Telling Time in French

A wristwatch worn by a person
Guy Sie/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Whether you're traveling to France or learning the French language, being able to tell time is important. From asking what time it is to the key vocabulary you need for speaking in French about hours, minutes, and days, this lesson will guide you through everything you need to know.

French Vocabulary for Telling Time

To begin with, there are a few key French vocabulary words related to time that you should know. These are the basics and will help you throughout the rest of this lesson.

time l'heure
noon midi
midnight minuit
and a quarter et quart
quarter to moins le quart
and a half et demie
in the morning du matin
in the afternoon de l'après-midi
in the evening du soir

The Rules for Telling Time in French

Telling time in French is just a matter of knowing the French numbers and a few formulas and rules. It's different than we use in English, so here are the basics:

  • The French word for "time," as in, "What time is it?" is l'heure, not le temps. The latter means "time" as in "I spent a lot of time there."
  • In English, we often leave out "o'clock" and it's perfectly fine to say "It's seven." or "I'm leaving at three-thirty." This is not so in French. You always have to say heure, except when saying midi (noon) and minuit (midnight).
  • In French, the hour and minute are separated by h (for heure, as in 2h00) where in English we use a colon (: as in 2:00).
  • French doesn't have words for "a.m." and "p.m." You can use du matin for a.m., de l'après-midi from noon until about 6 p.m., and du soir from 6 p.m. until midnight. However, time is usually expressed on a 24-hour clock. That means that 3 p.m. is normally expressed as quinze heures (15 hours) or 15h00, but you can also say trois heures de l'après-midi (three hours after noon).

What Time Is It? (Quelle heure est-il?)

When you ask what time it is, you will receive an answer similar to this. Keep in mind that there are a few different ways to express different times within the hour, so it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with all of these. You can even practice this throughout your day and speak the time in French whenever you look at a clock.

It's one o'clock Il est une heure 1h00
It's two o'clock Il est deux heures 2h00
It's 3:30 Il est trois heures et demie
Il est trois heures trente
3h30
It's 4:15 Il est quatre heures et quart
Il est quatre heures quinze
4h15
It's 4:45 Il est cinq heures moins le quart
Il est cinq heures moins quinze
Il est quatre heures quarante-cinq
4h45
It's 5:10 Il est cinq heures dix 5h10
It's 6:50 Il est sept heures moins dix
Il est six heures cinquante
6h50
It's 7 a.m. Il est sept heures du matin 7h00
It's 3 p.m. Il est trois heures de l'après-midi
Il est quinze heures
15h00
It's noon Il est midi 12h00
It's midnight Il est minuit 0h00

Asking the Time in French

Conversations regarding what time it is will use questions and answers similar to these. If you're traveling in a French-speaking country, you'll find these very useful as you try to maintain your itinerary.

What time is it? Quelle heure est-il ?
Do you have the time, please? Est-ce que vous avez l'heure, s'il vous plaît ?
What time is the concert?
The concert is at eight o'clock in the evening.
À quelle heure est le concert ?
Le concert est à huit heures du soir.

Periods of Time in French

Now that we have the basics of telling time covered, expand your French vocabulary by studying the words for periods of time. From seconds to millennium, this shortlist of words covers the entire expanse of time.  

a second une seconde
a minute une minute
an hour une heure
a day / a whole day un jour, une journée
a week une semaine
a month un mois
a year / a whole year un an, une année
a decade une décennie
a century un siècle
a millennium un millénaire

Points in Time in French

Each day has various points in time that you might need to describe in French. For instance, you might want to talk about a beautiful sunset or let someone know what you're doing at night. Commit these words to memory and you'll have no problem doing just that.

sunrise le lever de soleil
dawn l'aube (f)
morning le matin
afternoon l'après-midi
noon midi
evening le soir
dusk le crépuscule, entre chien et loup
sunset le coucher de soleil
night la nuit
midnight le minuit

Temporal Prepositions

As you begin to formulate sentences with your new French time vocabulary, you will find it useful to know these temporal prepositions. These short words are used to further define when something is taking place.

since depuis
during pendant
at à
in en
in dans
for pour

Relative Time in French

Time is relative to other points in time. For instance, there is always a yesterday which is followed by today and tomorrow, so you'll find this vocabulary a great addition to your ability to explain relationships in time. 

yesterday hier
today aujourd'hui
now maintenant
tomorrow demain
the day before yesterday avant-hier
the day after tomorrow l'après-demain
the day before, the eve of la veille de
the day after, the next day le lendemain
last week la semaine passée/dernière
the final week la dernière semaine (Notice how dernier is in a different position in "last week" and "the final week." That subtle change has a significant impact on the meaning.)
next week la semaine prochaine
days of the week les jours de la semaine
months of the year les mois de l'année
the calendar le​ calendrier
the four seasons les quatre saisons
winter came early / late
spring came early / late
summer came early / late
autumn came early / late
l'hiver fut précoce / tardif
le printemps fut précoce / tardif
l'ete fut précoce / tardif
l'automne fut précoce / tardif
last winter
last spring
last summer
last autumn
l'hiver dernier
le printemps dernier
l'ete dernier
l'automne dernier
next winter
next spring
next summer
next autumn
l'hiver prochain
le printemps prochain
l'ete prochain
l'automne prochain
a little while ago, in a little while tout à l'heure
right away tout de suite
within a week d'ici une semaine
for, since depuis
ago (depuis versus il y a) il y a
on time à l'heure
in time à temps
at that time à l'époque
early en avance
late en retard

Temporal Adverbs

As you become even more fluent in French, consider adding a few temporal adverbs to your vocabulary. Once again, they can be used to further define when something is taking place.

currently actuellement
then alors
after après
today aujourd'hui
previously, beforehand auparavant
before avant
soon bientôt
meanwhile cependant
afterwards, meanwhile ensuite
for a long time longtemps
now maintenant
anytime n'importe quand
then puis
recently récemment
late tard
all of a sudden, suddenly tout à coup
in a little while, a little while ago tout à l'heure

Frequency in French

There will also be times when you need to speak about the frequency of an event. Whether it only happens once or reoccurs on a weekly or monthly basis, this short vocabulary list will help you achieve that.

once une fois
once a week une fois par semaine
daily quotidien
every day tous les jours
every other day tous les deux jours
weekly hebdomadaire
every week toutes les semaines
monthly mensuel
yearly annuel

Adverbs of Frequency

Adverbs that relate to frequency are just as important and you'll find yourself using this quite often as your French studies progress.

again encore
one more time encore une fois
never, ever jamais
sometimes parfois
sometimes quelquefois
rarely rarement
often souvent
always toujours

Time Itself: Le Temps

Le temps refers broadly either to the weather or a duration of time, indeterminate or specific. Because it is such a basic concept that surrounds us every day, many French idiomatic expressions have evolved using temps. Here are a few common ones that you might need to know.

a little while ago il y a peu de temps
in a little while dans un moment, dans quelque temps
at the same time en même temps
at the same time as au même temps que
cooking / preparation time temps de cuisson / préparation cuisine
a part-time job un temps partiel
a full-time job un temps plein ou plein temps
to work part-time être ou travailler à temps partiel
to work full-time être ou travailler à plein temps ou à temps plein
to work full-time travailler à temps complet
to work 30 hours per week faire un trois quarts (de) temps
time to think le temps de la réflexion
to reduce working hours diminuer le temps de travail
to have some spare time / free time avoir du temps libre
in one's spare time, in a spare moment à temps perdu
in times past, in the old days au temps jadis
with the passing of time avec le temps
all the time, always tout le temps
in music, a strong beat / figuratively, a high point or a highlight temps fort
in sports, a time-out / figuratively, a lull or a slack period temps mort