3 Things You Need to Know Before You Use Your Electrical Device Abroad

Chances are that if you are going to travel outside the US, you have to consider whether you will need an electrical plug adapter(s) and/or a power converter. Power plug adapters do not change the voltage, they merely provide an adapter that will fit on a US electrical plug so that it can be “plugged” into a foreign electrical receptacle. On the other hand, electrical converters change the voltage. In the U.S. our household electrical appliances run on 120 volts at 60 Hz. There are three essential factors that must be considered if you plan to use your US appliance in another country: Voltage, Plug, Hz (hertz)

1) Voltage – Most importantly, make sure you know what the voltage is in the country you will be visiting. If you plug a U.S. appliance (120 volt based) into a European (230 volt based) plug there is a good chance it will explode and burn out. Next you need to check the voltage rating of every electrical device you will take on your trip. It is pretty easy to find the rating, all electrical devices are required to list this information (see the image on the left). On it you will see the voltage range that it accepts as well as its hertz (Hz) or cycles.

Electric converter

If your device is rated for 110 – 240 volts you are in great shape. However, if as in the image on the left, your device is only rated for 120 volts (VAC), your device will not work and will be damaged (and may explode) if you plug it into a 230 volt receptacle. You will need a power converter to use your device in that country. An example of a simple converter for small appliances like a hair dryer is shown on the right. U.S. residents will want a ‘down’ converter – you want a converter that reduces 230 volts down to 110 – 120 volts. Europeans would want an ‘up’ converter – to increase the U.S. voltage from 110 – 120 VAC up to 230 VAC which their appliances typically need. Some voltage converters will also convert the cycles or Hz (see below).

Fortunately today most personal appliances (hairdryers, electric razors, computers, etc.) sold in the U.S. are now manufactured to handle 110 – 230 volts. Just check the electrical rating panel on your equipment.

CAUTION – Some products, are dual voltage (they can handle both 110 – 120 VAC as well as 230 VAC), BUT they do not automatically sense or switch from one to the other. Instead they have manual switches where YOU have to change the setting. I’ve seen this on electric razors, computers, and hair dryers. So check to see if you equipment switches automatically or manually.

Typical US plug

2) Plugs- Now that we have determined the voltage, we now need to consider electrical plugs and receptacles. As we learned as children, you can’t fit a square peg in a round hole. Likewise U.S. electrical plug will not fit into electrical receptacles in other countries. As you can see, the rectangular U.S. plug is not going to fit into the round European receptacle. However, this is an easy fix. All you need is to buy a ‘plug adapter.’

European receptacle

There are several different types of plugs and some countries have more than one shape. Unfortunately the shapes must match.

Worldwide plug adapters

These are cheap and easily available in hardware stores and online (Amazon.com). You can buy individual plug adapters or a package of adapters that will fit almost every receptacle in the world. To use an adapter, you simply plug the U.S. plug into the back of the plug adapter. With the adapter on, you can now plug into the receptacle. Also make sure you consider if you have any U. S. products that are grounded (three prong). If so, make sure you also but adapters that take a grounded plug. Finally, remember that PLUG ADAPTERS DO NOT CHANGE VOLTAGE.

3) Hertz (Hz) – No this is not the car rental company. Hertz (Hz) is the frequency at which the equipment cycles or repeats. The standard is the U.S. is 60 Hz/second. However, many foreign countries cycle at 50 Hz which is 17% slower. This means a motor will rotate 17% slower. We used an electric razor in Europe and you could definitely tell the clipper blades moved slower. Today many consumer electronic products automatically sense and modify voltage and hertz. However, you need to check each device you will use. A difference in hertz can affect televisions, refrigerators, razors, and other products that don’t auto sense voltage and hertz; and the difference will cause some devices to burn out or die faster than normal. However, differences in Hz do not affect products that heat, such as hair dryers, nor will it affect appliances that convert AC (alternating current) to DC (direct current).

With all of that said, more and more international hotels and many cruise ships have dual voltage plugs. Just check with the hotel or cruise line in advance. It makes the trip easier.