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Traveling Internationally? Shop for Plug Adapters and Power Converters First

four types of plugs

With all the different plug types and voltage standards around the world, you might not be clear on which plug adapters and power converters you need for a vacation. Here’s everything you need to know about powering devices when you’re traveling.

Why Are There So Many Plug Types?

A diagram of 12 different plug types.
Anna Bo/Shutterstock

Of all the wonderful Victorian era inventions (cameras, phones, mummy-medicine, etc.), Edison’s lightbulb may have had the biggest impact on the world. It introduced electricity to the domestic realm, opened the public’s eyes to technology, and completely screwed your ability to use an American hairdryer in Europe.

Well, maybe we shouldn’t blame the lightbulb itself. The ubiquitous light socket is the real criminal here. For a time that some refer to as “hell,” people plugged low-wattage devices like toasters, vacuum cleaners, and radios into light sockets. Right, because that makes sense.

Quite naturally, people got sick of screwing their curling irons into the ceiling (or whatever) and demanded a more convenient and powerful solution. American industry responded by developing the type A and B “American” plugs (the ones you’re using right now).

Thing is, these plugs are very unsafe. They’re wobbly, they’re not insulated, and they like to fall out of the wall. So other industrial countries developed their own plugs. They also forced their colonies to follow along (that’s why they use British Type G plugs in Malaysia), and now the world’s stuck with 15 different plug standards.

Do You Need a Plug Adapter, a Power Converter, or Both?

A suitcase containing a plug adapter.
Jamomir Chalabala/Shutterstock

Alongside these 15 different plug types are also different voltage standards around the world. Don’t worry, you can still use your fancy blow dryer on your next vacation, but you might need to buy a plug adapter and a power converter first.

We’ll explain how plug adapters and power converters work in just a second. But first, you should investigate what plug type and voltage standard are used by your destination country. That way, you’ll know if you need to buy a plug adapter, a power converter, or both.

The WorldStandards website has a convenient list of countries’ power standards (you can search through the list by pressing CTRL+F). Once you’ve taken note of your destination country’s plug type and voltage standard, compare it to your home’s power standards (the U.S. uses type A and B plugs with the 110-120 voltage range).

If the plug types differ between your home country and your destination country, you’ll need a plug adapter. And if the voltage standards differ between your home and destination, you’ll need a power converter.

It’s also worth noting that USB devices and laptops don’t need converters (although an adapter would be handy). Since most hotels provide blow dryers and steam irons, it’s possible that you’ll only need to bring your phone and laptop on vacation. In this situation, you can skip buying a power converter and simply buy a plug adapter.

Now that you know what you need, it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty. What do plug adapters and power converters do? How do you shop for them, and can some devices work without plug adapters or power converters?

What Is a Plug Adapter?

A woman examines a Type G plug adapter.

If your destination country uses a different plug type than your home country, then you need to buy a plug adapter. As you’d expect, a plug adapter is simply a device that allows you to stick one country’s plug into another country’s outlet (they don’t convert voltage).

Before shopping for a plug adapter, check which plug type is used in the country you’re visiting. Once you know what you’re looking for, you can buy a single adapter that’s appropriate for your destination, a 4-in-1 adapter, or a fully-fledged international adapter set.

Just keep in mind that plug adapters don’t convert voltage. Even with a plug adapter, an American appliance needs a power converter to work properly in another country. (Dual-voltage devices are an exception, but more on that later.)

What Is a Power Converter?

The DOACE step-down converter and the SIMRAN step-up converter.

If you’re traveling to a country that uses a different voltage range (America uses the 110-120 voltage range, other countries use the 220-240 range), then you’ll need a power converter to safely use your appliances.

There are two types of power converters. Step-down converters reduce an outlet’s voltage, while step-up converters are used to increase voltage. If your destination country uses a higher voltage than your home country, then you’ll need a step-down converter. Naturally, if your destination relies on a lower voltage, you’ll need a step-up converter to increase the power.

Of course, these rules have some exceptions. Some of your devices (namely your laptop) might be “dual-voltage” and won’t require power converters. USB-powered devices never need converters.

USB Devices, Laptops, and Other Devices Don’t Need Converters

A traveler charges his phone with a Type G outlet.

USB is an international power standard, which means you can charge your phone (or tablet, or USB-powered nightlight, etc.) anywhere in the world without a power converter. That said, you’ll still need an outlet adapter or an appropriate power brick to plug your USB cable into the wall. (You can buy USB power bricks at your destination’s airport.)

Alongside USB-powered devices, some “dual-voltage” appliances can work internationally without a converter (they still require a plug adapter). Some everyday appliances (like hairdryers) are dual voltage, and almost all laptops are dual voltage.

If you suspect that any of your devices might be dual voltage, check their label or instruction manual. Dual voltage labels will read “100/240 volts” or “110~220V AC.” Keep in mind that some dual voltage devices need to be manually switched between voltage settings. (It’ll usually mention this on the label or in the instruction manual.)

Of course, you probably don’t need to bring your dual-voltage blow dryer on vacation anyway. Most hotels provide blow dryers to their guests.

In spite of international power differences, buying adapters and converters is a fairly simple task. You don’t have to understand everything about a country’s electrical grid before going on vacation, you simply need to know which plug type and voltage standard they use.

And don’t worry, things should get easier over time. More and more devices are built with automatic voltage regulators (dual voltage), and the ubiquity of USB is proof that universal power standards are the way of the future.

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 »