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In order to use the subway, you need to pay a fare. There are currently two ways to pay, as the MTA is currently working on replacing an old system used since 1992 with a new system. The old system works with a physical farecard called the MetroCard, while the new system called OMNY is a contactless payment system where one uses a contactless credit card or smart device like a mobile phone.

The new OMNY system was introduced in May 2019 and is expected to take several years to be fully complete. For this reason, both systems will coexist at the same time with the old MetroCard-based system continuing to be operational until July 2023. Because OMNY is still in its infancy (the majority of subway stations do not have OMNY readers yet), you still have to rely on MetroCards for the time being.

The MetroCard

The MetroCard is a thin, credit-card sized farecard made of (cheap) plastic. Most of the time, the card looks like this (front and back):

Front side of the MetroCard
Back side of the MetroCard

Occasionally, the MetroCard also carries advertisements on either side, so it might not be yellow as above, but it always has a black magnetic stripe at the bottom, three rounded corners, and one "cut off" corner.

The back of the card has what I call a physical expiration date which is usually set pretty far in the future. This physical expiration date is fixed and indicates the time when the card becomes unusable and must be exchanged for another one at a token booth. This physical expiration date has nothing to do with the value and time on the card, so don't confuse this date with the expiration of an Unlimited Ride window (which I will explain that later). This physical expiration date is merely there to force old cards out of rotation.

A MetroCard can operate in two modes: Regular and Unlimited Ride. Physically, the card looks identical regardless of which mode it is currently in, so you can't tell the difference unless you swipe it at a card reader. Regardless of the type of MetroCard, it costs $1 just to buy the card. There also exists an all-white Single-Ride ticket for $3 that you can buy at ticket booths, but unless you really only going to take a single ride, it is not economical to buy it.

Children under 44 inches (112 cm.) regardless of age can ride trains for free and don't need to buy a card as long as they are accompanied by a fare-paying adult. (The children can just walk underneath the turnstile.)

Regular MetroCard (Pay-Per-Ride)

The regular MetroCard (also known as a Pay-Per-Ride card) carries a real dollar value that decreases every time you take the subway (hence "pay per ride"). You can keep on adding value to the card whenever your balance runs low. The fee to buy the card itself is $1 and is not refundable. This $1 cannot be used to pay for rides (and is therefore not reflected in the balance).

In this card mode, the cost of riding the subway is $2.75 per ride (regardless of the destination or length of the ride).

Pay-Per-Ride cards can be shared by up to four people. To share a card, you can swipe the card multiple times to let multiple people through the turnstiles. You can do this individually by swiping the MetroCard, letting the first person enter, swiping it again to let the next person enter, and so on, or you can swipe the card multiple times back to back and then let the corresponding number of people walk through the turnstiles.

You can also use this Pay-Per-Ride card to pay for some other public transportation in New York City, such as the buses, the AirTrain to/from the JFK airport or the PATH commuter trains from/to New Jersey.

You can combine the values of multiple Pay-Per-Ride cards by going to the information booth and asking the attendant to combine them for you. When you do so, only the current balances are accumulated; the $1 fee for each card is not taken into account.

Unlimited Ride cards

Unlimited Ride cards allow you to ride the subway (and buses) as often as you want, as long as the time window that you bought for the card hasn't passed. There are only two time windows available:

  • 7-Day Unlimited Ride: $33 (+ $1 fee for the card itself);
  • 30-Day Unlimited Ride: $127 (+ $1 fee for the card itself);

Sorry, there aren't any single-day or weekend passes. If you think you are going to make more than 12 individual trips (a very likely scenario for tourists staying more than two days), buying a 7-Day Unlimited Ride card will be cheaper than paying 12 times.

The time window does not activate until you swipe the card for the very first time at a turnstile to enter the system. For instance, you can buy the card on January 17, activate it on April 1, and it will expire at midnight between April 7 and April 8.

Unlimited cards always expire exactly at midnight on the 7th or 30th day, regardless of the time you activated the card on the first day. For instance, if you activate a 7-Day Unlimited Ride card on Monday morning, it will expire Sunday night at midnight. If you activate the card Monday evening at 11:30pm, it still expires Sunday night at midnight. As a result, you effectively get to use it only for 6 days and 30 minutes. In that case, you are better off paying for a single ride using the Pay-Per-Ride card and then activating the Unlimited Ride card the next morning.

Unlimited Ride cards cannot be shared by two people. In fact, there is a (roughly) 18-minute delay between each swipe to prevent the card from being used by more than one person.

As noted before, on the back of every MetroCard you'll find a printed physical expiration date. Do not confuse the printed physical card expiration date with the paid expiration of the Unlimited Ride time window.

A card can carry both time and value

A card can carry "time ", "value", or both. In other words, you can add a dollar value to an Unlimited Ride card or buy time to an existing Pay-Per-Ride card. When this happens, the time portion always takes precedence when you swipe it at a turnstile (it will activate the time window as necessary). After the time portion of the card has expired, it will then (and only then) start draining the value of your card. This also implies that you cannot use this card with multiple people as a second swipe on the card will be denied as "Just used" despite the card carrying monetary value in addition. Lastly, MetroCards can be refilled. Provided that the physical expiration date on the back of the card has not passed, you can reload a new Unlimited Ride time window or just money onto an expired or empty card.

Buying a MetroCard

You can buy a MetroCard at any subway station, either at a staffed ticket booth or MetroCard vending machine located inside the subway station. They look like this:

MetroCard Vending Machines

The small one on the left does not accept cash, whereas the large machines on the right accept both cash and credit cards. While each subway station is guaranteed to have these machines, not every entrance to a subway station gives you access to them. If you enter the station but do not see these machines, simply go out and find another nearby entrance to the same station.

The screen on the machine does not have the most intuitive layout. I've devised the following simplified flowchart to navigate this machine:

MetroCard Vending Machine flowchart

Remember that in addition to the price listed above, you must add $1 for the card itself.

When you pay with cash on the large machines, note that they can only return up to $9 in cash (paid out in $1 coins). When you pay by ATM or credit card, the machine will ask you for the ZIP code associated with your account. If you come from outside the United States, just enter 99999 as your ZIP code. Do note that sometimes ATM/credit card companies prevent you from buying multiple MetroCards in quick succession to minimize theft abuse. Usually they limit purchases to two new MetroCards per credit card per day, so plan accordingly if you travel in a group that needs separate Unlimited Ride MetroCards on their first day.

Inside subway stations you can also find some standalone MetroCard readers where you can swipe a given MetroCard to check its balance and time:

MetroCard Reader

The display of these MetroCard readers can be a little confusing, so let's take a look at some common scenarios. If you just added an unlimited time window to a MetroCard and have not activated this time window yet, the card will display both the unactivated unlimited time window as well as any monetary value you might also have on the card:

MetroCard Reader displaying both unlimited time window and monetary value

In the above example, I have a 7-day unlimited time window and as well as $33.40 on my card. You might be confused by the first line displaying "TIME EXPIRED", but that's just because I used to have a previous unlimited time window on the card that has already expired. The recently-purchased 7-day window has not activated yet. To make matters worse, these readers also display on the last line the (mostly useless) physical expiration time (which is printed on the back of the card anyways). Again, don't confuse that date with any of the unlimited time windows.

Once you actually have activated the unlimited time window portion of a MetroCard, these readers will display when the time window will expire as well as the last time this card was swiped at a turnstile:

MetroCard Reader displaying the active unlimited time window and its expiration

The keyword to look for is "THRU" to determine that the time window is currently active until the specified date (of 06/15/16 in the above example). Note that even though the reader only displays the expiration date, it is implied that the time window expires exactly at 11:59pm on that date.

Lastly, once the time window has expired, the reader might still display the time window that you once had:

MetroCard Reader displaying the past/expired unlimited time window

Because the display does not display "THRU <date>", it means that the 7-day unlimited time window has expired. The display also shows "INSUFFICIENT FARE" because the available $0.40 I also have on the card would not be sufficient to pay for a single ride anyways.


As previously mentioned, the MTA is in the process of overhauling its fare payment system, replacing the physical MetroCards with a contactless payment system called OMNY (short for One Metro New York). The system is also sometimes referred to as Tap-and-Go. With OMNY you can use a contactless credit card, debit card, reloadable prepaid card or digital wallet (e.g. Apple Pay, Google Pay or Samsung Pay) to pay for your fare at subway stations and buses that have OMNY card readers.

The readers look like this:

OMNY readers at turnstiles

These were introduced in May 2019 at all the stations along the 4, 5, 6 trains between Grand Central and Atlantic Ave as well as on all MTA-operated Staten Island buses. With time more stations and buses will be equipped with OMNY readers with a complete rollout across the entire system expected by the end of 2020.

In order to use OMNY, first make sure that the reader has the four blue corner lights and says "OMNY TAP HERE":

OMNY reader displays TAP HERE

Tap your contactless credit card/phone/wearable near the reader (you don’t actually have to touch it). You will hear a beep and the digital screen will display "GO" on a green background.

The regular single-ride fare of $2.75 will then be deduced from your digital wallet/credit card. If for some reason the tap is not confirmed, an error message will appear with one of the following reasons:

  • TAP AGAIN: The tap was not successful. Simply try again.
  • TAP ONE CARD: You are likely trying to tap a wallet with multiple contactless credit cards. Instead tap only one card at at time.
  • PAYMENT METHOD EXPIRED: The credit card has expired.
  • PAYMENT NOT ACCEPTED: This particular payment method you used is not accepted with OMNY.
  • RIDE LIMITED EXCEEDED: While you can tap a single method to pay for multiple taps when traveling in a group, you can do so only at maximum 4 times (including yourself) at any given station.

There are some caveats to using OMNY:

  • The system currently only supports full-fare, Pay-per-ride options. It does not yet support the weekly, monthly or discounted passes for seniors, students or low-income New Yorkers. We won’t be seeing those until 2021 at the earliest.
  • The vast majority of subway stations and buses still do not have OMNY readers.
  • If your journey involves a transfer between subway and bus, make sure that both subway stations and the bus in question support OMNY. Otherwise, you will have to pay for the otherwise-free transfer.
  • If you use Apple Pay, I recommend you set up your credit card as an Express Transit Card. The tap will be significantly faster and you do not even need to unlock your phone.
  • For the time being, you cannot use cash to pay for OMNY. Some time in 2021 a physical OMNY card will be introduced that customers can top off with cash. New OMNY vending machines will also be introduced later.

While not required, you can also optionally register for an OMNY account online so you can view your trip history and manage your payment methods.

So while OMNY is the future payment system for New York City’s subway, buses as well as commuter rail such as Metro-North and LIRR, you are going to have to continue to carry a MetroCard in the near term.

Next: the Step-by-Step Guide