How do I take a bus in China?

Photo by Jack No1

Taking a bus can seem like one of the most daunting challenges for newcomers to China, but there’s no need to be put off. Learn the basics, get a grip on the routes that are most useful to you, and you might find them a great resource (and one that will save you a fortune on taxis or the subway). 


Route maps

There’s no getting around the fact that the route maps at bus stops are generally only user-friendly if you can read Chinese. Make sure you have the characters handy for where you’re trying to get to, as well as for where you’re returning to, so that you can look these up on route maps at bus stops. Better still, ask somebody to find out which bus number(s) you can take ahead of your journey.


Boarding the bus

Once you’re at the stop, make sure you’re standing at the area set aside for the bus you want to catch (usually there will be signs marked with different bus numbers – stand beside the sign corresponding to the bus you want).

When the bus comes, be aware that often there is one door designated for passengers boarding, and another for passengers getting off. Pay attention to what other passengers are doing and follow their lead.


Paying your fare

Next, paying. On most buses, you can pay by cash, or using a pre-paid bus IC Card (for example, the Beijing Yikatong, seen below, which can be bought in subway stations). You may also be able to use your IC Card to pay for subway and taxi journeys, though – as with so much else in China - different cities have different rules.

If you’re paying by card, you’ll usually swipe your card, or hold it briefly over a sensor as you get on the bus. If you’re paying by cash, look for a box by the driver’s seat to drop your money into (prepare exact change). If there’s no box by the driver’s seat, look out for a conductor selling tickets, possibly further down the bus.


Bus etiquette

There isn’t too much to worry about here, but be aware that people in the seats towards the front of the vehicle are generally supposed to give their seats to elderly, disabled and pregnant passengers. The general Chinese attitude of deference towards the elderly means that you may also be asked (or expected) to give up your seat for a pensioner if you’re towards the back of the bus, too.

That’s generally considered good practice in most countries, of course, but there’s a special pressure to do so in China, where refusing to stand for an elderly person can (rarely) lead to unfortunate altercations.


Exiting the bus

Pay attention to where you are, as announcements in English are rare. Get ready to disembark some time before you reach your stop, especially if the bus is crowded – it may be difficult to reach the exit door. On some buses, you should swipe your card again before disembarking – look out for a swipe machine by the exit door. 


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