A sign is any representation that is used as an attention-getting device for a business or business-related activity (including for-profit, non-profit, religious, and institutional purposes), whether it is words, or symbols, insignia, trademark, etc. Anything that separates that attention getting word/symbol from its background is considered part of the sign, for example a background color for a business name distinct from the color of the wall to which it is attached or painted on would be considered part of the sign.
Read the FAQ.
Sign Permits (available from the Department of Building Inspection) are required for most business signs. This includes signs painted directly on walls as well as fabricated signs hung on a wall or projecting from a building. Signs that are not visible from outside the building do not require permits. Where there is a structural component to a sign (e.g. a sign physically attached to a wall) a Building Permit Application will also be required.
Unique to most other types of projects in San Francisco, under the Planning Code, signs are non-discretionary (i.e. the Planning Department does not have the authority to deny or require modifications to a Code-complying sign). Thus sign permits are usually approved over-the-counter, though there are exceptions (see Understanding What's Allowed below).
Please note, due to legislation amending the San Francisco Planning Code Article 6, new general advertising signs are no longer permitted in San Francisco. General advertising signs are signs that draw attention to a commodity or product apart from the on-site business, for example a sign advertising a movie or a beverage on the wall of a clothing store (e.g. a billboard would be considered a general advertising sign). The Planning Department led a General Advertising Signs Program to build an inventory of general advertising signs in the City in order to correct outstanding violations, and to remove all illegal signs. To see the resulting map of general advertising signs in San Francisco, click here.
There are a limited number of uses in Residential zoning districts where signage is allowed. "Legal Non-Conforming Commercial Uses" in residential districts (i.e. corner stores in residential districts) follow distinct sign procedures and are discussed on the Corner Stores page. Gas stations also follow unique sign procedures. The controls on such signage are described in more detail below.
It is recommended to visit or call Planning staff at the Planning Information Center (PIC) early in the planning of your project. The PIC is at 1660 Mission Street, 1st floor and may also be reached by phone at (415) 558-6377 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We also recommend you contact the Department of Building Inspection (DBI) to confirm their requirements before submitting your applications. They can be reached at (415) 558-6088, or at 1660 Mission Street 1st floor Public Information Counter.
Understanding What's Allowed
Signs are regulated by the San Francisco Planning Code. To maintain the character and purpose of distinct areas in San Francisco, the City's geography has been divided into distinct zoning use districts (view these zoning use districts on the San Francisco Zoning Map and Section 201 of the Planning Code). For each activity or use of land in any given zoning district, the Code states if that activity or use is either: Permitted; Conditional; or Not Permitted. Therefore knowing the zoning district of your property will help you identify what specific limits may apply to your project and which application materials you will need to submit.
You can find the zoning use district and height limits of your property on the Find My Zoning page, or directly from our San Francisco Property Information Map by entering your address or Assessor's Lot and Block number and click the "Zoning" tab. Once you know the zoning use district of your property, you can reference our useful handout, "Summarizing San Francisco's Residential Zoning District Controls" which summarizes regulations and Code controls for projects in residential districts.
Other Things To Consider
In addition to the zoning district and land use regulations in the San Francisco Planning Code, your application will also be reviewed under provisions in all of San Francisco's Municipal Codes, the San Francisco General Plan, and Department policies based on a number of criteria (e.g. the historical significance of your property, the environmental impact of your project, or other regulations).
Here are the most common regulations you will need to consider:
Sign height, location, size, projection, & illumination controls
All zoning districts permit some type of business signs. The limitations on signs generally consist of rules limiting overall size of signs, height, location, projection and illumination, and the rules can vary widely by zoning district. Based on the zoning district of your property, the Code describes precise limitations on the attributes of the sign's height, size, illumination, etc. Generally though, if your sign complies with the San Francisco Planning Code, the Planning Department will approve it.
Exceptions to over-the-counter Sign Permit approval
While most sign projects are approved over-the-counter, the exceptions to that rule are properties subject to Article 10 (Historic Districts and Landmarks) or Article 11 (Downtown Significant Buildings and Conservation Districts) protections under the San Francisco Planning Code. The PIC can advise you if your parcel falls under these controls. If that is the case, additional review and possibly additional applications may be required.
Signs in Public Use (P) Districts
Signs in P (Public) districts are generally subject to Planning Commission review. Contact the PIC for questions on signs in P districts.
Sign Controls in "Residential" Districts
In residential districts, signs for legal businesses other than gas stations are generally limited to one business wall sign on the ground floor with an area equal to two square feet per foot of street frontage and 100 square feet for all such signs on a given site.
Signs Controls in "Non-Residential" and Special Sign Districts
The controls on signs are contained in San Francisco Planning Code Article 6. Controls for Non-Residential districts and the Van Ness and North of Market Special Sign Districts are provided in Planning Code Section 607.1, 607.2, 607.3, and 607.4.
Van Ness Avenue and the North of Market special use districts are both zoned RC-4, which is Residential-Commercial combined zoning. This is considered a Residential zoning district under the Code. This particular zoning allows a wide variety of commercial uses at the ground floor, and to a lesser extent on upper stories. Hence, the Planning Code established these two special sign districts to allow more permissive controls regarding business signs than would otherwise be allowed under Residential zoning.
Signs at Gas Stations
A unique set of rules exist for signs for gas/service stations. San Francisco Planning Code Sections 607.1, 607.2, 607.3, and 607.4, as well as Section 604 for service stations in Residential districts explain these limitations in detail (e.g. there are limits to the number of oil company signs, other business signs, freestanding signs and the heights and areas of each sign). Feel free to consult those sections if you know your zoning or you can always contact the PIC for more information.
Applying for Your Permit & Paying Fees
The following information must be submitted when applying for a Permit to erect, re-erect, paint, post, apply, alter, or structurally repair signs:
- Building Permit Application (Required if your sign includes any kind of structure, and/or if it is affixed to a wall, or erected as a free standing sign)
- Sign Permit Application (Required only if your sign does not require a Building Permit. Sign Permit forms are green and are sometimes referred to as "Form 6." This form is available at the Planning Information Center (PIC) or Department of Building Inspection)
- Scaled drawing of the sign, including the location of the sign on the building, structure or lot. If the sign projects over the sidewalk, your scaled drawing needs to show the projection and the sidewalk width beneath the sign.
- A designation of the copy (i.e. text on the sign) as is needed to determine that the location, area and other provisions of this Code are met
Since every project is unique, we have a useful matrix handout, the Permit Application Checklist which explains submittal requirements based on the proposed work as described under "How to Use This Matrix." A checklist of required materials to be submitted with the Building Permit is also included in the Building Permit Application Packet.
To submit a permit, prepare the Building Permit Application and bring it along with all necessary plans and materials as described in the Permit Application Checklist and/or Building Application Packet to the Department of Building Inspection (DBI) at 1660 Mission Street. If you are a new user, we recommend you come to the Planning Information Center (PIC) also at 1660 Mission Street before proceeding to DBI.
Permit fees are based on the construction cost of your project. To estimate permit fees, the Planning Department's fee schedule is available online. We also have a fee calculator for Building Permits reviewed by the Planning Department. If you have any questions, please stop by or call the Planning Information Center (PIC) staff at (415) 558-6377. Depending on your location and project type, impact fees may be required for new construction. Contact the PIC to see if these requirements apply to your property. Please note this is for the Planning Department's review fees only. Fees for review by the Building Department are available here. You may also call DBI at 558-6088.
Don't forget: Should the cost of staff time exceed the initial fee you paid, it is possible an additional fee for time and materials may be billed upon completion of the permit review process. Additional fees may also be collected for preparation and recordation of any documents with the San Francisco Assessor-Recorder’s office and for monitoring compliance with any conditions of approval.
Permit Review Process
If you have already visited the Planning Information Center (PIC) at 1660 Mission Street and you are confident you have all the correct materials for your Building Permit or Sign Permit Application, your next step is to submit all materials to the Department of Building Inspection (DBI) at 1660 Mission Street.
After initial screening of your application by DBI, the Planning Department will review the application to confirm it is complete for Planning Department requirements. information is missing, or if corrections are needed, you will be asked to return with that information. Planners at the Planning Information Center (PIC) will review the application to determine if it complies with the San Francisco Planning Code (view the code online) and is consistent with our Residential Design Guidelines and the additional regulations detailed above in Understanding What's Allowed. If so, it will be approved over-the-counter (OTC).
You will meet with review staff from different departments as directed by DBI, who will check your construction documents to verify the proposed project will meet the various City Municipal Codes (view all codes online). Staff from the following departments will check a typical Building Permit for signs:
- Department of Building Inspection (DBI)
- Department of Public Works (DPW)/Bureau of Streets Management (BSM) (if use of streetspace/sidewalk is needed)
Other agencies may be involved depending on the scope of your project.
When all the reviews are complete, the permit will be issued, and you can begin work. Note, there is a 15-day period after Building Permit issuance in which any party may appeal the permit to the Board of Appeals.
Inspections of permitted work is the responsibility of the Department of Building Inspection. DBI's Inspection Services page explains their inspection function.
Applications & Handouts
Applications Mentioned On This Page
- Building Permit Application
- Sign Permit Application (Required only if your sign does not require a Building Permit.)