Electrical Facts

An electrical primer for Germany and Europe: 220 volts and all that

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This is a practical guide for travelers and expats living in German-speaking countries related to sources for, and how to adapt to, European 220-volt/dual-voltage home appliances and other devices. We will discuss everything from computers to refrigerators. If you have or need household appliances, a multi-system television (PAL, SECAM, ATSC/NTSC), a DVD/Blu-ray player, DVR, stereo, laptop, telephone, fax machine, washer-dryer, or anything else that runs on electricity, pay attention. Here’ what you need to know…

laptop in hotel

You can use your laptop computer in Germany and the rest of Europe. All you need is a plug adapter.
PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

If you want to bring any electrical appliances or devices from North America to Europe, think twice. While rechargeable, low-power electronics (cell phones, laptop computers, cameras, iPads, etc.) present few problems, you need to know a lot more about large appliances, TV sets, and anything else that doesn’t run on batteries.

First, the standard household electrical outlet in most of Europe – including Austria, Germany, and Switzerland – packs a wallop of 220-240 volts, twice the standard household voltage in North America. A normal 110/120-volt electrical appliance designed for use in the US, Canada or Mexico will provide a nice fireworks display, complete with sparks and smoke, if plugged into a European outlet without a voltage converter.

Second, North American and European electrical plugs are like square pegs in round holes—literally. A German plug (ein Stecker) has two round prongs, and a German electrical outlet (eine Steckdose) has, quite logically, two round holes for a receptacle. But even within Europe you may encounter several electrical plug variations (see the Swiss outlet pictured below), including skinnier or fatter prongs, and recessed or not-recessed outlets. Most plug-adapter kits include what you need, but if you plan on visiting several different countries, make sure you have the right adapters.

Swiss electrical outlet

Some electrical outlets in Switzerland, like this 3-way one, have a special shape that even a German round Stecker won’t fit. PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

If you absolutely must have those US appliances or devices, it can be done, but you need to be aware of the problems involved, as well as the pros and cons of various solutions. Read on…

Plug Adapters versus Voltage Converters
While it is easy to buy plug adapters that convert the North American-style flat pronged plugs to European round Schuko ones, this only solves half the problem. It doesn’t help with the voltage disparity. Also, keep in mind that there are at least six different models of European plugs, and — just to keep things interesting — even the more-or-less-standard round pronged plugs come in fat-pronged and skinny-pronged versions!

A plug or other electrical product approved for use in Germany, has a “DVE” marking (“ÖVE” in Austria, “+S” in Switzerland) on the item or on the accompanying literature. This is the Germanic equivalent of the “UL” symbol in the US. (Most adapters sold in the US will not have the European markings, since they are intended for use in more than one European country. This does not mean they are unsafe.) Often in Europe, because of the many electrical variations, appliances are sold without any electrical cord or plug. You sometimes have to buy that separately.

More at The German Way
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GW Expat Blog: Electrical advice for American expats in Europe.

Most modern German electrical outlets (sockets) are recessed into the wall. Avoid any small voltage converters that have European prongs extending directly from the converter, and thus will not work in a recessed outlet without an additional adapter plug tacked on.

If your computer, shaver, video camera, iron, or what-have-you is a multi-voltage model (and most newer ones are), all you’ll need for Europe are plug adapters. If not, you’ll also need to buy a voltage transformer or converter.

Electrical Items from The German Way Store
See The German Way Store for more travel, electrical, and travel items.

Two Different Types of Voltage Converters
There are basically two kinds of voltage converters. One is for low wattage devices, such as shavers or radios that use less than about 50 watts. Bigger items that use more current — TV sets, irons, refrigerators, etc. — require a more heavy-duty (and heavier) voltage converter. Since these transformers can also weigh a lot and are expensive, it may be wiser to simply buy or rent German appliances that are already able to digest the higher voltages, or buy a transformer in Germany. But, believe it or not, you may save money by buying European-design appliances in the US. The savings over purchasing in Germany can be as much as 50 percent. (See sources listed below.) Of course, don’t forget to add in any possible shipping costs or customs duties as part of the total price. (Household items you bring along to Germany are usually not subject to duties.)

Batteries and Akkus
Anything that runs on battery power will not be a problem (unless it’s a TV set). But if you need to plug it in for recharging, make sure that the charger can be set for 220-240 volts. The chargers that come with or are built into most modern video cameras, shavers, and other electronic devices are designed to sense the voltage automatically. (But read the user’s manual or labels carefully first!) Most standard US batteries are also readily available in Europe, but you may want to bring along a backup if you have an unusual type. A rechargeable battery, such as those used in laptop computers or video cameras, is called an Akkumulator in German, usually shortened to der Akku.

Battery Disposal: In Germany, you are discouraged from simply throwing batteries away in the normal trash. Most German communities have special containers and strict requirements for the disposal of various kinds of waste — glass, metal, chemicals, biodegradables, etc. Europe has also been a leader in mandating lower amounts of dangerous mercury in batteries. In some EU countries, including Germany, laws require that batteries be returned to retail outlets for proper disposal. Most German drug stores (Drogerien, not pharmacies), such as Rossmann or Müller, have special battery disposal bins near the checkout stand.

Television (Fernsehen) – DVD/Blu-ray
Television adds a few complications not present in other devices. Adapting a television set, DVD/Blu-ray player, or DVR requires more than just a voltage converter. A North American (ATSC/NTSC) TV set or DVD player will not function in the PAL mode used in most of Europe. For longer stays in German-speaking Europe you may want to purchase a multi-system television set that can display both American ATSC and German PAL standard TV pictures. Multi-system DVD/Blu-ray players that can play both American and German discs are also available. People with extensive collections of US DVDs can simply use a step-down transformer for their US equipment, but this won’t allow the viewing of German television or DVDs. For that you’ll still need a German television set and/or a German DVD/Blu-ray player (or a multi-norm system).

See our German Television page for more information and links concerning television and video.

Sometimes the Frequency “Hertz”
There are some special electrical devices that just won’t work properly – even with a voltage converter – when transported from North America to Europe or vice versa. We’ve already mentioned TV sets, but this particular “won’t work” category has to do with the difference in hertz, or cycles per second. The alternating current (AC) flowing into your North American house has a frequency of 60 hertz (60 Hz, 60 cycles per second). The AC in Europe and most of the world has a 50-hertz rate. This cycles-per-second difference has a practical outcome that is noticeable in certain devices. Clocks and record turntables will rotate at a slower or faster speed. An electric clock made for use in North America (60 Hz) will run slow in Europe (50 Hz). (Of course, battery-powered wrist watches are not affected by this problem.) Turntables have the same problem, although some have a speed adjustment that may or may not fix the problem.

Bottom line: Don’t bring electric clocks or turntables! – By the way, the electrical term “hertz” is named for the German physicist Heinrich Rudolf Hertz (1857-1894), who did pioneering work in the field of electricity and electromagnetism.

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Sources for 220-Volt Electrical Appliances and Transformers
The following sources sell appliances, DVD players, TV sets, electrical equipment, and voltage converters that will work in Austria, Germany, Switzerland and all of Europe.

Legal Notice: We are not responsible for the content of external links.

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