Getting Around NYC: The Subway

Getting Around NYC: The Subway


nyc metrocard

One of the more affordable aspects of living in New York City is transportation. The public transit system works well enough and covers enough to make owning a car completely unnecessary. This helps to reduce a lot of bills. However, it can be an adjustment for those not used to it.

I’ve tried to make a fairly comprehensive guide to the nyc subway for both first-time visitors and new residents. All links below provide in-page image references which hopefully will help when you’re using the subway in the wild.

Subway Fare: $2.50 one-way using a MetroCard

Pay Per Ride Metrocard

If you get a pay-per-ride metrocard, you can use the same card at the same station consecutively. This means, you can buy one card, put $20 on it and share it between you and your friend. For example, your friend goes through the turnstile, then hands the card back to you. Keep in mind you both just spent $2.50 each. The display will show you how much is left on the card, as you swipe it through.

7-Day Unlimited Metrocard

The 7-day unlimited metrocard costs $30, is good for 7 days after purchase, and allows you to travel an unlimited amount of times on the subway & buses.

Unlimited Metrocard

The 30-day unlimited pass cannot be used at the same station twice in a row, you must wait 20 minutes before trying it again. The price as of this writing is $112 for an unlimited. The display will show you when your card expires, as you swipe it through.

All Metrocards

One subway swipe will get you anywhere within the city – it is a flat rate, you do not pay per distance. You can take the train 1 stop or 25 stops and it makes no difference. While you are in the subway tunnels, all transfers are free. All transfers between the train and buses (within a short time period) are also free.

You can buy all cards at electronic machines using cash, debit or credit.

Most stations have a manned window, which is helpful for a few things:
1) to open the emergency door if you have a bike, stroller, or other large item that won’t fit through the turnstile.
2) if you have multiple metro cards with less than $2.50 on them, the window agent can combine the money on each card onto one card.

If you buy an unlimited metrocard with a credit card then lose it a few days later, call the MTA and they will credit you with the unused portion of your metro card.

You can use your metro card for the subway and the bus – the bus fare is the same. Buses also run 24 hours and after 10p every day, they can drop you off where you request (at your block) instead of an actual bus stop.

How To Swipe A Metrocard

Just keep walking. Put your card on the black part before the metal part, just hold it there, then keep walking. You don’t even need to move your arm or wrist or anything. It is designed for you to be able to keep moving while sliding the card. You don’t need to stand there and swipe it.

Other Services

The Long Island Rail Road (LIRR), New Jersey Transit (NJT), MetroNorth and trains to Hoboken/Jersey City (PATH) are run separately from the MTA subway & buses. The PATH trains are a quasi-exception because they accept metrocards but only pay-per-ride not unlimited. LIRR, NJT, and MetroNorth only accept their own tickets (purchase at Penn Station for LIRR & NJT or Grand Central for MetroNorth).

Taking Your Bike on the Train

You can take your bike on any subway train, LIRR, Metro North or NJT for no extra cost. You cannot bring your bike on any train during rush hour (you can try but everyone will hate you and you could be asked to get off the train and everyone will want to stab you with dull pointy objects).

nyc subway stop

Finding A Subway Stop

All subway stations have green signposts with green or red globes outside of the exit/entrance. The station isn’t always obvious so look for the globes.

Red globes mean it is exit only, or a part-time entrance, or you can’t purchase tickets in that station.

23rd station uptown and the bronx

It is also important to look at the entrance you’re going into to make sure that it is going in the direction you need. While most station entrances are for both uptown & downtown platforms, some are only for one or the other. Watch out for this.

a rare g train sighting

Subway Lines

The G train is the only subway line that does not go into Manhattan. It runs north/south from brooklyn and barely into queens. The signs do not say “uptown/downtown” but instead say “Court St” (uptown to Queens) or “Church Ave” (downtown through Brooklyn).

There are numerous subway lines on the west side of Manhattan but only the 4,5,6 on the east side that runs up Lexington Ave. If you are going to 1st Ave, expect a bit of a walk from the station.

Do not refer to subway lines by color! This will get you very lost very quickly. For example, the 1,2,3 are all “red lines” and they do travel similarly in Manhattan but the 1 doesn’t go into brooklyn while the 2,3 do. So, if you are on the 1 train thinking it’s a “red line” that will take you to Brooklyn, you’ll find yourself dumped off in lower manhattan. Trains have differentiating numbers & letters for a reason.

Express Trains

Watch for these signs! Some stops are local and some are express. The general rule is Express trains run during the day on weekdays. On weekends and late nights, almost all express trains run local, on the local track. This can get confusing.

Express Lines: 2,3,4,5,A,B,D,N,Q all have portions that are express
Edit: Train lines E,F,J,6,7 also have express portions

Bu this doesn’t mean the entire line is express. For example, the Q runs express in Manhattan but local in Brooklyn.

And the term “express” varies greatly. The 2/3 trains run express from 42nd st to 72nd st then to 96th st. This is very speedy but not the end of the world if you miss your stop or get on the wrong train.

Then there’s the D train. Going uptown the D expresses from 59th st at Columbus Circle straight to 125th st. A mistake you want to avoid making.

Edit (thanks Keith): Some trains run both local and express simultaneously, like the 6 & 7. The route difference is shown with either a circle (local) or diamond (express).

Local Trains

Most trains run local on weekends and late nights (after ~11p) but some trains are always local. To clarify, local means the train will stop at every stop. Express means the train only stops at select stops. Be sure to check that your destination is an express or local stop and that you get on the right train line.


Since the subway runs 24/7 finding time to do construction on the 100-year old system can be difficult. Track work is usually held during late nights (after ~11p), during weekdays (non-rush-hour times) and over weekends. This means even more track changes. Usually there are signs in the stations to reroute you. Look for these as it really makes a difference.

Using MTA’s Weekender map on their site is surprisingly useful. If a station will be undergoing work, the dot will flash on the map then you can click for details. Use this!

crowded nyc subway car

Public Transportation Tips + Etiquette

  • When the train pulls up, wait at the side of the doors and let everyone get off the train first before boarding
  • During rush hours, do not hold the doors for your slow friend walking down the stairs. Just wait a few minutes for the next one, please
  • Do not lean on the pole! Other people need to use it.
  • Take off your backpack and put it on the floor between your legs to save room. Everyone will appreciate this.
  • There is a subway map or two inside every single train car
  • The route and “next stop” is displayed near the ceiling of the newer trains
  • Google Maps works very well for transit directions plus real-time data
  • At every station there is a neighborhood street map for reference
  • The conductor car always stops in the middle of the platform. Look for the black/white striped bar overhead to gauge where the platform’s center is.
  • Pay attention to the conductor when they make announcements. Sometimes they say important things like “the next stop is the last stop” or “this train is turning express in Brooklyn” or “this train is expressing to 145th st”. All of these are important things.

It’s Not That Complicated

Sure there are rules and routes and all but it’s really quite simple when you get the hang of it.

If I got anything wrong or you have any other questions, let me know in the comments below!


20 Replies to “Getting Around NYC: The Subway”

  1. Do you just like, never go past Williamsburg or something? You’re missing half the express lines.

    The E, F, J, 6, and 7 all offer substantial express service in the outer boros. In the case of the 6 or 7, these lines offer both express *and* local trains at the same time. They are differentiated by the use of a diamond instead of a circle when displaying the route. (i.e. 7 inside circle = local. 7 inside diamond = express.)

    1. Thanks for mentioning the diamond & circle! I will edit that in. I know this post is far from comprehensive, there is just so much to the subway system. However, you’re right, I didn’t realize that the F went express at all. I’m assuming that portion is in Queens because I know it’s only local in Brooklyn (outside of track work times).

      1. Yeah, the E, F, and J run Express in Queens. The 6-diamond runs Express in the Bronx (rush hour only), as does the 7 diamond in Queens (again, rush hour only.)

  2. Also, the LIRR is not a ‘non-MTA’ service. It, along with Metro North (which you’ve completely forgotten about! It runs out of Grand Central to points, well, north of the city.) is fully owned and operated by the MTA. However, you are correct that neither service uses Metrocards, instead relying on their own ticketing system, in which fares are based on distance travelled and time of day.

    1. I do know that LIRR and Metro North are owned by the MTA but I left that out because I didn’t want to confuse someone since both services are quite separate from the subway. Oh it looks like I mentioned MetroNorth in one part but not another, thanks for catching that.

  3. A couple things about Metrocards:

    I’m pretty sure there’s a limit to 4 rides on a card from a single station at a time. If you have 5 friends you will need to get two Metrocards.

    While the cards have an expiration date, you don’t lose the money after that time, you just need to go to a booth and get it transferred to a new card

    If you have small amounts on multiple cards (less than enough for a trip, say), you can get a person at a ticket booth to combine them.

  4. “All” transfers are not free. A single transfer (bus to train or train to bus) is free, but you can’t add a third (or fourth) leg without paying again. Bus-train-bus or train-bus-train is two fares.

    1. Thanks for the clarification. I was mainly referring to train-train transfers within the same stations.

      1. There are also a few above ground transfers, such as between the F at Lex and 63rd and the 456/NQR at 59th and Lex – free within two hours of your original swipe into the system.

    1. You’re correct, the one-time pass is $5. However, they very rarely will check if you have it. I’ve never heard of anyone being stopped and I haven’t been asked for it myself.

  5. Nice article! You might also want to add that MetroCards (including unlimiteds) work on the buses in Nassau and Westchester Counties, as well as the lovely Roosevelt Island Tram.

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