Essential NYC Etiquette for First-Time Visitors

Ling Tang / © Culture Trip
Ling Tang / © Culture Trip
Photo of Esme Benjamin
Wellness Editor28 June 2019

Having a grasp of essential etiquette is vital when visiting New York City (after all, it isn’t a city renowned for its patience). Heed these New York tips and tricks for first-time visitors and you’ll avoid irking even the city’s most irritable residents.

Don’t forget to tip

It may take you a while to get your head around tipping if it isn’t customary in your country. Many New Yorkers rely on tips to make a living, so things can get pretty awkward if you decline to leave an extra 15–20% of your total bill for wait staff, taxi drivers and anybody who provides a beauty treatment, like hair stylists, massage therapists or manicurists. At a bar, you should throw down a dollar for every drink you buy, and if you’re feeling generous, the same goes for any barista who makes the effort to create a nice leaf pattern on your frothy latte. There are also lots of people to tip at hotels: $1–2 is normal for the porter or concierge, plus a couple of dollars a day for the maids.

Be a good subway passenger

With so many people squished together in a confined space, the subway magnifies any inconsiderate acts. Give up your seat for pregnant women and elderly people. Avoid leaning on the poles, wearing a backpack when it’s crowded, placing your bags on seats and generally taking up unnecessary space. If you’re standing by the door and somebody else wishes to exit the train, move aside, even if doing so requires you to temporarily step out of the subway car. When trying to board the train, let others off first. A little kindness goes a long way on the subway.

Wait your turn for a cab

Catching a cab is kind of a right-place-right-time situation, and at certain busy moments (when it’s raining, or late at night when people start to leave bars and clubs) it can feel like you’re constantly missing out. However tempting it may be, going upstream of somebody else attempting to hail a taxi (that is, walking past them so that cabs reach you first) is not cool. Either wait your turn or try your luck on another street.

Don’t dawdle

It can be difficult to orient yourself in the chaos of New York, but that doesn’t give you license to stop suddenly at the top of the subway stairs or right in the center of the sidewalk. Step aside while you open Google Maps and get your bearings.

Ling Tang / | © Culture Trip

Be timely if you’ve booked a table

Among the New York restaurants that accept reservations (many operate on a first come, first served basis) timeliness is taken seriously. Leave yourself a little extra travel time for possible transport delays, because nobody gets seated until the whole party has arrived. And remember, if you’re more than 15 minutes late you may forfeit the table altogether.

Observe silence in the theater

There’s nothing more abrasive than the shrill ring of a phone during a play or movie. Turn your phone off – not just on silent mode, actually off – to ensure you don’t accidentally interrupt the show with an errant alarm or calendar reminder.

Wield your umbrella considerately

The only thing worse than being caught in a New York rainstorm is being poked in the face by a stranger’s umbrella during a New York rainstorm. Maneuver your umbrella with awareness and sensitivity – lifting it over people’s heads in tight passageways and waiting until you’ve cleared the subway steps before popping it open — especially if you have a preference for oversized umbrellas.

Exit taxis the smart way

When leaving a taxi, be sure to use the door closest to the sidewalk, even if that means clambering gracelessly to the other side of the vehicle. And always check for approaching cyclists before flinging open the door.

Ling Tang / | © Culture Trip

Sidewalks are for pedestrians

Don’t ride your rental bike on the sidewalk – not even a short distance. New Yorkers already have enough obstacles to navigate, and there are plenty of dedicated bike lanes where you can cycle safely (not to mention legally).

Be generous with MetroCard swipes

Occasionally you might be approached by somebody asking you to please swipe them through the subway turnstile as you exit. If you have an unlimited travel card, or you’re feeling generous with your Metro credit, give them a swipe and make their day a little easier.

Follow the pedestrian traffic rules

Nothing gets a busy New Yorker fired up like having their path obstructed by a stranger. The unwritten rule of the sidewalk is that everybody should stick to the right in order to keep things moving efficiently. The same goes for escalators: stand to the right so those in a rush can scurry up the left-hand side. In order to avoid blocking the sidewalk, always make sure there’s room for faster walkers to pass beside you without interrupting the flow of traffic. If this means your party ends up walking single file, so be it. You can chat once you reach your destination.

Ling Tang / | © Culture Trip

Heed bike lanes

When you’re meandering across a bridge or through a park, it’s easy to get distracted and drift from the pedestrian walkway into the designated bike lane. Avoid getting verbally chastised or clipped by a handlebar as an angry cyclist whips past by sticking to the side that is reserved for walking.

Don’t litter

Before you drop a soda can, glob of gum or soiled napkin (because what’s one more piece of litter when New York is already pretty filthy) remember that people live here and track fires do happen. Deposit your trash and recycling into the appropriate cans – they’re on virtually every street corner now.

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