The New York City’s subway (metro) system was opened in 1904, though the city’s earliest train operations begun in 1863. It is one of the oldest and largest subway networks in the World (in 2015, it reported over 5 million rides per week-day, with the yearly total of over 1.7 billion rides). Despite its numerous issues and frequent delays, it is still the most convenient and efficient way to navigate around NYC. So don’t be surprised if you spot an occasional celebrity (or two) taking the subway, but please make sure to read (and follow) the rules mentioned below.
About the NYC’s Subway System:
There are 26 separate subway lines, which are all named with a different alphabet letter or a number (A, B, C, D, E, F, G, J, L, M, N, Q, R, S, W, Z, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7) and are divided by several colors (red, yellow, blue, orange, green, purple, etc.). The lines which run in similar paths share the same color (for example: 1,2,3 trains, as well as 4,5,6).
It is important to know here that some trains are express (they skip several stops along the route), and are marked with a diamond shape instead of the usual circle (for example 6 and 7 trains), though some are not (for example 2 and 3 trains, and the B train when it runs in Brooklyn) so make sure to study the map carefully, before hopping on one.
Please note – when you look at the “shared” line for example the 1,2,3 red line which runs through the Upper West Side – remember that the black circles mark the local stops (where the trains making all the local stops – in this case only the number 1 train) would stop, while the white circles mark the express stops, where the express trains (number 2 and 3 in this case) stop. So when you locate the exact stop on the map, pay attention to the number or the letter of the train, corresponding to the particular stop. That’s the train(s) that will take you to your destination.
If all of these explanations and instructions sound complicated and confusing – don’t worry there’s an easier solution! Download this free app, which will help you navigate the extensive (and yes – complicated) NYC’s subway transit network:
The app, which works offline, includes the up to date map of the subway network, as well as the useful trains’ service status updates (which you can find in the “menu” section – the three blue bars in the top left corner):
Once you locate the name of your station on the map, type it in the above search bar, for example: Columbus Circle. The app will then show you all the lines that stop at the station. You can also click on the blue “Route” sign, which will take you to this screen:
You can type in here the name of your departure stop, for example: Canal St. and the app will show you which trains and possible transfers you need to take. Click on the circles/route results tab and it will give you the Summary, including the “Minutes” (though you should not rely on this number, but treat it as the “minimum amount”), the “Stations” (the total number of stations) and the “Changes” (the total number of transfers). It will also show you the station at which you have to transfer (the middle station(s), in this case: Times Sq – 42 St/ Broadway).
Now let’s review what you should know, before you actually go inside the station. There are two types of train stations in New York. One type is the general station, where you will find the train platforms running in both directions (each line has at least two directions – in Manhattan they are marked as “Uptown” and “Downtown”, but more on this later).
Or, you might encounter a specific station, where only one single platform (with only one train direction) is running. You have to pay careful attention to the station signs, before you go inside and swipe your MetroCard. In Manhattan, a specific station indicates the direction of the train above the entrance, as in this case below: Downtown and Brooklyn.
So if you need the opposite direction, you should search for another entrance, which is usually located on the opposite side of the block, or directly across the street – to the left, to the right, or in front.
On the other hand, the general stations do not indicate any specific directions, but normally include only the name of the station, like this one:
Once you step inside the station – read the signs on the platform(s). One platform might have two trains running in opposite directions, right in between one shared platform. While another platform might have different trains running in the same direction. It all depends on the particular station. The sides of the platform should have a sign above indicating its respective direction, like this one:
If you get confused with the direction that you need to take, you can always ask a nearby passenger for help. You can also try revisiting the NYC’s subway map – locating your destination and your current location, while looking for the direction in which you should head out.
If you are in Manhattan, the platform’s signs would normally indicate the final city to which the specific line runs to (as in “Brooklyn”, “Queens”, or the “Bronx”), or the direction of Manhattan’s boroughs (as in “Uptown” (think of it as from “1 to 100”) or “Downtown” (think of it as from “100 to 1”)). If you’re in Brooklyn, Queens, or the Bronx – the platform signs would normally indicate the final stop to which the specific line runs to, or sometimes even the city (as in ‘Manhattan’).
How to Buy the MetroCard:
There are two ways to obtain your new MetroCard: you can buy it through a live operator located at one of the underground booths (unfortunately – not all the train stations have one), or you can buy it through one of the vending machines (which is really easy).
When you get to the vending machine – click on “Start” icon (upper right corner). Then select your language. Most of the vending machines have a variation of three-four languages (English, Spanish, French, Russian, Italian, Mandarin (Chinese), etc.), depending on the particular station.
Next, select the MetroCard type: Fast $9 MetroCard (+$1 Fee); MetroCard; SingleRide. We advise you to click on the “MetroCard” icon, which has more options, than others.
Once you click on the “MetroCard”, it will then ask you to select the type of the MetroCard that you want to purchase. “Regular MetroCard” means you can add any dollar amount ($5, $7, $10, $20, etc.), and every trip will cost you the normal fair (which is $2.75 in 2017). Versus, the “Unlimited Ride”, which means that for a specific amount (as well as, for a specific number of consecutive days) you can have an unlimited number of trips.
For example, in 2017: for $32 you can buy a 7-day unlimited pass (we highly recommend this option if you are staying in NYC for one-two weeks); or for $121 a 30-day unlimited pass. Please note: the unlimited MetroCard goes into effect when you first swipe it (to use the train), and not from the moment that you pay for it.
Upon selecting the type of the MetroCard, the next screen will ask you which type of “transaction” you want to proceed with: “Refill Your Card” (select this option if you already have (an unexpired) MetroCard handy; “Get Card Info”; or “Get New Card” ($1.00 Fee Applies). The next screen will prompt you to select the dollar amount that you want to add to the card, and then you’ll proceed to make your payment (please note you can pay with cash, coins, credit or debit card; the credit/debit card option does require you to input your card’s billing address’ zip code, for security reasons).
*Money Saving Tip*: the Unlimited Ride option is the best way to save some money on the subway fare. For example: for $32 you can have an unlimited amount of trips for 7 consecutive days, compared to only 11 trips for the same amount, if you choose the Regular MetroCard option.
Since March 3, 2013 – all new metro cards have an additional $1 fee added to the final bill. Therefore, you should save the card for the future, since you can easily refill and re-use it. Please note: every single MetroCard does have an expiration date (after which the card will no longer function). The expiration date (which can be anywhere from a year to two after the purchase date) is specified on the back of the card:
Please note: if, by any chance, you have any money remaining on the card after it expires – you can bring it to any subway operator within two years after the card’s expiration date, to transfer the remaining amount to a new card.
And finally, if by any accident, you lose your 7 or 30-day unlimited MetroCard – you can call this toll-free number: 1-877-323-7433 to report it right away, that is if you paid for it with a credit or debit card. Please have your credit/debit card handy as the operator will ask for the number to track the card and to issue a refund to, for the remaining amount of days (for example, if you purchased a 7-day unlimited card, and only used it for 3 days before you lost it, call the number immediately and the value for the remaining 4 days will be refunded to you; if you call on day 8 – the unlimited value of the card will by then expire, and you will not get a refund).
The lost card will be invalidated immediately after you report it (so if you do find it later – you will no longer be able to use it). This option does not apply to Regular MetroCards, and to any Unlimited MetroCards paid for with cash (as there’s no way to track them – and yes, every metro card has a unique tracking number).
General Subway Rules:
(Or, How to Navigate the Subway Like a Real New Yorker)
» Whatever you do on the subway – NEVER EVER stare at your fellow passengers. This will be perceived as rude, in the best case scenario, or as an open invitation to a fight in the worst. If you do not wish to be cursed out or even punched in the face – stay away from staring at others, and you will be fine. For this reason, you will also notice that most New Yorkers always carry a book, or play with their phone during the ride.
» If you need to ask someone for directions – always begin your question with: “Excuse me”, and do not be shy, as most New Yorkers love to chat and help others.
» Do not bend or twist your metro card – otherwise it will be difficult to swipe it through the turnstile or it might stop working per se.
» Avoid flushing your phone and/or other expensive valuables when riding the subway late at night, or when the subway car is nearly empty.
» The subway system operates 24/7 and is usually very safe even late at night; though it also depends on the area where you are riding it (some areas in Brooklyn, Queens and especially the Bronx are not too safe, even during the daytime).
» Don’t be shocked to see rats running on platforms or on the train tracks – unfortunately they are as much a part of the NYC’s subway network, as the mad rush hours. These rats do not attack people, but it is recommended not to touch or approach them too closely.
» And speaking of rush hours – try to avoid taking the subway between 7:30am-9:30am and 4:45pm-6:30pm on weekdays. More than a half of the above mentioned 5 million daily weekday rides occur during these specific time slots.
» If you experience any delay, or if you get “stuck” on the train for a period of time – do not panic, as this is quite a normal (unfortunately) occurrence in NYC. (Also, if you have an important appointment or if you are going to the airport to catch a flight via subway – make sure to leave plenty of time to get there early, as a necessary precaution).
» Do not be surprised if you encounter some (quite annoying) public performances during your train ride, that include very loud music and some “wild” dancing, where a performer’s limbs swing in all possible directions, including your face if you happen to stand nearby – this is also very much a part of the NYC’s daily subway life. Most New Yorkers will pretend that they don’t notice this 3-5 minute performance when it happens, and will just continue with whatever they were doing before.
» And finally, stay away from the edge of the tracks, especially when the train is approaching the station.