What are the rules for buying train tickets in China? If you’re curious about how many days in advance you can purchase China train tickets or what is required to make the purchase, you’ll find all the answers you need right here.
Train travel in China used to be so unpredictable. I remember having to stand in line for hours as I waited to purchase tickets for a trip I was planning to take in just a matter of weeks. I had to cross my fingers that there were train tickets still available when I arrived at the window!
That was China 10 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 much a lot more than 3 weeks in advance. That’s very good news for all China travelers and expats.
I’d like to discuss three primary rules about purchasing China train tickets to answer the most common questions I receive about the subject.
Rule #1: China Trains Require “Real-Name” Ticketing
It used to be that China train tickets could be purchased, scalped, traded or shared. All that changed in 2012 when China implemented what it calls a “real-name” ticket policy.
“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).
Note: China train tickets can be purchased using a copy of a passport ID (in case you’re trying to purchase tickets online or in person for a friend). However, the actual ID will need to be shown in order to get into the train station.
Rule #2: Online Ticket Purchasing is Encouraged
In my opinion, the biggest improvement in China train travel over the past 10 years has been the ability to buy China train tickets online. It is possible to buy your train ticket to anywhere in China online and either have it delivered to your hotel or pick it up at the train station when you arrive.
Not only does this save you time, it also gives travelers the peace 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).
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.
Rule #3: 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 major Chinese holidays – you need to book 60 prior exactly.
Final Thoughts | China Train Ticket Rules
Buying China train tickets 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. It’s also a great way to maintain control of your budget for travel for 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.
To Buy the train tickets online, one must have a Chinese bank account to pay With. How to set up a new Account as a foreigner, pls ?
Josh Summers says
To be clear, you can buy tickets online using your foreign credit card if you use a service like China Highlights I shared above.
If you want to buy directly on the Chinese website or on a mobile app like WeChat, you will need to open a bank account. Here’s a quick tutorial on how to open a bank account in China
I want to know how many DAYS before can I BOOK ADVANCE ticket online and railway station in china ?
Please tell me clear difference between online and offline/railway station ticket booking?
Josh Summers says
You can book 30 days in advance of your trip.
What about short routes with many departures and returns, like Beijing-Tianjin? Not holiday season. Do I really need to book in advance? Can’t I just go to the train station in the morning or on the evening I return from Tianjin. This is likely to be a time-consuming exercise?
Josh Summers says
No, you don’t (in my opinion). When you’re dealing with two large cities and a route that you could easily be comfortable standing on, it’s very easy to buy a ticket when you arrive at the station.
Does the price of the tickets increase as the departure date approaches? Or it is always the same price?
Thanks for the tips!
Josh Summers says
Train tickets are always the same price, but availability does get worse as the date approaches!