San Francisco Clipper Cards Explained


San Francisco Clipper Cards Explained

If you’re a backpacker in San Francisco, then you’ll be on a constant lookout for cheap places to go and budget things to do.

But with so many amazing things to see, you’ll be traveling around the city a lot…and the transportation costs start to add up.

However, there is a cheaper way to travel in San Francisco. The Clipper card is a contactless smart card used by locals for discount travel around the city.

But Google “Clipper card San Francisco” and you’ll see a wealth of information…way too much!

To help you out, we’ve taken the key parts you need to know and answered the vital questions so next time you are in San Francisco, you can travel cheaper.


1. What is a Clipper card?

If your “Clipper Card San Francisco” search didn’t throw up any clues as to what it actually is, then let us help you out.

The Clipper card is a smart, contactless travel card that can be used all over the Sasn Francisco Bay Area. 

Travelers, both residents and tourists, can add value to their card either as they go or automatically, depending on what works best for them.

Fun Fact: The Clipper card originally had a different name, the TransLink. It kept the name from 2002 to 2010, after which it was rebranded.


2. Where can I get a Clipper card?

If you’re a budget traveler in San Francisco, then we can recommend getting a Clipper card. You’re bound to save money, and it prevents you from carrying a whole load of cash.

But where do you get a Clipper card from?

Your first option is to ask at the hostel. The manager usually has a few cards available that guests can borrow. Sometimes these are cards left behind by previous guests. We only ask that you return the card with a value that is equal to or greater than the value that was on the card when you borrowed it. If you fail to return the card, we may charge for its replacement.  

If you'll be in San Francisco for a while, or you think you'll come back soon, consider purchasing a Clipper card. They can be purchased at the Clipper card customer service center inside Embarcadero station, which is a 15 minute walk from the hostel. They can also be purchased from ticket machines for the MUNI and also the Golden Gate Ferry. Check out this map of all the ticket machines around the Bay area you can purchase a Clipper card.

The cards can also be purchased from a number of retail locations, including Walgreens and Whole Foods Market.

A full list of authorized vendors can be found on the Clipper card website.

How much does a Clipper card cost?

Adult Clipper cards can be purchased at a very budget backpacker-friendly $3. However, if you buy online and set up autoload payments (more on that later) then your fee will be waived.

Savvy Traveler Tip: Sellers will be offering Clipper cards on Craigslist and similar sites. Do not buy them! They may work when you first get them, but they can be blocked if part of a scam. Stick to authorized vendors.


3. How do I use a Clipper card?


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Travelers may find using a Clipper Card a little tricky at first given there are so many rules to learn!

But follow this easy guide and you can’t go far wrong. And if in doubt, ask a member of staff or a friendly-looking local.

Using a Clipper card

To use your card simply look for a Clipper reader on the bus or at fare gates, stations or ferry terminals. Press your card to the reader. When your ticket has been accepted, you will hear a beep and see a green light (the BART fare gates will read “OK”). Be aware that some types of transit, such as Caltrain, will instead have officers holding a handheld card reader in order to scan your card.

Do I need to tag out?

You may need to tag out of your trip, depending on the agency you travel with. BART, Caltrain, Golden Gate Transit, Marin Transit, San Francisco Bay Ferry, SMART and Sonoma County Transit all operate tag out policies. If you forget to do so, you could be charged for the longest distance fare on that route.

How do I check my balance?

To check your Clipper card balance, simply check the card reader when you tag in. You will see your balance (or pass expiration date) on the display. You can also check your balance when you add value to your card in person, by calling customer service on 877.878.8883 or by logging into your Clipper account online.

What if my Clipper card is lost or stolen?

If you lose a registered card, or it is stolen or damaged, then you need to log into your Clipper account online and click “report lost, stolen or damaged card”. You can then follow the instructions to retrieve your balance. You can also call customer service.

The card will be blocked and a new Clipper will be sent to you.

Savvy Traveler Tip: If you’re backpacking around San Francisco in a group, then you will each need your own Clipper Card. The cards can’t be shared on a single trip.

4. How can I add value to my Clipper card?

If you know that you are running low on funds, then you will need to top up your Clipper card.

There are a number of ways to do that, so let’s take a look at the options available to you.



It is possible to have your Clipper card automatically reload itself with cash. If you’re going to be staying in the city for a long time, then this could be a great option, because it means you should never be caught short. To use this method, head to the Clipper card website and set up the autoload function. Once you’ve done that your account will be linked to your credit card or bank account. The money will then transfer from your account to your Clipper card when your cash value drops below $10 or when your pass expires.


You can also top your card up online. Simply head to the website to add your cash. Be aware that the value added is not necessarily instantaneous. If you order by 6 p.m., then your top up will normally come within the next 1 or two days.


To add value over the phone you need to call customer services on 877.878.8883. This has the same turnaround time as ordering online.

In person

You can top up your card in person at participating retailers, transit agency ticket machines and ticket offices, Clipper Customer Service Centers, and Clipper Add Value machines. The benefit of taking this option is that the money will be available immediately to you.

You can find all the locations by clicking here.

At work

If you are backpacking in San Francisco, then it is unlikely that you will also be working. But if you are here long term for work (for example on a J-1 Student Work Exchange visa), ask your employer if they have an employee transit benefit program.  This can enable you to get the Clipper Card for free.  

5. Where can I use a Clipper card?


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You may have searched for “Clipper card San Francisco” but the truth is that your card is actually valid on all the major Bay Area transit systems.

That means you can use your Clipper card to get discounts across the Bay Area from a number of different providers.

Below is a complete list of all the transit agencies that accept the card, plus some extra nuggets of information you will need to know when using their routes.

Good to know: Unfortunately for backpackers in San Francisco, the use of the Clipper card changes from agency to agency. On many services, you only need to tag in, but some you need to tag out or could face extra charges. We’ve looked to include any information you might need in the following compendium but if in any doubt, it’s always best to ask a member of staff.

Bus and coach

AC Transit: Adults get 10% discount on each cash value trip. Youth, senior and disabled riders get 5%.

City Coach: Clipper can be used on every Vacaville City Coach fixed route. Transfers to other transit agencies in Napa and Solano counties are good for 60 minutes.

County Connection: You can use your Clipper on all the regular and express fixed routes apart from the 250, 260 and Alamo Creek Shuttle.

FAST: Clipper can be used on the FAST service, but not on the FAST Blue Line. Transfers are good for 60 minutes.

Golden Gate Transit: Clipper can be used on these buses but remember to tag in and out, otherwise you may pay the full fee

Petaluma Transit: Clipper can be used and transfers are valid for 120 minutes after boarding the bus.

Marin Transit: Clipper users will receive a 10% discount, but remember to tag in and out otherwise you could pay for more than you need.

SamTrans: Clipper can be used on all routes.

Santa Rosa CityBus: You can use your Clipper on these buses. A transfer is good for 120 minutes, meaning if you take another Santa Rosa CityBus within 120 minutes of your first tag, you get a free transfer.

SolTrans: Clipper is available on all fixed routes, plus transfers to and from other agencies in Contra Costa, Napa and Solano are valid for an hour.

Sonoma County Transit: You also receive a 180 minute transfer period after you tag off.

Tri Delta Transit: Transfers are accepted for 120 minutes after tagging in.

Union City Transit: Clipper is accepted on fixed-route buses and transfers are good for 90 minutes after tagging in.

VINE: Clipper is valid for most VINE routes except Route 29 from Napa to the Vallejo Ferry Terminal. However, you can use your Clipper on Route 29 from Napa to El Cerrito del Norte BART station. Transfers to and from agencies in Napa and Solano are valid for 60 minutes.

VTA: You will automatically receive a day pass on your Clipper once you’ve paid the cost on your card.

WestCAT: Clipper is accepted but if you want to ride a Lynx bus for a local trip, know that you can only pay with Clipper if you have a WestCAT Lynx 31-Day Pass.

Wheels: Clipper is accepted on all routes and transfers are good for 120 minutes after boarding the bus.

Muni System

San Francisco’s Muni System combines buses, light rail Metro trains, historic streetcars and cable cars into one transport network. You can use your Clipper card on all these Muni vehicles.

Ford GoBike Plus

You can also use your Clipper card to access the Ford GoBike system — the Bay Area's bike share scheme. You will find it a very cheap way to get around the city with a single ride starting at $2 with a monthly membership starting at $15 per month. For information visit the Ford GoBike Plus website.

Train and railway

BART: Receive a 6.25% discount on BART rides when you use BART HVD tickets on an adult Clipper card. You will also receive 50 cents off your journey by saving on BART’s paper ticket surcharge.

Caltrain: Clipper can be used but remember to tag on and off every time, otherwise you may pay more than you need to.

SMART: Transfer times vary depending on which form of transport you take next. Check your full options here.


Golden Gate Ferry: Your Clipper can be used on Golden Gate Ferry routes, but you need to make sure it is loaded with at least $2.25.

SF Bay Ferry: Adults receive a discount on all routes except short hops. You can’t use your Clipper on the AT&T Park route, but can on the following four routes:

1)      South San Francisco/Alameda/Oakland

2)      Alameda Main Street/Oakland/San Francisco

3)      Alameda Harbor Bay/San Francisco

4)      Mare Island/Vallejo/San Francisco


Couldn’t I just drive in San Francisco?

If you’re coming to San Francisco in a group or don’t want to be stuck to bus timetables, then you might be tempted to drive.

Of course, that is an option and it means you might not need to get a Clipper card. But let us tell you, parking in San Francisco is a nightmare. It's really hard to find a spot, and because even when you do find a spot, because of residential parking laws and scheduled street cleaning times, it's really common to get a ticket.

We can definitely recommend the Clipper card as a cheaper alternative to driving, but if we still haven’t convinced you then check out our article on how to park in San Francisco without getting towed. It could save you a small fortune.

Clipper card San Francisco: Your conclusion

Hopefully, every question you had when you made you “Clipper card San Francisco” search has now been answered.

The card itself is a fantastic way to see most of the city and far beyond.

You’ll get excellent savings on a number of different transport options and be able to see San Francisco’s world-famous landmarks including Golden Gate Park, Alcatraz Island and Haight-Ashbury.

Happy travels!

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