Photo of A First Timer's Guide to New York Subway

When I had been on my first solo trip to New York City in the year 2017, I extensively used the New York Subway system to get from point A to point B. I used the public transportation system wherever possible and hardly took cabs. I mean cabs in NYC are quite expensive but the primary reason I took the subway was because I wanted to travel like a local in New York City.

Traveling by the subway in NYC is quite daunting at first. Imagine you’re in one of the fastest cities in the world where everybody is rushing to get to wherever they’ve planned to for the day and you’re trying to figure out how to travel by the NYC subway, at the subway station! Phew! That can be quite overwhelming and believe me, it is.

Before heading to New York, I hadn’t done much research about the New York Subway system. I wish I had because then, I wouldn’t have struggled much. I mean it’s not always easy to ask a local to help you because they’re always in a hurry themselves! So the best way to understand how the New York Subway system works is by doing a bit of research yourself before your trip commences.

I have written this guide to help you understand how to use the New York Subway system on your first visit to New York. It is a comprehensive guide with precise and relevant information that is going to equip you with all the necessary skills required to MASTER the largest public transportation system in the world.

Here is my Ultimate Guide to Understanding the New York Subway System for First Time Visitors

Table of Contents

  1. What is the New York Subway?
  2. Understanding the 5 Boroughs in New York City
  3. Learning the Map of New York City
  4. Understanding “Avenue” and “Street” in New York City
  5. Understanding “Uptown” and “Downtown”
  6. Buying a MetroCard
  7. Using Google Maps Instead of the New York Subway Map
  8. A STEP-BY-STEP Guide to Using the New York Subway
  9. Extra Information (Good to Know)
  10. FAQs
    1. The New York Subway
      • What are the New York Subway hours?
      • Where can I find the New York Subway schedule?
      • Where can I download the New York City Subway map [PDF]?
      • Is there a New York Subway Pass for tourists?
      • How much is a subway ride in NYC?
      • Is the New York Subway safe at night?
      • How old is the New York Subway?
      • Is the New York Subway dirty?
    2. The New York MetroCard
      • Which MetroCard to buy for tourists?
      • Are there different MetroCards for different options?
      • Can I combine the pay-per-ride and the unlimited ride option?
      • How do I refill my NYC MetroCard?
      • Can I buy the MetroCard at any subway station?
      • How much is a NYC MetroCard?
      • How much is a 7 day unlimited MetroCard?
      • Is there a 1 day unlimited MetroCard?
      • Is there a day pass for New York subway?
      • How do I get a MetroCard in NYC?
      • How much is a 1 day unlimited MetroCard?
      • Does the 7 day MetroCard work on buses?
      • Do kids have to pay for MTA?
      • Can you buy a New York Metro Card online?
      • Where can I buy the NYC MetroCard?
Photo of the New York Subway

What is the New York Subway?

The New York Subway system is the main public transportation system in New York. Every day, around 5.5 million people ride the subway and it is one of the most preferred modes of transportation in New York City by locals and tourists.

The New York Subway system is quite old and was launched on October 27, 1904. Those who visit NYC prefer to take the subway to get from one part of the city to another.

One thing to note here is that there are other modes of transportation in New York other than the subway such as the AirTrain, Amtrak, Metro-North Railroad, etc . Don’t confuse these for the New York Subway system.

The New York Subway system operates within the New York City only.

Fun Fact: The subway is also referred to as the “train” by the locals but NEVER as the metro, underground, or tube!

A Photo of Boroughs in NYC

Understanding the 5 Boroughs in New York City

The first step to understanding the New York Subway system is knowing the 5 boroughs that are connected by the system. The 5 boroughs of New York City are:

  1. Manhattan
  2. Brooklyn
  3. Queens
  4. The Bronx
  5. Staten Island

Note: If you want to get to Staten Island, you will have to first take the (free) ferry to the island and then you can use the subway within the island.

A Photo of Learning the New York City Map

Learning the Map of New York City

You might feel overwhelmed when I ask you to learn the map of New York City but believe me, it is really helpful! It comes in very handy when you have to decide if you have to take the uptown train or the downtown train (which I will explain shortly).

If you make a list of places that you want to visit, spot it on the map, visualize it and learn the approximate location of these places, traveling by the New York City Subway will become a piece of cake!

For example:

  • Uptown Manhattan – Central Park, The MET, The American Museum of Natural History
  • Midtown Manhattan – Times Square, Top of the Rock Observatory
  • Lower Manhattan – 9/11 Memorial & Museum, Statue of Liberty, Wall Street

Feel free to add in more places to these regions and memorize their approximate locations.

Photo of Manhattan Street Grid, NYC

Understanding “Avenue” and “Street” in New York City

The street system in New York City is divided into “Avenues (Ave)” and “Streets (St)” as shown in the picture above. Avenues run from north to south while streets run from east to west. The street numbering increases as you go north and the avenue numbering increases as you go west.

When you are in New York City, you will need to know the grid system because it will make it easier for you to find the subway stations. For example, if you’re in the 38th street, 6th avenue and want to go to the 42nd street, 7th avenue, you can walk further north until you find the 42nd street and then take a left to go to the 7th avenue.

If you understand the street numbering system accurately, you can navigate from point A to point B without having to take your phone every time for directions on Google Maps – and it does save a lot of battery too!

Photo of Downtown Platform in New York Subway

Understanding “Uptown” and “Downtown”

One of the most important things to know before taking the New York Subway is the concept of Uptown and Downtown.

Now, while these regions can be geographical in nature, they can also determine the direction of travel.

Going uptown means going northward while going downtown means going southward

For example, if you’re in Central Park and you want to go to the Empire State Building, the direction of travel will be southward and hence you will have to take the downtown train. Similarly, if you want to go the 9/11 Memorial & Museum from Wall Street, you will have to travel northward and hence you will need to take the uptown train.

Note: Both the 9/11 Memorial & Museum and the Wall Street belong to Lower Manhattan, however, when it comes to the New York subway system, downtown refers to the direction of travel and not the geographical region.

Photo of Metrocard to Ride the New York Subway

Buying a MetroCard

You need a MetroCard to use the New York Subway system. You can buy the MetroCard at the subway station itself. The fee for a MetroCard is $1 and the cost of a ride between any two stations is fixed at $2.75.

There are two types of MetroCard:

  1. Pay-per-ride (value) – load money each time you take a trip.
  2. Unlimited ride (time) – load a fixed amount for a specific duration of time and take unlimited rides during that time (7-day pass and 30-day pass).

You can buy a MetroCard at any subway station either at the staffed ticket booth or at the MetroCard vending machine. You can either pay by card or cash (International visitors can enter 99999 as the ZIP code when paying by card).

Refer to the FAQs section below to learn more about the NYC MetroCard.

ALSO READ: Why You Should Take That Solo Trip Now!

Photo of Using Google Maps Instead of the New York Subway Map

Using Google Maps Instead of the New York Subway Map

A lot of people might ask you to carry a copy of the New York Subway Map to travel by the subway. However, it is really not necessary:

  1. It is a time kill.
  2. When you have technology to make your life easier, USE it.

Google Maps is truly a life savior for first time travelers to New York City. If you just type in the destination and hit ‘enter’, a potential list of trains that you need to take to get to your destination, the station where you need to board the train at, the approximate timing of arrival of the train, and the total duration of the trip, will be displayed. And that’s all you need.

Photo of Google Maps for Subway Direction in NYC

Once you have all the information in hand, use my STEP-BY-STEP Guide below to understand how to navigate the New York City Subway using Google Maps.

A STEP-BY-STEP Guide to Using the New York Subway

1. Get to the nearest subway station – either use Google Maps, or like I mentioned earlier, apply your knowledge of the Avenue and Street system (the latter is more fun!).

2. Find out if you need to travel uptown or downtown and find the right entrance – some subway stations have different entrances for different trains, so enter the right entrance accordingly.

Photo of the Subway Station Entrance in NYC

3. Swipe your MetroCard at the turnstile – once you identify the right entrance, swipe your MetroCard at the turnstile to enter the subway system.

4. Find the right platform – once you know whether you’ve to take the uptown train or the downtown train, head to the corresponding platform.

Photo of the Turnstile at the New York Subway
Photo of a Platform in New York City Subway Station

5. Take the train mentioned on Google Maps – Google Maps gives you a list of trains that you can take. The New York Subway trains are usually marked in a specific color and have a specific letter/number. The color usually determines a specific line whereas the letter/number determines the train. For example, the Broadway line is always yellow and the trains are marked N, R, Q, W.

6. Transit if necessary – if you have to change a train or transit through a station, follow the same steps mentioned above. Follow Google Maps for the necessary information.

Photo of the New York Subway
Photo of the New York Subway/Train

7. Exit – Google Maps will also tell you which exit to take depending on your destination.

And this is it! You have mastered the Beginner’s Guide to the New York Subway System. This is all the information you need to know how to use the New York Subway system.

Photo of the Exit at New York Subway Station

However, I have added two more sections – one for the extra information (or good to know) and the other for the FAQs. If you want more information, read these two sections. If you have any questions outside of this, leave it in the comments below.

Photo of Woman Looking at the NYC Subway Map

Extra Information (Good to Know)

If you’re using a New York Subway Map to commute within New York City, the following points might be helpful.

  1. The New York Subway trains are either “local” or “express”. Local trains stop at every station along their path whereas Express trains stop at a few designated stations (for faster service).
  2. The stations where local trains stop at are represented by a black dot on the subway map. The stations where express trains stop at are represented by a white dot. Photo of the New York Subway Map With Info
  3. A solid black line between any two stations indicates that there exists a pedestrian tunnel which can be utilized by the commuters. This is specifically useful when the commuter needs to go from one station to another without having to exit the subway system and swipe their MetroCard again for another ride.
  4. Most subway stations have either a red globe or a green globe outside. Stations with the green globe are open for 24 hours whereas stations with a red globe are open until after the evening rush hour. Red globes also mark exit-only stairs.
Photo of the Green Globe at the New York Subway Station
Photo of FAQ

FAQs

The New York Subway

What are the New York Subway hours?

The New York Subway is open 24 hours a day. However, the service between midnight and 6 am changes. For more details, refer to this MTA-Night Map [PDF].

Where can I find the New York Subway schedule?

You can find the New York Subway schedule on the official MTA website here. Click on each train to find its schedule.

Where can I download the New York City Subway map [PDF]?

Download it here: New York City Subway map [PDF].

Is there a New York Subway Pass for tourists?

There is no such thing as a New York Subway Pass for tourists. One has to buy the MetroCard to be able to use the New York Subway. You can either choose to pay-per-ride or buy the unlimited ride option while loading the money.

How much is a subway ride in NYC?

A subway ride in NYC costs $2.75.

Is the New York Subway safe at night?

As a solo female traveler, I would avoid taking the subway at night when there are hardly any people around. I would instead take an Uber cab where my ride is tracked and would share the details with a friend.

How old is the New York Subway?

The New York Subway first came into operation on October 27, 1904. That makes it 116 years old!

Is the New York Subway dirty?

Yes it is. You will often find people spitting on the floor. And given the fact that the trains operate 24 hours a day, there is hardly any downtime for the trains to be cleaned.

The New York MetroCard

Which MetroCard to buy for tourists?

If you are staying in New York City for 7 days or more, go for the unlimited ride option because it saves a lot of money. A 7-day pass costs $33 and a 30-day pass costs $127 (excluding the $1 fee).

Are there different MetroCards for different options?

No. There is only one MetroCard for using the New York Subway system. There are two options though – one is the pay-per-ride option and the other is the unlimited ride option. When you’re buying a MetroCard for the first time at the vending machine, you will have an option to either “buy a regular MetroCard” or an “unlimited ride” MetroCard. Depending on the option you choose, you will be prompted to pay.

Can I combine the pay-per-ride and the unlimited ride option?

Yes you can. Essentially, if you’re buying an unlimited ride option, there is no need for you to load money again for the pay-per-ride option during the time when the unlimited ride option is valid. After it expires, you can choose the pay-per-ride option while refilling the amount. Similarly, if you’re on the pay-per-ride option and then decide to buy the unlimited ride option, the balance amount remains and the unlimited ride option gets activated. You can switch between the two options while refilling your MetroCard.

How do I refill my NYC MetroCard?

You can refill your NYC MetroCard at the MetroCard vending machine or at a staffed ticketed booth. You can pay either by cash or card. If you live outside of the United States, use 99999 as the Zip Code when paying by card.

Can I buy the MetroCard at any subway station?

No. You can buy the MetroCard only at subway stations that have green globes at the entrance. The ones that are marked with the red globes do not have the option to buy the MetroCard.

How much is a NYC MetroCard?

The fee for a NYC MetroCard is $1. Then, the cost depends on whether you buy the pay-per-ride option or the unlimited ride option.

How much is a 7 day unlimited MetroCard?

A 7 day unlimited MetroCard costs $33 excluding the $1 card fee.

Is there a 1 day unlimited MetroCard?

No. There is no such thing as a 1 day unlimited MetroCard. There are only two options for the unlimited ride MetroCard – 7 days and 30 days.

Is there a day pass for New York subway?

No, there isn’t. You have to either buy the pay-per-ride option or the unlimited ride option.

How do I get a MetroCard in NYC?

You can buy the MetroCard either at the MetroCard vending machine or at the staffed ticketed booth. However, make sure that you enter the right subway station. Subway stations with green globes at the entrance have the option for buying the MetroCards.

How much is a 1 day unlimited MetroCard?

There is no 1 day unlimited MetroCard. There is only a 7-day pass and a 30-day pass for the unlimited ride option.

Does the 7 day MetroCard work on buses?

Yes. You can use the NYC MetroCard on buses, the AirTrain to/from the JFK airport and the PATH commuter trains from/to New Jersey.

Do kids have to pay for MTA?

According to MTA, up to three children, 44 inches tall and under, ride for free on subways and local buses when accompanied by a fare paying adult.

Can you buy a New York Metro Card online?

No. There is no option for you to buy the MetroCard online.

Where can I buy the NYC MetroCard?

You can buy the NYC MetroCard at the subway station. This is the best option. However, you can also buy it at local merchant stores, MetroCard bus and vans, and from your employer. For more details click here.

Photo of the Grand Central Terminal in NYC

Final Words

Navigating the New York Subway can be a bit daunting at first, but by using this guide, you will be much better equipped with the basics of using the New York Subway system. There might be times when you might be at the wrong station or get inside the wrong train, but all of it becomes a part of a big unforgettable experience, and an even bigger lesson! No matter what, you will never get lost because you can always take a train back to the intended station or ask a local for help.

Just like everything else, you will learn how to use the New York Subway system once you start commuting by it.

ALSO READ: 4 Mistakes I Made on my First Solo Trip Which You Shouldn’t

I hope you found this guide helpful! If you did, do let me know in the comments below. And if you have any questions about riding the NYC subway, do let me know that as well in the comments below.

IS THIS YOUR FIRST TIME IN NEW YORK?

Then read my 14 ESSENTIAL Tips for Your First Time in New York.