I have a ticket on the waitlist (WL). What does this mean?
If you have a waitlisted ticket, it means the train is already full for the date, class and origin-destination station combination you have chosen. However, as and when other passengers with confirmed reservations cancel their tickets, your ticket's waitlist position will improve (i.e. move up the waitlist) until it hopefully becomes a confirmed ticket. If the ticket does not get confirmed - or at least to RAC status - by the time the train's reservation chart has been prepared, you cannot board the train.
What is the likelihood that a ticket on the waitlist will get confirmed?
There is no guarantee a ticket on the waitlist will get confirmed - it depends on whether enough passengers with confirmed tickets (or with a better waitlist position than yours) cancel their tickets, along with a variety of other factors:
The total number of seats that are sold to the public for your origin-destination combination in the class of travel you've selected - for example, the total number of berths available for public bookings by First AC Sleeper on several trains can be as low as 6. In such a circumstance, a ticket that is #30 on the waitlist is unlikely to get confirmed
The number of hidden quota berths (not sold or visible to the public) on your class and train. If these berths are left unutilised, they will be released to regular passengers when the train's reservation chart is prepared, which is why the status of most waitlisted tickets can jump significantly when the train's chart is prepared.
The period of the year you're travelling (for example, just before or after a major festival)
The specific type of waitlist your ticket has been booked under. There are many different types of waitlists, each with a different likelihood of getting confirmed: General Waitlist (GNWL), Pooled Quota Waitlist (PQWL), Remote Location Waitlist (RLWL), Roadside Waitlist (RSWL or RQWL), Tatkal Waitlist (TQWL), along with a few others.
While I am updating an article that explains this in more detail and will add it shortly, I suspect many of you might find this complicated enough as it is. If you are such a person, here are some easier ways of predicting whether your ticket will be confirmed:
Check on the Trainman website before booking tickets - it displays the current availability/waitlist position for each train followed by a prediction of the likelihood of the waitlist position getting confirmed/RAC based on an algorithm developed by the website. You can also use this website to check whether a ticket you've already booked is likely to get confirmed. An alternative website offering similar features is Confirmtkt, but it requires you to login to view any information which is rather annoying.
The IRCTC website also displays confirmation probabilities while booking tickets - however, I am not convinced their algorithm is particularly well designed or complex enough to understand and predict waitlist confirmation chances.
If you do not trust algorithms to predict your waitlisted ticket's confirmation chances, you can also use the the India Rail Info website's PNR prediction forum. After entering your PNR details into the "Post PNR Status" tab near the top of the page, members of the website will predict the chances of this ticket getting confirmed based on their knowledge of the train's reservation quotas, route, and railway knowledge in general. You can use the overall trend of predictions for your PNR to decide whether you want to keep your ticket or cancel it.
Keep in mind none of these methods are foolproof, and buying any waitlisted ticket carries an element of risk. If you are particularly risk-averse, you might want to try purchasing a ticket under the tatkal quota for that train or choosing a different train that has availability.
How do I check whether the status of my waitlisted ticket has improved?
If you have provided an (Indian) mobile phone number while booking your ticket, the railways will periodically send you SMSes about the status of your ticket (look for messages from IRSMSA). You can also check the status of your ticket:
On the Indian Railways Enquiry website here
On the IRCTC website here (better interface but requires you to log in to your IRCTC account before displaying any results)
By calling 139 and entering your PNR number into the IVRS when prompted
By SMSing PNR <space> <PNR number> to 139, (INR 3/SMS)
By asking at any railway reservation office or enquiry counter at the station
By checking the charts pasted at the station (or displayed digitally) just before the departure of your train.
I booked a waitlisted ticket a month ago, and its status hasn't changed at all! What do I do?
Since the penalties for cancelling confirmed tickets are fairly low until 48 hours before departure, you will find that the position of a waitlisted ticket often does not move much until just a few days before departure - thus, do not panic if you don't see your ticket's position improving immediately. Also, as mentioned earlier, several 'hidden' quotas of a train are released to passengers on the waitlist when the train's reservation chart is prepared, so a waitlisted ticket might suddenly jump to RAC (or even confirmed status) at this point.
Do I get a refund if my ticket doesn't get confirmed?
Yes, you do - less 'clerkage' charges of INR 30-60 per passenger depending on the class of travel. If you have booked via IRCTC or other online agent (Cleartrip, Google Pay, MakeMyTrip etc), your ticket's amount will be automatically refunded to your account. If you have booked your ticket at a reservation office, you will need to cancel it at least 30 minutes before the departure of your train to receive a refund.
I bought a waitlisted ticket which the enquiry service now shows as confirmed. Do I need to exchange it for a new confirmed ticket/print out a different confirmation?
No, you do not need to do anything - just show up at the station with the same ticket. You do not need to perform any additional actions to confirm your place on the train.
I bought a waitlisted ticket which the enquiry service now shows as confirmed. Where do I find out my final coach and seat/berth number?
Coach and seat/berth allocations for (initially) waitlisted/RAC passengers are made when the train's reservation chart is prepared, roughly 4 hours before departure. Until then, your ticket's status will simply state 'Confirmed' or 'CNF' on the enquiry service. If you've provided an Indian mobile phone number when your ticket was being booked, the railways will message you the final coach and seat/berth number. If you do not have an Indian mobile number or fail to receive this message for some reason, you can use the same facilities mentioned above to check the final status (coach and seat/berth) of your ticket (i.e. either online, via IVRS, SMS or at a railway enquiry counter). It is best to be clear about your final allocation before reaching the station as this will save you a lot of time and stress.
The following section deals with your actual journey.