When traveling overseas, you’ll most likely need a travel adapter or converter. Most people don’t know the differences and when picking it off the shelf, they’ll probably just buy the adapter since it costs less than the converter. But, is that the right product? It all depends on the electronics that you’ll be plugging in.
Before we get into the electrical differences, let’s talk about the physical differences. Most of you already know that the outlets are not universal across the globe. Your plugs here in the US won’t work in Europe and so you need a travel adapter.
Once you start searching, you’ll probably find some that are specific to the country you’re traveling to. But why limit yourself to just that one country? There are universal travel adapters that is designed to accommodate basically any plug type you need without needing separate adapters for each location. The difference in price, in my opinion, between one that’s specific for only one country to a universal adapter may only be a couple of dollars so it’ll definitely be worth it to get a universal adapter.
When it comes to the electrical differences between an adapter and a converter, it basically comes down to the voltage from the outlet. In the US, the power outlet voltage is 120 volts. In Europe, the voltage is 230 volts, almost double. You’ll also see frequency ratings next to the voltage such as 60 Hz for the US and 50 Hz in Europe. This part is less important to remember since devices that are designed to work with either voltage will already have taken into account the frequency of the power.
Most consumer devices these days such as your chargers for your smartphone, tablets and laptops are designed so that it’ll work with voltages ranging from 100 – 240 volts. All you need is a plug adapter and that’s what the basic travel adapter does. There is no real electronics in these devices, it’s purely a physical adapter to accommodate the different plugs in other countries.
However, there are still devices that won’t accommodate the wide voltage range and are specific to US or European voltages. Some of these devices that I’ve run into are female hair flat irons, travel irons, handheld steamers and older electronic devices. To be sure, read the ratings label on your device.
What a travel converter does that a travel adapter does not is that it will either step-down or step-up the voltage depending on which way you use the converter. If you’re using a 120 volt device plugged into a converter in Europe, the converter will step-down the voltage from 230 volts to 120 volt so that you won’t damage your device. The converter will also work the other way and step-up the voltage for European electronics plugged in the US.
Besides the voltage, travel converters will have power ratings and a list of devices that they recommend not using with the converter. These limitations are due to the components and design of the electronics that handle the power conversion. For example, if a travel converter has a power rating of 600 watts, you definitely won’t be able to use a 1200 watt iron with it. There are also those that do have a power rating of over 1800 watts and still state that it cannot be used with irons. Again, this is due to how the converter manufacturer does the power conversion as there are multiple ways to go about it, but I won’t go into the technical details and put you to sleep.
Word of Caution
So, what can happen if you don’t use a converter and your device was only rated for either 120 volts or 230 volts? If your device was rated at 230 volts and you plugged into a 120 volt outlet, your device just won’t work properly because it doesn’t have enough voltage for all the electronics to work properly. It won’t necessarily damage your device unless it was extremely poorly designed, but under-voltage usually won’t kill your device. On the flip side, over-voltage can be extremely dangerous. If you plugged in a 120 volt device into a 230 volt outlet, your device will most likely just die or possibly start sparking and cause a fire. Don’t risk it!
So, before you travel, take a look at all the rating labels of your electronics to see if all you need is a travel adapter or if you really do need a converter. I know some would say to just get a converter and you’ll never have to worry and if this is you, make sure you get a universal converter with a high power rating (greater than 1200 watts) with no device limitations.