7

How long does it generally take after landing to get through customs and collect luggage from an international flight at San Francisco International Airport (SFO)?

I'll be checking the airline website to see what the estimated arrival time for the plane is but I want to minimize the amount of time either of us waits so if possible, assuming everything goes well, I want to leave X minutes after the estimated arrival time for the airport to pick up my friend.

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    If your friend is lucky enough to be among the first passengers out of the plane and there are no lines at immigration or customs, he could be out in 15-20 minutes after arriving at the gate. Few arriving travelers have that amount of luck, though. – Henning Makholm Sep 17 '18 at 18:24
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    You are tracking the arrival time so I suggest you wait nearby and ask your friend to text or call you when coming through. You can then meet at a short stay pickup point. For SFO have you seen this? – Weather Vane Sep 17 '18 at 20:03
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    I know that San Fran isn't LA, but don't forget to factor traffic time from your start point to SFO into your equation. – FreeMan Sep 17 '18 at 20:28
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    Another thing to keep in mind is that if the flight is arriving from an airport with US preclearance (most airports in Canada, Ireland, Abu Dhabi, etc.), it is most likely arriving as a "domestic" flight with no need to go through immigration. – user102008 Sep 18 '18 at 0:33
  • Where is your nearest BART station? – Harper - Reinstate Monica Sep 18 '18 at 15:48
18

You can check estimates of past immigration wait times online. Look for past weeks at the same day/time to get an idea of how busy it's likely to be. This only covers the wait for the primary immigration check; baggage claim and the exit through customs (normally quick, unless they want to see your bags or you have something to declare) are additional to the listed times. But as Henning Makholm points out, it's difficult to predict. Front of the line vs back of the line, exactly how busy it is at that moment, citizen vs non-citizen, whether they're stopped for extra questioning, how long bags take, etc...

As a broad rule of thumb, unadjusted for any of the above factors, if you arrive 30 minutes after the flight arrives, your friend likely will not be waiting, and you potentially will be. The later you arrive after that, the higher the likelihood your friend will be waiting around.

At SFO, you could wait at the cell phone lot or perhaps someplace like the Millbrae In-N-Out or Starbucks. Your friend can send you a text when they're getting close to exiting, so you're not paying for parking or endlessly circling the terminal. You could also use Waze or Google Maps for real-time drive times to the airport, so as to plan your arrival taking traffic into account.

If your friend is a US or Canadian citizen, make sure to tell them they can use mobile passport control.

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    I'm not sure how well this would carry over to SFO, but my last time entering the country (at SJC) I used mobile passport control and it was fast - because nobody else was using it, so there was no line. If that applies in general, it might be worth emphasizing that this could make a very significant difference in the time. – David Z Sep 18 '18 at 0:16
  • Also don't forget the arriving passenger using Global Entry, Mobile Passport Control, etc. – gparyani Sep 18 '18 at 4:31
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    I don't know if this carries over to the US, but when I went to South Africa in summer, baggage was the most important factor. My seat neighbour's bag was one of the first to come out, it arrived approximately at the time we reached the luggage belt (being one of the first to pass immigration). My bag was one of the last to come out; I didn't check my watch, but my guess is that this was 10-15 minutes later... – Sabine Sep 18 '18 at 12:14
  • @Sabine Yes, this applies to SFO as well, and the effect is particularly noticeable if one arrives on a super-jumbo (A380) where the massive amount of baggage can overwhelm one belt. I usually give myself one hour to get through SFO; I have rarely managed in less time than that. – njuffa Sep 18 '18 at 15:50
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There is unfortunately no "rule of thumb" as there are far too many variables that affect how long it takes someone to get from the seat on the plane to the curb outside. This is true of domestic flights as well as international, although there are more variables when arriving internationally. For example, consider these:

  1. The size of the aircraft and where the passenger is seated on it, which affect how long it takes to exit the aircraft; this could take twenty minutes alone.
  2. The time it takes to get from the gate to international arrivals processing. In most cases offloading is by air bridge, but for example at Dulles, you might board a "mobile lounge" to ride to the processing center, which will not depart until all passengers are off the plane. In that case it does not matter how soon you deplane—indeed, it may be to your benefit to exit last, as that makes you first to get off when you dock at the arrivals center.
  3. The length of the line at immigration, which is affected by the number of flights arriving around the same time, the ability of CBP to fully staff the station, whether or not the passenger is a US citizen or eligible to use expedited lanes, and so on. This could be zero, or in extreme cases, two hours.
  4. The time it takes to collect any checked luggage. I would say for most people, given items 1–3, this wait may well be zero; as many US airports are understaffed for baggage handling, however, this could mean another half hour or even more.
  5. The time it takes for customs processing. Again, for most people this will be a short wait, but people with questionable items may need to wait for a more thorough inspection, to pay duty, and so on.
  6. The time it takes upon exiting the international arrivals area to get to ground transportation access; this may take some time because of the size of the airport or because of the amount of luggage.

Under ideal circumstances (e.g. a US citizen with Global Entry with no checked bags who is physically fit and seated next to the exit and arrives before any other large aircraft, etc.) this whole process could take twenty or thirty minutes, but of course that is hardly typical.

Customs and Border Protection does provide an Airport Waiting Times website which lets you look up how long the average wait is and has been for immigration processing at different terminals at different times of the day on different days of the year. This is arguably the part of the process with the greatest variability from day to day, hour to hour, and the website is updated daily, so it is a good resources to check.

5

I regularly pick people up from SFO (arriving internationally, with luggage) via car, meeting them outside. My personal rule of thumb is to be there at least 30-45 min after the announced landing and then drive a couple of rounds. 1 hr after landing is not uncommon.

Arriving nationally without checked baggage can be as quick as 5-10min.

1

Historically this depended very much on both time of day and nationality of your friend. I fly many times to SFO and had everything between 10min and 1.5h waiting in line time for immigration depending on how many inbound flights just arrived.

However they recently installed the self serving kiosks, which seriously sped up the process. I would therefore assume 45min might be a good estimate from arrival at the gate to the parking lot.

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