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7 Things to Know Before Riding A Train in China

Written by FabioUpdated Jan. 22, 2024

Experience the delightful adventure of train travel in China by acquainting yourself with crucial details and notices. Ensure a smooth journey by learning about navigating railway stations, understanding security checkpoint procedures, discovering onboard amenities like beverage options, and gaining insights into train facilities, including restroom facilities. Your adventure awaits - read on for key information to enhance your train travel experience in China.

How to Read Your Train Ticket - for Station Information

Go to the Right Departure Station

Check the departure station carefully. Most cities in China have more than one railway stations and they are often far away from each other. It is recommended that you find out how to get to your station in sufficient time before your departure.

train ticket A train ticket for a Guilin Railway Station to Liuzhou Railway Station train

If you accidently go to the wrong station, you will find that the waiting room doesn't show your train's schedule at all. When you realize your mistake, you may then miss your train as it will take more than half an hour to transfer to the right departure station.

If you miss your train, you can make an alteration at the ticket window in the correct departure station for the next train on the same day. The alteration is free of charge, and you will get a refund for the difference if the next train's ticket is less expensive, or you will be asked for an additional payment if the next train's ticket costs more.

Don't Get Off at the Wrong Station

It is also important to correctly read the information for the arrival station. For example, the southbound train from Beijing will first reach Guilin North Railway Station (桂林北站) and then Guilin Railway Station (桂林站).

train station

Getting off the train at the wrong destination can cause you to pay a penalty fare if you continue the journey too far, or require a trip across the city if you get off too early.

Pay attention to the announcements on the train as they will tell you which station you have arrived at. If you take an overnight train, a member of staff will (wake you up to) exchange your sleeper card for your train ticket about half an hour before arriving at your destination.

Luggage Allowance - Pack Smartly

a porter at guilin railway station Hire a porter at the station entrance if you have too much luggage.

If being organized is not an issue, packing is part of the fun of train travel. Separate your belongings into large luggage and small carry-on items. Important things, such as travel documents, tickets, money, and valuable items should be kept on you at all times. Having a fanny pack or purse is handy. Remember to put your tickets and passport away safely after the ticket checkpoints.

Packing light is the key point. You can find all kinds of tips about packing light. However, if you have not been able to, the train stewards will ask you to put any over-large luggage onto the luggage shelves at the ends of the coaches, instead of on the overhead shelf at your seat. Therefore, it is important to have your luggage zipped up or closed securely using a combination lock.

When taking an overnight train, you should consider taking flip-flops, bathroom supplies (toilet paper and a toothbrush), and perhaps earplugs and an eye mask. Take a book or an iPod to help pass the time if you get tired of watching the landscape rushing past the window. For more information, please read Taking an Overnight Train in China.

Carry-On Luggage Regulations

  • Ordinary passengers: 20 kg (44 pounds)
  • Children with a half-price ticket (6 to 14 years old) or no ticket (under 6): 10 kg (22 pounds)
  • The total length of each item cannot exceed 130 cm for high-speed trains, and 160 cm for normal trains

The above limitation is not applicable to wheelchairs, which can be taken on to the train for free.

The limitations for luggage are not as strict as they are for airplanes. Read more about the luggage regulations.

Senior travelers or passengers with too much luggage can hire a porter at the station entrance - they are easily spotted as they wear sleeveless red jackets and red hats. The price is approximately 10 to 15 yuan. They will help to load the luggage onto the train.

Leave 1.5 Hours to Catch Your Train

If you are not a fan of taking risks, it is always better to arrive early at the railway station. Nobody likes waiting around, but we suggest you leave 1.5 hours to get to your train for the following reasons.

Leave Extra Time to Get to the Station - In Case of Traffic, Misdirection, and Crowds

Some railway stations can be as vast as an airport and situated a long way from the city center. It's a good idea to leave your hotel or last activity in plenty of time in case of traffic, queues, crowds, or misdirection. Give yourself enough time to enjoy a relaxing journey. Usually 1.5 hours are enough, but the time can be reduced if going to a nearby station.

Many Things to Do Before Boarding - Long Distances and Lines

The distances between the ticket office, security check, waiting room, and station platform can be considerable, requiring occasional walks from one side of the station to the other. While most Chinese passengers no longer need to collect paper tickets, resulting in shorter queues at the ticket office on regular days, it's essential to note that during public holidays, the queues can become quite lengthy.

Things to Do If You Get There Too Early

No time needs to be wasted, even if you get there early. For first-timers, early arrival at the railway station gives you a good chance to explore the station and observe the locals. You can purchase some food or drinks at the shops so that you won't go hungry during the journey. If you are traveling with kids, an early arrival gives you some time to calm them down and prepare for a good trip.

Bear in mind that the station will stop the check-in facility 5-10 minutes before the train departs. So don't lose yourself in the stores at the train station. You are recommended to get to the waiting room at least 30 minutes before the train departs (especially if you want a seat to wait on).

Security Check Needed - Prepare Your Passport and Ticket

security check

All passengers and luggage are required to pass through a security check at the station entrance. Please prepare your train ticket and passport (or Mainland Travel Permit). You need to line up for the security check, just like at an airport. After the security check keep your passport and train ticket on your person, and don't lock them in your suitcase, because you are going to need them for another ticket check or two when you board the train.

There may already be a long line at the entrance, so you are recommended to arrive at the train station early.

Board Smoothly - Get to the Right Waiting Room, Gate, Platform, Coach, and Seat

Find the Right Waiting Room Using the LED Screens

beijing west railway stationAn LED screen at Beijing West Railway Station

After the security check, you need to find the right waiting room. A train station may have many waiting rooms for different trains. And usually the information on the sreen is Chinese only.

Look up at the large LED screens for your train number, and see which waiting room is allocated to it. Your train number is a letter with numbers displayed on the top middle part of your train ticket, such as G655 or D3201. A large LED screen shows different trains' departure schedules in rotation, so you might have to wait for the screen to change once or twice to see your train information.

Usually the waiting room information shows the floor and room number, such as"2楼1候",meaning '2nd floor 1st waiting room'. You could ask someone near you for help to get to the right waiting room, by pointing at your ticket then the LED screen, then saying, "Wǒqùnǎr?"(我去哪儿/wor chyoo narr/ 'I go where?'), or read the Chinese yourself.

Get to the Right Gate

check in gateAn LED screen of check-in gates

A waiting room may not only have one platform gate (like in an airport). There may be several gates going to different platforms to board different trains,so don't line up at the wrong gate.There are generally rows of seats either side of a gate's lining up aisle.

LED screens for each gate in each waiting room show different trains' numbers, departure times, and platform information. If you know Chinese, you can listen to the broadcasts for boarding information.

Get to the Right Platform

Once you get to the right gate, generally, you can check-in with your train ticket15 minutes before departure. Before you walk along the long corridors to the platform, look up at the LED screen for the last time and find your platform number. Look for your platform number showing which stairway to walk down to get to your platform.

Getting to Your Seat/Bunk

seat numberSeat number sign on a bullet train

Check your train ticket for your car number as you descend to the platform. There will be staff at each train car door. You could show your ticket to a member of staff. He/she will check that you are boarding the right train car. The character 车 denotes your car number.

Once on the right car, find your bunk number (shown by 铺 on your ticket: 上 for top, 中for middle, 下 for bottom), or seat number (shown by 座 on your ticket), usually displayed on the luggage racks around head height.

Chinese Point-To Card for Getting Help

You could carry a card (or an image on your device) listing useful sentences written in Chinese to find your waiting area, platform, coach, and seat, and show these sentences to any staff member or passer-by, along with your ticket(s):

Chinese English
我搭这趟火车, 请问我的候车室在哪里? I am taking this train; would you please tell me where the waiting hall is?
我搭这趟火车, 请问我在哪个站台上车? I am taking this train; would you please tell me which platform I should go to?
我搭这趟火车, 请问我在哪个车厢? I am taking this train; would you please tell me which coaches I should board?
我搭这趟火车, 请问我的座位是哪个? I am taking this train; would you please tell me where my seat is?

Know What's on the Train - Food, Water, and Toilets

Different trains offer different services and facilities. High-speed trains are modern and comfortable, while normal speed trains may not be so convenient for foreign travelers.

G, D, and C Trains - Modern Facilities for a Convenient Journey

facilities on a bullet train

When taking high-speed trains, lettered G, D, or C, you can enjoy a more comfortable train journey.

Seating: High-speed trains are fully air-conditioned. The seats are adjustable, just like seats on a plane, for you to sit comfortably. What's more, there is a 220V AC socket under each seat for your devices.

Food: High-speed trains offer different types of set meals (including Muslim food).You can go to the restaurant car to have a meal, where they offer made-to-order meals at 20 to 50 yuan per dish. Or you can buy a set meal from the attendant's trolley. You can also go to the canteen bar to buy some snacks and drinks.

Water: Free boiled/cold water is available between the coaches.

Toilets: Chinese/Western-style toilets and handicapped restrooms are available between the coaches. However, the toilets have usually run out of toilet paper or don't provide toilet paper in the first place.

LED screen: Every coach with an LED screen indicates the speed of the train.

Luggage racks: There are luggage racks over the seats at either side of a coach. You can take a 24-inch suitcase on board and place it on a luggage rack. There are some shelves between the coaches for large baggage. Shelves for large suitcases, suitable for a 70cm (28-inch) suitcase.

Z, K and T Number Only Trains - Not as Comfortable

water on train

Normal speed trains are not as convenient and comfortable as high-speed trains. If you have to take such trains, you are recommended to buy tickets for soft seats or hard/soft sleepers. If you choose hard seats, you'd better prepare for bad conditions in your coach.

Seating: Hard seats are not adjustable. There is no power outlet. Normal speed trains, apart from the oldest number-only ones, are fully air-conditioned.

Food: Some trains don't have a restaurant car, but most T and K trains do, and there is often a staff member who walks through the coaches selling small items, snacks, and drinks from a trolley.

Our suggestion is to purchase some simple food and drinks before boarding, such as a takeout from KFC or McDonald's. You can eat them at your seat.

Water: Free boiled/cold water is available between the coaches.

Toilets: Most trains only have Chinese-style toilets, which are usually in bad condition. Some soft sleepers / deluxe soft sleepers have Western-style toilets in good condition.

Luggage racks: After you board the train, you can place your baggage on the luggage rack above the seats. If you are taking a sleeper carriage, you can place your baggage on the opposite side to the berths, under the lower berth, or under the small desk in your compartment.

5 Places to Buy Food for Your Train Trip in China

Chinese people always buy snacks for short-distance trips and food for long-distance train trips. Generally, the food prices at the train station and on the train are higher than those in the outside restaurants or stores. If possible, you should take your own food or snacks.

There are five places you can buy snacks or food:

  • Shops or fast-food chain restaurants around your hotel or city center, such as KFC and McDonald's. You can buy the food in advance then go to the train station to board your train. You have more options if you prepare the food in advance.
  • Small shops at the train station. There are lots of shops at the station. You will find fruit, bread, milk, and eggs in the shops. It will be better to pay for the food using small change.
  • The platform at the train station. When the train stops at a station, you can get off the train to buy some food. There are vendors selling local dishes or more simple food. You will find food like boiled corn cobs and tea-flavored boiled eggs.
  • There is a dining car on long-distance trains that is open to all passengers and sells snacks, beer, and soft drinks. There is a canteen bar on a high-speed train. Try to go there as early as possible because it will be very crowded at meal times. The dining car offers prepared and heated packed meals and the prices range from 15 to 4 yuan.
  • Railway attendants take trolleys through the cars frequently. There are packed meals at meal times and each one is about 25 yuan. The Chinese meal includes rice, meat, and vegetables. You can buy instant noodles too. There is free boiled water on each car. At other times, the attendants also sell drinks, snacks, packed fruit, and some toys for kids.

Travel Safely

Train travel in China are fairly safe, yet some good advice never hurts.

When you are traveling with young children, keep them close and an eye on them. Don't allow them to run up and down the train coach/platform, or lose them in the station. Beware of pinching your fingers in the (automatic) doors. Hold onto the hand knobs and rails while walking inside the coach. The washroom floor can be slippery, so be careful in there.

Don't leave your valuable belongings unattended. There is a power socket under the seat (on high-speed trains) or on the small table (on non-high-speed overnight trains), which can be used to recharge your devices. Never leave them unattended. When taking an overnight train, keep your carry-on items close to your body. Your passport and ticket should always be kept with you.

Travel in China by Train with Us for a Hassle Free Journey

travelling by train

If you are planning to take a train during your China trip, please see our recommended tours below for inspiration. You can enjoy hassle free train travel with China Highlights. All you have to do is get on the train; we'll arrange everything else.

If you don't want to spend too much time on a train, we can help you book flights for some of the journeys. Our tours can be customized according to your interests and requirements. Just contact us and let us tailor-make a unique China tour for you.

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