This post will help you determine which NYC subway MetroCard is best for you.
We'll show you where and how to purchase a card, how much to spend, with special tips for tourists and visitors.
Let's get going!
- Unlimited vs. Pay-Per-Ride Card
- How to Purchase a MetroCard
- Tips on Using the Subway
- Which Subway App is Best?
- Subway or Hop-On-Hop-Off Bus?
- Things to Do in NYC
UNLIMITED vs. PAY-PER-RIDE METROCARDS
There are two types of cards to choose from: a Pay-Per-Ride card and an Unlimited Ride card.
With a Pay-Per-Ride card, your card will deduct $2.75 every time you take the subway/bus.
An Unlimited Card costs a flat fee and you can use the subway/bus as many times as you want within a set number of days.
When deciding which card is best, think about how long your trip is and how many times you think you might be taking the subway. Also, consider the number of people in your party.
*Before buying a MetroCard, read below about NYC's OMNY program which began its rollout in 2019.
- Add money to your card and each time you 'swipe' your card to enter the subway, $2.75 will be deducted from your card balance.
- There is a one-time $1 fee when you purchase a card. Don't throw your card away when it runs out of money, or you will have to pay $1 again when you buy a new card.
- You can buy a single-ride card for $3, but it is unlikely you will need this type of card.
- See below for what discounts are available.
- Up to 4 people can use the same MetroCard. It will still cost $2.75 per person per ride but you do not need to pay the $1 fee for multiple cards.
- Each ride includes a free transfer (within two hours) between subway lines, bus, and subway, or between buses.
- This card can be used on the JFK AirTrain connecting the airport to the subway system (additional cost applies). See our Manhattan to/from JFK Airport.
- See below for other transportation systems that accept the Metrocard.
This card is valid for unlimited subway and bus rides until midnight from the day of first use. You can choose a 7-day unlimited card or a 30-day unlimited.
There is a $1 fee when you purchase a card. *Do not throw away your card when it expires, or you will have to pay $1 again for a new card.
An unlimited 7-Day MetroCard costs $33 and allow unlimited swipes. See below for what discounts are available.
While a single ride costs $2.75, the Unlimited card saves you money because the more you use it, the cheaper each ride is.
- for 13 trips = $2.53/ride
- for 15 trips = $2.20/ride
- for 20 trips = $1.65/ride
If your stay is 30 days or longer, consider a 30-day unlimited card for $127 ($63.50 reduced fare).
Important rules that apply to Unlimited MetroCards:
- It can only be used by 1 person.
- Once you have swiped the card to enter the subway, it cannot be used again for 18 minutes.
- Unlimited Ride MetroCards are not accepted by the JFK AirTrain, Express buses or PATH trains.
- See below for other transportation systems that accept this card.
As an alternative to using a MetroCard, riders can now tap to pay at the turnstile! In fact, Metrocard machines will be phased out in 2023.
With the new OMNY system, you can tap a credit or debit card onto the OMNY reader, smartphone or wearable device.
You also have the option of buying an OMNY card, a durable hard card (see more below).
The OMNY tap-to-pay method is available at all subway stations in NYC and all MTA-operated buses.
A great feature of the OMNY system is the weekly fare cap.
Starting on a Monday, once you pay for 12 rides, with the same device or card, you can ride for free for the rest of the week through Sunday.
A few important things to know:
- OMNY only offers the “pay-per-ride” option so you will pay full price every time you tap to pay. Unlimited passes and other discount prices will be added to the system sometime between late 2022 to 2023.
- You get most of the same features of a MetroCard such as free transfers and the ability to pay for yourself and up to 3 other people on the same card.
- OMNY accepts Visa®, Mastercard®, American Express®, Discover®, and JCB networks. But debit cards requiring a pin cannot be used at this time. Be sure to check the MTA website to see if your card is accepted by OMNY.
If you want to switch to the OMNY tap system but do not have a credit card or contactless form of payment, you can use purchase an OMNY card.
OMNY cards are not sold in subway stations yet. You can buy them and reload them at stores like Walgreens, CVS and 7-Eleven.
Since MetroCards are still available until the end of 2023, so until then, it may not be worth buying an OMNY card, which costs $4 more than a MetroCard.
On the other hand, if you use a pay-per-ride MetroCard, you do not get to take advantage of the OMNY fare cap mentioned above.
Find out more about the OMNY card here.
You could also listen to our NYC Travel Tips podcast episode on the NYC subway. You can get our podcast wherever you get your podcasts.
In addition to the New York City subway and bus system, both unlimited and pay-per-ride cards can be used on:
- Staten Island Railway (stay and explore Staten Island after taking the free Staten Island Ferry)
- Roosevelt Island Tram (to get one of the best skyline views of NYC. Learn more by reading our post on riding the tram and visiting Roosevelt Island.
- New Jersey PATH trains between Manhattan and certain locations in New Jersey (an extra fee applies for the pay-per-ride MetroCard).
See the official MTA website for:
- subway and bus maps
- service status and delays
- planned service changes
- the MTA TripPlanner to figure out your route.
When deciding what card to get, ask yourself how many times do you think you will be taking the subway within the number of days you will be here.
Also, take into account the number of people in your party and their ages as there are discounts for seniors and toddlers. (See below).
If you think you will be taking the subway at least 12 times, the Unlimited Card will likely save you money.
If you think you will take the subway just a few times, go for the Pay-Per-Ride card.
Remember that an Unlimited Card can be used only by one person, and you would each have to buy your own unlimited card.
But if you are traveling with several people, it makes sense to buy a Pay-Per-Ride card since up to 4 people can enter the subway with the same card.
The card will deduct $2.75 for each person when you enter.
For families, up to 3 children can ride for free with one fare-paying adult, provided all the children are under 44 inches (112 cm) tall.
This policy is good for subways and local buses, no matter which type of MetroCard you choose.
Seniors 65 years+ and also individuals with qualifying disabilities may qualify for reduced fares. See below to learn how Reduced Fare cards work.
Seniors 65 years+ and also those with qualifying disabilities can get a reduced fare.
- Bring your valid ID, such as your passport or driver's license that shows your age
- Go to the station agent in the booth where you will show your ID and pay $2.75 for a non-refillable MetroCard good for TWO rides.
- You do not have to pay the $1.00 new card fee.
- Not all stations have agent booths.
- This 2-trip MetroCard will be accepted at all subway stations, local buses, and Staten Island Railway.
- This card is not accepted for any other bus lines or the Roosevelt Island Tram.
- For more information, click here.
Student Metrocards are distributed by NYC schools and allows eligible students 3 free rides per school day to and from school and school-related activities events.
Note: To receive a refillable reduced-fare MetroCard, you must submit an application and wait a few weeks to receive it. So unless you plan on staying in NYC for a very long stay, stick with the non-refillable card.
Taxis and Uber
If you like to take taxis, then having a pay-per-ride MetroCard may be your best choice.
You might find that taking a taxi makes more financial sense, especially if you are going short distances.
Not only does a taxi save you time (if there is no traffic), in some cases, a taxi can be cheaper for most trips under 2 miles (3.2 km), especially if you have 3 or 4 people in your group.
MetroCards can be purchased from the vending machines at subway stations and some shops and newsstands around the city.
Check here to see what merchants near you sell MetroCards nearest you.
There is also an online option but this isn't the best option for tourists and visitors.
The easiest way is to purchase your card at a station from the vending machines.
There are two types of machines pictured here: the larger machines on the right let you pay with cash, credit cards, or ATM/debit cards. The smaller machines are for credit or debit cards only.
Paying with a credit or debit card:
If you pay with your credit card, you will be asked to enter your zip code after you dip your card. If you do not have an American zip code, you can use 99999 for a zip code.
Paying with cash:
If you pay with cash and pay with a large bill and not the exact amount, you will receive the difference back but in $1 coins, not bills.
The machine can only return up to $9 in change.
Tip: Always get a receipt in case you lose your card or it does not work.
Here is a step-by-step instructional video.
TIP: A good way to have fun and get an in-person lesson about the subway is to take our Manhattan in One Day Tour.
Once you have purchased your card, here are some tips on how to use it!
MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR METROCARD AND SUBWAY TRAVEL
Foreign Language Speakers
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) website offers translations of their site. Simply look in the lower left-hand corner of the page and you will see an option for Google Translate.
Ride the Subway with a Tour Group
You'll get an expert lesson on using your card, including how fast to swipe your card through the turnstile.
Swiping too fast or too slow won't work - you have to find just the right speed!
MetroCard offers discounts and deals
For certain attractions, theater tickets, and events. Most New Yorkers do not even know this! Click here for what discounts are being offered currently.
Enjoy the ride!
Perhaps the best part of riding the subway is the great free musical performances you'll come across.
Our post on where to find NYC street performers and music in the subway will lead you straight to them!
Other means of traveling around NYC
- Travel by various ferries.
- Take a hop-on, hop-off bus tour.
- Take a hop-on, hop-off boat tour, or cruise.
See which bus tours, cruises, and ferries are included in NYC discount tourist passes.