Do restaurants have to provide free drinking water?

Free tap water in restaurants is something that most of us expect. Even cafes often provide a carafe of water, or a jug of water and some glasses for customers to help themselves. But we are not automatically entitled to free tap water wherever we go.


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The vital factor

Obviously many cafes and restaurants are happy to provide free tap water for their valued clientele. However, it is not mandatory to do this unless the business also serves alcohol. So free water should always be available in a pub, but a small cafe without a liquor licence is just looking after its clientele.

Although most restaurants happily supply free tap water, it is not always a done deal. Drinking plenty of water is good for health, especially in summer when it is easy to get dehydrated. Refilling water bottles is also good for the environment, although many British consumers are embarrassed to seek out refills, according to this report for The Guardian.


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Your fluid rights

According to legislation introduced by the government, all cafes and restaurants in Scotland, England and Wales that sell alcohol must provide free drinking water for their customers. If a cafe or restaurant does not serve alcohol, then it does not have to provide tap water. If a licensed restaurant tries to charge you for tap water then you are entitled to refuse to pay. However, the water served does not have to be filtered or treated in any way, so if the restaurant or cafe does this, then theoretically they could charge for filtered water.
A licensed premises cannot refuse to give you drinking water. Even if they complain, it’s not complicated. At most, there may be some glasses to wash, but there are commercial warewashers to deal with those. If you need commercial warewashers for your business, it would be a good idea to consult experts in the field such as who can offer guidance and advice on the many options available.

If you are refused water in a licensed premises, you can report the business to the local authority. Breaching licensing regulations can mean a fine of up to £20,000, licence cancellation and even a prison sentence, so any sensible person would not risk that over a glass of water.