Is it possible to purchase China train tickets online before you travel? The short answer is yes, but there are a couple different ways that could be done. In this tutorial, I’ll walk you through two different methods for purchasing China train tickets online in order to hopefully make your trip to China much easier and care-free!
For most Chinese people or those expats living in China, it’s quite simple to either visit a train ticket office (火车售票点/Huǒchē Shòupiàodiǎn) or purchase China train tickets using WeChat or Alipay.\
If you’re not already in China or you’re a tourist who can’t use mobile payment, you’re stuck with few options.
Is it possible to pre-purchase China train tickets as a foreigner?
Yes, it is. There are two primary methods to do this and I’m going to walk you through both of them below.
I’ve personally used both of these methods and while there’s a difference in price, there’s also a big difference in ease and convenience.
To purchase China train tickets online you can:
- Purchase Directly Through the China Railway Bureau: This option is absolutely free but has limitations for foreigners. For example, you’ll need to be able to read/write Chinese characters in order to navigate the all-Chinese website and you’ll also be required to pay using a Chinese bank account. I’ve described the process step-by-step below, but if you don’t fit the criteria, you’ll need to consider option #2 which is…
- Purchase Through a 3rd Party Travel Company: While there’s an additional fee involved here, the whole process can be done in English and paid for using a foreign credit card. Tickets can be delivered anywhere in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong or Macau. I highly recommend this option and the service I’ve used many times before is China Highlights.
With both of these options, you can purchase China train tickets up to 30 days in advance of your travel date. This is part of some new rules about buying train tickets in China that have been in effect for a few years.
Using a 3rd party travel company like China Highlights, you can send in your booking even earlier than 30 days but the tickets won’t actually be purchased until they go on sale 30 days prior to your travel date.
Now, I’m going to give you a step-by-step process for each method of purchasing China train tickets online.
*Note* Some of the links below are affiliate links, which means that at no extra cost, I may be compensated if you choose to use any of these services. Rest assured, I only recommend companies that I’ve personally used and enjoyed. Thank you for your support that makes this website free!
Buying China Train Tickets Using China Highlights
There are a number of different 3rd party China train ticket providers (such as China’s Trip.com), but for the sake of ease and the fact that I’ve used them before, I’m going to walk you through the process with China Highlights.
The first thing you’ll see when you get to their homepage is a place where you can search China train schedules. This is a great resource even if you decide not to purchase tickets through China Highlights since you’ll get an idea of when trains are available and how much tickets will cost.
You can search for multiple trains, a single train or even an international train that originates in China. For the purpose of this tutorial, I chose to search for a train that was going to help me travel from Beijing to Shanghai.
One you’ve click the “Search” button, you’ll be directed to a page that shows you the schedule, availability and China train ticket prices.
As you can see, you have the option to filter the search by specific train types and then choose which class of ticket you like. After choosing your train, you’ll be directed to a booking page that looks like this:
On this page you not only put in the names and passport numbers for each passenger (a copy of each passport will be required in order to purchase tickets), you also have the option to select which seats you would like to reserve and where to send the tickets.
You can pick up the tickets at the train station, but you’ll have to wait in line and there’s added stress if you’re a China traveler who can’t speak Chinese. Unless you’re really on a tight budget, I recommend having the tickets delivered to your hotel.
At the end, you’ll secure your booking by paying with Paypal or a major credit card.
When all is said and done, you’ll get a few emails from China Highlights confirming your booking and later an email confirming that the tickets were successfully purchased. In my experience, this usually happens within a few hours.
In all, this method of buying China train tickets online takes about 5 minutes if you know what train you want to take. Because it’s so fast and easy, I recommend you consider a service like China Highlights to book your China train tickets online, in advance.
Buying China Train Tickets Using 12306.cn
Before you start this process, remember: You will need a Chinese bank account in order to purchase the tickets you reserve on 12306.cn. This website is the official website of the China Railway Bureau.
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, you’re going to see a familiar search box on the top. You’ll 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 here, I am looking for a train between Beijing (北京) and Urumqi (乌鲁木齐) for the 8th of May.
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.
Creating a 12306.cn Login (Translation)
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.
Using the guide you see to the right here, fill the blanks in with the following information:
- 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.
The information they require includes:
- 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 or 护照.
- ID #: Here is where you put your passport number
- Birthday: What year/month/day were you born?
- Email: This will be used 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 set up 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!
Online China Trains Tickets in 2023
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.