Transport and Driving in Hong Kong
Hong Kong is a very compact city with an excellent system of public transportation, so driving is more of a vanity than a necessity. Moreover, Hong Kong is densely populated, so the parking is very expensive, and the traffic jams, though not nearly as ever present as in Bangkok, are still rather frustrating.
It’s only recommended expats buy a car in Hong Kong if there are kids to shuffle from one place to another, or if you have large leisure-based or work-based equipment you need to move frequently. If you are single, childless, and enjoy an odd drink or two, you are definitely better off taking the public transportation.
Even expats who live off-island do not need to invest in a private vehicle. Kowloon is almost as compact as Hong Kong, and certainly very densely populated as well, so you can rely on the terrific transportation network. Even if you live in houses in Fairview Park or Palm Springs, there are regular shuttle buses taking you to all sorts of areas, so honestly, driving isn’t a must.
Public transport system in Hong Kong
Hong Kong is an easy to navigate city with a superbly efficient transport system. Here is a summary of a few that you will encounter daily:
Mass Transit Railways (MTR) in Hong Kong
The most likely mode of transit for almost anyone in Hong Kong would be the MTR, which is Hong Kong’s subway. It is extremely efficient compared to the tube in London, as well as extremely clean compared to the subway in New York. Not to mention, cell phone reception is available, and you have the privilege of avoiding the crush of the street level congestion above.
The MTR runs all over Hong Kong, from the island all the way across to the airport, and up to the borders of China and over. That said, there are certain parts of the region that the MTR doesn’t reach, in which case expats will need to utilise alternative methods of public transportation.
To use the MTR, all you need to do is buy an Octopus card, which is a charge card you can use for the MTR, buses, minibuses, grocery shopping, and even making donations and opening the door to your building. The costs are relatively cheap, and you can even download an app that calculates the time it takes to get from A to B.
Fares are calculated from point to point, and are roughly based on distance. While unlimited ride cards for tourists do exist, these are actually quite pricey, and aren’t really economical if you are merely journeying to and from work.
When riding the MTR, do bear in mind that Hong Kongers are perpetually in a hurry, so make sure you shuffle along quickly, especially at busy interchanging stations, like Admiralty or Mong Kok, to avoid getting trampled on or pushed over. Also, if you are a man, keep your hands to yourself to avoid any embarrassment, since the carts can be literally sardine packed during rush hours.
►Tip: If you need to take the airport express, make sure you buy the tickets in advance at any tour operating shop, which give a whopping 30 percent off the costs of tickets purchased from stations.
Ferry in Hong Kong
The ferry is an essential mode of transit for those expats living in Discovery Bay, Lamma Island, Park Island, or any other outlying islands that are favoured by foreigners; it is the only connection from Hong Kong Island to those islands, if you don’t count the emergency ambulance helicopter service. For the most part, the schedule is simple, and easy to memorise.
Expats can use the Octopus Card to pay for the ferry, as well as other annual package deals. Prices have increased recently, but are still relatively affordable
Ferries are, of course, subject to Hong Kong’s extreme weather conditions, and service can ground to a halt in the event of a typhoon or a black rainstorm warning. In that case, employers may request that you leave for home early, or that you can find a friend to stay with until the storm has died down.
To check to see if the ferry is running, consult the Hong Kong weather observatory in advance so that you can make alternative arrangements.
Tram in Hong Kong
The tram is only available on Hong Kong Island and takes you from the east part of the island to the west part as well as up the Peak. Expats should note that this is a very slow means of transport; so unless you live in Sai Ying Pun or on May Road (where the MTR doesn’t reach), it is unlikely that you will travel on the tram on a daily basis. Again, the Octopus Card also works for the tram, which also happens to be the cheapest means of traveling around the island, other than walking.
Buses in Hong Kong
In Hong Kong there are also buses that travel on the island or over to Kowloon, with most of the vehicles equipped with speakers and digital signboards telling you what the next stop is in Cantonese, English and Mandarin.
Buses are an especially popular mode of transit for people who don’t live near the MTR lines, such as in Hong Kong Island South, Sai Kung, or Hung Hom.
Buses are usually less packed, but are unfortunately subject to the same slow-moving traffic as private vehicles. People do tend to choose this mode of transit so that they can get a seat and have some eye shut before arriving at work.
The Octopus card can be used on buses; costs are slightly less than those associated with the MTR. There are also apps available that show the duration and stops for every bus route.
Prices are in single or double digits, with the most expensive being the ride from Hong Kong island all the way over to the airport.
Minibuses in Hong Kong
This mode of transit is essential for those that live in places like Sai Kung or Cyberport, where the MTR doesn’t reach, and is generally preferred over buses by those in a hurry. The minibuses only stop when people request to disembark, they don’t stop at every station; furthermore, they only hold between 14 to 16 people, as opposed to the full buses.
This mode of transit is not without its challenges, however. Firsly, if you do need to take the minibuses, you’ll need to learn Cantonese. Disgruntled drivers are known to get cranky when foreigners don’t speak perfect Cantonese; which is a necessity since you have to shout out your stop to signal to the driver where you would like to get off. Furthermore, these vehicles are known to travel well over 100 kph at night, so if you need to go out after midnight, buckle up and pray.
The green-top vehicles will accept the Octopus Card as payment, but the red-top minibuses will take cash only. The pricing calculations are rather mysterious, but the vague idea is the further the distance travelled, the more it costs. The price is usually no higher than double digits.
Taxis in Hong Kong
Taking a Taxi in Hong Kong is insanely cheap in comparison to places like Tokyo or even cities in Western Europe (like Edinburgh). Expats will soon realise that the English proficiency, or mapping skills, of each driver can vary tremendously. Taxis in Hong Kong accept cash only, and usually round up the 0.50 to the next Hong Kong dollar.
The green cabs are only for travelling within the New Territories, and the blue cabs are only for outlying Islands, both with cheaper fares than the normal red cabs, so don’t flag them down if you need to travel out of Kowloon or Hong Kong. Taxis seem to be readily available, until it is raining or rush hour, at which point it seems impossible to flag one down, so you tend to need to be a bit more aggressive in catching one.
Driving a car in Hong Kong
Buying a car in Hong Kong is not necessary. The region is small, and the cost of buying a car and the cost of parking are high. That said, it is still a common mode of transit for expats, especially those that choose accommodation farther away from the city centre. If you do choose to be an automobile-owning foreigner, there are quite a few rules of the road that you should make yourself aware of before you pull out into traffic.
Driving tips for expats
- In Hong Kong, they drive on the left side of the road.
- Hong Kong is very hilly, so prepare yourself for some steep terrain
- Learn to parallel park. Car parks are small, and on-street parking is mostly in parallel spaces
- If in a minor car accident, consider settling the dispute outside of your insurance. Premiums are pricy, and people tend to solve situations themselves so they don’t need to claim. Still, it is always recommended to report to the police to avoid future litigations.
- Traffic at the Cross Harbour Tunnel is always appalling; get an Autotoll detector, which is a charge card for the tunnel, to speed up your commute.
- Hong Kongers are perpetually in a hurry, so if they don’t let you through, don’t get upset. Instead, wave to show you are in gratitude, and chances of them letting you through will be higher.
- Hong Kongers tend to tailgate (drive close to the car in front of them), so brake slowly rather than stopping quickly to avoid accidents.
- Be alert at all times; mainlander and local pedestrians seem to jump out from every direction.
Pedestrians in Hong Kong
Hong Kong is relatively safe for pedestrians in comparison to China, and people generally stick to the cross-walks and the signals that accompany them.
Cycling on the road is acceptable, but it can be dangerous to cycle on the highways in the evenings.
Outdoor escalators are available in some places, like mid-levels, for those who don’t fancy walking.