Buying train tickets in China can be a painful experience: jostling crowds, impatient clerks and, worst of all, the nightmare possibility of discovering your train is sold out after hours waiting in line. This, to the chagrin of homeward-bound travelers, is a common occurrence during the Spring Festival travel rush (春运), known as the largest annual human migration in the world.
In response to this need, near the end of 2011 China’s Rail Ministry expanded an experimental website called 12306.cn, where passengers could purchase train tickets online. According to user complaints, the new system still has plenty of glitches—but for office workers who are locked all day to their computers, the website is a godsend. Here’s how you use it:
Log on to www.12306.cn and click “购票” (Purchase Tickets) at the top of the left-hand column. This should automatically transfer you to a log-in page—however, if you’re using Firefox, you may see the alert message, “此连接是不受信任的” (This connection is not secure). Your first option is to risk it by selecting the bottom-most option, “我已充分了解可能的风险” (I fully understand the possible risks) and then “添加列外” (Add this to my list of approved sites) to proceed to the website. Otherwise, you can install the required security certificate by going to “Latest News” (最新动态) on the homepage and finding the notice that reads, “为保障您顺畅购票，请下载安装根证书” (To ensure that you can buy tickets smoothly, please download and install root certificate). Click on it and install the security certificate to your computer.).
Registering an Account
1. If you haven’t set up an account yet, click the “Register” (注册) button in the yellow box below “New user registration” (新用户注册). On the next page click “同意” to accept the user agreement.
2. The next page features three sections asking for personal information. From top to bottom, the first section, “Basic Information” (基本信息), asks for:
密码确认: Confirm password
语音查询密码: Voice inquiry password (a six-digit password you will be asked for if you call to check information)
语音查询密码确认: Confirm voice inquiry password,
密码提示问题: Security question
密码提示答案: Security question answer
验证码: Verification code
3. Next up is 详细信息 (Detailed information):
证件类型: Type of identifications (foreigners should select 护照, or passport, and enter their passport number in the box below it)
4. For “Contact Information” (联系方式), provide your cell phone number (手机号码) and email address (电子邮件).
5. Under “Additional Information” (附加信息), simply choose from the category of adults, kids, students and disabled veterans. Click “Submit registration information” and you’ll shortly receive an email requiring you to activate your account. Click the link to complete registration.
1. Return to the homepage and click “Purchase tickets” again. In the log-in page, enter your username (or email address) and password to log in to the ticket-booking page. You can book a ticket as early as 12 days before your departure date, and cancel it as late as two hours before the departure time (however you’ll need to pay a cancelation fee 5% of the ticket price).
2. Click “Book tickets” (车票预订) and choose either one-way (单程) or roundtrip (往返), along with your departure city (出发地). (If, for example, your departure city is Shanghai, you can simply type “SH” and a list of stations in Shanghai will appear in a drop-down box.) Finally, fill in your destination (目的地) and date of departure (出发日期).
3. Click “Check” (查询) to view the result, which will include train number, departure station/time, arrival station/time, duration and number of tickets for different kinds of seats. These include business seat (商务座), special-class seat (特等座), first-class seat (一等座), second-class seat (二等座), luxury soft sleeper (高级软卧), soft sleeper (软卧), hard sleeper (硬卧), soft seat (软座), hard seat (硬座) and standing ticket (无座). If tickets are available, you’ll see a “有” in green; otherwise, there will be a “无” (unavailable) in grey, meaning that the tickets have sold out.
4. When you find the ticket you want, click “Book” (预订) and select your seat and ticket type (adult, child, etc.). Then enter your name, ID type, ID number, cell phone number and verification code. Before you submit your order, a dialog box will pop up asking you to confirm your information. Double check that everything is correct, then click “Confirm” (确定).
5. The next step is to “Pay online” (网上支付). Make sure you have all your information ready to go—if you don’t complete payment within 30 minutes of submitting your order, you’ll need to re-book. On the payment page, click “Pay by online bank” (网银支付) and select your online bank (it must be a Chinese bank and make sure your account supports online transactions). Enter your card number, expiration date and security code. The system will then send you a one-time password by text message. Enter the password in the box provided and confirm your purchase.
If everything goes smoothly, you will receive a confirmation email as well as a text message containing an order number starting with E. Before or on your departure day, you can exchange this for a paper ticket at the station by showing your passport and the order number.
But there are two shortcomings of the still-new online booking system. Netizens have complained that the website breaks down when there are too many users logging on. So try early in the morning or late in the evening to avoid system paralysis. The website also doesn’t have an English version yet, so if your Chinese reading is a bit shaky, it’s best to keep a fluent friend nearby for help.