Welcome to the Big Apple! New York City is a diverse and bustling metropolis that can be exciting and overwhelming for first-time visitors. We’re here to offer a few NYC etiquette tips to help you out.
During your travels to the city, you may experience culture shock as you adjust to the city’s fast pace, multicultural environment, and unique transportation system.
Living most of my life on Long Island, heading into “the city” was fairly common. We jumped on the Long Island Railroad and spent days visiting museums and nights seeing shows.
Only when I travel to other cities, or when someone calls on me in New York, do I realize how unique this city is.
Learning how to navigate New York City and understand its culture can make your experience better and help you blend in like a true New Yorker.
This guide will provide common sense tips, insights, and a few unwritten rules to make your visit smooth and enjoyable.
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Getting Around the City
The hustle and bustle of New York City can be overwhelming for newcomers.
The fast-paced lifestyle, crowded streets, and constant movement can create a sense of urgency and intensity that differs from other places.
It may take time to adjust to the city’s energy and find a comfortable pace.
In Manhattan, people walk everywhere, and they walk quickly.
The sidewalks get crowded in New York City, especially near popular attractions.
Step aside if you stop to check your phone for directions or take a photo. It’s considerate.
You may get plowed down if you suddenly stop mid-sidewalk. People have places to go.
Keep in mind that you may have to walk single file at times when in a group.
When, not if, but when the sidewalks get overcrowded, it is best to stay with the crowd and go with the flow. If you step out into the bike lane because the sidewalk is too crowded, you will get hit by a bike. They will not stop for pedestrians.
NYC street crossing tip from a local:
Pay attention to crosswalk lights at intersections. Native New Yorkers have a sixth sense going on when it comes to crossing in traffic. They step into the street a good 5 or more seconds before the light changes. Follow at your own risk.
NYC Subway System
Take the subway, it goes everywhere, and it’s faster than all other forms of transportation in New York City.
And while efficient, mostly, it can be confusing for newcomers.
Navigating the various lines, understanding the fare system, and dealing with the crowds can be intimidating.
There are local lines, express lines, numbers, letters, and colors. If you’re confused, asking a New Yorker for help is okay.
Most people don’t mind offering help BUT skip the small talk and ask your question directly. New Yorkers do not have the time or patience for chit-chat.
Knowing your route before you get on a train is smart.
Use the Citymapper app to navigate the subway system. It’s great!
Or download this app by Mapway, which uses the official MTA subway map to guide you.
Great news! No more Metro cards. New York now uses tap to pay through OMNY in all five boroughs making it easier than ever to ride the subway.
NYC Etiquette Tips For The Subway
For first-time visitors, the unspoken rules of using public transportation in New York may be unfamiliar.
You may see dancers or performers while waiting on the platform for your train. Back away and give them some space (but not too close to the yellow line).
Some simple NYC subway manners include:
- Let people off the train before you get on.
- Step away from the door to let people off the train.
- Keep your luggage and/or feet off the seats.
Most importantly, refrain from talking to people inside the car. New Yorkers do not want friendly conversation. Subway time is quiet time.
Don’t stare at anyone. Trust me, there will be plenty to stare at. Staring will be perceived as a challenge, and you want to avoid going there.
Do stare straight ahead or above people’s heads, and put on your best “zoned out” face.
This is especially true if someone is acting loud or a “little off.”
Attention seekers linger on the subway as they have a captive audience. Engaging them will annoy everyone and can escalate to an unknown situation.
It’s best to keep that invisible wall surrounding you in these moments.
NYC subway tip from a local:
If the train car is empty, do not get on it. It is empty for a reason. Either there is no AC, no heat, or it STINKS! And I mean stinks with a smell you never want to breathe in.
Hailing Taxis and Rideshares
If hailing a taxi sounds difficult, it’s not really. If the top center light is on, the cab is available. Just confidently step out to the curb’s edge and hi-five the air.
Don’t jump ahead of someone else hailing down a cab. It’s known as upstreaming, and it’s not cool.
If you see a long line of taxis at the curb, do not blindly walk up and hop into the nearest one. That is most likely a taxi stand, and there will be a line. Line cutters are not looked upon well.
Both Uber and Lyft are available through their apps.
Prices vary according to demand.
NYC Uber tip from a local:
Booking an Uber while it’s raining or during the same half-hour the theaters let out in Midtown will cost you a small fortune.
Best to walk to a nearby restaurant, have a meal, and try later. It will probably cost less this way.
People from all over the world live and work in New York City. The sheer diversity can be both fascinating and challenging.
The array of languages, customs, and traditions may differ from what you’re accustomed to, so arrive with an open mind and a willingness to embrace new experiences.
Respecting diversity and inclusion is a strength of character most New Yorkers pride themselves on.
Personal Space and Privacy
Maintaining personal space or privacy is difficult but vital in a city of millions such as NYC.
You may see poverty, homelessness, and signs of mental illness.
You may see celebrities out with their families or other high-profile figures.
You will likely see many crazy things on the streets of New York City.
As tempting as it seems, don’t video or photograph them.
People are just trying to live their lives.
What To Wear In New York City
If you’re wondering what to wear in New York City to not look like a tourist, just forget it.
No one really cares what you’re wearing on the streets. You will see every state of dress and undress you could imagine.
Check the website for dress codes or expectations if you plan on going to an upscale restaurant or event.
Please don’t sport intentionally offensive messages on your clothing.
Outside of that, wear what makes you feel comfortable.
NYC Etiquette Tips for Dining
Street Food in NYC
New Yorkers often eat standing up. It is not unusual to see people consuming their meals while walking the streets.
When ordering from a takeaway or street cart, keep these things in mind:
- Decide what you want while waiting in line. Use restaurant’s menu app, or study the posted menu board.
- If you have a question, keep it quick and simple.
- Once you order, step aside for the next person while you wait.
Don’t forget to take home some NYC treats to eat when you leave.
What is the tipping etiquette in NYC?
Waitstaff do not make a living wage in New York City. Servers depend on tips to survive.
Tipping is generally 15% for good service, 20% for great service, and anything above that for outstanding service.
Double-check the bill before paying. Sometimes the service charge has already been added in, especially in parties of 6 or more.
NYC dining tip from a local:
Anyone with mobility issues should know that NYC restaurants can be as jam-packed as the streets. They are often small spaces with tables and chairs touching back to back. There could also be steps down to the dining area and staircases to the restrooms. Buildings are old, and space is at a premium.
Exploring Tourist Attractions
Go to Times Square because everyone needs to go at least once.
It’s cooler at night when it’s all lit up. Just absorb the atmosphere for about 5 minutes, take your selfie (minus the selfie stick!), and leave.
NYC Times Square tip from a local:
Don’t take anything “free” from anyone in Times Square.
“Free” is not free.
If anyone tries to hand you something or offers to take your picture, walk away.
They want something from you, and it’s more than just gratitude.
If you decide to stop for a picture with a character, pay them a tip. It’s expected.
Broadway and Theater
The only other time you would want to visit Times Square is to go to the TKTS booth near the giant steps to purchase your half-price Broadway show tickets.
Check out information about the TKTS booth here or download the app before you go.
NYC Etiquette tips for attending a Broadway show include:
- Turn off your cell phone
- No photography or video in the theater
- no talking during the performance
- Eat before or after the show, not during
- PLEASE, no mom buns or hats. The people behind you can’t see!
Dealing with Crowds and Lines
There will be crowds. There will be lines.
Just come here mentally prepared to wait.
Everyone is excited to “see the thing” or get inside. Just wait your turn, and don’t act impatient. It will ruin the experience for you and everyone around you.
Following Rules and Regulations
If you are required to check your backpack at the entrance, then just do it. Don’t argue about it. You won’t win, and you are holding up the line. That line everyone waited a very long time on.
Being Street Smart
Keeping Your Belongings Secure
You want to keep your things secure, so it’s best to keep them locked up in you’re hotel room.
A big backpack or bag will just be inconvenient to lug around.
Many museums and big venues will require you to check it.
New York City streets and mass transit are crowded. That backpack is going to get in everyone’s way and annoy them.
Street Vendors and Panhandlers
People will ask you for money.
Some will be passive, but others may be more assertive. It is okay to walk by and ignore them.
Do not make eye contact, and keep walking.
New York is a city like no other, and by adhering to these NYC etiquette tips, you’ll be well on your way to embracing its unique culture and blending in effortlessly.
Remember, New Yorkers are known for their fast pace and abruptness, but they are also incredibly kind.
With a sense of adventure and an openness to embracing new experiences, culture shock can evolve into an exciting journey of discovery and appreciation.