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Are Gas Station Phone Chargers Worth Buying?

A braided usb-c charging cable.
yarrbush / Shutterstock.com
Ultra-cheap power adapters and charging cables aren't worth the money. They break too quickly, charge too slowly, and may damage your phone.

Nobody wants to spend $20 on a phone charger. But manufacturers are constantly upgrading to new charging standards, and some brands no longer include power bricks or cables with their phones. To get around this problem, you might be tempted to buy cheap charging accessories from the gas station. But you shouldn’t.

Gas Station Chargers Are Cheap Because They Suck

Charging a phone in the car with a cigarette lighter adapter.
Zoomik / Shutterstock.com
Note: Some gas stations and corner stores sell overpriced charging accessories, rather than the cheap stuff we’re talking about here. You’ll usually find the cheap adapters and cables in small bins, which may be located near the cash register or in a display stand.

You can’t use a phone without charging it first. But power adapters and cables wear down over time, and new standards like USB-C are forcing customers to upgrade at a high price. It’s an awkward situation that pushes people toward cheap charging accessories, which is completely understandable.

Unfortunately, smartphone chargers and cables are more than just a mess of wire. They often contain chips and other components that prevent overcharging, overheating, and other potentially dangerous problems. These components aren’t cheap—if a manufacturer wants to sell low-priced USB and Lightning accessories, it needs to cut corners.

So, cheap charging accessories are often held together by hot glue and thin wire. Not only does this lead to a fragile design, but it severely limits charging speed. Cheap charging accessories tend to operate at about 5 watts, while modern phones often have a maximum charging speed between 20 and 50 watts. (Don’t even get me started on those wacky 12-foot-long charging cables. Long and thin wire contributes to in-line resistance, meaning that these cheap 12-foot cables are extremely slow.)

Gas station charging accessories also tend to fall short of USB and Lightning guidelines, which dictate things like voltage regulation, EMF shielding, and the size of a charging cable’s tip. If a cheap charging accessory doesn’t die under the pain of physical stress, it will usually burn itself out due to unregulated voltage, a short circuit, or electrical arching within your phone’s charging port.

A gas station charger might last a long time. But they usually die after just a few months, forcing you to buy another crappy power brick or cable. That’s why large retailers don’t always carry these super-cheap accessories; they don’t want to deal with returns and complaints.

USB Charger, Anker Elite Dual Port 24W Wall Charger, PowerPort 2 with PowerIQ and Foldable Plug, for iPhone 11/Xs/XS Max/XR/X/8/7/6/Plus, iPad Pro/Air 2/Mini 3/Mini 4, Samsung S4/S5, and More

Anker is a premium charging brand, but its dual-port USB power brick is extremely affordable. It's really a steal, as this is a reliable product from a reputable brand. Plus, it runs at a relatively speedy 24 watts.

Will Gas Station Chargers Damage Your Phone?

A broken iPhone charging cable taped together.
eyepark / Shutterstock.com

You don’t mind replacing your charger every few months—that’s fine. But should you put your phone, your car, or your home at risk? Cheap charging accessories often fall below USB or Lightning specifications, and if you’re unlucky, they can cause some damage.

As I mentioned earlier, cheap power adapters often burn themselves out. This is usually due to a short circuit or a design that lacks proper voltage regulation. Both of these problems are accompanied by overheating, which may blow the fuse in your car’s cigarette lighter or set an outlet on fire (if you’re super-duper unlucky).

Your phone is also vulnerable to fluctuations in voltage, which can reduce the battery’s lifespan. And if the end of a charging cable overheats inside of your phone, it may destroy the charging port or leave behind a residue of plastic and ash. This kind of gunk will reduce a phone’s ability to charge, and it may contribute to electrical arching (which will damage future charging cables).

And this isn’t just an electrical thing. Cheap cables can physically harm your phone’s charging port. The end of a cable might break off into your phone, for example. And because these cheap cables aren’t always plated, they’re often vulnerable to corrosion, which can scratch or strain the inside of your phone.

To be clear, these problems are somewhat rare. Cheap charging accessories will usually burn themselves out before they cause any damage, and smartphone charging ports are more durable than they were a few years ago.

Amazon Basics ABS USB-A to Lightning Cable Cord, MFi Certified Charger for Apple iPhone 14 13 12 11 X Xs Pro, Pro Max, Plus, iPad, White, 6-Ft

This AmazonBasics Lightning cable is MFi certified and supports speeds up to 12 watts. It's also six feet long. Much better than those gas station charging cables!

Some Phones Refuse to Work with Cheap Chargers

A bundle of cheap USB and Lightning cables.
Derek Skinner / Shutterstock.com

Most smartphones use algorithms to prevent overcharging and overheating. These algorithms may kick in when using a cheap gas station charger, saving your device from any potential damage. The downside, of course, is that your cheap charger becomes a total waste of money (unless you charge your phone in short spurts, which sounds like a nightmare).

But Apple takes things a step further. If an iPhone or iPad detects that a cable isn’t MFi certified, it may refuse to accept a charge. This is usually accompanied by a message like “your charging accessory isn’t supported.”

This “feature” increases user safety and helps Apple avoid bad press. It also generates some cash for Apple, as manufacturers need to pay for MFi certification. (That said, money generated through the MFi program is probably a drop in the bucket for Apple. We’re talking about a company that made around $400 billion in 2022.)

If you own an iPhone, I suggest that you only buy MFi-certified charging accessories. These products are guaranteed to meet certain standards, and more importantly, you can rest assured knowing that they’ll work with your phone.

Fast Car Charger Fast Charge AINOPE USB Car Charger Adapter 36W All Metal Mini Cigarette Lighter USB Charger Quick Charge Compatible with iPhone 13/12/11 pro/11/ x/8, Note 9/Galaxy S10/S9

This AINOPE power adapter plugs into your car to deliver up to 36 watts of power. It's certified for Qualcomm's Quick Charge standard, and it's highly rated by customers.

Buy Some Decent Charging Accessories

A photo of a phone's USB-C port and a charging cable
Only_NewPhoto/Shutterstock

When possible, you should avoid the cheap charging accessories sold at gas stations, drugstores, and corner stores. They may seem like a bargain, but they will break very quickly and could damage your phone, car, or home (but only if you’re very unlucky).

You’re better off buying a decent charging cable, which will last a long time and safely power your device at high speeds. If you’re on a budget, I suggest buying AmazonBasics or Walmart Onn charging accessories. These brands aren’t amazing, but they’re a massive upgrade from the stuff you buy at the gas station.

Now, in a pinch, you may have no choice but to buy a crappy charging cable or power adapter. But I strongly suggest buying something of a higher quality. Otherwise, you’ll be caught in a cycle of replacing your cheap charger every few months.

Andrew Heinzman Andrew Heinzman
Andrew is the News Editor for Review Geek, where he covers breaking stories and manages the news team. He joined Life Savvy Media as a freelance writer in 2018 and has experience in a number of topics, including mobile hardware, audio, and IoT. Read Full Bio »