Go Travel China | How to buy train tickets in China

Traveling by train in China allows you for covering long distances and meeting the locals, but buying train tickets in China can be a hassle, specially if you don’t speak Chinese.

It doesn’t have to. Here is a short guide to buying train tickets and choosing you seat or sleeper bunk.

Travel by train

Where to buy train tickets

You will need to show one passport per train ticket bought. This a recent measure to counter people buying dozens of tickets ahead of holidays and re-selling them at a higher price on the black-market.

  • The old school way
    You can buy train tickets directly at the train stations (火车站), through travel agents or ticket offices (火车售票处). Many hotels can also help you buy a train ticket against a service charge.
  • Online purchase
    You can also book your ticket online. If you buy at least 8 days in advance, you can have your train ticket delivered to your hotel. If you buy a ticket for a departure within the following 8 days, you will receive an e-ticket number and you will have to get the train ticket from the counter directly at the train station of departure.

You can buy your ticket 60 days in advance.

Choose your train, know your speed

All trains numbers start with a letter. This letter indicates the type of train and speed.

High speed trains
Eastern and coastal China has an extensive high-speed train network.
There are two types of high-speed trains : D and G.

  • D stands for dongche 动车 and are high-speed trains that run up 250 km/h.
  • G stands for gaotie 高铁 and are high-speed trains run with a maximum speed of 300 km/h

Travel by train

Standard trains

Standard trains still run throughout most of the country. There five main codes for standard trains : T, K, Z, N and train code with numbers only.

  • T stands for tekuai 特快 : they are express trains that stop only in major cities between the stations of departure and arrival.
  • K stands for kuaiche 快车: they are fast trains traveling between 120 – 140 km/h that stop in major cities and towns.
  • Z are overnight express trains that have few or no stops between the stations of departure and arrival. They are too be found in a few selected train routes only.
  • N are express train that run within one province only. They are not different from the K trains that are inter-provincial.
  • Only numbers : train with only a 4 digit number travel at a maximum speed of 100km/h and stop at every single station along the way.

Travel by train

Not a classless ride : from hard seat to soft sleeper

High-speed trains have two to three classes : second class 二等级, first class 头等级 and business class 商务级 (on G train and on selected routes only).

Standard trains have four classes : hard-seat, soft-seat, hard-sleeper and soft-sleeper.

  • Hard-seat or yingzuo 硬座 : the Chinese trains’ cheapest class is going to be your gateway to meeting the locals and seating for hours on communist-hard uncomfortable wooden benches in an overcrowded compartment with farmers smoking and falling asleep on your shoulder. Unless you are on a very tight budget or travel for a couple of hours only, I recommend you upgrade (or watch your stuff). I know some people who love it.
  • Soft-seat or ruanzuo 软座 : an elegant and slightly more comfortable upgrade from hard seat. The soft seat is your gateway to meeting the ‘upgradable’ locals. Soft-seat is Ok for daytime travel. Again, do watch your stuff. If you have to spend the night in the train, I do recommend you upgrade.
  • Hard-sleepers or yingwo 硬卧 : these are unenclosed compartment of six bunk beds. There is, of course, a lower, middle and upper sleeper/bunk bed on each compartment. There are differences in price and you can ask which level you prefer when you buy your ticket. During daytime, everyone will squat your lower bunk 下卧 . I recommend you take either the middle one zhongwo 中卧, the most comfortable and expensive, while the upper bunk or shangwo 上卧 is not suitable to tall people, but at least, you’ll be quiet.
  • Soft-sleepers or ruanwo 软卧 are closed compartments of four bunk beds. They are the most expensive. They are worth the bucks if you travel in group of four and are all in the same compartments. I had a particularly bad experience once in soft-sleeper when traveling alone : my three temporary travel buddies were heavy smokers and loud card players.

Anatomy of a Train Ticket

This is what a train ticket look like. This is a pretty old one, and they have started adding the pinyin under the cities of departure and arrival so that foreigners can read them.

Train Ticket

Preparing your trip

  • Food and drink on the train : what you should know
    There is a restaurant car on most train. They serve food (usually rice with meat, vegetables and a soup served in a box called hefan 盒饭) that daredevil may want to try. For others I recommend to buy food and drink in advance. There is a samovar in each car that provide hot water for tea.
  • Get there early
    All train passengers’ luggage are scanned at the entrance of every train station.  After that, you will have to find your way to the waiting hall  from which you will board your train.

Comments & questions

I have just covered the basics of how to buy and choose and ticket train in China. If you have any questions about Chinese trains, timetables you can contact me or leave comment.

Also, if you have interesting train-related train stories, share them by leaving a comment.

There are 12 comments

  1. Yw

    Hi Gaetan,

    Thanks for sharing. May I know if foreigners can purchase train tickets online if we do not have a China issued credit card? And do you mind sharing the online website URL? Tried to do a research online but found the process unclear and complex. Read thay foreigner can only purchase through local agents and they charge in USD. Would like to do it myself without agent if possible. Greatly appreciate your help.

    1. Gaetan

      Hi, I have used the application Quna’r, but it’s in Chinese only and you need a China issued credit card. If you are not willing to pass through an agent who will take a handling fee and pay in US$, your best chance is to contact the hotel where you will be staying and ask whether they can help you buy a train ticket, but they will also charge you a fee, usually 50 RMB.

  2. Amy

    Hi Gaetan,
    Just found your blog today and love it! I am travelling through China for a month next year in April. Starting in Beijing and working down towards Guilin and Nanning. A quick question, you mentioned in point 25 that travellers luggage is scanned at the entrance to every train station. Is that just the security scan you mentioned earlier? Do travellers keep all of their luggage and possessions with them during travel? We will be doing a few over night trains during our stay and will be in either hard or soft sleepers. Would feel more comfortable if I kept my luggage on me! If you do keep it with you, is it secure while you sleep in either a hard or soft sleeper?
    Thanks in advance for your advice!!

    1. Gaetan

      Hi Amy,
      Thank you for comment. Glad to hear you like my blog!
      About your questions : yes, it’s just a security scan. They are looking for explosive materials or guns. Yes, travelers get to keep their luggage and possession during travel time. I don’t remember how many times I traveled on overnight trains over the past ten years, but your luggage will be 100% secure in hard or soft sleeper (common sense applies). People are usually very friendly. If you happen to travel on hard seat class, then you should be more careful.
      Happy travel planning!

  3. Alankrita

    You should demonstrat to one visa for every train ticket purchased. This a late measure to counter individuals purchasing many tickets in front of occasions and re-offering them at a higher cost on the underground market.

  4. sahiryfoo

    I found this super funny. I am studying abroad in Athens and I wanted to travel to a small village here and the only way I could get there was by train. I was by myself and I took the midnight train, but no one told me I had to change trains halfway. Long story short, I ended up arriving at my hostel at around 7 am the next day by foot. This would’ve been easier if I could’ve found a post like this to understand how trains work here.
    I just started my blog which is in no way similar to yours, but if you would like to check it out, it would be awesome!

    1. Gaetan

      Wow! What a story 😉 Well, it sounds like it is going to be your job to write a blog post about all the things one needs to know before hoping on a train in Greece!

  5. Wayne Seto (@TaoWest)

    I’ve followed your blog for awhile now and really enjoy it. Very informative especially to the less popular locations. I’m looking travel in and around Xian next month and I think trains may be my best option to travel locally. I’ve read that train tickets tend to sell out fast. Will I be out of luck if I fly into Xian and try to buy tickets then. Or should I buy them online? I’m currently in Thailand and like to explore some parts of China that I’ve wanted to see for awhile. Thanks for any help Gaetan. Cheers!

    1. Gaetan

      Hi Wayne! Thank you for reading. I’m glad to hear the info I post are useful to China-bound travelers.
      Concerning train tickets : I have always bought them directly at the train station, or one day in advance (buying them from ticket office re-sellers in town) and never had any problems. Train tickets do tend to sell out fast during the peak periods (May and October holidays and Spring Festival), but I think you should be fine. Of course, you can also buy your ticket online and then print it at the train station – this is a very popular option in China, but you’ll still have to get the printed ticket (and queue for a while) directly at the train station.
      Hope this helps.
      Happy travels !

  6. ReadyClickAndGo

    I know its not nice but I think you should mention toilets on the Chinese trains. I have only one advice – use them at the beginning of the journey! 🙂 Otherwise a very comprehensive cover of trains in China.

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