Electricity Glossary Terms For World Travelers

Voltage, wattage, converters, and transformers all play a role in determining whether or not your electronic device will work as it is supposed to. However, for world travelers, it can be difficult to tell the difference between electricity requirements in various countries. You want to be able to plug your electronics into power outlets without causing damage to the product or the circuits, which is why it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with common terms and items you will see around the world.

Doing so will help you understand when you need to use voltage converters, where a step up or step down transformer will come in handy, and what items you should take with you on your next trip abroad. Before getting to the more technical terms with which to be familiar, it is important to know the difference between electronics and electrical devices.

Electrical Device – An electrical device is one that uses a mechanical motor and plugs directly into a wall socket. This category includes hair dryers, electric toothbrushes, coffee makers, and other small appliances. Electrical devices will likely need an adapter to plug into an outlet and may require a voltage converter as well, depending on the country visited. If the voltage rating of your device is not the same as the power supply in the country you are visiting, you can use a converter or transmitter with the correct wattage, for a short period of time.

Electronic Device – Electronic devices are much more common in the luggage of world travelers. These items have electronic motors, as well as circuits and chips to generate power. These devices include such items as cell phones, digital cameras, laptops, e-readers, battery chargers, and music players. In order to safely plug in electronics in foreign countries, you will most likely need an adapter plug and transformer. If the voltage rating for your electronic device does not match that for the power supply you need, you should only use it with the proper transformer for under three hours at a time.

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), U.S. fire departments responded to more than 47,000 home structure fires involving electrical failure or malfunction from 2007-11. While these numbers only include the United States, knowing the risks of using the wrong electrical equipment is essential when traveling, to avoid similar problems. The following is a list of common terms and products you will come across that will allow you to operate your electrical and electronic devices safely while you travel.

AC Adapter – The AC adapter is the power cord that comes with your device upon purchase. It is what you use to plug your device into a power outlet in order to operate it and/or charge its battery. The AC adapter consists of a box that converts alternating current (AC) coming out of the outlet to the direct current (DC) the device needs to operate. No matter where you travel, do not leave home without your AC adapter.

AC – Alternating current (AC) is the most common type of power supply in the world.

DC – Direct current (DC) is the type of power supply that your electronic device needs in order to work. You will be able to find the type of output information on your device’s AC adapter so you know what voltage is required for your device. This information is helpful when you need to replace an AC adapter so you can get the correct one.

Frequency – Frequency refers to the speed at which the electric current alternates. It is expressed in Hertz (Hz), which is the equivalent to cycles per second. The standard frequency in the United States and Canada is 60Hz, but, in many of the countries around the world, the frequency is 50Hz. While this is typically not an issue for travelers, there are some devices that have electric timers in them that could be affected by the change in frequency. Many of the portable devices in use today are configured to work within a range of frequencies, usually 50-60Hz, to make it easier on travelers.

Grounded Plugs/Outlets – A grounded plug or wall outlet has three prongs, with the look of the plug or outlet varying by country or region. Most of your portable devices have ungrounded adapters, which only use two prongs. While you can use a grounded plug with an ungrounded adapter, it is important to note the risks ahead of time. This configuration is unlikely to cause harm during occasional short-term use, but consult your owner’s manual so you know of any limitations before you travel.

Power Outlet – The power outlet is the wall socket or power strip that you will plug your device or charger into. Plug types and sizes vary by country, which means you will need an adapter plug in order to plug in your devices. You can get an adapter for a single country, or a universal option when traveling to multiple destinations. Countries within the same region, such as Europe, typically use the same type of plug. Some hotels in foreign countries will have 120-volt outlets to allow guests to use low-wattage appliances, but you may be required to bring a transformer to safely use your devices.

Transformers – Transformers are for long-term use with single-volt appliances. Electric transformers are available as either “step up” or “step down,” and they are used to convert the power supply to the required voltage for your device. For example, when you need to use a North American appliance that uses 110 volts in a country with a power supply of 220 volts, you will need a step down transformer to avoid causing damage to the device or the socket. World travelers typically do not need to bring along a transformer, since AC adapters for most devices are dual or multi-voltage. However, it is important to check the instruction manual to confirm this before you travel.

Voltage – Voltage refers to the rating of either the power supply at your destination or for your device. You can look up the voltage of the power supply in your destination country online before you travel, so you know if your device will be compatible. Remember, adapter plugs do not convert voltage on their own. The voltage in North America is typically 115 volts, while, in most other countries, it is in the range of 220-240 volts. Check to see if your device is made for international use. If not, it will need a transformer or converter to be used while you travel.

Voltage Converters – Voltage converters are to be used with electrical devices only, not electronic devices (see above for the distinction). You only need to bring a converter with you if your appliance is single voltage and this number is different than the voltage for the power supply at your travel destination. When purchasing a converter, be sure to note whether it is designed for low- or high-watt use, so that you are able to get the power needed to operate your device safely.

Watts – Watts, or wattage, refers to the amount of energy your device uses. It is necessary to know the wattage of your device when picking out a converter or transformer. Low-wattage converters are needed for devices that consume less power,while high-power items such as hair dryers need high-power converters.

Once you know whether your personal electronics and electrical appliances will work or not when you travel, it is time to get the adapters and other items you need for your trip. Start by researching the types of plugs found in each country and region. Then you will be able to shop for voltage converters, plug adapters, transformers, and more. If you have any questions or want help finding the products you need, contact Overseas Best Buy –  110220volts.com – for a free consultation at (800) 827-9978.


  1. http://www.nfpa.org/safety-information/for-consumers/causes/electrical/electrical-safety-in-the-home

Types of plugs found in each country and region