What should know about electricity and plugging things in if you're traveling overseas

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What should know about electricity and plugging things in if you're traveling overseas

You’ve renewed your passport, bought your plane tickets, and researched your destination; now it’s time to prepare for the little details of traveling overseas. One is making sure you have the right equipment needed to use any electrical devices you’re bringing on your trip. That means making sure you have the right travel adapter and, if necessary, the right voltage converter.

All electrical sockets are not created equal; if you are going to use a device overseas, you need to know what type of voltage is used in the country you’re traveling to and what type of adapter is needed to plug your devices into the outlet. Otherwise, you may end up with an overheated curling iron (just imagine what this would do to your hair!) or a fried cell phone charger.

Travel Adapter vs. Converter: What’s the Difference?

Let’s start with the basics: What exactly is the difference between an adapter and a converter?

An electric converter changes the voltage of your electronic device. An outlet adapter changes the shape of your plug, not the electrical voltage, allowing you to plug appliances into wall outlets in countries with different-shaped plugs than your own. Consult this handy chart to see which outlet designs are used in different countries.

Which Devices Do I Need to Bring?

The first thing to consider is which devices you really need to pack on your trip. While your cell phone is a no-brainer, can you get by without a tablet or laptop? Most hotels offer hair dryers and irons so you don’t have to bring your own, and you can easily use manual razors and toothbrushes instead of their electric counterparts.

If you plan on staying in one country for a while, you might want to buy a hair dryer or electric razor there. Battery-operated appliances are another option if you’re willing to bring plenty of replacements.

Voltage Converters

Most American-made electrical appliances work at 110 volts. While Japan, most of North America, and parts of South America and the Caribbean use voltage between 100 and 125, the vast majority of the world uses 220 to 240 volts. For a complete list of voltage requirements by country, visit WorldStandards.eu.

Before you run out and buy a voltage converter, there’s a very important piece of information you need to know. The vast majority of modern travel gadets are dual-voltage, meaning they automatically convert to run on other voltage systems. Most smartphones, tablets, and other gadgets are dual-voltage, and if you use a converter on something that is already dual-voltage, you can damage your device.

How do you know if your device is dual-voltage? Check the label and/or owner’s manual: If it says something similar to “INPUT AC 120 VAC 60 Hz 200 W,” then your gadget is single-voltage and can only be used on 120 V. If you want to use it elsewhere, you’ll need a converter. If you see something like “INPUT AC 120/240 V 50—60 Hz 1300 W,” then your device is dual-voltage, and you can safely use it for voltages anywhere between 120 V and 240 V. If this is the case, you’ll only need a plug adapter (see below for more details).

Small electronics, razors, and non-heating appliances will need a 50-watt converter. Heating appliances such as dryers, irons, coffee makers, and other high-powered electrical devices need converters up to 2000 watts. You can also purchase combination converters for both types (many of which also come with adapter plugs). Check the label on your electrical appliance to find its wattage.

Note that many devices are now available in dual-voltage travel versions, such as this travel iron or this travel hair dryer.

Power converters are generally bulkier and heavier than adapters (which makes sense, as they are actually changing electricity). Remember that you will always need to use an adapter with a converter, but you won’t always need to use a converter with an adapter.

Since travel power converters take up so much space on their own, you’ll want to buy one that comes with a built-in plug adapter. The Travel Smart by Conair is a great multiuse item, as it converts electricity and has built-in adapters for numerous foreign countries. Plus, it has a built-in surge protector to keep your devices safe from electrical spikes. It can also be used as an adapter only, if you don’t want to buy another adapter for your dual-voltage appliances.

Travel Adapter Plugs

Even if two countries operate on the same voltage, their outlets might not take the same shape of plug—and that’s where an adapter comes in. An adapter will allow you only to plug your appliance into another type of outlet. Most are small and lightweight, making them easy to pack. If you’re packing lots of devices (like a camera, smartphone, and tablet), you should invest in multiple adapters so that you can charge all of your electronics at once.

If you travel a lot, invest in a universal travel adapter, which lets you slide out different plug formations so that you can use the adapter in outlets in any country. If you shop around, you can usually find one for less than $10 online (this one also comes with a surge protector). Note that these won’t always work for appliances that need to be grounded, which will require a more expensive grounding adapter. If you prefer to travel as light as possible, get an international adapter set, which allows you to take only the adapters you need.

Where to Buy Travel Adapters And Converters

Be sure to buy your converter and adapter before you leave. In a foreign country, it can be hard to find one that is designed to convert your American plug/voltage into a foreign electricity/plug, rather than the other way around. Also, the converters and adapters found at airport shops are usually highly marked up, whereas you can get both for much cheaper online if you buy before you go.

Adapters and converters are available at most travel/luggage stores, pharmacies, electronics stores such as Best Buy, and even your neighborhood Target or Walmart. You can also buy them online from Amazon.

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Caroline Morse Teel, Sarah Schlichter, and Margaret Leahy contributed to this story.