Living in France is never dull, and when I first arrived, prices of goods and services surprised me. I always notice what I’m paying and most of the time it’s a lot! With the exchange rate of 1 euro = US$1.35 right now, even cheaper things still seem expensive to me. And what about things that I’m used to getting for free at home? Not here!
Things that should be free in France but actually cost money
I never had to pay to use the bathroom until I came to France for the first time when I was 16. We were in a big Paris department store, which in addition to a sink and toilet, had an attendant and all kinds of extras like special toilet paper, lotions, perfume and more to freshen up with before you went back out into the world. I figured this was a one-time occurrence but then saw toilets that cost money in train stations as well as public toilet stations out on the street that you had to put anywhere from 20-50 centimes in the door to use.
At train stations, you often have to leave a coin for the attendant before passing on through the turnstile to the bathroom, so always have a few coins in your pocket. More recently, I’ve noticed an even more convenient way to pay. There is a card terminal that you can quickly swipe sans contact and the amount will be debited in a second or two.
Now it makes sense when I see guys peeing on the side of a building in full public view at least once a week. It’s expensive to pee in a restroom!
Note: Bathrooms are free to use at restaurants and stores when you’re a customer, but don’t expect to duck into a restaurant to pee without buying anything. Most restaurants are strict about restrooms being for customers only.
Calls to customer service
France’s customer service doesn’t have the best reputation and aside from all the poor service, they make it difficult to get ahold of them via phone! Why? Because the customer has to pay for the call. And you’d think for a call that you pay for that they’d have enough employees to field the calls, but nope, I often wait on hold for a few minutes before I speak to anyone.
You call the number, pay anywhere from 10 to 30 cents/minute (in most cases) and wait. And wait some more. Then maybe your issue will be resolved and maybe it won’t. But you’ll see a nice reminder of the call on your phone bill! So always check the fine print before calling up customer service because most of the time, these calls are not free in France. This goes for the post office’s helpline, stores, etc. The cost to make the call is a deterrent and keeps people from getting their issues resolved.
Bank accounts & debit card
One difference between French and American banking is the fact that all accounts here require a monthly service fee. Banking is not free in France — anywhere! Even a basic checking account at La Banque Postale will run you at least 5 euros a month in fees that are automatically debited from your account. In most cases, depending on what services you have (online banking, a debit card for your account ,overdraft protection, etc.), that monthly fee is more like 10 or 15 euros/month. They don’t waive it. This fee is the cost of banking in France and I talked about some of those banking shocks here. Totally normal. The debit card itself, depending on what bank and what card, will be anywhere from 15 euros or more per year just to have a card. Mine is 40. Ouch.
For the sake of comparison, my American accounts and cards have always been free (unless I dip below $100). Maybe you’d think these fees at French banks help to provide customers with great service or fancy options. Nope — my bank is closed Mondays, closed from 12 to 2 p.m. daily and only open ’til noon on Saturday. And of course no drive through or card customization options. I didn’t even choose my own PIN!
Always head out to the grocery store in France with your reusable bags in hand (or a cool shopping cart if you’re into granny style like me) because there aren’t any paper or plastic ones for free at checkout. If you forget to bring bags, you have to buy them. Grocery bags are not free in France except in a few smaller markets where you’ll get disposable plastic ones that barely hold anything. Granted, they aren’t expensive — plastic ones maybe 10 or 15 centimes each — but still.
I like this no free bag policy and think it’s slowly starting to catch on in the U.S. Back when I was still living there, stores gave a 5-cent discount per bag if you brought your own. Is that still in place? In France, no discount, just the norm to bring your own. This is most certainly a good thing.
Here are some things that are free in France and surprised me:
Incoming texts and cell calls
If you’re on the receiving end of a phone call or text, you don’t pay. So any airtime you use to answer is on the caller’s dime, and your account is not debited at all. This makes a lot of sense and I like it. If someone sends you 100 texts in error, you shouldn’t have to pay (as with some plans in the U.S.). You only pay if you initiate a call to someone or send a text.
Services (no tips needed)
Don’t feel obliged to tip at the salon or restaurant. For exceptional service, you can leave a few euros but tips are already built into the price of a service and servers get paid a livable wage. So when dining out, getting a haircut or your nails done, don’t feel obligated to leave a tip. And definitely nowhere near the customary 20 percent you’d find in the U.S. if you do decide to leave a tip!
What would you add to my list of things in France that should be free?