Why different countries are using different wall sockets? What’s that all about?

Travelling is a lot of fun and it is a crucial part of your personal education, but it does involve a lot of planning. Don’t you just hate those moments when you come to a new country just to find out you need an adapter just to use the wall socket? It is a small thing, but it can really ruin your day. But why is that? Why different countries are using different wall sockets?

The world is dominated by 9 different standards for wall sockets and it’s ridiculous. Image credit: Cephira via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Now you really do have to keep in mind that other countries may not be using the same wall sockets as yours. But back in the day when electricity just started reaching households it wasn’t an issue at all. A local power plant was producing electricity for its own surroundings. And since electricity was primarily used for lighting, everything was hardwired in. Then people started using more and more different devices and countries created centralized power networks. This created a need for plugs.

At first power plugs were individual – you go to a store, buy a plug and a socket of your choice and wire everything yourself. But this was less than ideal because not everyone is electrician. Standardized plugs were needed, but you have to keep in mind that a hundred years ago people were not travelling as much and certainly did not bring their electric devices with them. You phone’s charger is travelling more than an average person in the first half of the previous century.

Eventually countries realized that international standards would make everything easier. Not because of travelling, but because of trade – electronics in one country could work equally well in another. However, these initial discussions were brought to a halt by the beginning of the Second World War.

Plugs from one country will not fit in sockets in others. Image credit: Pmx via Wikimedia (CC BY 2.5)

And so now we have what we have – a bunch of different standards. This is not just a result of lacking international cooperation – this is also a safety feature.

Different countries have different electrical systems. In Europe we find 230 V of power at 50 Hz. In US these measurements would be 120 V and 60 Hz. Many devices are quite flexible in this regard, which is why power adapters work so well. This is also a reason why a big portion of our electronics is shipped with a USB cable only an no power adapter whatsoever – manufacturers cannot be bothered to look up different wall sockets for every country they are doing business in. But for some appliances, specifically for those with heating elements, power properties are very important. Hair driers from US may not work in Europe and may actually burn up, creating a real threat of a housefire.

Of course, there are new designs that are safer and nicer, but who is going to change now? Can you imagine what chaos would begin if we were required to change our wall sockets? Nothing would work, you would have to buy new appliances, buildings would have to change thousands of plugs. It is simply not worth the trouble now. So you will have to pack that clunky universal power adapter.