The high-speed train network in China is the transportation of choice for over a billion people and it was our choice as well when we spent a month travelling China independently. For foreigners buying train tickets for the Chinese train network, it can be a bit daunting. Here in our China train guide, we will give you the best tips from our first-hand knowledge!
Train travel in China is fast, safe, efficient and very clean. The high-speed network traverses the length and width of the country every day from Harbin in the north to Hainan in the south from Shanghai in the east to Urumqi in the west.
So, here is our China train guide to show you how to book, collect, board and ride the China train network with ease!
Booking train tickets in China
From our experience we recommend using Trip.com. It is an English language site displaying all the train trips available. You can easily sign up for an account and start searching for your departure and destination points by the date and time required.
You will find a multitude of options on Trip.com. Fast trains, commuter trains, overnight sleeper trains All will have different lengths of a journey, cost and sometimes different departure and arrival points. The high-speed network stations are usually on the outskirts of the city.
This is where train travel in China becomes different when you book. You select your train with Trip.com and pay for it. Trip.com then submits your request to China Rail for you. You may get a confirmation within minutes or you may get it within weeks. Nevertheless, your train trip in China is not confirmed until you get an email advising confirmation.
Using Trip.com to book our train travel in China tickets was easy and very straight forward. You follow the instructions on the site which are easy to follow. Just remember you must have your PASSPORT with you when you book as your passport number needs to be entered.
We booked 3 train journey’s in China in total in the one transaction. 2 were approved within hours while one sat there for nearly 2 weeks before eventually being cancelled (see the above picture) I moved my booking to the next available time slot and it was approved within minutes.
Don’t stress about it being cancelled it just means that there were not enough tickets for that time slot. As soon as it is cancelled try another time slot.
Top tips for booking your China train travel with Trip.com:
- it is easier to book on a desktop than a phone
- have your preferred time to depart but just in case have a couple of other suitable times
- try and book at least one month in advance if you can
- if they cancel try your other suitable time
- there are many trains leaving every day so you should be fine
- make sure you have all your passports close to easily enter the number while booking
- you can pick up your ticket from any train station or the nearest ticket office as soon as they are confirmed
Collecting your China train tickets
As soon as your train ticket is confirmed you can go to the train station or the nearest ticket office to pick them up. If you are booking multiple journeys or even a single journey we recommend going and picking up the tickets a day or so before your trip. This alleviates some stress and pressure on your travel day.
We went and picked up our 3 sets of train tickets at the train station we were leaving from a few days early. We had heard that it can be chaotic and take some time to get through security so we thought this was a good plan. Luckily we’ve done this bit of research for you and more on any travel in China!
The line was long and it took us nearly 45 minutes to collect our tickets. You don’t want to be doing this the day you leave, especially if it is an early train. If you have the Trip.com app you can take that with you and show the customer service officer and they will print out your tickets. You must have all the passports for all the tickets you want to collect with you as they are checked again there.
The lady was fantastic behind the counter and happily printed the 3 sets we needed for all of our journey’s. This saved us more trips to ticket offices or lining up again at another train station. Her English was limited but with our translator, she was quick to get our China train tickets sorted for us.
Top tips for collecting your China train tickets:
- if you can go before your departure day to collect them
- it will take awhile. Be prepared to wait
- if there are two of you join two different lines. Some go much faster
- ask if you can pick up all the tickets you have booked
- you must have your passport for all tickets booked and yes they check
- you can check out the train station you are leaving from and the procedures they have there while you are picking up your tickets which will help you on your departure day
- if you can’t get your tickets on the days leading up to it make sure you get there AT LEAST 1 and a half hours before your departure time
What will my China train ticket look like?
They are actually very easy to read but here is one of ours to show you what they look like and how to read them.
Arriving at a Chinese train station
As a westerner arriving at a train station for the first time in China can be a daunting experience. The sheer size of these stations and the number of people coming and going can be overwhelming. The train stations from major cities like Beijing, Chengdu, Xian and Shanghai more resemble airport terminals than a train station.
You will line up to go into the departure door along with hundreds of other people. You will be greeted by turnstiles were Chinese Nationals have to scan there identify card for entry.
This puts us westerners in a predicament. We don’t have an identity card. You need to head to the end of the turn styles where you can show a guard your ticket and passport. You will not be allowed through unless you have them both with you. They will then grant you entry through the gates.
Next, you must put your luggage through a scanning machine much like at the airport. Unlike the airport though you don’t need to remove all of your electronic devices but they still don’t allow large amounts of liquids. You then need to pass through the body scanner and get frisked by the guard before you can collect your luggage.
After you have collected your things you need to find the massive departure board. It will nearly be right in front of you but there are plenty around the terminal. Look for your departure time. This is also where it will tell you your departure gate number. It is in Chinese but at times an English version will pop up if you are struggling, if only for a few seconds. Announcements are also made in English but can be hard to hear with all the noise inside.
All along the station, there will glass departure terminals as I call them. 20-30 minutes before your train I would move close to yours.
Top tips for arriving at the train station in China:
- get there early. It is better to be waiting than rushing
- have your passport and ticket ready to be inspected
- finding the entry gate is pretty easy
- there are different gates around the terminal but ask a police guard if you get stuck. There are plenty around
If I am early what is there to do in the train station?
There is plenty to do within the terminal. There are places to sit and eat, shop for some food for the train trip or just sit and wait. In the ones we visited we found
- fast food outlets – KFC, McDonalds, Burger King
- local restaurants
- shops for buying snacks and drinks
- shops for buying souvenirs
Prices were not over the top like you would find in an airport terminal though. There were little convenience stores where you could buy a snack for the train ride or buy yourself a noodle bowl to make on the train.
*If you are a budget traveller there are hot water stations in the terminal where you can get water for a noodle bowl and the ladies serving food on the train can help you with hot water if you need it during your train ride in China.
Essentials you may need in the train station
You will find all the things you will need in the train station like:
- toilets. They may be squats and take your own toilet paper
- hot water station for making noodles. There will also be filtered cold water there too
- police if you get into trouble
Boarding your train in China
If the departure board and your ticket say you are departing from terminal 14 there will be a 14a and 14b. They will be on either side of the building directly opposite each other. There is an A&B because high-speed rail trains have 18 carriages. 14A terminal will service carriages 1-9 while 14b will service carriages 9-18.
Generally, there are 4 lines at each terminal for entry. You queue in these lines about 15 minutes before departure. It is an orderly line, there is no pushing or silly business and if it does get rough the guards will step in to sort out any problems.
If you are unsure you have the right gate you can check with the attendants manning the gate by showing them your ticket. If it is not right they will direct you to the correct one.
You must scan your ticket again to be let in through the gate and head down to the platform. There are escalators taking you down to the platform or a lif if you have mobility issues.
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Once on the platform, there will be numbers near the edge of tracks. These numbers represent where your carriage will stop. So if you are in carriage 14 look for number 14 on the platform ground close to the tracks. There are small plaques on the ground on the platform and you can guarantee the cart will be very close to these numbers when it stops. It is actually amazing!
*If you have larger luggage, a stroller or are in a large group you can ask to be let through a side gate that easily accommodates these things. We had a guard get us out of line to allow us to use this which was much easier than trying to go through the small gates.
This is a great system as it controls the flow of passengers and creates an orderly boarding experience for all. With the number of trains and people catching trains you just can’t have people hanging around on the platform. Even with large luggage, it was a breeze for us.
Top tips for boarding your train in China
- you must be there on time. The train will not wait for you. If it says it leaves at 5.20 it will leave then with our without you
- there is no need to rush if you are there early. The boarding is very orderly
- if you have large luggage there are compartments at the end of the carriages that will store your bags there.
- seats normally come in a set 2 on one side and a set of 3’s on the other side
- there is plenty of room in the seats and plenty of legroom
- there is plenty of storage above your head for bags as well
You are now ready to ride the train in China!
The railway stations we travelled through were all multiple storey’s. You would arrive on the top floor for boarding and you would depart from the train platform a level below.
When you arrive at your destination you go downstairs to the bottom floor immediately after arriving from the train platform. This is how you exit the train station in China. Arrival and departure people are never in the same section. It is all about controlling the number of people in and out at any time.
The Chinese system is amazing.
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About the Author
Mark Wyld is a father, Husband and traveller. Having been to over 30 countries worldwide I think I know a thing or 2 about travelling with kids. I have been writing about travel on our website for the last 4 years and have featured on numerous other websites. When I am not talking, dreaming and planning travel I can be found working in disability support