Tourism pumps a whopping $34.5 billion a year into the New York City economy, and it’s no surprise that tours of the city and its various attractions account for a significant portion of those dollars—just look at all those Gray Line buses and Circle Line boats buzzing around. As a result, tour guides are often in high demand, especially during the holiday season and summertime. But that doesn’t mean you should ever have to settle for anything less than a certified Sightseeing Guide. Officially, the only people who should be leading your tour are those who have passed the city’s rigorous test and earned their license. To give you an idea of why NYC doesn’t let just anyone give tours, here’s a breakdown of what it takes to become a full-fledged guide, with some tips for how you can identify the best among them.
Step One: Pass the Background Check
Anyone who offers tours for money in New York City is required to get a license from the Department of Consumer Affairs, which is only good for two years. Those attempting to give guided tours in the city without a license are subject to fines.
Before they’re allowed to take the test, potential guides have to apply for a license. This is where the DCA steps in, requiring people to prove that they are who they say they are, aren’t in trouble with the law, and are otherwise qualified (and safe) to interact with large numbers of people on a regular basis. Not everyone who applies to become a tour guide will become one. Some fail the necessary background checks, and many more have difficulty passing the exam, which requires a good deal of NYC knowledge.
Visitor tip: Before you book a tour, ask if the guide you’re signing up with has a Sightseeing Guide License. While all guides are legally required to have a license before offering tours, not all tour leaders follow the rules.
Step Two: Ace the Rigorous Exam
Well, technically you don’t have to ace it, but to pass the exam, prospective guides must get 97 answers correct out of a total of 150 questions, which would actually be a D grade in school. But it’s not quite as easy as it sounds. The multiple-choice and true/false questions cover a wide variety of subjects, including New York City history, geography and relevant laws—not only in Manhattan but the other four boroughs as well—which translates into a lot of studying.
The DCA’s online study guide for the exam at nyc.gov lists nine “strongly recommended” texts and six “optional” ones. Because the test must be taken within five days of applying for a license, most people start studying for it well before they actually apply.
David Caplan, a Guide Manager for the Circle Line Tours, says he read more than 1,500 pages of material, including the No. 1 recommended text, Blue Guide New York. Joyce Weinberg, President of City Food Tours, says that even though she passed it on her first try—“I’m a NY native, student of history, and pretty smart and well educated,” she says—the exam is “long, tedious, and horribly written.” For its part, the DCA says all questions are “written so that pertinent information and ‘clues’ are often included within the actual examination.”
Still, test takers must have an institutional familiarity with the city and its history, knowing things like “which train will take you from Native American caves of Inwood in Manhattan to the ocean beaches of the Rockaways in Queens” (it’s the A Train), or where in Greenwich Village the romantic poet Dylan Thomas collapsed and died after “18 straight whiskies” (The White Horse Tavern).
Wannabe guides who fail the test can take it again within 10 days without paying an additional fee. Fail it a third time, however, and the DCA charges another $50.
Visitor tip: Though a passing grade only requires 97 correct answers, those who answer 120 questions correctly get a star next to their name on the DCA website’s list of licensed guides (indicating that they received at least the equivalent of a “B” on the test). People who’ve taken the test repeatedly before passing aren’t called out on the website, but if you’re deciding whether to take a tour from one particular guide over another, it can’t hurt to go with the one who has a star by his or her name.
Step Three: Get Hired or Go Out On Your Own
After passing the test, it takes about two weeks to be issued a license, at which point tour guides can get hired by any number of tour companies as licensed Sightseeing Guides. CitySights NY, Gray Line, and Circle Line are three companies that offer comprehensive tours of the city (both by land and by sea) and are where people looking to join a larger tour company often land. Some guides branch out on their own with the help of organizations like The Guides Association of New York City (ganyc.org), which is open to anyone with a DCA Sightseeing License.
Step Four: Conquering the Learning Curve
Of course, simply passing the licensing exam doesn’t mean you can immediately jump in front of a group of people and start showing them around the city. Most guides take time to follow a veteran around to see what works and what doesn’t, how to handle large (or unruly) crowds, and how to navigate certain tricky parts of the city (Times Square, for example, can be especially precarious, given the crowds). “Trailing a guide is standard in this business,” says Weinberg. “New guides must trail an experienced licensed guide before they solo their own tours in order to learn the neighborhood.”
Dave Cervini, founder of the New York Social Network, started offering tours of Central Park, the High Line, and other New York City landmarks in the 1990s. As an independent, Cervini had his own experiences learning the ropes, beginning with a trial-and-error process showing small groups around the city and progressing into a more seasoned approach. While he started offering tours before licenses were required for tour guides, once the city started regulating the industry in 1998 he took the exam and became official. “I figured if I was going to take people’s money, I needed to prove I knew what I was doing,” he says. Cervini notes that a deep knowledge of New York City and the willingness to go above and beyond the average are key qualities to have, whether you work for a big company or a one-man show. “You want to give people something they can’t find in a tour book,” he says.
Step Five: Channeling the Right Stuff
Personality and a great attitude, both of which Cervini has in spades, are also things that can’t be found in books; it’s rare to find a successful tour guide who doesn’t really love what he or she does. They aren’t usually in it for the money. And it takes a lot of time and dedication to get it right.
“Did you ever hear of a rich tour guide?” Weinberg quips. “We do it because we love sharing our passion for New York and meeting interesting people,” she says, noting that there are a few key qualities a good tour guide should always have: “They need to be smart and know a lot about New York City, and be able to think on their feet,” Weinberg says. Great guides are always on their toes, making sure their guests are taken care of. “They need to be punctual and have a good sense of direction, be articulate, and know how to share information effectively,” she continues. “They also need a fun, upbeat personality, and to love being with people and sharing their knowledge.” Caplan adds that the best guides have “intelligence, energy, people skills, the ability to improvise, and a sense of humor.” Thankfully, New York City is never in short supply of potential candidates.