Most folks call the San Francisco area's rapid transit system simply BART, short for Bay Area Rapid Transit. San Francisco Airport (SFO) is one of three San Francisco area airports and the most popular.
You can get on the train at SFO and get off in downtown San Francisco. The ride is about half an hour long, but allow closer to an hour end-to-end by the time you buy tickets and wait for the next train to arrive.
Using BART is easy, and you don't even have to go outside to get to the station.
You might assume that using BART to get to and from SFO is the best solution, thinking that public transit should be the least expensive. There are a lot of considerations, so before we show you how to take it, we'll tell you more about its pros and cons.
Cost of BART from SFO
A one-way ride from SFO to a stop near Union Square will cost less than a full-priced movie ticket. We don't want to lead you astray by quoting an exact fare that could become outdated. The best thing to do is check current fares at the BART website.
Is BART the Best Way to Go?
The short answer is: "maybe." Using BART between the airport and downtown San Francisco has pluses and minuses.
Convenience factor: The BART line from SFO will only take you to stops along Market Street near Union Square and the convention center. If your destination is Fisherman's Wharf, a B&B near Alamo Square, a hotel on Van Ness or some other part of the city, you'll have to transfer to some other form of transportation to get there, which runs up the total trip cost.
Here's a comparison of BART to other SFO transportation options:
- Shared-ride shuttle van: BART cost is about half of a shuttle and takes about the same time (but could be faster during rush hour). However, shuttles will take you to the exact address you want.
- Public transit bus: BART costs about four times what a SamTrans bus does, but BART gets you to San Francisco in half the time. SamTrans stops in more parts of the city, though.
- Taxi: Taxis charge by time and distance, no matter how many people they carry. At the time this was written, four people could take a taxi to downtown San Francisco from SFO for about the same cost as using BART - and the taxi will drop you wherever you want. Check the current rates for yourself on the SFO transportation services web page.
- Uber or Lyft: You may also find the ride-sharing services are as cheap as BART for a group of four. Prices vary by time of day and waits can sometimes be long. Check your app to find out.
If you've decided that BART is the way to go or if you just want to find out more, keep reading. We'll tell you how to get to the BART station at the airport, get a ticket, get on and off the train and what to do if something goes amiss.
BART From a Domestic Terminal
The BART station is in the International Terminal. The next step shows you how to find the station. If you arrive at a domestic terminal, it will only take a few minutes to get there.
Don't assume that you're arriving in a domestic terminal just because you came from somewhere else in the U.S. Some domestic flights arrive in the international terminal.
Arriving in Domestic Terminal 3
If you arrive in Terminal 3, it's connected to the International Terminal by an interior walkway, which will be your quickest option. Go up from the arrivals level to the departures level and look for signs to the International Terminal.
Arriving in Other Domestic Terminals
From the other domestic terminals, it may be easier to take the Air Train, which circles the airport, especially if you have a lot of luggage with you. Airport arrivals are on level 2 and Air Train is at level 4.
Go to the departures area (where the ticket counters are) and look for signs like the one above. When you get to the Air Train station entrance, you'll go up one level.
Air Train has two lines. The Red Line is the fastest way to get to the International Terminal, but the Blue Line will also get you where you want to go.
Get off Air Train at the International Terminal. It’s clearly marked for BART, too.
Go down from the Air Train level to the Departures Level, then follow the directions in the next step to get to the BART station.
BART From the International Terminal
If you arrive at the International Terminal, turn right after you leave customs and go up the escalator to the departures level.
The station entrance is just around the corner from the top of the escalator. As you get off the escalator, a wall will be directly in front of you. Go right just a step or two and look up for signs to BART. Make two quick lefts and you'll see the revolving doors at the BART station entrance (which is shown in the picture above) straight ahead.
If you get lost or take the wrong escalator, don't worry. Just look for signs that point to BART. They're all over the place.
Where Do You Want to Go?
BART is an extensive transit system that covers much of the San Francisco area, but if you're a visitor coming from the airport, it's likely that you will get off at one of the stops along Market Street. They're shown on the map above, along with a few places you might be going to. If you want to see where more of the top sights are, use a map instead.
You'll need to know which stop you're getting off at before you board, to be sure you add enough fare to your ticket to cover the cost of the trip.
BART Stops on Market Street
The places mentioned below are within walking distance of each station.
Apologies for the possibly confusing descriptions, but San Francisco city streets frustratingly change names as they cross Market. The name in parenthesis is north of Market. For example, 8th St (Taylor) means the street is 8th south of Market and Taylor north of there.
Civic Center: Market Street between 6th (Taylor) and 10th (Polk), City Hall, performing arts center
Powell Street: Market Street between 4th (Stockton) and 6th (Taylor), Union Square, Westfield San Francisco Centre, Moscone convention center
Montgomery Street: Market Street between 1st (Bush/Battery) and 4th (Stockton), Financial District, also convenient for the convention center
Embarcadero: The last exit in San Francisco, close to the Ferry Building and lower Financial District. It's a good place to get a taxi or trolley to Fisherman's Wharf.
If you want to know which stop is closest to your hotel, the easy solution is an old-fashioned one: pick up the phone, call and ask.
Getting a BART Ticket
Inside the station, you'll buy your ticket from machines like this one. It was out of service when we snapped this shot, making it easy to photograph, but you'll find plenty of them that are working, on both sides of the lobby.
You can also pay in advance by buying a Clipper Card which is also good on most major transit systems in the San Francisco area. Many major travel websites also sell them.
If you plan to buy tickets for a big group at the station, you should know that BART limits credit card purchases to prevent fraud. If you are in a larger group, bring more than one card or order in advance.
BART tickets work like a stored-value debit card. You load them with any amount of money. As you exit, the fare is deducted from the balance. You can put enough on your card to cover your round trip, but if you're worried about losing the card, just pay for the one-way trip and get another when you're ready to go back.
BART fares are distance-based, so you'll need to know where you're getting off before you buy your ticket. If you haven't done that yet, you won't find a map at the machine. Instead, head for one of the maps on the wall near the entrance.
Using the Ticket Machine
- Look at the list of fares posted and find your destination station. That will most likely be Civic Center, Powell, Montgomery or Embarcadero. Confusingly (at least to me), the stops are listed alphabetically, not in the order they occur along the line.
- The machines take cash, credit cards, and debit cards. Choose a payment method.
- Each rider needs a ticket, but you can buy more than one at a time. Children under 4 ride free and don't need a ticket.
- The default amount is $20, but you can change that. There's no keypad to let you just type it in, but you'll find buttons that let you add or subtract until you get the right value.
- Print the ticket(s).
Getting Onto BART
Take the ticket to any turnstile with a lighted green arrow and insert it. Collect the ticket when it pops out, you'll need it again when you get off.
There’s only one BART station at SFO. To get to downtown San Francisco, go down the escalator from the ticketing area and take the Pittsburg/Bay Point train. On some signs, this is written as San Francisco/Pts Baypoint or SF BAY PT. Trains arrive about every 15 minutes. The waiting time is shown on lighted signs overhead.
The line goes two ways. If you end up on the wrong side of the tracks (so to speak), seeing signs that point to Millbrae, just walk over to the other side.
When you get on, choose a car near the center of the train. From there, it will be a little easier to see the signs inside the stations and to find your exit.
On the BART Train
Once on board, stow your luggage out of everyone's way.
Stops are announced as the train approaches, but like most public transport systems we’ve been in, those announcements hard to understand. In general, they go like this: "Next stop Powell Station," as the train starts to slow down, then as the train stops: "This is the Powell Station."
BART is replacing their cars with new ones, but until that's done (which will take several years), you won't find some of the stop-finding conveniences other transit systems have, like lighted signs that show the next stop. There is a BART map in each car and if you choose your seat so you can see it, you can follow along and know ahead which stop is yours.
It may also help you to know the order of just these four stops: Civic Center, Powell, Montgomery, Embarcadero - in order if you're going from SFO to San Francisco.
At each station, you’ll also see signs on the walls and overhead with its name.
If you get off too soon (or too late) by mistake, it's easy to recover. Don't go out through the turnstiles. If you need to go further, just get on the next train. Need to go back? Cross to the other side and get back on. It won't cost you anything extra.
From the arrival platform, go to any turnstile with a green, lighted arrow. Use your ticket again and the cost of your trip will be deducted from its value.
If you miscalculated and your card doesn't have enough value, it's an easy problem to fix. Just go to the special Addfare machines near the exit and top it up.
At each station along Market, you'll have a choice of exits. No matter which one you take, they're across the street from each other. It's easier to just take one and get oriented once you're at street level than it is to try to figure it out ahead of time.
Once you’re through the turnstile, go up the stairs or escalator to street level. Make sure to check out how to get around once you get there.