Although they’re both part of the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong & Macau exist as SARs (Special Administrative Regions) of the PRC, with their own police, currencies, legal systems, and immigration procedures. When referring to the rest of China, people in Hong Kong & Macau usually call it The Mainland; internal borders exist between the SARs and Mainland China, and while they’re not full international borders they do function that way for most intents and purposes.
The SAR status is a result of Hong Kong & Macau having been colonies of the UK & Portugal in the 19th & 20th Centuries; when Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 followed by Macau in 1999, it was under the condition that their existing legal and financial systems be guaranteed for at least 50 years. The SAR status was therefore created to implement the “one country, two systems” slogan; however, recent political events (like cross-border renditions of booksellers and the vetting of politicians to make sure they’re pro-Beijing) indicate that China is taking a hands-on approach to clamp down on dissent, and what happens to the SARs in the late 40s is anyone’s guess (though ultimately probably only Beijing’s choice).
In the meantime, though, the SARs continue to exist with their own borders and immigration, and for travellers from the rest of the world visiting Hong Kong or Macau it’s effectively like visiting a different country for most practical matters, especially visas. With that in mind I’ve given the SARs their own page on this blog (see also my main China page here)
Overland Travel to Hong Kong
Hong Kong and China are connected by direct Guangzhou-Hong Kong through trains, two footbridge borders (between stations on the Hong Kong MTR and Shenzhen Metro), and several road crossings. Most international travellers use the train and subway routes, but buses do run from various points in Hong Kong to the main road crossing at Huanggang (see here). It’s also possible to cross by bus at the more remote Sha Tau Kok crossing, though this unlikely to be of use for the majority of international travellers.
Guangzhou to Hong Kong
The Guangzhou-Hong Kong through trains run direct between Hong Kong’s Hung Hom Station and East Guangzhou Station, taking 2 hours. Immigration procedures are done in the station before boarding the train, so you should get there at least 45 minutes before departure. The price is around 200 Chinese yuan, and if you’re going to/from central Guangzhou this is the fastest option.
However, for long-distance passengers arriving at Guangzhou South and intending to go straight to Hong Kong, be aware that Guangzhou South is already located almost halfway to Shenzhen, a good 45 minutes by subway from East Guangzhou Station, making the through train inconvenient; in this case it’s faster to take a bullet train straight from Guangzhou South to Shenzhen then cross the border on foot and ride the MTR into Hong Kong (as long as you’ve booked the ticket in advance anyway – if you haven’t, you’ll have to exit the station, then line up to enter the ticket hall & line up for a ticket, and then line up again to do the whole security palaver to get back into the station again to go to the departures hall. Not to mention there may not be an available seat for hours anyway!)
This will all soon be moot though, with the opening in late 2018 of the final section (Shenzhen-Hong Kong) of the Beijing-Hong Kong bullet train route (with stops at Guangzhou South and Shenzhen). Even once that starts service, passengers from central Guangzhou will still be better off using the old direct through trains (assuming they continue to run), but long-distance passengers will obviously want to use the new connection.
Shenzhen to Hong Kong
You can cross the border on foot between Luohu Station (Shenzhen) & Lo Wu Station (Hong Kong), or Futian Station (Shenzhen) & Lok Ma Chau Station (Hong Kong). Shenzhen is built up right along the border, so the two stations on the Shenzhen side are very convenient; Futian is better if you’ve arrived at Shenzhen North and want to head straight to Hong Kong. On the Hong Kong side, the two stations are at the far northern end of the East Rail Line, around an hour from central Hong Kong. Keep this in mind when planning your journey – if you start from Hong Kong and have a bullet train to catch from Shenzhen, you need to allow plenty of time for the subway ride, the border crossing, and all the usual security bullshit you get at Chinese train stations. I’ve found Shenzhen North to be particularly mental for crowds and security queues, so allow plenty of time plus a little more. Pro-tip: if it’s crazy busy when arriving at Shenzhen North by subway, head round the far end of the bullet train station to come in by the other entrance. It’s quite a long walk round but less crowded so faster overall (and much less stressful)
Shenzhen – Hong Kong visa runs: if your only intention is to exit China & immediately re-enter for visa reasons, do it at the Futian crossing. This is much better because you can turn around within the same building without having to ride the MTR – if you cross at Luohu you have no choice but to board the MTR and ride at least one stop to Sheung Shui, which obviously takes a while and if you don’t already have a charged Octopus Card you’ll also have to mess about with money & tickets. If you cross at Futian, after walking over from China you just need to descend a level to go back the other way; the stairs are a bit tucked away (the vast majority of people will be going through to the MTR), but if I remember correctly they’re signposted for the bus stops outside (buses to points in Hong Kong’s New Territories)
Guangzhou & Zhuhai to Macau
The mainland city of Zhuhai and Macau SAR are immediate neighbours, and you can simply walk across through the border post. Buses stop on either side, and Zhuhai Gongbei Station is right next to the crossing. Zhuhai is connected to Guangzhou (and points beyond) by bullet train (1 hour from Guangzhou South to Zhuhai Gongbei)
Hong Kong to Macau
A new bridge & tunnel link to connect the two SARs by road was recently completed, and is scheduled to open in July 2018.
Hong Kong and Macau are both also connected to the Mainland by ferry. There are multiple routes, using various mainland ports including Shekou (Shenzhen), Panyu Lianhuashan (Guangzhou, though a long way from the centre) and Zhuhai. The ferry terminals at HK and Macau airports allow you to bypass SAR immigration and directly go to/from Mainland China via HKIA or Macau Airport.
See here for more details
China Visas and Hong Kong Visa Runs
Hong Kong is an absolute godsend for PRC visa solutions. Many nationalities who are required to have a visa for China can enter HK visa-free for for 90 days (180 for Brits), and crossing the border from the Mainland terminates whatever stamp you were in mainland China on. So, if you’re in China on a multi-entry visa and need to leave & re-enter on a new stamp, Hong Kong (or Macau) can save you a flight. Depends where you are, of course – it’s around 10 hours from Beijing to Hong Kong overland, so you might want to fly anyway (I always do it overland, obviously!). As noted above, if you’re just doing an in & out visa run (on a multi-entry visa) to Hong Kong on foot from Shenzhen, it’s better to do so at the Futian checkpoint.
If you don’t have a multiple entry visa, Hong Kong’s also a godsend for obtaining new visas for China. The visa rules are always changing, but many travellers will find they can’t get Chinese visas from embassies in 3rd party countries like Japan or Thailand, or that they can but the required documentation (fully pre-booked hotels, return flights etc) doesn’t fit their travel plans; in such cases, flying in to Hong Kong and getting your PRC visa there is a handy workaround. No hotel bookings or proof of tickets required; just pay your cash and wait while the agency sorts it. The same goes if you’re already in China and your existing visas are running out and can’t be extended but you want to continue your Chinese travels a little longer – head down to Hong Kong and get a fresh one.
Given my overland tendencies this has been very useful for me on a few occasions, and I’ve always used Forever Bright Trading in Kowloon. Those guys know what they’re doing, though do be warned that there’s no 100% guarantee – if some official decides you ain’t getting a visa for whatever reason, the agency can’t do anything about it. This is rare, but I did see one guy being told of his visa rejection at the FBT office one morning, apparently due to having been in & out of China too many times that year. He had all his shit on his back and was supposed to be getting straight on the train to Guangzhou; not sure how that worked out, but he’d have had to fly out from Hong Kong to somewhere other than China. What this really means is don’t push it – heading to Hong Kong to get a new visa should be fine, but doing so repeatedly may put you in the same position as that guy.
(Also, before heading to Hong Kong remember it’s often also possible to extend a 30-day tourist visa for an extra 30 days without leaving the mainland by applying at a Public Security Bureau. This is much easier at some PSBs than others – Beijing PSB’s unsurprisingly very strict, but I’ve successfully extended visas in Leshan & Kaifeng)
Things to do in Hong Kong & Macau
The Peak: Victoria Peak provides the mountainous backdrop to all those stunning bayside views you’ve seen of the Hong Kong skyline, and is the vantage point for all those other stunning birdseye views you’ve seen of the Hong Kong skyline. The Peak Tram runs you up from near Central to the famous viewpoint, and if you fancy it you can walk another 20 minutes or so up to the summit proper. If you’re in Hong Kong for one day and only have time for one thing, I’d make it this.
Lantau Island: ride the gondola up to Hong Kong’s famous Big Buddha.
Kowloon harbour views: most of the shots you see of the Hong Kong skyline are from the Peak or the Kowloon waterfront. The Avenue of Stars (where you’ll find the famous Bruce Lee statue) runs along the Kowloon waterfront near Tsim Sha Tsui Station.
Markets: great food and good photo opportunities abound at Hong Kong’s night markets (though I don’t find them as atmospheric or delicious as Taiwan’s night markets). The most famous is Kowloon’s Temple Street Market.
Disneyland: I’ve never been and likely never will, but it’s there and it’s popular!
Macau Tower: this 338m tower has an observation deck with ‘adrenaline’ activities like the skywalk and the skyjump. I passed on those – too tame to be worth any of my super-tight budget at the time! – but the views are good.
Historic Centre of Macau: the old Portuguese streets and plazas make a lovely area to wander and people watch, like a little slice of Mediterranean Europe in the Orient. St paul’s church burned down in 1835, but the main facade still stands at the top of the hill.
Casinos: Macau is known as the Vegas of China for good reason. The vast majority of tourist visits to this tiny territory are for gambling purposes – casinos are outlawed in the rest of China, so Macau has a good little niche going for itself and mainlanders flood in to throw their money away.
Useful Links for Visiting China’s SARs
Ghost In The Shell fans click here
The internet’s fast & unfiltered in Hong Kong, but make sure you have a VPN service set up before you arrive in mainland China (so you can access blocked sites like Facebook, Google, etc). My recommended service is Express VPN; for more details see this post.
If you’re entering China through Hong Kong and want to get your visa there (useful if you want to fly in on a one-way ticket, as return tickets are usually necessary to get the visa at the Chinese embassy in your home country), or want to do a visa run (i.e. leave mainland China, get a new visa, and re-enter), Forever Bright Trading have served me well.
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