Tap water rights
Should restaurants provide free water if you ask?
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, so we've got a tap water Q&A.
Questions in this guide
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All restaurants in England and Wales that serve alcohol are legally required to give customers free tap water according to the Licensing Act 2003 (Mandatory Licensing Conditions) Order 2010, which came into force in April 2010 and was updated in 2014. Those that don't are under no obligation to do so. The legislation for Scotland is the same, but it's a different act.
In practice most restaurants serve alcohol, so you'll usually be able to get it for free – but it's not guaranteed. Also, bear in mind the rules apply to paying customers, so you could be refused if you don't buy something. That said, thousands of cafés and restaurants across the UK now allow you to refill a water bottle for free.
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.
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).
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 rights thread.
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.
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 - Refill - which has a handy app that allows you to find places that provide free tap water. "Refilling stations" can be found in places such as pubs and cafes.
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 "dos 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 60+ 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).
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 costs less than one litre of bottled water. When we crunched the numbers, we found pouring 100 litres of tap water in Manchester in one day would 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 House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee found that sending plastic bottles to landfill or incinerating them produces approximately 233,000 tonnes of CO2e emissions a year.
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.
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