Electrical and Computer Stuff

There are two main things to know when sorting out electrical stuff overseas, voltage and cycles (sometimes called frequency). In the U.S. the voltage is 110-125V and 60 cycles, also written as 60HZ.

This means that one of three conditions must be met before you can use anything electrical abroad that you brought with you:

  1. The country's electrical system must be the same as in the U.S., or differ in a non-significant way;
  2. Your electrical device must be dual- or multi-voltage;
  3. You have or the hotel supplies a proper converter/transformer;

Let's take these on one at a time.

Electrical Systems

Most good guidebooks should tell you what the electrical system is like in the host country.

This site also has a handy table of the electrical systems of various countries.

Some countries have more than one system at the same time—in Japan, for example, the voltage is uniformly 100V nation-wide, though the northern/eastern half runs at 50 HZ while the southern/western half is set at 60HZ. Korea, showing the influence of the long years of U.S. military presence no doubt, has scattered pockets of 110V 60HZ and 220V 50HZ and probably some other system just for spice. Anyway, if the host country system is the same as at home, you can stop here and snicker smugly as the rest of us slog forward…

Some electrical things bought in the U.S. are dual voltage, or multi-system. Many laptop computers, for example, work this way. Same for a lot of electric shavers. The only way to tell is to look for a label on the device, or on the power pack the device uses, and see something like “110/220 50/60”. If you're not sure, it is best to enlist help. Check with a store, call tech support or ask Cousin Ed who seems to know about such things.

If all else fails, you are left in converter/transformer territory. Basically, these are devices that change the host country electricity into the type your device needs. Converter/transformers are NOT the same thing as changing the plug (see below).

Most converter/transformers are big heavy things, and are definitely not something you'll be packing along. A transformer transforms voltages of AC (alternating current) power. If you plug a 120/240 transformer into the wall in Europe, and then your gadget into the transformer, your gadget will draw tha same 4 Amps from the transformer, but the transformer will draw only 2 Amps from the wall. 120 Volts x 4 Amps = 480 Watts = 240 Volts x 2 Amps There is no “excess voltage”. Any heat (or hum) that you feel (or hear) coming from a transformer is due to the inneficiency of the transformer.

Plugs

In addition to the electrical systems being different from country to country, the plug shape and size can also vary.

In the U.S. we use a two bladed plug, or sometimes a grounded plug with two blades and a cylindrical pin (i.e., “three prong”). In Britain many plugs are giant clunky white things with spikes for blades that look a lot like those super plugs we see in the U.S. attached to clothes dryers. In Korea the standard plug has two pins, not blades.

The point is that even if all is OK with the electricity (for example, if your laptop computer is dual voltage), you may still be stymied by incompatible plug shapes and/or sizes.

Which brings us ‘round to “plug converters”, sold in many travel goods stores, catalogs and the like. If I had a couple of bucks for each time someone bought a plug converter kit in the Grover's Corners Wal-Mart to assist them in blowing up an electrical device in London, I'd be able to quit my day job.

Plug converters only change the shape of the plug. They do not change the electricity coming out of the wall, nor do they change the electrical requirements of your device. Be careful out there.

That all said, if you do need plug converters and can't find them locally at a travel/luggage store or the nearby Radio Shack, you might try calling the folks at Magellan's at 800-962-4943.

Safety

And so what? Safety is the main what here, in that plugging a device into the wrong electricity usually results in the device blowing up, shorting out, catching on fire, and the like, none of which are child-friendly.

In addition to ruining your device, you can also do all sorts of bad things to the hotel wiring and thus possible start fires, anger bell persons and knock out the cable TV just when the kids fell off to sleep.

Nightlights

We mentioned this earlier, but in case you missed it, a nightlight can make a strange room more familiar, and/or light the way to the toilet at night.

If you're not sure if the usual nightlights will work where you are going, you can buy a few “chemical lightsticks” at a camping or military surplus store. You shake them the right way and they give off a green colored glow. Leave the chemlight in the bathroom sink and it lights the way (the light is sealed and will not be harmed by water dripping out of the faucet). The lights burn out in a few hours and are only one-use, so you will not be joining us in forgetting nightlights in a zillion hotel rooms around the world (if you do find one we left behind, can you give me a call please?).

Buying Local

Depending on where you are and how long you'll be there, you might also consider buying a nightlight or some other relatively inexpensive electrical device locally. You might be able to find a local device that is dual-voltage (for example, in Korea where there are two very different electrical systems in a small area, many devices are dual-voltage) that you can also use at home.

If you are shopping for electrical things to bring home as gifts or for yourself, pay attention to the requirements to make sure it will work once you're back. This advice is double-important regarding televisions, video anythings, DATs and some DVDs, all of which can be very region-specific and not be any use at all back home. I have found that software bought abroad that says it is “PC-compatible” usually is. Same for music CD's and cassette tapes.

Modems

It would be my hope that if you bring along a laptop on a trip with the family it would be primarily so you can consult this website from time to time, as opposed to living on E*BAY time in Rome.

Don't forget that phone systems and phone plugs also differ around the world. Significantly, the amount of electricity in the phone lines (which powers the phones and the little light on the so-called “Princess” models) varies from country to country. Some hotels use PBXs that can carry a lot more electrical power than a normal phone line. The point here is that you might just fry your modem and/or parts of your laptop if you proceed without checking.

Again, consult your computer maker's tech support and/or a computer shop (maybe it will be a “shoppe” since you're abroad) in the host country before doing any damage. I've heard that Radio Shack and other electronic stores sell line testers that can tell you if it is OK to plug in your modem.

An Internet Service Provider that has local access numbers in other countries is quite useful. You sign up with America On-line (AOL) at home and use their local (no toll) or 800- number while in your living room.

Before you depart, get their overseas access numbers so that you can make a local call to AOL from your hotel and read your e-mail as if you were at home, without any costly long distance charges.

An easy way to stay in touch is to stop by a so-called cyber cafe where you can rent an hour of Internet time for relatively few lira, zlots, yen or francs in most parts of the world. Think carefully before typing in any passwords, credit card numbers or naughty e-mails on a public computer in a cafe you visit one Thursday in Dublin.

These folks have a listing of many cyber cafes around the world, but I've found that these businesses open and close pretty fast, so a local guidebook, computer magazine or a word of advice from the hotel's desk clerk is probably more useful than an address copied off the ‘Net while you're still at home.

Batteries

Your dreams have come true and the darn Nintendo has beeped and whistled its last. Still, since you finished playing with it, you feel the tug of responsibility and figure you should put fresh batteries in before giving it back to your child.

In every place we have traveled where you could buy batteries at all we have been able to find standards such as AA, C and D cells. You cannot always be assured of finding alkaline cells and on more than one occasion we have had to make do at some risk with the older carbon cells that are more prone to leaking.

We have found that 9V batteries (the square kind often found in smoke detectors) can be much harder to locate outside the U.S. The smaller AAA cells seem to be readily available in much of Asia. For the odd sized cells found in still cameras, watches and video units, do not assume you will be able to replace them abroad.

If the cells in your device are old, or prone to die quickly, consider bringing along your own spares. Even if somewhere in Tokyo there exists the “XP-47a 3.92 volt MightySuperCell”, you may not really want to devote as much time as it would take to find it. We have found that even items made in a particular country may have been designed specifically for the overseas markets and not have the right batteries available on their home turf.

Same for batteries for things that must work, such as hearing aids. Pack your own spares to be safe.

If you need more information on computers, phones and other electrical-like things overseas, one of the best places to go is Kropla's Help for World Travelers. The site shows you drawings of plug types world-wide, and gives specific technical info on different telephone systems around the planet and beyond. If it is not listed or linked to here, but has to do with electrical stuff overseas, you probably don't need to know it.

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