How To Use Public Transportation in China

Josh Wilson
Career China Digital Marketing Manager
Apr 13, 2017

Transportation is a major concern for people traveling to China. Whether you want to move to China to live and work, or tour the country seeing some of its numerous attractions and learn about the vibrant Chinese culture, you may be wondering how you will get around China. But as vast as the country may be, traveling around China is no longer an issue thanks to the fact that China’s public transport system has experienced significant growth and modernization in recent years. When it comes to transportation in China, everything is well connected and easy to use. The country boasts a comprehensive system comprising of airports, subways, highways and high speed rail lines, all of which make it easier and convenient to get around China. Here is a breakdown of different types of transportation in China, and the pros / cons of each so you can decide which is best for you.

1. Flights in China

Being such a vast country, airplanes offer the most convenient way of traveling around China. While traveling by air may be an expensive option, especially for tourists with a limited budget, it remains the best option to get around China due to reduced travel-time and the ability to jump around a large area quickly. 

There are over 180 commercial airports all over the China. Some of the major Chinese airlines that offer domestic flights to various cities throughout China include Air China, China Southern Airlines and China Eastern Airlines. Other more established domestic carriers include Tianjin Airlines, Xiamen Airlines, Dragonair and Shanghai Airlines. You can easily book flights through English apps, such as

Pros of traveling around China by airplane

- It reduces travel-time significantly.

- It offers the fastest way of traveling around the country, especially for very long distances.

- It is safer to travel by air than other forms of transport, such as buses.

Cons of traveling around China by airplane

- It is costly and thus unaffordable for some travelers with a limited travel budget.

- Air travel is vulnerable to weather changes & air pollution which affects pilot visibility, thus flight delays & cancellations common in China!

2. High speed trains in China

High speed train is an integral part of China’s public transportation. It is designed for both the local population and visitors, ideally to help them travel on some of the country’s long distance routes. 

While there are other countries that have a high speed train, China’s high speed train is unique for its size as well as low priced tickets. The high speed train travels through all the country’s major cities, hence making it one of the best options for travelers who want to travel from one city to another, at the same time taking the least time possible. 

Currently, China boasts the fastest high speed train with an average speed of up to 380 km/hr. At this speed, one can travel from Shanghai and Beijing (800-mile journey) in less than 5 hours. Seats inside the fast speed train are mainly categorized into business, 1st and 2nd classes.

Pros of travelling around China by high speed train

 - It is convenient (sometimes even more convenient than the airport)

- Saves plenty of time since it is designed to reduce travel-time

- Traveling in a high speed train is cheaper than flying over the same distance in planes

- Traveling by high speed train in China is quite enjoyable, with lots of space and a smooth and scenic ride!

Cons of using a high speed train for traveling around China 

- It is impossible to travel to the country’s remotest parts or areas that aren’t connected to the high speed rail network

- Although accidents are rare, scores of people lose their lives whenever the high speed train is involved in an accident.

- Flights may still be more convenient for really long journeys, such as from Shanghai to Chongqing or between Beijing and Guangzhou.

- In some stations (especially more rural areas), if could be difficult to navigate and purchase tickets if you don't know Chinese.

3. Local trains and subways in China (sometimes called Metros)

Beyond the high speed trains, there are slower local trains in China which connect metro areas and rural towns to larger cities.  Within many large Chinese cities, subway trains (or local metros) are a popular.  Chinese subways are easy to use, quite inexpensive and safe in China. 

Traveling by subway in China is one of the best ways for tourists to travel within major cities in China. And it seems like most cities have more subways under construction than ever before. 

Subways in Chinese cities connect at central hubs, where travelers can easily transfer to other means of public transportation. Travelers on the subway also avoid the nightmarish traffic that can happen in some Chinese cities.

Pros of traveling in China by subways

- There are quite inexpensive thus making them a great choice for visitors with a limited travel budget.

- Due to their availability, they provide the most convenient way of traveling around many large cities in China

- They help travelers avoid traffic jams, especially during rush hours

- Subway systems in China have signage in English

Cons of traveling around China by subways

- There aren’t always the most convenient, especially if you need to make transfers to other lines

- Traveling by subway can be stressful if you don't like crowds, especially at rush hour!

- Subways are mostly within the center of a city, and thus aren't ideal for traveling to remote or suburban areas

4. Buses

Buses operate everywhere in China, even in the country’s interior most parts. They are among the cheapest means of public transportation in China, besides being most reliable owing to the fact that all places in the country are accessible by highway. 

Sleeper buses are popular options for visitors traveling for long distances, because they have a bed space and extra storage space for personal belongings. However, some bus stations have limited English on the signage, which can make it difficult to identify your route and buy tickets if you don't know Chinese.

Pros of traveling around China by buses

- They offer a cheaper and affordable means of transportation

- They are readily available in all parts of the country, thus making them reliable.

- Buses can travel to the remotest parts of the country where other means of transportation aren’t available.

Cons of traveling around China by buses

- Buses in China vary significantly in quality and they may not be very comfortable, especially for people traveling for long trips

- For a visitor in China who doesn't know the language, it can be difficult to navigate or buy tickets

- They are less safe, due to poor road conditions in some rural areas, and unsafe driving practices

- Long distance travel by bus can be REALLY long!!!

5. Taxis 

Taxis offer the most secure and comfortable way of getting around China, particularly in cities and metropolitan areas. Whether you want to get to a hotel, airport, a scenic spot or railway station, taking a taxi can be quite fast and convenient. Taxis are available in all the country’s major cities. Though prices may vary from city to city, hiring a taxi is quite cheap and you can always negotiate the price with the taxi owner. However, we recommend you insist on using the "meter" for most in-city destinations, otherwise they will try to charge you a higher rate.

Pros of getting around China by taxis

- Taxis are comfortable and secure compared to buses

- Less delays involved, you just need to stop a taxi and tell the driver to take you to the destination of your choice 

- There aren’t theft cases in taxis like other means of public transportation such as buses and local trains.

Cons of getting around China by taxis

- Taxis are only ideal for short distances due to the price

- Taxis are mostly available in urban areas, and not an ideal mean of public transportation in rural areas.

- Taking taxis may be an expensive option for tourist with a limited travel budget in the long-run.

- You will need to know some Chinese to tell the driver where to go, or have the address prepared.

- In some cities, at certain points of the day, you may need to share your taxi with someone else going in the same direction.

6. Bicycles

Bicycles, whether personal or rented, can also offer an excellent way of getting around China. While you can still buy your own bicycle for purposes of getting around in China, renting one has become a popular and affordable option for tourists. 

There are many bicycle rental services around China including, such as the share bike service, Mobike (among many others) that enable people to rent and ride various bicycle models over short distances.

Pros of getting around China by a bicycle

- It is inexpensive (although most services require a deposit of around 200RMB)

- It can be fun particularly for riding enthusiasts 

- It offers a convenient way of traveling to shorter distances 

- You can bypass traffic jams in major areas, such as the Forbidden City on a holiday (bikes are much faster than the bus!)

Cons of getting around China by a bicycle 

- It isn’t convenient for long distances 

- One can only ride on specific places in town

- Riding be difficult particularly when one is riding on rugged terrain.

- Riding bicycles can only work for those who know how to ride

- Traffic can be very dangerous, and they don't always respect bikers - so watch out and ride carefully!

7. Using apps such as DiDi 

DiDi is a smartphone application designed by Didi Chuxing, one of the world’s largest ride-sharing companies. The company provides transportation services to up to 300 million people across various Chinese cities. The app works in a similar way to Uber, where private cars, taxis and designated drivers can easily be hired via a smartphone. 

Whilst in China, you can download DiDi to your smartphone and get transportation whenever you need it. Whether you want a taxi, chauffer or private car to take you around, this app can help meet your transportation needs easy and fast regardless of your location. The app is designed to show you the available means of transportation in your area throughout the day.

Pros of using DiDi when traveling around China

- It is a convenient way of getting reliable transportation 

- It gives you plenty of transportation choices to choose from

- It is best for travelers who want quick transportation services regardless of the time of the day.

- It is quite inexpensive, cheaper than a taxi!

Cons of using DiDi to get around China

- It can only work for visitors with a smartphone

- Most drivers only speak Chinese - making it difficult to communicate unless you have a Chinese friend to help.

- DiDi drivers rarely receive background checks and this pose a safety threat in that, some drivers can break traffic laws easily. 

Many Options for Getting Around China! 

It's great to know about all the many ways you can traveling around China using public transportation.  Despite the country’s enormous size, traveling even long distances can be convenient with options like flying or the high-speed train in China.  With all these means of public transportation covered here, all you need is to decide on the means of transportation that suits your travel needs.

Have more questions about moving to China? Check out The Ultimate Guide for Moving to China

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