Let’s be honest: asking about the restroom is not exactly the most fascinating topic when you’ve decided to learn French. But it’s a very useful one to know if you’re living or traveling in France, or another French-speaking country. You’re likely to need it on a daily basis, when you’re invited to someone’s home, going out or even visiting a client for work.
On top of distinguishing between the different words for the bathroom and knowing how to ask where the bathroom is in French, you’ll need to understand the right time and place to ask such a question and a few particular customs:
- Some important French vocabulary about the bathroom
- How to ask “where is the toilet?” in French
- What’s the etiquette when using a French toilet?
Some important French vocabulary about the bathroom
Before getting to the main question, let’s look at some useful vocabulary linked to the bathroom in French.
What are the French words for the bathroom?
Let’s start with an important point to avoid any risk of confusion: in France, une salle de bain (bathroom) specifically refers to the room where you can take a bath or a shower. It differs from les toilettes (restroom). The strict distinction may come from the fact that the two are separate rooms in traditional French homes.
On top of les toilettes, there are a few words to designate the restroom:
|les toilettes||restroom||Please note the plural form. The singular word la toilette means “washing” or “grooming”.|
|les WC||water-closet||Please note that, in the French version of the acronym, the letter W is pronounced like the letter V from the French alphabet. So WC sounds like ‘Vay Say’.|
|le petit coin||restroom||Meaning literally “the little corner”, the expression is an understated way to refer to the restroom.|
|les cabinets||restroom||The term is less common nowadays but can still be heard.|
|les toilettes pour hommes||men’s restroom|
|les toilettes pour femmes||women’s restroom|
|les toilettes unisexes||unisex restroom|
|les toilettes publiques||public restroom|
Learn the words of the most common items in a restroom
Beyond the name of the room, you’ll find it useful to know the words for a few common items in a French restroom:
|le papier toilette||toilet paper|
|le savon liquide||liquid soap|
|le désinfectant/le gel pour les mains||hand sanitizer|
|la table à langer||changing table|
Learn some useful sentences in case of a problem
While it’s never pleasant, you may want to inform your host or the restaurant employee if you’ve used the last sheets of toilet paper or if there’s a problem with the toilet.
|Il n’y a plus de papier.||There’s no more paper.|
|Les toilettes sont bouchées.||The toilet is clogged.|
|Je n’arrive pas à tirer la chasse d’eau car elle est bloquée.||I can’t flush the toilet because it’s blocked.|
|Il y a une fuite.||There’s a leak.|
How to ask “where is the toilet?” in French
Normally, this isn’t a question you shouldn’t have to ask. If you’re invited to somebody’s home for the first time, it’s fairly common for the host to show you where the bathroom is upon your arrival. In restaurants and other public spaces, the way to the bathroom is usually indicated either with the word toilettes or with the icons of a man and a woman.
However, if you haven’t been told or if the sign is not immediately visible, you can apologize and ask where the bathroom is. There are numerous possible questions you can use, in more or less direct and formal ways.
|Excusez-moi, où sont les toilettes ?||Excuse me, where is the restroom?||This is probably the most straightforward and common question you may ask.|
|Où sont les WC, s’il-vous-plaît ?||Where is the restroom, please?||This is an alternative to the previous question.|
|Puis-je utiliser les toilettes, s’il vous plaît ?||May I use the restroom, please?||In public places, you may have to check if you’re allowed to use the restroom if you’re not a customer. As a guest, it may also be a polite way to ask to use the restroom at a slightly inappropriate time, for instance in the middle of a meal.|
|Puis-je aller au petit coin ?||May I go to the little corner/restroom?||Using the expression petit coin is a cute way to ask, if you’re at somebody else’s home.|
|Où puis-je me laver les mains ?||Where may I wash my hands?||Using the reflexive verb se laver followed by the body part les mains, this is a roundabout way to ask where the bathroom is in a more discreet manner.|
|Y a-t-il des toilettes publiques près d’ici ?||Is there a public restroom nearby?||You may use this question if you’re at a street festival or in a shopping center.|
What’s the etiquette when using a French toilet?
When invited to somebody’s home, you should strive to ask this question discreetly, and not in front of everyone. As much as possible, try to ask your host when they’re on their own. It’s also considered common courtesy to go to the restroom before or after the meal, rather than during. This may not always be possible, especially during long meals. In such cases, you should arrange to go in between two dishes.
When it comes to public venues in France specifically, the restroom may be reserved exclusively for customers or may only be accessible for a fee. This is often the case in les grands magasins (department stores), where the restroom may be looked after by une dame pipi: This old term, which literally means “a pee lady”, designates a restroom attendant.
It’s also fairly common, in particular in old venues or on interstate rest areas, to find des toilettes à la turque (Turkish toilet). This very basic form of squat toilet consists of a hole with two-foot platforms on each side.
Don’t be shy to ask about the toilet in French
It may require some discretion if you want to follow French etiquette. But there are enough ways to ask in a polite manner where the bathroom is in French, granted you have first learned the various words for the bathroom. You’ll also find it useful to know a few toilet customs if you’re at somebody’s home or in a restaurant.
Anne-Lise is a translator and copywriter working for various industries, such as hospitality and travel, as well as health and well-being. Settled down in London since the end of her university years, she cannot get enough of the exceptional cultural life in the English capital city, starting with theater, be it to see a new West End show or to roll up her sleeves with her amateur drama group. She is also interested in photography, as her Instagram profile shows. She indulges her passion for languages in a translation blog she writes with other linguist friends. Go to her Linkedin page to know more about her background and her professional experience.