The Truth About Becoming A New York City Tour Guide

bushwick

Making discoveries in Bushwick, my favorite NYC neighborhood.

“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!

bushwick

Bushwick bikes and art

The Test

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?”

“Yes.”

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.”

“Got it.”

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.

brooklyn

Streets of Brooklyn

Resources

For those studying for the exam, these are the resources I used and recommend:

Cram

Quizlet

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 meΒ 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!

Getting a NYC tour guide licence

64 Comments

  1. @Lance: I’ll try to find you a copy ha! And if you’re in town you definitely need to look me up πŸ™‚ Just had my first orientation for a startup company was really interesting.

  2. Hi Jessie–Congratulations!

    I’m also a New Yorker studying for the exam because guests seems to always want me to take them around.

    Do you have any advice on specific subjects that are musts?

    1. Hey Karen: Just use the links provided in the post. That will give you pretty much everything you need to know! πŸ™‚

  3. Thanks Jessie for your insightful article. I have been on a few tours in different countries and have the travel bug much like yourself. I spent 2 weeks last year exploring the Rhine alone and went to Northern Spain this year. One of the best ways to see a town like Madrid, was through the eyes and voice of one who is enthusiastic. Savanna was wonderful by night and Charleston plantation by day. Some tours are better than others due to the person giving it. I feel as if I would be great, because I love people, am not shy and am a bit of a character. Thought I would look into getting certified and doing some creepy ghost tour while I am home in NYC like the Jack the Ripper tour I did in London. You made it sound possible and easy to follow. Thanks and have a wonderful time, no matter where you are…but then, I think you already do!

    1. @Nancy: Thank you so much for the kind words! I think as long as you show people what YOU’RE passionate about, it makes the tour come to life πŸ™‚

  4. Hi Jess2716, Thank you so much for your essay about the tour guide test. This information is very helpful I am going to take it.

    1. @Chris James: Let me know if you have any questions. Make sure to use the resource links I provided in the article and you’ll be golden!

  5. I think that may have been worse than the DMV! That lady out front was so NASTY! Then once inside, the lady harassed one of my friends because her credit card has her nickname instead of her real name that was on the application. They must match. It was nuts. And they were so dang slow. All three of us had tried to do the app online, but it would not take our phone number. They had to delete that record, then start from scratch and that took 15-20 minutes because staring at the screen is time-consuming. Then we got to the testing room where it took 15 minutes to get seated because there was confusion over first names vs. last names (kid you not) and then there was time spent with a yellow highlighter coloring a row of boxes. I thought my head was going to explode. When she set up my one friend, she did ask, “Did you study?”. I prayed she would ask me because I was going to say, “Nah, just gonna wing it and see what happens.”, but she didn’t ask. When my other friend came in, she sighed and asked, “How many more of you are there?” Took me 1:15 to complete/review the questions and I passed with a 138 and my two friends got their “stars” too. I was so excited to have found this blog post on Thursday as your link to Quizlet had a least 10 new questions on it and most of them were on my exam. Thanks, Jessie!

    I’m also DC licensed. They did away with the test last year less than a month after I passed the exam because it violates the right to free speech. I now tell people Lincoln was our 10th President who got us into WWII.

    Neither test proves you know how to be a good tour guide, but it’s better than nothing! Happy Guiding!

    1. @Mary: So happy this was helpful for you! Everyone was saying to buy the Blue Book to study but in reality most of the questions are on the links I post in the article. I think the Blue Book is a better resource for afterward planning your tours πŸ™‚ I agree these tests mean nothing. In reality, being a good tour guide is about connecting with people and telling/showing them the city in a moving way. I love food, so that’s usually what I focus on when guiding — barely any of that was on the test!

      1. Agree! I only cracked open the Blue Guide to look at pictures of some of the bridges and statues just in case. I had 7-8 food questions. It was the process that was such a pain – and my second friend got in at 1:50pm. Sheesh!

  6. Hi! I’m planning on talking the test on Monday morning. Did any tour companies reach out to you after you took the test? I’m trying to envision next steps after the exam/license. Thanks!

    1. @Josyf: You’ll need to reach out to them. Having the license is basically a resume booster when you do! πŸ™‚

  7. Hi Jess great info. i’m considering taking the test by the summer. can you elaborate more on the child form, and where do you get it?

  8. Jess, your info was very helpful. I scored a 142 today! Didn’t have the negative experiences you did, in fact it was more or less civil and businesslike. People at the DEC were helpful and not surly. I suggest anyone taking the exam should get there as early as possible to avoid the crowds and study, study, study beforehand. I can’t find the “gold star” list anywhere. Do you know where to find it? How’s business?

  9. Dear Jessica, very good tips. Thank you.
    I’m an Italian living in Florence and a NY lover. I’ve studied to be a tour guide here, but honestly classical art here is not my cup of tea. Do you think there is any chance to become a guide in NY? I guess I would need a visa. Can I get a visa after I’ve passed the tour guide test? Difficul questions, I know… but I wonder how other foreign people do there. perhaps they already got a visa…
    Can you lead tours also in the museums? How long did it take to get prepared for the exam? is the exam only written text or you also have an oral part?
    Thank you so much,
    Chiara

    1. @Chiara: The exam is written (on the computer) not oral. You can sometimes lead tours in museums. I’m not sure about the visa questions, but you can call the Department of Consumer Affairs for more info: http://www1.nyc.gov/site/dca/index.page

      I only really know my own experience of becoming a tour guide. As I’m a native New Yorker I’m not sure of the rules for expats. Sorry!

  10. Hi, I’m not sure I could post my questions.
    Thank you for all the information. Do you know anything about the possibility of becoming a tour guide in Ny for a foreign person? I’m Italian and don’t have a visa. Don’t know if one can get it afterwards. I doubt…
    Do you have any information about it?

    Thank you,
    Chiara

  11. First of all, I love this post. I’m studying right now, reading The Blue Guide. I find it difficult, because it’s rather dry. I do like jumping around a bit, going to different sections of the book. Is it necessary, in your opinion, to read it cover to cover? I also need to find out about the NYC traffic laws, for buses, as I hear that is a big part of the test. I’ve looked at Cram and Quizlet and found some things on there to be really silly (eg, showing a picture of the Statue of Liberty and asking “What is this statue?”) I’m worried that the whole test is going to be things like “What was Peter Stuyvesant’s hat size?” or some such thing. There should be a Barron’s book for this test!

  12. Hi Jessie, your information is very helpful, thank you for sharing. Honestly, I have been thinking of,”There are such good people, who spend time to help the other’s find their way out. Thank you again, I’m studying on it now. I was a tourist guide in Turkey in the languages Dutch and French. Now I’m studying the Blue Guide. My question is, how can I reach those agencies who needs tourist guides in Dutch, French and Turkish after I get the license ? Thank yo
    u. Pinar

    1. @Pinar: Thank you for the kind words and you’re welcome. To be honest I’m not sure. I don’t work for the city nor do I speak other languages fluently, so I only guide in English. I would do a Google search on it, or maybe start your own guiding company offering these services. Best of luck!

  13. Hello Jessie, Your article is so helpful and that inspires me a lot!! Thank you so much. I’m proud of you. As far as i work as an editor for New York CIty guide book in Japanese(for Japanese tourists), i’ve been interested in studying about THIS AMAZING CITY, NYC!! as you said. I totally understand what you are saying and happy to share your passion. Now I started to study for the exam with blue guide. I just realized it was so interesting to discover this city. Of course the goal is to pass the exam, but beyond that this is good chance to learn New York CIty and study “English” for me as well :). Thank you for sharing your story! Best, Mayumi

  14. Hi — I hit button by accident on the last one–Fun reading about your experience taking the test..
    I wonder if you know If Lic can be renewed every year or do you have to retest.
    I took the test a while back– when the woman old me I passed i didn’t believe her,Yes the test is ridiculous.
    My drivers Lic is good for like 5 years — why in the world do I need to retest for Guide Lic!!!!!

    Awaiting your answer
    Thnks

  15. I want to be a New York city guide for French speaking people. (I was born and raised in Paris.)
    Looking into the requirements for this kind of work, (license etc…) I came across your site.
    I like the way you approach the job.
    I am going back to France for a couple of months, when I am back, in June, I’ll keep in touch. Looks like I can learn a lot from you.
    Thank you for all the tips. I did order those books you recommended.
    Excellent reading while visiting France! (He he…) (That’s LOL in French)
    Merci beaucoup.

  16. Outstanding information! THANK YOU JESSIE!
    I can not seem to find if the test is “multiple choice” or “fill-in”. If “fill-in”, how specific do answers need to be? How often are the tests offered? How long does a license last? After getting a license, does one need to “re-test” every few years or take some type of “continuing education” courses? THANKS AGAIN! I want to put together a walking tour of The Bronx, in my opinion, very much forgotten…

    1. @Simon: You don’t retest and the test is a variety of question types. If you read the post I list a number of books that will help you study. Those are my recommendations πŸ™‚

  17. Hi There,
    I can’t seem to find the address of where one goes to write the exam..
    I know it’s near Bowling Green, but no exact address. Can u help me??
    Much thx, Patricia.

    1. @Russell: I took the test at this point over 2 years ago so your best bet is to study the Blue Book listed in the post. They ask manyyyyy terms and questions. Best of luck!

  18. Jessie
    Thank you for posting and answering many questions. What is the percentage of questions we get at the test that are in Quizlet and Cram? Would you say 70? 80? 100%?
    Thank you!

  19. Hi Jesse. I really liked your post. I’m an Italian Travel Blogger and I’d like to follow your steps becoming a tour guide in the States, after many years passed traveling back and forth. Do you have any tip to help me out with that? Being an Italian Citizen can I take the test with no problem? How can I work there after passing the test, as at the moment I do not have a Working Visa?
    Many thanks,
    Alessandro

  20. Thanks for the fun read!!
    I’m planning on getting my license soon, and was wondering if you have to fill in forms and applications before you go for the test, or do that after the test? Their website isn’t so clear!!
    Thanks!!

  21. Just passed the NYC Sightseeing test. Thank you so much for your help here, Jessie! Fortunately, I had none of the bureaucratic hassles you encountered. I went at about 11:00 and the whole process was quick and painless. I used Quizlet, studied hard, and scored 129. It took about 90 minutes.

    Jessie: Could you recommend a couple of companies to contact that might be good for a newbie to get his feet wet? I would like to give walking tours. Again, thank you so very much!

    Henry

    1. @Henry did the Quiz and Study questions in the above help with the test, did they ask similar questions? Did you also study Blue Book?

      Thanks

  22. Thanks for this article, it’s both informative and gives me courage to give it a try!
    What I am mostly worried and ignorant of, is the economic side to it. First off, what kind of business entity you use to be a tour guide (are you a freelancer? LLC?) and if you need to have that sorted before you get your license, and some clarifications regarding the text on the sightseeing laws (for example, the stipulation that you are to charge no more than $1 per person per hour, but I see tours that cost $40 and I don’t understand it).

    If you have any insight to any of these queries I’d greatly appreciate it!

    1. @John: You don’t need to be a business entity at all. It totally depends on what kind of business you want to have (or you can work for someone else). And I’ve never heard that you can’t charge more than $1 per person per hour. There’s no way that can be true (otherwise nobody would still be in business). Hope this helps!

  23. 1/ When you are taking the test, if you skip a question, can you return to it later?
    2/ Can you prepare for the test through self-study with the resources you recommend? Or is a formal course essential?
    3/ Does the test focus entirely on New York City history, geography, etc.? Or are there also questions directed specifically to guides about conduct, advertising, fees etc.?

    1. @Jack: Yes, you can prepare through self-study. And it’s more toward history, geography and culture. As for the format, I took my test a few years ago but I believe you can go back. Hope this helps!

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