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 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 over Shenzhen Bay Bridge or at the more remote Sha Tau Kok crossing, though these are unlikely to be of use for the majority of international travellers.
For long-distance (i.e. further than Guangzhou) overland travel to/from Hong Kong, high speed rail is by far the best option. Bullet trains run directly between West Kowloon station in Hong Kong and dozens of mainland cities including Beijing (9 hours), Shanghai (8 hours), Wuhan (4.5 hours), Fuzhou (5.5 hours), Xiamen (4 hours), Kunming (7.5 hours) and Guilin (3.5 hours). Some of these only have one or two direct trains per day though – there are many more trains to/from Shenzhen North, so if the direct Hong Kong train schedule doesn’t suit you (or you want to go somewhere without a direct option) you should transfer at Shenzhen North. Check chinatrainguides for the schedules, and you can book tickets within the mainland here. All immigration procedures are done at West Kowloon, so when travelling northbound you should arrive around an hour before departure time to check in.
(Should you fancy it, the old sleeper trains are still running too, taking e.g. 24 hours from Beijing)
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.
The high speed rail link’s also an option and only takes around 50 minutes, but it uses Guangzhou South station which is so far out of central Guangzhou it doesn’t save much time compared to the through trains from Guangzhou East. Obviously the best route depends where your starting/finishing point is in Guangzhou, but from anywhere near Guangzhou East the old through trains are probably better. All immigration for the high speed link is done in the Hong Kong terminus, while immigration for the old through trains is done at your departure station. Arrive at least 45 minutes before departure if you need to clear immigration.
Shenzhen to Hong Kong
You can cross the border on foot between Luohu Station (Shenzhen) & Lo Wu Station (Hong Kong), or Futian Checkpoint 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 Checkpoint is better if you’ve arrived at Shenzhen North or Futian Station and want to head straight to Hong Kong by metro – note that Futian Station on the high speed railway and Futian Checkpoint Station on the metro are two separate stations several miles apart (Futian is the name of a whole city district). On the Hong Kong side, these two stations are at the far northern end of the East Rail Line, around an hour from central Hong Kong.
Far faster (and more expensive) is the high speed rail link from Shenzhen North and Futian Station to Hong Kong’s West Kowloon, taking just 15-20 minutes. All immigration is done within the Hong Kong terminus, arrive at least 45 minutes before departure when northbound.
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 signposted for the taxi rank & bus stops outside (for 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
For now the journey is best done by ferry, with hydrofoils running round the clock and making the crossing in an hour. There are various terminals you can use, see here & here; some of these ferries can be booked online with Direct Ferries (HK ferries here, Macau ferries here).
A new bridge & tunnel link to connect the two SARs & Zhuhai by road was recently completed, and finally opened in late 2018. Initial reports from travellers are that from most starting points in central HK it’s still faster to take the ferry, but that the bridge should be faster overall if they can improve the road access and streamline the checkpoint procedures.
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. Again, some of these ferries can be booked online with Direct Ferries (HK ferries here, Macau ferries here).
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 9 hours from Beijing to Hong Kong by bullet train, 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 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.
(This page contains affiliate links i.e. if you follow the links from this page to Express VPN, Agoda, Amazon, Direct Ferries, or World Nomads and make a purchase, 4corners7seas will receive a commission from them. This commission comes out of their profit margin at no extra cost to you. I’m recommending these products & services from personal experience, and thank you in advance should you choose to purchase them via the above links!)