Everything you need when planing a vacation trip to San Francisco
The international flags at the Farmont Hotel on Nob Hill


The clock on the  Ferry Building

Time Zone


San Francisco is in the Pacific Standard Time zone, which has a UTC/ GMT standard off-set of -8 hours. This means when it is noon in London, it is 4:00 am in San Francisco. During the summer months, the US goes on Daylight Savings Time when clocks are advanced one hour.


The current time in San Francisco is:




Wells Fargo Bank in downtown San Francisco


The US has fewer currency exchange offices than do most other countries. So, it may be better to exchange your currency into dollars in your home country rather than wait until you get to the US. With that said, there are exchange booths in the San Francisco International Airport and in the major banks in downtown San Francisco. As with most airport currency booths around the world, the one in the San Francisco Airport has a poor exchange rate. The best exchange rates are the ones the credit card companies give when you use their cards in a foreign country.


Currency exchange table fitted into a walletAn idea I use when traveling abroad that you may want to adapt is to make a simple currency exchange table that I keep in my wallet in such a way that I can easily see it when I pull it out to make a payment. I find that without such an aid, it is often difficult to make the mental currency conversion in the confusion of a marketplace.


In the US, credit card payments are becoming more and more the normal way of paying for things. As an American, I find that I rarely ever need to use currency since you can charge virtually everything.  There are even some things that can not be paid for in cash, such as car rentals which can only be paid for by credit card. The same is true with most hotel reservations, they can only be made with a credit card.


A word of experience: be sure to call the customer service number on the back of your credit card before you travel to the US to inform them of your trip. I ignored such advice until the time my credit card’s security department turned off my credit card while I was traveling in Russia, because of the change in my usual spending pattern. It put me in a real bind.




Standard US 110 volt wall outlet and a chargerElectricity in the US is 110 volts, 60 hertz. The standard US wall outlet is as shown on the right.


Today, most laptop computers, cell phone chargers and camera battery chargers are manufactured to work on any voltage from 100 to 240. The only thing they need to work, is an inexpensive adapter (not to be confused with a more expensive voltage converter) to accommodate the US wall outlets.  It might be easier to buy an adaptor in your home country instead of trying to find one in the US. But, be sure to check your appliance to see that it is safe to run on 110 volts. It should say something like “input: 100-240VAC 50/60 Hz”.


Imperial System of Weights and Measures

A detail from a Coit Tower mural


Besides the English language, the other best evidence that the US was once a part of the British Empire is its use of the Imperial System of weights and measures. This pre-scientific age system is based on things like the widths of a king’s thumb and the length of his foot. So don’t expect to make much sense of it. Luckily, as a traveler, other than travel distances you will not need to use it much. 


Travel distances in the US are measured in miles.  One mile is equal to 1.6 kilometers. But, rather than doing math conversions in your head, think in terms of how long it takes to travel the distance. If you drive at a moderate speed on a freeway, you will be traveling about one mile every minute. So a 100 mile trip will take about one hour 40 minutes. Walking at an average walking speed, it takes just about 20 minutes to walk one mile.

1 mile = 20 minutes

1 mile = 1 minute




While I will be the first to admit the metric system’s vast superiority over the imperial system, I will defend the use of the Fahrenheit system over Celsius. Celsius was designed to measure the temperature of liquid water. Zero on the Celsius scale was set where water turns to a solid and 100 Cº where it turns into a gas.  Most people don’t often need to measure the temperature of liquid water, but everyone needs to know the temperature of the weather. And this is what Fahrenheit was designed to measure.  0 Fº to 100 Fº covers the normal range of weather in most of the places on Earth where people live.


So, as a traveler to a land that uses this wonderful system, how do you make use of it without having to constantly use your calculator to convert to Celsius? Just keep these three things in mind:


  • Human body temperature is roughly 100 Fº (98.6 Fº) so anything over 100 Fº has not only crossed over a psychological boundary of bigger numbers, but also has crossed a physical boundary. Above 100 Fº, your body can no longer cool itself by dissipating its heat, but must rely on sweating. In other words, anything above 100 Fº is really hot.


  • Water freezes at 32 Fº.  So, anything in the 30’s is cold. Really cold.


  • Any temperature in the 70’s is heaven on Earth.


With those 3 points in mind, you should be able to pretty much know how to dress for comfort and knowing how to dress for outdoor comfort is the main reason we are so interested in temperature. For example, the weather report says the high for the day will be in the mid 50’s. That is about half way between perfection (the 70’s) and really cold (the 30’s), meaning it will be cold. A jacket should do the trick. But since mid 50's is the high for the day, perhaps a sweater under the jacket may be in order until the day heats up to the high.



Coit Tower Mural


Phone Numbers


In the US every phone number has seven digits and the US convention is to write it with a hyphen (or space) between the third and forth digit like this: 222-1234. When making local calls this is all that needs to be dialed, although from many hotels you must first dial a 9 to reach the phone system outside of the hotel’s system. When making a call outside of the local area a three digit area code is added to the number. This area code is usually put in parentheses like this: (415) 222-1234. When dialing a long distance number a 1 must be dialed before the area code, so you would dial this: 1 415 222 1234.




One exception to the seven digit phone number system is the phone number everyone should know: the emergency response number – 911. This will connect you with a dispatcher who can send police, fire or ambulance help. The 911 system works throughout the US.


International Calls


To make an international call from the US, you must first dial 011 to reach the international system. Then dial the international code for the country you are calling, and then the phone number that you wish to reach. For example, if you wish to make a call to Russia (who’s country code is 7) you would dial 011 7 812 222 1234.


800 Numbers


Toll Free Numbers are long distance numbers that are free of charges to the caller. Their area codes are 800, 866, 877 and 888. They are often called “Eight Hundred Number” even though the area code may actually be 866, 877 or 888.


Mobile Phones


Inexpensive moble phones for sell in a supermarketIf you are traveling from a foreign country, check with your mobile phone provider to see if your phone is compatible with the US system and if it is, what are the charges for calls made in the US. It may well be that the charges are very high. In that case you may consider purchasing an inexpensive “pay-as-you-go” phone. These cost around $20 and are sold in most supermarkets and drug stores. You can then prepay for some phone time, which will be at a rate around $0.10 to $0.25 per minute.




In the phone directory in your cell phone, you should save your emergency contact phone number under the name “ICE.” ICE is an abbreviation of In Case of Emergency.  In the US, emergency responders are trained to call the ICE number when they have a person who is unconscious. The ICE number should link them to the person you would want to be informed if something very, very bad has happened to you. It is a good idea to also write the number on a card and keep it with your ID where it can be found.




MenThe first rule of travel is “never pass by a clean public restroom without using it.” But actually, in San Francisco it is not much of a problem to find a suitable place to take care of business. All the BART (the SF metro system) stations and bus stations have public toilets, though when you drop in for a visit, they may fail the “clean” part of the equation, thanks to San Francisco’s robust homeless population. A better bet is to stop at a fast food restaurant, where you can use their toilets without making a purchase. And of course, it is always a good idea when dining to make use of all the restaurant’s amenities.


You may see the international symbol for handicap access on a restroom door. This does not mean it is for exclusive handicap use; handicap or not, you may use this toilet.


Liquor Laws

Wine for sell in the Upper Filmore Shopping District


The legal age for purchasing and drinking alcohol in California is 21. The drunk driving laws are severe, so don’t even think about it. There are also laws against having previously opened bottles of alcohol in a vehicle where the occupants have access to them. Such bottles must be stored in the trunk, where drinking from them while driving is impossible.




There is a joke that tells you much about the laws and attitudes regarding smoking in California:


“There is a designated place for Californians to smoke. It’s called Nevada.”


Smoking throughout California is banned from all public indoor spaces. This includes bars, restaurants and offices. In such places you are more likely to find a magical talking unicorn than an ashtray. It is also banned outside from within 20 feet of an entrance to a business. In San Francisco, as well as some other cities, the ban extends to parks and public squares. The penalties? $100 for the first time, $200 for the second, and the bargain rate of $500 every time after that.


Smoking has become something of a social faux pas among Californians and smokers are looked down upon as un-cool losers. One curious exception to this is cigar smoking. Years ago it suffered from an unfashionable old man image. But today it enjoys a kind of bad boy, hedonistic cachet.  Cigars are put in the same mental category as fine gourmet wines, while cigarettes are held in about that same esteem as cheap wino’s wine.


Street Numbering


House numbersMany countries assign street numbers according to number of buildings on the street. From the point where the counting starts, the first building is numbered one, and the building across the street is numbered two, the next building is numbered three and so on. The problem with this system is that on a long street the numbers on one side of the street will most likely be very different than the numbers on the other side. And by looking at the address you really have no good idea of how far it is from the starting point. It could be that side of the street has many small buildings or many big buildings.


The US does not use this building counting convention. Instead, it uses a grid system. Each block is divided by 100 and the odd numbers are given to one side of the street, and the even ones are given to the other, so that 50 will be the address in the middle of the block, on one side and 49, will be given to the address on the other. This does not matter how many buildings are on the block. If its door is in the middle of the block, it will be 50 or 49, depending on which side of the street it is. The other digits after the first two tell you how many blocks the address is from the starting point. For example: my former home address was 637 E McKinley Avenue. That tells you I lived on McKinley, six blocks east from the starting block and my house was not quite halfway to the middle of the block. Simple and sensible.




The joy of drivingThe overwhelming majority of drivers in California are reasonably polite and law abiding. With the exception of freeway speed limits, which are routinely ignored, virtually everyone obeys the laws and drives in an orderly fashion. Most foreigners have little trouble adjusting to driving in the US, with the obvious exception of drivers from those countries that use the British system of driving on the wrong side of the road, while sitting on the wrong side of the car. Here, everyone stops at a stop sign or red light even though no other cars are coming. Do otherwise and everyone will look at you as if you are wearing your underwear on your head.


As a visitor to California you may drive with your driver license from your home country as long as it is still valid.


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