2021-06-18 10:34


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

Source: Written by: David von Schwerin Factcheck: Majdi Alhmah and Jurriaan Meyer, Proofread Natalia Lara. 

Suzhou Industrial Park railway station on a grey Thursday afternoon in mid-September 2019. The Beijing-Shanghai leg of China's huge high-speed rail network has just recently been upgraded to e-tickets. That means no paper tickets are necessary anymore. After booking tickets online through the 12306, 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 starting to escort 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 starts hovering behind the gate in front of my line - continuing his waving and shouting until it was my turn at the gate. 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 point of glory.


The actual process of choosing a connection and buying a new paper ticket from scratch at the machines is the one thing that 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 l lanes.


Where things become a bit more tricky 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 JACK" then your name needs to be verified in the 12306 system as "VAN DOE JOHN JACK" and the ticket needs to be booked exactly that way for the automated ticket machine to find your booking when you want to print it. Should it be it 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.

The proper verification of names is especially important for people with complicated and long names, multi-part family names or several given names. There seem to have been some improvements made on the sensitivity with empty spaces between given names. In the past year we had actual reports of GC holders that were able to verify their names without having to add the space between the given names and it would still pass. Nevertheless, it is recommended to settle this in a trip to the station.

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


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) read and verify the name as VANDOEJOHNJACK.

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. Because in the three days it took me the reasons for not being able to solve it went 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 of part of the last reason. It seems the counter at the railway stations could only add that one space in those days. For the rest, the central IT of China Railways 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 to him what the problem was. ("We have 'ta ma de' been telling you for three days!" the lady at the counter and me commented 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 Railways right there.


Once the real name has been verified for a personal account the app can be used for almost everything and 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 between 5 minutes and 5 days after upload of pictures as opposed to instant facial recognition with PRC ID (they match directly with the central database) it still beats going down to the station personally.

At the time this article was written - and at the time it was edited one and half year later - for some inexplicable reason it is still not possible to become a 12306 member to collect points for your trips. An explicit error message is popping up that this function is not  available to GC holders.


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. These work with the GC most of the time without a problem in most stations. 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, the China Railway Corporation has 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 is absolutely smooth.

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

Next will be Part 3 - Banks .

This article was first published in January 2020 and is part of a series. It has been updated and slightly re-edited in June 2021. Having been holder of a China permanent resident card since 2018 I have tackled 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 three 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. Credits for grammar, style and comma management of the original articles go to Natalia Lara.

Written by: David von Schwerin


Welcome to join Expats Green Card Tube a WeChat groupwith 400+ holders of Chinese Green Card discussing the challenges, tips and opportunities with using the GC. 

To join the group: 
1) Add the admin account WeChat ID: Jobtube 

2) Send a scanned copy of your GC that can be verified with your WeChat account photo/moments/name/ID. You may hide the GC ID number and name patially, and some other data, to protect your privacy.  

3) Within 24 hours and upon successful verification, the admin will send you the invitation to the group. 

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