A Step-By-Step Guide to using the Subway System


Now that you have a basic understanding of the subway lines, services, stations, and map, let's move on to the fun part: taking an actual trip! I assume that you can plot out a general plan of how to get to your destination. This might involve deciding the following:

  • Which station am I entering?
  • Which station am I exiting?
  • Which combination of trains should I take?
  • In which direction should I take each train?

Alternatively, use Google Maps, the MTA Trip Planner or some of the mobile apps mentioned in the Miscellanous section).

There are many ways to get from point A to point B. Your trip will likely involve taking a few trains and making one or two transfers. Make sure that the stations you are considering are indeed served by the trains you intend to take by looking for the single letter/number service designations below the station on the map. The most common mistake tourists commit is take an express train and then wondering why it does not stop at certain local stations.

step 1: Finding and entering the subway station

Most of the time, you can recognize subway stations by the green or green-white "globe lamps" that surround the subway entrances:

Solid green subway globe lamp
Green/white subway globe lamp

Subway entrances can be hidden inside large buildings and shopping entrances, so look carefully:

West 4th St station entrance

Use your physical map or the map on your mobile phone (or ask a local) to find the closest subway station.

Sometimes it's beneficial to walk to a station that is farther away to catch a more convenient service depending on where your final destination is.

Because subway trains are really long, a subway station may have many entrances and exits. Not all entrances are created equal. Exit-only staircases are marked with a solid red globe.

No entry subway exit

You can't enter this station through these stairs; you have to find the other entrances instead. (Sometimes there are red globes around an exit that you can enter as long as you already carry a MetroCard. There should be a sign that says "enter with MetroCard only".)

More importantly, some entrances can only be used to access trains in certain directions. This is clearly stated on the sign above the entrance.

28th St station downtown entrance

This is an entrance to the 28th St. station on the N and R service. However, you can catch the N and R trains only in the downtown direction from this entrance. For uptown service, you have to find the corresponding uptown entrance. Because subway lines generally run underneath the streets in Manhattan, you can often find uptown train entrances on the east side of the street and downtown train entrances on the west side. (Imagine the trains running on the same side of the street as the cars above them.)

Canal St. Station entrance

In this example, you can catch the Downtown 6 train from this Canal St. station entrance. You can also catch the J, Z, N, Q, and R trains (in all directions) from this entrance via a free passageway (tunnels).

A sign above a subway exit shows that there is 'No Entry'

In case you didn't notice the red globe I mentioned earlier, this staircase is an exit only. You cannot enter the subway from here; you have to find another entrance to this station nearby.

Step 2: Going through the turnstile

Before entering the subway system, you have to swipe your MetroCard at the turnstile:

Subway entrance turnstiles

Before entering the turnstile, be sure that this is the right place to enter. Notice in the picture above that this is the entry only for the downtown and Brooklyn-bound train. For uptown service, you have to find another entrance. In some stations, once you are in, it's impossible to get to the other side of the platform without leaving the subway system again. This means paying a second time with your Pay-Per-Ride MetroCard, or waiting 18 minutes or walking to another station for those with an Unlimited Ride MetroCard!

Besides the turnstile, you can enter a station through these revolving doors:

Revolving doors in a subway station

Both the turnstile as well as the revolving door act both as an entrances as well as an exits, so before you enter them you might have to wait for a stream of people to exit through them first. As you approach the turnstile/door, you will find a card reader on your right side. Have your MetroCard ready as you approach the card reader. (New Yorkers hate it when people fumble for their card while holding up the line behind them.) Here is how to swipe your card against the card reader:

Swiping the MetroCard

Make sure the magnetic stripe faces down and toward you. Once you swipe the card successfully, you'll hear a discernible click sound, the display tells you that you can go and will also display the remaining value balance or the Unlimited Ride card's expiration date. (To be exact, the Unlimited Ride time window will expire at 11:59 p.m. on the displayed date.)

Display after successful swipe of the MetroCard
Display after unsuccessful swipe of the MetroCard

If the machine can't read the card, it will ask you to swipe the card again. Most tourists fail because they swipe too slowly. Imagine holding the card in your hand, locking your arm, and just walking through the turnstile at regular walking speed. If you fail to swipe properly, don't try your luck at another turnstile. It is important to keep trying to swipe at the same turnstile. Trying at another turnstile might render your card useless for 18 minutes because it thinks you have already used it.

A quick caution about the revolving doors: these doors are already locked into a position that allows you to simply go through them by pushing on them. There should never be a need to pull on the door to "turn it into a position for you to enter" -- doing so will actually count as a turn and you end up wasting a swipe.

Once you enter the system, you can put your MetroCard away. You won't need it to exit.

Step 3: Finding the right platform

I assume you already know which train you want to take. You should also know by now the direction of the train you want (uptown, downtown, Manhattan-bound, Brooklyn-bound, etc.). Knowing this allows you to follow the large black signs with the arrows to guide you to your platform:

Subway signs
Subway station exit signs
Directional signs to the downtown platform
Directional signs to the correct platform

All directional signs have arrows. These signs tell you in which direction to walk to get where you want to go. The arrow applies to the entire sign - so in the picture immediately above, the sign tells you to go downstairs to catch the Uptown B, D, F, and M trains as well as the Uptown 6 train.

Platform layouts are going to differ from each subway station. However, there are several layouts that are commonly found, so let's take a look at them. For local stations that service only one subway line, you'll often find one of these two configurations:

Subway local station platform with only two tracks
Subway local station platform with express tracks in the middle

The local trains travel on the right side (like regular traffic on the streets above them), with the local platform to enter them along the right side of the direction of travel. Sometimes you have express tracks in the middle that allow express trains to overtake the local trains, but these express trains will not stop here.

On the other hand, for stations where both local as well as express trains stop, you very often find one of these two configurations:

Subway express station with a middle platform
Subway express station with two platforms

Either there will be a middle platform, where you can enter the express trains in either direction (depending on which side of the platform you stand), and the outer platforms serve a local train service in one particular direction, or you'll find a station that has a designated uptown platform as well as a designated downtown platform where each side of each platform will give you local vs. express access. Note that the schematics above are simplified and assume uptown/downtown directions while you are in Manhattan. It works conceptually the same in other boroughs with local trains tracks generally being on the outside and express trains tracks on the inside.

On a given platform, there are also signs that tell you on which side of the platform to stand:

Sign showing local vs. express platforms
Sign showing local vs. express platforms

To confirm that you are standing at the correct platform on the correct side, look for the large black signs that are parallel to the train's track and do not have any arrows. They look like this:

Subway platform sign
Far Rockaway/Mott Ave station on subway map

As you can see, these signs tell you the service designation (A), the train's direction (downtown), but more importantly the name of the very last station of the train. By looking at the very last station of a particular train on the map, you can determine whether that train is going in the right direction for you.

Overhead signs above the train track
Coney Island station on a subway map

Remember that signs with arrows do not indicate the platform you are standing on. This confuses tourists all the time. They see the following sign and think that the A, C, E, and 7 trains (or 1, 2, 3, and S trains) stop here:

Overhead signs with arrows show exits

Instead, these signs are telling them to keep walking to the left or right to reach those trains.

Step 4: Waiting for the train

A New York subway train consists of a series of passenger cars. While there are doors between the cars, it is illegal and very dangerous to move between them. Most trains have 10 cars which make them long enough to cover an entire platform. However, the C, J, Z, M have only 8 cars, while the G train is especially short, so you might have to stand in the middle of the platform for those.

Although trains do run on set schedules, it probably suffices to just go down into the station and wait for the next train, which should arrive anywhere between 2-5 minutes during rush hour and 10-20 minutes at night. The subway system runs 24 hours per day and never closes (You've heard that New York never sleeps, haven't you?). With a few exceptions you could catch nearly any train at 4 a.m. if you wanted to, although the wait might be long.

Some train services are equipped to indicate how long you have to wait for the next train(s):

Overhead LED display showing expected time of arrivals
Overhead LED display showing expected time of arrivals

These displays tell you the order of trains (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc.); the train service (5, 1, and 2); the last station and, hence, direction of the train (Bowling Green, 14th St., Flatbush Ave.); and the estimated arrival time. Some displays also tell you the side of the platform you should expect the train to arrive on (the 14th St.-bound train on the left, the Flatbush-bound train on the right).

The first line always displays the next approaching train (1.), whereas the second line will alternate between all subsequent trains (2., 3., 4., etc.). If the first line turns yellow and is blinking, it means that the train just entered the station.

Step 5: Entering the train car

Because a single platform can service different trains, you want to confirm that an approaching train is indeed the train you are waiting for.

Trains carry the train service designation at the front of the train:

7 Train

Most trains will have the name of the service and the name of the last station on the side of the car:

Subway train display
Label on the C train

Once the train car's doors open, let passengers exit first before you enter. Once you enter the car, be sure to walk all the way in to let others behind you come in as well. Trains can be very crowded during rush hour. It's normal to find yourself sandwiched between people. Also make sure to find a pole to hold on to as the train's sudden acceleration and movements can easily throw you off balance.

The next thing to do after entering a car is to look for the route map that indicates the stations you will encounter on the service. Sometimes, the route maps are just simple printed signs:

Route map on Flushing line

Below some station names on this map are other connections that you can take. For example, at 74th St.-Broadway, you can connect to the E, F, M and R trains as well as take the Q32 or Q47 bus to the airport.

Some route maps are fancier displays:

Route map on the Lexington Ave line

The large lighted arrow on the end indicates the direction of travel (in relation to the map). Yellow lights indicate subway stations that are coming up. I took this picture on a train from the 59th St. station to Grand Central-42nd St. The last stop of this train is Bowling Green. When the train enters Grand Central station, that first yellow light will also blink.

On fancier trains, you might even see an LED display indicating the upcoming stations:

LED displays in the train

Here we are at Times Square, where you can transfer for free to the 1, 2, 3, 7, A, C, E, Q, R, and S trains, and also walk to the Port Authority Bus Terminal (PABT). The next station is 49th St. The display keeps on updating (shifting left) as you travel.

At last, overhead displays also tell you the next station:

LED display showing the upcoming station

These displays will alternate between the following information:

  • <Time> ("10:18am")
  • To <last station> ("To Coney Island")
  • "The next stop is"
  • <next stop> ("28 St")
Step 6: Exiting the train

Besides the station displays I previously mentioned, the conductor will also announce the upcoming station name, although hearing (and understanding) the announcement is another matter. Look out the window to determine the station as well:

A placard showing the subway station name
A placard showing the subway station name
Station sign for Lexington Ave/53rd St.

After you leave the subway car, follow the signs with the arrows to transfer to another service or follow the red exit signs to leave the subway system altogether. As you go through the turnstiles or revolving doors again to exit the system, you won't have to swipe your MetroCard.

When you finally exit the subway station, you might not immediately know your bearings. Here are two recommendations to help you out:

  • Right before you exit the subway station, look at all the exits available. Usually those exits are marked as NW exit, SW exit, NE exit, SE exit that indicate compass directions. If you know where you want to go on the map, these clues can help you leave at the most convenient exit.
  • Look for landmarks. By remembering that the Chrysler building and Empire State building is in Midtown and that the One World Trade Center is downtown, you can deduce your relative location based on where you spot these landmarks.

Next: Miscellaneous