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When I was in Helsinki, I noticed restaurants there tended to be okay serving water alongside an order free of charge. I've seen this in different restaurants, including McDonalds.

In some cases the restaurants seemed to be encouraging this, having a water refill station with clean glasses on the patrons' side of the bar. In another restaurant they'd have glass jugs with (tap?) water in a refrigerator next to the soft drinks and we were encouraged to take them along with clean glasses which were set up next to the self-service utensils counter. In the McDonalds my friend asked for tap water explicitly and the cashier just poured some and served it with the rest of the order. In each of these cases the water wasn't billed separately.

I haven't seen this in other places in Europe, but I haven't travelled around that much and I might not have noticed that they too encourage free hydration for paying customers. Is this a common practice elsewhere in Europe or is this typically Finnish or maybe Scandinavian?

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    There is no rule for all of Europe, you will have to restict this question to fewer countries but it might still be closed as a duplicate.
    – Willeke
    Oct 16, 2022 at 19:06
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    France seem to have a law they have to serve tapwater for free. In the Netherlands it is rare to see free tap water. And so on.
    – Willeke
    Oct 16, 2022 at 19:10
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    @JJJ there's no "Europe more generally" with regards to this question than there is "the Americas more generally" or "the restaurant-eating world more generally." Customs differ from one part of Europe to the next, from countries where you will be given free tap water even without a request, to countries where it's required by law if you know the right magic phrase, to countries where you simply won't get tap water in a restaurant.
    – mlc
    Oct 16, 2022 at 19:27
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  • 3
    @mlc well, yes I realize that there isn't going to be a single answer for the whole of Europe. My question is if and where in Europe such a custom exists. If that's too broad for this site then I'd say it's better to close this question. I think this single question works better than asking separately for each country. I'm not going to ask multiple highly similar questions, but if this is going to be closed as too broad then others are welcome to do so.
    – JJJ
    Oct 16, 2022 at 20:18

11 Answers 11

21

It varies a lot, there really isn't any common customs in Europe in that respect so creating a list might be the best way to answer the question. Complimentary water is definitely not limited to Finland or Scandinavia.

Countries where serving tap water is required by law:

  • UK (source provided by @Traveller). Legally required in all premises licensed to serve alcohol. Most other cafes and restaurants offer free water too (but not all).
  • France (source provided by @Franck Dernoncourt). It's very common to just bring a pitcher of water on the table of anybody who orders food or at least to offer one even if you didn't ask for it or ordered other drinks.
  • Hungary
  • Spain (source provided by @Erik)

Countries where serving complimentary water is very common:

  • Finland
  • Norway
  • Sweden
  • Denmark
  • Slovenia

Countries where complimentary tap water is not unheard of but not universal:

  • Switzerland

Countries where serving free tap water is unusual:

  • Netherlands. In fact, it's not uncommon to ask for “Spa rood” or “Spa blauw” instead of water generally… and waiters will simply bring another brand without warning or confirmation if they don't carry Spa. But asking for 'kraanwater' (tap water) is common as well, sometimes you get it, sometimes you are told to order mineral water instead.
  • Germany. Fizzy drinks are very popular and water is sparkling by default. In the bigger cities it it more common to get free water than in the countryside. And altough most places don't offer it themselves, if asked they will either refuse and point to bottled water or just give it to you for free (and the places where you get some for free if you ask are not few). It is very uncommon to get charged for tap water.
  • Luxembourg
  • Italy
  • Belgium. When asking flat/non-sparkling water, it will be of a bottle.

In those countries, patrons will almost universally order paid drinks with a meal and the issue doesn't come up. In some cases, restaurants will flat-out refuse even if you insist, in others, they might comply but will be surprised or annoyed because it is very unusual.

Conversely, even in countries where serving complimentary water is mandated by law, you will find places where it is not available or simply not done. Examples include mountain huts and upscale restaurants. I don't know if they would push back if you insist that they are required by law to serve tap water but in all Michelin starred restaurants I have been to, patrons are clearly expected to order paid drinks. Water filtered and possibly carbonated on the premises is also increasingly popular as a sustainable alternative to bottled water but you still have to pay for it.

Finally, in Austria, France, and Italy at least, serving a complimentary glass of water with coffee is common and accepted, either as a matter of course or on request. Cafes should therefore be perfectly OK with it.

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  • Spa rood and Spa blauw were generic names more than 30 years ago in the Netherlands. Sadly I can't remember which is fizzy and which isn't (sigh).
    – Jon Custer
    Oct 17, 2022 at 19:21
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    My experience in Denmark was that restaurants brought a caraff of water when you sat down whether you asked for it or not. Not sure how universal this is. Oct 17, 2022 at 19:31
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    @JonCuster Rood is fizzy.
    – Relaxed
    Oct 17, 2022 at 19:43
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    It's very common in Norwegian restaurants, but I don't think it is required by law. Bars and nightclubs are required by law to give free water to customers. I may add that tap water is universally better than bottled water, maybe with a few exceptions. Oct 18, 2022 at 8:43
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    Italian here. If you ask for water at restaurants, they will usually bring closed bottles you have to pay for. Not sure if you ask for tap water, never tried. For bar and cafe, it depends on which part of italy you are in. The more south you are, the more common it is to get a glass of tap water with your espresso or sweet for free without asking. In the north, it can easily happen that you will have to ask and they will ask you to pay an arguably small fee.(0.10/0.20€)
    – bracco23
    Oct 18, 2022 at 8:54
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In the UK, the Licensing Act requires that:

“The responsible person shall ensure that free tap water is provided on request to customers where it is reasonably available.”

The obligation only applies to a premises which is licensed to sell alcohol, and it is open to a licensed premises to make a charge for the glass that the water comes in, to charge if it is filtered water or to charge for their service.

As failing to serve tap water to a customer is a breach of a licence condition, it can be punishable with up to 6 months in prison or a fine of up to £20,000, and possible cancellation of the licence.

Source: https://www.hospitalitylaw.co.uk/free-tap-water-pubs-restaurants/

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    This has even got to the point that many restaurants bring a carafe of water without being asked.
    – mdewey
    Oct 17, 2022 at 9:14
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    I wonder if one could get away by claiming, "but, I'm not a responsible person!" LOL
    – FreeMan
    Oct 19, 2022 at 14:54
  • "and it is open to a licensed premises to make a charge for the glass that the water comes in, to charge if it is filtered water or to charge for their service." Well that seems like a rather enormous loophole... "Of course you can have free water! Oh, you want it in a glass? That will be 3 GBP."
    – reirab
    Oct 19, 2022 at 22:16
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Very uncommon in Germany.

In Germany, restaurant meals tend to be cheaper than in other European countries, while drinks tend to be more expensive. Which means restaurants rely on guests' drinks for income, and they won't give out free water. I can't imagine anybody but a tourist asking for that, either.

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    And a fun fact: Restaurants/ Bars in Germany must ensure that there is at least one non alcoholic drink that is cheaper than the cheapest alcoholic drink.
    – Zibelas
    Oct 17, 2022 at 8:01
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Willeke
    Oct 19, 2022 at 4:34
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Is this a common practice elsewhere in Europe?

Yes in France, by law:

The law actually requires them to give access to free drinking water (which is tap water) on request.

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    In many places, tap water is actually served automatically, to the point that sometimes even if you order bottled water you’ll still get the “carafe” of tap water as well.
    – jcaron
    Oct 16, 2022 at 21:53
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    In some places (even in France), they may bring you (and charge you) bottled water if you only ask for "water". Because the tap water doesn't taste good or because they are greedy. If you want to remove the ambiguity, ask for a jar of water or in French Une carafe d'eau. Oct 17, 2022 at 8:37
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    @ThibaultD. in UK that would be a jug of water (if not a carafe). Oct 17, 2022 at 12:50
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    That would be the better translation in AmE too - a jar is small. Oct 17, 2022 at 13:21
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    @AzorAhai-him-: I would use pitcher or carafe in AmE, personally. Oct 17, 2022 at 14:06
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In Sweden tap water is almost universally free.

In Barcelona they would simply refuse to serve you tap water.

In Israel (technically not Europe, but close) it is required by law to serve free tap water to customers.

Finally, in 2018 the EU approved A8-0288/2018 saying among other things:

(iii) encouraging the provision of such water for free or for a low service fee, for customers in restaurants, canteens, and catering services.

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    Is your experience of Barcelona recent? There is apparently a Spanish law dating from April this year requiring tap water to be provided for free: google.com/search?q=tap+water+in+spain+april+2022 Oct 17, 2022 at 10:12
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    My experience is not recent, a few years old
    – Rsf
    Oct 17, 2022 at 11:58
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    @JamesMartin unfortunately the tap water in Barcelona still tastes disgusting. It's bearable if filtered and chilled, though. Elsewhere in Spain it's better.
    – Aaron F
    Oct 17, 2022 at 16:53
  • The reason you won't be served tap water in Barcelona is that, as Aaron pointed out, most areas of Barcelona have tap water that isn't drinkable. Most people living there buy water jugs and drink from those. However, in my 7+ years of living in Barcelona, I have never been refused a glass of free water when I've asked for one. And this was in 2002-2010, long before this law.
    – terdon
    Oct 19, 2022 at 12:32
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    @terdon that's why I add a disclaimer, but Israel is less than 300km away from Cyprus, and is part of many EU initiatives. Lebanon is even closer but I don't know about the water situation there.
    – Rsf
    Oct 20, 2022 at 6:59
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As far as I'm aware France is the only country where it is required by law to be served tapwater for free when asked.

I think in most countries it would also be acceptable to ask for tapwater if your order is substantial enough, but it might not be as commonplace everywhere as it was in Helsinki. You've got to keep in mind that it's not the cost of the water that makes it expensive for them, but the labour (the serving, the cleaning of the cup, the filling, ...) and also the seat you take in which other (paying) customers can sit.

I can speak specifically for Belgium: It's common to ask tapwater for your dog, but for personal consumption it's rather unusual. The above applies: if your order is big enough nobody will care. But if you enter a café and order a glass of Coke and a glass of tapwater, then they will probably just pour in a glass of Chaudfontaine or Spa and put it on the bill. (or just refuse it altogether) Again: it's not the cost of the water here. It's the cost of labour.

update: As vidarlo and Graham have pointed out in the comments, in some countries it might also be mandatory to offer tap water under licensing law. Apparently this is the case in the UK and Norway.

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    In parts of Norway, it's mandatory to offer free tap water as part of the on premise license. Not law, but local licensing regulation.
    – vidarlo
    Oct 17, 2022 at 8:41
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    In the UK too, it's required under licensing law. (An answer below covers it.)
    – Graham
    Oct 17, 2022 at 9:13
  • @vidarlo ,@graham: thanks. I was not aware of that. I will add it to my answer.
    – Opifex
    Oct 17, 2022 at 9:23
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Is this a common practice elsewhere in Europe?

Yes in Spain, by law -> Ley 7/2022, de 8 de abril, de residuos y suelos contaminados para una economía circular (article 18.3):

Al objeto de reducir el consumo de envases de un solo uso, las administraciones públicas fomentarán el consumo de agua potable en sus dependencias y otros espacios públicos, mediante el uso de fuentes en condiciones que garanticen la higiene y la seguridad alimentaria o el uso de envases reutilizables, entre otros, sin perjuicio de que en los centros sanitarios se permita la comercialización en envases de un solo uso

For which Google Translate provides the following translation:

In order to reduce the consumption of single-use containers, public administrations will promote the consumption of drinking water in their premises and other public spaces, through the use of sources in conditions that guarantee hygiene and food safety or the use of containers reusable, among others, without prejudice to the fact that marketing in single-use containers is allowed in health centers

From Franck Dernoncourt's answer concerning France:

The law actually requires them to give access to free drinking water (which is tap water) on request.

Even though by law you can do it and you wont have any problem (if you do you can just let them know this law), it's not an encouraged thing by restaurants, since if you ask for "water" and not tap water, they will surely bring you a bottle without double-checking.

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  • Thanks, I edited in the part of the law that seemed the most relevant by looking for mentions of drinking water. I'm not sure if there's also something in there about the water being provided for free. Most of the law seems aimed at waste reduction (e.g. reducing the use of single serving containers) rather than promoting hydration. If you know more about how some those public administrators implemented this law with respect to drinking water, I think that might be a useful addition.
    – JJJ
    Oct 17, 2022 at 13:13
  • Thanks for the edit! @JJJ
    – Erik
    Oct 17, 2022 at 15:26
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It is very varied.

In some countries it is common.
In some countries available on request, as in France forced by law or just out of tradition.
And in some countries not the norm and might be given on request but might be denied in other restaurants. The Netherlands is an example of that, when asking for water to take medication you sometimes still get a bottle of mineral water which is added to the bill.

I can not be sure there are countries were no restaurants will give you tap water.

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Hungary:

In Hungary, restaurants are required by law to provide tap water for free of charge for any customers upon request.

Ocassionally, waiters may try to trick foreign-language customers into buying bottled water instead by, for example, making vague statements that sounds like this option is not available. This can be counteracted with enough assertiveness and presenting your knowledge of your rights.

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In Spain is also "by law" now

i remember when i was young as more common practice (in cities with a good tap water like madrid...barcelona has bad taste tap water) Now is uncommon to ask for tap water jar, but you always ask for a simple glass.

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In my travels there was no free tapwater available in restaurants/cafes in UK (1997-2011), Belgium 2010, Netherlands 2019, Greece 1998, Cyprus 1998.

Buying bottled water for 2-3 £ or €, seems like a bit of a ripoff as one needs at least one bottle per adult for a meal.

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  • Well, I'm mostly concerned with restaurants and the like. When travelling I normally carry a bottle and I'm not afraid to refill it at restroom taps when I know the water is potable and unchlorinated (because of the taste). Drinking from your own water bottle is fine in some places but I feel it's frowned upon in nicer restaurants.
    – JJJ
    Oct 24, 2022 at 17:31
  • I feel your experience, while not uncommon, is not painting the whole of the picture. There is/was certainly free tap water in some restaurants in the Netherlands in 2019, and the UK in the period 1997-2011, if not in all.
    – Willeke
    Oct 24, 2022 at 17:40
  • @JJJ, drinking out of your own bottle is certainly not acceptable in any place where they sell drinks. (Although if you only need one sip to take a pill you can ask for permission or just walk out and do take that pill between the smokers.)
    – Willeke
    Oct 24, 2022 at 17:42
  • @Willeke I think it's fine in some outdoors establishments. Say in the restaurant area of a zoo or an amusement park, again depending on how fancy the restaurant is. I probably wouldn't mind drinking my own drinks in a fastfood restaurant either if I ordered something to eat.
    – JJJ
    Oct 24, 2022 at 17:43
  • It will be acceptable in the park or zoo, but not in the outdoor seating area of the restaurants (although they will often not act if you do not make a show out of it.) I have recently in some places where they placed notices to remind the folks, "do not consume your brought in food or drink'.
    – Willeke
    Oct 24, 2022 at 17:46

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