the respondents had no check-in baggage, while 55 percent had one check-in bag. On average, each respondent carried 1.3 pieces of check-in baggage.

With the following results:

In general, public modes (including franchised buses and Airport Express Line (AEL)) dominate HKIA ground access market. Franchised buses have a large proportion (47 percent) with AEL having 23 percent. The primary reason attracting air passengers to use the franchised buses is the lower travel cost. ‘Shortest time required’ is the main reason for those who used AEL.

Hong Kong Transport Department (TD) statistics show that only 5 percent of the population in Hong Kong owns a private car (TD, 2004). Owing to this comparatively low car ownership rate, the use of the private car as the ground access mode to the HKIA is limited, and only accounts for 7 percent of the total sample.

A greater proportion of business air passengers (41 percent) than non-business air passengers (20 percent) accessed the HKIA by AEL. This is because business air passengers have a greater awareness of time cost than non-business air passengers. Non-business air passengers are more sensitive to travel cost than business air passengers, and this resulted in a greater proportion (49 percent) travelling by franchised buses.

Another breakdown of mode share to the airport can also be found in a presentation titled ‘Hong Kong Airport Express Line – A Success Story‘ by MTR operations manager K Y Leung.

Airport Express performance in 2006

  • 9.6 million passengers carried (26,600/day)
  • 23% market share of the airport traffic
  • 1.94 million passengers used In-town check-in service

It also includes a graph of historical trends in mode share.

Hong Kong airport transport market share - 1999 to 2006

And an analysis of the challenges facing the airport rail link:

  • Fierce competition from buses
  • High staff set-up cost
  • High facility replacement cost

The reasoning behind a preference for bus over rail services can be found in this case study, including in the 2000 Transportation Research Board report ‘Improving Public Transportation Access to Large Airports‘:

In order to understand the motivation for mode choice – and to explore the attribute of directness of service — MTR managers undertook some market research. Of those riders on the direct bus routes, an expected 55 percent said that the lower fare was a reason for choosing the bus; importantly, 51 percent stated that directness of service (i.e., no need to transfer) was a reason for their choice of mode. Directness of service was considered a factor by only 18 percent of rail riders, presumably those with destinations convenient to the terminals.

They also quote a conclusion reached by one of the original architects of the Hong Kong Airport Express:

It is apparent that even with a good design and well-integrated railway service, the Airport Express does not have inherent advantages over more direct single mode bus travel. In other words, the speed advantage of rail versus single mode road competitors when traveling over distances of only up to 34 km [21 mi] do not result in significant enough time savings to compensate for the necessary transfer.

Some lessons for other cities there?


The 2006 paper ‘Analysis of Airport Access Mode Choice: A Case Study in Hong Kong‘ by Mei Ling Tam and Mei Lam Tam has plenty more analysis of the reasons why passengers choose a given transport mode to reach Hong Kong airport.

The 2000 report ‘Improving Public Transportation Access to Large Airports‘ by the Transportation Research Board expands upon this, covering many other examples from around the world.

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One Logo – Two Languages

For a company that operates in Hong Kong, where both Chinese and English are official languages, it is important to have a corporate brand that looks just as good in both. Here are two corporate logos that achieve this in an exceedingly clever way.

The first is for the ‘CLP Group’ – once known as ‘China Light and Power’. The central device of the logo is the – the Chinese character for ‘China’ – with is composed of the English characters of ‘C’ ‘L’ and ‘P’.

CLP Group logo

The other is for ‘Kowloon Motor Bus’, also known as ‘KMB’. The large ‘K’ device in the logo represents the ‘K’ of the English company name, while at the same time resembling – part of ‘九龍’, the Chinese name for Kowloon.

Kowloon Motor Bus logo

Both logos blew my mind when I first discovered their hidden meanings!

Further reading

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Laundry day in Hong Kong

I doesn’t matter where you live in Hong Kong, but finding somewhere to dry your laundry usually involves an open window.

You could be living in a 1960s apartment block.

Laundry day in Hong Kong

Or a more modern Housing Authority complex.

Typical Housing Authority apartment tower

Or even in a fancy complex with your own swimming pool.

Laundry day in Hong Kong

Whatever it is, just don’t hang your washing up on the neighbourhood fences!

No hanging up your washing here!

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Lost in translation while navigating the MTR

Navigating the Mass Transit Railway network is Hong Kong is pretty easy – the map is easy to read, the signage is in both Chinese and English, and the audio announcements are repeated in Cantonese, Mandarin and English. So how did my dad and I managed to get confused when getting from A to B?

MTR network map (2013)

We had just spent the day out sightseeing, and were on our way to meet my cousin for dinner at a restaurant in Causeway Bay, having arranged to meet outside a specific exit from the MTR station.

After changing to an Island Line train headed west, my dad said “we’ll jump out at [a name I had never head of]“. I had to rack my brain for quite a while, trying to think of a MTR station by that name, but got nowhere, so I asked him to point out the station on the map.

“Causeway Bay” was the station – which sounded nothing like the name “Tung Lo Wan” he had been saying a moment before.

The reason for the confusion is how locations in Hong Kong receive their English names – places with obvious English names (such as “Causeway Bay”) also have obviously Chinese names (in this case “銅鑼灣” which is transliterated as “Tung Lo Wan”) which sound different, while other places just use the transliterated Chinese name as their English one (for example, “Tsim Sha Tsui”) so they sound the same in both languages.

With my dad being a native Cantonese speaker he used the Chinese name, while I went for the English one, which in the case of Causeway Bay sound nothing alike!

Hong Kong tram on the move in Causeway Bay

A footnote on literal translations

Transliteration is a process where Chinese characters are turned into something pronounceable by non-Chinese speakers, while translation makes the ideas of the Chinese text understandable to outsiders.

When each character of “銅鑼灣” is translated literally, “Tung Lo Wan” (the Chinese name for Causeway Bay) ends up as “Copper Gong Bay”. A number of people have taking this to the extreme and produced an entire MTR network map where the station names are translated literally – ‘Lost in Mong Kok‘ did a version in 2011, as did blogger Justin Moe in 2014.

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