How to Ride the New York City Subway

One Methods:Tourist Method

Visiting New York for the first time is an interesting experience. New Yorkers are like no one else. As polite as they are, they often do not make eye contact, they rush to their destination, and rarely talk to strangers. While visiting New York City for the first time, you will probably use the subway. If you are not careful, you might never get to your destination. The subway in New York City is one of the largest subway systems in the world in terms of track mileage and number of stops (468), and one of the only 24 hour subway systems in the world.


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    Get or use a computer and log on to the MTA website, look at the map, and find your departure and arrival stations. Check for service advisories. Most stations also have special lists of service changes, indicated by a black and yellow label entitled "Planned Service Changes" located on most island platforms (where trains arrive and depart on both sides of the platform) behind a subway map, at or near station entrances and exits, and next to the "Waiting Areas" at most stations. Have a subway map handy to interpret the notices.
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    Make sure you have the appropriate fare on your MetroCard. The current fare is $2.75 when using a Pay-Per-Ride MetroCard ($3.00 for a "SingleRide" Ticket: Valid for ONE (1) ride within two (2) hours purchase with no out-of-system transfer to a bus).
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    Estimate the time it will take to arrive at your destination - by looking at the subway map or using the TripPlanner+. It will take you on average 2-4 minutes between every stop, plus 5-20 minutes for every time you have to wait for a train. A simpler method is to leave at least 45 minutes before you must be where you are going. However, the longest trips can take up to an hour and a half - so be careful.
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    Know what a station entrance looks like. Entrances that are always open have green lights, known as "Globe Lamps." Exit only or part-time entrances have red globe lamps, or may not have any lamps at all. Some private properties have subway entrances. However, some entrances are within private properties, and these entrances are not always visible from the outside. Also noting, some entrances are mono-directional, meaning that they only serve an entrance to a platform for boarding trains to one destination. This usually happens at stations without an underpass or overpass to transfer to the opposite platform for return service. There are some exceptions to this, as unlabeled overpasses and underpasses are present (like Bleecker Street on the (6)), mostly at transfer stations or stations with a central fare control area.
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    At your departure station, you can ask a station agent, if one is available, for a map so that you have a portable guide. However, carrying a map on the subway is like tattooing "IDIOT TOURIST" on your forehead. Nearly all train cars and stations have maps on the walls and station "Customer Information Centers," so a map is not really necessary.
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    Buy a MetroCard from either the station agent (cash only), the MetroCard Vending Machines (cash/credit/debit), or at various merchants scattered throughout the 5 boroughs. To locate merchants that sell MetroCards, simply go here. All MetroCard Vending Machines accept debit and credit cards, but only some (the larger ones) accept cash. The minimum purchase for a NEW Pay-Per-Ride MetroCard is $6.50 (2 rides) including the new MetroCard fee of $1.00, however you may refill a Pay-Per-Ride MetroCard with a minimum of $0.01 at station booths and with a minimum of $0.05 (and $0.05 increments) at MetroCard Vending Machines and a maximum of $100.00 for both means. You may refill cards with both time (Unlimited-Ride) and value (Pay-Per-Ride). Please note that MetroCard Vending Machines only dispense up to $9.00 in change in coins ONLY, can accept up to 30 coins of any type per transaction (the coin slot then closes), and credit/debit card purchases must be at least $1.00. Pay-Per-Ride MetroCards allow for one free transfer from subway-to-bus, bus-to-subway, or bus-to-bus within two (2) hours of the first swipe; "SingleRide" tickets do not allow transfers and must be used within two (2) hours of purchase, except if used on a bus (to which you must request a transfer from the operator). Unlimited-Ride MetroCards allow use once per 18 minutes. If you try to use an Unlimited-Ride MetroCard within 18 minutes of your swipe, the turnstile screen will simply read "JUST USED." If you put $5 or more on your card, you will get an 11% bonus ($5 will get you $5.55 good for 2 rides, $10 will get you $11.10 good for 4 rides, $20 will get you $22.20 good for 8 rides). Your best bet may be to buy a 7-Day ($31) or 30-Day ($116.50) Unlimited-Ride MetroCard depending on your length of stay. Unlimited-Ride MetroCards are active for 7 or 30 consecutive days from the first day you swipe the MetroCard and expire at midnight of the date that it is set to expire. Unlimited-Ride Metrocards can not be shared due to the 18 minute time limit. MetroCards are valid for both subway and bus service 24/7/365.
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    Getting on the right train is hard for a tourist. Train line signs are present on the overhead platform signs (denoting a synopsis of the route, destination, and part-time service if any), the front and sides of trains (color of the text and sign may vary if it is an old or new train), and in directional signs at entrances and waiting areas. Make sure you get the right number or letter and check if your arrival station is a full-time station. One thing that makes the NYC Subway a bit different from other systems is the Uptown/Downtown/Queens/Brooklyn/Bronx/Manhattan directional indicators. Rather than denoting direction by destination (as in London, Paris, etc.) entrances and platforms in Manhattan will say "Uptown and the Bronx/Queens" or "Downtown and Brooklyn" although sometimes just "Uptown" and "Downtown" (or simple the terminal) for trains terminating in Manhattan. Uptown roughly corresponds to North and Downtown roughly corresponds to South. This is opposite in Brooklyn. Be sure to know whether you are traveling Manhattan-bound, Brooklyn/Bronx/Queens-bound, uptown or downtown before entering (few trains travel crosstown). On the 7 train, the trains destination sign says either Manhattan-Times Square or Main Street-Flushing. On the L train the trains, electronic display says either 8th Avenue-Manhattan or Brooklyn-Rockaway Parkway.
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    One of the mistakes many tourists make is getting on an express train when they should have taken the local train. Local trains (typically) stop at every stop along a line, while express trains skip some stops. Express trains are usually in the inside platforms/tracks or the lower level. Sometimes, there are platforms for express service but the express is only one-way. So watch out. Only 3 stations in the entire subway system have a separate platform for express trains (Atlantic Avenue - Barclays Center on the 4 and 5, 34th Street – Penn Station on the A, and 34th Street – Penn Station on the 2 and 3) as opposed to having uni-directional platforms for both local and express trains. With the 6 and 7 trains, check the side of the train to see whether there is a green circle or red diamond on the older trains. A green circle indicates 6 or 7 local (making all stops in the Bronx or Queens respectively), a red diamond indicates 6 or 7 express (making express stops in the Bronx or Queens respectively). On the newer trains, there will be a circle or a diamond on the top of the front of the train (it will be red regardless of the shape).
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    Before boarding your train, wait for the disembarking passengers to fully egress before you enter the subway car. People will get very angry if you block their way getting off the train.
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    If you are wearing a bag or pack, remove it from your back or shoulder and carry it in your hands in front of you. This will make more room in the car for the other passengers.
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    If you want to sit, take the first available seat. If you have to stand, however, move all the way into the car and stand on either side, not in the middle. Face the seated passenger with your feet perpendicular to the seat bench and hold on.
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    Avoid looking other passengers directly in the eye for more than an instant. Staring at other passengers will be seen as a sign of aggression, and you may get an aggressive response. It is also likely that the person you're staring at will be very creeped out.
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    Although asking for directions or help is perfectly fine, it's best not talk to people you don't know. Making small talk on the subway with complete strangers is not something generally accepted.
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    If you are accidentally short on change, step aside from the MetroCard machines and keep looking for change. That, coupled with the genuine panicked look on your face, often results in a kind and observant passerby making up the difference. Asking people for money, on the other hand, will only earn you contemptuous glares or being ignored.
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    If your MetroCard won't read for some reason, try the other turnstiles after several failed attempts on the first. Ask the Station Agent for help if one is available in the area. If there is none, run your fingers along the black strip to make sure there are no bends and try again...eventually, either someone may swipe you through or else you should give up and get another MetroCard until you can speak to an agent. If the station agent can't help, they will provide you with an envelope (Business Reply Envelope: BRE) to mail in the card. Allow 4 to 6 weeks for the MetroCard to be processed. For faster service visit the MetroCard Customer Service Center located downtown Manhattan at 3 Stone Street between Whitehall Street and Broad Street.

Tourist Method

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    If you are a tourist, get a city map. They are likely to show a list or locations of subway stations but not the entire subway map.
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    Obtain a refillable MetroCard through a station MetroCard Vending Machine.
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    Ask the station agent for a free subway map.
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    Follow overhead signs for directions to the line you want.


  • If you're not sure of where to go, ask somebody! Don't be afraid to ask strangers for directions. Most New Yorkers don't mind helping others out, so just ask and, in general, many New Yorkers are very polite people and willing to help.
  • If you feel uncomfortable due to another rider(s), trust your gut instinct and move to the last door of the car. When the train arrives at the next station, get out of that car and into the next car. DO NOT GO BETWEEN CARS. It is dangerous and against the law.
  • When getting on an escalator, remember: if you intend to stand, stay on the right. Leave the left clear for those who want to climb up or down.
  • The first car is often less crowded than other cars on subway trains.
  • MEN: Keep your wallet in your front pocket. WOMEN: Keep your wallet on the bottom of your bag or even better, if you can, put it in your pocket.
  • If you are traveling on the subway at night, it is recommended for you to stay in the "Waiting Area," denoted by a yellow and black sign, so that you are in sight of the station agent if anything happens.
  • Smile and relax. If you look nervous, you may attract the wrong type of attention.
  • Only stand in front of the train car doors when you have a few stops. If you have to stay on a certain train for 2 or more stops, either take a seat or move in. Blocking car doors is prohibited.
  • It is suggested to not ride the subway (especially the 4/5 and the L lines) during rush hours unless you really need to.
  • If you are heading for a local station but want to travel faster, you could take the express train to the last express station before your destination and transfer to the local train. However, if a local train is present at an express station or is arriving to one, board it instead as you might end up taking the same exact train in the future.
  • If you have a backpack, please remove it and hold it in your hands before entering the train.
  • Have a lot of MetroCards with money on them? If they are "PREVALUED" or "FULL FARE" cards (not Unlimited-Ride) and they all have money on them, you may bring up to 7 cards at a time to a station booth and ask the station agent to combine the cards. The final card you give the station agent will be the one with all of the money from the other cards.
  • Make sure you have all the information for your trains before you leave. Just because two trains are the same color or go through the same tunnel does not necessarily mean that they are interchangeable.
  • At all stations that serve numbered lines, the 42 Street Shuttle, and the L line, there are countdown clocks that will announce and display trains that will be arriving at that platform or station, depending on the location of the sign. These signs will also announce service alerts in real-time. Most stations that have lettered lines have waiting areas in which LED signs will sound a siren and display the direction of the train when it is arriving, usually the borough or terminal (if in the borough); these signs are absent at mono-directional entrance mezzanines.
  • If it is rush hour, there is a reason that car looks empty. You should know.
  • MetroCards are very fragile. Bending, heating, or getting them wet will damage or ruin them. If your card doesn't work after several tries, take it to the station agent and request a replacement. If the station agent cannot fix it or make a replacement card for you, they will give you a Business Reply Envelope to mail your card in.
  • Mind your manners. Say "please" and "excuse me." Believe it or not, most arguments occur because one person wasn't polite.
  • Make sure to put enough money in your MetroCard, in case you get on the wrong subway train and have to take another or the fare is more than you think. In general, you may stay in the subway system and ride all trains for as long as you like. No stations have "paid" transfers except when designated by station signs and announcements on-board (an example would be "A free transfer is also available to the F train by walking over to the Lexington Avenue - 63 Street Station and using your MetroCard" on any Broadway or Lexington Avenue Line train). Thereon, you will have to swipe your MetroCard at the transfer station and a fare will not be deducted, though you must do it within 2 hours of your first swipe to get in the system. Otherwise, you will pay again.
  • At terminal stations, the first train in is the first train out (usually) unless that train is heading to the yard. Do not go into the latest train that came into the station. Instead, walk into the earliest train that came in unless directed to by platform signs. Trains that will be departing instead of heading for the yard will have one-half of an end-car door open.
  • Remember to give up your seat as a courtesy to elderly, pregnant, or disabled passengers. Special "Priority Seating" at both ends of a subway car must be vacated when an elderly or disabled passenger needs a seat. It's the law!
  • If you're lost or confused, ask any MTA employee (e.g.:the conductor or station agent in the station booths) for directions. Note: Some stations do not have station agents at all, so check the map, politely ask another passenger—most New Yorkers are really helpful if you approach them in a non-threatening manner and are polite.
  • For official directions accounting for all planned service changes, go to the MTA TripPlanner+. Hop Stop is another great website to check out. It's the "map quest" for the subway system. Also try onNYturf which overlays the lines on a maps so you can see exactly where the entrances and lines run.
  • It's best to purchase an Unlimited-Ride time limit of 7-days ($31) if you will be taking 12 or more rides during your stay (day passes are no longer sold). It will save you money. The same goes if you are staying for 30-days and will incur more than 43 trips; get a 30-Day Unlimited ($116.50).
  • You only get about 20 seconds to get on a train. Do not hold train doors open. If the train doors begin to close as you get to the train, just get off and get on the next train. Headways range from 7-10 minutes during rush-hours, 15 minutes during weekends, and up to 20-30 minutes during late-nights. Be sure that the train you will be boarding is the same line and direction. Multiple trains of varying lines may stop at a single platform.
  • Get a MetroCard first before you think of riding the subway.
  • The color of the train does not matter. You don't say the yellow line, you say the N, Q, or R train. The color simply indicates the trunk line. This this case, the Broadway Line.
  • On a map stations that all trains (local and express) stop at are labeled with a white dot and black outline while local-only stations are labeled with a black dot and white outline. For example, all trains (local and express) stop at 14th Street-Union Square station (therefore it has a white circle with a black outline) while only local trains stop at 8th Street-NYU (therefore it has a black circle with a white outline).


  • Be aware that many stations have separate platforms and entrances for trains going in opposite directions. You will have to pay twice if you use the wrong entrance or if you missed your stop and try to backtrack from one of these stations. This warning is less likely to apply to transfer (stations with a transfer to another line), express, and some stations that have unsigned crossovers or underpasses.
  • Do not hold or lean against subway doors.
  • If you are unfamiliar with the subway system, briefly study your subway map in a quiet shop or another place where there are not many people, or check the MTA site online. In New York City, looking like a tourist can make you an easy target for theft or other crime; however, it should also be noted that New York City's violent crime rate is actually quite low, comparable to that of a city with a population of about 200,000.
  • If you need to stop and get your bearings, make sure to do so out of the flow of foot traffic and away from staircases. Otherwise, you might be blocking traffic and could get jostled or possibly hurt.
  • If you are riding late at night, try to find a populated car—ideally the conductor's car (the conductor is almost always in the middle of the train (the 5th car from the front in an 8 car train and the 6th car from the front in a 10 car train), but some lines have the conductor in the front car or the back car). Some lines might only have the train operator that opens and closes the doors, especially during "off-hours."
  • Take some extra money for emergencies. This is always a good idea if you're going to be in any big city, and even if you won't be riding the subway. The city is a nice place, but there is crime there and someone might steal your money. To be safe, keep an extra $20–$50 in a very safe place, such as your shoe, inside your shirt, or in your bra.
  • If you can't get a seat, hold on to the railings so you don't fall over when the train is moving. Older trains have handrails and poles along the seats, center, and near the vents while newer trains also have overhead handrails in the center of the car.
  • Unless it is an emergency in the station, do not pull the emergency brake. Stickers in subway cars offer detailed instructions on how to handle fire, medical, police, and evacuation situations.
  • Don't surf the subways (ride outside the train). Stay alive and ride inside.
  • Riding, moving, or standing between cars is prohibited in the subway. You will get caught and fined by the NYC Transit Police for that.
  • If you see an empty car on a train that is usually crowded (like the 4, 5, or 6 train), there is usually a reason why (rat, vomit etc.).
  • Dropped something on the subway tracks? Leave it! NEVER go down onto the tracks for any reason. Your safety is more important. Tell a police officer, an MTA employee, or use a station "Help Point" or "Customer Assistance Intercom."
  • Keep your belongings on your person at all time. Don't place your bags or packages on an empty seat even if the train is empty. NYC Transit Police will issue tickets for that (following the anti-terrorism campaign "If You See Something, Say Something"). You will find yourself with a court appearance and can expect to pay up to a $500 fine.
  • Always allow riders to exit the car before you board. Platform markers and station announcements on the Lexington Avenue Line remind you of that.
  • Don't be an idiot and try to duck under the turnstiles. Failing to pay your fare is a $100 penalty per offense.
  • Subways aren't the cleanest places in the world. Make sure to look at a seat before sitting in it. Sometimes there's a reason that it's empty: refuse, waste or even something really disgusting.
  • Read the subway rules which are posted in the stations, trains, and online and avoid things such as occupying more than one seat, playing loud music, etc.
  • Avoid staring or making prolonged eye contact with another passenger. You might convey the wrong image. Be polite and friendly at all times, and apologize if you bump into another commuter (though in New York it's not uncommon for the person you accidentally jostled to say "Sorry!" to you first).
  • MetroCards are magnetic. Do not place them near any electronic device (Phone, MP3 player, etc.) or magnet as this may demagnetize the MetroCard, resulting in the turnstile not clicking when you swipe your MetroCard at the turnstile. If your MetroCard has been demagnetized, see the station agent. If the station agent cannot do anything about that card, a Business Reply Envelope will be given for you to mail your MetroCard in.
  • If you are on a new train and have an emergency (medical, fire, criminal), there are red buttons scattered throughout the walls of the subway cars when you can contact the conductor directly for help.
  • Keep your reading material in check and close to your person. Don't open the newspaper on the train—keep it neatly folded. If it is too crowded, read your paper later.

Things You'll Need

  • Subway system map (optional; these are present in stations and train cars)
  • A MetroCard
  • The ability to walk. In many stations, there are no elevators
  • A computer (optional)

Sources and Citations

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Categories: New York | Public Transport