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California’s exodus continues, but San Francisco is growing again

A night view of San Francisco with bright lights, towering skyscrapers, a lit-up bridge in the distance, and busy traffic arteries.
San Francisco's population is growing once again after pandemic-era declines. | Source: Adobe Stock

San Francisco reversed its yearslong population decline and began to grow once again between July 2022 and July 2023, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates released Thursday. The earlier exodus from the city slackened dramatically during that period, and a bounce-back in international immigration bolstered population growth.

San Francisco’s population grew by roughly 1,200 people during that period, landing its population at about 808,990 in July 2023, according to the estimates. That ranked San Francisco at No. 9 for population growth among California counties. Just 18 counties in the state gained population during that period, with the rest losing residents. Overall, California’s population shrank by 0.2% between July 2022 and July 2023, leaving it with nearly 39 million people.

San Francisco gained the dubious distinction of losing a larger share of its residents in the first year of the Covid pandemic than any other major American city. Many San Franciscans employed by the city’s numerous work-from-home-friendly tech companies decamped to other parts of California and the U.S. As a result, the emptied-out downtown pressured local businesses to shutter, and city leaders scrambled to stem the bleeding

Today, San Francisco’s population sits roughly even with its 2010 total, still 7.1% shy of its population peak of 881,500 in 2019.

Beginning in 2016, more people left San Francisco to move to other parts of the U.S. than the number of new residents who arrived in the city from elsewhere in the country. But overall population growth continued in the city up until 2019, driven by the continued arrival of international immigrants and the fact that babies were being born at a faster rate than people were dying.

Then, from July 2020 to June 2021, as Covid drove many Americans to ditch big cities, domestic migration turned from a trickle out of San Francisco into a fountain. Outmigration increased more than ninefold. Nearly 52,200 more people left than arrived during that period, according to the Census estimates. At the same time, foreign immigration, long a key contributor to the city’s growth, slowed dramatically when many U.S. embassies closed their doors on visa applications with the pandemic raging.

Between 2022 and 2023, domestic migration in San Francisco continued to feature more departures than arrivals, with about 5,900 more people leaving than arriving. That rate was similar to the pre-pandemic total in 2019, another period when more people were leaving the city than arriving from other parts of the U.S., including immigrants who may have called the international hub of San Francisco home for a short time before moving on to other parts of the country. Meanwhile, the net international immigration total of 6,201 topped the city’s 2017 figure.

San Francisco’s death rate also decreased between 2022 and 2023, following a nationwide trend.

Riverside County saw California’s largest growth between July 2022 and 2023, according to the Census data. It swelled by 18,200 people, giving it a population of roughly 2,492,440. More sparsely populated Yuba County, meanwhile, had the largest rate of growth, with its 1,370-person increase representing a 1.6% gain.

Los Angeles County saw the largest overall population contraction from July 2022 to 2023, with a 56,420-person loss representing a 0.6% shrinkage. Orange, San Diego, Alameda and Ventura counties rounded out the top five for population loss.

Alpine County had the largest rate of loss, 4.1%, though that represented just a 49-person contraction of the tiny county. Lassen County lost about 1,160 people, a 3.9% decline, and Siskiyou County’s 880-person shrinkage represented a 2% loss.

In the Bay Area, just Solano and San Francisco counties experienced population growth from July 2022 to 2023, with the others all shrinking. Every Bay Area county still has a lower population than it did in July 2020.

Noah Baustin can be reached at