As a rule: ticketing for your train begins two months before departure. At that time, you can already secure yourself a seat.
Specific advance ticketing schedules are:
▶ 60 days for online booking (via the 12306.cn website or smartphone app) or phonebooking
▶ 58 days at counters and at ticketing machines, as well as authorised ticketing agents
Please note: At a number of city stations, you might only be able to get tickets a few days ahead of travel — although interestingly, you can book online with wider availability windows and pickup tickets at these stations for advance travel.
Discounts: On regular rail, there will be occasional discounts available, especially during less busier seasons for trains with less patronage — check at stations to see if your train does end up cheaper. On high speed rail, Second Class will not generally offer passengers discounts. However, there might be discounts if you buy your tickets early if travelling in higher classes — such as First, Premier, or Business Class. Do note, however, that these discounts may not be available year-round.
Going to Hong Kong? You may be eligible for discounts if you travel directly out from the mainland to Hong Kong and are on a Z train to / from that place. Discounts apply especially if travelling in the more expensive seats or berths.
Beijing Suburban Railway Line S2: This line operates on a “turn-up-and-go” basis and advance ticketing is generally not available. Tickets sold are generally good for that day only (and you can also use your Beijing Yikatong transport smartcard on the service).
Decrypting Station “Ticket Availability” Tables
At larger stations, there will usually be a table which looks like a horribly complicated “maths grid”. It’s there to show you how many tickets in which class are available for which train on what date, but it’s not always easy to read.
The individual numbers on the right half of the table are the number of tickets available for a specific train service; if it’s sold out, you’ll see the dreaded 0 (zero). If a specific class of travel (or train) is not available (or not available on a particular day), you’ll see a dash instead.
You’ll find on the left half the train number and time of departure (from that specific service), as well as the origin and final destination stations of your train service (in Chinese only). On the top part you will find the month (月) and date (日) of departure, as well as what class is available (Business and Premier Class on HSR usually have sufficient seating left, so they’re not generally shown).
Classes of travels you will likely see a lot include:
Regular rail: Hard Seat 硬座 | Hard Sleeper 硬卧 | Soft Seat 软座 | Soft Sleeper 软卧
HSR: Business Class 商务座 | First Class 一等 | Second Class 二等座
Note: If Standing Only (无座) tickets are available, they won’t show a number, but instead “有”.
Finally, the date and time that does not dynamically change is a timestamp showing you when all the above data was last updated. Generally, updates should come in around every 10 minutes or so.