Posey's Tips & Tricks

Using Your Laptop Abroad

When traveling overseas, your laptop adapter won't be enough. Here are some tips to keep in mind for those world travelers.

When I am not busy writing, I am something of a world traveler. One of the perks of being a freelance writer is that I am not limited to taking a certain amount of vacation time each year. Consequently, my wife and I try to make the most of my flexible schedule and really get out and see the world.

Although foreign travel presents a number of challenges, one that a lot of people don't think about is that of using your laptop and other personal electronics abroad. That being the case, I thought that I would take the opportunity to talk about what you can expect should you ever need to use your laptop abroad.

Plugging In
Perhaps the biggest problem with traveling with your electronics is that not everybody in the world uses the same standard for electricity. In the United States we use 110 volts at 60 Hz. Canada uses the same electrical current as the United States (although it doesn't hurt to bring along a two-prong-to-three prong adapter). There are also a few countries in South America, Central America and the Caribbean that use the same electrical current as the United States.  Most of the rest of the world uses 220 volts at 50 Hz.

As you might expect, foreign countries that use different electrical current also use different plug types. This serves as a safeguard against accidentally plugging a device that is designed for North American-style current into an outlet that delivers a much higher voltage.

If you want to use your electronics in a foreign country that uses 220 volt / 50 Hz power, you will need an adapter that allows you to plug into the foreign outlets. What you might not realize however, is that there are three different types of adapters and it is critical to choose the correct type.

The first type of adapter that you need to know about is just that -- an adapter. Think of this type of adapter kind of like those adapters that you see in the United States from time to time that allow you to plug a three-prong device into a two-prong outlet.  The adapter does nothing to convert the voltage to something usable, it merely makes it physically possible to plug your device into the foreign outlet.

The reason why these types of adapters exist is because some electronic devices have transformers that are rated to accept both 110 volts and 220 volts. If your laptop or other electronic device accepts 220 volt / 50 Hz input then a simple adapter is all that you need.

The next type of adapter is a low-wattage transformer. Low-wattage transformers are large and heavy and are typically rated for 50 to 100 watts of power. This is the type of transformer that you will need for things like laptops, MP3 players or cell phone chargers. It is important for your transformer to be rated for 25 percent higher wattage than what your laptop actually consumes. Otherwise the transformer will burn out prematurely and it won't be able to handle spikes that may occur when you power up your electronics.

The other type of adapter that you are likely to find is rated for higher wattage. Unlike the adapters that I just described, these types of adapters are generally not suitable for continuous use. They are also designed more for use with things like irons or hair dryers that do not have as precise of voltage requirements as a laptop.

Incidentally, a voltage adapter will convert 220 volts to 110 volts, but most do nothing to convert 50 Hz to 60 Hz. This isn't a problem for personal electronics because electronic devices convert the power to DC. However, the difference in cycle frequency does impact anything with a motor. Motorized devices that are designed to operate on 60 Hz power will operate more slowly on 50 Hz power.

Another concern when using a laptop abroad is connectivity. Although not every country in the world has Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi is available throughout North America and Europe and I have encountered at least a couple of Wi-Fi hotspots in South America.

You shouldn't have any trouble connecting an American laptop to a European Wi-Fi hotspot. The process works the same as it does in the United States.

As you can see, it is relatively easy to use your laptop abroad, so long as you get the correct voltage adapter. However, using cell phones or laptops with cellular modems abroad can be a lot trickier. I will attempt to offer some advice with regard to doing so in a future column.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 22-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.


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