One of the biggest headaches for most China travelers over the years has been dealing with buying China train tickets. I feel your pain! It’s not like you can buy them months in advance like you can with airline tickets so it feels like you’re leaving a part of your planning up to chance…and that’s never fun. (Update 2018: rules have changed such that travelers can purchase tickets up to 30 days in advance)
Thankfully that doesn’t have to be the case and I’m about to show you two of the easiest ways to buy your China train tickets online. I’ve personally done both of these methods and can tell you with confidence that they both work extremely well as long as you know what you’re doing.
There are basically only two ways to buy China train tickets online – through the China Railway Bureau website or via a 3rd party travel company like ChinaHighlights. The latter will come with an additional fee but might be your only (and best) option. Let me explain.
Buying through the China Railway Bureau website requires that you meet the following criteria:
- You’re comfortable reading Mandarin Chinese (the website has no English version)
- You have a Chinese bank account (for instructions on how to open a China bank account, click here)
If those two above statements apply to you, read on. If not, skip down to see how you can use a 3rd party travel company like China Highlights to buy tickets. They offer China train tickets timetable, schedule, fare, quick booking and delivery service.
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Buying Tickets Online Using 12306.cn
To begin, you will need to open up the website www.12306.cn using either Internet Explorer or Safari web browsers. I personally use Chrome for my daily browsing, but in this case you will need IE or Safari because of a security applet you might be forced to download during the payment process.
Once you reach the homepage for 12306.com, click on the button that reads 新版售票 (xin ban shou piao) on the left sidebar.
This will bring you to a secure page (sometimes foreign-based web browsers won’t recognize the security certificate but click “Proceed Anyway). On this page you need to type in the cities between which you will be traveling and the date you wish to leave.
You will need to use Chinese characters to input the city names and there is an option at the bottom for student ticket prices if that applies to you.
In the example above, I was looking for a train between Beijing (北京) and Urumqi (乌鲁木齐) for the 13th of August. Since I am not a student, I kept the “regular ticket” checked and then clicked the button to search for available trains on that day.
What you see here is that two trains are available. In the table it will show which type of tickets are available on each train (i.e. hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper, soft sleeper, etc.). You don’t have to choose which one you want yet, just click on the train you wish you book using the blue buttons on the right.
At this point I will need to have a 12306.cn login in order to continue. It’s not that hard to create a login but you will need to have your phone handy.
- Username: this can be whatever you want it to be
- Password: the website will tell you the strength of your password and then you will need to retype the password again below.
- Spoken Password: just type in a memorable number (at least 6 digits), which will be used if you ever needed to call customer support. Retype the password again below.
- Security Question: there is a dropdown menu of questions that you can answer.
- CAPTCHA: type what you see
The next page requires you to fill in more detailed information about the passenger (you) that will be purchasing the tickets. It is incredibly important that you have all of this information filled out accurately or they may not let you on the train.
- Last Name: that would be your family name on your passport
- Gender: are you male 男 or female 女?
- Form of ID: in the dropdown menu, you will want to choose passport 护照
- ID #: here is where you put your passport number
- Birthday: what year/month/day were you born?
- Email: to confirm your tickets
- Cellphone Number: again, to confirm your identity
- Additional Info: are you an adult, kid, student or disabled veteran?
The rest of the info is not marked with a red asterisk so don’t feel like you need to fill out your address unless you want the tickets delivered directly to your door (although there will be a place later to add this info if you decide to have the tickets delivered).
Paying for Online China Train Tickets on 12306.cn
Once you’ve confirmed your ticket order (确定) you will then need to worry about actually paying for the tickets. You will want to find the pay online option (网上支付) and do this within half an hour of booking the tickets or else your booking will be lost.
Because there are so many different ways to pay I’m not going to dive into all the details here. I personally used my UnionPay card which I had already setup with my bank to allow online payments. With just a few clicks I had paid for my tickets and received a confirmation email.
Picking up your Online China Train Tickets from 12306.cn
You can’t just walk into a train station with a printout from 12306.cn, you need a physical ticket. There are multiple ways that you can get your tickets in hand, including having them sent by mail to your hotel or home (in China).
The easiest way, however, is to just to arrive at the train station the day before – or even a few hours before – and go to what essentially amounts to “will call” in the ticket hall. There are kiosks that can do this, but it doesn’t work with foreign IDs so you’ll need to unfortunately stand in line with the confirmation number they sent you via email and your passport.
They’ll hand you your ticket and you’re good to go!
Buying Tickets Online Using a Travel Company
If the above is just too complicated and it’s worth it to you to pay a $10-$15 fee per ticket to have somebody else worry about all that hassle, using an online travel company like ChinaHighlights is an excellent option as well.
Not only can you pay with your Visa or Mastercard, they also give you the option to pay with Paypal. Tickets can be delivered to your hotel, mailed to your China address or picked up at the train station.
Using the same example train I used above, ChinaHighlights came up with the same accurate info, including telling me which class of seats were available.
Using ChinaHighlights, I was able to see the prices of the trains very easily as well as the service fee of US$15 per ticket (service fees vary, I believe, but are all reasonable). I had to provide my passport information, which is required to get any train ticket, and once I confirmed my order and paid they purchased the tickets for me.
For anybody who can’t read Mandarin or who doesn’t have a China bank account, this is a perfect alternative. It beats standing in line for who knows how long at the crowded train station for an off chance that your desired ticket is still available. I know from experience…that is not very fun.
Use the widget you see to the right here to try it out and see if there are any tickets available for the train you want to take:
Conclusion: Online China Trains Tickets
As you can see, it’s entirely possible to purchase train tickets online with confidence. You can purchase tickets up to 30 days in advance, which should give you plenty of time to make sure you get what you need. For an even deeper dive into this subject, check out the TravelChinaCheaper China Train guide.
If you can read/write Mandarin and have a Chinese bank account, the best method is to purchase the tickets yourself using 12306.cn.
If you can’t read/write Mandarin Chinese or you haven’t opened a China bank account, the next best method is to use a travel company to do it for you. There are plenty of companies that claim to do this but in my opinion ChinaHighlights is the easiest.