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Health & Safety Practical Paris

Public Restrooms

WC sanisette toilet

With all the coffee and wine you’ll be drinking in Paris, it’s good to know there are plenty of free public restrooms. French toilets aren’t as bad as people think they will be, but there are definitely a few quirks.

The Lowdown on French Toilets

  • Toilet paper is just like at home, either in rolls or individual pieces like tissues. But sometimes there’s none at all, so keep a tissue packet handy.
  • Most public toilets are free since 2006, but the ones in train stations and shopping malls like the Carrousel du Louvre may require a small fee to use. Some brasseries still require a coin to unlock the door (if you don’t have one as the server for a token, or jeton), but these are far fewer than ten years ago because no one carries coins anymore.
  • There are some truly noteworthy restrooms in Paris (usually found in trendy bars and expensive hotels, as seen below). But there are also — in some scruffy older cafés — Turkish Toilets, which consist of a ceramic base with a hole in the center (squat if you’re a female or have bad aim; keep your feet clear when you flush, there tends to be splashing).
hotel toilet with sprayer
This toilet in a fancy hotel has an optional hand-held water sprayer for rincing off.
  • The toilets in bars, cafés and restaurants are almost always downstairs, and often unisex (there’s a full door to close and lock, not just a stall). You may even have to walk past a urinal to get to the women’s stall.
  • The lights are often on timers, or only work once the door is closed or when movement is detected. If the light goes out just push or turn the button again.
  • There’s more than one way to flush a French toilet: push a button, yank a chain, pull a lever, stand up (automatic sensor), etc.
Public toilets in France
The fanciest highway gas station restrooms I’ve ever seen (somewhere between Paris and Dordogne).
  • In France, women have no issues using the men’s room if there’s a long line for the ladies’ (and sometimes you’ll see men coming out of a restroom designated for women). This is not considered a “big deal” in France, especially since most WCs have enclosed rooms with a full door (see photo above), not stalls that someone could peek over/under.
  • Bathrooms in museums and monuments (as well as the sanisettes, see below) are often the only handicap-accessible restrooms outside of your hotel room.

Using the Sanisettes (Public Toilets)

public toilet paris
There’s a drinking water fountain on the back of the sanisette.

To help out the tourists and cut down on public urination (which, to be honest, is mostly French men), there are over 400 free public toilet cabins in Paris known as sanisettes, pictured above. They’re completely automated and self-cleaning between each use. “Occupé” means it’s occupied, “lavage” means it’s being washed (you can usually hear it, like a dishwasher), “en service” means it’s vacant, and “hors service” means it’s broken. Just click the button and the door opens.

sanisette control cuttons
Wait for the green light…

Once you’re inside, push the closing arrows button for the door to close automatically behind you (no need to touch it). It automatically locks and won’t open until you reopen it yourself by pushing the open arrows button (after 15 minutes it will open, so don’t plan on camping out in there). If the button doesn’t work, you can use the red emergency door open lever to open it manually.

to open and close the door
Door buttons (the red one is only for emergency if the buttons don’t work)

There is a place to wash your hands and — hopefully — toilet paper and soap. There’s a mirror and hooks on the wall as well. You can push the big flush or little flush buttons, but they don’t actually “activate” until you’ve exited the sanisette.

interior of a sanisette
This one’s pretty clean…

When you leave, the door will close behind you, then go immediately into “wash” mode for about 15 seconds. THIS IS IMPORTANT because if you go inside immediately after someone else when the door is still open, you’ll get a shower too! Note that if you do go in immediately after it has just been washed, it will be wet, but clean (ish).

Where to Find Them

The sanisettes are all over Paris, on busy streets, near monuments, and in public parks. You can find them using this interactive map.

You can also find free restrooms in Town Halls (Mairies, usually closed by 5pm and on weekends), along the Rives de Seine (the pedestrianized banks of the Seine, with more during Paris Plage in July-August), at a few metro entrances, and in department stores. As mentioned above, shopping malls and train stations often charge a small fee for restrooms even if you’re a customer. The easiest thing to do when walking around is to order an espresso standing at any café that has a bar (which is cheaper and faster than sitting down) and then use their restroom.

You won’t find public restrooms in churches, small shops, or supermarkets. Fast food places tend to require a code on your receipt to access the bathrooms (like the McDonald’s on the Champs-Elysées).

Vocab: When asking for the restroom, always say, “Les toilettes, s’il vous plaît?” The word we all learned in school, “salle de bain” is only used to refer to bathrooms in someone’s home. You’ll also see signs pointing to the “WC”.

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