Don’t fry your electronics or be caught with round prongs when only flats will do. Here’s a little primer on voltage and plug shape, with a few handy websites to bookmark and revisit any time you’re off to foreign lands unknown.
In most places, electricity comes out of the wall at approximately either 110 or 220 volts, though there are regions with voltage as low as 100 V (Okinawa) and as high as 280 V (Kabul). A few countries have more than one voltage running at the same time (homes in Brazil are notorious for this), and usually the 220 outlets are labelled as such.
Educate yourself or lick your wounds: plugging in a 220 appliance at 110 means it runs reallllly slowwwww. Plugging in a 110 appliance at 220 means a curly wisp of dense white smoke and your appliance ceasing to function. RIP mini food processor, 2001-2006.
Luckily, most camera chargers, many electric razors, and almost all computers can accept 110 or 220 V. If not, you’ll have to carry a transformer (not the same as an adapter).
Once you’ve sorted out the voltage issue, there are five or so main plug shapes you may encounter. I like to think of them as:
- Flat-pronged – 2 flat prongs with a possible 3rd for the ground (US and parts of the Caribbean)
- Skinny round prongs – In 2s and 3s with the ground (parts of South America)
- Fat round prongs – Usually only in 3s with the ground (much of Europe)
- Sad-face – 2 diagonal flat prongs, with or without the 3rd for grounding (Argentina, Australia, NZ,Fiji)
- Boxy – 2 squared off prongs with a square ground (UK, British Caribbean, UAE, and many more)
You’ll need an adapter that changes your home prong configuration to the correct prongs for where you’re going, and in many cases does an (alert: dangerous!) end-run around the ground, which in many places is not used. Adapters do not adjust for voltage — for that you need a transformer, though hopefully your appliances will accept either voltage set.
For more details (and a more official nomenclature for the above prong configurations), visit the Global Electric and Phone Directory or ElectricalOutlet.org, with photos and diagrams of the plugs and outlets used in each country.
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Eileen Smith is the editor of Matador Abroad. She's an ex-Brooklynite who's made a life in Santiago, Chile. She's a fluent Spanish speaker who can be found biking, hiking, writing, photographing and/or seeking good coffee and nibbles at most hours of the day. She blogs here.
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