Many French people take their holidays in August. Therefore, outside the tourist areas, many small shops (butchers, bakeries…) will be closed for part of August. This applies to many businesses as well as doctors. In tourist areas, shops are naturally more likely to be open when tourists come, especially in July and August. On the other hand, many attractions will be terribly crowded during these months and during the Easter weekend.
Some attractions, especially in rural areas, are closed or have reduced opening hours outside the tourist season.
Mountain areas usually have two tourist seasons: in winter for skiing, snowshoeing and other snow-related activities, and in summer for sightseeing and hiking.
France uses the euro. It is one of the many European countries that use this common currency. All euro banknotes and coins are legal tender in all countries.
One euro is divided into 100 cents.
The official symbol of the euro is € and its ISO code is EUR. There is no official symbol for the cent.
- Banknotes: The euro banknotes have the same design in all countries.
- Standard coins: All euro area countries issue coins that have a distinctive national design on one side and a common standard design on the other. The coins can be used in any euro area country, regardless of the design used (e.g. a one-euro coin from Finland can be used in Portugal).
- Commemorative €2 coins: These differ from normal €2 coins only in their “national” side and circulate freely as legal tender. Each country can produce a certain amount of these coins as part of its normal coin production, and sometimes “European” 2-euro coins are produced to commemorate specific events (e.g. anniversaries of important treaties).
- Other commemorative coins: Commemorative coins with other amounts (e.g. ten euros or more) are much rarer, have very special designs and often contain significant amounts of gold, silver or platinum. Although they are technically legal tender at face value, their material or collector’s value is usually much higher and therefore you are unlikely to find them in circulation.
Some foreign currencies such as the US dollar and the pound sterling are sometimes accepted, especially in tourist areas and upmarket establishments, but these should not be relied upon and the cashier may apply an unfavourable exchange rate. Shops generally refuse transactions in foreign currencies.
The vast majority of businesses are obliged to display prices in their shop windows. Hotels and restaurants must display their prices visibly from the outside (note, however, that many hotels offer lower prices than those displayed if they believe they will have difficulty filling their rooms; the displayed price is only a maximum).
Almost all shops, restaurants and hotels accept the French CB debit card and its foreign sister companies Visa and MasterCard. The American Express card is usually only accepted in upscale shops. Check with your bank for applicable fees (banks usually apply the interbank wholesale exchange rate, which is the best available rate, but may also charge proportional and/or fixed fees).
French CB cards (and CB/Visa and CB/MasterCard cards) are equipped with a “chip” that allows transactions to be authenticated by PIN code. This system, initiated in France, has now become an international standard and the newer UK cards are compatible. Some ATMs (e.g. those selling banknotes) may only be compatible with cards equipped with the microchip. In addition, cashiers who are not used to foreign cards may not be aware that foreign Visa or MasterCard cards need to be swiped and a signature obtained, while French customers routinely use the PIN code and do not sign transactions.
In France, it is (practically) impossible to get a cash advance with a credit card without a PIN code.
ATMs are by far the best way to get money in France. They accept all CB, Visa, MasterCard, Cirrus and Plus cards and are numerous throughout France. They may also accept other types of cards; check the logos on the ATM and on your card (usually on the back) to see if at least one of them matches. Some ATMs may not be able to process 6-digit PIN codes (only 4-digit), or they may not offer a choice between different accounts (by default on the current account). Check with your bank for applicable fees, which can vary significantly (banks usually apply the interbank exchange rate, which is the best available rate, but may charge proportional and/or fixed fees; due to fixed fees, it is usually better to withdraw money in large amounts than €20 at a time). Also find out about the applicable maximum withdrawal limits.
Using travellers’ cheques is difficult: most traders don’t accept them, and to exchange them you have to find a bank that accepts them and possibly pay a fee.
Note that the post office acts as a bank and that post offices often have an ATM. Therefore, even in small towns there are ATMs that can be used with foreign cards.
Exchange offices have become rarer with the introduction of the euro – you usually only find them in cities with a high proportion of foreign tourists, such as Paris. Some banks exchange money, often with high fees. The Banque de France no longer exchanges money.
Put money in your current account, get a cash withdrawal card with a Cirrus or Plus logo and a 4-digit code that does not start with “0” and withdraw money from ATMs. Pay for larger transactions (hotels, restaurants…) with a Visa or MasterCard. Always carry cash with you for emergencies.
Do not carry foreign currency ($, £…) or travellers’ cheques and do not exchange them or expect shops to accept them while travelling.
Tips are not expected in France as service charges are included in the bill. However, French people usually leave the change they have left after paying the bill or one to five euros if they were satisfied with the quality of the service.
In towns and city centres you will always find small shops, grocery chains (casino) and occasionally department stores and small shopping centres. In residential areas you will often find small supermarkets (e.g. Carrefour Market or Intermarché). Large supermarkets (hypermarkets such as Auchan, Carrefour, E.Leclerc, Géant Casino) are usually located on the outskirts of the city and are probably not useful if you do not have access to a car.
Prices are inclusive of all taxes (i.e. VAT). For non-EU citizens, it is possible to get a partial refund from certain shops that have a “tax-free shopping” sticker; ask there. VAT is 20% on most things, but 10% on some things like books, restaurant food and public transport, and 5.5% on food bought in grocery shops (except sweets!). Alcoholic drinks are always taxed at 20%, regardless of where they are bought.