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Taiwan - Travel and visas
Nationals of the UK, USA, Canada, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand and more than 20 other European countries can stay in the ROC for up to 90 days without a visa.
Australians, Malaysians and Singaporeans can stay for up to 30 days. As well as tourists, visa-free entry can be used by those coming for business reasons or to receive medical treatment. However, if you’re intending to work, teach or engage in missionary activities, you should contact an ROC embassy or representative office well in advance to find out what kind of visa you should apply for. See the Bureau of Consular Affairs website (www.boca.gov.tw) for information about visa-free entry, visa fees and online application forms.
Taiwan’s customs regulations are similar to those of other countries. Cold War-era rules barring visitors from bringing in newspapers or books printed in communist China were scrapped years ago. These days, the authorities are more worried about people returning from China with pirated goods or prohibited food items.
If you’ve more than a litre of alcoholic drinks, 200 cigarettes, 25 cigars or a pound of tobacco, declare it when you enter the ROC. You shouldn’t bring in more than US$20,000 in gold or US$10,000 in cash (or the equivalent in travellers’ cheques or other foreign currencies) or more than NTD60,000 in Taiwanese money. For Chinese currency, the limit is RMB20,000. Full details are available at www.customs.gov.tw.
There’s a tax-refund system for foreign visitors who shop at participating stores. If you spend more than NTD3,000 in a single day at any of these shops no more than 30 days before your departure, and you take the items with you when you leave Taiwan, you can reclaim the 5% VAT at the airport prior to boarding your flight. The list of participating shops includes department stores and electronics shops.
Taiwan makes for a good stopover if you’re flying between Australia and Japan or South Korea or from North America to Singapore or Malaysia.
The bulk of scheduled international flights land at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport near Taipei or Kaohsiung International Airport. Some direct flights between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland (which are classed as neither full international flights nor domestic flights) land at Taichung and Taipei Songshan Airport.
Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport (TPE) Taiwan’s busiest airport, 28km due west of Taipei, is where long-haul flights land. It’s a reasonably smart and well-equipped airport and not intimidatingly huge.
Kaohsiung International Airport (KHH) This modest-sized airport is properly staffed so you can be sure of getting through customs and immigration quickly and then on to Tainan or Kenting.
The number of visitors arriving by sea has jumped and there are now several regular ferry services between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland, including from Keelung, Kinmen, Taichung Harbour and Bali near Taipei. A number of cruise companies drop anchor in Keelung for a day when sailing between Beijing or Shanghai and Hong Kong.
Public transport in Taiwan is safe, inexpensive, reliable and comfortable. Smoking is not permitted on buses or trains or inside stations. Foreign visitors may encounter language problems, but the information in this guidebook combined with the kindness of many Taiwanese (both transport workers and passing strangers) should ensure you get from one place to another smoothly. When taking any kind of bus or train, don’t lose your ticket, as you’ll need to show it – or run it through a machine – at your destination. Senior citizens holding discounted tickets on account of their age may be asked to provide ID showing their date of birth.
Tourists are likely to fly only if they’re heading to the east or one of the outlying islands. If weather conditions are right, flying Taipei–Taitung or Kaohsiung–Hualien is worth every penny of the fare for the stirring views you’ll get of Taiwan’s mountains and coastline. Flight times and ticket prices are listed in Part Two of this book; fares are likely to rise again early in 2014.
The boats that link Taiwan’s mainland island with Penghu County, the Matsu Islands, Green Island and Orchid Island are a good option if you have plenty of time or dislike flying. There’s no civilian boat service to Kinmen County. If you’re heading to Little Liuqiu, the ferry from Donggang is your only option. Short-distance boat journeys include Danshui–Bali and the ferry to Kaohsiung’s Cijin Island.
Taiwan has two railway systems, TRA and HSR.
Taiwan Railway Administration (TRA)
The TRA is the government-owned conventional railway network. The Keelung–Kaohsiung line, by far the busiest part of the network, is divided into ‘mountain’ and ‘ocean’ routes. Just south of Hsinchu, the railroad splits: the Mountain Line goes inland via Miaoli and Sanyi, while the Ocean Line hugs the coast and bypasses Taichung. Trains to east Taiwan take the North Link via Yilan or the South Link via Pingtung. Branch lines serve Pingxi in New Taipei City, Neiwan near Hsinchu and Jiji in Nantou County. There are also useful short rail links between the TRA and HSR stations in Tainan and Hsinchu. Fares depend on distance and the type of train. A journey during rush hour is no more expensive than travelling off-peak but you may have to stand up. Over short distances TRA services are often quicker than buses. Over long distances, intercity buses are faster and cheaper.
(Photo: © topimages, Shutterstock)
High-speed Railway (HSR)
Taiwan’s bullet train covers the 339km between Taipei and Kaohsiung in as little as one hour 36 minutes. Currently there are eight stops: Taipei, Banqiao, Taoyuan, Hsinchu, Taichung, Chiayi, Tainan and Kaohsiung Zuoying. Four new stations will open in 2015: Nangang (in west Taipei), Miaoli, Changhua and Yunlin.
There are around four departures per hour in either direction between 06.30 and 23.00. Some services stop only at Taipei, Banqiao, Taichung and Kaohsiung Zuoying. Travelling by HSR isn’t cheap but if you buy your ticket eight or more days in advance, you may be able to get as much as 35% off, bringing the price of a standard Taipei–Kaohsiung ticket down from NTD1,630 to NTD1,060. Business class (bigger seats, power outlet for your laptop, free coffee and newspapers) is 30% more expensive. HSR tickets can be bought online and at stations (from staff or from vending machines that accept credit cards and cash).
There are several bus companies and they compete on price and comfort level. All coaches are air conditioned; many are equipped with personal entertainment systems that show TV programmes and movies but these may not include English-language options. Major operators such as Kuo-Kuang and Ubus serve small towns such as Puli and Lugang as well as the big cities. Unfortunately, few companies have much English-language information on their websites, so you may need to go to the bus station and get timetable details in person. If heading from one big city to another there’s usually no need to book ahead. Services are frequent and discount fares are often available midweek.
By tourist shuttle and tour bus
Two government-sponsored bus systems have made exploring some parts of Taiwan much easier for visitors who don’t wish to drive. Taiwan Tourist Shuttle (www.taiwantrip.com.tw) services are much like regular buses except the routes were designed with sightseers in mind. On some, it’s possible to get a one-day jump on/jump off ticket. Taiwan Tour Bus (www.taiwantourbus.com.tw) excursions last half or a whole day, with a guide on board who can introduce points of interest along the way. These tours can be a good way of seeing places like Taroko Gorge but you should review the information on the website carefully as reservations are necessary and English-speaking guides aren’t available on all routes. Payment is usually made by credit card or Paypal.
By city bus
Useful local bus routes are mentioned throughout the guide. Buses are air conditioned and on most eating and drinking aren’t allowed. Greater Taipei has a good bus network, as does Kaohsiung (in both cities most services operate (06.30–20.30 daily; one-way fares NTD12–30). Compared to rapid-transit trains, urban bus travel is slow but you’ll see much more.
If you can deal with the way some Taiwanese people drive and can accept dense traffic in urban areas, consider getting your own vehicle for part of your stay.
Driving in Taiwan
Cars and motorcycles are supposed to drive on the right; outside the big cities, many two-wheelers use whichever side of the road is most convenient. Driving can be frustrating and stressful. At junctions, always observe what some call the ‘lights plus one’ rule – before moving forward, assume one more motorist or motorcyclist will try to rush across, despite the lights being against him. If an oncoming car flashes its headlights at you, it means you should give way, not (as in the UK) that the driver is letting you go first. Drivers and passengers are now required by law to wear seat belts at all times. Don’t drink and drive; the alcohol limit for drivers in Taiwan is lower than in the UK.
Self-driving tourists should refer to the bus journey times listed in Part Two and not assume they can move significantly quicker.
Hiring a car
Car-rental businesses and their locations are listed in Part Two of this guidebook. Major hire companies include Car Plus Auto Leasing (www.car-plus.com.tw) and Chailease Auto Rental (www.rentalcar.com.tw). Both have good reputations and staff who can speak English; the latter has a specialist section for handling expatriates and tourists. Another rental business with several branches is IWS (www.iws.com.tw). Expect to pay around NTD2,600 per day for a 1600cc Nissan Tiida and NTD3,700 per day for a 2000cc Mazda 5 which can take up to seven people.
When renting a car, a credit card is usually the only acceptable means of payment and you’ll probably be required to sign a blank credit-card voucher to cover any fines that might be processed after your departure (they may not show up until three months later). You’ll have to show both your passport and your international driver’s license.
If your car or motorcycle disappears, go into any police station and give them the license number. If it was towed rather than stolen, they can find out very quickly and call you a taxi to where it’s been impounded.
It isn’t easy to rent a real motorcycle as opposed to the step-through scooters used by many Taiwanese. These Vespa-type machines are fully automatic and come in a few different sizes, the most common being 50cc and 125cc. If you’re on your own, neither large nor heavy, don’t have much luggage and don’t intend to stray far from the city, a 50cc scooter will do you fine. If you expect to cover more than 100km in a day, carry a passenger or climb serious hills, rent a 125cc. More powerful bikes are safer because you can accelerate out of trouble and use the engine as a brake when making long descents.
How to ride
The fundamental rules are obvious but bear repeating: be careful, obey traffic laws regardless of what you see other people doing, don’t ride when tired or intoxicated and always wear a helmet; rental businesses provide helmets for no additional cost. If dust and fumes bother you, do as the locals do and wear a mask. There are simple cloth masks which can be washed when they get grimy and hospital-style masks with carbon filters; the latter are said to be better at blocking nasty particulates. Even if bright sunshine isn’t a problem for you, do wear some form of eye protection. Grit or insects – Taiwan has plenty of both – may get in your eyes.
Hiring a motorcycle
Rental businesses are often found near train stations but tend not to have English signs. Get an international driver’s license before leaving home as obtaining a license in Taiwan is a drawn-out process. Many motorcycle rental businesses will turn you away if you don’t have an international license, while some places won’t rent to a foreigner even if he or she has the necessary paperwork. This isn’t always xenophobia; more often it’s because the rental business doesn’t want to get stuck with having to pay fines for traffic violations committed by customers they can’t later track down. This problem wouldn’t exist if motorcycle rental businesses accepted credit cards.
Before hitting the road, confirm whether the scooter takes 92 (as two-star petrol is called) or 95 (four-star). You’ll be lucky if there’s more than a tiny amount of fuel in the tank, so make the nearest petrol station your first objective. Renting a scooter for 24 hours typically costs NTD400. Read the Driving in Taiwan entry above for additional tips.
Although Taiwan’s taxi industry has become more professional in recent years, very few drivers understand English (so carry your destination’s name or address in Chinese) and women are advised against taking taxis by themselves late at night.
All legal taxis are yellow. Unless you’re travelling a long distance, or from an airport or HSR station into the city centre – in which case the driver may ask for a flat fee – the fare is calculated by a clearly visible meter. At the time of writing, taxis in Taipei charged NTD70 for the first 1.25km, plus NTD5 for each additional 250m or one minute 40 seconds spent waiting. A 4km daytime journey in normal traffic therefore costs at least NTD125. There are small extra charges late at night, around Lunar New Year and if you have lots of luggage. In other cities, slightly different formulas are used to tot up taxi fares – you may see the meter starting at NTD100.
Hitchhiking isn’t at all common in Taiwan, but solo foreign travellers will find it relatively easy to get a lift in more rural and mountainous areas. You may be expected to practise English with the driver’s children, and you may have snacks and drinks forced on you, but you’ll come away agreeing that Taiwanese people are some of the friendliest and most helpful in the world.
Look both ways before crossing the road and stay alert, even when you’re on the pavement. Walking can be quite pleasurable in Taipei and Kaohsiung but in many other places the pavements are narrow and often cluttered with vendors, piles of merchandise and illegally parked motorcycles.
Taiwan’s cyclists have a lot to contend with: heat, unpredictable drivers and pollution (consider buying a disposable mask; supermarkets and convenience stores sell them). Despite these factors, Taiwan is an excellent place for a cycling vacation. Roads are well maintained and drivers are used to sharing the carriageway with two-wheelers. There’s lots to see wherever you go and, in the lowlands at least, countless places where you can stop and buy a drink or a snack. At certain 7-Eleven convenience stores it’s possible to borrow a bike pump (look for the bike-pump sign outside). If you can’t find one of these, try a police station.
Folding bikes which have been properly bagged can be taken on any TRA local train and certain expresses at no extra cost. (Some cyclists get away with using large plastic trash bags.) Cyclists travelling with unbagged, non-folding bicycles are allowed only on particular trains and only if reservations have been made. What’s more, they’re not allowed to get on or off at some stations and an additional ticket must be purchased for each bicycle. Because this procedure is fearsomely complex, sending your bike ahead by train is often a better idea. To do this, take your bicycle to a major station (but not Taipei), remove lights and other items likely to fall off, fill in some paperwork and pay. It’s cheap (Changhua–Kaohsiung costs NTD250) but slow: allow 24 hours between sending your bike off and collecting it at the destination.
Bagged non-folding bikes can be taken on HSR trains for free. Bagged and/or folding bicycles are allowed on rapid-transit trains in Taipei and Kaohsiung; this is free but unfeasible during rush hours. Folding bikes go for free on Kuo-Kuang intercity buses; non-folding bicycles are charged half price.
A good website for cyclists is www.taiwan-guide.org/david/cycling.html.