Using the NYC Subway Doesn’t Have to Be Scary

March 3, 2020

I was introduced to using the NYC subway system at a young age. Even though my family visited NYC often, I was still confused as to how it worked. So many different line names, colors, stations - it was all so overwhelming.

As I got older and began to visit friends and family in the city, I learned how simple it was. Sure, it’s a complex transportation system, but when you break it down it’s not that bad.

For visitors, using the NYC subway may seem horrifying. Between the different stations and trains, where do you even begin? Before you visit the Big Apple, make sure you study our guide to using the NYC subway system.

Using the NYC Subway

How Do I Ride the Subway?

Before I dive into the nuances of the subway system, we’ll quickly cover the basics.

  1. Find your subway station.
  2. Determine which train to take.
  3. Purchase your MetroCard.
  4. Identify and go to the right subway platform.
  5. Wait for your train to arrive.
  6. Hop on and go to your destination.

Considering that NYC is such a large city, riding the subway is a bit more complex than this. Let’s break it down.

nyc subway sign for times square

Your first step is to find the correct subway station.

Finding Your Subway Station

The subway system operates in 4 out of the 5 NYC boroughs: Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. If you’re trying to find a subway station in Staten Island, good luck (although SI does have a rapid transit line).

To find the right subway station entrance, use tools such as:

If you have a subway map, look for the black or white dots - these are your subway stations. Subway stations marked by a black dot indicate that local trains stop here, while a white dot means that local and express trains stop there.

Once you know which station you’re going to, start heading there! You may enter a subway station, only to find that it’s the exit. There’s a simple trick to determining which is an entrance and which is an exit. If you see green or green and white globe lamps outside of your station, that is the entrance. If the globe lamps are red, that’s the exit.

Helpful tip: use the pedestrian tunnels in certain stations to access other nearby subway stations.

subway speeding by

An empty track of New York Subway when train passes by.

What’s the Difference between Local and Express Trains?

When using the NYC subway system, you need to know the difference between local and express trains (especially if you’re in a hurry).

Local trains stop at every single station on the designated route. This is ideal for locals traveling around the city, running errands, or heading home. Express trains still skip certain stations for a faster route. If you know exactly where you need to go using the NYC subway, you then need to look if a local or express (or both!) train will get you there.

Determining Which Train to Take

A bit of advice — figure out which subway line you need to take before getting to the station. It will make your entire experience far less stressful.

The best way to figure out which line you need is to use the subway maps readily available in each station. Of course, if those just confuse you more, talk to the station attendant or ask a local.

Also, you can use the following resources to find the correct line:

When using the NYC subway, ignore the colors of the train lines. They’re helpful in distinguishing one line from the other when finding the right platform, but that’s about it. Not all lines with the same color go to the same place! Always look at the letters/numbers associated with the line with regards to your destination.

In addition, night and weekend service will adjust the train schedule. Keep this in mind when planning your routes.

Once you know exactly where you’re going and what station to enter, it’s time to get your MetroCard.

nyc metrocard

Photo via Mr. TinDC / flickr

What is a MetroCard? How Do I Get One?

Those intending on using the NYC subway system are required to purchase a MetroCard. Without this pass, you’ll have a difficult time getting on the subway.

There are two types of MetroCards: Regular and Unlimited. The regular MetroCard is a pay-per-ride pass while the Unlimited MetroCard offers unlimited rides within a 7 or 30-day period. The Metrocard itself is $1, with regular and unlimited pricing as follows:

  • Regular: $2.75 per ride. Can be shared.
  • Unlimited: $33 for 7 days, $127 for 30 days. Cannot be shared.

Before purchasing your MetroCard, determine an approximate number of times you’ll be riding the subway. If your guess is more than 12 rides, an Unlimited 7-day MetroCard is the affordable option.

To purchase a MetroCard, go to the kiosks available before the turnstiles in every station. Follow the instructions on the screen to purchase your card.

Quick tip: Use a credit or debit card to purchase your MetroCard. Cash takes far too long and can cause problems.

turnstile in a subway system

Using the NYC subway turnstiles is both a science and an art form.

How to Use Your MetroCard

After purchasing your card, it’s time to head to your platform. To go through the turnstile, have the magnetic strip on the MetroCard facing down and towards you. Quickly swipe the card and walk through the turnstile at the same time. If you go to slow, you won’t get through.

To save money, you can share regular MetroCards. This means that after one person swipes and goes through the turnstile, he or she can hand it back to the other person to use. Just make sure that you have enough money on the card for both riders. Unlimited MetroCards cannot be shared.

Also, be 100% sure you’re at the right station, or you’ll waste money going through the turnstile.

subway platform

Finding your platform isn’t a hassle if you just follow the signs.

Finding The Right Platform

Honestly, it’s hard to mess this one up. If you know which train you need to get on, follow the signs up above to the correct platform. Always keep in mind that platforms differ for express, local, uptown, and downtown trains. If you have questions regarding where to go, simply ask the station attendant or a local.

Once you’re where you’re supposed to be, it’s time to wait for your train. To confirm that you’re about to get on the right train, look at the number/color on the front and back of the train. Also, the side of the train will have the name of the service and the last station serviced.

From here, all you have to do is hop on and enjoy using the NYC subway.

Understanding NYC Subway Etiquette

When using the NYC subway, you have to know the unspoken rules. Following proper etiquette can be the difference between a smooth subway experience and a rocky one.

Be Alert
Walking and texting. Aimlessly staring. Stopping in the middle of the stairs or platform. All of these activities will warrant glares from passersby trying to get home or to work. Instead of being distracted, put your phone down and stay alert while heading to your destination.

If you need to use the phone or consult a map, step to the side and out of people’s way.

MetroCard Troubles
If for some reason your MetroCard won’t work after 3 swipes, let those behind you go through. It’s the courteous thing to do. If your card still will not work, go to the station attendant for help.

Let People Exit the Train First
This is a personal pet peeve of mine. Let people get off of the train before you enter! I’ve encountered people flooding into the train car, causing me and several other passengers to miss our stop due to the inability to get out.

While you don’t need to wait a long time, be kind and make room for those exiting the train.

Walk Into the Train
Don’t hop on and stop in the middle of the crowd. Walk as far into the train as possible and find a seat. If you stop at the door, you’ll block others from entering the train and cause a traffic jam of people.

Do Not Hold the Door
Holding the door for others delays the train schedule and will frustrate those trying to get somewhere in a hurry or simply on time.

subway speeding by

Photo by m01229 / flickr

Know Before You Go

Tourists using the NYC subway system for the first time will encounter a bit of shock. Yes, it’s overwhelming and slightly confusing - but if you’re prepared, it’s quite simple. Keep these final notes in mind before using the NYC subway.

  • If you drop something on the tracks, do not try to retrieve it. It is incredibly dangerous to attempt to do so.
  • There is little to no cell phone service underground. Few stations offer cell service and Wi-Fi.
  • During the summer, the un-air conditioned underground transportation service can be a bit much to handle.
  • It’s not the prettiest mode of transportation, but it is one of the most convenient.
  • JFK, Newark, Amtrak, Port Authority Trans-Hudson, and New Jersey Transit are not accessible using the NYC subway.
  • MetroCards can also be used for the NYC bus system as well!
subway with nyc skyline in background

Photo via NYC MTA / Flickr

Don’t Be Afraid of Using the NYC Subway

When you book your vacation to NYC, don’t be scared of the subway - embrace it! Just make sure you have everything you need, such as the New York City PASS, before using the NYC subway.

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