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Traveling by train is my favorite way to get around China. It’s cheap, convenient and perfect for the budget traveler. Whether it’s a high-speed train from Beijing to Shanghai or a 24-hour overnight train from Shenzhen to Chengdu, I almost always choose Chinese trains over a plane.
But how do you book train tickets in China? Is there any way to book train tickets in advance? Will you able to navigate a train station if you don’t speak Chinese??!
Don’t worry, this post will cover all of your train travel needs and worries in China, from buying tickets to making sure you find your seat.
Why Chinese Trains are Amazing
China is roughly the size of the US, but its train system puts my country’s to shame.
Can you imagine if I could have taken an overnight train from Seattle to Washington DC for school? What about a high-speed train from Seattle down to San Francisco? Now imagine doing all of that for less than $100. Sounds crazy, right?
There are many reasons why Chinese trains are the best way to get around in China. From the fact that they’re always on time, to the comfort of having your own bed. I actually prefer trains to planes in China, and there are many reasons why:
1. Chinese Flights Are a Huge Hassle
Baggage restrictions, liquids, security: no one likes airports. Not only is security a pain, you also have to arrive 2-3 hours early! When you take into account that most flights in China are always delayed, it’s a recipe for a not-so-pleasant experience.
If you’re taking the train, you just need to arrive 30 minutes before your train is about to depart. You can take any amount of luggage you want, and you don’t need to worry about squeezing your hair products into a million little bottles.
2. Chinese Trains Are More Comfortable Than Planes
I think we can all agree that unless you’re in business class, flights are super uncomfortable. You’re packed in like sardines with no leg room, and you’re not supposed to leave your seat unless you’re heading straight to the restroom.
Trains in China have much more leg room than your typical flight, and overnight trains even have beds to sleep in! I love being able to spread out on my bed and read a book or watch a movie. You can also get up and walk around whenever you want.
No fasten your seatbelt signs here!
3. Chinese Trains Are Affordable
I used to joke that you can get anywhere in China with 24-hours and $70 USD. It seems like there’s a slow train to every single city! If you’re trying to save money and your itinerary isn’t too packed, an overnight train ride is a great way to travel in China, and you’ll even save money on accommodation.
Short high-speed train rides are also a really great option to use instead flying or driving. Taking the train is typically half the price of a short flight, and not that much longer. Even slow trains are typically the same speed as hiring a driver and are a fraction of the price.
4. Chinese Trains Can Be More Time Efficient Than Flying
You wouldn’t think a train could be faster than a plane, but think again! When you factor in how far airports are from the city, and the time cost of arriving early and going through security, trains can actually be faster than flying!
For example, a flight from Beijing to Xi’an takes about 2.5 hours, but you need to arrive at the airport 2 hours early. Both airports are around an hour from the city, which means a flight from Beijing to Xi’an actually takes 6.5 hours.
A train from Beijing to Xi’an takes 4.5 hours. You only need to arrive at the train station 30 minutes early, and both train stations are in the city. This means a train only takes 5 hours, rather than the 6.5 hours you’d need for a flight. This isn’t even counting the fact that flights in China are always delayed!
4. Chinese Trains are Fun
The idea of a 26-hour train ride might seem like torture to you, but I actually really like Chinese trains. Overnight trains are very comfortable if you purchase a hard or soft sleeper bed. I use my free time to read a book or watch a movie.
I also befriend all of the Chinese people in the vicinity, which is a great way to practice my Chinese. This usually also involves them feeding me a ridiculous amount of snacks while we take a ton of selfies.
Both short and long train rides in China are a great way to see Chinese scenery, too. Spot small villages and cities, beautiful mountains and rivers, smoggy factory towns, and miles of farmland. There are even a few train rides, like the train to Tibet, that are famous for their scenery!
How do I book train tickets?
“Okay, Richelle, you’ve convinced me trains are awesome, now how do I book train tickets?”
Great question! There are three ways you can technically buy train tickets in China, but there’s only one I recommend for travelers due to the language barrier and making sure your trip runs smoothly.
1. Buy Chinese Train Tickets at the Train Station or a Travel Agency
This is how I used to buy my train tickets when I first moved to China. Tickets go on sale at the train station about 2-3 weeks before the departure date, so if you live in China and a have a lot of time on your hands, this can work for you.
Personally, I do not recommend showing up at the train station to purchase tickets. It’s a huge waste of your time, and the train stations are always very crowded. I used to attempt this when I first moved to China, and I’d often spend an entire hour waiting in line, only to be told that the next available train is in 4 hours.
Another option is to head to a local travel agent and buy tickets for a small fee. I used to do this a lot when I taught abroad in the Chinese countryside. I’m sure these places still exist for the older generation, but now most young Chinese people tend to do everything online (and you should too).
The service fee for these agencies is around 5 RMB ($1 USD), which is a pretty good bargain for avoiding the train station. However, these offices do not have English-speaking staff, so you’ll need to have the date, time, and train ticket number written on a piece of paper. You may also want to bring a Chinese speaker with you.
Overall, I would only recommend this method to expats who speak some Chinese and live near a travel agency. Finding a travel agency can be really hard if you don’t live in China. Besides, you don’t want to be waiting until the last-minute to purchase your tickets when you have a structured itinerary.
2. Get a Chinese Person to Buy Them For You
Most Chinese people buy their train tickets online through 12306.com, the official Chinese train ticket website. In order to do this, you’ll need a Chinese phone number and a Chinese bank account. Oh, and the entire website is very complicated and it’s only in Chinese.
If you’re an expat in China, you can always ask a Chinese friend to buy train tickets for you. If for some reason you read a bit of Chinese and want to try yourself, China Highlights does have a guide on how to buy train tickets on 12306.
I have tried multiple times to do it myself and I always come up with some sort of error or problem. I’m even fluent in Chinese! If you’re living in China and have Chinese friends, you can try to use the official site, but sometimes it’s awkward to have to ask your friends or coworkers to drop everything and help you.
3. Use an English Booking Site to Buy Train Tickets
In my opinion, the best way to book train tickets in China is through China Highlights. Their site is easy to use, and they only put a fee of a few dollars on each ticket, which is a huge bargain compared to most other booking websites and hotel travel agencies.
The entire booking process is in English, and their website is great for checking the train timetables. They’ll also tell you the train’s time duration, how many seats are left, and the prices by seating option. I actually used China Highlights to book train tickets for my parents and I when they came to visit me in China, and I totally recommend it for any traveler.
China Highlights also has a ticket delivery service where they will bring the tickets to your hotel, saving you a ton of time and energy trying to pick up tickets at a train station where no one speaks English. I typically pick up tickets myself, but that’s because I speak Chinese and I know where to go.
Feel free to use the button below to search for train tickets or try the train ticket booking box in my sidebar!
How to Pick Up Your Train Tickets
Picking up train tickets is an adventure in itself. If you don’t speak Chinese and you have a few extra dollars to spend, I recommend getting your train tickets delivered to your hotel.
However, if you had a Chinese friend buy your tickets, OR you’re stubborn like me, you’ll need to pick them up at a train station.
How Early Should I Get to the Train Station?
If you’re picking up tickets at the train station, I recommend getting there at least an hour early, or 1.5 hours if you don’t speak Chinese. If you’re traveling during a Chinese Holiday, I recommend heading down a few days before, or at least two hours early.
If you’re in a big city like Beijing or Shanghai, be sure to allow ample time for traffic. If you’re taking the subway, you won’t need to worry, but if you’re taking a taxi or didi (Chinese Uber), the traffic can be INSANE at any time of day.
Just be sure you’re entering the train station with your train ticket in hand 30 minutes before the train is scheduled to depart. Again, allow extra time if you’re driving, you don’t speak Chinese, or you’ve never been to that train station before.
Foreigners Can’t Use the Ticket Machines
Chinese people typically get tickets at the electronic machines in the train station. They barely have to wait in line, and it’s very quick and easy. However, these machines do not work for foreign visitors. Many Chinese people don’t even know where you need to go to pick up train tickets because they only use the machines!
Find the Ticket Pickup Area
What you need to do is go to the area where people pick up train tickets. Some train stations have a separate area for buying and picking up train tickets, while others have consolidated now that most people pick up train tickets online.
Unfortunately, there is usually no information in English telling you which counter does what. What I usually do is look for the counter with the shortest line, which will typically be on the far left or far right.
Typically counter #1 is the customer service counter that deals with foreigners, along with other things. There usually be a very short line at this counter, so feel free to go up with your passport in hand, along with the confirmation code you received when you booked your train tickets.
The person behind the counter will use your passport and your online confirmation code to print out your tickets. If you’re in the wrong spot, they can also tell you where you need to stand in line. Worst case, they’ll grab an English speaker to help you, or they will write down the counter number you need to find on a piece of paper.
What’s A Collection Code?
You collection code, or confirmation code, will be given to you when you book your ticket online. Typically it will start with the letter “E” and have a string of numbers. Be sure to write this down and don’t lose it!
Can I Pick Up Tickets For My Friends?
Yes! However, you will need their passports and their confirmation codes. This typically means your friends will need to be with you when you’re picking the tickets up. However, this also means that only one of you needs to stand in line.
When I was showing my parents around China, I went up and got the tickets for us, while my parents were eating breakfast. No one asked to see my parents’ faces. They just wanted the passports and the booking code.
Paying Extra to Get All of Your Tickets
If you’re taking a lot of trains in China, I do recommend paying for a ticket delivery service. However, you can also pay extra at the train station to get all of your tickets, meaning you won’t have to wait in line at each train station. I’ve only actually done this once at the Beijing train station, so don’t count on this working at every station in China.
How does this work? Well, I was heading to a wedding in Fushun from Beijing and needed to transfer trains in Shenyang. I was able to pay a bit extra and get all four of my tickets for my trip there and back, rather than waiting in line at each individual train station. I’m pretty sure the fee was 5 RMB per ticket for a total of 15 RMB (about $2.50 USD), but it might have actually just been 5 RMB per person total ($1 USD). Sorry!
This was in the summer of 2017, and the rules constantly change. I have heard rumors that you can now get all of your tickets at the train station without paying a fee, but don’t quote me on this.
If you want all of your tickets and don’t speak Chinese, show them the phrase below with all of your confirmation codes for every single train ticket you purchased.
“Please give me all of the tickets”
Don’t worry about trying to write it down. Just take a quick screenshot or photo with your phone.
Read Next: A Quick Guide to Mandarin Chinese
What to Expect at a Chinese Train Station
Once you have your tickets in hand, you can now enter the train station. You will want to try and be at the train station with your tickets, ready to go at least 30 minutes before your train.
Like I said before, you’ll want to get to the train station extra early if you still have to pick up your tickets. If you’re heading to Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, Shenzhen, or another huge Chinese city, you’ll want to head out extra early just in case traffic is bad… Unless you’re taking the subway because subways are awesome and come every 2-5 minutes.
Getting Through Security at a Chinese Train Station
Some train stations will check your passport and train ticket before you enter, while others won’t check anything. Once you get into the station, you’ll need to put all of your bags (purses included) through a security scanner. However, unlike an airport, you don’t need to take any electronics or liquids out of your bag.
In addition to scanning bags, many train stations also have body scanners you’ll need to walk through. You’ll probably “beep” when you walk through the scanner (everyone does, so I don’t really understand the point), and then they’ll wave you down with a scanning wand.
How to Find Your Train at a Chinese Train Station
Thankfully, finding your train in China is pretty easy. You just might need a little help deciphering your train ticket since most of that is in Chinese. Don’t worry, it’s not too hard if you know what to look for.
Your platform is usually in the far upper right-hand corner and should be a number. Look for this number in the train station and wait by the door (sort of like finding a gate at the airport). There should be a sign above your gate with your train number and the destination cities rotating between English and Chinese.
So for example, if we use the ticket in the above photo, our gate would be #7, our train would be G7, our departure train station is Beijing Nan (Beijing South), and our destination is Shanghai Hongqiao.
If your number has a letter next to it (typically A or B), this is because the train is large, and they want to split the boarding up into two groups which will go through separate gates. Just be sure you sit next to the gate that has your letter and number.
If for some reason your ticket doesn’t have a gate (like the sample pictures below), just look for letterboards around the train station and match your train number with the right gate, just like you would at an airport.
How to Find Your Seat on a Chinese Train
Just below your destination name, you should find your car and seat number. This should also be in the upper right corner.
The first number will always be your car (车) and the second number and letter will be your seat (号). Pretty easy right? Now if you’re on a sleeper train, you will also have a third symbol, which tells you your bunk. 上 is for the top bunk, 中 is for the middle bunk, and 下 is for the bottom bunk.
If you can’t figure it out, just show someone on the train your ticket, and they will definitely point to which bunk is yours.
What Do You Think?
Are you worried about buying train tickets in China? Do you have any questions about how to navigate Chinese trains? Be sure to leave me a comment below!
I’m always checking back for new comments and questions, so if you leave me a message I’ll get back to you ASAP!
Have you ever ridden a Chinese train? Do you prefer Chinese trains to planes? Let me know what you think!
This post was originally published in November 2014 and was re-written in March 2018.