- [+] Understand
- [+] Appliances
- [+] Be cautious
- Stay safe
This article is a travel topic.
Electrical systems differ around the world. Some use 110-120 volts and others 220-240 volts. Some use 50 hertz and others 60 hertz. The plugs are also different and often incompatible. However, travelers with electrical appliances can take a few steps to ensure that they can be used at their destination.
Voltage and frequency
Start by taking a look at the back of the device you want to use. If it says "100-240V, 50/60 Hz", it will work anywhere in the world with the right plugs. If you've got both covered, you can skip to the next section. If not, keep reading.
Dealing with electricity differences can be daunting, but it actually isn't too hard. There are only two main types of electric systems used around the world, with varying physical connections:
- 100-127 volt, at 60 hertz frequency (in general: North and Central Americas, Western Japan)
- 220-240 volt, at 50 hertz frequency (in general: the rest of the world, with some exceptions)
If the voltage and frequency for your device is the same as where you are traveling, then you need to worry only about the physical plug. (The small difference between 110V and 120V is within the tolerances of most electrical devices. Likewise for 220V and 240V.)
If the voltage for your device is not the same, then you will need a transformer or converter to convert the voltage. Most travel accessory sources offer them and come with several plug adapters to solve all but the most exotic needs.
Plugs and adapters
A device that lets you insert a plug into a different socket is an adapter: these are small, cheap and safe. For example, between Britain and Germany, you need only an adapter. You stick your British plug in the adapter, which connects the rectangular phase and neutral prongs to the round German ones and puts the ground where the German outlet expects it. Then, you're good to go.
Unfortunately, there are many different plugs in the world. The three most widespread standards are the following:
- The "American" (Type A) plug, with two vertical pins
- The "European" (Type C) plug, with two round pins
- The "British" (Type G) plug, with three rectangular pins
If your device has one of these plugs and you can adapt it to the others, you have 90% of the world covered. (The main exceptions are South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, and parts of China, which use a Type I plug with two slanted pins.) Adapters between Type A and Type C and from C toG are tiny and cheap; converting Type A into G or Type G into anything else, on the other hand, needs a bulkier model.
For hobbyists: if you can't find an adapter, and you're staying for a longer time, just buy a separate plug at your destination, remove the existing plug, and attach the new one. Unlike adapters, plugs are always available, and they're generally cheaper too. Caution: try this only if you know what you're doing! (Fire and/or electrocution are possible if you are inexperienced.)
As a last resort, a Type C plug can be forced into a Type G socket without any converter at all if you ignore what your mother told you and stick a pen or similar pointy object into the center (ground) hole, which fools the socket into thinking a ground pin has been inserted and opens up the other holes. (This is, in fact, exactly what cheap C-to-G adapters do.) Disable the power to the socket and try to use something non-conductive (a dry non-metallic object) to do this!
There's one more complication to consider: any two-pin socket is ungrounded, but all three-pin plugs are grounded. Trying to get grounding to work makes life more difficult, as any of sockets C, D, E, F, H, J, K or L will happily accept the ungrounded plug C but will not work with any grounded variant other than their own. Do not use an adapter to turn a three-pin into a two-pin: this will disable grounding, potentially leaving you vulnerable to electrocution and other electrical nastiness.
A last word of warning: many developing countries use multi-plug sockets that accept (say) both Type A and Type C. Don't assume the voltage is correct just because the plug fits, since a Thai Type A+C socket still carries 220V and may destroy American (110V) Type A devices.
Transformer or Converter?
The difference between a transformer and converter is the way that they deal with the wave-form of the electricity. Converters simply chop the wave in half. This is relatively simple and can be done in a small amount of space, so converters are comparatively light-weight and inexpensive. Transformers alter the length of the wave. This is more complicated and takes up more space: transformers are basically chunks of iron specially-wrapped in wires so they are larger, heavier, and more expensive. Electric appliances can function with either a full or half-sine wave, whereas electronic devices must have a full sine wave.
If you are using a 220V-240V appliance at 110V, you will need a transformer.
If you are using a 110V appliance at 220V-240V, you can also use a transformer but may be able to get away with a (cheaper) converter.
If your device is an electric appliance with a heating element or mechanical motor such as an iron or hair-dryer, then you can probably just use a converter, but make sure your transformer or converter is fully rated to deliver the amps and watts your device needs. If your device is electronic and uses electronic chips or circuits, such as a computer, printer, TV, microwave, VCR or even a battery charger, you will need a transformer.
Before you purchase what you believe is your solution, understand the discussion below.
- They have two different types: "step-up" and "step-down". Step-up transformers allow you to plug a higher-voltage device into a lower-voltage power socket (such as using a UK device in the US). Step-down transformers allow you to plug a lower-voltage device into a higher-voltage socket (such as using a US device in the UK). Some transformers offer both. Take care to use the right type: if you plugged a 110-to-220 V step-up transformer into a 220 V socket, you would get 440 V and a fried device.
- You must also make sure that the power rating (wattage) of your transformer is at least 10% greater than that of the device; otherwise, the transformer can overheat and even catch fire. Before buying a transformer, look for the "input" figure: usually on the device's plug or in the manual. Some don't display wattage, but you can work it out simply by multiplying the voltage (V) and the current (amps (A); if it is miliamps (mA), divide by 1,000). The resulting figure is the same as the wattage.
- Transformers can be used with both electronic devices (such as those with chips and circuits) or electrical appliances (such as those with heating elements and motors). They can usually operate for a much longer time than converters.
These lighter-weight, less expensive devices can handle large wattage loads of up to 1600 watts but only step-down voltage, not raise it. They are suitable for those in 110-120V countries traveling to where the voltage is 220-240V. Converters are designed to operate for only an hour or two at a time, not continuously. As stated above, they cannot be used with electronic devices: devices that use chips or circuits, such as a computers, printers, VCRs ,or even battery chargers.
Nowadays, many electronic devices actually come with a converter which plugs into the power mains and converts the current to DC. However, if this won't accept a foreign voltage (check the plug) do not place a second converter behind it. You must use a heavier transformer instead. Fortunately, in the past few years, more and more devices come with a universal AC/DC converter already included, and the most you would need is a plug adapter.
Frequency is generally not a problem--most travel items will work on either 50 or 60 Hz. If all the electrical appliance does is produce heat or light, then the frequency is unlikely to matter.
Frequency is most likely to affect clocks and devices with motors. They may run faster or slower than they should and may be damaged in the long run as a result. Again, though, some motorised devices may function correctly on either 50 or 60 Hz-- especially if they also operate on batteries. Just look on the label or plug.
However, you still may need to be careful if you have a sensitive or expensive device that converts AC (power from the wall) into DC (battery-like current)--especially if you also need to convert the voltage. A device will convert AC to DC either to either save battery power by allowing you to plug into the mains or charge a battery in the device. The design of power supplies where AC is converted into DC does take frequency into account.
Even though 60 Hz converts a little more easily to DC than 50 Hz does, there's enough tolerance in most small appliances and electronic gadgets that you can ignore frequency. However, if you also need to change the voltage (because the voltage of your device is different from the mains power voltage), you cannot use a switching-type converter. You must use the heavier iron-core transformer. If in doubt, consult a reputable electrical goods dealer.
If your device won't operate with a different frequency (powerful motors and non-quartz clocks), there is really nothing you can do to change it. Unlike voltage, frequency cannot easily be converted. Foreign embassies may have to use huge generators to provide current compatible with equipment from home.
If you desperately need to have power at your home country's frequency, you might try using a 12V DC to AC converter intended for vehicle use. However, most of these (especially those commonly found in stores) output a "sawtooth" wave instead of a sine wave. (Check the manufacturer's website if you need a sine wave output. It may be special order.) Make sure the wattage of the converter is sufficient for whatever device you need to operate, and the 12V battery has enough amps for the job. For example, 12V times 15 amps gives 180 watts (or less after losses are included).
Japan is a special case. East Japan (eg Tokyo) uses 50 Hz and west Japan (eg Osaka) uses 60 Hz. Equipment made for the Japanese market may have a switch to select 50 Hz or 60 Hz.
In many developing countries, electrical supply is highly erratic and you need to take precautions to protect your equipment.
The main danger is power spikes, where the amount of power supplied temporarily surges to dangerous levels, with potentially catastrophic consequences. In developed countries, the main source of spikes is lightning strikes, but, in developing countries, they're most often associated with power outages since when the power comes back on, it rarely does so smoothly. The cheapest method of protection is thus simply to disconnect electronic devices as soon as the power goes out and wait a few minutes after the power comes back on until plugging them back in.
Surge protectors are devices designed specially to protect against spikes and surges, and some are available in portable travel-sized versions. Some surge protectors can also be fitted to a telephone line to protect your phone or laptop modem. The most common variety use a metal oxide varistor (MOV), which shorts to ground if a given voltage is exceeded. These are easily destroyed by larger spikes, and better models will have a light indicating when the MOV has broken down, but you still need to keep an eye on them as the device will still continue to give power even if the protection is gone. There are also surge protectors with fuses, which are fail-safe (a blown fuse will stop power) and replaceable, but there still is a risk of a short, sharp spike which can pass through and damage your device before the fuse blows.
In some (mostly poor) regions, you may experience electricity voltage drops. Instead of 240V for example, you may get only 200V or even less (50% of the nominal supply voltage is not unknown). This happens especially if you're at "the end of the line" (far from the source or transformer) and is caused by the resistance of the electric lines themselves. Some appliances, such as light bulbs and heating equipment just keep working under a lower voltage, although a 20% voltage drop will cause a 36% power drop. Most electronic devices also keep working, but voltage drops are critical for fluorescent lamps, refrigerators, and air conditioners which may stop working altogether (usually without being damaged: when the voltage returns to normal, they will start working again).
Voltage drops can be solved with a special device called a voltage stabiliser. A stabiliser will raise the voltage again to its normal level. The principle is the same as for switching converters, except that stabilisers will produce a stable output, even with an unstable input. Stabilisers come in different power ranges, but they're all large, bulky and not practical to carry around. Be aware that some appliances, such as refrigerators, briefly consume 2 or 3 times more power at start-up; the stabiliser should be able to provide this power. Voltage stabilisers can introduce surges if there is a power outage. The cheaper relay type can also damage electronic equipment.
If you are buying new appliances, get in the habit of checking the voltage. A dual-voltage hair straightener will cost you no more than a single voltage one, and save considerable hassle when travelling.
Virtually all laptop computers (including those with internal power supplies) will handle well a range of 100 to 240 volts and a frequency of 50 to 60Hz. In other words, you might not need a converter/transformer; most power supplies have supported ranges printed directly on them (like on this image), so have a look. However, you will definitely need to make sure that you have the plug that matches the outlet for the country you are going to.
If you are taking a laptop, you can use it to charge other items using a USB port on the laptop, even if they are normally not connected to it - this can save you a bundle of transformers in your luggage.
Radios also tend to be interchangeable from country to country. The exact FM range being used can vary from country to country though, so you may not be able to access all stations. In the US, only odd channels (88.1,88.3, 100.1 etc) are used. A radio intended for the US market will not work correctly in most other countries. Japan, in particular, has an FM band from 76 MHz to 90 MHz rather than the more common 87.5 MHz to 108 MHz. The countries of the former Soviet Union also use a similar band. For the medium wave band, channel spacings (the difference between each valid frequency) can be 9kHz or 10kHz (for USA). Some digital radios will have a switch or setting to choose which channel spacing is used. Without this, they will not work correctly outside their intended market. Old-fashioned analog-dial tuners don't have this limitation.
Mobile phones and digital cameras
Chargers for these may work with both 110V and 240V systems, though you may still need an adaptor plug or have to use the shaver socket. You may be able to get a second charger for the other voltage system, or even a dual voltage charger designed for both systems. However, your mobile phone handset may not be compatible with the country's network, or you may be limited to certain cellular providers. (See Telephone service for travel#Cell phones.)
Equipment using standard batteries
Battery sizes and voltages tend to be standard from place to place, and equipment that uses off-the-shelf batteries tends to be interchangeable. It may be difficult to get good quality batteries in some countries, especially alkaline batteries which are needed by most electronic equipment. If a cheaper battery is used, make sure to remove it as soon as it is exhausted or if the equipment will not be used for a while due to the risk of leakage.
In many countries without fully developed electrical power distribution systems, the use of generators is common. Generator supplies can be very good; however, in many places they are bad and can cause damage to sensitive equipment connected. The voltage, frequency, and waveform shape (it should be a smooth sine-wave) can vary. In some places, people modify generators to run faster. This gives more voltage and power but increases the frequency too. The part of a generator that keeps it running at a constant speed is called the governor. If this is tampered with, the output voltage could rise sufficiently to cause damage. The best advice is not to connect valuable equipment to the supply, or at the very least disconnect it as soon as you're finished.
If you are unsure about the quality of generator in use, there are a few simple rules. If it runs from petrol/gasoline, it is bad: anyone serious about using generator power uses a diesel oil powered system. A good quality generator will have a low engine speed. 1500RPM for 50Hz or 1800RPM for 60Hz. If the engine speed is 3000RPM or more, it is not a good machine.
Lamps and their light bulbs are very sensitive to voltage. If you shift between voltage systems, you will need to change the light bulbs to match the voltage, unless the lamp is designed to operate on both systems, say through a low voltage adaptor. If you buy a lamp abroad, you may need to have an electrician completely rewire a lamp when you get home to comply with your country's electrical safety standards. This may not be a problem for a one-off special item, but if you are going into the importing business it could be a showstopper.
Also watch out for the light bulb connection. In 100-127V systems this is often a screw connector while in 220-240V systems it is often a bayonet connector. These connectors also come in at least two different sizes. Be sure you can obtain light bulbs of the right voltage, size, and connector shape in the country you intend to use the lamp, and at a reasonable price, or the lamp may become little more than junk when the bulb fails.
The electric motors in things like refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, washing machines and other whiteware are often sensitive to frequency. Older hairdryers and electric shavers might be also. Even if you use a step-up or step-down transformer, the different supply frequencies mean motors run at the wrong speed and burn out. The larger and more powerful the motor is, the more this is true. Don't, for example, bring a vacuum cleaner from the US to Europe (or vice versa). It's almost guaranteed to fail--even if you have a voltage converter.
Hotels often provide a special electrical outlet specifically for electric shavers. They allow any voltage shaver to be plugged into them and be used safely in front of the bathroom mirror. They may also accept your cellphone adaptor or similar low power battery charging unit. Many--but not all-- electric shavers sold today are dual voltage 50/60Hz and some will even recharge the battery at 12V DC (such as in an automobile). Check the label and instructions for compatibility.
Hairdryers are a particular risk; if you accidentally plug your 100-120V hairdryer into a 240V outlet. you may find it catching fire in your hands! Similarly. a 220-240V hairdryer in a 120V outlet may run slowly and not heat up enough. Most good hotels and motels will be able to supply a hair drier, and it may even be a room fitting. However it may be worthwhile buying or borrowing a hairdryer suited for the electrical system of countries you may be travelling in.
Many new hairdryers sold in 100-120V countries are dual voltage with settings for 100-120V and 220-240V. Even though it's motorized, it will work on either 50 or 60 Hz. Be sure to "lock out" the high setting when it's plugged into 220-240 volts, or it will quickly burn out--or worse! (The low setting will be as powerful as the high setting was at 120V, with low speed unavailable.)
An electric clock of any sort is sensitive to voltage. If the voltage if doubled or halved, it will not function and may burn out. Furthermore, the electric frequency (50 or 60 Hz) is used in cheap clocks--such as many clock radio style clocks--to keep the time. If the clock has a quartz crystal it uses this for the timekeeping and operates independently of the line frequency. Thus, if a clock made for North America were used in Europe – even with a voltage adapter – it would lose 10 min/h! Obviously, that is not a great idea if you have a train to catch.
Televisions, many radios, video and DVD players, as well as videotapes, are often specific to the broadcast system used in the country that they are sold in, usually associated with the frequency of the country's electric current. For example, North America is 60 Hz and its television is 30 frames per second, while Europe is 50 Hz and its television is 25 frames per second. The main three television broadcast systems are PAL, the closest to a worldwide standard, NTSC, used mostly in the Americas and some East Asian countries (notably Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan) and SECAM, originally from France and adopted by much of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, but there are various incompatibilities even within these supposed standards. There is no difference between PAL and SECAM for unconverted DIGITAL video including DVDs. However, any analog output to a television set would be in the native format of the country of location. Brazil uses a hybrid PAL/NTSC standard called "PAL-M". In Brazil, DVDs and video tape are the same as NTSC (without region coding- see below), but all players and TV sets are useless outside the country unless they have a separate NTSC setting.
Before purchasing any video equipment, read the manual and warranty carefully. For TVs and VCRs, don't forget about cable television frequencies; they may not be the same, even if everything else is. Television sets often won't work correctly in another country from where they were sold, even if the voltage and video standard are the same. For example, a television set made for the USA will skip a few channels in Japan. Furthermore, many countries have or are in the process of switching to digital over-the-air broadcasting, (dates by country). Unless you have an internationally compatible device, you may find your expensive looking system is little more than worthless junk in another country because it won't work with your country's broadcast system. Your warranty is probably only valid in the country of purchase, and you may need to return the goods to the place you purchased them from.
The final problem with transporting TVs is that many European countries, notoriously the UK, require a license to watch any live TV (over-the-air, cable, satellite, and even live-streams on the internet). Fees can be hefty (in addition to being charged for the license).
DVD and Blu-Ray, infuriatingly, have completely artificial limitations introduced in the form of region coding, which attempts to limits the region where the discs can be used, as a technique to keep the various regions as separate markets. For example, a Region 1 player for North America will not play a Region 3 DVD for Hong Kong. The workaround are to obtain either a regionless DVD player which ignores the code, purchase multi-region discs (Regions 1 and 3 in this case), or better yet, Region 0 discs, which can be played on any device.
Technically, there is no such thing as a NTSC or PAL DVD disc, as all color information is the same for both. When discs are labeled as such, what they're refering to is the picture size and frame rate (i.e. number of frames per second) that are used in most (but not all!) countries that have TV broadcasts on this same system. Many NTSC players cannot play PAL DVDs, unless that's a specific feature included (many Philips and JVC models include this). PAL DVD players are generally much better at playing NTSC, but it's not a certainty. If all else fails, a computer DVD-ROM can play any DVD movie, though there's a limit on how many times you can change the region code. Unlike analogue television sets, computer monitors can automatically handle both 25 (PAL and SECAM) and 30 (NTSC) frames per second, as well as various picture sizes. This also applies to LCD and plasma "flat panel" television sets, but don't expect their tuner to be compatible outside the country in which they were sold.
Videocameras can usually be charged with both electrical systems so you can record during travels and view it back home. Digital cameras and videocameras can usually output to both PAL, NTSC, and SECAM, so you can view your recording while travelling. Bring an RCA (yellow plug) to SCART adaptor if you plan to view video from a camcorder on a European television set.
VHS and other tape formats, while becoming out of date, still exist There is no compatibility between NTSC and PAL. Professional conversions will probably cost most than the original. Some manufacturers, such as Philips and Samsung, do or did make several VHS VCR models that will play and record any foreign video format, though these machines are hard to find (try online and mail order) and relatively expensive. Also, you won't be able to make copies of tapes in the format that's not of your country if both the master and the needed copy(s) are of that foreign format (unless, of course, you're wealthy enough to afford two of these machines). You could do a double conversion, but the quality will suffer greatly. One workaround would be to make a DVD in this foreign format, then play it back again to the multi-format VCR. You'll need a computer video capture card capable of both formats (many aren't), DVD production software reset to this foreign format, and a DVD player also capable of playing with an output (not just internal conversion!) of both formats (most aren't, except for the Philips brand) to play it back to the multi-format VCR. If you want just DVD copies, skip the last step of the DVD player playing it back to the VCR, and burn as many copies as you need.
Converting DVDs from one format to another if required, can be done on a computer with a fast CPU, or you can get it done professionally. Regular blank discs and software work fine for making copies of a foreign format, as it's all just a bunch of ones and zeros and no different than copying anything else. However, as noted previously, it is another matter to convert and play it on a television set (with a picture tube).
The first time you use electrical equipment on a voltage system you haven't used before, watch for excessive heat, strange smells, and smoke. This especially true for those residing in countries with 120V (USA, Canada, Japan, etc.) visiting places with the higher voltage. Smoke is a sure sign your equipment cannot cope with the voltage system.
If your electrical equipment gets very hot, smells of burning (there is a distinct smell of electrically fried circuit boards) or starts to smoke, turn it off at the wall or the main switch immediately, then carefully unplug the equipment. Do not disconnect or unplug by just grabbing the smoking device, its plug or cord, and then unplugging it, as these parts are probably very hot, and the insulation could be melted or unsafe, which could result in electrocution.
You may find your expensive equipment has been fried and needs to be replaced because the wrong voltage was used. However, if the equipment only got hot and did not smoke or produce strange burning smells you may be lucky. Some older devices have fuses that you may be able to replace. New devices, such as gaming consoles, will trip a circuit breaker. Disconnect them from all power and leave them for 60 min or so, and the circuit breaker will normally reset.
Do not rely on fuses to protect your equipment. If a fuse does blow, you should have things checked by an electrician before using the suspect equipment again.
In Third World countries with frequent blackouts, it's not at all uncommon for a visitor to plug something in and have the power go out coincidentially. Always check the neighborhood first, before blaming the appliance or looking at the fuse/circuit breaker.