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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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!
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.