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. The airport was built in 1927, and adopted what is now a centralized terminal design 30 years later. While it results in an easy single access from the outside, it also means narrow terminals and walkways that can be congested during the busiest times and difficulty in redevelopment and expansions.
Within California, its passenger traffic is second only to Los Angeles, and it is also among top 10 busiest airports in the US and top 25 in the world, with more than 50 million passengers stopping by the airport annually. And thanks to the area's huge importance as a business, tech, and tourism hub, it is well connected both locally and internationally.
Flights to major US western cities such as Los Angeles, Seattle, Las Vegas, Denver, and Honolulu are among the most popular given its central location, with flights to the former departing at least half-hourly during peak times. Daily flights also link San Francisco to most airline hubs of the US legacy carriers using both twin and single-row aircrafts, especially to the east coast. Internationally, it is well connected to the neighboring countries of Canada & Mexico, Central America, Europe, and Asia, with a heavy focus on East Asian routes. Two of the top ten longest flights in the world originate from San Francisco: Singapore and Bengaluru.
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 |
Officially named Harvey Milk Terminal 1, after the first openly gay elected official in California.
|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. As the check-in areas are narrow and there is only one security checkpoint for every boarding area, expect long lines during busy travel times, which can easily extend your line to the boarding area up to one hour!
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. From there, you can get to 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 or SamTrans bus SFO route to Millbrae for transfer. 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 Level 1 of both sides of the International Terminal, and Level 1 of Terminals 2 & 3.
- Route SFO takes you from the airport terminals to Millbrae Transit Center, where you can transfer to a Caltrain.
- Route 140 operates from the rental car center to San Bruno BART station, Bayhill Shopping Center, Skyline College, Westborough, and Pacific Manor.
- Route 292 runs between Hillsdale Mall at San Mateo and Embarcadero at downtown San Francisco via the airport terminals
- Route 397 operates a night service between Palo Alto and Embarcadero at downtown San Francisco via the airport terminals
- Route 398 serves the airport from Redwood, Embarcadero and San Bruno BART station.
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)
By shuttle bus
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 San Jose airport, Scotts Valley, and Santa Cruz. The Monterey Airbus provides service to San Jose airport and Monterey.
The main access to the airport is using Highway 101 from the north and south. If coming from downtown San Francisco, make sure to follow the signs and use the collector/distributor lanes, or you will miss the exit to the airport. For long term parking, exit at San Bruno Ave.
Surface street access is from North and South Macdonell Rd.
If you are picking up someone, you can wait at the Cellphone Parking Lot for free at San Bruno Ave, the same way to the long term parking space. If you need that extra time to drop off multiple people, you can use the Kiss n'Fly area at the Rental Car Center.
It is possible to book your spot online, and there are promotional fares from time to time.
Short term parking is possible adjacent to the terminal buildings for $2.00 per 15 minutes and $36.00 max per 24 hours. Cars over 6 foot 6 inches high can park at the International Garage. Long term parking at costs $2.00 per 15 minutes and $18.00 max per 24 hours, however it is quite far and requires a shuttle for access to the terminal building, although an AirTrain station is under construction. All are equipped with chargers for electric vehicles.
In a rare twist for airports, the terminal buildings are also accessible by bike from N and S Macdonell Rd. There are parking racks at the Rental Car Center, Westfield Parking Lot, both International garages, and the valet area of the Domestic Parking. While parking doesn't cost anything, you can only park them for a maximum of 24 hours; long-term parking for up to 14 days requires a registration at the on-guard security.
If you bring a bike with you on your flight, you can disassemble or assemble it at the International garages or the Rental Car parking lot. The Airport Travel Agency at the International Terminal also sells boxes for air transportation and assembling tools.
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. It is free and runs around the clock.
- The Red Line circulates the terminals plus the International Garages, the Grand Hyatt Hotel, 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.
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.
Luggage carts are free for international arrivals but require payment elsewhere, though there are sometimes a few of them left behind at the AirTrain stations that are up for grabs.
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.
While there are no paid lounges, the airside is usually already comfortable enough for enjoying a good meal or waiting alone.
- Air France - KLM Lounge, Level 4 International Terminal A (immediately left after security). Daily 9AM - 3:30PM, 5:30PM - 8:30PM. Accepts passengers of the respective airlines, other Skyteam alliance members, Qantas, Fiji Airways, and Virgin Atlantic
- American Airlines Admirals Club, Terminal 1 near Gate B13. Daily 5AM-3:30PM.
- American Express - The Centurion Lounge, Terminal 3 near gate F2 (Far west end of the terminal). Daily 8AM-6PM. A lounge exclusive for American Express card holders.
- British Airways Terraces Lounge, International Terminal A between Gates A5 and A9. Daily 12:30PM till last departure. For British Airways, EVA Air, and Korean Air passengers
- Cathay Pacific Lounge, Level 4 International Terminal A. Daily 8AM-midnight.
- China Airlines Dynasty Lounge, Level 4 International Terminal A. Daily 9AM-12:30AM. Lounge for passengers of China Airlines, China Eastern, and China Southern.
- Delta Sky Club, Terminal 2 near Gate C3.
- Emirates Lounge, International Terminal A between Gates A2 and A6.
- Japan Airlines Sakura Lounge, Level 4 International Terminal A.
- Philippine Airlines Mabuhay Lounge, Level 4 International Terminal A.
- United Lounges.
- United Club, Between Gates G6 and G9, Terminal 3: Gates F3 to F14, Gate E4, Gate E2, Level 3.
- United Polaris Lounge, Near gate G1 (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.
- USO Lounge, Terminal 1 Pre-Security. Lounge for US Service members and their family members.
- Virgin Atlantic Club House Lounge, Level 5 International Terminal A. Daily 6-11AM, 2-10:30PM.
Eat and drink
The only sit-down restaurants pre-security are at the International Terminal because of its large floor space.
- Drake's Flyaway, near Gate B20. Table service restaurant with a full bar and brewery offering oven-baked pizzas, burgers, salads and sandwiches
- Goldilocks, near Gate B18. Filipino cuisine favorites with gluten-free and vegan-friendly offerings. Mains from $8, sides from $3.
- Starbird, near gate B13. Locally sustainable chicken tenders, either enjoyed as it is or in a burger. From $10.
Many of the food options in Terminal 2 include food stands with common seating.
- Andale Mexican Restaurant, Terminal 2 near Gate D16. 5:30AM-11PM daily. Fresh made to order Mexican entrees, beer, and wine.
- Burger Joint, Terminal 2 near Gate D15. The chain from New York featuring sandwiches and various burgers.
- Cat Cora, Terminal 2 near Gate D9. Full cocktail bar, wine, beer and a diverse small plate menu.
- Lark Creek Grill, Terminal 2 near Gate D1. Table service restaurant with full bar, seafood, steak and breakfast
- Pinkberry, Terminal 2 near Gate D4. Frozen yoghurt with toppings you can choose. From $3.80.
- The Plant Café, Terminal 2 near Gate D4. Breakfast menu and organic entrees. From $12.
- Wakaba, Terminal 2 Concourse D (near gate D9). Japanese sushi and noodles, teriyaki and bento boxes. Beer and sake is also provided. Joint seating area with other restaurants. Mains from $12. Sushi from $10.
- 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.
- Sankaku, Near Gate E2. Japanese food heavy on entrees with a few selections of sushi. From $12.
- San Francisco Giants Clubhouse, Near Gate F13. Finger snacks, sandwiches, and souvenirs from the namesake baseball team.
- 24th & Mission Taco, International Terminal near G gates, ☏ . Fresh made-to-order Mexican entrees, including build your own burrito, with beer and wine. Burrito from $11.
- Green Beans Cafe, International Terminal near G gates. Coffee and smoothies, sandwiches, baked goods, and salads.
- Pick Up Stix, International Terminal near A Gates. Asian fusion menus, featuring side with 2 entrees, dim sum & sushi. side with 2 entrees from $13. Others from $7.
- Potrero Grill, International Terminal near G gates. American food featuring soups, salads, and sandwiches, including its special clam chowder and chicken wings. From $10.
- Roasting Plant Coffee, International Terminal near A gates. A coffee reserve featuring build your own coffee from select beans. Coffee from $4.
- Samovar Tea Lounge, International Terminal Main Hall. Assorted gourmet teas; artisan toast, eggs and sandwiches and a selection of sweets. Tea from $4, food from $6.
- Tapas & Taps, International Terminal near G gates. American style full bar serving small plates, assorted beer selections and specialty cocktails.
- Gott's Roadside, Near Gate A13. American comfort food featuring pizzas, sandwiches, and burgers. Finish off with a glass of whiskey or crafted cocktails. Burgers from $15, sandwiches from $13..
- The Manufactory Food Hall, International Terminal A near A6. Daily 6AM-midnight. A food court housing a delightful pastry cafe and zesty Thai selections. Mains from $12.
- 1300 On Fillmore, near Gate G11. Southern fares with signature cocktails. Food from $12.
- Mustards Bar & Grill, near gate G3. Steak and diner style menus with extensive wine library.
- Tomokazu, International Terminal G near G4. Japanese specialties including sushi, sashimi, nigiri, rice bowls, noodles and teriyaki. Also sells Japanese snacks. Rice bowl & noodles from $12. Sushi rolls from $7.
There are very few shops at Terminal 1, plenty in other terminals.
Unlike most international airports where international passengers are shoved into a narrow and winding passage down the duty free zone before reaching their gates, they are small, divided, and not intrusive here, meaning that you can walk fast directly to your gate if you want to.
- 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.
- Greetings from SF, Terminal 3 Concourse F. Souvenirs, gifts, apparels, and accessories from the "City by the Bay".
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 connectivity using #SFO FREE WIFI is available on all terminals & concourses. Lounges also offer their own hotspots and may offer faster speed.
- 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.
Despite the small and spartan terminal, it is one of the most friendly airports in the United States, thanks to its wide range of amenities to help travelers, even with unique methods such as all gender restrooms and therapy dogs.
If you travel with infants, there is one nursery chamber can be found on each concourse except A gates, for G gates it is before the security. For access, call the courtesy phone next to its door. The newsagents and Airport Travel Agency also sells care items.
- Airport Travel Agency, International Terminal adjacent to Concourse G, before security, ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. 6AM–11PM daily. Luggage storage, sundries, Western Union, notary, shipping, bag wrapping, tickets, reservations, passport photos, etc. Luggage storage from $8 per hour, $24 for 24 hours.
- Berman Reflection Room, International Terminal adjacent to Concourse G, before security (left of security). Daily 7AM-11PM. A quiet place either to rest or to pray.
- Christian Science Reading Room, Terminal 1 adjacent to Concourse C before security. A quiet room to read, meditate and relax
- Freshen Up, International Terminal adjacent to Concourse G, before security (behind check in counter, right of security), ☏ . 24 hours daily. Should you feel not fresh, come here for a shower with amenities included or take a nap. Also offers self-ironing and toiletries. Shower from $25, nap rooms from $40.
- Lost and Found, Terminal 1, Arrivals Level, near Domestic Garage Core C Tunnel, ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. Daily 8AM-10PM. If you lose an item at the terminal, this is where you can call and probably retrieve your item.
- TripTel, International Terminal, Main Hall. offers a variety of services including mobile phone rentals, copying, faxing, etc.
- XPress Spa, Terminal 2 Boarding Area D. 6AM-11PM daily. Temporarily closed due to COVID-19. A quick spa to rejuvenate yourself. From $50.
Sleeping at the airport is unfortunately not a good and comfortable option. At the baggage claim in the domestic terminals, there are padded benches, especially at Terminal 3; however watch out for homeless or intoxicated people that can disturb your snooze. Sleeping at airside would of course be safer, provided you have an onward boarding pass and go through security before they close for the night, however with the exception of a few couches at Terminal 2, the benches have unremovable armrests. The landside of the international terminal is quieter but brighter. An alternative would be to sleep at Freshen Up or the Reflection Room (see Cope), although they close overnight.
There is one hotel within the airport grounds.
- 1 Grand Hyatt at SFO, 55 S McDonnell Rd, San Francisco, CA 94128 (Access using AirTrain), ☏ . Check-in: 3PM, check-out: noon. The only hotel within the airport grounds. 351 soundproof rooms with floor-to-ceiling window, multiple restaurants including a to-go bar, and wellness facilities. Day use available. Dog friendly. From $220 per night.
A lot of cheap lodging options can be found especially along El Camino Real, where there are also diverse places to eat, or along the waterfront for something premium. Also look for accommodations in the cities surrounding the airport — Brisbane, Burlingame, Millbrae, San Bruno and South San Francisco