Destination guide: San Francisco, United States
San Francisco is in the state of California, on the Pacific coast of the western United States. Its main attractions are the Golden Gate Bridge, the trams that go up and down the city’s hills, Chinatown, Silicon Valley, Alcatraz and the Sierra Nevada mountains.
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San Francisco - Practical Information
Don’t believe San Francisco’s false modesty on a map. Yes, the city is about the size of California’s thumb and packs in under a million people even in high-tourist season, yet there really is something here for everyone. ‘Eclectic’ doesn’t begin to describe a town where you can begin your day with a leisurely breakfast of huevos rancheros (ranch-style eggs) in the morning Mission sun, picnic on Italian panini among parrots and poets on a North Beach stairway garden, get goose bumps watching the fog roll in from the Pacific on a Presidio nude beach, dine Downtown on wildly inventive cuisine inspired by California’s cornucopia of produce, and end up the next morning still partying at 5am with SoMa clubsters City streets are ethnic enclaves that are difficult to define and never entirely exclusive: largely Latin American 24th St is also Southeast Asian, lesbian and arty hipster, while Clement St highlights include authentic Irish bars, Taiwanese and Thai restaurants and Japanese convenience stores.
Budget & Costs
An economical US trip is possible, but it is easy to spend much more than you bargained for, no matter what your travel style. Mode of transportation is a big factor, as is destination: cities don't chip away at budgets, they jackhammer them into pieces.
Only the creatively thrifty backpacker or road-tripper will spend less than $100 a day. A comfortable midrange budget ranges from $150 to $250 a day; this usually gets you a car, gas, two meals, a decent hotel and a museum admission or two. Spending over $300 a day isn't hard: just splash out a few times, drive a lot, and stay, eat and whoop it up in the likes of New York, Chicago, San Francisco.
As a guide, 'midrange' hotels cost from $80 to $200 per night per double occupancy. In rural areas, $100 buys a princely night's sleep, but in some cities, clean budget placesstart at $200. The same holds true for meals.
To travel on the cheap, plan on camping (sometimes free but up to $35 per night) or hostelling ($20 to $35 a night), cooking some of your own meals, and touring by bus and train, both of which limit your flexibility and are slower than driving or flying (that's not necessarily a bad thing). Be wary of budget motel come-ons; the sign might flash $39, but that's probably for a single room and doesn't include taxes.
Traveling by car is often a necessity. A rental is a bare minimum of $30 a day (type of car, taxes, fees and insurance can push it higher), plus gas. Planning the great American road trip? Gas could actually cost more than the car itself (say, another $20 to $40 per day, depending on how far you're driving and on what kind of roads).
Families can save money by booking accommodations that don't charge extra for children staying in the same room, by asking for kids' menus at restaurants and by taking advantage of family discounts at museums, theme parks and other sights. Don't forget that old travel chestnut: after you halve the clothes you've packed in your suitcase, double your estimated budget, and it'll all work out fine.
Broadway show $100-300
Major-league baseball game $27
Internet access per hour $3-12
Gallon of milk $3.35
Local payphone call 35-50¢
Warning: all information relating to visas is highly subject to change. US entry requirements keep evolving as national security regulations change. All travelers should double-check current visa and passport regulations before coming to the USA.
Although you can also access visa information through www.usa.gov, the US State Department (www.travel.state.gov/visa) maintains the most comprehensive visa information, providing downloadable forms, lists of US consulates abroad and even visa wait times calculated by country. US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS;www.uscis.gov) mainly serves immigrants, not temporary visitors.
Apart from most Canadian citizens and those entering under the Visa Waiver Program, all foreign visitors will need to obtain a visa from a US consulate or embassy abroad. Most applicants must schedule a personal interview, to which you must bring all your documentation and proof of fee payment. Wait times for interviews vary, but afterward, barring problems, visa issuance takes from a few days to a few weeks.
Your passport must be valid for at least six months after the end of your intended stay in the USA. You'll need a recent photo (2in by 2in), and you must pay a $131 processing fee, plus in a few cases an additional visa issuance reciprocity fee. In addition to the main nonimmigrant visa application form (DS-156), all men aged 16 to 45 must complete an additional form (DS-157) that details their travel plans.
Visa applicants are required to show documents of financial stability (or evidence that a US resident will provide financial support), a round-trip or onward ticket and 'binding obligations' that will ensure their return home, such as family ties, a home or a job. Because of these requirements, those planning to travel through other countries before arriving in the USA are generally better off applying for a US visa while they are still in their home country, rather than while on the road.
The most common visa is a nonimmigrant visitor's visa, type B-1 for business purposes, B-2 for tourism or visiting friends and relatives. A visitor's visa is good for multiple entries over one or five years, and specifically prohibits the visitor from taking paid employment in the USA. The validity period depends on what country you are from. The actual length of time you'll be allowed to stay in the USA is determined by US immigration at the port of entry. If you're coming to the USA to work or study, you will need a different type of visa, and the company or institution to which you are going should make the arrangements. Other categories of nonimmigrant visas include an F-1 visa for students attending a course at a recognized institution; an H-1, H-2 or H-3 visa for temporary employment; and a J-1 visa for exchange visitors in approved programs.
Visa Waiver Program
Currently under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), citizens of the following countries may enter the USA without a visa for stays of 90 days or fewer: Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK.
If you are a citizen of a VWP country, you do not need a visa only if you have a passport that meets current US standards and you have gotten approval from the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) in advance. Register online with the Department of Homeland Security at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov at least 72 hours before arrival; once travel authorization is approved, your registration is valid for two years.
Visitors from VWP countries must still produce at the port of entry all the same evidence as for a nonimmigrant visa application. They must demonstrate that their trip is for 90 days or less, and that they have a round-trip or onward ticket, adequate funds to cover the trip and binding obligations abroad. In addition, the same 'grounds for exclusion and deportation' apply, except that you will have no opportunity to appeal the grounds or apply for an exemption. If you are denied under the Visa Waiver Program at a US point of entry, you will have to use your onward or return ticket on the next available flight.
Entering the USA
If you have a non-US passport, you must complete an arrival/departure record (form I-94) before you reach the immigration desk. It's usually handed out on the plane along with the customs declaration. For the question, 'Address While In the United States,' give the address where you will spend the first night (a hotel address is fine).
No matter what your visa says, US immigration officers have an absolute authority to refuse admission to the USA or to impose conditions on admission. They will ask about your plans and whether you have sufficient funds; it's a good idea to list an itinerary, produce an onward or round-trip ticket and have at least one major credit card. Showing that you have over $400 per week of your stay should be enough.
The Department of Homeland Security's registration program, called US-VISIT (www.dhs.gov/us-visit), includes every port of entry and nearly every foreign visitor to the USA. For most visitors (excluding, for now, most Canadian and some Mexican citizens), registration consists of having a digital photo and electronic (inkless) fingerprints taken; the process takes less than a minute.
The National Security Entry/Exit Registration System (NSEERS) applies to certain citizens of countries that have been deemed particular risks; however, US officials can require this registration of any traveler. Currently, the countries included are Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria, but be sure to visit www.ice.gov for updates. Registration in these cases also includes a short interview in a separate room and computer verification of all personal information supplied on travel documents.
To stay in the USA longer than the date stamped on your passport, go to a local USCIS ([tel] 800-375-5283; www.uscis.gov) office to apply for an extension well before the stamped date. If the date has passed, your best chance will be to bring a US citizen with you to vouch for your character, and to produce lots of other verification that you are not trying to work illegally and have enough money to support yourself. However, if you've overstayed, the most likely scenario is that you will be deported. Travelers who enter the USA under the VWP are ineligible for visa extensions.
Short-Term Departures & Reentry
It's temptingly easy to make trips across the border to Canada or Mexico, but upon return to the USA, non-Americans will be subject to the full immigration procedure. Always take your passport when you cross the border. If your immigration card still has plenty of time on it, you will probably be able to reenter using the same one, but if it has nearly expired, you will have to apply for a new card, and border control may want to see your onward air ticket, sufficient funds and so on.
Traditionally, a quick trip across the border has been a way to extend your stay in the USA without applying for an extension at a USCIS office. Don't assume this still works. First, make sure you hand in your old immigration card to the immigration authorities when you leave the USA, and when you return make sure you have all the necessary application documentation from when you first entered the country. US immigration will be very suspicious of anyone who leaves for a few days and returns immediately hoping for a new six-month stay; expect to be questioned closely.
Citizens of most Western countries will not need a visa to visit Canada, so it's really not a problem at all to cross to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, detour up to Québec or pass through on the way to Alaska. Travelers entering the USA by bus from Canada may be closely scrutinized. A round-trip ticket that takes you back to Canada will most likely make US immigration feel less suspicious. Mexico has a visa-free zone along most of its border with the USA, including the Baja Peninsula and most of the border towns, such as Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez.
Weights & Measures
For a complete list of US customs regulations, visit the official portal for US Customs and Border Protection (www.cbp.gov); the downloadable 'Know Before You Go' brochure covers the basics. US Customs allows each person to bring 1L of liquor (provided you are at least 21 years old) and 100 cigars and 200 cigarettes (if you are at least 18) duty-free into the USA. US citizens are allowed to import, duty-free, $800 worth of gifts and purchases from abroad, while non-US citizens are allowed to bring in $100 worth.
US law permits you to bring in, or take out, as much as $10,000 in US or foreign, traveler's checks or money orders without formality. larger amounts of money must be declared to customs.
There are heavy penalties for attempting to import illegal drugs. It's also forbidden to bring in to the US drug paraphernalia, lottery tickets, items with fake brand names, and most goods made in Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Myanmar (Burma), Angola and Sudan. Any fruit, vegetables, or other food or plant material must be declared or left in the bins in the arrival area. Most food items are prohibited to prevent the introduction of pests or diseases.
The USA, like over 170 other countries, is a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). As such, it prohibits the import and export of products made from species that may be endangered in any part of the world, including ivory, tortoiseshell, coral and many fur, skin and feather products. If you bring or buy a fur coat, bone carving or alligator-skin boots, you may have to show a certificate when you enter and/or leave the USA that states your goods were not made from endangered species. For more information, contact the US Fish and Wildlife Service ([tel] 800-358-2104; www.fws.gov).
In general, businesses are open 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday. Banks are open 8:30am to 4:30pm Monday to Thursday, until 5:30pm Friday. Some post offices and banks are also open 9am to noon or 1pm on Saturday.
Stores are usually open 10am to 6pm Monday to Saturday, noon to 5pm Sunday. In malls and downtown shopping areas, hours may be extended to 8pm or 9pm. Supermarkets are generally open 8am to 8pm, and most cities have 24-hour supermarkets. In some parts of the country, all businesses except a few restaurants may close on Sunday.
Restaurant hours can fluctuate with seasonal demand and the owners' whim. If it's winter, and your heart's set and/or you're making a special trip, call ahead to confirm. Generally, breakfast is served from 7am to 10:30am Monday to Friday, with weekend brunch 9am to 2pm Saturday and Sunday; lunch runs from 11:30am to 2:30pm Monday to Friday; and dinner is served between 5pm to 9:30pm, often later on Friday and Saturday.
Bars and pubs are usually open 5pm to midnight, extended to 2am on Friday and Saturday. Nightclubs and dance clubs tend to open after 9pm and close around 2am Wednesday to Saturday; hours may be longer in major cities.
Useful phone numbers
The US country code is [tel] 1, and San Francisco’s city code is [tel] 415. To make an international call from the Bay Area, call [tel] 011 + country code + area code + number. When calling Canada, there’s no need to dial the international access code [tel] 011. When dialing another area code, the code must be preceded by a 1. For example, to dial an Oakland number from San Francisco, start with [tel] 1-510.
International operator ([tel] 00)
Local directory ([tel] 411)
Long-distance directory information ([tel] 1 + area code + 555-1212)
Operator ([tel] 0)
Toll-free number information ([tel] 800-555-1212)
Area Codes in the Bay Area
East Bay [tel] 510
Marin County [tel] 415
Peninsula [tel] 650
San Francisco [tel] 415
San Jose [tel] 408
Santa Cruz [tel] 831
Wine Country [tel] 707
Local calls from a pay phone usually start at 50¢. Hotel telephones will often add heavy surcharges. Toll-free numbers start with [tel] 800 or [tel] 888, while phone numbers beginning with [tel] 900 usually incur high fees.
Making Phone Calls
Most US cell phones besides the iPhone operate on CDMA, not the European standard GSM – make sure you check compatibility with your phone service provider. Most North American travelers can use their mobiles in San Francisco and the Bay Area, but should check with the carrier about roaming charges.
For international calls from a public pay phone, it’s a good idea to use a phone card, available at most corner markets and drug stores. Otherwise, when you dial 0, you’re at the mercy of the international carrier who covers that pay phone.
Japanese-style plug with two parallel flat blades
Two parallel flat blades above a large circular grounding pin