So far, so good. Confusing as the system already is, it's going to get even more confusing as you need to watch out for some caveats.

Evening service

In the evening (usually after 10pm) you'll see some subtle changes to the train routes. They arrive less frequently and run more slowly than usual. Express trains tend to become local, meaning that they stop at every station. This can be confusing because the train designation does not change. For instance, the A train which during the day runs express between 59th St. and 125th St. suddenly starts stopping at each station in between, even though the official subway map does not show the "A" designation below any of these local stations. You can find exactly what happens to your service by looking at the travel advisory on the MTA website. In the top-right corner of the official MTA map you can also find a box with descriptions of how each service changes at nights and on weekends. There also exists a dedicated late-night subway map.

Weekend service

A few train services have a different weekend schedule. For instance, the B and W trains never run on weekends. This is also described on the MTA map in the top right corner as well as on the travel advisory page on the MTA website. However, in addition to these regular weekend schedules, there will also be a plethora of other planned service changes that are specific to the upcoming weekend. Because the subway system operates 24/7 for all 365 days of the year, maintenance of the tracks or construction has to be done while the system is in operation. To avoid disrupting rush-hour traffic, maintenance happens on weekends and they are guaranteed to cause various service disruptions every weekend. The MTA website has a special Weekender page that illustrate all the service changes for the upcoming weekend. Also note that Google Maps also incorporate weekend changes when searching for directions.

As you enter stations and on subway platforms, you will find electronic displays or physical "Planned Service Changes" posters indicating the type of change:

Electronic display showing service alerts
Individual planned service changes flyer
Planned service changes board

The type of change is very specific to each service. Read those service alerts carefully to determine what your next options are and also pay attention to the dates as these posters are sometimes posted for an upcoming weekend instead of the current one. The most common type of changes are as follows:

Express turns local

Express trains turn local for a certain section. This isn't too bad because you can still use the same train to get to the same destination. You just have to endure stopping at every station that usually would have been skipped.

Local turns express

A local train that usually stops at every station is now an express train for a certain section. This usually means that in order to exit at your desired local station, you have to take this express train to the next express stop and then catch a local train in the opposite direction to end up at your desired destination.

A train replaces another service

Very often, a train is rerouted to a completely different train service altogether. For instance, the 5 trains, which typically run on the Lexington Line on the east side of Manhattan, sometimes run on the 7th Ave. line on the west side of Manhattan. Somewhere downtown it forks from the usual 5 track but will eventually merge back to its original track somewhere midtown. What is confusing is that the train's designation will not change. It will continue to be identified as the 5 train despite running on a different route.

To illustrate, you find yourself standing at Times Square and suddenly see the 5 train approaching on the side of the platform where you otherwise would expect the 2 train. The conductor's announcement should be something like, "This is a 5 train running on the 2 track." In those cases, just think of that train as a 2 train. However, eventually the train will merge back to its original track and you might find some temporary sign posted in the station indicating when this will happen. Pay close attention to the conductor's announcement; they will let you know when the train goes back to its original track.

On some trains, the route map shows a warning light, indicating that it's incorrect:

Route map displaying 'This map is not in use'
Train is complemented with a bus

The train is no longer running. You have to exit the subway station and take a shuttle bus that drives along the same route to each subway station. This takes longer since above-ground traffic tends be slower. These shuttle buses are always free and you do not have to swipe your MetroCard at all.

Train doesn't run altogether

This train is out of service. Find some other route using a combination of other trains to get to your final destination.

Miscellaneous information

Stay in the know:

  • Follow the @NYCTSubway Twitter handle for more up-to-date service changes.
  • All stations have cell phone service and free Wi-Fi (SSID: TransitWirelessWifi). However, you won't have either service while riding the trains underground.
  • You still need to wear masks even if you are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Free masks are available station booths.
  • Drinking alcohol or smoking is prohibited on the trains as well as anywhere in the stations.
  • If a particular car on a train is unusually empty compared to others, there's probably a very good reason for this. Don't board that car unless you are prepared to see or smell something really disgusting.
  • Some stations (such as the 145th St on the 3 train) are so small that only a portion of the train can fit in it, so you must be in the first 5 cars of a train to be able to exit. The conductor will make such an announcement in the train several stops ahead giving you an opportunity to move your way to the front of the train at the previous stops.
  • The subway is more than 100 years old. It can be dirty and smelly down there. Don't be surprised to see rats crawling around the tracks and occasionally even on the platforms themselves.
  • The vast majority of platforms and tunnels are not air-conditioned. The heat becomes unbearable in summer.
  • The majority of subway stations do not have elevators. This means a lot of walking and climbing up stairs or using escalators. See the accessibility section below on how to navigate the trains with elevators.
  • When you travel in a group, make sure everyone hops onto the train at the same time. Don't run ahead and catch a connecting train and risk leaving some members of your party behind when the door closes on them. This is especially important when you travel with children. Teach your children that if they are separated from you on a train, that they should exit at the next station and wait there for you to catch up.
  • Don't walk between the cars of a train. It is illegal and dangerous.
  • If you find yourself accidentally dropping something valuable onto the tracks while waiting for the train, never retrieve the item yourself. The third rail on the track is electrified and you can be run over by an oncoming train. Instead, notify a station agent in the station booths; he or she can notify someone else to retrieve the item for you properly.
Subway etiquette

There are some unspoken rules of etiquette to follow when you ride the subway. They may not be all that different from other transportation systems' ridership rules, but allow me to state them here:

  • Don't stop suddenly in the middle of a stairway or hallway to talk or text on your mobile phone. You'll annoy those behind you.
  • When you ride an escalator, stand to the right so others can walk past you on the left.
  • When you approach a turnstile, have your payment device ready to swipe/tap.
  • If you can't successfully swipe your MetroCard/OMNY device three times, be courteous and let some people behind you enter first before you try again.
  • Let passengers exit the train first by standing to the left or right of the opening door.
  • When you enter a train, be sure to walk all the way into the train. Do not stop at the entrance and block other people behind you from entering the car.
  • Do not hold the doors open for others. You will delay the train (and the trains behind you) and annoy your fellow riders.
  • Do not lean on the poles inside the train. People will want to hold on to them.
  • Don't eat food that others can smell on the train (no matter how good it smells).
  • Give up your seat for the elderly or pregnant women.
  • On crowded trains, don't put your backpack or handbag on a seat that otherwise could be used by someone else.
  • On crowded trains, don't wear backpacks on the back. Wear them in front or take them off altogether.
  • As you exit the subway station, don't stop at the top of the stairway and admire the scenery. There are people behind you who need to exit as well.
COVID-19 pandemic

While the coronavirus pandemic has had a large impact on the subway system, subway service has resumed to its normal schedule since. Trains are running 24/7, though they are less crowded than they used to be before the pandemic.

As of Fall 2021, you (and your children) are still required to wear masks on trains, buses and in indoor stations -- even if you are fully vaccinated. You do not have to wear a mask in outdoor stations. If you forgot your mask, you can request a free one at any subway station booth.

There are free hand sanitizer pumps at many station, though they are often empty.

For more information on this topic, please visit the coronavirus information page on the MTA website.

Frequently asked questions
  • Is it safe to ride the subway?
    Generally, yes. Violence and crime on the subway peaked in the 1980s. Today New York City continues to be one of the largest safe cities in the world. You do not have to worry about pickpocketing.
  • What mobile apps do you recommend?
    There are tons of them out there, so I won't be listing/recommending any particular one here. However, do note that there is an official Trip Planner website and the MTA also has a MyMTA mobile application available on the Google Play Store or the Apple App Store.
  • Can I take luggage, bikes or strollers onto trains?
    Yes you can, but you should consider several things. First, it might be strenuous to carry things up and down stairs since most subway stations do not have elevators. Second, avoid rush hour as the trains will be packed making it difficult to find space. See the accessibility section below on how to navigate the system with large items.
  • Can I take pets on the trains?
    Yes, as long as they are fully-enclosed in a carrier and don't pose an annoyance to other commuters. Many commuters have a soft pet carrier where they place their cat or dog in. Service animals like guide dogs do not have to be in a carrier, but must be on a leash/harness at all times.
  • What should I do if I lost something on the subway/bus?
    If you lost something on the subway or bus and a good samatarian has returned it to the MTA, your lost item might make its way back to the Lost & Found. This might take a few days though, and it's best to start the process by filing a claim online first. That said, you can find the Lost & Found office at 34th St-Penn Station on the northern end near the stairs that go up the A/C/E train:
    Lost & Found office
  • Can I find restrooms in subway stations?
    The vast majority of subway stations will not have public restrooms. Some stations have restrooms, but they are locked up, leaving you with maybe only 10% of subway stations actually having usable restrooms. Typically these would be larger subway stations with a lot of transfers. However, many restrooms aren't very clean, so you might be better off trying to find public restrooms outside of the subway system.
  • Is there a discount for the MetroCard?
    If you are a senior citizen or a person with qualifying disability you can apply for what's called a Reduced-Fare MetroCard. You can apply by mail or in person at the MTA Reduced-Fare MetroCard Walk-In Service Center in Lower Manhattan. Upon approval, you are issued a personalized Reduced-Fare MetroCard (with your name and picture on it), which allows you to ride the subway and bus at a 50% discount. You can refill this card at a MetroCard Vending Machine, though you should also consider signing up for the EasyPay program which links a credit card to the Reduced-Fare MetroCard so that the MetroCard automatically refills. For more information and the application, see the MTA website on reduced fares.

    Alternatively, you can also show your original US-based driver's license, passport (of any country), New York City Department of Aging ID card, Access-A-Ride card or Medicare card directly at any ticket booth, and the agent there can issue you a single disposable MetroCard at the price of $2.75 but that can be used for two rides (giving you essentially a 50% discount). Note that the $1-fee-per-card is waived here.

    Full-time students in NYC's school system can also get discounted MetroCards through their schools.
  • Can I get a refund if I lost my MetroCard?
    You cannot get any refunds for the monetary value portion of a MetroCard. However, if you have paid for an Unlimited Ride window using a credit card or debit/ATM card, you can get a prorated/partial refund for the unused/lost time by calling 511. See the MetroCard Balance Protection Program for more info.
  • What else can I use with the MetroCard or OMNY?
    You can use your MetroCard or OMNY to pay for local bus rides. It's the same fare as the subway, so if you have an Unlimited Ride card, it's essentially free. If you have a Pay-Per-Ride card or paying using OMNY, it will cost you $2.75 per ride. However, there is a free transfer from the subway (and vice versa), so if you just used your Pay-Per-Ride card for a subway ride, you can transfer to a bus for free within two hours. If you have used the Pay-Per-Ride card for multiple people on the subway, you have to swipe the card only once on a bus. The display will tell you that there are multiple free transfers and the bus driver will let multiple people go through. Similarly, if you have used your Pay-Per-Ride card multiple times on the bus, you just need to swipe it a subway turnstile once and the turnstile will let multiple people go through.

    You can also use your MetroCard to take the short (three-minute) tramway from Manhattan to Roosevelt Island, which gives you some nice views over Manhattan. Because it participates in the one-fare system, it's essentially free if you have an Unlimited Ride card. The same concept about transfers, described above, applies here as well if you use a Per-Per-Ride card.
  • Where else can I get help?
    First of all - don't be afraid to ask a local New Yorker for help. Contrary to popular belief, we are actually pretty nice and helpful. You just need to ask. Secondly, you can locate the station booth in the subway station to talk to the station agent:
    Station booth
    Each subway station is guaranteed to have such a station booth that is staffed 24 hours a day. These booths are always "on the outside" of the system before you enter the turnstiles. If you encounter an empty booth, it's possible that you are at a large station where there are several of these station booths and you have to find the other station booths at other entrances.

    Thirdly, throughout the station you will also find these automated Help Point Centers where can speak to a service operator remotely:
    Help Point Center
    Lastly, you can also call 511 from any US-based phone. This will route you to New York State Travel Information Line for any question about subways, buses, railroads, or bridges and tunnels.

In this section, I will now explain how to use the subway for people with disabilities. Even if this does not apply to you, it might be useful to you if you are traveling with strollers, bikes, pieces of luggage and similar large items. There are many different kinds of disabilities but I will focus mostly on people with mobility impairment. For consistency, I will use the term people with disabilities, but acknowledge that different people have different preferences in regards to identity-first vs. person-first language.

Let me first tell you the bad news: the subway is notoriously difficult to use for people with disabilities. It is unfortunate that one of the largest and busiest transportation systems in the world has such a poor record in supporting people of all abilities. The subway system was originally built in the early 20th century long before the ADA, the American Disabilities Act which mandates making public areas accessible to everyone, was established in 1990. As of 2021, only ~30% of the 472 subway stations are considered accessible. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is continuing to retrofit additional stations for accessibility, albeit at a slow pace. For the foreseeable future, the majority of subway stations is still inaccessible and we have to learn how to navigate it.

Reduced-Fare AutoGate MetroCard

People with disabilities or who are accompanied by service animals or even senior citizens above 65 years of age can apply for the Reduced-Fare AutoGate MetroCard. As the name implies this personalized MetroCard allows you to use the subway (and buses) at the 50% of the base fare (i.e., $1.35 instead of $2.75 for each ride). The application process can be done via mail or in-person at the MetroCard Customer Service Center in downtown or at MetroCard bus/van which periodically tours various neighborhoods around the city at a given schedule. You need to provide proof of disability or age and bring a passport photo, two valid forms of IDs including one with a picture. Once approved, you will receive a personalized white-looking MetroCard. For more information on how to apply, see this.

For residents, you can also combine this card with the EasyPay option which automatically refills the Reduced-Fare MetroCard using a credit card when it reaches a low balance. This has the additional benefit that it caps the automatic refill at exactly half the cost of the regular monthly Unlimited Ride MetroCard. In other words, once you have paid 50% of the cost of the regular Unlimited Ride MetroCard, all remaining rides for the remaining month are free.

The option to apply for this Reduced-Fare AutoGate MetroCard is also available to tourists visiting New York City as long as you can provide proof of disability or age at the MetroCard Customer Service Center on 3 Stone St, New York, NY 10019. Remember to bring two forms of IDs and a passport photo. Once approved, you will receive a temporary Reduced-Fare MetroCard on the spot.

Accessible subway stations

As mentioned before, only a portion of subway stations are accessible in accordance with the American Disabilities Act (ADA). On the official subway map, you can recognize ADA-accessible subway stations with the blue wheelchair sign next to the subway service names underneath the subway station:

14th St subway station on the subway map showing wheelchair icon

You can also find the list of accessible stations on the official MTA website here. An ADA accessible station generally implies that you can reach any train in any direction without taking the stairs. This usually means that the entire station is accessible via elevators and ramps, but there are exceptions and they are usually called out on the map like in this example:

50th St subway station on the subway map showing only southbound accessibility

At this station, only the southbound (downtown) C and E platform has an elevator.

It is very possible that the closest subway station near your journey’s start or destination is not accessible, so you have to find other nearby accessible stations for your journey. Sometimes it is worth the extra effort to go to another subway station with an elevator than schlepping your stroller/luggage up and down the stairs at a desired station. You also need to take into account that when you transfer between subway services that the station where the transfer occurs is also accessible. Most mapping applications such as Google Maps and Apple Maps also have an option to get public transit directions using accessible stations only.

Furthermore, because elevators do routinely go out of service for maintenance and cleaning, you should verify on the MTA website that all the elevators required for your complete journey are in fact in service.

Each subway station has a different layout. In some stations, the trains are literally right below the street requiring only a single elevator to reach them, while other stations are very complex with multiple levels requiring you to take 3-4 different elevators just to get to the trains. That said, a fairly common setup that you see a lot consists of two levels underground:

Illustration showing street level at the top, mezzanine level in the middle and platform level at the bottom

In this setup the first floor underneath the street level is called the mezzanine level. It is on this level, where you can find the MetroCard Vending Machines to buy MetroCards and the turnstiles to enter the subway system. The floor below that is the platform level (or sometimes called concourse) where you can enter the subway trains. This means that you have to take at least two different elevators to get from street level to the trains.

On the street level, despite the subway station having multiple entrances, you are likely only going to find one or two elevators. The signage at the subway station entrances will point you to where can find the nearest elevator:

Chambers St subway entrance

Before entering the elevator, make sure to read the signage above it to verify that this will get you to the desired train and direction. For instance, some elevators only take you to the downtown service, so you have to find another elevator if you want to head uptown:

The elevator at 66 St/Lincoln Center showing only access to downtown service

On the Mezzanine level, in order to enter the turnstiles, first locate the large service entry doors that are usually right next to the turnstiles. They are usually black and labeled Service Entry.

Service entry door with an AutoGate reader on the side

If you are in possession of a Reduced-Fare AutoGate MetroCard you can use it at the AutoGate reader next to it. Hold the MetroCard with the black magnetic stripe facing you and the chipped-off corner at the top and insert the MetroCard into the slot at the top of the reader. The service entry door will then automatically open.

For other travellers with just the regular MetroCard or who paid using OMNY, the official guidance is to first get the attention of the nearby booth attendant, then with the booth attendant watching, swipe your MetroCard/pay with OMNY at the regular turnstile and rotate the turnstile without going through. After the booth attendant has seen you do this, they will then remotely open the service door for you.

That said, the unofficial and much more efficient way to do this is to leave your large luggage/bike/stroller near the service door, then pay with your MetroCard/OMNY and go through the turnstile as normal and then push the service door open from inside to retrieve your item. From the inside, the service door has a metal bar that you need to first push to release the lock. Also note that the door can be heavy but it will open. Sometimes these service doors also function as emergency exits, so they might sound an audible alarm, but no New Yorker will bat an eye. Provided that you did use a MetroCard/OMNY to pay for your entrance, you are okay.

Now that you passed the turnstiles, find the next appropriate elevator to get down to the platform level. As before, make sure to read the signage above the elevator, as there will be different elevators for different trains and directions:

Elevator to the Uptown/Queens-bound N/Q/R/W services

A few notes about elevators:

  • They aren’t particularly clean, and you will encounter elevators that have unpleasant smells.
  • As mentioned, elevators routinely go out of service, and there is usually signage directing you to alternatives, which might include going to a different nearby station. You can view a current list of out-of-service elevators and escalators here.
  • During rush hours, elevators at large transfer stations are very busy, so you might have to wait a long time to be able to get onto the elevator.
  • Some elevators service multiple different subway services, so read the elevator buttons carefully: S stands for Sidewalk/Street level, M stands for Mezzanine and C stands for Concourse. Sometimes the buttons are also labeled with the appropriate train services, but this is not very consistent:
    Elevator buttons are sometimes labeled with train services
    In the above example, the upper button will lead you to the mezzanine level (where you usually find the turnstiles and station booth) and the lower button is for the Northbound (uptown) A, C or E service only. If you meant to go downtown, you would have to find another elevator.
  • Be expected to take multiple elevators at a station to get to your desired platform. For instance, from the main entrance at Columbus Circle (a very popular station near Central Park), it takes you 4 elevators to get to the downtown 1 train. It's also not very apparent how to get there, so I recommend looking for some local families with strollers who might know where to find the right elevator.

Once you are on the platform level of accessible stations, you should find the designated boarding area. This will be clearly labeled with a blue "Boarding Area" sign:

Designated boarding area on the subway platform

These are usually located towards the center of the platform where the train’s conductor will see you and can make sure to hold the door open longer. This boarding area also has a very slight elevation making it easier to transfer from the platform into the train easier. Note that during rush hour, the trains might be very busy making it difficult to find space to get on the train.

If you have entered one of the newer trains, you will find that the electronic display that displays upcoming train stations will also have red wheelchair sign marking stations that are accessible:

Electronic display showing upcoming stations and which ones are accessible

Make sure to exit/transfer at an accessible station only. When you approach a station that is accessible, the train announcement will end with "This is an accessible station. You will find the elevators at ...." (audio). As you exit a train, look for the blue or white handicap signs that direct you to the nearest elevators to either exit or transfer to another train. If you want to exit, locate the service doors next to the turnstiles. From the inside, most of them are also labeled emergency exits:

Service exit doors often function also as emergency exit doors

Travellers in possession of the Reduced-Fare AutoGate MetroCard can use it again at the AutoGate reader to have service doors automatically open for you. For others, simply push the service door open from the inside to open. Despite the warning that an alarm will sound, it usually does not.

As one would expect, taking the trip using elevators or only accessible stations will take a significant amount of time. It’s very typical that your entire journey might require 4-6 different elevators. For more details and resources about accessibility see the MTA’s website on this topic.

Alternatives / Access-a-ride

Given the poor accessibility conditions of the subway, another way to travel in NYC is to avoid the trains altogether. All NYC buses have retractable, ADA-accessible ramps. The bus driver will also help secure your wheelchair to the appropriate place. Note that uncollapsed strollers and bikes are not allowed on the bus. You must collapse down a stroller or bike to bring it on the bus. Many ride hailing apps and taxi cabs also have support for wheelchairs.

The MTA also has the Access-a-ride (AAR) program that consists of accessible vans and car shares available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week that provide door to door service for eligible customers at the base price of a subway fare (i.e., $2.75). These are shared-ride vans with accessible ramps that require prior reservation but can pick you up at any desired location.

An Access-A-Ride car on the street

Depending on the eligibility of the person, these rides can truly be door-to-door or just door-to-an-accessible subway station. Personal Care Attendants that accompany the AAR customer will also be able to ride for free. Sometimes, the MTA also employs taxis and private car shares to complement the service, but the process of reserving one is the same. In addition, AAR customers can use the regular public transportation (subway and buses) for free four times a day. This is useful given that all NYC buses are ADA-accessible with ramps and can take you to the nearest accessible subway station.

To receive AAR benefits, one must first apply. The entire application includes an in-person assessment and might take up to a month to complete and is therefore not really feasible for tourists. The application must be accompanied with documentation from a medical professional or service provider demonstrating your difficulty in using public transportation. After the in-person assessment, you will then be assigned one of these AAR categories:

  • Full: This means that you can use AAR as a full door-to-door service anytime of the day and the year.
  • Conditional: This means that you can use AAR under certain conditions only. For example, you can only use it when it rains/snows or you can reserve AAR only to get you to the closest accessible subway station.

Your AAR eligibility can be permanent (requiring a renewal only every 5 years) or only temporary until your medical condition is expected to improve

To apply for AAR, call 877-337-2017 from NYC area codes or 718-393- 4999 from elsewhere or fill out the application online.

Next: Getting from the Airports