It has been suggested that electromagnetic fields could be used to differentiate neurons in culture but how to do this is not clear. We investigated the effect of external magnetic fields (DC and AC MF) on neuronal viability, differentiation, and neurite outgrowth of human SH-SY5Y neuroblastoma cells in vitro. A strong low frequency DC MF or a weak AC MF improved retinoic acid-mediated neuronal differentiation and increased neurite length, without any adverse effects on neuronal viability. Even in the absence of the conventional differentiation factor, retinoic acid, DC and AC MF promoted neurite outgrowth. No significant negative effect on cell viability was observed after MF exposure and the DC MF had greater effects on neurite length and branch number than AC MF. Thus, we have identified a novel, simple and cost-effective method that is easy to set up in any cell culture laboratory that can be used to efficiently differentiate neuronal-like cells, using a DC MF without the need for expensive reagents. This research provides a fresh approach to promote neurite outgrowth in a commonly used neuronal-like cell line model and may be applicable to neural stem cells or primary neurons.