Getting around town on the Beijing subway

By Chris C., September 7 2015
Getting around town on the Beijing subway

Traffic in Beijing can be horrendous and unpredictable, but if you head below ground, things run much smoother in the Subway: even during peak hour.

It can be a little daunting at first, but using the subway doesn't require a word of Chinese to get around town – and with our handy guide, you'll be riding like a regular in no time at all.

Beijing's subway: the basics

Maps of the entire network are on display at subway stations and are easily found online, with each line given its own number:

[Click on the map above to enlarge it.]

Next to each station name in Chinese you'll also spot the same in Latin characters, so if you know where you're headed or are returning to, this makes it infinitely easier to get around as an English speaker.

The fare you pay depends on the distance travelled, ranging in price from just ¥3 (A$0.60) on short trips through to ¥10 (A$2) on longer journeys, or a ¥25 (A$5) flat fee between the city and Beijing Capital Airport.

Frequent commuters can grab a Yikatong card from any manned subway station counter, similar in concept to Hong Kong's Octopus cards or indeed Opal, Myki and Go Card.

But fare prices on Yikatong cards are exactly the same as a single ticket for most users – you'll need to spend ¥150 (A$30) in a calendar month to save just ¥10 (A$2), so for most business travellers it's really one for convenience rather than savings.

Beijing's subway: buying a ticket

Once you know where you want to go, approach one of the ticket vending machines in your local subway station. If the machines aren't functioning, you'll need to walk to the opposite end of the station to find a working machine, or visit an adjacent ticket counter.

By default, the machines are in Chinese:

To make sense of it all, look to the bottom left of the screen for the bright yellow English button...

... switching everything to your native tongue.

Simply select the line number of your final destination at the top of the screen, and then locate your desired station name.

That's the most tricky part, and if you make a mistake, just hit 'cancel' to start again.

After clicking on the correct station, choose how many tickets you'd like on the left to get your total price...

... and then insert your money through the appropriate slots on the right.

The only coins accepted by Beijing's ticket vending machines are the ¥1 kind, while the notes you can use can vary from machine to machine.

In this case both ¥5 and ¥10 notes were accepted, while the larger ¥20, ¥50 and ¥100 notes aren't welcome, nor are ¥1 notes.

Your ticket will then emerge, along with your change.

Although covering you for only a single trip, the card is contactless – just tap it on the reader as you enter the station...

... and as you leave, insert it into the slot above the green arrow for recycling. There's no need to 'touch on' or surrender your ticket when connecting between subway services: just walk from one train to the other until you're at your destination.

Beijing's subway: finding your train

With the same line numbers used for trains heading in both directions, you'll need to consult the map as you navigate the subway, paying particular attention to the station names.

Our journey was from Yong'Anli to Liangmaqiao, which meant taking a train one station to Guomao and then changing to a different train to complete the journey:

With signage at the station highlighting which was the next stop in each direction, getting to Guomao was an easy task.

Finding a connecting train is relatively simple – start by locating the next stop on your route. As above, that's either Jintaixizhao to go north, and Shuangjing to go south.

Then at your transit station, follow the signs accordingly:

This particular line runs in an endless loop, so there are also diagrams at the station to help get your bearings.

And once you've made it aboard the right train, you can track its progress on the LED panels above the doors. The next stop is announced and also highlighted in red:

Then it's just a matter of finding the right exit from the station. Major landmarks such as hotels and tourist attractions are often marked on the station's exit signs, as are other transportation options and the available route numbers:

Just note the signs don't offer a comprehensive list, and if your hotel is more than a short walk away, it likely won't appear on these signs.

To make things easier on your return, jot down where you first entered your station of origin and you'll be back to your hotel room in no time at all.

Heading to China on business? Also read:

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Chris C.

Chris is a a former contributor to Executive Traveller.

Great article. I have been to Beijing quite a number of times and agree totally.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

15 Dec 2014

Total posts 284

Looks very confusing! Wouldn't want my daily commute to be in the first picture, so many people!

12 Dec 2012

Total posts 1024

Only peak time is like that. Much of the delay comes from xraying bags before you can tap on during peak times at selected stations.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

07 Sep 2015

Total posts 20

Wonderful article, Beijing traffic is HORRENDOUS and subway system is a winner.

Good work Chris! This is REALLY handy!


02 Apr 2015

Total posts 8

Great article, but travelling during peak hours is still a nightmare way too much people using the metro. 

11 Sep 2015

Total posts 3

Great article and spot on. Those details also apply to other cities such as Shanghai and Chongqing where I've fearlessly used the subway rail systems. The ticket machines are essentially the same in those cities at least. Plan where you want to go, go to the ticket machine, select English, select the line of your destination, select the destination, select the number of tickets, insert your money, and off you go! All trains have announcements in Chinese and English. And depending on the age of the rail cars either have LCD screen displays above the doors and/or scrolling LED screens at each end of the car with station info in both Chinese and English. Interchange stations (between lines) are well signposted, though you may have a fair distance to walk between line platforms. Although crowded at peak times, I found the pace much slower and less hectic than the London underground fro example. Yes, be prepared to give up your personal space, and security scanning can slow things down, but I have seen very little of the charging up and down escalators that I've expeienced in London for example. If only Australian suburban rail systems were so well organised!

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