The Ultimate NYC Subway Guide: How to Take the Subway in New York City

Intimidated by the thought of taking a subway in NYC? That’s how I felt when I first moved to New York, but after doing this for almost a decade, it’s become second nature to hop on the subway in New York City. In this post I will share everything you need to know on how to ride the NYC subway (and trust me, it’s not that hard!).

New York City runs on MTA subways, this seemingly ancient transportation system moves millions of New Yorkers around 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In fact New York City is one of the 3 subway systems in the world that runs 24/7 (the other two being the “L” in Chicago and Copenhagen Metro). So yes, New York City never sleeps because our subways never stop.

I get that for a first time visitor, the New York City subway can be very confusing and people may even think the subway is dangerous. In this post I will de-myth our subway system and I guarantee you will walk away knowing how to take the subway around the city.

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NYC Flatiron building

General Facts on New York City Subway

The New York City subway is one of the oldest subway systems in the world and in the US. Its operation started on October 27, 1904 and its service has extended since then. There are lines that were added and stations removed between 1904 and now.

If you ever visit the New York Transit Museum, you will get to see some of the old (and retired) subway cars, including ads on those trains.

One interesting fact you should know is that us New Yorkers call the subway “train”. It is not a train like Amtrak. So if you hear locals say “take the train”, they are most likely referring to the subway. If locals meant real trains, they would say “LIRR” (Long Island Railroad), Amtrak, Metro North, etc. So for the purpose of this blog, I use “the subway” and “train” interchangeably.

Even though there is a lot that can be improved on the New York City subway, it is a system that operates 24/7, and covers 4 out of the 5 boroughs in New York City. The New York City subway does NOT go to Staten Island.

Since the New York City subway is old, it is not as automated and seamlessly controlled as some of the newer subway systems (like those in Asia). Therefore there are frequent delays on the subway. In addition, there is no barrier/ railing on the platform, so things can easily fall onto the tracks and cause delay.

Union Square Subway Station

How Much Does the NYC Subway Cost

As of 2024, it costs $2.90 one way to ride the New York City subway regardless of distance. This means it costs the same whether you ride the subway for 1 stop or 20 stops. This is one thing I love about NYC subway, it allows people who live far away to be able to afford to commute to Manhattan.

Because it is a fixed fare, you do not need to tap out (very different from London tube)! Up to 3 kids under 44 inches can ride the subway for free.

If you plan to transfer to a MTA bus or a different subway (that requires you to go outside of the station), you can transfer for free within 2 hours using the same MetroCard or credit card (OMNY tap). I will talk about OMNY in the next section.

How to Pay for the Subway (MetroCard vs. OMNY vs. Subway Pass)

Gone are the days that everyone needed to have a MetroCard to ride the subway or bus. Finally, New York City has caught up with technology and allows riders to just tab their credit (or debit) card on the OMNY reader at the turnstile.

But here are the 3 ways you can pay for a NYC subway ride:

  • Use a regular MetroCard
  • Buy an unlimited MetroCard (Subway Pass)
  • Tap and pay using credit card/ debit card

MetroCard & Unlimited MetroCard (Subway Pass)

NYC MetroCard

For the longest time I used MetroCards when I rode the subway. Now MetroCards are being phased out and mostly only people that like to use cash or tourists that don’t want to use contactless credit/debit cards use MetroCards.

At each stay there are MetroCard machines where you can either purchase or top up an existing MetroCard. There are multiple types of MetroCards so I understand why it can get confusing. Here is my brief explanation on what each of the most popular types of MetroCard is and how much they cost:

MetroCard TypeWhat it is & why you would use thisCost
Pay-Pre-Ride (Regular MetroCard)The most common type. You get the card and you swipe it once when you ride. You can top up at the machine when the balance is low.
Requires minimum balance of $5.80.
New card costs $1.
$2.9 per ride
SingleRideNobody really uses this unless you literally only need to ride the subway once. No minimum balance required. Cannot top up$3.25
7 Day UnlimitedYou can ride the subway or bus (except Express buses) as much as you want within 7 consecutive days.
Only one person can use this (if someone wants to share this card, they need to wait 15-20 minutes to swipe the same card).
With OMNY (more on that later), you don’t really need a 7 Day Unlimited MetroCard
30 Day UnlimitedSame concept as the 7 day one$132

My Step by Step Instruction on buying a new MetroCard (Costs $1 more for the card)

  1. Press Start on the machine
  2. Choose the language you desire
  3. Click on “MetroCard“, unless you want to buy the SingleRide one.
  4. Select “Get New Card” if you want to buy a new card. If you already have a MetroCard and want to add more money, then you would select “Refill your card” instead. Note that you need to pay $1 for a new MetroCard.
  5. Choose between “Regular MetroCard” or “Unlimited Ride”. The difference is explained in my chart above
  6. Decide the amount ($) you want to put on the card. The more you pay the more “bonus” you get. You can also click on “other amounts” and enter however much you want.
  7. Select method of paying
  8. Then use the machine to pay and the MetroCard will come out of the machine

I would only suggest using a MetroCard if you plan to pay cash. Otherwise, OMNY is the best way to pay for the subway (or bus).

How to Swipe the MetroCard

This may sound like a dumb question but trust me, I see people struggling with this (like my parents)!

In the photo below, you see the metal thing on top of the OMNY reader where you can literally take the MetroCard and swipe through it? When you hold the MetroCard, make sure the black strip is on the bottom facing you, that’s the part that will go through the slot.

Once you swipe, you have to PUSH the turnstile to go through. It is NOT automatic and will not turn for you (my parents were waiting for it to turn by itself and wasted my $2.90).

Using OMNY to Pay for the Subway

NYC subway OMNY tap and pay

OMNY is the contactless reader installed at every New York City subway turnstile. I have to say that I love OMNY and now I no longer even have a MetroCard!

If you have a contactless credit card or debit card (or Apple Pay or Google Pay), then you literally just tap your card/ phone on the OMNY reader and you are done.

Why I absolutely love OMNY is because you only need to pay for 12 rides within 7 consecutive days with the same card then the rest is free. This means if I use the same credit card to pay for the rides everyday (2x a day), my 13th ride and thereafter are all free.

OMNY eliminates the need to get a 7 day unlimited MetroCard.

Same as the MetroCard, once you tap and the screen goes green and says “Go”, you need to push the turnstile and go.

New York City subway Train

Where does the NYC Subway Go

The MTA subway covers 4 out of the 5 boroughs, including:

  • Manhattan
  • Queens
  • Brooklyn
  • The Bronx

There are a number of subway lines, differed by numbers and letters (such as 1, 2, 3, A, B, C). Some of them are organized by colors but each color has multiple trains (such as yellow includes Q, R, W trains and Red includes 1, 2, 3 trains). Any direction you use will give you the number or letter of the train, but not the color.

Keep in mind that almost every train goes through Manhattan. If you try to go from Queens to Brooklyn, most likely you need to go through Manhattan (the only exception is the G train).

Even though it may take over an hour (and one of two train switches) to go from Brooklyn to the Bronx (or Queens to Upper West Side in Manhattan), the train will get you there for $2.90.

The subway will also take you to JFK, one of the 3 major airports in the New York City metro area. If you are interested to learn more about how to travel between JFK and Manhattan, read my detailed JKF to Manhattan post.

The New York City subway does NOT go to Long Island, New Jersey or Connecticut. You will need to take the LIRR (Long Island Railroad), NJ Transit and Metro North respectively to go to those places.

Uptown vs. Downtown in NYC

The New York City subway system operates on a grid system, with most trains run north to south. Although some trains do run East to West (to go to Queens and Brooklyn). Within Manhattan, streets run east to west and Avenues run north to south. Therefore 63rd street is more north of 13th street and 1st Avenue is east of 2nd avenue.

So if you look at the New York City subway map, you will notice that most train lines in Manhattan go up and down. Therefore if a train is going north (up on a map), then it is going “uptown”. If a train is going south (down on a map), the train is going downtown.

A practical example would be if you are at the 14th Street Union Square Station waiting for the Q train, if you are planning to go up to 34th Street Herald Square, you will be going up (34 is bigger than 14), so you are going uptown. But if you are planning to go to 8th NYC station, you will be going downtown because 8th st. and below 14th street on the map.

NYC subway train uptown vs. downtown

What is confusing is when it comes to Queens and Brooklyn. Even though Queens and Brooklyn are technically east of Manhattan, if you try to take a train from Manhattan to Queens or Brooklyn, some stations will only say “uptown” or “downtown”, instead of “Queens” or “Brooklyn”.

The only thing I would say is that if you are trying to go to Queens from Manhattan, you will need to take the train “uptown”, because the train typically goes “uptown” to 53rd Street area before it turns East to go to Queens.

If you are trying to go to Brooklyn from Manhattan, you will need to take the “downtown” direction.

What is Local vs. Express Train in New York City

If you are confused about uptown vs. downtown, you are going to love the local vs. express train distinction!

Not all trains are the same when it comes to New York City, some trains go faster than others!

Express trains are trains that skip a few stops and only stop in major stations, making it a lot faster. Local trains are subway trains that make a stop at every station.

This is the list of expression trains in NYC:

  • Q Train
  • N Train
  • E Train
  • F Train
  • 2 Train
  • 3 Train
  • 4 Train
  • 5 Train
  • D train
  • A train
  • J train
  • Z train

However some trains are local in Queens or Brooklyn but not local in Manhattan (like the E, F) and some trains are express sometimes and local sometimes (like the 7 train). There are some express train stops in Manhattan, like for the 1, 2, Q, N lines.

How to tell which train is local and which train is express?

The easiest way is to know the trains and maps by heart, but yes I hear you, that’s not possible for a first time visitor (even I don’t know the map by heart).

Another way to tell is by looking at the platform. For certain large stations 42nd Street Times Square, there are two train tracks for each direction, one on the outside (against the wall), and another train track on the inside (near the center).

If you are at a station like Times Square or Bryant Park, the train track on the inside (near the center) is generally the Express Train side, and the track against the wall is usually the local train stop.

NYC subway: local vs. express

How to take the New York City subway: Express Train vs. local Train
In this case the Q is the express, N, R, W are local trains (although N is express sometimes)

If you look at the map of the subway train, any station that is a black dot is a local stop, and train stations that are a white circle are express train stops (local trains also stop there). You can transfer at these “white” train stops between local and express (for example, if you want to go to 8th St NYC station from Times Square, you can take the N or Q express train down to 14th street Union Square, then transfer to the local R and W train for one stop down to 8th St – NYU station).

Evening and Weekend Trains + Re-routes

Even though the New York City subway is 24/7, the service is not necessarily consistent when it comes to late nights and evenings. Since the subway is 24/7, there is really no major downtime for maintenance, construction and track cleaning, therefore all of these happen on the weekend and late at night.

In my 10 years of living in New York City, I’ve seen way too many train rerouted due to various reasons. What this simply means is that express trains may not run express, and local trains may take a different route (like the F train might run on the E track or something) or skip stops like the example below.

At first glance, this is a lot to digest. But essentially the reroute alert tells you that the 3 train is skipping some stops, and what are the alternative ways to get from point A to point B using a different route.

If you are a first time visitor and staying in Manhattan, this may impact you a bit less than if you were staying outside of Manhattan. There are definitely trains that will still go to Times Square, Bryant Park or Grand Central regardless of time or day.

How to Get Directions for the New York City Subway

Now that I told you the basics of how our subway system works, your next question is probably ok, how do I actually know where to go on the subway?

Even New Yorkers use apps to get directions from point A to point B (unless you take the same route everyday). The best app (in my humble opinion) for the subway is CityMapper. I never use Google Maps for subway directions because it is not the most accurate or useful. CityMapper, however, tells you exactly when the next train will come, and where to be on the train (front, middle, or back).

In the following example, let’s get the direction from Times Square to 911/ Memorial using the CityMapper app.

In the example above, you would:

  • Open the CityMapper App, click on “Get Me Somewhere”
  • Type in your “end” direction, which is 9/11 Memorial & Museum
  • Then a list of options will show up, I usually just select the first one, in this case, it’s the 3 train, which will take 21 minutes and cost $2.90
  • Click onto your desired option will pull up details of the direction and visually show you where the train will be going
  • The screen will also show you when the next train will arrive (in this case it’s in 7 minutes), and the best place on the train, which is in the front
  • If you scroll down on the screen, it will show you which stop to get off (WTC Cortlandt), the best exit to take, and how to walk there.

Serena’s hack: If you see the same train coming only 1-2 minutes later, take the second train. You will most likely get a seat on the later train if it’s only 1-2 minutes later! Most people don’t bother checking or waiting, but I always do!

Inside of New York City subway - how to take the NYC subway

What to Expect on the NYC Subway

You can expect a lot on a subway ride in New York City! I kid you not. I’ve seen everything from people moving furniture/ plants to performances to pole dancing to people selling candy to crazy people yelling to the homeless sleeping on trains. Although most of the time a subway ride is eventless, below are some of the things you can expect on the subway

The train can be louder than you expect

The subway is not quiet, in fact it can actually be pretty loud depending on the track and the speed. I generally think express trains are louder since they can go pretty fast (like up to 55 miles per hour). If loud noises bother you, then I suggest you wear noise canceling headphones.

Fun fact: I actually think the “L” in Chicago is way louder than the NYC subway.

There are performance on the subway train (and in the station)

Occasionally you may encounter an exciting performance on the subway. The most common performance is usually a group of teenagers (or people in their 20s) jumping onto a not-too-crowded train. They will bring a speaker with them to play music and use the poles and handles on the train to show off their latest pole dancing routine.

I am always afraid of getting kicked in the face (but it hasn’t happened yet).

Some of the performances are not as exciting, you may see someone playing the guitar or singing a song. Ultimately they are looking for donations. If you don’t want to donate, simply look away or say sorry.

There are homeless people on the train

If you take the subway enough, you will encounter homeless people on the train. Many times they will be sleeping on the train, taking up the entire bench of seating.

If you ever see an empty subway car (even when it’s peak time, or when other cars are full), don’t go in, there is probably a smelly person in that subway car (or maybe because there is no AC in that car).

You [probably] won’t be able to understand the announcement

Given the loud noises from the train and the ancientness of the subway system, it should come to no surprise that you probably won’t be able to hear the announcements in the subway car.

Obviously this differs by train and by subway car, but there are so many times when the conductor makes an announcement and I literally cannot hear or understand what they are saying because the speaker system is so weak.

There are ACs on the subway (but not in the station)

One really pleasant thing about the NYC subway is that there is strong AC in the subway car. When the weather gets hot, the MTA turns on the AC, which is always nice after you melt on the subway platform.

Only a few of the newer stations (like the oculus) in New York City have AC in the station. When it’s 90 degrees outside, it’s about 105 degrees inside the subway station.

Trains get delayed all the time during rush hour

The general rule is that the more people ride the subway, the more likely the subway will get delayed.

Back before the pandemic, I used to take the train all the time to go to work, and I think I’ve heard all the reasons there can be when it comes to train delays:

  • Sick passenger
  • Emergency brake activations
  • Signal problem
  • Train traffic
  • Police activity
  • Person on track <— never a good thing

But yes, don’t expect the subway to be on time. There have been times that I was stuck on the subway for more than 30 minutes because the train is just crawling or it literally stops moving.

There is no reception or Wifi on the subway (but there is Wifi and reception on the platform in the station)

If you are taking the train for a long time, be sure to have some entertainment downloaded to your phone. While you can get wifi inside the station, once the train is in the tunnel, you will lose all internet reception and wifi.

God bless you if you are stuck in the tunnel with no reception, some Candy Crush or Netflix shows really come in handy then.

Get ready to walk up and down the stairs

Major stations have elevators, but most stations don’t have elevators or escalators. You will most likely have to walk up and down the stairs a lot. Wear comfortable shoes and be ready to walk.

Be prepared for the smell of the subway

If you do find the elevator, chances are it’s not very clean. I’ve smelled a strong piss smell inside the elevator and I do feel bad for workers that need to clean up these elevators.

The station itself may or may not have its unique smell, but sometimes it smells like weed/ smoke as there are people that smoke inside when they are not supposed to. It’s part of New York City, you will get used to the smell.

You might see rats in the station

Not sure if you’ve ever seen the viral pizza rat of the NYC subway (if you haven’t, don’t worry about it). But New York City is not the cleanest city so don’t be surprised if you ever see rats on the subway tracks (rarely does it make onto the subway itself).

The express trains are amazing, when they work

If you can’t already tell, I got my opinions on New York City (and its subway). But in all honesty, despite the delays, I really do appreciate the express trains we have. When there are no delays, express trains are really fast and you do feel like you are zooming by.

When the express trains work well, you can literally get from Times Square to Union Square in like 5 minutes whereas driving would take like 15 or more if there’s traffic.

If you want to see interesting/ funny/ crazy things that happen on the NYC subway, follow this Instagram account (it has other cities’ subways but it mostly posts about NYC subway).

NYC subway train

NYC Subway Unwritten Rules and Etiquette

There are some unwritten rules to follow. It’s actually super easy for me to tell who is a tourist and who’s not based on some of these behaviors:

  • Wait for people to get off the subway before getting on: This is the no.1 rule when riding the NYC subway! It is extremely annoying when someone rushes on before we can get off. Just wait, you will get on eventually.
  • Don’t block the door: it’s fine if you are standing by the subway door, but when the door opens, get off so others can get off! Then you can get back on, it’s not a big deal.
  • Avoid empty train cars: I already mentioned this. If everything else is full and this one train car is empty, there is something wrong in that car (most likely no AC or some smelly person sleeping in there).
  • Take off your huge backpack: the subway gets packed during rush hour. It’s fine if you need to have a backpack, just take it off and put it on your feet (if you are standing). This allows others to get on the train and not get hit in the face by your backpack.
  • Cover your nose and mouth when you are sneezing or coughing: this became more apparent since the pandemic. Space is limited on the subway and nobody wants your germs. You don’t have to wear a mask but at least cover your sneeze and cough.
  • Don’t manspread: if the train is crowded, don’t manspread and let people sit next to you.
  • Your bags don’t get to sit: again, if the train is crowded, people sit on the seats, not your bags. If it’s not crowded then do whatever you want, nobody cares.

Other Questions You May Have About the NYC Subway

Is the NYC Subway Safe? Is it safe for kids?

In general the New York City subway is safe. North of 3 million people ride the subway every single day, if it’s not safe we wouldn’t have survived this long. Kids also ride the subway like everybody else (with their parents that is).

That being said, there are of course crimes and accidents on the subway. Follow the rules below to stay safe:

  • ALWAYS stay away from the track: We don’t have doors and railings next to the track and people do fall (or get pushed off) every once in a while. Always stand against the wall (or in the middle if there’s no wall behind you).
  • Stay vigilant: Most of the time nobody would do anything to you, but it pays off to be vigilant of your surroundings. If you see shady people walking towards you, see if you can avoid. Don’t just stare at your phone.
  • Watch for pickpockets: I have never been pickpocketed in NYC but I heard there are pickpockets. Just watch your stuff and grab onto your purse.
  • Re-consider riding the train super late: Generally it’s fine, but as a woman, I don’t like to ride the subway super late at night (like 11pm on a weekday). This is not to say it’s dangerous at night, most people will tell you it’s not, but I prefer not to ride the train late at night by myself.

Is the NYC subway on time?

Sometimes it’s on time, sometimes it’s not. Use the CityMapper app to track train arrival time, but I would say give yourself some buffer in case of delays (and we get delays frequently especially during rush hours).

Does the subway station in New York City have elevators or escalators?

Some of the larger stations (usually the stations with express train stops) have elevators. I can count with one hand how many stations have escalators (that I know of), so they are not very common.

What age is free on the subway?

Up to 3 kids under 44 inches tall can ride the NYC subway for free.

Is there a one day or 3 day unlimited card for the New York City subway?

Nope, there is only a 7 day and a 30 day unlimited MetroCard for the subway.

Does the New York City subway go to New Jersey?

No, the New York City subway only travels within New York City (except to Staten Island). To go to New Jersey, you will need to take the PATH train and other NJ Transit trains from Penn Station.

Can you share an unlimited MetroCard?

You cannot share a 7 day or 30 day unlimited MetroCard. Each swipe needs to wait 18 minutes (so if you want to share, the second person needs to wait 18 minutes before they can swipe at the turnstile).

Can you share OMNY?

You can use the same credit card/ debit card to tap on the OMNY reader for multiple people. Only the first tap counts towards your 12 ride in 7 day limit before your 13th ride becomes free.

Additional New York City Articles

If you want to check out other cool things to do and see in NYC here are some other articles that may interest you!

New York City Itineraries & Things to Do

Christmas and Holiday Season in New York City

New York City Seasonal Articles

How to Save Money Traveling to NYC

New York City Food Guide

Other New York City Guides

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