When you leave the country, you don’t just have to worry about different currencies and languages — you also have to worry about different plug shapes and electricity voltages. There’s no one standard socket shape or voltage.

If you don’t do your homework ahead of time, you may be unable to use your electrical devices. Even worse, you may damage them by plugging them into the foreign outlets.

Plug Shapes

The most obvious issue you’ll run into is that of the different electrical socket shapes used around the world. You’ll need the appropriate plug shape or you won’t even be able to plug your electronics into the power outlets in the country you’re visiting.

The below diagram from Wikipedia gives us some idea of how plug shapes vary from country to country. Note that North America, continental Europe, the United Kingdom, and Australia all use different plug shapes.

Luckily, plug adapters are easy to come by. You can buy fairly cheap adapters that will allow you to plug your electronics into the outlets in the country you’re visiting.

Important: You must also take voltages into account. If you use an adapter to plug a device into the foreign outlet, it may become damaged if your electric device doesn’t support the voltage. Check the voltages first — see below for more information.

Voltages and Frequencies

Plug shapes aren’t the only thing you need to worry about. Different countries also use different voltages and frequencies of electricity. If you plug in a device that isn’t rated for the outlet’s voltage, it may be seriously damaged.

The below diagram from Wikipedia gives us some idea of the variation between countries. North American power outlets provide 120 volts at 60 Hz. Outlets in Europe provide 230 volts at 50 Hz. Voltages vary in other countries, too.

Read the small print on your devices to find out whether they support the voltages you need. For example, look at the print on your smartphone or laptop charging adapter. If you see something like the following, the adapter is rated to work both in North America and Europe:

100-240V 50/60Hz

Chargers for laptops, smartphones, and tablets are often compatible with both voltage standards. However, you shouldn’t take this for granted — look at the fine print on every adapter before plugging it in. For example, Nintendo 3DS charging adapters are not compatible with both voltage standards.

If your device is rated to work with the voltages in the country you’re visiting, all you need to do is use a plug adapter to connect it to the different physical plug.

If you have devices that aren’t rated to work with the voltages in the country you’re visiting, you’ll need a “voltage converter” that plugs into the foreign outlet and converts the electricity to a different voltage. You can purchase multiple-outlet surge protectors with built-in voltage converters or use single-outlet converters. Not all surge protectors are voltage converters — make sure you’re buying the right one.

Country-Specific Information

Consider both plug shape and voltage before traveling. For more information, look up the countries you’ll be visiting online and check the socket type and voltages they use. You’ll know the type of adapters and converters you’ll need to purchase ahead of time.

Wikipedia has a good list of socket types and voltages used in different countries in its Mains electricity by country article.

You may be able to pick up the adapters and convertors you need at an electronics store when you arrive, but don’t count on it — they can be hard to find. You should do the research and make your purchases ahead of time so you’re prepared.

Image Credit: Plug standard diagram and voltage standard diagram from Wikipedia

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Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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