Navigating the New York Subway – Beginner’s guide

This is a how to post for using the NYC subway system.  Navigating the New York Subway system can be very daunting.  However, you should have no fear.  We’ve put together these helpful hints to help make the whole process easier.   Check out our blog post on which New York City Subway MetroCard to buy and which NYC subway app is best.

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1. Make the subway map your best friend

We are serious, your life will become a lot easier if you have a map handy and don’t worry: even people living in NYC for a long time, take a look at the subway map from time to time.  So take a minute and search for a subway map inside the station (there is one in each station) or ask the station attendant for a free subway map to go. Watch our video tutorial below.  You could also download a PDF map of the subway system to store on your smartphone.

2. Use letters and numbers, not colors!

When looking at the map, you will see the different lines in different colors and numbers.  Even though many New Yorkers talk about the green or blue line, make sure you are choosing the subway line that you need by letter or number and not by color, because even though the blue line shows lines A, C, and E, these train routes eventually split up and you may end up somewhere completely different from where you intended to go.

3. Local or express trains – black or white dots?New York Subway Express vs. Local

Also, when looking at the map you will see that some stops have black dots, some have white dots.  Black dots are the local trains that stop at every stop, white dots are the express trains that will only stop on the white dots.  In the image to the right, you can see two circles, the blue circle around 86th St. Station and the black circle around 96th St. Station.  You can see that 86 St. Station has a black dot with the #1 underneath it.  This means that 86th St. Station is a local stop and that the 1 Train is a local train.  Notice that the 96th St. Station has a white dot underneath it and lists the 1,2 and 3 trains?  This means that the 2 and 3 Trains must be express trains, which they are.

Most Common Tourist Mistake: Getting stuck on the express, when he or she needed the local train.

New York Subway TipsLet’s say you are planning to go to the Natural History Museum at 81st Street.  As you can see in the image to the left, 81st Street is serviced by both the B and C trains.  Since there is a black dot, this is a local station and both the B and C are local trains.   The red circle is around 125th St. Station.  This station is also serviced by both the B and C trains, but also the A and D trains.  Since 125th Street has a white dot, it means that the A and D trains must be express trains, since they do not stop at 81st St. Station.   If you are getting on the subway at Columbus Circle/59th St. Station to head north to 81st Street Station, then you must only take the B or C train.  If you were to take the A or D train, then you will be stuck on the subway all the way to 125th St. Station.  This is very time consuming as you could imagine.

4. Going Uptown or Downtown?

Another important thing you have to figure out is whether you like to go uptown (generally meaning north), or downtown (generally meaning south).  Uptown vs Downtown New York Subway stationsThis means that you will have to choose the correct platform: take a look up at the platform signs on each side.  You might have to use the stair underpass to get to the platform on the other side.  Also, some subway stations only have a uptown or downtown entrance on the street level (see image to the right), which means that you might have to cross the street to get down to the direction you want to go.  This is usually the case with local stops.  Most express stops will have entry to both platforms accessible from every entrance to the station.


5. Finding the right station

The station names make it relatively easy to locate them.  ALERT – if you are planning on meeting your friend at the subway stop of Canal Street though, think again, because there are 5 possible meeting spots, as there are different subway lines with a stop named Canal Street.  Also many stations tend to have a front and back entrance/exit.

There are four Canal Street subway stations

Also, you will notice that most subway stations have either a green globe or a red globe (image to left).  Historically, these were New York City Subway Red Globeinstalled to tell riders which  stations are not open 24hours (those are marked with a red globe) and which stations are open 24 hours (those marked with a green globe).  The red globes were also supposed to mark exit only stairs, but 99% of New Yorkers and visitors ignore that.  To simplify things, just remember that red globe station entrances are not likely open after evening rush hour.

To make your navigation for Midtown easier, here is some help:

  • blue A,C,E trains run along 8th Ave
  • red 1,2,3 lines go along 7th Ave
  • orange B,D,M,F trains run along 6th Ave
  • green 4,5,6 trains along Park and Lexington Avenue.


6. Utilize Pedestrian Tunnels to Transfer from one train line to anotherNew York city Subway Pedestrian Transfer Ways

Another mistake that newbies to the NYC subway system make is to exit from one station to head cross town to another station. Some stations have pedestrian tunnels that connect stations.  For example, many visitors who are on the A, C or E 8th Ave line heading to the Mets Game at CitiField will exit the system at Port Authority Terminal and walk east on 42nd St. and reenter at Times Square to take the 7 Train to the game.  It is much quicker to take the pedestrian tunnel between the two stations, as you can see in the image to the right.

7. Simply ask somebody

If you are still not sure whether you are getting on the right train or standing on the right side of platform, just ask somebody. You will be surprised to find that many New Yorkers like to help you find your way.

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