Using the London Underground: Everything You Need to Know

European cities are known for their excellent public transportation and London is no exception. Whether you’re trying to get around to visit London’s attractions with your family or by yourself, the London Underground is the way to go.

Taking public transit in another country can feel a bit overwhelming at first, but don’t worry. We’ve put together this useful guide to help you navigate the London Underground, so you can venture around the city like a local.

Here’s everything you need to know about the London Underground, so you can make it to your destination stress-free.  

People using the London underground exiting the train in London.
Public transportation is the best way to experience a new city. Photo credit: Flavio Vallone

The world’s first underground transport system

The year 1863 marked the third year of the American Civil War. That same year, Charles Dickens founded the Arts Club in Mayfair, London, the International Red Cross was formed in Geneva, linoleum was invented and patented in the United Kingdom, and Archduke Franz Ferdinand was born in Austria. 

And in London, something very historic took place that year too: on January 10th, the very first underground train began chugging along from Paddington to Farringdon Street station. The London Underground, or as its known colloquially “The Tube,” was born. It marked the world’s first underground transportation system. 

Here are a few facts about the London Underground of the 21st century: 

  • There are 11 lines, covering 250 miles (or 400 kilometers) of track. 
  • The 272 stations accommodate up to five million passenger journeys per day. 
  • In an entire year—for example, 2021—it allowed for 296 million passenger trips, making it the world’s busiest subway system. 
  • The newest line is the Elizabeth, inaugurated in May 2022. 
A busy platform where people are using the London underground.
Using the London Underground will be a breeze once you read all of these tips. Photo credit: Barney Moss

How do you pay to use the London Underground?

If you’ve never been on a subway, in general, and the London Underground, in particular, have no fear. At first, it may be intimidating and confusing about how to buy a ticket and which line or lines you need to take to get to your destination, but after a ride or two, you’ll do everything as smoothly as a local. 

The London Underground still issues single-ride paper tickets. But avoid this. You have to line up at a machine to buy one and then struggle to slip the ticket into the turnstile. 

Instead, go Oyster

  • At any metro station, you can purchase an Oyster Card. 
  • This plastic card will allow you to add money to your card, so you should always have a balance. 
  • When it gets low, head to the nearest machine and “top it off,” as they say in the local parlance (i.e. add more money to the card). 
  • This way, if you have a larger balance on your card, you don’t always have to go to a machine—just when it’s running low. 

Or even better, you can use your debit or credit card in the form of Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, or Google Pay

  • If there is a contactless symbol on your card,  you’re good to go. Just lightly tap your card on the pad at the turnstile, et voila. This way, you never have to queue up at a machine again. 
  • And if you have your card on your phone, you can use that to enter and exit. But before you even get to London, check with your bank to make sure there are no international transaction fees associated with your debit or credit card. 
A red and blue London Underground sign hangs outside of a station.
Keep an eye out for these London Underground signs. Photo credit: Z_Explorer_

How much does it cost to travel on The Tube? 

Unlike the metro systems in, say, New York, Rome, or Prague, where you pay a flat fee for a ticket and can travel as far as you like, the London Underground’s pricing is similar to that of the metro system of Madrid and Paris: the cost of your journey  depends on how short or long your journey is. 

The metro system has zones, with zone 1 being in the center of London and zone 6 being on the periphery of the city: 

  • Going from Leicester Square in central London (zone 1)  to Notting Hill Gate (zone 1),  for example, is very affordable. 
  • If you take it one more station, to Holland Park in zone 2, the fare will be slightly higher. 
  • Going from Leicester Square all the way to Heathrow Airport (zone 6) is going to cost you a bit more. 

Just tap your card at the turnstile and it will open and your journey has begun. You can calculate the cost of your journey here ahead of time with London Underground’s single fare calculator.

When you exit the station, be sure to tap your Oyster Card or debit/credit card on the pad at the turnstile so that it can charge your card. If you’re using an Oyster Card and you don’t have enough balance on it when exiting, there are machines nearby to add money to it so you can leave. 

A man walking down stairs to get to the London Underground.
Taking The Tube is easy-peasy. Photo credit: | helloiamtugce |

London Underground dos

The best phone app for getting around London (and most other major cities on the planet) is CityMapper. It will give you specific instructions about your journey, including what end of the platform you should stand on so that you can best exit the train. 

Be sure to have your Oyster Card ready to tap on the turnstile. If you get to the turnstile and have to stop and search for your card, you’re just going to annoy a cranky Londoner and hold up their journey. 

Give up your seat to old people and pregnant ladies—that is, unless you’re old and/or pregnant.  

People using public transportation. In the middle escalator words that say "stand on the right" can be read.
Be like a local Londoner and stand to the right. Photo credit: Tom Parsons

London Underground don’ts 

If you’re stationary while ascending or descending on an escalator, stand to the right, so that you allow quick-walking Londoners to traipse up the moving stairs. Standing to the left will just irritate the locals. 

When exiting or entering the station, you don’t need to wait for the turnstile barriers to close before you can tap your card and pass through. When the person in front of you has tapped their card and passed through, you can tap also and the barrier doors will remain open. 

Don’t talk. Seriously. Londoners avoid chit-chat while on the train. It’s eerily silent but that is the status quo. And don’t even think about randomly talking to strangers. That’s borderline taboo in British society. 

People using the Tube on a crowded train car.
Do you know how locals can spot tourists on The Tube? Photo credit: Viktor Forgacs
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About the author

David Farley is a West Village-based food and travel writer whose work appears regularly in the New York Times, National Geographic, BBC, and Food & Wine, among other publications. He’s the author of three books, including “An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town,” which was made into a documentary by the National Geographic Channel. You can find Farley’s online homes at and

More by David Farley

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