I answered a question earlier today that I realize could be useful to others — it’s basic stuff for the seasoned international traveler, but worth sharing for the first-timer going abroad: power adapters and converters.

A converter alters the power so that it matches the needs of your device. For instance, Europe runs on 220 volt electricity while the US is 110 volt. Most devices do not need a converter. Nearly all modern electronics are dual voltage meaning they work on both 110 and 220 volts. You do not need a converter just an adapter so you can plug them straight into the wall. This almost certainly true for your laptop and mobile phone.

On the other hand hair devices (curling irons, flat irons, hair dryers) that aren’t dual voltage [and most aren’t] will need a converter, and you need one rated for the wattage of the device you’re using.

An adapter makes your cord, shaped for US outlets, stick into a socket where the shape in other countries is different. You can by a cheap ‘universal’ adapter for ~ $10 or buy country-specific ones for ~ $3 with shipping.

The question I was asked was specific to Europe and there’s no such thing as a Europe-wide plug. This underscores that while there are just a handful of different outlet types they do vary by country and for differing historical reasons.

The UK has its own 3-prong outlets (also used in places like Hong Kong, I wonder why…). That’s different from France (2 prong, rounded) and also different from Italy. France’s is what’s usually termed ‘Europe’ though parts of Europe do use different outlets. If you’re buying country-specific adapters, make sure you have the adapter that will work where you’re traveling.

    European Power Adapter

I’ve made a mistake before and used a device that required a converter, simply plugging it into the wall. I fried the (cheap) device and also blew a fuse in the room.

One thing I do that both protects my device (a little) and means I don’t need as many converters or adapters is I’ll have one, plug into the wall, and plus a compact travel power strip into them. That way I can run multiple devices off a single outlet.


  1. John Doe said,

    Gary, where you serious when you wondered why the HK prongs are similar to UK prongs?

  2. John Doe said,

    Gary, were you serious when you wondered why the HK prongs are similar to UK prongs?

  3. CatJo said,

    The Kikkerland universal travel adapter (http://www.kikkerland.com/products/universal-travel-adapter) is an excellent companion for international travel (and pretty cheap http://amzn.to/1uOcpYO)

  4. Broc said,

    It’s not worth the trouble to bring a 110 device that needs a converter, such as any small appliance. It would be much cheaper to borrow or buy whatever you would need.

    You will most likely need an adapter, even for a dual voltage laptop or other electronic device, which you can buy in advance, or if you forget, in the country you visit.

    It’s fun to visit a large superstore (hypermarket) like Metro, Carrefour, Migros/Co-Op, where you can buy an adapter, a small appliance, or whatever else you might need!

  5. Zippy Pam said,

    I no longer need a converter but the power strip is invaluable. Trying to get everything charged each night – camera batteries, laptop, ereader, phone – is virtually impossible without one. It also comes in handy in airports when only one plug is available to be shared among many. However, I realized that my power strip is designed for 110. I need to buy another one. Also – don’t forget a travel surge protector. I burned up a computer plugged into a 110 outlet on a new cruise ship that had electrical issues.

  6. Marc said,

    There’s one more consideration: frequency. Power in North America alternates at 60 cycles/second (Hertz); the rest of the world varies between 60 or 50Hz. Simple heating appliances (travel irons, for example) won’t care about the frequency; items with motors or sensitive electronics may be destroyed if you try to run them at the wrong frequency.

    When buying travel gadgets (or picking which ones to pack), take a look at the electrical specifications sticker. My laptop power adapter, for example, is an iGo Green. Its “INPUT” spec says “100-240V – 1.5A – 50-60Hz”; I’ve used it on three continents and only had to mess with physical plug adapters.

  7. FlyingBear said,

    You can use the same adapter for both France and Italy. I’ve been traveling with the same one for a while now, yet to run into issues.

  8. Nick said,

    It’s true that Europe isn’t entirely harmonised with electrical power, but there are some hacks you can do if you’re stuck. The UK mains format is unique, but you can usually get a Euro 2-pin connector into the bottom two square pins of a UK socket. Just gently insert something *plastic* about 5mm (1/4″) into the top (earth) pin to release the safety shields on the bottom two pins.

    Euro plugs will work almost anywhere on the mainland apart from Switzerland, which has a very strange ‘squashed hexagon’ shape recess in their socket, rather than a circular recess used almost everywhere else. An unearthed Euro plug (which are a squished oval shape with two pins) will nearly always work in both Euro and Swiss sockets. If you’ve got an earthed plug (three pins – round for Euro, squished hexagon-shaped in Swiss), you’ll need an adaptor.

    The good news is that we did manage to harmonise our voltage everywhere at 230v. In a great piece of compromise, the UK came down 10v (from 240v) and the mainland went up 10 (from 220v).

  9. Jim L said,

    Here is how to know if you need a converter: Look at the manufacturer’s label on the device (you may need a magnifying glass) and look for the word “INPUT”. If it only lists 110v or 120v, you need a converter. If it shows 110v-240v, then you only need an adapter.

  10. stvr said,

    I never bring these anymore as all chain hotels stock these at the front desk. (And I somehow always end up at a Hilton or Radisson or the like.)

  11. Robert said,

    Gary: how about a link to your preferred adapter and also the power strip you think is small enough for travel. I recall you posted the power strip link before, but it killed the Amazon availability before I could order one.

  12. Angela said,

    Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia use 3-prong outlets because they are former British colonies.

  13. Gary Leff said,

    @John Doe – no, that was not an actual question.

  14. MyTravels said,

    Not sure why it wasn’t mentioned, but most US flagged hotels will have one 110 V outlet in the room (typically a “shaver outlet” in the bathroom).

    Obviously this doesn’t work for everyone, and again, most is not all, but depending on where you’re staying it may save you from packing a converter if you have a device that requires one.

  15. One Thing I ALWAYS Take When Traveling InternationallyMiles to Memories said,

    […] at View From The Wing had a post today about international adapters and whether or not you need a converter or not. It got me […]

  16. Andy said,

    A little help for the electronically challenged…

    I bought the “Outlets To Go Power Strip with USB – Black” and took it on my next international trip. It didn’t work as the plug had 3 prongs & wouldn’t fit into my adapter. My adapter is the “Worldwide Travel Adaptor
    by Design Go”

    Any suggestions for power strips and adapters that are compatible and usable outside the US?

    Thanks, Andy

  17. Curious George said,

    @Gary – A lot of former British colonies use the 3 prong outlets. Just used them Kenya.

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