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How to Use the NYC Subway: 10 Tips from Locals You Must Read

Trying to figure out how to use the NYC subway can feel overwhelming, especially your first couple of times in the city!

There are loads of different lines going in all different directions; it can be a lot to wrap your head around. 🤯

new york city subway map | Better Together Here

In this quick guide, we’re going to lay out 10 tips to help you on your journey of navigating New York City! Here are 10 tips for effectively using the NYC subway:

  1. Use Google Maps to navigate
  2. Green lamps indicate subway entrances 
  3. You don’t need a metro card, use a phone or tap-enabled credit or debit card
  4. Double-check the entrance
  5. Look up & follow the signs
  6. Stay safe & pay attention
  7. Let people off before you get on
  8. Learn to ask a local
  9. Check before you sit
  10. Don’t stand by the door or block the entrance/exit

Let’s dive into each subway tip below! 👇

Note: This article was written by a real live human being, not artificial intelligence. 🥸

How to Use the NYC Subway Podcast Episode

Want to hear more podcasts like this? Head here.

1- Use Google Maps to Navigate

how to use google maps to use the nyc subway | Better Together Here

Many navigation maps are available, but we’ve always found Google Maps to be the most reliable.

And that’s especially true when it comes to train times!

Google Maps makes it easy to see upcoming trains, plan a future trip, and even see exactly what exit you should choose when you arrive at your destination’s subway stop.

Tools like Live View also make it much easier to find your bearings when coming out of the subway.

google maps live view is helpful for navigating the new york city subway and streets | Better Together Here

Our Ultimate NYC Navigation Guide has an entire section about using Google Maps and Live View efficiently!

Maximize your time in NYC by demystifying the art of safely and efficiently getting around the Big Apple!

Ultimate NYC Navigation & Transportation Guide

2- Green Lamps Indicate Subway Entrances

In a city with so many buildings, street corners, and signs, it can sometimes be hard to find the subway entrance. 😅

Luckily, nearly all the subway stations are marked by large lamp posts with a green ball-shaped light!

green subway lamp indicates a subway entrance | Better Together Here

So, if you’re trying to find the subway entrance to get to the Upper West Side neighborhood, for example, look for the green lamps.

3- You Do NOT Need a Metro Card, Use Your Phone or Tap-Enabled Credit or Debit Card

Gone are the days of being forced to use the finicky Metro Cards. Now, you can simply use tap-to-pay on your smartphone or any tap-to-pay-enabled debit or credit card.

If you’re using a smartphone, just unlock your phone and activate your wallet. Then, hold it up against the reader. Easy!

Here’s a quick video showing how to pay for the subway without a Metro Card. 👇

You can still buy an unlimited pass; they offer 7-day or 30-day options. Those can only be done via a Metro Card…

But, you can actually use the same device or credit card to get a pseudo-unlimited pass.

Pay for 12 rides in a 7-day period, and the rest of your rides in that same 7-day period are free!

Here’s how that works (sourced from the Omny website).

Once you’ve paid $34 for fares in a 7-day period, you can ride free for the rest of the week. Here’s an example:

  1. A rider uses the subway to get to and from work and takes it on weekends to go into Manhattan to meet friends. They also use the local buses in their neighborhood to run errands.
  2. They use their smartphone to pay the fare, so each ride is $2.90.
  3. After they have paid $34 in fares — the rest of the rides for the week will be free!

So before buying a 7-day unlimited pass, ensure you will ride at least 12 times. If not, you’re losing money!

All that to say, you don’t have to use the antiquated Metro Card machines, just tap your phone or credit card!

4- Double-Check the Entrance

49 street subway station indicating an uptown entrance | Better Together Here

Once you’ve found your subway entrance, double-check the sign before going in.

Some entrances are only for uptown, and others are only for downtown.

Many entrances are for both directions but double-check before entering. You often cannot get to the other direction’s platform if it’s a direction-specific entrance!

5- Look Up & Follow the Signs

signs for e and f train to manhattan | Better Together Here

All the subway stations are filled with signs indicating what trains stop at each track, the directions they’re heading, and often a live board showing when the next trains will arrive.

Again, if you know you need the N, Q, or R train to head to Central Park, check the signs!

If you’re coming from Soho, you’d want the platform that says ‘Uptown’.

Signs are your friend in the subway.

And that includes once you’re on the train! You can often step in and verify you’re on the right train by viewing the boards showing upcoming stops.

f train stops from jackson heights station | Better Together Here
Yes, the boards are often dirty and hard to read like this. 😅

This Episode’s You’ll Have to Check It Out Segment: Grace Street Coffee and Desserts

mango madness and chocolate dessert at grace street coffee and desserts on korea street | Better Together Here

Grace Street Coffee and Desserts is one of our all-time favorite spots in NYC.

Their Mango Madness shaved ice dessert is out of this world! And don’t forget to try the Matcha Beignets.

Located on Korea Street, this bustling dessert spot offers a variety of cold treats, delicious coffees, and a friendly atmosphere. Plan on waiting in line if you come on a weekend evening!

Check out Grace Street Coffee and Desserts here.

6- Stay Safe & Pay Attention While Riding the Subway

Fear-mongering aside, sketchy things do happen on the New York City subway. While that doesn’t always mean a violent crime, it doesn’t change the fact that you should stay alert while using the subway.

Note: Crime on the subway system is down in 2023 compared to 2022 and 2021.

interior view of an nyc subway car | Better Together Here

Here are some ways to stay safe on the NYC subway:

  • Don’t stand right by the subway tracks
  • Ideally, don’t travel alone at night
  • Don’t use noise-canceling headphones; stay alert and aware of your surroundings
  • Scan the train cars before you get on one to look for potential hazards 
  • Don’t be afraid to change trains at the next stop if someone or something makes you feel uneasy
  • Opt for the middle train car; it’s the most crowded and usually the safest because it’s closest to the conductor

Again, the subway is generally safe. Stay alert, be aware of your surroundings, and trust your gut!

Maximize your time in NYC by demystifying the art of safely and efficiently getting around the Big Apple!

Ultimate NYC Navigation & Transportation Guide

7- Let People Off Before You Get On

For the love of everything, do NOT try to bust onto the train as soon as the doors open.

Let people off the subway first, then and only then, get on!

You will have enough time to get on. The train doors don’t automatically close; a human being looks to see that people are on and then closes the doors.

Disregarding this rule is an easy way to get yelled at. Be respectful and let others off before you get on. 😄

8- Learn to Ask a Local or MTA Employee

riding the middle train with the conductor is a local nyc safety tip | Better Together Here

New Yorkers are assholes, blah blah blah. 🤪

This is a stereotype we’ve found not to be very accurate. Most New Yorkers are just in a rush and are looking for courtesy from the people around them. See our article about NYC sidewalk rules for more context!

On that note, do not be afraid to ask someone who looks like a local for directions or help with the subway. Most people in the city are more than happy to offer help, especially regarding directions.

Here are a few good ways to determine if someone is a local you can ask for help from:

  • They’re carrying groceries
  • Their walking speed seems like a light jog
  • They have a dog with them
  • They don’t look lost

Those are just a few ways of knowing if someone is a local and can help.

A simple “Excuse me, is this train going uptown?” will almost always warrant a helpful response from people around you.

Many stations also have an MTA booth where you can get help, so keep your eyes peeled for those.

9- Check Before You Sit

Before you sit down on the subway, just look.

Look for weird liquids.

Look for dirt.

Look for an exploded ballpoint pen.

Look for literal human shit. 💩

Consider yourself warned!

10- Don’t Stand By Doors or Block the Entrance/Exit

do not stop at the top or bottom of stairs because people might be carrying things | Better Together Here
Someone might be coming at ya carrying a rug, NYC life!

The entrances and exits of subway stations are high-traffic areas. Just like you wouldn’t stop and park in the middle of an intersection in your car, you shouldn’t stand in high-traffic areas.

When you go down the stairs to the subway platform, move 10 feet away from the bottom of the stairs.

When you exit the subway and pop out onto the street, move 10 feet away from the exit.

This small courtesy makes a huge difference for the hundred or so people behind you trying to reach their destination.

Respect gets respect!

How to Use the NYC Subway Recap & Next Steps

subways signs at jackson heights station | Better Together Here

Riding the subway in New York City can be an efficient means of getting around the massive city!

For only $2.90, you can get from the beaches of Coney Island all the way up to Yankee Stadium. Public transportation is one of the best parts of getting around New York City as a tourist.

So, be respectful, follow the signs, and stay alert and attentive when riding.

Access our guide today for the ultimate deep dive into all things NYC transportation and navigation. It’s full of even more tips about using the subway, getting to and from the airports, and even hacks for quickly hailing a taxi.

Get the Ultimate NYC Navigation & Transportation Guide here!

Maximize your time in NYC by demystifying the art of safely and efficiently getting around the Big Apple!

Ultimate NYC Navigation & Transportation Guide

Have more questions about how to use the subway? Ask in the comments, and we’ll help out.

*This post may contain affiliate links, so we may earn a small commission when you make a purchase through links on our site at no additional cost to you.

As long-time lovers of New York City we made the plunge to move across the country to NYC in early 2021... with our 3 dogs at the time (RIP Buddy). We consider ourself experts in exploring new restaurants, finding the best-rated bars, and activities actually worth doing. Plus, my Google Maps organizational skills are 2nd to none. 😜

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