San Francisco International Airport, or commonly called by its IATA identifier, SFO, sits between San Francisco and San Jose, roughly 15 miles south of downtown San Francisco, and 35 miles northwest of San Jose, at the western side of San Francisco Bay. Within California, its passenger traffic is second only to Los Angeles. SFO is the 7th-busiest airport in the USA and 22nd-busiest in the world, with nearly 45 million people arriving and departing from the airport annually. The airport was built in 1927, and adopted what is now the centralized terminal design 30 years later.
The airport adopts the centralized terminal concept, with 4 terminals (3 domestic, 1 international) with 7 concourses in a circle surrounding parking and transportation facilities. Some domestic flights depart from the international terminal, and conversely, some international flights to Canada depart from the domestic terminals.
San Francisco is a major hub for both domestic and international flights to the United States. United Airlines operates a hub out of Terminal 3, while Alaska Airlines operates a hub from both Terminal 2 and the International Terminal, with flights allocated to either terminal at random; check the flight information before you head to the airport for the correct terminal. Though it has a wide range of flights, it's well known for its weather delays.
|Terminal 1 |
|Terminal 2 |
|Terminal 3 |
|International Terminal |
The two sets of parallel runways at SFO are spaced too closely together for simultaneous arrivals during periods of low visibility. While in clear weather, both runways in a particular direction can be used, low clouds (a not uncommon weather pattern in the Bay Area) will require that arrivals use only one of the two. Should this happen, air traffic control will delay inbound traffic either in the air or at your departure airport. If you are making connections at SFO or have time-sensitive business there, allow for extra time should your incoming flight be delayed.
International arrivals: All passengers arriving on international flights (except origins with US preclearance) will be processed through immigration. Passengers will then collect their baggage and pass customs. Those with onward flights, international and domestic, will proceed to check-in and security. Be prepared for a 30-40 minute wait. There is no international transit zone. Travellers terminating in San Francisco should follow signs for their desired ground transportation.
Domestic arrivals: Passengers arriving on domestic flights will arrive on the departure level inside security. Those in transit will not need to clear security again unless their next departure leaves from a different terminal that does not have a walkway between them. Travelers terminating in San Francisco exit and may proceed downstairs to baggage claim or ground transportation. The AirTrain and BART is available upstairs.
Passengers must check in with their airline at their respective terminal. Once you pass the security checkpoint, you generally cannot go to other concourses (some exceptions under #Get around). This limits your choice of food, drinks, and shopping.
International travelers will not pass exit controls; however, airline staff will verify passport and applicable destination visa validity.
If you are staying in San Francisco or the East Bay, your most convenient option will likely be BART. The platform is at Parking Garage G. You can get there from any of the terminals using the AirTrain.
If you are going south to San Jose, you can take the Caltrain commuter rail line, but you first need to take the BART to Millbrae, where you can transfer to Caltrain. You can take BART directly to Millbrae from the airport after 8PM on weekdays, and all day on weekends. During other times, you need to take BART to San Bruno, then backtrack on another BART line to Millbrae.
There are no trains from the airport to Marin County, across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. To get there you'll need to take the Airporter bus (see below), or transfer to a ferry or bus in San Francisco.
SamTrans provides bus service throughout San Mateo County and limited service to and from San Francisco. There are bus stops at the International Terminal, Terminal 2, and Terminal 3. Routes KX, 292, 397 and 398 stop directly at the Airport terminals. Routes 140, 292 and 397 stop at the Rental Car Center.
SamTrans bus tokens (valid for local fares) are available for purchase at a discount in bags of ten at several Airport Information Kiosks:
- International Terminal -- Arrival Level (Outside Exit A & Exit G)
- International Terminal -- Departure Level (Near Ticket Aisle#1 outside BART station entrance)
- Domestic Terminals 1 and 3 (Baggage Claim Area)
The Marin Airporter offers service every half hour to and from Marin County, operating from 5AM to midnight. The Airport Express offers service every hour to and from Sonoma County, with similar hours of operation. The Santa Cruz Airport Flyer provides service to SJC, Scotts Valley, and Santa Cruz.
The Monterey Airbus provides service to SJC and Monterey.
- The airport is accessible via Highway 101 and the surface street McDonnell Road. Freeway traffic is often congested, plan accordingly.
- The Rental Car Center is connected to the airport terminals via the AirTrain.
Pre-security all terminals are reachable on foot. The Rental Car Center however is not, and requires the AirTrain.
The AirTrain rail system can get you around the airport. The AirTrain runs 24 hours a day and is free.
- The Red Line circulates the terminals plus the International Garages near Concourses A & G, and the BART train station at the garage near Concourse G.
- The Blue Line stops at all of the Red Line stations, plus West Field Road and the Rental Car Center. You can also walk between terminals.
If you're parking at the Long-term Parking Lot, you need to use a shuttle to get to the terminals. The shuttle picks up from the departure level of each terminal, runs 24 hours a day (every 5 minutes from 4AM to midnight, 15 minutes all other times), and is free.
After security (airside), Terminal 3 and International Terminal G are connected by a walkway to facilitate Star Alliance connections, and Terminal 1 and Terminal 2 are similarly connected (but be careful you don't accidentally walk out of security!). Otherwise you cannot move between terminals after security. In some cases you can't even move between concourses within the same terminal while inside security.
SFO has a wide variety of activities, installations and public art in the airport.
- Aviation Museum & Library, International Terminal Level 3, adjacent to Concourse A, before security, ☏ . Daily 10AM-4:30PM. Set up in what the airport looked like in the 1930s, this museum focuses on the development of aviation on the West Coast of the US and around the world, including aircraft mockups, pins, posters, even safety cards and luggage labels reflecting the old glory of the airline industry. Free.
- SFO Museum. The SFO museum maintains a series of changing art exhibitions throughout the airport. Check the website to see what is up for view.
- Public art. SFO has a large collection of public art installed throughout the airport, some of it quite impressive and worth looking at on your way out of the airport as well as to pass the time while waiting for a flight. The linked map shows the locations of art in the airport.
- Model aircraft collection, Terminal 3, Level 1, pre-security. A collection of extraordinary wooden model airplanes, including models of rare and unusual makes, made by Edward Chavez of the Nut Tree Restaurant.
- Flight deck, Terminal 3, Concourse E. An installation of touchscreen kiosks with information about the airport and local attractions.
- Yoga room (between terminals 1 and 2).
- Throughout the airport, there are three different Kids' Spots, interactive play areas for children with science-based exhibits that are open 24 hours a day. One is in Terminal 2, Concourse D, near Gates 54A and 58B; the second is in Terminal 3, Concourse E, near Gate 62; the third is in Terminal 3, Concourse F, near Gate 87A.
- Air France - KLM Lounge, International Terminal, Concourse A. 9AM - 3:30PM, 5:30PM - 8:30PM.
- American Airlines Admirals Club.
- American Express - The Centurion Lounge.
- British Airways Terraces Lounge.
- Cathay Pacific First & Business Class Lounge.
- China Airlines Dynasty Lounge.
- Delta Sky Club.
- Emirates Lounge.
- Japan Airlines Sakura Lounge.
- Philippine Airlines Mabuhay Lounge.
- United Lounges.
- United Arrivals Lounge, Terminal 3, baggage level. 6AM - 12:30PM.
- United Club.
- United Global First Lounge.
- United Polaris Lounge, Near G92 (Across from G security checkpoint). 6:30AM - 1AM. Exclusive lounge for travelers departing in United Polaris or any Star Alliance airline long haul first and business class. Soon to also replace Arrivals lounge as well.
- Virgin Atlantic Club House Lounge.
Eat and drink
There are 2 food courts right before security adjacent to concourses A & G at the International Terminal. Do not expect the food to be cheap compared to off-airport establishments, though. But the food is better than what you can find in many other airports, as it features a lot of choices for a main course menu. In the north food court, choices include:
- Ebisu. 7AM-10PM daily (sushi bar 10AM-9PM daily). Quite decent Japanese, including udon, soba, tempura, and sushi.
- Fung Lum. Chinese food and noodles
- Lori's Diner. American
- Willow Street. Breakfast, sandwiches, pasta, burgers, pizza, ice cream and smoothies.
In the other terminals:
- Andale Mexican Restaurant, Terminal 2 Concourse D & Terminal 3 Concourse F (kiosk only), International Terminal Concourse G (seating option available). 5:30AM-11PM daily. Fresh made to order Mexican entrees, beer, and wine. The seating option at International Terminal features a full-sized bar.
- Buena Vista Coffee, Terminal 3 Concourse F. A pretty big restaurant. American cuisine and Irish coffee.
- Gordon Biersch, Terminal 3 Concourse F. American cuisine with beers and a full set bar.
- Lark Creek Grill, Terminal 2 Concourse D. Table service restaurant with full bar, seafood, steak and breakfast
- Mission Bar & Grill, Terminal 1 Concourse B. Sandwiches, burgers, soups, salads and breakfast; full bar and seating area.
- Three Twins Ice Cream, Terminal 1 Concourse C. Organic ice cream flavors and toppings, sweet & savory made-to-order crepes, waffles.
- Wakaba, Terminal 2 Concourse D (near gate 55). Japanese sushi and noodles, teriyaki and bento boxes. Beer and sake is also provided. No seating area.
There are very few shops at Terminal 1, plenty in other terminals.
- Bay Area Club House, Terminal 3 Concourse F. Pro sports apparel, headwear and souvenirs. Last minute jersey idea if you are a Niner!
- City by the Bay, Terminal 1 Concourse B. Souvenirs, postcards, and gifts from the City by the Bay for its namesake.
- Collector, Terminal 3 Concourse E. Artworks from the Bay's artists.
- Cool_tees@SFO.fun, International Terminal Concourse G. Chic designer apparels & accessories.
- Destination Green, Terminal 3 Concourse F. Earth-friendly gifts from companies committed to sustainable design.
- Embarcadero Treats, International Terminal Concourse G. Local candy products and foods from the United States.
- Ghirardelli, Terminal 3 Concourse F. San Francisco's own chocolate brand.
- Greetings from SF, Terminal 2 Concourse D, Terminal 3 Concourse F. Souvenirs, gifts, apparels, and accessories from the "City by the Bay".
- Pacific Outfitters, International Terminal Concourse A & G, Terminal 2 Concourse D, Terminal 3 Concourse F. Travel gear, electronics, bags, apparel and travel publications
- Simply Gourmet, Terminal 1 pre security. Californian candies and food.
- Compass Books, Terminal 2 Concourse D (right after security). A good selection of books and a few souvenirs. The display shelves out front are definitely worth a browse.
There are work stations at concourses in the International Terminal that you can use to work with your laptop or to charge your device. On the domestic terminals, there are spotty numbers of power sockets throughout the walls. There is also a machine that can charge your device twice as fast for a fee, with the exception of the International terminals.
- Free Wi-Fi. Free Wi-Fi connectivity is available on all terminals & concourses, with service that is reliable. Use the #SFO FREE WIFI access point, open your browser and agree to the terms & conditions, and you're good to surf!
- TTY for the hearing impaired. Can be found in all terminals.
- TripTel, International Terminal A pre-security, ☏ , toll-free: . 8:30AM-9:30PM daily. Cell phone rentals, Internet, fax and copying services. Advanced reservations are recommended for cell phone rentals.
- Mailboxes, 6 Mailboxes are located curbside on the Departures/Ticketing Level at the end of all terminals..
- United States Post Office (Airport Mail Center), 660 West Field Road (Take the AirTrain Blue Line to the West Field Road Stop, walk 5 minutes.), ☏ . M-F 11AM-11:59PM, Sa 10:30AM-6:30PM, Su closed. Full service post office. Last pick up is 8PM weekdays, 6:30PM Saturday. Lobby is always open for PO box access.
- XPress Spa, Terminal 2 Concourse D, Terminal 3 Concourses E & F, International Terminal Concourse G. 6AM-11PM daily. A spa to rejuvenate yourself. The location at Terminal 3 also offers barber service.
- Freshen Up!, International Terminal adjacent to Concourse G, before security, ☏ . 24 hours daily. Should you feel not fresh, come here for a shower. Or buy toiletries & undergarments. $15+.
- Airport Travel Agency, International Terminal adjacent to Concourse G, before security, ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. 6AM–11PM daily. Luggage storage, sundries, Western Union, notary, shipping, bag wrapping, tickets, reservations, passport photos, etc. $15+.
The sole hotel on the airport grounds is the Grant Hyatt at SFO, which is accessible from the terminals using the AirTrain.
The surrounding communities also have plenty of accommodations. San Bruno directly to the west, Millbrae and Burlingame to the south along US 101, or South San Francisco and Brisbane to the north along US 101 have plenty of chain hotels to choose from. Most of these hotels run shuttles to the airport, which stop at the designated area on the Departures level in front of each terminal.