In recent years, China has opened a staggering amount of subway lines in a remarkably short amount of time and, according to Reuters, numbers are only set to increase in the near future. Despite the impressive rate of expansion, not all Chinese subways are always so straightforward for foreigners to use. Below are some tips that will help business travelers avoid delays when using the subway in China.
Avoid Rush Hour At All Costs
Although this can be said to be true of most subways, there are few rush hours in the world busier than those in China. In cities like Beijing, Shenzhen, and Shanghai, some stations become so congested that queues to enter build up outside the exits on street level. Those who do manage to get onto a train should expect to be packed so close together that there is no space to move and it can be a struggle to exit the train in time.
To understand just how busy the subway can become, watch this video during rush hour in Beijing. The trains are often overcrowded to the extent that not only passengers are not able to get on, but those trying to get off are pushed back inside the train.
If possible, it is recommended to avoid using the subway during rush hour, particularly in large cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Chengdu and many more. The overpacked subway trains in those cities could be stressful for foreign business visitors and tourists. If it cannot be avoided to travel during rush hour, however, it is suggested to take another form of transport.
Bring A Copy Of Your Passport
It may seem excessive, but make sure to bring your passport before taking the subway, or at least a copy. It is not often that a foreigner will be asked to provide some identification, but it does happen on occasion and is more likely to occur at places like a subway station, where there are security checks already in place.
For many, however, the idea of carrying an important document around all day sounds unsafe. The danger is that if you cannot produce some identification, the police are within their rights to hold and delay you until you can prove you are in the country legally.
What many do instead is keep a photocopy of their passport and visa. It’s not even necessary to print it out. A clear photo on a phone will also suffice for most checks. If there is an international event going on or important government official in town, security is tightened. If you know you are going to be visiting during this time, then it is highly recommended to be extra vigilant in carrying identification.
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Be Prepared For Subway Security Checks
Compared to other countries, the security on subways in China is quite strict and passengers should expect to find a security check at most stations. In some cities, the check can resemble that experienced in an airport. Usually, all bags are to be put through the detector while staff sometimes will pat down passengers for anything concealed.
Innocuous items like water bottles and deodorant spray can be confiscated if the security staff feels inclined to do so. Even if you do not think you have anything, it is worth double checking your bag or pockets. It is surprising what can raise a red flag and delay your journey.
The best way to approach taking the subway is to imagine it like going through an airport. If treated in this way, there should not be any troubles or delays at the security check.
Use Travel Cards And Avoid Topping During Busy Periods
If you plan to stay in a city for more than a couple of days and intend to use the subway during that time, it may be worth considering purchasing a travel card rather than individual fare tickets every time you ride the subway. Ticket machines usually require the exact amount to purchase a ticket, while others will only accept either notes or coins of a specific value. This can be frustrating for even the most experienced expat or local, let alone a foreign visitor who is not instantly familiar with the local currency.
Also, if you do purchase a travel card, it can save you a significant amount of time if you plan in advance when you will top up the card. If you happen to be at the subway during a quiet period or at a station that is less busy than others, it is worth checking your travel card balance. If it is low, then this could be an ideal time to top up. Otherwise, if you wait until the balance is empty, you may find it is during rush hour or a crowded station, and the queue just to top up your card can sometimes add as much as fifteen or twenty minutes to your journey.
Ensure You Have Enough Balance For Your Journey
In many cities, if you enter the subway with low balance on your travel card and do not have enough balance to cover your journey when you leave, then the balance will run into a deficit. When you next go to the subway, you will be required to clear the deficit and top up your balance to enter. For foreign visitors, who are unfamiliar with the subways in China, it is important to note that the same is not true for some of the subway systems in the Mainland.
In cities like Shenzhen, if you enter the subway with a low balance and do not have enough credit to exit the subway then you will be denied exit, as there is no deficit facility on the travel cards. The quickest solution would be to find a ticket office located before the exit barrier. The staff will almost certainly not speak English, but if they are handed the travel card and cash then they will understand. Further issues arise if you do not have cash or if the ticket office is unmanned, which can occur at quieter stations and also outside of rush hour. At this point, you will need to communicate with the non-English speaking security staff to allow you to exit to either withdraw cash from a nearby cash machine or to purchase a ticket at a machine. For visitors who cannot speak Chinese, this can be very disruptive to your journey, waste a significant amount of time, and be a stressful experience.
Alternatives To The Subway
Having considered all these factors, some business travelers may judge that the subway is not the most convenient or efficient way to travel around in China during their visit. Car rental in China with International driver’s license is not feasible for foreign travelers due to Chinese legal restrictions. Below is a list of alternative modes of transport during your business trip to China.
- Taxi – For those wishing to avoid dealing with the security checks on the subway, there is the option of hailing a taxi instead. There is an art to using Chinese taxis, however, and it is important to be aware that there are some drivers who refuse to use the fare meter, overcharge, and give fake change. Even when the risks are accepted, the problem is that travelling during rush hour can be just as, if not more, difficult to find a taxi than it is getting on the subway.
- Taxi Apps – The emergence of taxi apps like Didi have helped somewhat in alleviating the shortage of cars during rush hours. To use you must first download the Didi app, and although there is an English language setting, most drivers will not speak any English. As a result, the taxi apps in China are only useful for locals and expats who are familiar with the language.
- Buses – The bus systems in most major Chinese cities are often as extensive as the subway networks, but some of the same issues prevail for business visitors looking to travel around. It is rare to find the schedules and bus signs available in English and during rush hour, the buses are often just as overcrowded as the subways trains.
- Hiring A Private Car:
The most convenient and stress free alternative to using the subway is to hire a private car with an English speaking driver. By doing so, there is no need to worry about security checks, having a copy of your passport, if your travel card is topped up, or if you will get caught up in rush hour. Sometimes it’s better to be able to sit back and relax rather than having to worry about fighting to get on a train or if the taxi driver is intentionally going the long way to the destination.