Hong Kong residents can benefit from a shorter and smoother entry process to South Korea that started yesterday, just in time for the busy Christmas getaway.
A reciprocal deal struck between the two governments means eligible travellers can enter and exit the two countries using fingerprint scanners, sparing travellers the ordeal of long immigration queues. The Immigration Department revealed details of the scheme yesterday.
But only holders of Hong Kong and South Korean passports with at least six months of validity remaining are eligible, leaving out those with just a permanent ID card.
Applicants must also be aged 17 or above and have no adverse record on previous visits - such as overstaying their visa. Korean applicants must already be enrolled for its automated system.
Principal immigration officer Lok Wai-man said: "Usually, Hong Kong residents go abroad and queue up for a long time for immigration clearance. Under this new arrangement, they can use e-gate clearance in only 60 seconds and save a lot of queuing time."
He said he hoped the roll-out would allow frontline immigration officers to improve efficiency.
Hong Kong passport holders can sign up to the service on a dedicated section of the website of South Korea's "Smart Entry Service". However, due to its own regulations and criteria, administration and approval will take up to one week for Hong Kong passport holders.
Korean applicants can pre-enrol but must bring a printed slip to Hong Kong's Chek Lap Kok airport to finalise their application. No figures were provided on how many people were expected to sign up.
The move comes after the Hong Kong and Korean heads of immigration signed a memorandum of understanding in July to grant easier entry for Hong Kong visitors to South Korea.
The travel sector is likely to see an immediate gain. More than 170 flights operate weekly between the two places, with a million Korean residents visiting Hong Kong yearly, while 360,000 Hong Kong residents head in the opposite direction each year.
Under the terms of the new agreement, residents of Hong Kong and South Korea will be able to use electronic border gates at a number of entry points, including those at Incheon, Gimpo and Jeju airports in South Korea, and e-Channel facilities in Chek Lap Kok airport and Shenzhen Bay immigration port.
The deal aims to create more opportunities for economy, trade and tourism between the two countries.
Hong Kong is currently South Korea’s fourth largest export market, following China, the US and Japan, and there are some 1,500 Korean firms in the city, establishing a wide social and cultural exchange.
The deal is the first of its kind for Hong Kong and Lok confirmed his department’s discussions with European and Asian countries to sign more agreements in states where there are large numbers of Hong Kong visitors. In July, Immigration Director Eric Chan Kwok-ki said he would promote e-gates on his recent visit to Europe.
South Korea signed up pre-registered American travellers to a scheme last year letting them take advantage of smoother immigration access.
The Korean won has strengthened against the Hong Kong dollar to levels not seen since the onset of the global financial crash in 2008, putting more money in the hands of travellers heading from Seoul and beyond.