Using Hong Kong’s MTR system

The MTR is Hong Kong’s clean, fast and efficient rapid transit system. It’s easy to use, and most visitors will find themselves using it at least once. This post is a guide to using Hong Kong’s MTR system including some of my tricks and tips for making the most of it.

Using Hong Kong's MTR:

As you plan your first-time trip to Hong Kong, you will without doubt come across many references to the MTR.  The MTR is the rapid transit system which has provided a safe, reliable and efficient way to get around Hong Kong since 1979.  The MTR in Hong Kong is very well maintained and comfortable with air-conditioned trains all year round.

The system consists of 87 stations and 68 light rail stops over nine main commuter lines serving Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and the New Territories. The East Rail Line connects to the border at Lo Wu and Lok Ma Chau stations for travel between Hong Kong and Shenzhen in China.

The MTR also runs the Airport Express, which is the fastest way to get between Hong Kong International Airport (and AsiaWorld-Expo) and Kowloon and Hong Kong Stations.

First things first. Get yourself into Hong Kong from the airport

The Airport Express is an incredibly fast and efficient way to get betweenHong Kong International Airport (HKIA) and the central business area. The 35.3km journey takes about 24 minutes.

Using Hong Kong's MTR:

You can book your Airport Express tickets in advance, which are then delivered via QR Codes to your phone (which can be scanned direct at the gate) or via tickets to print (which need to be redeemed at an Airport Express Customer Service Centre before entering the gate). Or you can do like we did, and just go straight to the  Airport Express Customer Service Centre on arrival, and buy tickets there.

There are three options:

  • Airport Express Single Journey Ticket
  • Airport Express Round Trip Ticket
  • Airport Express Travel Pass  – single or round trip (both include 3 consecutive days of unlimited travel on MTR, Light Rail and MTR Bus (Northwest New Territories) (except additional travel on the Airport Express, East Rail Line First Class, and travel to/from Lo Wu or Lok Ma Chau stations)

These range from HK$80 for a single journey Airport Express ticket for Kowloon Station, through to HK$350 for the return Travel Pass (with a $HK 50 refund when you return the pass).

You need to give some thought as to how much you’re going to use the MTR during the 3 consecutive days as to whether the Airport Express Travel Pass is worth it for you or not. For us it wasn’t, so we bought the Round Trip Ticket to Hong Kong Station ($HK 180) and then bought single journey tickets for the MTR when we needed them.

A big benefit of taking the Airport Express to the airport is that they offer ‘In-town Check-in desks’ at Kowloon and Hong Kong stations. So, just like at the airport, you check your bags in, get your boarding pass and that’s you done. Hop on the train and off to the airport, no more bags to lug around.

Why use the MTR?

Hong Kong’s MTR is a quick way to get about without being held up in above-ground traffic, plus four of the lines cross Victoria Harbour, which is the fastest way to make that journey. The trains are clean, safe and efficient. Everyday, almost 5 million people use the MTR, and the cost of travel is cheap.

Four ways to pay – choose your MTR ticket

There are four ways for a tourist to pay for a ride on the MTR: purchase a single ticket at a machine, purchase an Adult (or Child) Tourist Day Pass, have an Octopus Card loaded up with value or use the three consecutive day unlimited rides on an Airport Express Travel Pass.

1.The Octopus CardUsing Hong Kong's MTR:

The Octopus Card is a ‘smart’ card that stores value and is read by the gates to each MTR line. Most regular MTR travellers use it so they don’t have to buy a ticket every time. Ticket fares are also slightly cheaper if you pay by Octopus Card rather than by single ticket. For example: a fare from Tsim Sha Tsui Station to Central Station is HK$9.40 per adult if you pay with the Octopus Card and HK$10.00 if you buy a single journey ticket.

Octopus Cards can be bought at all MTR stations. The card itself costs HK$150 (adult) and HK$70 (child 3 to 11 years). Of that, HK$50 is the deposit of the card (refundable less a HK$9 admin fee if you return it at the end of your trip) and the rest of the total becomes card value to be used for fares. You can add value to ‘top-up’ the cards at machines at each MTR station, and any unused value (minus the admin fee) can be refunded when you return the card.

Octopus Cards can also be used on the Airport Express, light rail, buses and ferries, public payphones, some vending machines, photo booths and even at some retail and food/beverage outlets.

2. The Tourist Day Pass

The Tourist Day Pass provides any one day of unlimited travel on the MTR and Light Rail (except Airport Express, MTR Bus, East Rail Line First Class and travel to/from Lo Wu or Lok Ma Chau stations). The pass can only be purchased and used by tourists (non residents in Hong Kong) who have been in Hong Kong for less than 14 days at the time of purchase, and the ‘one day’ is 24 hours starting from the time of the first MTR trip.

The passes cost HK$65 (Adult) and HK$30 (child). If you’re using the MTR a lot during a day, and travelling long distances, this can work out a more economical option than buying single tickets, or using an Octopus Card. For instance, taking the MTR from Central station to see the Big Buddha (Tian Tan Buddha) via Tung Chung station costs $HK50 return if you buy single journey tickets. Add on a return MTR trip from Central to the Temple Street Night markets that evening ($HK26) and you’re in the money. Comparable single journey tickets to those included in the pass generally cost between HK$4 and about HK$28, so you need to do a bit of planning to work out your best deal.

The MTR website has an excellent Train Trip Planner tool which allows you to work out the individual cost of each journey.

3. Single journey tickets

If you haven’t got yourself organised with an Octopus card, there’s also the option to purchase ‘Single Journey Tickets’ via machines at each MTR (or from the customer service centres) which then allow you one ride to a selected destination on the day of purchase. The fare is based on the distance travelled and is slightly more than the same journey fare using an Octopus Card.

Using Hong Kong's MTR:

To purchase a single journey ticket, you select the destination on the machine, and then put notes/coins or credit card in. A plastic ticket card is issued which is tapped to open the entry gate, and is sucked up by the exit gate when you reach your destination.

Using Hong Kong's MTR:

4. Three consecutive days included in Airport Express Travel Pass

An Airport Express Travel Pass (see above) includes any three consecutive days of unlimited travel on the MTR, Light Rail and MTR Bus (Northwest New Territories) (except additional travel on the Airport Express, East Rail Line First Class, and travel to/from Lo Wu or Lok Ma Chau stations). The passes can be bought at Customer Service Centres of Airport Express stations, ‘Tourist Services’ at certain stations or via the online ticketing service (to be redeemed at an Airport Express station).

This Pass can only be used by tourists (non residents in Hong Kong) who have been in Hong Kong for less than 14 days at the time of purchase. The 3 days lasts for 72 hours from the first MTR train journey taken on the pass (not from the day/time of the Airport Express journey). It can be topped up with added value if required (i.e. if you want to use it outside the 3 days) and if you return the pass at the end of your trip to any MTR or Airport Express Customer Service Centre, they’ll give you a refund of the remaining stored value (if applicable) and HK$50 for the card itself.

Given the return Airport Express Travel Pass is HK$350 (Adult), once you deduct the deposit ($HK50) and the cost of the return Airport Express journey (we paid HK$180 to Hong Kong Station) you are paying HK$120 for the 3 day pass. So you need to think about what use of the MTR you are likely to do over those 3 days and whether it will add up to more than just buying single tickets or purchasing an Octopus Card, or buying a combination of single tickets and a Tourist Day Pass.

Get a map of the MTR network

Using Hong Kong's MTR:

The MTR in Hong Kong has nine main commuter rapid transit lines and additional light rail lines, but generally visitors use just a few of those lines and several main stations. Most guidebooks list the nearest MTR station (and often the exit number) for any sights, attractions or restaurants.  So you just need to look up that station on your map and work out which line or lines you need to use to get there. Lines are colour-coded and signage is plentiful and clear.

You can get a map of the system from the MTR homepage:

The important thing to note is the interchange stations, so that you know where you can swap from one line to another. In some cases, that may seem like you go in the wrong direction to come back in the right one…but in practice the system is so quick it makes sense.

You could also use the trip-planner on the MTR website, or download the MTR mobile apps:

It’s also handy to know the name of the line you need and the station at the end of that line in the direction you are headed. For example, if you’re going from Wan Chai to Central, you need to use the Island Line, and the train which is headed to Sheung Wan (not the Island Line train to Chai Wan, which is going the wrong way).

Find a station and find an exit

As you walk the streets, watch out for the red MTR logo (see logo on the the ticket below) which indicates an entrance to an underground station. One station may have several entrances.

Using Hong Kong's MTR

Once you’re in the underworld, a network of passageways, escalators and travelators connect the various platforms and exits.  You need to know the name of the terminating station on the line you want so that you go to the right platform (i.e. to get the train heading in the right direction).

Using Hong Kong's MTR:

As you exit each station, the network of corridors often spreads out in several directions, so it helps if you know a landmark near your intended destination so that you head in the most efficient exit direction. For example, if we arrived at East Tsim Sha Tsui station, we knew we needed Exit L5 to get close to the Langham Hotel.

Watch out for the signs which describe the landmarks for each exit and then head towards the appropriate one, otherwise you could find yourself up on street level several blocks from where you want to be.

Using Hong Kong's MTR:

Avoid rush hours

The MTR can get very crowded during the commuting rush hours of 7.30am to 9.30am and 5pm to 7pm on weekdays. Often, crowds of people wait on the platforms, as one full train after the next pulls in. As a few people exit a carriage, a few get on, and the crowd shuffles forwards. We were at Wan Chai station during an evening rush hour and had to wait for four trains to come and go before we were at the front of the crowd to squeeze onto the next train. It was all very efficient though, as there was a train every two or three minutes and we just waited our turn.

If it’s not necessary to travel at those times, don’t. It’s a much more pleasant experience to use the MTR when it is not so packed. Generally, trains run every two to 14 minutes from 6am to around midnight or 1am.

Watch the carriage display

Using Hong Kong's MTR:

Inside each carriage there are electronic displays above the sets of doors which show which station you are up to. If the carriage is particularly packed, this gives you a bit of warning to move towards a doorway in advance of the train stopping. Be aware, the doors don’t always open on the same side of the carriage. The display indicates which side is going to open.

Ask for help

We found the customer service staff  at each MTR station to be extremely helpful and friendly. They assisted us with line and platform details, changed money into the correct coins when we used machines, and told us what ticket we needed and how to use the machines the first time we used the MTR.

Have you used Hong Kong’s MTR? Any tips to add?

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Using Hong Kong's MTR:


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