How To Navigate The NYC Subway from a Local

Your Guide to Learning How to Navigate the NYC Subway

If you haven’t already heard, NYC is best navigated through our Subway system! It may not be the prettiest, or on time, but it’s probably one of the most essential ways to get around NYC. When I first started traveling to New York City by myself, I was so nervous about going on the NYC subway and figuring out the trains. Well, now I am here to tell you the essentials on how to navigate the NYC Subway!

Navigate NYC Subway System
NYC Time Square Subway Station

Disclaimer: This post may contain affiliate links where I may make a small commission at NO extra cost to you. Disclosure

Navigating the NYC Subway

Before navigating the NYC Subway, the first thing I would recommend is to download City Mapper and check the MTA website, which will help you read the lines and give you directions on what train you need to take!

NYC Subway Map

Getting a MetroCard or OMNY

The next order of business is to get your MetroCard, or you can tap and pay which is now one of the easiest ways to pay and use the Subway! You can get your MetroCard inside any train station at the vending machine. Depending on how long you are visiting the city, these are your fare options:

  • Base Pay-Per-Ride fare: $2.90 (new Metrocards have a minimum of $5.80 which is 2 rides and $1 for the Metrocard)
  • 30-Day Unlimited Ride: $132
  • 7-Day Unlimited Ride: $34 (Best for a vacation in NYC where you plan on seeing a lot).

If you get a base fare metro card, they are reloadable. This means you can put it back into the machine and load more money instead of having to buy a new one!

If you use a base pay metro card, you can also swipe the card at the turnstile for multiple people.

However, if you get an unlimited ride MetroCard, the swipe will only work once, so if you are with a group, you will need to get one for each person.

UPDATE: While the above is still valid, New York is actually moving away from the Metro Card. They are planning to fully phase out NYC Metrocards by 2023 and move digitally. 

So, how do you pay for the subway? The Metrocards are being replaced with OMNY, which is basically like a tap-and-pay from your cellphone, wearable device, or credit card that offers contactless pay.

They have already started installing these tap-and-pay readers at the turnstiles. At this point, they should be at most, if not all, turnstiles in NYC. Currently, they even have a promotion that the more you use it; you can earn free rides. Find more details about OMNY here! 

OMNY Travel Tip: Make sure to use the same exact payment method throughout your journey. So, if you start with your watch to pay, use it throughout the whole journey, or else it might overcharge you.

I personally now use my Apple Wallet to pay for the Subway. I like not having to take out my wallet, since I usually have my phone in my hand.

tap and pay at the subway in nyc
where to tap and pay your card
NYC Subway Metro Card to Navigate
NYC Subway MetroCard

Local Vs. Express Subway Trains

One of the next important things to learn is how to tell express trains vs. local trains. When looking at the NYC Subway map, express stops are indicated by a white circle or bar.

If your stop has either a white circle or bar, that means you can save time and jump onto an express train! (No additional cost!)

Local train stops are indicated by a black circle or bar. Local trains will make every stop on their line unless noted otherwise. Always listen to announcements since things can change.

You might also be interested in the Best Free Things to do in NYC

 How To Read The Train Lines

The NYC Subway train lines are grouped in different colors, however, they are called by their letter or number.

Once you are at the train station, it’s important to read the signs! Larger stations such as Penn Station, Times Square, and Grand Central Station have multiple lines, so you will want to make sure you swipe your MetroCard at the right turnstile.

Most trains also mainly go North and south through the City. The E, S, and L are the only trains really going West to East unless you are leaving Manhattan.

Traveling Uptown or Downtown

NYC generally works North to South and West to East. Therefore the streets uptown are higher, and as you go downtown, the numbers will go down until they turn into names.

So, for example, if you are at 42nd Street (Time Square) and you want to go to Rockefeller Center at 47th-50th Street, you will want to go to Uptown and vice versa.

Other tips to know about taking the NYC subway are if you are heading to Brooklyn, you are going downtown, and the Bronx is Uptown when in NYC.

Additionally, if you still feel confused as to if you are on the right side of the platform, you can always ask someone!

Even as a local New Yorker, I still ask now and again. New Yorkers, believe it or not, are more than happy to help point you in the right direction!

Once you are on the train, you will be able to see if the numbers are going up or down as you pass each station.

Canal Street NYC Train Station

Transferring Subway Trains

It is pretty common to take several subways to get to your destination. This might require walking through passways underground or even having to walk out of one subway station to another.

Luckily, there are free transfers between subways within a certain time. Some of the transfers might just require you to walk to a different platform. The CityMapper app is really helpful with this!

Subway Operating Hours

Generally, the NYC Subway runs 24/7, however, the time of the day does make a difference in the number of trains.

During rush hour on weekdays, trains come frequently and are PACKED! Don’t be surprised when you see people standing like sardines.

As it gets later in the night, trains still run, but way less frequently, so it’s always best to look at the train schedule if you know you will be out late!

Subway train in NYC

Tips To Know Before Riding The NYC Subway

Now that you know the basics of how to navigate the NYC Subway, here are additional tips you should know while riding the train!

  1. It’s not uncommon to not look at anyone in the eye. In general, everyone will avoid eye contact.
  2. Have your MetroCard ready to swipe before walking up to the turnstile.
  3. If you notice some carts are packed, while others are not, avoid going to the empty one and follow the crowd. Sometimes unstable people will be riding the subway and it’s best to just move carts to avoid them.
  4. You are able to move through carts as the subway is moving.
  5. When the subway is packed, the best way to try and get a seat is as people get up at their stop. Just go for it with no mercy!
  6. Not all stations have elevators or escalators. Most just have stairs down.
  7. Larger Subway Stations can have many exits. To be honest, if I am not sure which exit to go out of, I just follow the crowd until I have service for my GPS.
  8. Don’t be surprised if people are dancing, playing music or just asking for money. If you get lucky, you might get to see a pretty good show.
  9. Be careful of your belongings. NYC is not really known for pickpockets, however, it can still happen.
  10. Don’t be surprised to see one of New York City’s favorite residents, Manhattan rats, and when I say favorite, it’s in the most sarcastic tone lol.
  11. Always let people out of the train before getting in.
  12. Make sure to stand behind the yellow line. This is really for your own safety. Countless people have been accidentally pushed onto the tracks.
  13. During the Summer, the carts can be really cold, unless you get an old train (less often nowadays).
  14. Penn Station by the Long Island Railroad has clean(ish) bathrooms, and they are free!
Grand Central Terminal NYC
Grand Central Terminal Station

About the NYC Subway System

Now that you know how to navigate the NYC subway, I wanted to share some history.

  1. The Subway began operation in 1904 and has the largest subway cart fleet in the world!
  2. The Subway sees approximately 8 million riders a day, or 2.5 billion annually!
  3. The first female subway conductor was hired in 1917.
  4. There is a secret train platform underneath the Waldorf-Astoria building that extremely rich people could use. President Franklin Roosevelt used the station to help hide the fact that he used a wheelchair.
  5. The Subway is a part of the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) and also includes NYC Buses.
  6. When Grand Central first had trains coming in, it used to be quite the affair with red carpet roll-outs, dining, and more!
walking down subway stairs in nyc

How to Navigate the NYC Subway Wrap-up

Now you should be able to navigate the NYC Subway with ease! I know it can still sound a little confusing, but once you look at the Map and use the CityMapper app, you will be riding the Subway like a pro!

If you ever feel confused, just remember to read the signs or ask for help! Most seasoned subway riders or conductors will be able to help you get to your final destination! Now, have an amazing time in NYC!

Did you book your hotel yet? Here is a Detailed Guide on Where to Stay in NYC including how to choose a neighborhood!

Have any questions about this guide on how to use the NYC Subway or feel like I missed something? Let me know in the comments below!

If you found this NYC Subway Guide helpful, I’d really appreciate it if you could share it below!

New York City Subway Guide
Photo of author

Samantha Oppenheimer

Samantha Oppenheimer (Sam Opp) quit her corporate marketing job in 2018 to travel the world and become a travel writer, blogger and content creator. She loves experiencing authentic travel experiences, photography, and nature. Sam shares helpful travel itineraries, travel tips, budget tips, and travel advice from her personal experiences. You can also find Sam's words featured in large publications including Mirror, Thrillist, and Well + Good.

13 thoughts on “How To Navigate The NYC Subway from a Local”

  1. Just a few updates:

    The attendants in the booths in subway stations are now called Station Agents and no longer do any transactions other than providing information and assisting with using the MetroCard Vending Machines and OMNY.

    Effective August 20, 2023, the subway fare is now $2.90 ($3.25 if a single-ride ticket is purchased from the MetroCard Vending machines).
    The 7 day Unlimited MetroCard is now $34 and the 30 day Unlimited is now $132.

    The replacement of the MetroCard by OMNY dates have been pushed back due to many problems. The exact date may be years in the future.

  2. There is so much to know, and this is so helpful! I remember going to NYC as a kid and we were all told “don’t make eye contact.” It’s sad, but it is what it is, so it’s good to know beforehand!

  3. Such a good tip to have your metro card out and ready to swipe before lining up for the turnstile. As a new yorker, we VERY much appreciate that 🙂

  4. Great post Sam! It’s truly best way to get around NYC in my opinion and very convenient. Thank you for all the tips!

  5. This is a great post – really helpful for sure. I got slightly lost trying to use it my first time, and couldn’t keep up with everyone rushing around!

  6. This is so helpful for someone traveling to New York for the first time!! I know it can be really overwhelming trying to get around! Some of these tips are also helpful for other train systems like the tube in London. Thanks so much for being so detailed.

  7. Ah the good old metro card! I was in NYC a week ago so this post really helps me reminisce my awesome time there.

  8. This post is so interesting. Now I know the ins and outs I will be riding the Subway like a pro! Just have to get to New York now!

  9. Such a helpful blog! The NYC subway system can be intimidating, but you explain it well… Also, no one’s trip to NYC is complete w/o a subway ride & doing just a bit of prep (like reading this blog!!) will serve new subway riders well.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.