All you need to know about toilets in France
Finding a bathroom can be an urgent challenge, especially in unfamiliar territory. It pays to know what to say and look for, which is why we’re covering everything you need to know about asking “Where is the bathroom?” in French and using toilets in France.
How to say “bathroom” in French
One of the wonders of language is how we find different ways to say the same thing. Variations of the word toilet must rank as one of the most creatively reimagined words in any language.
We can thank the French for many words we use today, and English speakers will recognize some of the French words for bathroom.
But to ensure you don’t end up in the wrong place at the wrong time, here is an overview of common words for toilets in France.
1. Les toilettes
Unmistakably French in origin, the word toilettes is what you’re most likely to see and hear in France.
The pronunciation may be a little different with the most common French word for toilet (it is derived from the French word for cloth, toile,) but it is a word that will be understood, even if you don’t sound French.
Look for the words ‘les toilettes publiques,’ which indicates public restrooms.
2. WC (aka, Water Closet)
While you’re unlikely to hear people referring to a WC (pronounced double–vé cé,) you will see the sign displayed all over France. It’s a universal acronym, sometimes translated as “cabinets” in French.
La salle de bains
Salle de bains directly translates as bathroom. Using this term to find toilets in France may elicit a confused look, although it will probably be apparent what you’re looking for.
However, toilets in France are usually housed in a separate room, and it may be assumed you’re looking for somewhere to wash your hands. If you are searching for a sink, ask for “le lavabo” instead.
Urinoir means urinal, and they are widespread in France. Be warned: the presence of a urinal does not necessarily indicate a restroom is nearby.
Urinoirs exist to combat an issue that has not yet gone away in France: public urination.
On that note, it is still common to see men using bushes and trees alongside busy roads with barely a modicum of modesty. On long journeys with more rest areas than toilets, this is considered okay and not entirely frowned upon…yet.
Students of the French language will know that many English words have French origins, largely thanks to the Norman invasion of England in 1066.
Latrine is another French language import. However, its usage has fallen since medieval knights waged war, and the word is rarely used for toilets in France today.
5. Les toilettes à la turque
If you want to avoid hole-in-the-floor squat toilets, look for this specific phrase, meaning ‘Turkish toilet.’ It appears to be a common theme to attribute their origins elsewhere, with the Turkish reportedly calling them Greek toilets.
Often, there is nothing to indicate that the toilet is a squat toilet until you enter (and potentially depart immediately.) However, they are increasingly rare and usually only found in places in dire need of renovation.
How to say “where are the toilets?” in French
The simple phrase that pays when looking for toilets in France is “Où sont les toilettes?”
Translated as “where are the toilets,” this is the only phrase you truly need to know. It works in public and private situations and will always be understood.
Note that toilets are always plural in France, hence why “où est la toilette” is incorrect.
In practice, you will be understood if you make this understandable grammatical error. Particularly when supported by a grimace indicating your needs are urgent.
The following YouTube video by Julien Miquel does a great job teaching the pronunciation of “Où sont les toilettes?”.
How to ask for access to a public toilet in French cafés and bars
The French language and culture prize formality and politeness.
If you’re not a paying customer in a café or bar, use a polite phrase like:
“Excuse-moi, puis-je utiliser vos toilettes, s’il vous plait?” (Excuse me, can I use your toilets, please?)
Assuming the answer is yes — it usually is — expect a response akin to “bien sûr, ils sont là-bas.” That translates as, “of course, they are there,” probably accompanied by a hand gesture pointing you in the right direction.
Occasionally, you might hear the phrase, “c’est pour les clients seulement” (it’s for customers only.) That is the moment to decide whether a cup of coffee is a small price to gain access to the toilet.
Toilets in attractions like chateaux and other landmarks are sometimes hidden from sight.
If you can’t find a restroom, you might ask staff, “savez-vous où je peux trouver les toilettes, s’il vous plaît?” The phrase means, “do you know where I can find the toilets, please.”
There are many variations, but this phrase is worth remembering when you’re exploring the cultural highlights of France.
How to ask for the bathroom in France as a private guest
You may hear conflicting info on how you should ask about using toilets in France when you’re a guest in someone’s home. In reality, good manners are the only consistent requirement.
Much like anywhere, it is generally good form to ask your host discretely where the toilet is. If you’ve already worked it out, there is no need to ask.
If you do need to ask, go with the universal phrase, “où sont les toilettes, s’il te plait.” Note the informal use of ‘please,’ which almost always applies when dining with acquaintances and friends.
Dining is a serious business in France, with mysterious and often contradictory etiquette. The general consensus is that guests should avoid interrupting the serious business of eating by excusing themselves to use the bathroom.
This unwritten rule does not apply to children or anyone with an urgent need. If you are enjoying a meal that lasts hours (a Sunday staple in France,) try to go between courses.
That said, French dining etiquette is overblown by outsiders, and your host probably won’t care. So, don’t squirm in discomfort awaiting dessert.
Types of public restrooms in France
Public toilets are commonplace in France. We won’t dive into the cleanliness of toilets in France, figuratively and definitely not literally, as you’ll find every possible standard if you spend time there.
A few words will help you recognize the different types of public toilets in France, which can be a clue to cleanliness.
1. Toilettes publiques – Public toilets
Public toilets in France are just like any in Europe. They are usually free and generally well-maintained.
If you want to avoid an embarrassing faux pas, note the signage on the door:
Men’s toilets – Toilettes pour hommes / messieurs / monsieur
Women’s toilets – Toilettes pour dames / mesdames / madame
Typically, only a universally recognized symbol will indicate which to use.
Unisex toilets (toilettes unisexes) are still rare in France but slowly appearing in Paris and other large cities.
France is not immune to creative fads. Toilet signage may be more imaginative, using terms like gars (guys) or filles (girls) alongside obscure icons.
2. Les toilettes à la turque – Turkish toilets (squat toilets)
Although you may not actively seek them out, you may find toilettes à la turque in unexpected locations.
We’ll skip discussing the merits and details of using them, but be aware they are still fairly common in France.
A more satisfactory alternative for visitors and increasingly common is une sanisette. These incongruous self-contained pods are easy to spot and often found in busy locations.
Because they are self-cleaning, they are considered an economical and hygienic option. They may cost 50 centimes, so keep a few coins handy, just in case.
The good news is there are over 400 in Paris and they are all free. You can find them all via the Paris tourist office website.
Note that many sanisettes are locked overnight.
Sanisettes are common in cities but frequently pop up in small towns and villages looking to save on cleaning costs. Happily, outside prime tourist spots, they are usually free.
4. Toilettes Mobile – Portable toilets
From street markets to one-off events, temporary toilets are often the only option. They’ll probably be cleaner than ones found at music festivals (a low bar, admittedly) and handy when you’re in a tight spot.
A few tips about using public restrooms in France
Toilet paper matters (papier toilette)
You may have heard that you can’t always flush loo paper in France. This is only true of homes that still use septic tanks, typical of homes in the countryside.
Should you carry toilet paper for emergencies?
You’ll rarely find public toilets in France sans papier toilette, and people do not generally carry any around with them. However, if you are visiting attractions all day, you may want to be extra cautious, just in case.
For female sanitary products, there are a couple of keywords to note:
Tampon – no translation required as it means the same in English.
Une serviette hygiénique – means sanitary towel/pad
What about bidets in France
The bidet is another invention we can thank the French for. Yet, despite sounding utterly gallic, bidets are becoming less commonplace in France.
You will still find bidets in private homes and hotel rooms in France. It probably doesn’t need saying, but bidets are off-limits in private homes.
French toilet humor and slang
The French are not above toilet humor, and the modern language embraces a slew of slang words associated with the delicate business of using the bathroom.
Some words are straight gros mots (swear words,) but there are a few family-friendly slang words to note if you want to avoid confusion.
Faire pipi– you can probably work this out (it means pee or wee-wee.) It is a childish word you’ll find parents of toddlers using a lot.
Faire caca(le) – the French equivalent of poop or pooh.
Pissoir– again, little explanation is required. However, this word will often be substituted for urinoir and has precisely the same meaning. It is yet another French toilet invention!
Le PQ or le papier chiotte – the clue is in the word papier, as this is an informal term for toilet paper. Not one to use when trying to make a positive impression.
Papier cul – another vulgar word for toilet paper (cul means ass.)
Slang words for toilet in French
Predictably, there are many slang words for toilets in France. Most should be reserved for familiar company, but several appear in everyday use. Here’s the best of them.
Le petit coin – The little corner.
Les chiottes – Inappropriate in most settings, but you may hear it amongst friends.
Le trône – The throne.
Aller où le roi va à pied – keeping with the royal theme, this curious phrase translates as “go where the king walks.” The backstory paints a vivid picture, as it recalls a time when monarchs used the bathroom in the company of hapless courtiers.
Unsurprisingly, the practice died out along with the monarchy in 1789. And the chances of you hearing this phrase in the 21st century are close to zero unless someone is making an amusing comment.
And with that graphic image of royal toilet habits, we finish this article about toilets in France. Hopefully, we’ve helped bring you up to speed on all the key terminology and unwritten toilet etiquette in France!