Navigating the NYC 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.  You could also watch this video with the same information.   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.  New Yorkers don’t call the train lines by their colors, so make sure you are choosing the subway line that you need by letter or number, 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. Choose between local or express trains – black or white dots?


New York Subway Express vs. Local


When looking at the subway map you will see that some stops have black dots and others have white dots.  Black dots are “local” stations and the only trains that stop here are trains that make every stop on the line.  White dots are “express” stations and all trains on a line stop here.  

In the image above 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 a 1 underneath it. This means that 86th St. Station is a local stop and that the 1 Train is a local train (because it stops there).  Notice now that the 96th St. Station has a white dot underneath it and lists the 1 the 2 and the 3 trains?  This means that the 2 and 3 Trains must be express trains because they are only stopping at the stations with a white dot. 

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


New York Subway Tips


Let’s say you are planning on visiting the Natural History Museum on 81st Street.  As you can see in the image above, 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 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 nor any of the other stations with black dots following 81st Street.   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. Decide Uptown or Downtown?


Uptown vs Downtown NYC Subway Lines


Another important thing you have to figure out is whether you need to go uptown (generally meaning north), or downtown (generally meaning south) – for those staying in Manhattan.  This means that you will have to choose the correct platform.  Also, some subway stations (usually local train only stations) have separate entrances for uptown (see image above), or downtown-bound trains (see image below), which means that you might have to cross the street to get down to the direction you want to go.  Most express stations will have entry to both platforms accessible from every entrance to the station.


Downtown NYC Subway Entrance


5. Find the correct station.

The station names make it relatively easy to locate them.  ALERT – if you are planning on meeting your friend at the subway stop on 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


6. What do those red and green globes mean?

Also, you will notice that most subway stations have either a green globe or a red globe.  Historically, these were installed to tell riders which stations are open 24 hours (those are marked with a green globe) and which stations are closed at night (those marked with a red 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 to remain open after the evening rush hour. With that said, there are fewer and fewer red globes remaining and it’s possible you won’t see any in your time in NYC.


Red and Green Globes NYC Subway Entrances


7. Utilize Pedestrian Tunnels to Transfer from one train line to another.


New 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 them to other 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 above.


8. Simply ask somebody.

If you are still not sure whether you are getting on the right train or standing on the right side of the 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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