Of Adapters, Converters, and Transformers: Power in China

on May 20, 2015


After my previous trip to China, I wrote this post on our personal blog so other families traveling for adoption wouldn’t have to do quite so much research determining what products they might need. As I began preparing for my upcoming trip, I found the post and thought readers of the blog might find this information useful.

There are 3 kinds of power products you’ll see for travel to foreign countries:

  1. Adapter: An adapter is a simple device that makes whatever plug you have fit into whatever socket your target country has. You’ll see individual adapters for one specific conversion, or you might find all-in-one units that will work in all countries. The thing to keep in mind, though, is that adapters do not change the power being supplied, and most power in the world is different from U.S. power.
  2. Converter: A converter takes your target power and either steps it up or down, but the way it does this only works with appliances that have motors or heating elements. Electronics like computers will not work with it.
  3. Transformer: A transformer performs a different kind of power conversion on the source power allowing any type of device to be used within its defined power range.

In our travels, all of our hotels (Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong) had 110 Volt U.S. power, likely produced by a converter, in the bathrooms. This meant if we had brought hair dryers, curling irons, etc., they would have worked. Since we didn’t bring any, it wasn’t something I ever tested. Our main concern was electronics like computers and cameras.

With most electronics, you get a little power brick that has, without a doubt, annoyed you to no end each time you take the device somewhere. It’s finally time to appreciate that little brick. If you read the fine print, you should see something that says:

AC 100-240V 50/60Hz

If your power brick has this specification, it should (at your own risk) be able to plug directly into China’s power system. At that point, though, the issue of adapters comes in. What we found at all of our hotels was that all-in-one outlets were readily available. There was usually an all-in-one outlet combined in the same location as the local standard outlet. As long as your cord wasn’t a grounded U.S. type, you could plug it straight into the wall outlet. If it was grounded, you might need an adapter.

Of course, I wasn’t brave enough to plug straight into the wall. I decided to find a dual-voltage surge protector to use instead of plugging my electronics directly into wall outlets. We also wanted a power strip since we’d have a few devices that might need to charge at the same time. These are modern versions of the two devices we used:

The all-in-one surge protector is small, works on most power systems including U.S., Europe, and Asia, and includes a multi-country input and output adapter that accepts grounded U.S. plugs.

This is a dual-voltage power strip with surge protection. It includes adapters so it can be plugged into outlets in most countries and accepts just about any kind of plug on the power strip.

The only issue I had with these devices was that the plugs didn’t always stay in the wall outlet very well. Other than that, though, they worked extremely well.

Now, if you don’t want to mess with it at all, I’ve read several places that hotels will gladly provide you with a transformer (fee?) which will work with any device you bring as long as the wattage is within the transformer’s operating range.

There are also small, travel voltage converters. You would use these if the power brick on your electronics only supported U.S. voltage or if you had a small device that met the specifications of the converter. This is one I used on our trip to China in 2015:

We also used a combination voltage converter, power strip that worked well enough that we even take it with us on some domestic trips:

It does have a built-in fan that makes some noise, though, so if that bothers you, look at some other options.