Depending on where you live, what you’re used to and how observant you are, a trip to France might seem very familiar or like you’ve landed on Mars — or a mix depending on the day. Do you know what you won’t find all over the place? The American things and concepts I’ve listed below.
It’s a good thing these American concepts aren’t mainstream in France. France is its own country, after all, and there are so many French things to discover. This isn’t a judgment on either culture. But a few things on my list would probably delight the French and foreigners alike (or maybe just me).
Popular American concepts that don’t exist in France
I love talking about cultural differences so that’s exactly what we’re getting into here. Please note that some of the things and concepts below that are common in the USA do exist in France, but as a whole, France hasn’t made them the norm.
They are certainly not widespread and as mainstream as they are in the USA. I’m not saying they should be either. I’m pointing out differences to help you be more aware and prepared on your trip to France. For more help in that department, check out my eGuide titled “75 Beginner France tips for a standout trip.”
Keep in mind that some of the things I mention aren’t necessarily American inventions but are just things we commonly find in the USA.
Here’s my big list of 16 American concepts and things common in the USA that don’t exist in France:
Ah, baseball, America’s favorite pastime. This is not a sport that’s common in France at all and you won’t see baseball games on TV or kids playing it at school. Many French people know what it is due to its coverage in the media and in films, but baseball is not well-known or played on the pro level.
Soccer and rugby are the most popular sports in France and you’ll see people playing them in person and see matches airing on TV.
2. Credit cards
This next one is something I became aware of after moving to France and seeing how the French do banking. First, the French don’t generally use credit cards and don’t have personal lines of credit via a charge card or credit card, at least not to the extent that we use them in the USA.
Credit cards are not used for day-to-day purchases and if they are used, they’re more common among business owners. Credit cards with points or cash back really aren’t mainstream.
The French favor debit cards, carte bleue, which are the norm. For anyone unfamiliar, credit cards allow the purchaser to buy now and pay later via a line of credit that’s extended to them each month. Unlike a debit card where the money leaves your account immediately, a credit card company hits you with a bill each month that you can then pay in full or in installments until the balance is paid off.
In many nations like the USA, Canada, the UK and Australia, credit cards are a common way to pay. In France, debit cards as I mentioned are widely used where the money comes out of your account immediately.
There is an option on some cards to have the total amount you’ve spent during the month debited at the end of the month in one fell swoop, not at the point of sale in real time, called débit differé but it’s not something everyone has and still doesn’t function like a credit card does.
Because of this, the French don’t carry a ton of personal debt. It’s not a credit society. Stores do offer credit for larger purchases or an option to pay in installments but this is usually handled by the specific merchant.
Aside from that, if the money isn’t in your account, you don’t make the purchase. Another thing to note is that in France people don’t have a credit score number like we have in the US that is used when trying to get a loan, rent an apartment, etc.
3. Coin counter machines
I’d see these all over in the USA at supermarket entrances and also at my at TD Bank (no commission if you have an account, but they no longer have the machines).
Machines like Coinstar (they take a fee) that are a great alternative to the time-consuming process of manually putting coins in paper sleeves and bringing them to the bank. With a coin counter machine, just dump your bucket of coins in the machine and in about a minute, you get cash.
I can’t say I’ve ever seen one of these in France but I know they do exist in certain areas. They definitely are not mainstream and would really come in handy at the moment. ***eyes huge bottle of coins that we’ve been collected for a couple of years**
4. Air conditioning
As Je Parle Americain puts it, “Air conditioning is one of the most brilliant inventions in human history. You recognize this undeniable truth when you no longer have it.” Isn’t that the truth!
In my house without a/c, if you sit around doing nothing and close the volets when the temps top 90F, the heat can be bearable but if you put on makeup and a suit for work and have to actually move, sweat trickling down your face and back before you even step out the door really sucks.
Are the French afraid of air conditioning? You definitely won’t have sub-zero temps inside stores and businesses in the summer like we do in certain areas of the USA. Update: I finally got a standalone a/c unit for the hot summer nights.
5. Drive-through pharmacies (and banks)
If you’re pressed for time or just don’t want to go into the pharmacy or bank for whatever reason, many have drive-thru options which are really convenient, especially after hours.
You can pick up a prescription that was called in to the pharmacy or do some simple banking via a tube and a microphone. In France, the pharmacy experience is very personalized and a cultural phenomenon so not sure we’ll ever see drive-through pharmacies in France become mainstream.
6. Breakfasts with non-sweet foods
Eggs, sausage, bacon, mmmm. Although Tom has adapted and loves bacon and eggs for breakfast, he gravitates toward sweet things like most French people when he’s in France.
The French generally eat something sweet for breakfast like baguette with jam, a croissant, or just coffee and something light. That said, Breakfast in America is a diner-style restaurant in Paris famous for its hearty American breakfasts and is a raving success. The owner, Craig, has a great book about his experience setting up shop in France.
7. Pickup trucks
You see them here and there but nowhere near as often as in the US. Although they exist, pickup trucks are pretty rare in France and are used to actually haul equipment and not just for the look.
Workmen usually drive a different kind of vehicle to haul their gear that looks like a van/small truck and not a big Ford F150 pickup truck that people have in the USA even if they don’t use it for work.
Pickup trucks are for function first and foremost in France whereas in the USA, I think people buy them for the look as well, with function being secondary in some cases.
8. Line etiquette
In France it seems like people will make 5 different lines behind 5 different cashiers in the pharmacy or one line for each self-checkout machine instead of one big line. So this means people who arrive after you may get helped before you if they choose the fast line.
Etiquette is very different here and I can’t say it’s more efficient. People cut and if a new cashier opens up next to you after you’re already in line, people from behind you will rush over to it and get helped before you. That would get you popped in NYC but here no one says anything. So you adapt. 😉
9. Coffee to-go
Dunkin’ Donuts style coffee in big cups and iced coffee in general isn’t really a thing in France although it’s become a bit more mainstream over the years I’ve lived here. I miss my to-go coffee — especially my to-go iced coffee during the warmer months.
A few Starbucks-style coffee shops have popped up around the region and Nantes and Angers have Starbucks (not the case when I first moved) and I make it a point to stop in whenever we visit either of those cities. It’s not that the coffee is better, but it feels comfortable to go to a Starbucks and makes me feel closer to home in a way. The French are more in favor of sit-down café culture which also has its perks. I love that too.
10. Deli cold cuts
Stocking up on a half pound of freshly sliced Boar’s Head turkey, ham and American cheese from the supermarket deli counter is a lunchtime staple in the USA, but you won’t find it in France. The butcher and the meat area of the supermarket does have some ham and various meats, but it’s not exactly deli meat for amazing sandwiches.
Think more along the lines of charcuterie. If you want some sliced chicken or turkey for sandwiches, you have to buy it already packaged and sealed in an industrial plastic pack instead.
11. Boutique fitness studios
There are a few fitness studios in big cities but in the suburbs, aside from normal gyms, the boutique fitness scene is years behind the American scene. There are no yoga studios in town let alone anything else that’s more trendy like big-name franchises like you’d find in the USA. That’s OK though because I’ve been loving my fitness apps the past couple of years.
12. Self-serve frozen yogurt
Or froyo in general. This is a crying shame for froyo lovers like me. Although there are a few shops around France in bigger cities, frozen yogurt places aren’t widespread in France and they don’t compare to the big name chains like Pinkberry and Red Mango in the US.
That said, I keep seeing more and more froyo shops so this has shifted over the years. There’s a great oceanfront place in La Baule I love called The Frozen Mooh but they dispense it for you. When it comes to regular yogurt though, France has no shortage of that!
13. Birthday cakes
I love American-style birthday cakes. There’s nothing better than a buttery yellow cake with chocolate frosting. In France, you won’t see colorful birthday cakes for sale in bakeries like you would in the USA.
The French have great pastries and desserts, but fluffy layered birthday cakes are not part of the culture here in the same way. Funfetti isn’t a thing. I make my own.
In recent years, specialty bakeries in big cities have popped up that do specialize in colorful, fluffy cakes with fun fondant, but they aren’t mainstream.
14. 100-euro bills
It’s pretty common to see 100-dollar bills in the USA and they are widely used and accepted. In France, the highest denomination you’ll regularly see is a 50-euro bill and most shops won’t accept anything higher. I can’t even tell you what color the 100-euro bill is because I’ve never seen one (ATMs give out 50-euro bills as the highest denomination).
I did see a tourist in Paris with a 200-euro bill years ago — it’s green if I remember correctly — and he was having trouble using it because stores wouldn’t accept it. For everyday life, a 50 is normal, nothing higher, so if you ever have the choice of denominations, go small.
15. Secret Santa gift exchange
It’s common for workplaces, friends, family, and other communities to do a Secret Santa gift exchange during the holiday season in the USA. It’s all about spreading the holiday cheer!
The concept is simple. Each participant is secretly matched up with another participant for whom they buy a gift. You don’t find out who your Secret Santa is until the day you exchange gifts. In France, the concept doesn’t seem to be widely known or practiced.
16. Safe deposit boxes
In the USA, many people have a safe deposit at their bank in which to store important documents, valuable jewelry, cash, and other high-value items they don’t want lost, damaged, or stolen. They’re affordable, come in different sizes, and you don’t need to be extraordinarily wealthy to have one.
In France, safe deposit boxes at your bank aren’t mainstream and many banks — especially smaller branches — don’t have a vault lined with any safe deposit boxes. Many banks don’t even handle cash!
What else is popular in the USA that’s not really a thing in France? Talk to me in the comments!