China's Green Card: Demystifying an Urban Legend (Part 2-Trains)

Source: David von Schwerin

Suzhou Industrial Park railway station on a grey Thursday afternoon in mid-September. The Beijing-Shanghai leg of China's huge high-speed rail network had just recently been upgraded to e-tickets. That means no paper tickets are necessary anymore. After booking tickets online through the 12306 app, Ctrip or a comparable service, train stations and platforms can be entered with a simple swipe by a Chinese ID card and a facial scan.

I am on the way back to Shanghai, my train gets called and I start queuing in front of the automated gates. In the line before me there are about 10 people and at the very front a foreign couple with passports holding up the process. The guard pulls them out of the queue and while escorting them to the manual gate - spots me in the crowd. He starts waving frantically trying to get me to follow him as well. I just stare straight through him with a maniac grin on my face.

Coming back from guiding the foreign couple to their "proper" queue, the guard comes back and begins hovering behind the gate in front of my line - continuing his waving and shouting until it was my turn at the turnstile. Still having that dreamy expression on my face and not breaking eye contact I place my GC on the sensor, then take a glance at the facial scanner and pass right through the gate that opens with a satisfying swoosh. The guard's waving and shouting stops and is replaced by a dumb-founded open mouth gaping at me.

Now, this is the kind of Jedi-like power I was hoping for when I got my permanent resident ID card. But it wouldn't be China if there weren't a long, cumbersome path to that moment of glory. 

Automated Ticketing Machines

The actual process of choosing a connection and buying a new ticket from scratch at the machines is the one thing that has worked well from the very beginning of the introduction of the new GC. The printed ticket would show your GC number and your (English) name with the end cut off where the letter maximum is exceeded - similar to when buying a ticket with your passport at the counter.

The paper tickets are used the same way as with tickets using a passport. Use of the old e-gates on the "paper-trails" is not possible with the GC. That has been introduced only on the brand new e-ticket lanes.

Printing of Booked Tickets and Receipts

Where things become a bit trickier is the printing of tickets (and receipts for e-tickets) booked online, as well as for using e-ticketing down the road. For this a registration and real-name verification of a 12306 account (the official China railway app) has to be done. This is vital because - unlike for PRC citizen IDs that use the Chinese name - only the Roman letter name can be used and the name in the system needs to be exactly like it is saved on the chip of the card.

Which means if the name on the card is printed "VAN DOE, JOHN PAUL" then your name needs to be verified in the 12306 system as "VAN DOE JOHN PAUL" and the ticket needs to be booked exactly that way for the ticket machine to find your booking when you want to print it. If it is done correctly, then it normally works. Emphasis on "normally". Even at the same station, there can be some types of machines that work; and some that don't.

What also works nowadays - and it might surprise you that this was an issue until recently is to retrieve tickets that have been bought and later changed to a different train or date.

Registration and Real-Name-Verification

Back when I received my card in 2018 the real name verification through the app was not possible. Three trips within three days to Shanghai railway station were necessary to finally get my name settled properly. If your name consists of several words or you have a middle name, the empty spaces need to be added manually as for some reason the system at the counter (as opposed to the ticketing machines) reads and verifies the name as VANDOEJOHNPAUL.

Only the knowledge of a friend who had the same problem at a railway station in Ji'nan (and successfully solved it) and an extremely supportive lady at the relevant counter in Shanghai made me as persistent as I was. In the three days it took me to solve it, reasons for not being able to ranged from "your name exceeds the character limit" via "system needs a software update" to "but we can only add a space between family and first name".

None of it was actually true, with exception partly of the last reason. It seems the counter at the railway station could only add that one space. For the rest, the central IT of China Railway Corporation in Beijing needed to be involved. And that happened on day three, where I had to run through the process of purchasing a ticket online and attempting to print it at the machine multiple times together with the local railway IT guy.

Now at least I know that the cheapest ticket you can buy in Shanghai is Shanghai-Shanghai West for just CNY 8.50. He had me buy that ticket (and get it refunded) so often, the price got engraved in my brain. The IT guy took pictures of every step - until it finally dawned on him what the problem was. ("We have 'ta ma de' been telling you for three days!" the lady at the counter and me sighed in unison.)

And then he got Beijing directly on the line. My account was deleted and re-registered and when it came to the step of verifying my name, Beijing advised via phone a combination of key strokes and "voila": Shanghai was able to enter empty spaces wherever needed. And everything worked ever since. That was in January 2019. A week later a friend managed to get the problem solved within 20 minutes at Shanghai station. And by end of 2019 we had reports of people being able to verify the name via the 12306 app - including empty spaces. Talking about a steep learning curve by China Railway Corporation right there.


Once the real name has been verified for a personal account the app can be used for almost everything with few restrictions. Most recently the ID/face comparison check to unlock the feature of accessing tickets bought by somebody else (e.g. your company's admin) with your ID number started to work. While it still takes 2-3 days after the upload of pictures as opposed to instant facial recognition with PRC ID (they match directly with the central PSB database) it still beats going down to the station personally.

At the time this article was written, for some inexplicable reason it is not yet possible to become a 12306 member to collect points for your trips. An explicit error message pops up stating that this function is not available to GC holders.

Entering Railway Stations

Many railway stations now sport e-gates for entering the station where an automated ID check is done that includes a facial scan instead of having a person manually check your ticket and documents. In most stations these work with the GC most of the time without a problem. Also, in recent months the entering of railway stations through manual check-points has not created any larger issue with ignorant security staff.

With all things said, for the behemoth of a state-owned organization, China Railway Corporation have been considerably flexible and accommodating for GC holders - the improvements in only a year have been immense and travelling by high-speed train on a GC can be absolutely smooth. Yes, as smooth as with a Chinese ID.

If you missed last weeks Part 1 Basics, please check out the below link. 

China's Green Card: Demystifying an Urban Legend (Part 1-Basics)

Up next week will be Part 3 Banks.

David von Schwerin


Note: This series of articles was first published on Linkedin and on my personal German language blog ( which for many reasons has been more or less dormant since they heydays of personal blogging several years prior. Having been holder of a China permanent resident card since 2018 I will tackle some popular green card topics in detail one by one, covering areas like travel, banking, online services and many more we have come across over the course of the last two years. Should you be a card holder and interested in joining our WeChat group, please send me a private message. I would like to extend my special thanks to Majdi Alhmah and Jurriaan Meyer for the support on the content, cross-reading and additional fact checking before publication.