Heading to Hong Kong? Picking up an Octopus card for transport (the MTR subway/metro, coaches, buses, ferries, and tramways) and purchases at shops, restaurants and cafés is one of the smartest moves that a business traveller can make.
But how does it work? It's hard to figure out, because there's no one source of useful information online, so Australian Business Traveller has put together a guide for getting and using an Octopus card in Hong Kong.
What is it and where can I use it?
Octopus is a contactless smart card, similar to London's Oyster card (check out our how-to guide for using Oyster). It uses an RFID chip that debits your Octopus account when you touch it to a yellow reader.
You can top up your account automatically (you'll need a Hong Kong address to receive an activation letter) or at any of the numerous service centres across Hong Kong.
You need to tap in and out of the MTR, but for all other purchases you'll only need to tap once.
How and where do I buy an Octopus card?
Standard "on-loan" Octopus cards are for sale at all MTR stations, including at the airport. Unless you're a resident, you'll probably want the Standard On-Loan Octopus rather than the AAVS automatic top-up version.
As of 28 February 2011, the Hong Kong to Australian dollar exchange rate is roughly HK$100=12.65A$. So roughly knock a decimal point off the Hong Kong dollar amount to convert it.
The card itself is a refundable HK$50 deposit, plus HK$100 initial stored value, for a total of HK$150. That's about A$18 in total.
A maximum of HK$1000 of prepay money can be loaded onto a card, which is about A.
Automated machines that take credit cards and cash are available to top up your Octopus account. However, if you're using a non-Hong Kong credit card you may have to talk to a real live human being in the ticket office unless you have enough cash on you.
How much are fares?
Like many metro systems, Hong Kong's MTR operates on a zone system.
From Hong Kong to the airport on the Airport Express, a single trip is HK$100, with a round trip at HK$180.
Short-term visitors will want to consider the non-Octopus Airport Express Travel Pass. (This is also available on a magnetic swipe card rather than Octopus.) HK$220 gets you a single Airport Express journey and 3 days of unlimited travel on MTR, Light Rail and MTR Bus (except Airport Express, East Rail Line First Class, Lo Wu and Lok Ma Chau stations). HK$80 more gets you a return journey on the Airport Express and the same 3 days of unlimited travel.
Alternatively, there is a Tourist Day Pass (on a magnetic swipe card and not Octopus) that gives unlimited travel on MTR and Light Rail (but not the Airport Express or buses).
To figure out how much your journey will be, there's an excellent (Flash-based) MTR journey planner website, but here's a selection of common central Hong Kong journeys for business travellers.
From Hong Kong to Tsim Sha Tsui is HK$7.90 with Octopus, or HK$8.50 for a single ticket.
From Kowloon to Causeway Bay, the fare is HK$9.70 with Octopus, or HK$10.50 for a single ticket.
From Central to Admiralty, it's HK$3.70 with Octopus, or HK$4.00 for a single ticket.
You can also use Octopus on buses -- and, despite their often confusing routes and fare structures, they're an excellent way to see the city. Expect to pay between HKD$3-12 per journey depending on distance.
Should I register my Octopus card?
Only if you've arranged for the AAVS automatic top-up or Personalised Octopus version. You can't register a Standard On-Loan Octopus.
How do I get my money back off my Octopus card?
At the end of your trip, you'll probably have some money left on your card. If you're planning to come back, keep hold of it for next time! If not, then you'll probably want to get your money back -- including the deposit. For full details of the process, check out the Octopus refund page, but here's the lowdown.
Head to an MTR Customer Service Centre (at all MTR stations, including at the airport).
If your Standard On-Loan Octopus balance is less than HKD$500, you'll get an on-the-spot refund, less a HK$7 processing fee if you've returned it within three months of issue. That fee goes up to HK$30 if you've damaged it in any way, which includes writing on, bending or cutting your Octopus, or attaching stickers to it.
If you've more than HK$500 on the card, it has to be sent off for processing, which is a major pain. Octopus only promises to "notify you of the refund arrangement within nine working days", and will usually send you a cheque. So make sure that you've got under HK$500 on an Octopus card as you come to the end of your stay in Hong Kong.
So what about using my Octopus card elsewhere?
There's an incredibly wide range of places you can use Octopus, from shops, supermarkets, restaurants, bookstores and car parks to cinemas, swimming pools and vending machines. You can even use it in various places in Shenzhen and Macau.
About John Walton
Aviation journalist and travel columnist John took his first long-haul flight when he was eight weeks old and hasn't looked back since. Well, except when facing rearwards in business class.