Although the minimum drinking age for New York State was 19 until December 1, 1985, the legal drinking age for New York City and all of New York State is 21, just like everywhere else in the United States.
Those under 21 are now prohibited from purchasing or possessing alcohol with the intent to consume, from consuming alcohol in public, and from having a blood alcohol level of 0.02% while driving. However, in the privacy of one's own home, with the consent of a legal guardian, those under 21 may consume alcohol.
New York City bouncers and bartenders are very strict about asking for identification before serving anyone at a bar or club. Although many venues around the city are open to anyone 18 years of age and older, you won't be able to purchase a drink or even have one in your hand without a 21-and-over wristband or stamp.
The History of the Drinking Age
New York City has long been known as the City that Never Sleeps, a wild place unlike any other in the United States where many of the rules just don't apply. Although this assumption is quite inaccurate, New York state used to have a drinking age of 18 until it rose to 19 in 1982.
The New York Legislature raised the drinking age again in 1985 in response to the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, which reduced by up to 10 percent the federal highway funding of any state which did not have a minimum purchasing age of 21.
New York alcohol laws are among the most lenient in the Northeast but are more restrictive than just six other states: Louisiana, Missouri, Nevada, Illinois, New Mexico, and Arizona. For example, in New York City, anyone 16 and over can transport or carry liquor (for a person over the age of 21) but cannot buy or consume it.
Visiting NYC While Underage
Those under 21 are not allowed to consume or buy alcohol in public in New York, whether they are with a spouse or a legal guardian or not. Though someone under 21 years of age can't order or consume alcohol in public, children are allowed to enter a bar at any time as long as that particular bar or pub serves food.
Additionally, if you're planning to move to New York, you can serve alcohol starting at age 18. According to the State Liquor Authority, "a bartender, waiter, or any other employee who is selling, taking orders for, dispensing, or handling alcoholic beverages must be at least 18 years of age. Employees such as busboys, dishwashers, and others who handle containers that hold alcoholic beverages can be under the age of 18, but they must be under the direct supervision of someone who is at least 21 years old."
The New York State Liquor Authority and its agency arm, the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control, were established under New York State Law in 1762 to regulate distribution within the state of alcoholic beverages for the purpose of "fostering and promoting temperance in their consumption and respect for and obedience to the law."
If you're visiting New York City with someone under the age of 21 but still want to go out together, be sure to check out club and bar age restrictions. Tuesday and Thursday nights are popular college nights at many of the city's dance venues, which allow students aged 18 and over to enjoy a night out with non-alcoholic beverages.