Topics covered in this article


  • Do visitors need a car in SF?
  • What if visitors cannot return their rental car if they are passing through or are driving their own car?
  • What if visitors need to rent a car?
  • A primer for car rentals for US/Canadian residents and non North American residents 
  • Toll Bridges in the SF Bay Area including the Golden Gate Bridge (which is the only one with Automatic Electronic Tolls)
  • Rental Car drivers can pay GG bridge toll online or by phone up to 30 days before or up to  2 days after crossing INTO San Francisco (going South on the Bridge from Marin county into SF which is the only toll direction).  There are NO toll booths ON the GG Bridge and payment is automated

Do visitors to San Francisco need a car to see the city?


Most locals and frequent visitors to San Francisco (SF) would recommend against renting a car or getting to SF using their own car.  This is because parking in the city is expensive and at times, hard to find.  Overnight parking in the city may cost a visitor $30 to $50 per night and in some cases without in/out privileges.  Parking near most of the tourist areas, may cost the visitor about $12 to $15 dollars an hour in a parking lot.  Parking spots along the road are hard to find and if one does, they are all metered every day of the week in the visitor areas. Parking outside the visitor areas is timed for visitors who do not have a parking permit.

Even if one finds an empty parking spot, visitors have to check to see if parking is allowed at that time.  There are street cleaning times, rush hour periods when parking is not allowed. If you don't know whether you should or should not park in a  white zone, fuggedaboutit!    Parking fines/tickets or the car being towed is the last thing a visitor needs to deal with on a vacation.

Visitors should spend their time seeing SF and not reading parking signs, looking for parking or navigating SF's hilly streets.  The SF MUNI is quite good and will take visitors around the city. Walking is a great way to see the city.  Use walking tours, bikes, as well. 

Please look at the Things to do section to find Guided Tours of the city.  Other options include Hop On/Off tours as well as using the SF based streetcars, buses, cable cars to see SF.  Other SF Top Questions cover this information in greater detail


No left or right turns ONTO Market Street in the downtown area (between third and eighth streets)    There are red zones on 3rd street marked only for Transit.  Parts of Powell street are shared with Cable cars and one could easily get into an accident with them if one is not careful or if the car is not parked properly 


What if one cannot get rid of the car? 

If one cannot get rid of the car,  it would be best to park it in a garage for the duration of the vacation in SF. Having said that , there are parts of SF that would be more convenient to get to by car.  Golden Gate Park and further west to Ocean Beach, Great Highway and Landsend; Marin Headlands Vista point North of the Golden Gate Bridge;  and Twin peaks.

As hotels charge up to $50 for parking, here are a few options

1.  Look at motels in the Lombard Street Area as most offer hotel rooms with parking included.  Other SF top questions cover these hotels

2. Find a hotel deal with parking included

3.  Use  SF Best Parking to find the cheapest overnight parking close to your hotel

4.  Pay for BART parking for a few days. One has to purchase a ticket prior to arrival for this extended parking from  BART PARKING TICKETS   There have been reports of some cars being broken into in some of the BART stations with overnight parking. 

5. Driving in the US for the first time ?  Check out the videos from the CA Dept of motor vehicles...


What if visitors need to rent a car?

Although having a car in SF is not advised, some visitors will need a car for day trips or to drive to other parts of California or the West after visiting San Francisco. 

Where to pick up a rental car?

There are three main locations with clusters of car rental offices:  

  • Union Square
  • Fisherman's Wharf
  • San Francisco Airport (SFO)

Note that office hours for pick-up and drop-off at SFO are typically longer than the other locations. One does not have to pick up and return the car to the same location. Many visitors pick up a car in SF and drop it off in Los Angeles, Las Vegas or other points west. 



Which car companies are available?

There are three main categories of car rental companies:

Most visitors and locals would suggest renting cars from the major car rental companies (Note: Companies listed above are not endorsements but provided as example for convenience). Please read reviews of Dollar rent a car before booking. This advise is specifically for visitors from abroad. Local and speciality car rental companies are great for local (ie Bay Area or wine country or Monterey peninsula ) rentals and not recommended for one way rentals. 



What information should NON US AND CANADIAN RESIDENTS  be aware of before renting a car ?

The best deals for NON NORTH AMERICA residents include All fees, insurance, and NO drop off charges if the car is returned in CA or the neighboring states.  We are now seeing one way fees being added in a lot of cases so shop around  There is NO fee added for qualified additional renters in CA by law.  Do not think that you not being charged for Husband plus wife plus adult son to drive is a deal.  It is not a deal when the law in Ca says you cannot be charged. 

Non North American residents should check to see if quoted rates include: 

  • Unlimited Kilometres for ALL car groups 
  • Insurance (  - Collision Damage Waiver  - Theft Protection  - 3rd Party Liability  - Supplementary Liability Insurance  - Uninsured Motorist Protection ) 
  • Local Taxes 
  • Airport Surcharge 
  • Premium location fee 
  • Homeland Security Fee  

The exact wording for what is included may be a bit different depending on the website but the main coverage should include BOTH Collision and Required Liability coverage. One may not have surcharges and fees such as the airport or homeland charge at a city pickup location 


 Steps to rent a car if you are a visitor from abroad

Most visitors from abroad were not typically charged a one way fee if they rented say in SF and returned the car in Vegas or LAX.  We are now seeing that many rental car companies are tacking on that one way fee.    So here are some suggestions

1.  Use the US sites of   of Hertz Avis Alamo, National, Budget , Enterprise 

2. Look for a place to choose your home country. If you cannot then you are getting rates for US residents not for visitors.  DO not book that rate.

3. Alternatively look for your local country websites.  UK AU NZ JP  and book from there

4.  Make sure you are being quoted a rates which inlcudes all the above fees PLUS CDW and SLI  (this is collision and liability -- both are needed as a foreigner)

5. Now some car companies are adding a one way fee while others are not.  So shop around

6.  Look at (choose your country) and then see if say National has no drop off fee vs Hertz or Avis

7  Do not get tempted to book with Payless , Dollar, Thrifty,  Sixt, just because they are cheaper.  Do not be fooled. You may in many (not all cases) pay a lot more at the airport.   Cars may not be new or clean and you may have long lines.  Do not spoil your holiday by going cheap

8.  Make sure you sign up for the frequent renter programs.  Hertz and Avis and Budget and Alamo and National.   Also in some cases such as Alamo, you can compelte paperwork online before arriving at the counter -- this will speed up the process.


Where should NON North Americans rent or hire their cars from?

Visitors from outside North America may want to rent a car using their own country websites such as but NOT limited to, etc). If overseas visitors do book from the US car rental websites, they should declare their country of residence to get deals with no one-way drop-off fees and bundled insurance rates. They will also need to show a valid overseas driving license when picking up the car.

If the visitor license is In English, there is no need for an international license in the states of CA or NV or AZ or UT.  UK drivers must bring both -- their photo license and the extra sheet with them.

Some third party rental car services may not show the specific car rental company till after payment. It would be best to contact these third party services offline (e.g. phone rentalcars or traveljigsaw or CarHire3000) to book a car with a specific car rental company instead of booking online and being given a less desirable company.

 It is generally suggested that visitors from abroad NOT USE  Priceline or Hotwire as they do not offer the inclusive rates mentioned above. is a Priceline company in any case.

 When booking, be sure to request any child safety seats needed for children under 8 years old (additional charges may apply).

Rates for rentals vary and can go up and down so it is best to check rates often and if possible make a cancelleable reservation 



Information for US and Canadian residents only

Find the best deals using the website of the car companies listed above and use websites such as or Priceline or Hotwire. There are discounts available in the deals section of the car company websites .  AAA, Costco, AARP, airlines, all have discount codes that can bring rates down.  Most rates will either bundle or have a line item for one way drop off fees.  This is a huge issue for US. And. Canadian citizens. At times the fees may be waived but one has to really search for these deals.  Use sites such as rentalcarmomma for deals.  

If one rents a car after SF and drives down the coast to LA and needs to use the car for a week or two in SoCal, it may make sense to rent a car just for the SF to LA  leg and return it and get a local rental.  This is one way to save drop off fees 






How to avoid long lines when picking up the car? 

During the peak summer months and during some conventions (year round), there are LONG lines to pick cars up in the city locations (but sometimes at the SFO Airport). It helps to sign up for rental car companies FREE FREQUENT RENTER PROGRAM and include the membership number in your rental reservation. You can then either go straight to the car or wait in shorter express lines to pick up the car. TA forums have many folks complaining about LONG LINES.  PLEASE do NOT forget to sign up for free for hertz gold or Avis preferred or the other frequent renter programs and they are all FREE. 


What extra charges to watch out for?

  • Drivers under 25: There are often rental restrictions and rate surcharges for drivers under 25 years of age so be sure to declare your age when reserving the car. Some deals may waive fees. Check the deals section on the hire car websites 
  • Extra insurance products. Some rental car companies have been reported to sneak in additional insurance charges. Check your rental agreement and itemized charges before signing the rental agreement to ensure you are not being charged for insurance or extras that you do not want. For more about required insurance, see
  • Pre-paid Gas: If you do not want to pre-pay for a full tank of gas (and returning it empty), make sure that the rental agreement has the pre-paid gas option declined. Of course, fill up the car before returning it to avoid high gas charges.
  • Automatic Toll Transponders. See below. If you plan on pre-paying the Golden Gate Bridge toll, paying cash for any other toll bridges and avoiding the few automatic express lanes in the Los Angeles / Southern California area, there is no need to rent an automatic toll transponder. 
  • GPS units. if you are renting a car for over 2-3 weeks you may want to buy a GPS with US maps instead of renting one


Toll Bridges in the SF Bay Area

One can go to all the various parts of California WITHOUT having to use any Toll Roads or any Express Lanes which charge tolls.  AVOID ALL EXPRESS LANES or roads which need or have signs for FASTRAK and visitors will be fine. The exceptions are the SF Bay area bridges.  

The only places where visitors and locals have to pay tolls are the SF Bay Area bridges. The Tolls are paid in one direction only.  The two bridges most frequently used by visitors are the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge.  Both have tolls driving  into SF; in other words, if you cross the Golden Gate Bridge coming into SF you have to pay a toll. Similarly if you are on the Bay Bridge coming into SF, you have to pay a toll but you can pay cash at the Bay Bridge toll booths.


Special Electronic Toll for the Golden Gate Bridge.

There are no toll booths or humans at the GG Bridge to collect cash.  Payment is mandatory but it is done automatically.  Please do NOT stop at the unmanned toll booth or speed through the toll booth on the GG bridge only. 

Visitors with their own cars

  • If visitors have their own cars, they can either pay before or after they cross the GG bridge or pay when they get an invoice which is sent to the address on file with the DMV.  There is no penalty if car owners pay their toll BEFORE OR AFTER they cross the bridge. 
  • Details on how to pay for visitors with their own cars is  here
Visitors with Rental or Hire Cars
  •  Rent the car, use license plate of car to go online or by phone or in person at a payment center and pay the toll  up to 30 days  BEFORE crossing the GG Bridge  or   UP TO TWO DAYS AFTER.   Check the  Golden Gate Bridge Website for the toll amount
  • You can pay cash at the Golden Gate  Bridge Visitor Center at the south end of the bridge (you have to park in the parking lot ) before you cross the bridge or at any of  these locations in SF or North of San Francisco 
  • OR
  • Use the rental car company's pay-by-plate option and the rental car company will bill you for the toll plus charge you a processing fee of around $3 a day up to a max of $15 for the rental.  This would be the most convenient way to do this.  Thrifty and Dollar charge more than $15.
  • Details for rental cars are on the  GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE SITE FOR RENTAL CARS