When it comes to getting around in New York City, using the subway is unquestionably the best, fastest, and most budget-friendly option, costing just $2.90. With over 400 subway stations in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island, it’s easy to navigate the entire city.
New York’s subway operates 24/7, 365 days a year, and is managed by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).
In this guide, we’ll provide you with all the essential information on using the subway in NYC, including reading subway maps, purchasing tickets, understanding the difference between local and express trains, and subway etiquette.
Before you take the subway in NYC
Plan your trip
When using the NYC subway, it’s essential to account for potential delays, especially if you have a schedule to keep. Rush hours can be particularly crowded, so consider planning your trip to avoid these peak times.
If you’re new to taking the subway in New York, try to plan your route to avoid transfers, which can be a bit tricky. It’s easier to walk a little further to a station where you can take a direct train to your destination.
Download useful apps
To navigate the NYC subway effectively, consider downloading the “MYmta” app, which offers an offline subway map and trip planning. Google Maps is another excellent tool for planning your subway trips. Both locals and tourists find these apps invaluable for getting around the city. Even New Yorkers use these tools to get around.
Although it’s recommended to wear a mask while using the subway, it’s not mandatory. Respect any COVID-19 guidelines in place during your visit.
How to purchase a ticket or MetroCard
You have two options for paying your subway fare in New York. You can either get a traditional subway card called MetroCard, which is available at ticket machines or ticket booths at each station, or you can use their new OMNY system.
I would recommend using OMNY as the traditional MetroCards are set to be phased out by 2024.
Option 1 – OMNY: A convenient choice
If you plan to use the subway in New York, this is the easiest way to pay for your trip. OMNY is a new system that allows you to pay for your journey using your phone or a payment card directly at the turnstiles. See photo below.
You can make payments by tapping your payment card or using the OMNY app at the same location where you’d usually swipe a MetroCard. To use the OMNY app, you need to input your details and payment method in advance, which is best done at your hotel or residence before heading to the subway.
An advantage of OMNY is that it might save you money. Each time you pass through the turnstiles, it change you $2.90, but only until you reach an amount equivalent to a 7-day MetroCard, which costs $34. Once you reach $34, you can ride the subway for free for the rest of the week.
You can find more information about OMNY on omny.info.
Option 2 – MetroCard: Still an option
MetroCard is a subway card that you can purchase at every subway station from ticket machines or the ticket booth at the turnstiles. MetroCards can be used on all subways and buses in New York City. There’s a $1 fee for obtaining a new MetroCard, but you can reuse and refill it during your stay.
Don’t forget that MetroCards are going to be removed in 2024.
MetroCard fare options:
You can choose from a SingleRide (one-time use), Pay-Per-Ride (add a specific amount to the card), or an Unlimited MetroCard (unlimited travel for 7 or 30 days).
When you make your payment, you will be asked for a ZIP code. If you are not from the USA and don’t have a U.S. ZIP code, you can enter “99999.”
Swiping your MetroCard
To use your MetroCard, swipe it at the subway turnstiles by holding the card with the black magnetic strip facing you and downward. Swipe the card at a moderate speed, similar to how you’d use a debit card. If the machine displays “please swipe again,” it means you didn’t swipe the card correctly, and you need to try again at the same turnstile. These machines are sensitive, so this can happen frequently.
Remember that you must wait 18 minutes after swiping a MetroCard to use it again
Discounts for seniors and children
Free for children: Children under 44 inches tall can ride the subway and buses in New York for free when accompanied by a paying adult.
Senior discounts: If you are over 65 years old or have a disability, you can get a 50% discount when riding the subway in New York.
Make sure to check metro.info for the latest updates.
Understanding the NYC subway
The New York subway is typically most crowded during rush hour, which is usually Monday to Friday between 7:00 AM – 9:30 AM and 4:30 PM – 7:00 PM. If possible, avoid these times for a more comfortable ride. In contrast, midday and weekends are usually much less crowded.
The different numbers, colors, and letters
The subway lines in New York are initially categorized by different colors and then with numbers or letters. Each color represents 2-3 different lines that go in slightly different directions.
When planning your route, focus on the specific number or letter of your train, not the color. For example, the blue trains are divided into three lines called A, C, and E.
Exceptions: There’s one exception to this rule when taking the subway to JFK Airport. To reach the airport by subway, take the A train toward Brooklyn. The A train splits at the end and goes to three different destinations. To get to JFK, make sure you board the train headed for the Far Rockaway or Rockaway Beach terminus.
Express vs local
This is a common mistake made by first-time subway riders in New York. Trains are divided into express or local. Local trains stop at all stations, while express trains have fewer stops and skip some stations. Boarding an express train instead of a local one might lead to missing your stop.
The subway map will show you the express stations with white circles and local stations with black circles. Which lines that goes to each station are also clearly marked. Look at the picture below, and you’ll see an arrow pointing to Spring St, which is a local station with a black circle. To reach there, you can take the C or E train.
Uptown vs downtown
Every subway line always runs in two directions: uptown and downtown. For example, if you’re taking the A train, you can choose to go uptown or downtown. This direction is clearly marked on the subway platform.
Sometimes, the directions also have separate entrances, so it’s a good idea to note these signs before swiping your card and entering the platform. See the pictures below.
Connecting tunnels between stations
Some stations have underground passageways, allowing transfers between subway lines without leaving the system, which can be convenient if the weather is bad. See the picture below for an example of where you can find these connecting passageways.
Staten Island Ferry
To get to Staten Island, you’ll need to take a ferry. After arrival, you can continue your journey using the subway. Your MetroCard or OMNY is accepted.
Subway etiquette in NYC
Riding the subway in New York involves following specific etiquette rules to respect your fellow passengers and ensure a smooth journey. Here are some essential points to remember:
- Don’t stare at people: Respect others’ privacy and avoid staring at fellow passengers. Eye contact is fine, staring can make people very upset.
- Don’t block the turnstiles: If you need time to find your MetroCard or phone, do so before reaching the turnstiles. Blocking the turnstiles frustrates other travelers.
- Stand on the right: If you’re using escalators, stand on the right side so that those in a hurry can pass on the left.
- Let others exit before you enter: Before boarding the train, allow those who want to get off to do so. Ensure you don’t block the doors when they open so that people can exit the car comfortably.
- Move into the car: During rush hour, make sure to move as far into the car as possible when boarding. This way, more people can fit.
- Offer your seat: If you are seated and someone needs it more than you, such as a pregnant woman, someone with a children, or an elderly person, stand up and offer your seat.
- Avoid using handicapped spots: Handicapped spots are reserved for individuals with disabilities. If you don’t have a valid reason to use them, don’t block these spaces.
Announcements in the NYC subway
During your subway journey, you may hear announcements, often related to delays or train cancellations. It’s sometimes difficult to understand these messages as they can sound like they’re being transmitted through an old sci-fi microphone, with muffled sounds like “fjsf dfhfj dtjyjd.” You may need to ask someone nearby if they understood the message.
If you can’t understand the message, follow these guidelines:
- If everyone is exiting: If you notice that everyone is starting to leave the train, do the same. The conductor probably announced that the train is no longer in service, and you’ll need to wait for the next train.
- Delays: Sometimes, the conductor may announce delays due to technical issues or other reasons. If the train stops at the platform with the doors open, it typically means they are waiting for the issue to be resolved, and you can stay on the train.
Avoid empty subway cars
Sometimes, you might see that all subway cars are full except for one. Here are a few reasons why you should avoid that particular car:
- Unpleasant odors: Something in the car might smell bad.
- No air conditioning: The air conditioning might not be working.
- Safety concerns: There could be something unsafe in the car.
Subway safety in NYC
Safety is always important when using the subway. Here are some things to think about:
- High noise levels: Be prepared for noise, especially on platforms and during train arrivals. Consider using headphones.
- NEVER jump onto the tracks: It’s dangerous to jump onto the subway tracks, even if you drop something. Look for an MTA employee if something falls onto the tracks.
- Don’t stand too close to the tracks: When standing on the platform, keep a distance from the edge.
- Keep an eye on your valuables: Be attentive to your belongings, especially phones and wallets. Use inner pockets for added security.
- Don’t walk between cars: Never move between subway cars while the train is moving. This is extremely dangerous. You might see some people doing this anyways, but don’t let that fool you.
- Hold onto something when standing on the subway: The subway can be very bumpy, so make sure to hold onto a handrail or pole to avoid falling.
New York’s subway operates 24/7, 365 days a year, regardless of the weather. However, extreme weather conditions such as snowstorms or flooding can lead to disruptions in subway service. Stay updated on MTA’s website and social media for information on weather-related service changes.
Extremely high temperatures in the summer
During the summer months, the subway can become extremely hot. Some days, it can feel like you’re in a sauna, with passengers starting to sweat within minutes.
There’s no air conditioning on the subway platforms, but the subway cars themselves have air conditioning – most of the time! It’s a good idea to bring water with you.
Taking the subway with kids
Taking the subway with children can be a unique experience. Make sure you have everything you need, such as a stroller or baby carrier. If your child is old enough, encourage them to hold on securely.
If you plan to take the subway with a stroller, it’s smart to check the subway map in advance, as not all stations have elevators. If there’s no elevator, you’ll need to carry the stroller up and down stairs, which can be challenging if you’re alone. Luckily, New Yorkers are very friendly and someone will most likely offer to help you.
You can see which stations have elevators by checking the subway map for the handicap symbol. See example below.
Common questions about how to use the subway in NYC
Is the subway the easiest way to get around New York?
Yes, the subway is the easiest, cheapest, and fastest way to get around in New York City.
How late does the subway run in New York?
The subway operates 24/7, 365 days a year.
Do children ride the subway for free in New York?
Yes, children under 44 inches tall can ride the subway for free when accompanied by a paying adult.
How old is the New York subway?
The New York subway is one of the world’s oldest and first opened in 1904.
Can I bring my dog on the subway in New York?
Yes, you can bring your pet on the subway as long as they are in a carry bag. This rule does not apply to service animals.
Is it worth buying a weekly subway card when visiting New York?
If you plan to stay for several days, you will usually benefit from buying a weekly card. You often use the subway more times than you think. You can calculate whether a weekly card is worthwhile for your stay. If you plan to take the subway at least 12 times during your visit, it’s usually cost-effective to buy a weekly card, and it saves you the hassle of frequently refilling your card.
How many subway lines are there in New York?
The New York subway system has a total of 493 subway stations scattered across the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, and Staten Island.
When did the New York subway first open?
The New York subway first opened on October 27, 1904.
What to do if you lose your MetroCard:
If you have registered your MetroCard online, you can get a replacement. Otherwise, you’ll need to purchase a new one and load it with the appropriate amount.