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How to Buy Train Tickets in China

Compared with coach and flight, train tickets will be a problem for tourists who want rail travels during their visit in China, especially for those busy railway routes to popular travel destinations on public holidays. The situation will be worse during the long holidays, for example the two week-long holidays: National Day Holiday (Otc. 1 - 7) and Chinese Spring Festival.

One thing is the same regardless of which way you buy your tickets: tickets don't go on sale until from five to 20 days before departure, depending on the destination and class of train. So even if you choose to buy your tickets online two months in advance, the agency still won't be able to get your tickets until reservations open. Tickets on popular routes, such as between Beijing and Shanghai, can sell out quickly, especially around Chinese holidays. You also will need to know which class of seat you want: hard or soft seat, or hard or soft sleeper. Hard-seat tickets are the cheapest; soft sleeper the most expensive. If you are boarding a train en route, you will only be able to get hard-seat tickets; contact an attendant once on board to see it you can get an upgrade.

The cheapest tickets are those that you buy at the train station yourself. Major cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai, Xi'an and Guangzhou, have special ticket offices where foreign travelers can buy tickets, and clerks almost always will be able to speak some English. Stations in smaller cities might not have a foreigners ticket office; if they do, English might not be spoken. Know the approximate time you want to leave in military time and the class of seat you want--a good phrase book can be invaluable here. In cities with multiple train stations, such as Beijing, make sure which station the train will be departing from. Beijing reservations are computerized, so you can buy tickets from one station for a train that departs from another.

Online Booking with China Railway Customer Service Center: Passengers can book online with China Railway Customer Service Center (www.12306.cn). From the beginning of 2012, all tickets are available online. While booking, it is valid to present one’s passport, mainland travel permit for Macau / Hong Kong / Taiwan residents or Chinese citizen ID card, however the website only has Chinese version and only offers online reservation service to its registered users, for tickets in 1-20 days. Payment online are applicable for bank card of the Bank of China, China Merchants Bank, Agricultural Bank of China, Industrial and Commercial Bank of China and bank cards stipulated by China UnionPay. The users should open up the e-currency payment service. Passengers can choose seats when booking the bullet train tickets online. The seat number is made up of a digital number and a letter. The digital number shows the row, while the letter indicates the seat position. There are totally 5 letters to indicate the position including A, B, C, D, and F. Among them, A or F represents a seat by the window; C or D represent a seat by the corridor; B represents a seat in the middle of the three-seat.

•  Telephone booking for tickets in 1-20 days is available in several cities but only for local citizens (95105105 for Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Wuhan, Nanchang, Taiyuan, Shenyang, Zhengzhou, Lanzhou, Jinan and their subordinate stations, 96006 for Chengdu and 96688 for Xian). The tickets should be collected and paid within 12 hours at railway stations or booking offices, or the booking will be cancelled. From Jan. 1, 2013, the tickets booked through telephone can be collected at any railway stations or booking offices in China. That is to say, if you are in Beijing, you can book a ticket for your trip from Xian to Shanghai by dialing the telephone area code of Xian plus the booking number, 029 – 96688, and collect it at any one of the booking office or railway station in Beijing. There will be a service charge of CNY 5 per ticket if the ticket is collected at booking offices.
•  Railway Station: At the booking offices of railway stations, passengers could purchase the tickets on the spot or at most 18 days in advance. In these popular cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai and Xian, the booking offices are opened 24 hours round the clock.

If you don't want to wait in line, consider paying someone to do it for you. Your hotel's travel desk or a nearby travel agency will get you tickets for a small fee, usually under $5 per ticket. This should be seriously considered if you are in smaller towns or on a tight schedule with many sights you want to see. While someone else is standing in line at the train station, you can be out seeing the sights.

Designated Booking Office: Generally, passengers could purchase the rail tickets 1~18 days (20 days for Z and D trains) ahead of travel time at the booking offices distributed throughout a city. An additional service charge of CNY5 per ticket should be paid.

•  Travel Agency: It is often more convenient to obtain your tickets through a reliable travel agency or at the Reception Desk of your hotel. While this is both convenient and can save time, relevant service charge is required, maybe more if you require a delivery service.

1. The pre-sale period may be adjusted temporarily during the rush Chinese holidays or festivals, such as Chinese New Year, National Holiday and summer vacation. To avoid disappointment, it is suggested that you book through an agency as early as possible.
2. Scalper, Huangniu or Piaofanzi in Chinese, refers to those who buy tickets repeatedly and resell them at higher prices. They loiter at the railway station trying to sell for a profit. This practice is of course illegal and it is not recommended to buy tickets from them. Some sell fake ones that are difficult to distinguish from the real ones. We supplied samples with some facts below to identify the authenticity of a ticket.
3. Children between 1.2M and 1.5M are charged at a half price while those under 1.2M are admitted for free. Please note that children are asked to be accompanied by adults.

 How to identify the authenticity of a train ticket?

  1. Watermark: Clear watermark of CR and 中国铁路 must be printed.
  2. Feel: The authentic one should be smooth to the touch. To be opposite, some fake ones may be rough feel, the words of which are easily to rub out or not neatly. 
  3.  Flexibility: Roll up and twist, an authentic one could resume its original shape.
  4. Comparison: Please compare the ticket with an authentic one if you already have.
  5. Code: Every ticket  has a set of code at the upper left (e.g. 198A001524). You could find a corresponding set of code at the lower left (e.g. A0-0152-4).
  6.  Anti-fake Pattern: At the lower right, there is an anti-fake two-dimensional pattern which could record train no. and date.

 Real-Name Ticket Policy
The policy has been applicable to high speed and bullet trains (C, G, D) since June, 2011. From January 1, 2012, this policy applies to all trains in China. The policy is taken to relieve the difficulty in buying tickets and effectively stop scalpers who profit a lot in trading rail tickets especially during the Spring Festival travel rush every year. Passengers should buy tickets and board with the presentation of their own valid ID certificates.

Valid ID certificates that can be shown to buy a 'real-name ticket' mainly include: Chinese citizen ID card, passport, Permit of Inland Entry and Exit for Hong Kong and Macau Residents, Permit of Mainland land Entry and Exit for Taiwan Residents, Home-return Permit, Permit for Mainland Residents to Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, Residence Permit for Foreigners, Aliens' Exit-Entry Permit, Diplomat Certificate, Consulate Certificate, Seafarer Certificate, etc. First four certificates are applicable for online reservation.

One valid ID certificate is allowed to buy one ticket on the same date and in the same train, except for children with accompanying adults. If you are abroad, you can ask your Chinese friends help you process the booking by presenting the original or a copy of your passport, and also his/her own ID certificate.

The real-name policy is also implemented in the check-in system. The pilot project is taken into action in Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan, Guangzhou, Chengdu and their subordinates, totaling 50 stations. The passenger's name and the number of ID certificate will be printed on the ticket. Passengers should hold the tickets with their own ID certificates, get a checkup and then pass the security and check-in in those stations.

 The decades-long compulsory insurance for accidents of the railway transport is to be abolished starting Jan. 1, 2013. The 2% insurance fee used to be included in the ticket fare, and every passenger need to buy it. Since the removal of the compulsory insurance and the introduction of the optional insurance, the compensation will be correspondently raised. At the same time, the price of each ticket has fallen by CNY 0.5 – 4.

Getting off the train
Card → ticket
. If you are taking hard or soft sleeper class, you will be asked to change the card back to train ticket about half an hour before arriving at your destination. Please keep tickets with you because the tickets will be checked at the train station's exit.
Checking the belongings. Before getting off the train you should take the valuables with you and check your belongings, such as, mobile phone, wallet, backpack, etc. If you forgot, it is hard to get back. When the train arrives its destination crowds of passengers will rush to leave. At this time, please keep eye on your kids and belongings.
Finding the guide. When you get off trains our guides will meet you on platform. However, in some places the guides are not allowed there according to the local rules of train station. When you are leaving the station someone may recommend you accommodation or tours. Don't follow them and just keep going. Your guide will be waiting for you at the exit of train stations.

Handy baggage. Usually, baggage space in the train is limited and must be stored in your compartment. So it is wise to travel with small baggage rather. Most train stations have a considerable number of stairs to climb to reach the platforms. Bags have to be carried up and down these stairs. Most stairs have a steep ramp so that wheeled bags can be dragged up as you walk up the stairs.
Be careful. When you go to board a train without an escort (guide), they should be cautious not to leave your train ticket to a stranger's hand (he/she may offer to show you the way), even those in uniform unless they are in working position. He may change another fake one secretly to you and get refund from your ticket.
Paying attention to the luggage. Clients are suggested to take their luggage with them while traveling by train. You can leave the suitcases in your compartment. Usually in China the crime rate is comparatively higher at train station area than other parts of the city. So keep an eye on your belongings and travel companions. There may be some pickpockets around.

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