Reader Paulita sent in a comment on another post with questions that I thought were worthy of a more in-depth answer so that other travelers might benefit. She asks:
Good to think ahead about these things, and this is a common and valid concern for North Americans traveling abroad. The U.S. and Canada (and Mexico too?) operate on 110 voltage and that's how our appliances are designed. However, Europe and most of the rest of the world are running on something like a 220-230 voltage, which means that any appliance created to run ONLY on 110 will not operate normally on a 220-230 current; it will fry, i.e. catch fire!
With more and more people traveling internationally, some appliance companies are getting smarter and designing their appliances to be dual-voltage, which means that appliance will work in ANY country without you having to worry about it being incinerated within seconds of plugging it in (you would still need a plug adaptor that matches the country/zone in which you're traveling, however).
Laptops now typically fall into this category of dual-voltage appliance. To find out for sure if your laptop is dual-voltage, look underneath at the labels or look on the power adaptor for your laptop; if it says something like "INPUT: AC 100-240V" on it, then you're in good shape because it will work in America or in France. Just pack a plug adaptor for France/Central Europe -- if you don't have one, you can buy one at the airport on your way out, or shop in advance in the travel/luggage section of a store near you. I also like Travelsmith for all kinds of great travel items; see their selection of adaptors and converters.
My husband's electric razor is also dual-voltage (I looked for that feature when I got him a new one as a Christmas gift, since he travels all over the map). I also found out that our Samsung cell phones are dual-voltage. It seems that many appliances made here in Europe come that way automatically.
The same can not always be said for American appliances, however... ESPECIALLY hair dryers, travel clothing irons, and hair curling and straightening irons. Most of those seems to be 100-110V ONLY. Which means if you try to plug in your American straightening iron in France without a power CONVERTER (as well as an ADAPTOR), your iron will catch fire within seconds. Can you say "firemen" in French? (Hint: "les Pompiers".)
Again, look at the appliance and/or the power cord; if you see 100-240V on it, you should be fine; if you only see 100-110 on it, or you can't find any voltage rating on it, be safe and get a converter. (FYI if you have a dual-voltage appliance AND you also use a converter plus adaptor when traveling, it won't hurt it. I did that for months when I first moved here before discovering my laptop was already dual-voltage!) One thing to note: some American hair dryers have a switch you supposedly can flip to change the voltage yourself from 110 to 220-230 but I have to say that I've heard they don't work and I seem to remember having one years ago that burned up anyway. I think it's best to have a dual-voltage appliance where the appliance "knows" how to safely switch itself over to the right current.
Another option, if you travel to France/Central Europe regularly, is to buy a hair dryer and flat iron when you get here. It will cost you some extra money this time around but will save time and worry (and having to remember to pack converters/adaptors and then still worrying about the darn things burning up). A visiting friend of mine did this recently and she is so happy she did it. You can purchase appliances like this at French stores such as Darty (Darty.com) where you will need a saleperson to write up the purchase and take your payment, then you go to another part of the store to pick it up. Other stores like Monoprix sometimes sell them, and you can also find them in what I think of as "5 and Dime" stores all over the city, although the selection won't be very good and the brands will be of lesser quality. (In France, pharmacies and supermarkets do not sell small appliances, so don't look there.)
Here's a photo of an ADAPTOR ONLY I found in Newark Airport that will accept US 2 or 3-prong plugs and fits both grounded and non-grounded sockets in France and other central European countries like Germany, Switzerland and Italy. I use this to plug in my American lapto/netbook here in France and I think it even has surge protection in it. You can probably find one similar to this in airport shops and travel-departments of other stores. You can also get adaptor sets that can work for all countries universally, if you travel to lots of different places around the globe. If you get to France and need to find an adaptor or converter, try Darty stores, and I'm pretty sure you should be able to find them at Bon Marché, BHV, Printemps and Galeries Lafayette in their Travel/Luggage departments.
Before you buy an adaptor or power convertor, double check to see if it's a 2-prong or 3-prong grounded plug. The vast majority of travel converters only handle 2-prong plugs; when I first came here I was dismayed to discover that my all-important Vonage modem had a 3-prong grounded plug and I had no converter with me that would work. I found one at Darty but it's a big clunky thing and it was expensive. (If you get here and find yourself in the same jam, here's the current model Darty is selling: http://tinyurl.com/fr-us-converter - you flip a switch to reverse the current from 110 to 220-240 depending on the input current of the country you're in, and the plug adapts to 2 or 3 prong American plugs as well as European appliances (with an American plug adaptor for Europeans traveling to the U.S.) So plan ahead for this and get the right voltage converter (if you need one) in the U.S. before you travel, and you might save some time and money.
Last but not least, here's some French vocabulary to help you shop for the right appliances or accessories, if you need to get something once you get here.
I am looking for... = Je cherche...
I would like to buy... = Je voudrais acheter...
Where is/where are... = Où est/où sont...
Departments and classifications of appliances:
- Small Appliances = Petit ménager or Petit électroménager
- Hair Care = Soin du cheveu [hair dryers, curling irons, flat irons]
- Razors/Hair removal = Rasage / épilation
Products you might need to ask for:
- Men's Electric Razor = un rasoir homme
- Hair dryer = un sèche-cheveux
- Curling iron = un fer à boucler
- Straightening/Flat iron = un lisseur
- Hot rollers = les bigoudis chauffants
- Curling iron/flat iron combo - un lisseur multifonctions
- Hair trimmers (for men) = une tondeuse à cheveux
- Power adaptor = un Adapteur électrique [specify that you want "Etats-Unis vers Europe" if it's an American appliance you want to adapt to a French socket]
- Power converter = un Transformateur secteur
Thanks for your great questions, Paulita, and bon voyage!