We used our iPhone to ride the New York City subway today – it's the future

New York City is hard. Fact. Here are two more NYC life facts: I'm never not carrying multiple things in my hand, and one thing I'm always juggling is my smartphone.

That's why I'm ready to say goodbye to fetching my yellow MetroCard every time I use the subway or bus, and say hello to New York's contactless payment system.

I was so ready for the changeover that I 'camped out' at Grand Central Station, as if this were an old-fashioned Apple launch, to be the first to use the MTA's now publicly launched OMNY (One Metro New York) contactless payment system today.

Using an iPhone XR and Apple Watch 4 to get through the Grand Central turnstile, I found it to be as seamless as it is overdue for New Yorkers. 

Here are some facts we discovered on our first contactless NYC commute.

It's incredibly easy to use

It was hard to take a photo of the OMNY contactless payment process in action for this article simply because it happens so fast. But that's the point of it, right?

We didn't need to unlock and open our iPhone, or authenticate with Face ID, to pay. Just holding the back of the phone up to the newly installed turnstile screen gave us the green light to start our underground journey. 

The thing that grabs me the most about this process is that it doesn't require people to fetch their MetroCard when we all usually have a phone in hand. I see folks paw at their purses and slim jean pockets with their one free [non-phone] hand, looking for the thin card. 

OMNY represents less juggling for those of us who see each day go by in a New York minute. Bonus points: we don't need to wastefully print out plastic MetroCards anymore.

But it was also unsurprisingly late 

I got to demo the MTA's OMNY (One Metro New York) system the exact minute it went live to the public. It was, of course, a little bit late.

Its noon launch actually happened at 12:19pm ET, and it slowly spread to all of the Grand Central turnstiles. I dashed for the first one that lit up to test it out.

Late or not, seeing OMNY work without a hitch once the system was online was impressive. MTA workers overseeing the project were visibly excited (I even got a cheer when I went through the turnstile – again, big time Apple product launch energy).

London, Chicago and other cities already have contactless systems like this installed (and have for years), so New York is late that different, too. Like we said, the transition is long overdue for the biggest transit system in the US.

Using an iPhone is great, using an Apple Watch is better

Paying with an iPhone via Apple Pay worked great. We haven't tried using Android yet, but we will next trip, and we know it works with Google Pay in similar fashion.

The Apple Watch is even easier when you have things in your hand (Image credit: TechRadar)

The Apple Watch is even easier when you have things in your hand (Image credit: TechRadar)

That said, I could see myself using the Apple Watch more regularly when carrying other things in both my hands, or rolling a suitcase with my phone in my pocket. 

As long as you follow these directions, you won't have to double tap the Side Button: Open the Watch app on your iPhone > tap the My Watch tab > Tap Wallet & Apple Pay > then tap Express Transit Card > Select your card and authenticate with your Apple Watch with your passcode.

New Yorkers are eager to use it... incorrectly

The entire week, I witnessed New Yorkers pressing their plastic yellow MetroCards up against the NFC reader screen... to absolutely no effect. They wanted it to work already.

They were even more confused when the screen went from saying 'Testing phase,' to saying 'MetroCard only' with a yellow background in the last 48 hours. To them that meant 'press your yellow MetroCard here.' It really meant, 'Keep swiping.'

Now both of those pre-launch messages have vanished and MTA employees have been handing out OMNY explainer pamphlets to people. But now that things work, everyone seem to know what to do.

Officially on 4-5-6 trains, secretly works elsewhere

Here's something that wasn't announced, but we discovered today: it works on more subway lines than the MTA announced – if the 4-5-6 runs through the same station.

The dedicated 7 train entrance in Grand Central also works with OMNY (Image credit: TechRadar)

The dedicated 7 train entrance in Grand Central also works with OMNY (Image credit: TechRadar)

Officially, it works on the 4-5-6 subway between Grand Central and Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center and Staten Island buses. For our second test, we used it on the 7 train at Grand Central (even the dedicated 7 train entrance worked flawlessly for us).

In other words, even if you don't use the 4-5-6 subway, there's a chance you could still take advantage of using your iPhone or Android to pay for your subway ride on a nearby track. The OMNY rollout is a lot bigger than anyone first expected.

But it's mostly for tourists and one-off riders today 

Today is the beginning of the end of the MetroCard, but local New Yorkers with daily commutes may not be using it often because discounts fares don't apply.

It's meant for one-off full fares: $2.75. Commuters won't be able to add time (weeks or months) in 2019, and multiple ride discount seekers won't find any small savings. 

Likewise, riders with disabilities will have to stay on the MetroCard, according to the MTA. Discounted rides via OMNY are a 2020 thing, alongside the system's more widespread rollout.

Image credit: TechRadar

Image credit: TechRadar

You'll need iOS 12.3, but can't use iOS 12.4 beta

I had to roll back to iOS 12.3.1 to add Express Transit to my default credit card within the Wallet app. The Express Transit settings menu option vanished in iOS 12.4 beta.

That should change at WWDC 2019 should Apple officially launch iOS 12.4. Hopefully it remains an option if developers upgrade to the iOS 13 beta next week, too.

I ended up spending $16.50 to bring you this article

Oops. This article cost more than I anticipated simply because we have to tap our devices multiple times to get multiple photo, video and the full experience.

The OMNY reader does provide ample time for you to get through the turnstile, but it also does eventually time out (it seems like a minute and a half if you don't go through the turnstile). That's important information to mention, and my noting it means I can write this off... hopefully.

Matt Swider