Debs | Edited by Steve N
Updated 3 Jan 2017
We've always said there's no shame in asking for a glass of tap water when out for a meal to keep the bill down. But while that's absolutely right, the rules are a bit more confusing than people think - not all establishments HAVE to give it to you for free.
So to avoid finding yourself up the creek without a paddle, read our tap water Q&A explaining what your rights are and what to do if they're breached.
Questions in this guide...
Not necessarily. It's a common misconception that you're automatically entitled to free drinking water - but actually only licensed establishments (those that serve alcohol) in England, Wales and Scotland must provide it.
According to the Licensing Act 2003 (Mandatory Licensing Conditions) Order 2010, which came into force in April 2010 and was updated in 2014, all restaurants in England and Wales that serve alcohol are legally required to give customers free tap water (the legislation for Scotland is the same, but it's a different act). Those that don't are under no obligation to do so.
In practice, of course, most restaurants do serve alcohol so you'll usually be able to get free tap water - but it's not guaranteed. Also, bear in mind these rules apply to paying customers, so the chances are you could be refused if you don't buy something.
In Northern Ireland, there's no equivalent provision. Restaurant owners don't have to provide anything free, though tap water is conventionally free in many restaurants.
It's also worth noting that to avoid possible infringement of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations (which applies to all of the UK), restaurants which do charge for tap water should tell customers in advance.
Rinse and repeat the answer to the question above - though here it's much more likely pubs and clubs will serve alcohol, which is the trigger for having to give you free water (in order to help combat the effects of binge drinking).
Licensed cafes are rarer, so check before expecting free water to go with your latte.
Can they charge for service/use of a glass instead?
Unfortunately, it's a bit of a grey area as to whether they can charge for service or filtering - there's nothing in the legislation which says definitively one way or the other if they can, but we've heard in the past of some sneaky restaurants that do.
The Consumer Council for Water, however, believes that free tap water means customers should not be charged anything at all. It says it's very rare to hear of a restaurant trying to charge, but if it does happen a customer should refuse to pay any specific charge for a glass of bog-standard tap water.
Have you been refused free tap water recently? Tell us about it in the Tap water refusal thread.
Can restaurants charge for filtered tap water?
As there's no requirement that free tap water be filtered, restaurants can charge for filtered drinking water. However, as above, if they serve alcohol, they have to provide FREE drinking water, whether that's filtered or unfiltered.
What if they wrongly refuse free tap water?
Chances are, your waiter/waitress might not be clued up on Paragraph 2 of the Licensing Act 2003 (Mandatory Licensing Conditions) (Amendment) Order 2014, but the manager should be. So, if you're refused free tap water, ask to speak to them. If the manager refuses, you can contact the licensing department at your local authority (check the 'contact us' section of its website), which should then investigate.
The maximum penalties for breaching a licence condition in England and Wales are six months in prison and/or a fine of up to £20,000, but it's more likely to prompt a review by the licensing authority, which could result in revocation of the licence to sell alcohol.
The penalties for non-compliance in Scotland aren't quite as strict. The establishment's licence can be either revoked, suspended, or varied following a breach.
It's up to the owners of individual establishments to decide, but generally restaurants, bars and cafes operate a "no outside food or beverage" policy, regardless of whether you're buying alcohol. Having said that, it's unlikely staff would tell you off for taking a quick swig of water from your own bottle if bottled water isn't available to buy.
Try this cool website dedicated to tap water - Tapwater.org - which has a handy tool that allows you to find places that provide free tap water. "Refilling stations" can be found in pubs, cafes, cycle shops - even bakeries. Just type your location into the search bar. Thanks to forumite Katiehound for this.
Also, just because unlicensed restaurants and cafes don't legally have to give you free drinking water, that doesn't mean you shouldn't ask for it. The worst they can say is "no".
Is tap water safe to drink on holiday?
This depends on the country you're travelling to. Many serious illnesses are caused by contaminated water, so it's essential you check the purity of the water in your destination before drinking it. Travel guides should have a section on this.
Generally, European countries will have similar water purity to the UK - however, the culture is often completely different. In Germany, for example, restaurants can charge whatever they like for tap water. The German paper Focus even published a "do's and don'ts" warning tourists never to ask for tap water, as it feels that's akin to asking for free food in a restaurant!
For general advice on how to stay happy and healthy abroad, check out our 50+ Overseas Travel Tips or the NHS Choices website. For more in-depth information on the various health risks in each country, including an important warning about fake bottled water (always check seals are intact), see the National Travel Health Network & Centre (NATHNAC).
More questions? Please share your stories and suggest any other questions you'd like answered in the Tap Water Rights forum thread.
Of course, some may argue there's a difference in taste - and that's really down to personal choice. But when it comes to cost, tap water compared to bottled water does really rather well...
100 litres of tap water cost less than one litre of bottled water. We've crunched the numbers and if you poured 100 litres of tap water in Manchester in one day it'd cost you just under 18p for the lot, yet if you bought the same amount of Evian it'd be just over £40.
Tap water is more environmentally friendly. The University of Nottingham's Environmental Technology Centre found making one one-litre bottle releases around 100g of carbon dioxide. However, the plastic then takes around 450 years to decompose if not recycled. So, refilling bottles or drinking tap water instead has a positive effect on the environment.
Tap water meets health regulations. Bottled water's often cited as being purer. However, the principal inspector from the Drinking Water Inspectorate told us:
Both tap water and bottled water are required to meet specific regulations which are in place to ensure both are safe to drink.
Leading scientist Paul Younger, a professor at the University of Glasgow who's studied water resourcing, says:
There is no reason to suppose that UK tap water is any less safe than bottled water; both must meet exacting standards, and in fact these are more rigidly enforced for tap water than for bottled water. So there is no health reason to pay for bottled water when you can have far cheaper tap water.