The following facts apply to French Polynesia in general.
American Express -- The American Express representative is Tahiti Tours, on rue Jeanne-d'Arc (tel. 54.02.50; fax 42.25.15), across from the Centre Vaima in downtown Papeete. The mailing address is B.P. 627, 98713 Papeete, Tahiti, French Polynesia.
Area Codes -- French Polynesia does not have domestic area codes. The country code for calling into French Polynesia is 689.
Business Hours -- Although many shops in downtown Papeete stay open over the lunch period, general shopping and business hours are from 7:30 to 11:30am and from 2 to 5pm Monday to Friday, 8am to noon on Saturday. In addition to regular hours, most grocery stores also are open from 2 to 6pm on Saturday and from 6 to 8am on Sunday.
Camera & Film -- Photographic film and color-print processing are widely available. Digital camera batteries are available in Papeete.
Clothing -- Evening attire for men is usually a shirt and slacks; women typically wear a long, brightly colored dress (slacks or long skirts help to keep biting sand flies away from your ankles). Women sunbathe topless at most beaches (although I saw more exposed bums than breasts during my recent visit). Shorts are acceptable during the day almost everywhere. Outside Papeete, the standard attire for women is the colorful wraparound sarong known in Tahitian as a pareu, which can be tied in a multitude of ways into dresses, blouses, or skirts.
Customs -- Customs allowances are 200 cigarettes or 100 cigarillos or 50 cigars; 2 liters of liquor, champagne, or wine; 50 grams of perfume, .25 liter of eau de toilette; 500 grams of coffee and 100 grams of tea; and 30,000CFP (US$375/£190) worth of other goods. Narcotics, dangerous drugs, weapons, ammunition, and copyright infringements (that is, pirated videotapes and audiotapes) are prohibited. Pets and plants are subject to stringent regulations (don't even think of bringing your pet).
Drinking Laws -- The legal drinking age is 21. Most grocery stores sell beer, spirits, and French wines. Hinano beer is brewed locally and is less expensive than imported brands, which are taxed heavily. I bring a bottle of duty-free liquor with me.
Drug Laws -- Plenty of pot may be grown up in the hills, but possession and use of dangerous drugs and narcotics are subject to long jail terms.
Drugstores -- The main towns have reasonably well-stocked pharmacies, or chemists. Their medicines are likely to be from France.
Electricity -- Electrical power is 220 volts, 50 cycles, and the plugs are the French kind with two round, skinny prongs. Most hotels have 110-volt outlets for shavers only, so you will need a converter and adapter plugs for other appliances. Some hotels, especially those on the outer islands, have their own generators, so ask at the reception desk what voltage is supplied.
Embassies & Consulates -- The United States has a consular agent on Tahiti in Centre Tamanu Iti in Pauaauia (tel. 42.65.35; fax 50.80.96; firstname.lastname@example.org), whose main function is to facilitate local residents in applying for visas from the U.S. embassy in Suva, Fiji. Australia, Austria, Belgium, Chile, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, Monaco, New Zealand, Norway, the Netherlands, South Korea, Sweden, and the United Kingdom have honorary consulates in Papeete. Tahiti Tourisme has their phone numbers.
Emergencies -- If you are in a hotel, contact the staff. Otherwise, the emergency police phone number is tel. 17 throughout the territory.
Etiquette & Customs -- Even though many women go topless and wear the skimpiest of bikini bottoms at the beach, the Tahitians have a sense of propriety similar to what you find in any Western nation. Don't offend them by engaging in behavior that would not be permissible at home.
Firearms -- French Polynesians can own shotguns for hunting, but handguns are illegal.
Gambling -- There are no casinos in French Polynesia, but you can play "Lotto," the French national lottery.
Healthcare -- Highly qualified specialists practice on Tahiti, where some clinics possess state-of-the-art diagnostic and treatment equipment; nevertheless, public hospitals tend to be crowded with local residents, who get free care. Most visitors use private doctors or clinics. English-speaking physicians are on call by larger hotels. Each of the smaller islands has at least one infirmary. American health insurance plans are not recognized, so remember to get receipts at the time of treatment.
Hitchhiking -- Hitchhiking is possible in the rural parts of Tahiti and on the outer islands, but women traveling alone should be extremely cautious.
Insects -- There are no dangerous insects in French Polynesia. The only real nuisances are mosquitoes and tiny, nearly invisible sand flies known locally as no-nos, elsewhere as no-seeums. They appear at dusk on most beaches here. Wear trousers or long skirts and plenty of insect repellent (especially on the feet and ankles) to ward off the no-nos. If you forget to bring insect repellent along, look for the Off or Dolmix Pic brands at the pharmacies.
Language -- French is the official language. Most residents also speak Tahitian, and English is widely spoken among hotel and restaurant staffers.
Liquor Laws -- Regulations about where and when you can drink are liberal. Anyone who is age 21 or over can purchase alcoholic beverages at bars and grocery stores, which sell wine, beer, and spirits. Official conventionné restaurants and hotels pay reduced duty on imported alcoholic beverages, which will cost less there than at local bars and nightclubs.
Lost & Found -- Be sure to tell all of your credit card companies the minute you discover your wallet has been lost or stolen and file a report at the nearest police precinct. Your credit card company or insurer may require a police report number or record of the loss. Most credit card companies have an emergency toll-free number to call if your card is lost or stolen; they may be able to wire you a cash advance immediately or deliver an emergency credit card in a day or two.
Measurements -- French Polynesia is on the metric system. Metric measurements in this guide are listed first, followed by non-metric conversions in parentheses. Conversions for metric to non-metric, and vice versa, are available online at www.onlineconversion.com.
Mail -- All the main towns and many Papeete suburbs have post offices. Letters usually take about a week to 10 days to reach overseas destinations in either direction. Mailing addresses in French Polynesia consist of post office boxes (boîtes postales in French, or B.P. for short) but no street numbers or names. Local addresses have postal codes, which are written in front of the city or town. (If you send a letter to French Polynesia from the U.S., do not put the postal code behind the name of the town; otherwise the U.S. Postal Service may dispatch it to a zip code within the United States.)
Newspapers & Magazines -- The Tahiti Beach Press, an English-language weekly devoted to news of Tahiti's tourist industry, runs features of interest to tourists and advertisements for hotels, restaurants, real estate agents, car-rental firms, and other businesses that cater to tourists. Establishments that buy ads in it give away copies free. The daily newspapers, La Dépêche de Tahiti and Les Nouvelles, are in French. Le Kiosk in front of the Vaima Centre on boulevard Pomare in Papeete sells some international newspapers and magazines.
Police -- The emergency police phone number is tel. 17 throughout French Polynesia. The territory has two types of police: French gendarmes and local commune police. Both enforce traffic laws.
Radio & TV -- French Polynesia has government-operated AM radio stations with programming in French and Tahitian. Several private AM and FM stations in Papeete play mostly American and British musical numbers in English; the announcers, however, speak French. Two government-owned television stations broadcast in French. Most hotels pick up a local satellite service, which carries CNN International in English. The government-owned radio and TV stations can be received throughout the territory via satellite. Moorea has an American-style cable system with CNN International and HBO, both in English.
Safety -- Do not leave valuables in your hotel room or unattended anywhere. Street crimes against tourists are rare, and you should be safe after dark in the busy parks along boulevard Pomare on Papeete's waterfront. Friends of mine who live here, however, don't stroll away from the boulevard after dark. For that matter, stay alert everywhere after dusk. Women should not wander alone on deserted beaches any time, since some Polynesian men may still consider such behavior to be an invitation for instant amorous activity.
Smoking -- Although antismoking campaigns and hefty tobacco taxes have reduced the practice to a large extent, cigarette smoking is still more common in French Polynesia than in Western countries. Most office buildings and the airlines are smoke-free, and you will find nonsmoking sections in some restaurants (the French law against smoking in bars and restaurants had not taken effect here as I write). Not all hotels have nonsmoking rooms, so be sure to ask for one.
Taxes -- Local residents do not pay income taxes; instead, the government imposes stiff duties on most imported goods, and a value-added tax (VAT, or TVA in French) is included in the price of most goods and services. Only the TVA on set pearls is refundable in the European fashion. Another 12% tax will be tacked onto your hotel bills (including restaurant and bar expenses) and another 50CFP to 200CFP (US65¢-$2.50/30p-£1.25) per night for the Tahiti, Moorea, and Bora Bora communities.
Time -- Local time in the most-visited islands is 11 hours behind Greenwich Mean Time. That is 5 hours behind U.S. Eastern Standard Time or 2 hours behind Pacific Standard Time. Add 1 hour to the Tahiti time during daylight saving time in the U.S.
The Marquesas Islands are 30 minutes ahead of the rest of the territory.
Since French Polynesia is on the east side of the international date line, Tahiti has the same date as the United States, the U.K., and Europe, and is 1 day behind Australia and New Zealand.
Tipping -- Although tipping is considered contrary to the Polynesian custom of hospitality, it's a widespread practice here, especially in Papeete's restaurants (credit card forms now have a "tip" line here). Nevertheless, tipping is not expected unless the service has been beyond the call of duty. Some hotels accept contributions to the staff Christmas fund.
Useful Phone Numbers -- Air France tel. 47.47.47
Air Moorea tel. 86.41.41
Air New Zealand tel. 54.07.47
Air Tahiti tel. 86.42.42
Air Tahiti Nui tel. 46.03.03
Airport flight information tel. 86.60.60
Arimiti Ferry tel. 50.57.57 in Papeete, 56.31.10 on Moorea.
Hawaiian Airlines tel. 42.15.00
Lan Airlines tel. 50.30.10
Moorea Express Ferry tel. 45.00.30 in Papeete, 56.43.43 on Moorea.
Tahiti Tourisme tel. 50.57.12
U.S. Centers for Disease Control International Traveler's Hotline: tel. 404/332-4559
U.S. Dept. of State Travel Advisory tel. 202/647-5225 (staffed 24 hr.)
U.S. Passport Agency tel. 202/647-0518
Water -- Tap water is consistently safe to drink only in Papeete and on Bora Bora. Well water in the Tuamotu islands tends to be brackish; rainwater is used there for drinking. You can buy bottled water at every grocery store. The local brands Vaimato and Eau Royal are much less expensive than imported French waters.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.