Hot Commodities: Tips for Booking Train Tickets in China

Hot Commodities: Tips for Booking Train Tickets in China
Jan 18, 2013 Translated by eChinacities.com

Let's face it: buying train tickets in China can be a big, migraine-inducing pain in the butt; thanks to the "ingenious" policy of giving everyone in the country simultaneous vacations, travelling during a national holiday means that you're literally competing with hundreds of millions of others for that tiny, pink piece of paper they call a train ticket. But securing your spot on a train doesn't necessarily mean camping outside a travel agency until the first batch of pre-sale tickets go on sale (usually 10-20 days before), or trying to suppress a bout of rage as every second person cuts you in line at the train station's ticket window. With a bit of tact, know-how and planning, your train ticket may just be a few clicks or phone calls away. 

Different methods of buying train tickets

There are four official ways to buy train tickets in China: online, via telephone, at a train station or through a travel agent. Let's take a look at each method in more detail:

1) Online bookings
There's only one website you need to know about for purchasing tickets online via legal channels: www.12306.cn. This is literally China's only official train ticket selling website; all others are not officially recognized and pose risks. However, the immediately apparent drawback with using this site as a foreigner is that no English version is available.

Not only is this site good for bookings, but it also includes useful information about timetables, number of tickets still available, info about delays etc.

  1. Step one is registering an account with the site, acquiring a username and entering your passport number (don't worry, ID numbers are required for just about everything these days in China). Once you've completed this step, you can browse and complete your online purchase by following the prompts. A real-name system is in place for all purchases through this website, regardless of whether you buy bullet, high-speed or regular train tickets and only one train ticket can be bought per trip per ID. However, additional children's tickets can be bought for the same trip using the same account name and ID.
  2. Ticket buying period: tickets can be bought from 07:00-23:00 any day of the week, and usually become available for purchase 20 days prior to departure. However, this frequently changes especially around major national holidays such as Spring Festival and there are also variations from station to station and city to city. To avoid disappointment, make sure to check out the pre-sale info here (ask your Chinese-speaking friend to help you if you can't read Chinese). Another thing to keep in mind is that tickets must be bought at least two hours before departure.
  3. Getting the ticket: once you've bought the ticket online you can go to any ticket agency or train station ticket window with your passport to pick up the ticket. Apart from train stations, all other ticket outlets will charge a 5 RMB fee when collecting the ticket.

2) Telephone bookings
This option is only available to those who can speak fluent Chinese, as there are currently no English services offered by official ticket booking hotlines. The number to call – regardless of which city you're located in – is 9510 5105.

In Beijing, one person can purchase five seated tickets (but five different valid ID numbers are required) and three sleeper tickets (quoting three different valid ID numbers). In Shanghai and Guangzhou, a maximum of three tickets can be purchased per person (three different valid ID numbers), regardless of ticket type. In addition, Guangzhou has a rule that if you book a ticket but don't pick it up or cancel it, you will be barred from using the same ID number to book tickets in the future.

  1. Before booking tickets via this hotline, make sure to have your ID number, name of departure city and destination ready. Follow the automated prompts to book your ticket. Once you've input all the relevant info, you should get an automated message sent to your phone with an order number. You must show this number, together with your passport, when picking up the ticket.
  2. Advance bookings: Tickets can be booked 4-20 days before departure, but as mentioned earlier, exact pre-sale booking periods vary. Call 12306 to check the pre-sale booking period.
  3. Collecting tickets: As of January 1, those who book by telephone can pick up their tickets from any ticket office or train station in China. In addition, they will have an extra 12 hours to pick up their train tickets. Specifically, if you book before noon, you will have until noon the next day to pick up your tickets, while if you book after noon, you will have until midnight the next day to pick up your tickets. Also, as of January 4, the pre-sale period for online and telephone train ticket purchases been extended to 20 days, with a new batch of tickets being made available for purchase every hour from 08:00-18:00 (excluding 14:00). Please note that faster D train (动车) tickets will be available for purchase everyday starting at 11:00.To collect the ticket, simply go to the train station or ticket agency and present your passport and order number. An additional 5 RMB fee is charged at all travel agencies.

3) Train stations
Train tickets can be bought at stations ten days in advance. All tickets bought at train stations require valid ID, regardless of the train type (high-speed, bullet, regular). Usually, tickets are available for purchase right until the train's due departure, but obviously tickets are subject to availability.

4) Travel agencies
Tickets can be bought through various types of travel agents: specialised train and plane booking agencies, hotels and guest houses. While most large hotels can arrange tickets for you, this option is more expensive, as they usually charge very high service fees for each booking. Regular travel agencies sell tickets up to ten days in advance (subject to change). These agencies are scattered throughout most cities, and are a popular and convenient booking method. To secure a ticket, just bring your passport with you; a modest 5 RMB service charge will be added per ticket. However, expect long queues outside these agencies around national holidays. The earlier you go stand in line, the higher your chances of getting a ticket.

Other useful tips:

  1. While www.12306.cn is the only official website for booking tickets, you can check other sites too for price and timetable info. Some reliable reference sites include http://train.qunar.com/ or http://lieche.58.com.
  2. Nationwide booking hotline is 9510 5105, but the customer service hotline number is 12306. Email inquiries can be sent to kyfw@12306.cn
  3. It goes without saying that buying a ticket from a non-official channel is a huge risk and scams are very common. Don't buy a ticket from a scalper at a train station no matter how tempting the option seems.

 

Related links
How to Survive an Overnight Train Trip in China
"Real-Name" and Online Booking Systems: A Godsend or a Joke?
Bullet Train or Airplane: Which is the Best Value for Money?

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Keywords: How to buy train tickets China train travel in China tips for booking train tickets China booking train tickets China

6 Comments

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1

pepo36
comment|40394|228251

basically nothing for foreigners who don't speak chinese

Oct 03, 2013 12:37 Report Abuse

2

JPDM
comment|35125|25472

Some additional notes: If you book online, not only do you need to read and write Chinese but you also need a Chinese bank card to pay. Foreigners cannot book by phone as this is an automated service and you can only enter Chinese id card numbers on the phone, not passport info. I think that the comments about travel agencies is not up to date. They also buy 20 days in advance. Price vary. he most expensive will deliver the tickets. Cheaper ones like www.china-diy-travel.com (Australian expat) will get you an eticket and you pickup your physical ticket at the station or in various places all over town.

Jan 24, 2013 00:50 Report Abuse

3

sylvie
comment|31086|50637

The info is gold. Kudos!

Sep 05, 2012 10:22 Report Abuse

4

Chris Gongsun
comment|30991|0

This is a very useful piece of information. Thanks for writing it.

Sep 03, 2012 07:09 Report Abuse

5

embun
comment|30957|94147

Good information. I need train ticket from Guangzhou to Zhuhai, and from Zhuhai to Guilin. Thanks.

Sep 02, 2012 11:07 Report Abuse

6

sunil
comment|32054|47189

what do you think this website is about?

Sep 29, 2012 20:57 Report Abuse