Daily Life in the Bay Area

Living in a new country can be overwhelming if you've never done it before. This page is focused on the basics that you will want to consider in your first few weeks of arriving in the U.S. such as how to access money, how to get around the Bay Area, and how to find food and personal supplies.


Upon arriving in the US, you may want to set up a "checking account." In the Bay Area, you have many different banks to choose from, ranging from large, nation-wide banks (Banks of America, Wells Fargo, Citibank)to small, local credit unions (Golden 1, San Francisco Federal Credit Union, etc.).

In general, we recommend researching the different banks around you to find one that works best for you. Things to consider when working with a bank include:

  • ATM locations
  • Online Services (such as the ability to pay bills and transfer funds)
  • Monthly fees
  • Mobile Banking Options

Typically, larger banks will be easier to work with since they have many branches and clerks who can answer your questions in-person as well as modern online services though the often apply fees to their accounts. Smaller banks may offer better terms for retirement or savings accounts but they often have fewer branches and slightly less up-to-date technologies (like mobile apps). There are also online-only banks but these banks often have citizenship requirements are a limited to US nationals, please avoid such banks unless you are certain they can work with your situation. Some banks will require a Social Security Number (SSN) to open a bank account, as a matter of that bank's policy. If you don't have an SSN yet or don't plan to apply for an SSN, consider looking for a bank that does not require an SSN.

A good place to start researching all of your banking options is Nerdwallet since it allows you to compare many different banks at the same time.

Sending and Receiving Mail

If you have important legal documents mailed to you or that are being returned to you, the ISSO recommends that you consider having your package held at the office of the service you are using. For example, if something is being mailed to you via FedEx, you can ask that your package be delievered to the nearest FedEx Office location rather than your you home address.


Getting around UCSF and the Bay Area can be done a variety of ways, even if you don't own a car or have a drivers license.

UCSF has a large network of shuttle buses that are free for UCSF visitors and employees. The UCSF shuttles travel throughout the city and run on a fairly reliable schedule so be sure to consider this option when looking for a place to live.

Beyond the UCSF shuttle bus network, the Bay Area is home to a very robust public transit network. In San Francisco, the MUNI network of buses and light rail can take you around the city. The BART network overlaps with the MUNI in some places and can take you south, past the SFO airport and east to cities like Berkeley, Oakland, Fremont, and San Jose.

If you would like to live along "the Peninsula" (the area south of San Francisco, which includes Stanford University and San Jose), then you may want to consider the Caltrain commuter rail system which runs regular trains from the South Bay to Mission Bay in San Francisco. The 4th and King Caltrain station is a 15 minute walk to the UCSF Mission Bay Campus.

All public transit options in the Bay Area use the Clipper Card to pay the fare. You can purchase a Clipper Card at the welcome center at SFO if you arrive at that airport. Once you have a Clipper Card, you can also add it to your mobile phone wallet if you prefer.

In addition to public transportation options, there are a number of "micromobility" options in San Francisco, including electric bike and scooter rentals that can be used via an phone app. Or, you can purchase a bike and ride throughout the city using the many different bike lanes in San Francisco and throughout the Bay Area.

If you feel most comfortable driving a car then you will need to obtain a California Drivers License before you own a car. Please keep in mind that a car can a be very expensive option in San Francisco. Fees for parking, toll bridges, registration, and citations can add up to thousands of dollars each year.

Mobile Phone and Data Plans

The market for mobile phone and data services around the Bay Area is dominated by three companies:

  1. Verizon
  2. AT&T
  3. T-Mobile

All three of these companies offer mobile phone and data plans with the average plan starting around $70 for unlimited service though lower price plans may be available depending on the length of the contract you sign and terms of service. Purchasing a plan from any of these three companies will ensure reliable phone and data service as well as high speeds throughout the U.S.

If price is more important than signal reliability and speed, you may want to consider a lower cost service. Some examples of such service providers are:

  • Boost Mobile
  • Google Fi
  • Mint Mobile
  • Cricket Wireless

These companies often offer plans that are much cheaper or are for shorter contracts than Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile. These service providers are a good alternative if you are not planning to travel around the US a lot or are okay using public wi-fi when there is no signal.

Shopping for Food and Personal Care Items

Because the Bay Area is home to an incredibly diverse population who have moved here from all around the world, it isn't too difficult to find a lot of ingredients for any type of cuisine.

Some examples of a standard U.S. grocery store chain include:

  • Safeway
  • Lucky
  • Trader Joes
  • Whole Foods

Safeway and Lucky will generally sell a lot of the meat, produce, and dry goods commonly found in American houses. Trader Joes and Whole Foods are more specialized stores, focused on organic foods with a lot of influences from other countries. Trader Joes is probably the most popular grocery store in San Francisco because it offers a lot of prepared foods that are healthy and inexpensive however, their selection of foods can be limited.

If you'd like to find a grocery store that carries foods from your home country or region, you may be able to find them in the Bay Area. For example, there are large and small grocery stores for Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Indian, Persian, Vietnamese, Eastern European, and Central American cuisines just in San Francisco alone! If cooking food at home is important to you, be sure to research the location of a grocery store when looking for a place to live.

For personal goods such as soap, shampoo, and medications, the most common stores to visit are:

  • CVS
  • Walgreens
  • Target

These stores can be found all around San Francisco and the Bay Area. If you prefer shopping online, these stores can fulfill your order using a delivery service such as Instacart.

Amazon is also a very common option for personal care items. There are Amazon lock boxes on the UCSF campus in different locations which you can look up when selecting the delivery address.