One of the down sides of being a techie traveler is figuring out how to plug everything in. Advances in multi-voltage gadgetry have made it much easier to travel with your electronics, but there’s still some difference between electrical systems around the world. At the very least, you’re probably going to need a plug adapter.

Why Is It Such a Mess, Anyway?
Many countries Including India use 220 or 240 volts and 50Hz, which was promoted by German firms after World War II. North America tends to use 110 or 120 volt lines with electricity running at 60Hz, which was promoted by Tesla, Westinghouse, and eventually General Electric in the U.S. The former is more efficient to transmit electricity at a higher voltage, but not enough more that it’s worth retrofitting millions of existing appliances that use the latter voltage.

Much of Europe’s electrical infrastructure was destroyed in World War II. Europe as a whole used the German standard as part of the overall European economic unification and rebuilding projects in the 1950s. Because Japan bought generators after World War II from the U.S. and Germany, it has the unusual situation of hosting 50Hz and 60Hz current in the same country. Gizmodo has a more in-depth explainer from 2009, which is fine, because we’re talking about ancient history.

Ultimately, the answer is inertia. There’s no global standard, all the existing choices are good enough, and they’re expensive to change unless your infrastructure has just been destroyed by a major war.

Fortunately, most gadgets don’t mind anymore.

Electrical adaptor

Voltage and its Discontents
Almost all electronics sold in the past five years can run on 100-240 volts and 50-60 hertz. (You can look at your power adapter, like on the one above, to double check.) That means wherever you go, you probably only need to use plug adapters.

There’s one notable exception: hair things. Hair dryers and hair straighteners/flat irons can sometimes be single voltage for a few reasons: they count on the voltage to generate heat, and high-end flat irons are expensive enough that people don’t replace them often.

In those cases, you could use a transformer to change the local voltage into the one your appliance expects, but I advise: don’t. There are a lot of voltage transformers out there. None of them get particularly good reviews. They’re all loud and heavy. It’s by far a better idea to either pick up a dual-voltage travel flat iron and hair dryer before you leave, or simply to get one at a department store at your destination.

If you’re staying in a hotel, you can also check the outlet near the light switch in the bathroom. Many international hotels provide a single 110-120v outlet (often marked “Electric Shaver”) in the bathroom, which is appropriate for any of your U.S. hair devices.

Euro plug adaptor

Plug It In, Plug It In
There are about 15 different kinds of outlets around the world, but there are only five you need to know about:

  • Two prong U.S./Canadian plugs (type A)
  • Two prong Europlugs (type C/D/E/F/H/J/K/L/N/O)
  • Three prong U.K. plugs (Type G) Australian plugs (Type I)
  • South African plugs (Type M)

The unique plugs used in many countries mostly differ in their third, grounding prong. Yes, it’s safer to use grounded plugs, especially with larger home appliances, but short-term travelers with light-duty electronics can skip the third pin in a pinch.

For gadget-heavy travelers, the best bet is to carry a few plug adapters and then a power strip to stack all of your gadgets against in the evening.

There’s some drama around universal power strips. Certification authorities and organizations like the U.K. watchdog PlugSafe hate them for various reasons, and they’re right. They’re less safe than single-country strips. You can accidentally plug a 120v-only appliance into a 240v outlet (possibly setting it on fire), you could potentially stick paper clips into the extra holes, and such. But used intelligently by traveling professionals who check the voltage on their gadgets first, they’re perfectly safe.

Otherwise, plug adapters are cheap.


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