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This is when I started traveling that I realized how fast, efficient and clear the subway in Paris (my hometown) is. When traveling elsewhere… It immediately gets more complicated! “How to use the New York subway? How does it work? I don’t understand all the signs…” Those are questions many travelers ask themselves and it’s normal: you’ll have to take the subway when visiting New York. Moreover, when you don’t know how to take the subway in NYC, it’s a real headache! The subway is big, noisy, sometimes dirty, intimidating, confusing and overwhelming at the same time (there are more than 400 subway stations!). Here’s a beginner’s guide! After reading, you’ll know how to take the subway in New York!
Getting around by subway in New York
First off, you probably won’t escape the New York subway. It’s the cheapest means of transportation and the most practical to get around. It’s also the fastest. Taxis are expensive and you’ll waste of time in traffic. Buses are as cheap as the subways but once again, the ride will be longer because of the traffic and the red lights… Therefore, taking the NYC subway is the solution!
The NYC subway works 24/7. It’s very useful, you don’t need to rush after a night out to catch the last subway. Obviously, the subways are less regular nighttime but it’s still useful. Moreover, the subway covers the five boroughs of New York (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx, Staten Island). Sometimes, some stations are closed for renovation (mostly on weekends) but in this case, there are bus shuttles.
The subway stations in New York
So you’re outside and you want to take the subway! You’ll spot the the subway stations entrances thanks to the small black sign with subway written on it, the name of station and also the colored display of the subway lines of the station. You’ll notice that sometimes the subway lines are either numbers or letters. Some of them share the same color (those lines share a common itinerary).
Some stations have a green ball to the level of the entrance, others have a red ball. The green ball means there’s a vending machine to buy a metrocard in the station, the red ball means there’s none and you must already have a metrocard to be able to take the subway.
Buying a New York metrocard
Here you are in the subway station. Head to the vending machines to buy your subway ticket (Metrocard). If needed, it’s possible to change the language of the vending machine. Anyway, the vending machine is first going to ask you if you want to get a new card (that will be the case if you haven’t taken the subway yet) or refill your card.
If you want to buy a new card, you’ll be able to:
- buy a single ride ticket, it’s $2.75. The ticket is valid for two hours after its first use. I suggest you not buy one cause you’re gonna take the subway very often in New York. It’s gonna get expensive buying numerous single ride tickets!
- buy a pay-per-ride metrocard. You refill your card with the desired amount and they’ll debit $2.75 from the balance everytime you’ll take the subway. Unless you stay three days or less (or if you don’t take much the subway), I don’t recommend buying one. You’ll lose money, you’ll always take the subway! However, you need to know one pay -per-ride metrocard can be used by up to 4 people!
- finally, you’ll be able to buy an unlimited metrocard. That’s the one I recommend buying! It’s $32 dollars for a week and you’ll be able to use the subway as often as you want for seven days! Take the subway at least 12 times in one week (it will be the case!) and you’ll make the metrocard profitable. There’s a $1 fee the first time you’re buying a metrocard.
If you pay by cash, you need to know the vending machines dispense $9 maximum so make sure to have the right change. If you pay by credit card, you will be asked to enter your billing zip code. If you’re not a US citizen, just type 99999 (that means non-US citizen). Finally, you need to know you won’t be able to pay more than two metrocard with one credit card.
Don’t even try to cheat, you’ll face a huge fine and if you’re not a US citizen, they may send you back to your country of origin! But kids measuring up to 44 inches (112 centimeters) can take the subway for free, no matter how old they are.
New York subway map
Let’s get down to business. You have your metrocard, you know where you are and you know where you need to go. First off download the New York Subway MTA Map app or the Citymapper app. You’ll have the subway map with you (it’s not everywhere in the subway…).
Uptown or downtown direction
Unlike many subways in the world, they don’t display the name of the terminus to know which direction to take. You’ll either have to go uptown or downtown. The subways going uptown are heading to the north (Upper Manhattan, Harlem, Bronx), those going downtown are heading to the south (Lower Manhattan). Thanks to the subway map, you know where you need to go, so take the right direction.
There’s a little snag. Sometimes, when you’re outside and you want to take the subway, there are separate entrances for trains running uptown and downtown. It’s not always the case but keep an eye open.
You’ll see it if that’s the case (it’s written), the entrances are in the same street but on a different sidewalk. If you mistakenly swipe your card at the wrong entrance, sometimes you’ll have to get outside to get in the right entrance. Frustrating because when you swipe your card to take the subway, you have to wait 18 minutes before using the card again…
Local and express subways
Ok so you bought your ticket and you’re on the subway platform. You think it’s over. Nope! There are two types of subways in New York : local subways and express subways. The local subways make every stop on the line while the express subways skips several stations. Yeah but which ones? Have a look at your subway map, the express subways only stop at the stations with a white dot.
When the subway arrives, check the number or the letter written on it. Yep, one single platform can be shared by several subway lines! Don’t rely on the color, but the number or the letter. One color corresponds with different subway lines.
If you wanna know if the subway coming is a local one or an express one, you can either check the noticeboard on the platform, or directly check the subway, it’s written on it. There’s also an announcement. Otherwise some subway lines are local (1, C, F…), others are express (5, B, J…).
In the subway, there’s free WiFi and it’s working really well! Your metrocard is also valid if you want to take the bus. It’s a good thing to do in Manhattan because unfortunately, the subway lines go from the north to the south (and vice versa), but not from the east to the west…
That’s it! Now you know everything about how to use the NYC subway smoothly! If you wanna know more about the history of the New York subway, head to the New York Transit Museum! It’s interesting and fun, you shouldn’t miss it if you’re looking for unique things to do in New York City!
New York subway tips
- If you plan to visit many monuments and museums in New York, get a New York Pass. You get access to many places with the pass, including the access to the New York Transit Museum. Click here to buy it.
- Here are the best hotels in New York City.
- Traveling soon? Check out my travel resources page! This list of travel accessories can also be useful!
- Do not go to the US without a travel insurance! Here’s why get a travel insurance!
- Likewise, if you arrive from abroad, you’ll have to provide proof of onward travel!
- Want a tailor-made trip to the US? Get a free quote here!
- Always use a VPN when traveling. I use ExpressVPN and I love it. Here’s why use a VPN when traveling.
Quan Tran says
I have been to NYC as well and yes it is a complicated system of transportation that definitely need sometime to adjust to. I lived in Boston for 4 years prior to visiting NYC and Boston has a less complicated subway.
Yes it seems easy for the locals, but it’s not that simple to use the NYC subway.
and make sure you wear a mask on the subway and social distance! (I live in NYC)