Electricity Abroad: Adapters and Voltage Converters Demystified

Posted by Susan MacCallum-Whitcomb on March 22, 2010 at 12:09:07 PM EDT | Post a Comment

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Not long ago I was vacationing overseas with a friend when, in preparation for a big night out, she flicked on her curling iron... promptly frying the appliance and her hair in the process. It wasn't a pretty sight, although I couldn't actually see that until the lights (which had been knocked out in the entire hotel) came back on.

Attempting to use any electrical device with an incompatible foreign system can lead to a similarly hair-raising situation. Here's what you need to know to power up properly.

Determine the right plug shape for your trip

If you are vacationing across the Atlantic or Pacific, the first thing you'll likely notice is that plugging your appliance in is impossible because it simply won't fit into the socket. The reason is that the two-parallel-prong plug which is standard issue in North America (plus swaths of Central and South America) is seldom used anywhere else. The receptacle designed to receive it might have room for three round prongs or perhaps three fat flat ones that jut off at odd angles. Indeed there are endless configurations of plugs across the world. The good news is that an adapter (basically a connector that you piggyback your own plug into before inserting both in the outlet) offers a quick, affordable solution to the dilemma. You can find a useful comparison chart of adapters at electricaloutlet.org.

Determine the standard voltage for your trip

Just because your plug fits doesn't mean your appliance can handle the type of power now coursing through its cord. You see, in addition to differences in plug shapes, there are differences in voltage. Whereas our electrical system is based on 110 volts, 220 volts is the norm abroad. (FYI, the frequency is different too: the cycle being 60Hz here and 50Hz most other places). This means you'll also need a converter to temper the excess power if you want to keep your appliance from burning out. There are basically two types: one for "hot stuff" (think hairdryers or irons) that draw up to 2000 watts, and a second transformer-style one for non-heating gizmos (such as electric razors or battery rechargers) that draw up to 40 or 50 watts.

Get rid of excess gadgets

One way to reduce the amount of hassle from gadgets and electricity is to simply leave unessential appliances home. Nobody really needs an electric toothbrush; moreover, hairdryers and, to a lesser extent, irons, are already widely available in hotels. Another option is to go for battery-operated models or plug-ins with dual-voltage capacity. Regarding the latter, you might already unwittingly own devices that run on either 110 or 220 volts. An increasing number do, among them small appliances with a manual switch and newer-model laptops that convert automatically (the computer power cord should have a label saying "Input 100V-240V / 50Hz or 60Hz"). In that case, a plug adapter alone suffices.

Buy your adaptors and converters at home

Buying adapters and converters once you're on the road is a pricey proposition. So load up before departing in a specialty store or department store luggage section. Prefer shopping online? Magellan's and International Electrical Supplies both boast an impressive array of products plus they have easy-to-decipher charts, complete with pictures, that explain precisely what is needed where. The best choice for travelers visiting multiple countries is a compact kit with assorted adapters and a two-in-one converter. If you're toting a computer (even one that doesn't require a converter) it's wise to purchase a surge protector specifically designed for higher voltages as well—particularly if your destination has an unreliable electrical supply.

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Member Comments (5)  Post a Comment

  • arfinfall on Apr 18, 10 at 01:37 PM

    I agree with chicagogrl33. Just back from 2 weeks in London and Oxford for a combination business/vacation trip. Did I need a curling iron? YES! English weather created nothing but bad hair days for me...and I did have to look decent for 1/2 of my days there. My hotel in London had a hairdryer and clothing iron. The college dorm I stayed in for the business part of the meeting didn't. The great advice I was given was to buy those appliances there. I got mine at a Boothe's drugstore in London. The curling iron was right at 10 pounds ($15) and much cheaper than buying an adapter and converter which I would have done to use my US appliances.

  • chicagogrl33 on Mar 23, 10 at 02:05 PM

    I've purchased a curling iron and flat iron while traveling overseas as it became a hassle of bringing my own, from the USA. It's much easier and really the only country, so far, I had to use the adapter for, was in the UK.

  • spaarne on Mar 23, 10 at 10:25 AM

    This is a good introduction to the subject of foreign electricity. See more details on my site at

    I disagree with saacnmama on buying a replacement cord over there. Plug adapters are easy to find in the USA, either at a local store or on the internet. Overseas it is rare to find anything with which to adapt your plug to their outlet, and expensive when you do find it.

  • saacnmama on Mar 23, 10 at 09:29 AM

    The important point that plugs and energy are two different things is well- made here, and it is correct that cell phones, laptops, etc can use various power sources if they have the right plug. I disagree that it's best to stock up before you go. If your device is sold in your destination you should be able to get areplacement cord there for much less expense or hassle

  • Dukey on Mar 23, 10 at 09:29 AM

    Nobody NEEDS a curling iron either I suppose by why not have one? Good article but IMO the best bet is to NOT have ANY converters at all and rather take either dual voltage models or battery-operated ones but just my opinion.