“I can’t wait to get back to New York City where at least when I walk down the street nobody ever hesitates to tell me exactly what they think of me.” – Ani DiFranco
I just want to start off by saying IT’S OFFICIAL. After much studying and a lengthy exam — on which I passed with a “high score” (aka I get a star next to my name in listings) — I can legally, officially and with a license lead people around New York, the very place I was born, raised and have lived my entire life.
Getting an NYC tour guide license is something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, not only for the extra cash (although that helps), but because I love showing people the city beyond the Empire State Building, Broadway and Times Square. Heck, I live in a neighborhood that some of my Manhattan friends are afraid to visit —Bushwick, Brooklyn — because I love how many undiscovered treasures there are here. I swear, there is nowhere in the city that has the experimental arts offerings and gritty streets with a hint of hipster influence that Bushwick does. Plus, I’ve been told by my friends who have taken my unofficial Williamsburg tours that nobody knows the food and drink of the neighborhood like I do.
On a recent trip to Guatemala I met a couple who actually opted on their own volition to book a hotel in Bedstuy, Brooklyn. Yet again, another amazing NYC neighborhood that even some locals are afraid to visit. And because it can be intimidating to visit these non-touristy areas, I want to be able to guide visitors safely around, showcasing the best of undiscovered New York.
But, if you want to just visit Central Park and the Statue of Liberty I can do that for you, too.
Want to book a tour with me? Book a private photo safari for a custom tour complete with unlimited high resolution images of your group to keep!
As soon as I stepped into the Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) office and was reprimanded for not waiting in the correct spot — about two feet from where I had been standing — I realized why more people didn’t get licensed to be a sightseeing guide: the procedure sucks! While I will say the process is less painless than the DMV or getting a tourist visa at an embassy, you know you’re going to be dealing with underpaid, overworked individuals who hear the same questions everyday and who will bark at you no matter what.
After yelling at me for not standing exactly in my 10-inch radius of allowed space, Sheila* called me over to look at my papers.
“What do you want?” she barked, unsmiling.
“A sightseeing guide license, please.”
She looked over my paperwork, huffing, “I don’t see your Child Support Form.” (Note: Everyone needs this, regardless if you have children.)
While I wanted to say “IT’S THE VERY TOP PAPER IN THE THREE I HANDED YOU. ARE YOU BLIND?!,” I simply pointed to the form. A sheepish grin spread across her face and she laughed. We were now friends. Maybe.
I was given a number to be called up to a window to pay, which I was finally able to do after being cut in line (twice). After looking online, I knew the fee would be $100, so when the girl told me $115 I wanted to know why.
“If you had come April 1 when the new filing season starts it would be $100. But because you came earlier you have to pay for having the license for extra time.”
I felt my face pinch in and my head cock back. “Ummm, it’s March 27. I have to pay a $15 fee to have the license five extra days, all of which I won’t even have the license in my hand for?”
I handed her my credit card and sighed. When I got my receipt back it said $123.
“I thought you said it was $115?”
“There’s also an $8 credit card convenience fee,” she smiled, trying to calm me down with her eyes as she could see me getting visibly perturbed.
Whatever. I was here. I was prepared. I was doing this.
Next up I had to go to a window to get my photo taken. This should have been relatively painless, except there was a strange man — not someone who worked there — who thought the absence of a ring on my finger meant he could harass me.
“Let’s take a picture together? You and me?” he smiled, getting closer.
I scooted away. “No, thank you.”
Even when he walked past me, I could feel him staring at me, every so often blowing me kisses. Awkward.
Luckily, the exam room was closed off from the rest of the world and I didn’t have to deal with snobby Sheila or any weirdos trying to photobomb me.
An overweight woman with a kind smile greeted me inside the exam room.
“Hello, what is your name?”
We continued getting down all of my details, and then she handed me a sheet with my username and password so that I could log in to the computer to take the test.
“It’s 150 questions and you need to get 97 correct to pass,” she explained. “It’s all multiple choice or true/false.”
By got it, I meant I didn’t need further instruction, but she decided to follow me to the computer and baby talk me through how this worked.
“The password is GMC*. That’s spelled G-M-C.”
Was she serious? Not only could I accurately spell GMC without help, but it was written on the paper she handed me.
“For each question you’ll choose one answer. This will be the answer you think is correct. Don’t choose the ones you don’t think are correct. Also, if it’s true or false you’ll choose true if you think the statement is true, and false if you think it’s false. Do you see the “skip question” button under each question? Press that if you’d like to skip the question. Your goal is to get as many as possible correct.”
Wow. Even in kindergarten I don’t think I had a multiple choice explained that drawn out. If she needed to explain it that dumbed down, I felt confident I would ace the exam.
“You have until 4pm to complete the test,” she finished.
“But it’s 12pm now. It takes four hours?,” I asked.
“For some people.”
While I’d expected quick one-line questions like “What is NYC’s finest example of Art Deco architecture?” (The Chrysler Building) and “What year did the city consolidate into the five boroughs?” (1898), each question seemed to be a short historical essay. I’m not going to lie, the nerd in me sort of enjoyed taking the test and delving deeper into Big Apple heritage, but the other part of me that knew the answers and wanted to go home and eat my leftover burrito did not.
Even after taking the exam I felt I was well-prepared, and it took me about 90 minutes to complete the test. While 97 questions correct were needed to pass, I wanted the gold star next to my name, which you get when you answer 120 questions correct. This means you’re the Department of Consumer Affairs recommends you as a top guide. I wanted that star.
“You got a 121. Congratulations!”
“YES!!!” (I’m not kidding, I literally jumped in the air and did a fist pump. No shame. I studied hard!).
It’s official. I am now a proud and licensed New York City tour guide and can’t wait to start showing people around this crazy, historical, sensory overload-filled, artsy, scenic, architectural rich, delicious, moody city.
For those studying for the exam, these are the resources I used and recommend:
The above two are perfect for studying, but if you want to expand your knowledge further these recommended reads are great. They’re also helpful for creating your own tours:
Blue Guide New York (for studying)
AIA Guide to New York City (for studying)
Manhattan Block by Block: A Street Atlas (for tour mapping)
Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan: A Historical Guide (for tour creation)
City Walks: New York: 50 Adventures on Foot (for tour creation inspiration)
Shameless Plug[Updated] If you’re looking for a tour guide to show you around New York City feel free to contact me through my local tour company, NYC Tours & Photo Safaris. I would love to show you the quirky side of New York and provide you with high resolution images of your time. During the tour I’d also be happy to talk more with you about studying for the exam and how to create your own great tours.
Have questions about becoming a licensed NYC tour guide? Are you an NYC tour guide and want to talk about your experience? Please share in the comments below.
Note: Please consider making book purchases through the links listed in this post, as they are affiliate links and I make a small commission from each sale to help keep the site running, at no extra cost to you. Thank you!