San Francisco Airport or simply SFO Airport is a large and busy international airport in unincorporated San Mateo County. It is located near San Bruno and Millbrae, 13miles south of downtown San Francisco. Serving as a major gateway to Europe and Asia, it offers flights to points throughout North America and is one of the most important air regions in the US.
As the seventh busiest US Airport, SFO Airport handles millions of passenger movements every year. So, it is not surprising that one may lose the direction or get confused in this vague and the largest airport in San Francisco Bay Area. If you are starting or passing your journey through San Francisco, then probably you will have time to melt away. Many travelers travel from, to, or through SFO as it is fairly easy to navigate. Here’s a guide on navigating through SFO Airport which is a major hub for United Airlines, Alaska Airlines, etc.
Coming and Going
San Francisco Airport can be easily accessed from central San Francisco where all you need to do is take Highway 101 South and follow signs leading to SFO. If a taxi is your style, waits at taxi lines at SFO airport is quite rational. SFO also has struck deals allowing ride-sharing services like Uber and Lift to operate at the airport.
Rental Car services at SFO Airport
Major car rental agencies are available at SFO airport which are all connected by AirTrain for arriving passengers. If you want to drive to car hire center, then turn left onto Interstate 380. Then take right turn onto South Airport Boulevard.
- Take Highway 101 south
- Exit at SFO Airport
- Head off to San Bruno Avenue Exit
- Take a left turn and follow the sign to access the long term car park
Use a shuttle that picks up from the departure level of each terminal to get to the terminal.
Terminals of SFO Airport
SFO Airport has 3 domestic and one international terminal. Terminal 3 hosts United Airlines’ domestic flights. Terminal 2 is for Virgin America, American Airlines, and Alaska Airlines.
Terminal 1, also called Harvey Milk consists of 18 boarding gates (B6-B27). American Airlines, Southwest Airlines operate in this facility.
Terminal 2 is the central terminal composed of 10 gates on Boarding Area C where Delta Air Lines is the main tenant and 15 gates on Boarding Area D which is a hub for Alaska Airlines.
Terminal 3 consists of Boarding Area E (Gates E1-E13) where United Airlines bases its domestic operations, and Boarding Area F (Gates F1-F22).
The international terminal handles all the international arrivals and departures (excluding flights from cities where customs preclearance has been made). Composing Boarding Areas A and G, this international terminal is the largest in North America, commonly used by international airlines and several domestic carriers sharing gates and all ticketing areas. All gates are fitted with jetway bridges to allow passengers to board and disembark the airplane.
Terminal Facilities and Features
1. Money Exchange
Throughout the international terminal, you may locate automated currency exchange machines. Similarly, ATMs can be found to withdraw the money you require in all terminals of SFO Airport.
2. Aviation Museum and Library
Aviation Museum and Library reflecting the old glory of air industry is located at Terminal level 3, adjacent to Concourse A consisting of aircraft mock-ups, posters, safety cars, and depicting the aviation development on West Coast of US and over the world. But it is open from 10 AM to 4:30 PM daily.
SFO Airport boasts an SFO museum containing both permanent artwork and temporary exhibitions in the international terminal, featuring a model of DC-3. Your time will be pleasant with series of changing art exhibitions throughout the airport.
3. Foods and Lounges
Waiting alone or craving food? You can find numerous bars, cafes, and restaurants on different terminals of the airport, each specializing in particular cuisines. Terminal 1 hosts American-style restaurants, Filipino cuisine restaurants. Drake’s Flyaway, Goldilocks, and Starbird are some of the places to enjoy your meal.
Terminal 2 has Andale Mexican Restaurant, Burger Joint, Cat Caro, Lark Creek Grill, Pinkberry, Plant Café, and Wakaba.
Terminal 3 has a pub serving specialty beers. Others include Buena Vista Coffee, Gordon Biersch, Sankaku, and San Francisco Giants Clubhouse. The international terminal has only sit-down restaurants pre-security as it occupies large floor space. You may find pastry café and American foods on Agates. G gates also consist of bars and grills.
Talking about lounges, there are various airline lounges such as Air France-KLM Lounge, British Airways Terraces Lounge, Cathay-Pacific Lounge, China Airlines Dynasty Lounge, Emirate Lounge, Japan Airlines Sakura Lounge, Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse lounge in the international terminal.
Terminal 1 has very few shops but there’s an additional duty-free kiosk in boarding area B. You may find a good selection of books, souvenirs, gifts, apparel, and accessories, duty-free items, sweets, toys, and cosmetics inside SFO airport.
Departure formalities at SFO Airport
As a passenger, you must check-in at the counter of the airline you are flying in its respective terminal. The check-in areas are narrow at SFO airport and once you pass the security checkpoint which is only one for every boarding area, you can’t roam around other concourses for drinks, shopping or eating.
International passengers will need to verify passport and destination country’s visa validity.
Arriving at SFO Airport
International travelers after landing at SFO will require proceeding through immigration. Then, baggage reclaim area is nearby to collect their baggage and pass customs. The passengers having connecting flights, both domestic and international, will proceed to the check-in counter and security afterward. As there’s no international transit zone, the passengers having SFO as the destination airport should follow signs for ground transportation.
The Bay Area Rapid Transportation (BART) is the convenient option if you are willing to stay at northern San Mateo County, central San Francisco, or the East Way. It has a platform at Parking Garage G from where all the terminals are linked via Free AirTrain services. The AirTrain rail system runs 24 hours and is free linking the terminals, parking garages, BART station, and car rental companies.
For Domestic arrivals, passengers need to come on departure level inside security. There’s no need for transit passengers to clear security again unless they depart from different terminals not having walkways between them. Those whose journeys end in San Francisco exit and collect their baggage downstairs and proceed for ground transportation.
Security Lines at SFO Airport
The security lines can be found at the entrance to the boarding area. The travelers and baggage screening in the SFO security line are pretty quick for large a US airport in terms of efficiency and layout. For arriving non-US citizens, the wait times can be a little slow. SFO also features CLEAR Expedited security screening which is paid cut line service at terminals 1, 2, 3, and International. If the airport is all busy and crowded, the TSA wait time can be as long as 28 minutes. A total of 7 security checkpoints are there dealing with screening and tests.
SFO security wait times
Severe weather, airport construction, TSA staffing can vary SFO security wait times. There is security checkpoint wait time information provided by TSA to assist travelers in travel planning.
- Airport Travel Agency
Located in International Terminal adjacent to concourse G before security, Airport Travel Agency provides fax, photocopy services, luggage storage, sundries facilities, etc.
- Berman Reflection Room
It is open from 7 AM to 11 PM daily where you can relax or pray.
In the main concourse of the international terminal, TripTel offers varieties of services such as mobile phone rental, basic services of copying, faxing, etc.
- Free Wi-Fi
Enjoy free Wi-Fi internet access on all terminals and concourses at SFO Airport. You may also find telephones with data ports and workstations to charge your laptops. Domestic terminals are fitted with a spotty number of power sockets throughout walls.
- Facilities for differently-abled passengers
SFO is a disabled-friendly airport as it has equipped TDD/ TTY phones for hearing-impaired people, lifts on the shuttle bus from long term car park, wheelchair accessible SamTrans buses, Caltrain shuttles, and disabled car parking space.
If you are traveling with kids, thanks to SFO kid-friendly features and amenities, your kids won’t be bored on a long layover at SFO. Terminal 1 has a play area to allow kids spaces to climb and jump. Terminal 2 has a kinetic play installation for kids. There’s a weather-related play area and moving art installations in Terminal 3.
Traveling with an infant? There are nurseries with private space on each concourse except A gates, where you can feed, pump and nurse your baby.
If you are traveling with fewer items and are free, you can try visiting Alcatraz Island, Golden Gate bridge, Oracle Park, Golden Gate park, twin peaks, etc.
San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is indeed a destination unto itself given exhibits at SFO that not only melts away time before your flight but also make unwinding after arrival relaxing. The wonder of Steinhart Acquarium, California Academy of Science and many other elicit a sign of contentment. Early check-in and security at SFO airport will give you enough time to preview the best of San Francisco in terms of restaurants, arts, retails, etc.