Initially designed for public transport payments, there are now over 20 million Octopus cards in circulation that can be used for traveling, shopping or even dining. So whether you’re a Hong Kong resident, here for a few months or only a few days, the Octopus card is an absolute must-have to make everyday life easier.
What is an Octopus card?
This incredible tool is a reusable smart card which stores money for making electronic payments. Originally created for use on Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway (MTR), it slowly expanded its tentacles into a myriad of daily uses.
According to the official Octopus website, 98% of the local HK population above the age of 16 use an Octopus card, for everything from riding the tram to paying hospital bills. (True story: Our writer actually did use her Octopus card to pay her hospital bill after having a baby in Hong Kong!)
Where can you use an Octopus card?
There are over 170,000 acceptance points for Octopus cards across all industries. For tourists, the biggest convenience is using your Octopus on all public transport, including the Airport Express, the MTR, buses, minibuses, taxis, the street tram, the Star Ferry, and ferries to outlying islands. You simply tap your card as you enter, listen for the ‘beep’, and the screen will show you how much was deducted, as well as how much you have left on your card.
In convenience stores you can use it to buy snacks, drinks, SIM cards, and even alcohol and cigarettes—a freedom that many tourists find interesting. Most restaurants, cafes and bars also accept Octopus, as well as clothing stores. Even vending machines selling stamps at the post office accept Octopus! Once you see the Octopus logo, you’ll know you can use it there.
The Octopus can also be used for entry into attractions such as the Happy Valley horse races, museums, cinemas, shows, and tourist spots such as the Peak Tram. Better yet, the queue for Octopus card users is typically way shorter than that of normal ticket buyers for both tourist attractions and public transportation.
Where to get an Octopus card?
If you prefer to keep things digital, the Octopus app for tourists can now be downloaded for iPhone, Android and Huawei users before or after you arrive in HK. Previously only an option for local residents, the app allows you to check your balance and instantly top up using your preferred credit or debit card. Your card can then be added to your phone’s wallet which works in exactly the same way with all octopus card readers.
The stored value limit for the app is HK$3,000.00 and whatever you don’t spend can be refunded. If you have already purchased a physical card before realising you can use the app, you can transfer your card to the app in a few easy steps outlined under the Tourist tab on the Octopus website.
If you’d rather not rely on your phone and want a HK memento, physical Octopus cards are available at all MTR Customer Service Centres in Hong Kong, and there are two different kinds.
The first is a ‘Sold Tourist Octopus’, a special card for visitors which costs HK$39.00, requires no deposit, and comes with no initial stored value, meaning you need to top it up right away. With their cute designs, these are meant to be kept as souvenirs and do not need to be returned.
The second is the ‘On-Loan Octopus’, which costs HK$150.00, comprising a HK$50.00 refundable deposit and HK$100.00 initial stored value. The card can be returned at the end of your trip, and you will get both the deposit and any remaining value back.
If arriving by air, you can get an Octopus at any 7-11 or Circle-K convenience store in the Airport, as well as from the Airport Express service counter. This will make your life easy in terms of taking transportation to the city, and if you are using the Airport Express, your Octopus gives you a small discount on the train ticket.
Once you get your card, whether physical or on your phone, we recommend adding around HK$500.00 to start. When the time comes to top-up your (physical) card, you can add money at all MTR service counters and Octopus Add-Value machines at MTR stations; convenience stores and supermarkets; and even places like McDonald’s and Starbucks.
Other useful Octopus tips
Checking the balance
Every time you use your card, the display next to the card reader will show the amount deducted for that transaction as a negative figure together with the remaining balance. If you miss this though, there are dedicated balance checkers in all MTR stations or you can check on the Octopus app.
Due to its success, the Octopus card is now being accepted at many places in Macau and Shenzhen, mostly convenience stores and fast food chains. If making day trips to these two cities, you may have some opportunities to use your Octopus.
Discounts and returns
When walking up the Mid-Levels Escalator, do as the locals do and tap your card on a special discount which takes a few bucks off your next MTR journey. There are a few of these MTR fare saver machines dotted around HK to keep an eye out for.
When returning your On-Loan Octopus card, there is a small handling fee. And if the card is damaged or altered, there is a HK$30.00 charge, so don’t put any markings on the card.
So there you have it. The Octopus card, a real ‘Swiss army knife’ for Hong Kongers. Trust us, just a few days of using it and you’ll be questioning why every city doesn’t have its own Octopus system.
This article was first written by Emily Dickson in March, 2019. Last update by Holly Booth, June 2023.