You can “pay by plastic” on the Chinese railways system if your credit or debit card was issued in mainland China and bears a UnionPay logo.
At this moment, payment via cards issued outside of mainland China does not appear to be possible either online or, in particular, at staffed ticket counters.
▶ Things might be different if you have an account with Alipay.
In general, you are good to go if your card sports a UnionPay logo on it.
Do I need a PIN (password)? If you are using a debit card, it is likely you will be asked to input your PIN. If your credit card requests authentication via PIN, then you will need to do so; otherwise, you need just to sign your receipt. Please protect your PIN as you key it in. Always press OK when you’re done, no matter how long your PIN is.
Contactless card users: You will generally need to use your card as a “traditional” card; just merely “waving” it over a connected device will not work.
Apple Pay (and equivalent) users: You will need to present your physical card; merely tapping it, having activated and authenticated it on your device, will likely not work.
To pay by card, simply present your card instead of cash when paying. Note that you must use the same card in one full transaction, as well as in all transactions related to that ticket purchase. You will be required to hand your card over the counter if paying at stations, or to key in your card number online. However, you can split your purchase by buying only part of all your tickets requested, if you intend to buy more than one ticket, although this might mean you will need to queue again.
▶ You will often be required to use software or browser pages supplied by your Chinese bank when paying online. This might involve installing certificates, software, or using USB dongles. Procedures and interfaces vary greatly amongst the different banks. Please contact your bank for further details.
▶ There are at present no opportunities for using a China Railways-run ticketing system in English, although there are third party websites claiming to offer these services. You should choose such parties with extra care.
All transactions are handled in Chinese Yuan Renminbi, even if your China-issued credit card supports a foreign currency (eg US dollar).
▶ Refunds to your bank card can take several weeks. Please be patient.