Telling Time

Telling time in French

Lire l’heure

Knowing how to tell time is essential for traveling, meeting up with friends, making appointments, and getting to work or school on time. Once you learn these formulas, you’ll never have an excuse to be late again!

French time

There are three French translations for “time,” each with a different meaning.

l’heure time as in telling time
Quelle heure est-il ? What time is it?
le temps time as in a period of time
J’ai passé du temps ici. I spent some time here.
la fois time as in instance
Je l’ai fait une fois. I did it one time.

Only heure is needed for this lesson – when telling time, it’s equivalent to “o’clock.”

Heure is required, unlike o’clock. In English, we can say “It’s almost five” or “He’ll be here at eight thirty,” but in French, you must say Il est presque cinq heures and Il arrivera à huit heures trente.
Two more important notes about heure:

  1. It’s a noun, so it’s singular with une (une heure, une heure vingt, etc) and plural with all other numbers (deux heures, quinze heures trente, etc)
  2. Its abbreviation h is used where a colon is used in English: (1h00, 1h20, 2h00, 15h30)

French numbers

The foundation of telling time is knowing the French numbers 1 through 24. Why not just 12? In French, time is usually based on the 24-hour clock, like military time. Instead of 1 to 11 a.m., followed by 12 to 11 p.m., the clock continues counting up from 12, so that 1 p.m. is 13, 2 p.m. is 14, all the way up to 24.
Midnight itself can be stated as minuit, 24h00, or 0h00, but one minute later, 24 disappears: 0h01, 0h02, etc.

While you definitely need to be able to understand the 24-hour clock, you don’t necessarily need to talk about time with it. Instead, you can use the phrases du matin to mean a.m., and then de l’après-midi from noon until around 6 p.m., followed by du soir until midnight.

Telling time

What time is it? Quelle heure est-il ?
It’s one o’clock Il est une heure 1h00
It’s two o’clock Il est deux heures 2h00
It’s 3:15 Il est trois heures et quart 3h15
It’s 4:30 Il est quatre heures et demie 4h30
It’s 4:45 Il est cinq heures moins le quart
Il est quatre heures quarante-cinq 
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
It’s 7:20 Il est sept heures vingt 7h20
It’s 8:40 Il est neuf heures moins vingt
Il est huit heures quarante
It’s 8 a.m. Il est huit heures du matin 8h00
It’s 5 p.m. Il est cinq heures de l’après-midi
Il est dix-sept heures
It’s 8 p.m. Il est huit heures du soir
Il est vingt heures
It’s noon Il est midi 12h00
It’s midnight Il est minuit 0h00

Though I’ve heard many French people speak otherwise, the official grammar rule is that the fractions et quart, et demie and moins le quart are informal and can only be used with 1 to 12. Once you’re into the 24-hour clock, you must use quinze, trente, and quarante-cinq.
Par exemple…

1:15 une heure quinze
une heure et quart
treize heures quinze
treize heures et quart
3:30 trois heures trente
trois heures et demie
quinze heures trente
quinze heures et demie
4:45 quatre heures quarante-cinq
cinq heures moins le quart
seize heures quarante-cinq
dix-sept heures moins le quart

Il est is the only correct phrase for telling time. You cannot say c’est une heure. Also, it doesn’t matter that heure is a feminine noun: il est is impersonal, so you can’t say elle est une heure either.

Practice telling time

Related lessons