Hookin' up with higher voltage

by Jeana Coleman
Stripes Europe

Two years ago my friend Mary took a summer job in Spain. After unpacking, plugging in and using her hair straightening iron, it became alarmingly apparent that something was wrong. By using a plug adapter and not a transformer to attempt to convert the electrical voltage, her appliance overheated and she proceeded to burn a section of hair from ear to shoulder. Mary learned a tough lesson about Spain’s voltage standard and sported a short haircut for the remainder of her stay.

Mary’s mistake is actually common for people who move overseas. Sometimes, the situation is even worse. Before you start unpacking and hooking up your appliances to higher voltage, below is a quick explanation about voltage, frequency, surges and outlets. You may decide to leave most of your high wattage, 110 volt appliances in storage until you return to the United States.


There is no worldwide standard voltage system, frequency or plug design. The U.S., Japan and some countries in North, Central and South America use between 100 to 127 voltage and 60Hz of frequency, while most of the world, including Europe and the U.K., use 200 to 240 volts and 50Hz. Even countries who share voltage output may use diff erent frequency, aff ecting certain appliances with thermostats and clocks, which lose about ten minutes per hour.

Countries first established power standards separately without consideration of a standardized system. In the1950s when Europe standardized to 220v and 50Hz, most homes in the U.S. were equipped with large appliances such as refrigerators, ovens and washer and dryers, so it was too expensive to standardize and convert to 220v.

Dual Voltage Appliances and Table/Floor Lamps

Some electronics, computers and appliances can now operate with dual voltage. Search for those at your AAFES Exchange, marked with a volt range similar to 100-240v on the back, bottom or tag. There may be a switch you manually change to adjust voltage, or are equipped with an internal mechanism that automatically converts the power. Check out your favorite electronic or beauty supply stores online for more dual voltage products.

On-base housing will have a few 110v outlets, but they may not be in convenient locations. You will need 220v appliances and electronics for off-base housing.

Don’t toss your table and floor lamps. They will work normally with European 220v bulbs and plug adapters. No converters or transformers are needed. If you packed any 110v bulbs, put them in a well-marked box and in storage so you won’t accidently plug in one and get a bang of a surprise.

Plugs and Adapters

Electrical plugs also vary per country, including those in U.S., U.K. and Europe, therefore you will need adapters to use any dual voltage appliances and lamps. They do NOT convert electrical voltage; they only change the shape of the plug so it will fit into a receptacle. Remember Mary’s story. Adapters are inexpensive and found in AAFES Exchange locations, the on-base thrift store and online in local yard sale sites.

Power Converters

Converters are also inexpensive and found at AAFES locations, travel stores and online and are designed to use with personal appliances with simple heating elements and small motors, such as electric toothbrushes, battery chargers, hair dryers or electric trimmers or razors. Converters usually have a wattage range of around 25 watts with some to 1,875 watts. They are intended for short term use only, under an hour, and usage with high watt appliances like hair curling or straightening irons, power tools, computers, televisions or large electronics could cause an electrical fire. The correct way to plug in a converter is 1. Plug adapter into wall outlet. 2. Plug appliance into converter. 3. Plug converter into all outlet through adapter. After use, always unplug the converter.


Step-down transformers allow 100v appliances to be used on 200v current for longer periods of time. They are also more expensive, so the Furnishings Management Office (FMO) will lend military personnel at least one transformer for the duration of their tour of 1000 to 3000 watts for large appliances and electronics. New ones from 75 watts and up can be purchased at the AAFES Exchange overseas or through online resources. Used ones may also be found for much less through on-base thrift stores and online yard sales.

Also, transformers consume a great amount of energy even if the appliance is plugged into it but not turned on. Always unplug the transformer when the appliance is not in use.

Blenders, mixers, microwaves, irons and other motorized appliances or those with thermostats that surge during use and are usually not good candidates for transformers, and could lead to short circuits and a shorter life of the appliance. It would be advised to store those and buy or borrow those from FMO. Buying and selling used 220v applianc- es is aff ordable and popular at the on-base thrift store, online yard sale sites and periodically at bazaars or flea markets on base.


Another important detail to understand when using 110v appliances is polarity, which is the directional flow of current. It is good practice to not plug 110v surge-protected power strips into transformers that are attached to electronics or larger appliances that should be grounded. Because some European plugs have only two round prongs and do not signify direction of polarity, you could actually be electrocuted. To determine proper wall-to-plug polarity, use a polarity tester, found at the AAFES Exchange.

A great website that lists detailed infor- mation about the world’s voltage systems and plug design is users.telenet.be.

Subscribe to our Stripes Europe newsletter and receive amazing travel stories, great event info, helpful PCS tips, interesting lifestyle articles and more directly in your inbox!

Follow us on social media!

Facebook: Stars and Stripes Europe
Pinterest: Stars and Stripes Europe
Instagram: @StarsandStripeseurope

Recommended Content