Until very recently, getting places with online ticketing at China Railways was not so much a case of “buy, turn up, and go”. This was because there was a two-hour waiting period; this meant at 14:00, you could only get tickets for trains that leave at 16:00 or later. This was less a problem if you were in the city centre and needed time to get to the station, but if you were already at the station and needed a way to escape, you had to wait two hours to do so — if using online ticketing.
No longer. China Railways has officially announced that, with effect from 06 May 2015, online ticketing will offer you tickets for trains departing in the next 30 minutes and later (instead of the previous two hours). This also applies for rebookings and refunds. Since ticket gates on in particular long-distance trains will open up 25–30 minutes before departure, this in effect is very close to being a real case of “buy, turn up, and go”.
However, this will also require quicker action from your part. If you buy via online ticketing a train that leaves within the next 30 minutes to two hours, you must complete payment within 10 minutes. This is to make sure others can travel as well.
For passengers from abroad, it is highly recommended you have your ID document ready and head immediately to the next staffed counter, since they will require both your passport and your order number (which should usually begin with the letter E). There is in general no charge for picking up tickets at in particular a ticket counter of your station of departure, but if picking up tickets from a different city, the maximum handling fee is ¥5.— per ticket. (This must be paid in cash.)
For passengers travelling with an online ticket bought and registered to a valid Chinese ID card (except for first-generation and temporary cards), they can now benefit with instant boarding without picking tickets up, as long as they both depart from and arrive at a station where ID cards are supported as e-tickets.
This change affects only the 12306.cn official ticketing website and the official, authorised versions of China Railways’s Railway 12306 smartphone application. Please be aware that different cut-off times might apply if you buy from regular staffed counters, or over ticket machines.