Choosing Power Adapters and Electrical Converters for UK Travel

Overloaded power strip
••• Sadeugra/Getty Images
  • 01 of 05

    Why Do You Need Power Adapters?

    North American electrical devices need some help to operate in the United Kingdom and Ireland. But, before you rush out and stock up on expensive transformers and sets of mix and match adaptor plugs, get the facts.

    For a short visit, dual voltage electrical devices (hair dryers, hot rollers) and a few adapter plugs may be all you need. You don't even have to worry about your consumer electronics (camera chargers, laptop computers, digital readers). They come equipped to deal with voltage differences so all you need are adapter plugs.  

    The Science Behind Power Outlets

    Power is supplied from UK wall sockets (called power points, by the way) at about 220 volts (actually 220 to 240V). The alternating current cycle is rated at speed of 50Hz. In North America, power is supplied at 110 to 120V and alternates at 60Hz. Except for microwave ovens, clocks and products with sensitive timing mechanisms, most North American devices can operate at either 50 or 60Hz. Voltage is another matter.

    If you...MORE plug devices designed for use at only 110 to 120V into power points flowing at 220 to 240V, not only won't they work, they may explode. At the least, they will certainly set off a rather fine fireworks display before they self-destruct.

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  • 02 of 05

    Dual Voltage Devices for the UK and Ireland

    AC Power Adaptor
    ••• Camera charger showing dual voltage capability. Next to the word "Input", look for the numbers "100-240V". That means this device works on US voltage (120V) or UK and European voltage (220V). Ferne Arfin

    The Dual Voltage Solution

    You'd be surprised at how many of the electrical devices you'd expect to take on vacation are dual voltage. Hair dryers, shavers, travel irons and clothes steamers all now come in dual-voltage versions that can be switched over to 220-240 volts when you pack. Laptop computers and other modern electronics are usually made to operate at dual voltages and will switch over automatically. And chargers for most rechargeable devices - cameras, music storage, cell phones and other battery operated equipment can almost always be plugged into English sockets (with an adapter plug), even when the devices themselves cannot.

    To be sure, check the rating, usually on the bottom of the product, or its AC adaptor. If it says "Input: AC100-240V", as in the picture above, you are safe to use it in the UK. You'll need an adapter plug though. They're inexpensive and easy to find from travel suppliers.

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  • 03 of 05

    Choose the Right Adapter Plugs

    UK Plugs
    ••• Standard UK plugs have three fat prongs that fit into the "power points" in UK homes and buldings. Some plugs have fuses that can be replaced by unscrewing the face of the plug. Others, like the one plugged in on the left, are molded and cannot be opened to change fuses or adjust the wiring. Molded plugs are a common safety feature on high voltage items like microwaves. Ferne Arfin

    UK plugs, also used in Ireland, are large and have three, substantial, flat prongs. They are unlike plugs used anywhere else in Europe. If you use dual voltage appliances and devices, all you will need, throughout the UK, is a simple UK Adapter Plug.

    One feature of UK outlets worth noting is that they can be switched on and off at the wall. The "power point" on the left in the two-point wall socket above is turned on, the one on the right is in the off position.

    If your device doesn't work, make sure the power is turned on at the wall socket. 

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  • 04 of 05

    Voltage Converters and Transformers for the UK

    Overloaded power strip
    ••• Sadeugra/Getty Images

    Voltage converters and transformers that reduce incoming voltage from 220 to 110 used to be necessary for heating appliances like hair dryers, curling irons or irons. Technically, they still are for devices that are not dual voltage. But it's actually cheaper and lighter to just buy dual voltage devices or cheap local versions of your hairdryer, etc when you get to the UK.

    Converters and transformers are only meant to be used for short periods of time and should be equipped with an internal circuit breaker to prevent overheating. Converters are much lighter than transformers, but they cannot be used with electronic equipment or motorized devices, which they can damage.

    Transformers are the heaviest and most costly voltage conversion options. Even a small one can cost at least $75 and weigh half a pound. There are 1500W and 3000W transformers available for high wattage devices that weigh 20 pounds and cost more than $200 dollars.

    Unless you're planning to move to the UK, you...MORE don't need to worry about these devices. A voltage converter costs more than the hairdryers, curling irons, shavers and irons they can be used with. And they add ridiculous amounts of weight to your luggage.

    Most hotels and B&Bs, nowadays, have hair dryers available. If you don't think you'll get much use from dual voltage appliances, you can easily pick up a cheap hair dryer or curling iron at any chemist shop after you arrive. 

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  • 05 of 05

    The Bottom Line

    Frankly, unless you are completely addicted to your gaming console and can't go anywhere without it, transformers and voltage converters make little sense on vacation. They add cost to your travel budget and weight to your luggage that is out of proportion to their use for a typical vacationer. Battery chargers -- for your entertainment devices, cameras, laptops and tablets always operate at US or UK voltages and the selection of dual voltage appliances - most likely including all your electrical gear - is easy to find and constantly increasing.

    All you really need to carry is an adapter plug or two and your collection of dual voltage appliances and you're ready to rock and roll.​