Not too long ago the only way to buy train tickets in China was to show up in person at the train station and stand in line for however long it took. Although available seats for some trains in some stations were (sometimes) shown on scrolling LED displays, it could be a long and frustrating process that sometimes ended in the disappointing discovery that there were no seats left on the train you wanted.
This has become a thing of the past, however, since the controversy-plagued creation of an official ticket booking website in 2012, followed by a phone app in 2013. Both are running smoothly now, so if you have a Chinese bank account with Internet banking enabled or an Alipay account, you can buy your tickets online. You can also use the website or app to check train times and ticket availability, making trip planning a lot easier.
Using the website (app guide coming soon) can seem challenging at first, especially as there is no English version, but by following the instructions in this guide you can leap the language barrier and save yourself a lot of time and hassle.
Booking Tickets on the Official Website
Open the catchily named official train ticket booking website www.12306.cn with Internet Explorer (other browsers may not work).
Screen 1: Home Page
1. Click on 购票 (buy tickets) in the left-hand navigation bar.
2. Ignore the warning about the site’s security certificate.
Screen 2: Search for a train
1. Select one-way (单程) or return (往返).
2. Choose a departure station (出发地).
3. Choose a destination (目的地).
4. Select the date you want to travel (出发日).
6. If you are buying a return ticket, select the date you want to return (返程日).
7. Click the orange 查询 button to search.
Screen 3: Select a train
1. This screen shows you train times (24-hour clock format) and seat availability (a green 有 means there are lots of seats available, 无 means there are no seats left, and a number shows the limited number of seats remaining.
3. Click on any of the train numbers to see a detailed schedule for that train.
4. To book a ticket on the train you want, click the blue 预订 button.
5. If you have an account, log in. If not, create an account (see below for instructions on how to register).
Screen 4: Passenger information
1. Select the checkbox next to your name and all of the personal information you provided when creating your account will be added automatically.
2. Select the seat type (席别) you want from the dropdown menu. (See here for a description of seat types.)
3. Select the ticket type (票中) you would like from the dropdown menu. Leave 成人票 selected for an adult ticket, or select (儿童票) for a child, or (学生票) for a student.
4. Enter the verification code shown in the grey box (请输入验证码).
5. Click the orange 提交订单 button to submit your booking.
Screen 5: Confirm booking
A confirmation window will pop up, showing your ticket details and also telling you how many tickets are left on that train for that seat type.
1. Click the orange 确认 button to confirm.
Screen 6: Pay online
1. You can select whether you will collect your ticket from the station (自取), or have it delivered (车票快递).
Delivery is only available for tickets booked more than 3 days in advance.
2. If you choose to collect at the station, click the orange 网上支付 button to pay online.
Screen 7: Delivery address (only if you choose delivery)
1. If you select the delivery option it will ask you to check the boxes confirming you have read the terms and conditions. It then takes you to a screen where you enter your address in the box titled 收件地址.
2. When you are ready to pay, click the 网上支付 button to pay online.
Screen 8: Select payment method
After paying successfully, you will be given a ticket number, which will also be sent to you by text message and email.
1. Hyphenated names and spaces aren't accepted.
2. If you're booking a Chinese person along with your own ticket, you must do them separately.
3. If you need to cancel, you can still change (改签) your ticket or receive a refund (退票) (you pay a service charge if it's less than 15 days before departure), but 2 hours before and after the train departs you may only change your ticket.
|Time Period||Service Charge|
|15+ days prior||Free|
|49 hours–15 days prior||5% of ticket value|
|25–49 hours prior||10% of ticket value|
|Within 25 hours||20% of ticket value|
Picking up tickets at the station
If you selected to collect the ticket yourself (自取), take your ticket number with your passport to the train station to get your ticket. Some stations have designated windows for people collecting tickets bought online; at others you have to stand in line with everyone else.
Unfortunately, as of the time of writing, the machines that print tickets booked online cannot read passports. Make sure you arrive at the station early enough in advance to collect your ticket before the train leaves, as some stations have long queues, especially during busy travel periods.
There is no fee to collect a ticket if you pick it up from the departure station. Collecting a ticket from a different station will cost RMB 5. This may be worth it if collecting a ticket for a return journey as it will save you the trouble of lining up twice.
Creating an Account
(The screenshots below are for the website. If using the app, everything is on one onscreen form, but the steps are in the same order).
Step 1: Account Information
1. 用户名: Choose a username between 6-30 characters long. (You can use letters, numbers and underscores).
2. 密码: Choose a password (combination of at least 6 numbers and letters).
3. 密码确认: Re-enter the password to confirm.
4. 语音查询密码: Choose a 6-digit voice password.
5. 语音查询密码确认: Re-enter the voice password to confirm.
6. 密码保护问题: Choose a security question. The last option in the dropdown menu lets you select your own. Doesn't matter which one as you will memorize only the answer.
7. 密码保护答案: Enter an answer to the security question.
8. 验证码: Enter the Captcha code. Check the box asking if you read and agree with the terms and conditions (我已阅读并同意遵守…).
9. Click the orange 同意协议并注册 button to agree and register.
Step 2: Personal Information
1. 姓名: Enter your name as it appears on your passport.
2. 性別: Select 男 for male, 女 for female.
3. 国家/地区: Select your nationality.
4. 证件类型: Select 护照 (passport) as the ID type. Should be at the very bottom.
5. 证件号码: Enter your passport number.
6. 出生日期: Enter your date of birth.
7. 邮箱: Enter your email address.
8. 手机号码: Enter your cellphone number. The next three optional fields are for landline phone number, address and post code.
9. 旅客类型: Choose traveler type. 成人 is adult.
10. Click the orange 下一步 button to go to the next step. Check your email and follow the link confirm your account.
China Train Seat Classes
High-speed G trains:
|Very comfortable leather seats on high speed trains.|
|Not as luxurious as business class, but still very comfortable.|
High-speed G trains and some D trains:
|Roomy, comfortable seats; four seats to a row, two on each side of the aisle.|
|Two seats on one side of the aisle, three on the other; less room than First Class, but still comfortable.|
Luxury Soft Sleeper
|Only exists on certain trains; two or even one bed per sleeping compartment, some have sofas and other furniture.|
Four beds to a compartment; each compartment has a door that locks. Soft Sleeper carriages are usually cleaner and quieter than Hard Sleepers and have better bathroom facilities.
Bedding is of higher quality, newer trains have compartments with TVs and power sockets. Better service than Hard Sleeper.
|Six beds per compartment, no door. Basic bedding, hot water provided in each carriage. In general, newer trains will be cleaner and more comfortable than older ones.|
|More comfortable and less crowded than a Hard Seat, sometimes in converted sleeper carriages. Quality differs greatly from train to train.|
|Small basic seats. Carriages are crowded by people travelling on Standing Tickets.|
|No designated seat, but there will be a designated Hard Seat carriage. Some people bring stools to sit on the floor, or sit in empty seats whenever they can.|
China Train Types
|High speed||High speed||Direct||Express||"Fast"||Ordinary|
|Fast, modern “bullet” trains. The newest category.||Some D trains are as fast as G trains but generally they are slower. Usually slightly cheaper than G trains.||Generally a non-stop overnight train, good for covering long distances.||Slower than G and D trains but travelling longer distances.||
Slower and older than T trains with more stops.
|Slow trains, usually make a lot of stops, and usually older than K trains.|