The Complete San Francisco Airport Arrival Guide

I ended up writing an arrival guide for Charles de Gaulle Airport Terminal 2e and 2f last Spring that ended up being surprisingly popular for first-timers to France, so I thought I should cover a few other airports that I know fairly well. Here is everything you need to know about international arrivals at San Francisco.

Where you land

First, it’s worth mentioning that all international flights that didn’t undergo pre clearance in Canada will arrive in Terminal A or G. Terminal G houses all star alliance airlines, while Terminal A gates berth the remaining airlines.

Immigration Peak Times

As you deplane, everyone will be heading to the center part that connects the two to go through immigration. Peak times tend to be when multiple large planes arrive around the same time, typically around 8:30-9:30am, ~11am, 4:15-4:30pm and 6:30-7pm

After you clear immigration and collect your bags, you’ll exit to the Arrivals Hall.

Connecting Flights

To reach connecting domestic flights, go up one floor from the Arrivals Hall to the Departures/Ticketing Hall. Some domestic flights depart from Terminal A (on the left facing the airport exits) and all United flights depart from Terminal 3 or G (which are connected airside and to the right facing the exits. Virgin America and American depart from Terminal 2. Delta, Alaska, US Air and Southwest Flights all depart from Terminal 1. Both Terminal 1 and 2 should be accessed by using the Airtrain on either end of the Departure Hall.

ATMs/Currency Exchange

There are a few ATMs in the terminal, but they are on the departures level (up one floor from arrivals) near the food court, as well as on either end of the departures hall, near security. Look for the Bank of America red logo or the Travelex Foreign Exchange which accept Visa, MasterCard, AMEX, Plus, Cirrus, JCB, Discover/Nexus and Diner’s Club cards.

There are currency exchange counters available, but the rates are not nearly as competitive as an ATM withdrawal (typically 1% interchange fee+ATM fee)

Luggage Storage

There is luggage storage available at the Airport Travel Agency to the right of the security checkpoint to the G gates on the departures level of the international terminal. Open from 7am-11pm daily. Pieces are $15-$35 per item for each 24-hour period or fraction thereof. This is quite expensive, but the only option within the airport.

SIM Cards

The best carrier for short term visitors will likely be T-Mobile, which has a simple $3/day unlimited talk, text and web plan. The most accessible stores are at 50 Powell St (Powell Station) and 17th St. and Valencia (near 16th St. BART Station.

From experience, employees may not be aware that prepaid SIM cards are sold, but both stores carry a “Bring your own device Starter and Activation Kit.” Follow the instructions on the packaging and top-up online.

Transportation into the City Center

To get to the city, the two best options by far are the BART commuter rail train or a taxi. BART runs every 15mins and is open from 4am Monday-Friday, 6am on Saturdays and 8am on Sundays. The last BART train departs for downtown San Francisco at 11:45pm every day. The fare is $8.65 one way for adults to any of the stops within the city limits of San Francisco. Children 4 and under ride free. Trains bound for the city usually depart from the leftmost track. The station is located on the far right (facing the exits) on the departure level, through the large revolving door. Tickets are reloadable at regular ticket and Add Fare machines and are required to be retained to exit from the system (or else the maximum fare will be assessed)

Destinations in San Mateo County will be cheaper, while destinations in East Bay will be more expensive. Check the fare table. Machines accept credit cards, but have suffered from outages in recent months.

During the hours when BART is closed, the next best option is a Taxi or Uber. Fares into downtown San Francisco (Market St. Area) will be about $40 plus tip (typically 15-20% for a total of $48) and should take 20-40mins depending on traffic. Destinations closer to Fisherman’s Wharf will likely be closer to $60 including tip and can take an hour with traffic.

To Palo Alto and Mountain View, Taxi’s/Uber’s are the primary option costing between $60 and $80. The trip should take 40 minutes

There is a KX bus that can be taken into the city for $5, but it only runs every 30 minutes and is subject to delays during traffic. Not advised unless on an extreme budget.

Renting a car is not advised since almost all hotels have very little street parking, valet parking typically around $40-50 and are situated in a very dense part of town with a confusing and pedestrian-heavy street grid. Hertz and Avis both have city center rental locations which may make more sense for day trips to Sonoma/Napa or Santa Cruz.

Public Transit

Within the city limits of San Francisco, MUNI operates buses and trains. Fares are $2.25 for adults and allow for one transfer within 90 minutes. Be sure to keep your ticket as proof of purchase while on MUNI vehicles. After 8pm, unlimited transfers may be made. Last buses and trains run around 12:30am, though there is a night bus system covering major routes.

The Cable Cars cost $6/ride and can be caught at Powell and Market, Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghirardelli Square. The less-traveled line is from California and Drumm (near the Ferry Building) to California St. and Polk St.

A 7-day MUNI pass can be purchased for $29 at a booth between Powell Station and the Powell Cable Car Stop. MUNI tickets are not valid on BART.

How to Prepare

Knowing is half the battle. If you are heading to San Francisco or hosting someone in the Bay Area, get an arrival kit sent to your house before you leave!

Have any tips for other travelers? Share them below!

2 Responses to “The Complete San Francisco Airport Arrival Guide”

  1. Though pre cleared flights don’t have to arrive in the international terminal, Air Canada, Westjet and Aer Lingus still use the international terminal. The only exception is United’s Canada flights, which leave from their home at Terminal 3


  1. Great SFO arrival guide - FlyerTalk Forums - December 9, 2023

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