Plugging in overseas

By Mark Gallo
This item appears on page 52 of the August 2017 issue.

Traveling with a hair dryer or curling iron? It may or may not require a converter to safely power up overseas. How about your cell phone and tablet? These have built-in voltage converters, so only an adapter is needed to plug into a foreign wall socket. 

Here is the skinny on powering up your devices in foreign lands.

Adapter or converter?

Most of the time, what you need for plugging in overseas is simply an adapter plug, not a converter. 

While it’s true that most countries outside of North America and Central America operate on 220/240 volts, smartphones, tablets, cameras and laptops are dual voltage and, therefore, capable of converting overseas voltage to the American standard of 110/120V. (Your power cord should indicate 100V to 240V.) 

Australia Plug
EU Plug
UK Plug

Converters are necessary when plugging in single-voltage North American appliances like hair dryers. But avoid the extra expense and space required to pack a converter. Check with your hotel to see if they provide hair dryers, buy a dual-voltage hair dryer or simply go without.

Grounded or non-grounded adapter?

In addition to being dual-voltage capable, most smartphones, tablets, cameras and laptops use a 2-prong, non-grounded plug to charge from a wall outlet. All you’ll need is a non-grounded 2-prong adapter plug. 

However, a grounded adapter plug will work for both 2-prong and 3-prong (grounded) plugs, so if you want to cover all your bases, get a grounded adapter. 

To find the right adapter, go online and search for the name of your destination country followed by the words “non-grounded adapter” or “grounded adapter” (e.g., “non-grounded China adapter”). You will be able to determine if it is non-grounded by the presence of only two prongs, except for United Kingdom adapters, which have three prongs, with the third prong being nonmetallic (i.e., it does not act as a ground). 

Grounded adapters always have three prongs. (UK grounded adapters have three metallic prongs.)

Also note that some countries may require up to three different types of adapters (or even four in the case of China) due to differing wall outlets in different regions, a vestige of their colonial legacies.

US travelers going to countries that have North American-style 100V/120V outlets (e.g., Japan, Mexico and parts of South America) do not need adapters.  

If you’re traveling with a tour group, it’s best to check with your tour organizer for adapter recommendations. Otherwise, you can check with your hotel, hostel or Airbnb host for outlet specifications. 

Most common adapters for US travelers

The adapters referenced below work for smartphones, tablets, digital cameras and many models of laptops, as these are dual-voltage with 2-prong charging cords that work with non-grounded adapters. 

If your appliance happens to have a grounded 3-prong charging cord, then choose the grounded (but pricier and bulkier) versions of these plugs, as they accommodate non-grounded 2-prong plugs too.

• Continental Europe Adapter Plug (non-grounded) ― In addition to working on the European continent, this adapter plug works in parts of the Middle East, Asia, Africa and South America where Europeans historically had a controlling interest.

• UK Adapter Plug (non-grounded) ― Used in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales as well as in Hong Kong, parts of China, the Middle East and Africa.

• Australia/China Adapter Plug (non-grounded) ― Used in parts of China, all of Australia and New Zealand, parts of South America and in the South Pacific as well.

To sum up, if you’re going to France or Germany, you need take only the Continental Europe adapter plug, but if you’re traveling to a country where two or more different adapters are used (e.g., China, India, parts of Africa and South America), then you’ll need to do more planning by either contacting your hotels for wall-socket specifications or taking multiple adapters with you.

Mark Gallo is the owner of CircaTerra Travel Outfitters in Santa Barbara, CA (805/568-5402,, and he can be reached at

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