Train travel is by far the most popular means of long-distance transportation in China, especially for domestic travelers. Recently, more and more foreign travelers are using China's vast network of trains to get around the country, not only because it's usually more economical than flying, but also because a trip on the train is sure to provide a more memorable travel experience. However, the biggest barrier for many foreigners is this - how do you book a train ticket?
Unlike airline tickets, Chinese train tickets usually go on sale 10 days prior to the departure date. In addition, before 2012, passengers could only purchase a ticket at the local train station or branch ticketing offices, making it very hard to procure tickets during popular travel periods, such as Spring Festival and the National Holiday. The old system also lent itself to ticket scalping, which sometime brought with it exhorbitant fees, such as "service fees," depending on the season and market demand.
In order to do away with these unreasonable conditions, the Chinese Railways Ministry has instituted some changes: starting January 1st of this year, passengers must use their real name and produce identification documents (valid passports for foreigners) to purchse train tickets and again when boarding the train. Additionally, an online booking system has been launched and now passengers can book all domestic train tickets on the official website of China Railways - www.12306.cn.
Personal information (name, ID / passport #) is required for online booking, but after online confirmation of booking and payment, passengers need only to arrive at the train station with their same ID document to pick up their tickets and board the train. Unfortunately, the site is only in Chinese at the moment, but hopefully English service will begin soon.
As with any new system, there are small issues still being resolved, but we believe it will continue to get better and better in the near future.