Expectations vs. Reality When Moving to New York City

Emily Alford
Last Updated on May 23, 2024
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The prospect of moving to New York is both exciting and terrifying. Pop culture has alternately presented the city as a beautiful backdrop for nonstop fun and a terrifying urban jungle where danger lurks in every darkened alley for unsuspecting newcomers fresh off the bus from “Naivesville, USA.”

In reality, life in New York is just as full of excitement as it is struggle, but you really shouldn’t believe everything see on TV.

 Expectation: You’ll immediately find your perfect living space.

Most of us grew up on the TV show Friends and the dream of immediately settling in to a perfect big city apartment shared with roommates who become like family. But in all honesty, it’ll probably take several moves before you find that perfect combination of location, roommate compatibility, and space that makes an apartment ideal.


Moving is basically a hobby in New York. The month of August, 2017 alone saw 7,061 new leases signed, many of those by New Yorkers in search of a better deal. The good news is that it’s a renter’s market right now, so the possibility of finding your dream space on the first try is unlikely, but not impossible!

Expectation: You’ll live in the heart of Manhattan.

Speaking of Friends, that sweet two-bedroom in Greenwich Village would actually rent for around 5k a month, so unless you’re planning on filling your U-Haul with cash, you’re probably going to have to look at more affordable neighborhoods.


Even though the average New Yorker spends about around a third of their annual income on rent, there are some budget-friendly spaces to be had if you look outside Manhattan. And while television and movies would have you believe that living in Queens or Brooklyn is tantamount to living on another planet, neighborhoods like Sunnyside and Sunset Park have their own bustling, thriving communities and charms. Most New Yorkers can expect a 40-minute commute from the neighborhood they call home to their actual Manhattan workplace.    

Expectation: Waiting subway trains will immediately whisk you to your next adventure.

There are 7,700 public transportation systems in New York City, making it one of the most extensive in the world. That means you’ll almost always be able to find affordable transportation from one part of town to the other, but movies that have their characters traveling from the Lower East Side to Morningside Heights in a matter of minutes must be set in a parallel universe. There’s a reason each neighborhood has its own bodegas, pharmacies, and grocery stores: it’s freaking hard to get around this city.


NYC relies on a decrepit subway system that’s rapidly getting worse. Disruptions and delays beleaguer the city’s trains, resulting in packed platforms, trains that simply stop running for long stretches of time, and political turmoil over how best to fix damaged lines. If Google Maps says a trip from point A to point B will only take thirty minutes on the 5 train, bear in mind that train is on schedule just 32.8% of the time.

Expectation: There’s crime on every corner.

TV and movies often portray New York City as a crime-ridden nightmare where citizens have to be incredibly street smart to survive. Who hasn’t come away from a Law & Order marathon wondering how New York’s overworked detectives could possibly handle so many violent crimes?


Though NYC admittedly has a violent past—in 1990 nearly two thousand citizens were killed—these days, crime is at an all-time low. Even as the city’s population reaches a historical high, violent crime has dropped for twenty-seven consecutive years, meaning that 2017 was one of the safest on record for New Yorkers.

Expectation: Anything worth having will cost a lot of money.

According to Sex and the City or Gossip Girl, every minute of city life is a blurry bacchanal, and if you don’t have twenty bucks for a martini, you’d best stay home.


Yes, you will have sticker shock the first time you pay twenty-five bucks for a burger and fries, but if you know where to look, New York is also full of cheap thrills. Breakfast sandwiches from the corner bodega are one of the city’s greatest pleasures, and they’ll generally only run around $3. A great slice of pizza only costs as much as a subway fare, and many of the city’s beloved bars are still offering the time-honored $7 beer and shot special that has gotten many a broke denizen buzzed on the cheap.

And you’ll also find that the city is packed with fun that doesn’t cost a dime. From free outdoor movies or Shakespeare in the Park in the summertime to a breathtaking walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, it’s possible to spend an entire day taking in the romance and excitement of the city completely free of charge.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on February 14, 2018 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

Emily Alford

Emily is a freelancer writer based in New York City.
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