If you’re a people person and love rattling off your favorite New York fun facts, you might have what it takes to become a local tour guide.
But of course, in this city, you can’t do it without a license.
The Department of Consumer and Worker Protection grants the official right to be a sightseeing guide to anyone who’s able to fill out an application and pass a multiple-choice exam. If you can get 97 out of 150 questions right, your license comes in the mail in a couple of weeks, guides told THE CITY. Licenses have to be renewed roughly every two years.
The DCWP has granted 2,518 licenses and renewed 9,890 sightseeing guide licenses in New York since 2016, according to NYC Open Data. (They also denied 27 licenses in that time.) THE CITY talked to veterans of tour guiding to break down the application process and find out what it takes to become a licensed tour guide.
Who is a tour guide?
You have to be a licensed tour guide if you’re showing people around places or points of interest and charging them money for it. (Tours done for free don’t need to be licensed.)
The DCWP’s defines the work as “to guide or direct people to any place or point of public interest or to describe, explain, or lecture about any place or point of public interest to any person in connection with any sightseeing trip or tour within the city.”
A majority of tour guides do touring part-time as a second job or as their schedule permits — it’s an industry that is as friendly to students and actors as it is to retired or older people, according to guides THE CITY spoke to.
Joe Caffrey, a lifelong Staten Island resident, has led tours on and off since 2002 on buses, ferries and walking tours around the city, a gig that helped his wallet after 9/11 and during the 2008 financial crisis, he said — and allowed him to meet new people.
“Tour operators are not allowed to travel around the city unless there’s a tour guide in the bus, so I first started working on top of the buses,” Caffrey said. “That was a lot of fun and a little crazy because you’re up on this bus in the middle of the streets, you’ve got this microphone and traffic lights all around you, and you’re ducking your head and you’re telling people to stay seated.”
Does it pay well?
There is no minimum wage standard for the job, according to the main industry group, the Guides Association of New York (GANYC), but the hourly rate usually falls between $20 and $60, with some companies offering more.
And demand for guides may be on the rise, given increases in how many visitors have come to the city following a plunge in 2020. New York City is projected to see over 60 million tourists in 2023, up from nearly 57 million visitors in 2022, according to the New York State comptroller — nearly reaching the record 66.6 million who visited the city pre-pandemic in 2019.
And sometimes, tourists can be quite generous. Caffrey said he once had to buy cargo shorts after a boat tour because the happy clients on his tour tipped him $1,200 in singles and fives that he could not stuff into the pants he was wearing.
What are the application requirements to become a tour guide?
The DCWP will ask for:
- An application form. Grab one here.
- A photo ID, such as a driving license, green card or passport.
- A passport-size photo.
- Fees, which include an application fee of $50 and a license fee that differs depending on when you apply.
- A passing grade on an exam (more on that below).
You can apply online or in-person at the DCWP Licensing Center or NYC Small Business Support Center.
What is the exam like?
Applying is fairly straightforward, but it does involve hitting the books, tour guides told THE CITY.
A day after you finish your application, you can schedule your exam on the DCWP’s portal, ExamBuilder, which you will have to take within 60 days of applying. The exam has 150 questions, and you have to get at least 97 of them correct to pass. (If you get 120, “a star will be placed next to your name on the DCA [now DCWP] Web site,” the study guide says.) You have up to four hours to complete it — but Caffrey said he finished his test in 45 minutes.
You can retake the exam within 10 days if you don’t pass, but taking it a third time will involve paying the fee again.
The questions will test your knowledge of New York City history, landmarks, culture and transportation routes and more. Here are a few of the categories on the DCWP’s study reference:
- New York City neighborhoods
- Architecture and basic New York City planning
- Public sculptures of noted people
- Ethnic studies and immigration patterns
A few books the DCWP suggests to read are “The Blue Guide,” “New York: A Guide to the Metropolis” and “Manhattan, Block by Block: A Street Atlas.”
Anina Young, a guide who’s been leading tours for over 20 years and has taken the exam four times for renewals, also recommended watching New York City documentaries, but noted that the exam tends also to test things that the everyday tourist might not care for, like driving laws and regulations or the history of a statue, that are nevertheless important to know if you plan to lead a tour.
“A good percentage of the questions and answers on the test are things that the tourists never ask about and things that would be very odd to include on your tour,” she noted, “unless you are doing like a historical statue tour of New York City — which, you know, my gosh, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a statue in New York City.”.
Exams used to be taken with a paper test and a proctor, Young said, but now most of the process — from the application to scheduling the exam — can be done online. You still have to go to a test center to take the exam.
You can also request disability and language accommodations online at ADACoordinator@dcwp.nyc.gov or LicensingAppointments@dcwp.nyc.gov. You can reschedule using the portal, or by calling (646) 974-8244.
What kinds of tours can I lead?
Most newer tour guides join an existing tour operator business, like the double-decker bus companies or boat tour operators, to start.
You can also choose to lead your own walking tours, subway tours, ferry tours and themed tours — for example, “Seinfeld” tours, tours of Victorian Flatbush and Malcolm X-themed tours of Harlem, Caffrey and Young said.
Young also offers a wheelchair-accessible tour of Central Park.
“I show people the Imagine Mosaic, the Strawberry Fields, Bethesda Fountain and Belvedere Castle, the rambles — but I show them how to get there with their chair,” she said. “I want everyone to enjoy … the park as much as I do. People who have to access the park differently than able-bodied people do are part of that everyone.”
Young has been in the game long enough to start her own business, but both she and Caffrey recommended GANYC, the guide association, as a place to start making inroads.
Jeremy Wilcox, an executive board member at GANYC and a full-time guide, also added that the association lets new guides meet older guides and different touring groups, learn how they lead their tours and find which type of tour suits them best.
“Though it’s predominantly walking, some guides will rent a nice town car, you’ll get driven around and they’ll give you commentary from the car,” Wilcox said. “There is as much variety as there are ways to get around New York.”
Most tours are walking tours these days, Wilcox added, because the double-deck bus companies laid off their tour guides in 2020 and haven’t rehired them, opting instead to have a pre-recorded tape guiding the bus through the tour.
Wilcox, Caffrey and Young all disapproved of this development — saying recorded tapes could cause errors if the bus was stuck in traffic, and did not make room for human connection and spontaneity.
Caffrey recalled one such memorable experience from his days atop a double decker.
“I once had a bus that had a husband and wife fighting, and the husband got off the bus and got on another bus,” he said. “And then later the bus he was on caught up with our bus and they began to fight from bus to bus. I said, ‘ladies and gentlemen, this is the last time I’ll let my parents come to visit me at work.’”
What happens if I lead a tour without a license?
The law says that you or the company you work for will likely get fined by the DCWP if you’re caught, Wilcox said. If you’re self-employed, then you’ll be stopped from leading tours until you’re in compliance.
The DCWP said all enforcement for sightseeing guides is complaint-based and the potential penalty for violating the rule is $100 for each day of the violation.
How can I be a successful guide?
Get ready to answer a lot of questions and tap into your patience — as a people-facing business, tour guides are always bantering, experts said.
“You’ve got to be good on your feet,” advised Young. “And you have to have a very good file cabinet of knowledge in your brain.”
Finally, leave room for questions and reactions, even if you have a script, Wilcox said.
“A good guide knows that you never deliver the same tour,” he said.
Have more questions about becoming a New York City guide? Or want to share a little-known New York fact that you think others would like to know? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.