That was China 8 years ago. A lot has changed.
Not only are you able to purchase China train tickets online now, it is also possible to secure your tickets a lot longer than 3 weeks in advance. That’s very good news for all China travelers. There’s just one major requirement change: China requires “real-name” tickets. Let me explain:
Purchasing China Train Tickets Online
In my opinion, the biggest improvement in China train travel over the past 5 years has been the implementation of online ticket purchasing. It is possible to buy your train ticket to anywhere in China online and pick it up at the train station when you arrive.
Not only does this save you time, it also gives travelers the piece of mind that they will have a seat on the train.
There are two ways to purchase train tickets in China online:
- 12306.cn – this Chinese website is where most Chinese people purchase tickets online. You can check availability and pricing in real time and reserve a seat in less than 5 minutes. There’s only one catch: you have to be able to read Mandarin and have a Chinese bank account to pay with. If you have the latter but lack some of the former, this China train ticket online purchasing guide should help. The only downside to this method is you still have to go to the ticket hall at the train station or a train ticketing office to pick up your tickets – and foreigners can’t use the self-service kiosks.
- Ticket Agent – purchasing train tickets through an agent has been possible for quite some time now, but never before has the website interface been so simple. Using a site like China Highlights you can use English to check which trains fit your needs and pricing/availability of seats. There’s even a new option to choose exactly which seat you want (which is a rare feature). Best of all, they will deliver the ticket to your hotel if you need, eliminating the need to go to the ticket hall to pick it up (could save between 30 min to an hour).
There is even an online service where you can type in your train route number and see a map of your train route! Buying train tickets online will save you quite a bit of headache during your travel in China, so definitely try to take advantage of it.
Don't have time to read this guide?
I'll send you a PDF version of the China Train Guide free!
Understanding “Real Name” Ticketing
Real-name ticketing, another new rule implemented over the past few years, puts buying train tickets in China in line with buying airplane tickets in that both require your passport.
“Real-name ticketing” just means that you have to provide your passport number and name on your passport in order to purchase a China train ticket. When you enter the train station on the date of your departure your train ticket, which will be stamped with your passport number, will be checked against your passport.
The reality is that while this was a hassle for many Chinese people when this policy was first enacted, for most foreign travelers it’s not a big deal. We all have to travel with our passports wherever we go anyway and we have no reason to mass-purchase train tickets for resale (which is part of what this new policy was trying to fix).
Advance Purchase of China Train Tickets
In 2014, China’s rail commission made a much-needed change to their ticket purchasing policy: they increased the advance purchase of train tickets from 20 days to 60 days. This is HUGE.
What does this mean for you? Simple: instead of arriving in China and still working to get your itinerary set, you can have it all set and purchased before you even arrive. With this new rule, you can reserve your seat almost two months before you even arrive in China – whether you purchase yourself or have an agent purchase for you.
Warning: this also means that Chinese people can purchase tickets 60 days in advance. During busy season you need to make sure you plan ahead because trains are now being sold out at a much faster pace. Make sure you plan ahead and if you want to take a train – particularly during Spring Festival or the October holiday – you need to book 60 prior exactly.
It may not be as convenient as buying airplane tickets yet, but each of these new policies makes it easier – and saves you time – when purchasing train tickets in China.
When you go to purchase your train tickets 60 days in advance – whether in person at the train station or online – make sure you have your passport handy. You’ll be good to go!
Hope this was helpful! Leave any questions in the comment section.