International outlet and plug types explained

By Steve Jarratt, Technology Writer

International plug types explained - Brandstand Cubie power products

There’s a saying that goes: ‘the wonderful thing about standards is that there are so many of them to choose from.’ And even though the world has embraced globalization, there are still 15 different plug types for today’s travelers to cope with – labeled from Type A to Type O.

As you’ll see from our infographic, these plug sockets are all similar in size, but they feature either two pins or three. They also vary in shape from circular to rectangular to hexagonal. Some are compatible with one another, some aren’t. While some can be downright dangerous if you insert the wrong plug into the wrong outlet!

Remember your pin numbers

The main reason for the differing number of pins is whether the plug is ‘grounded’ or ‘ungrounded’ (the third pin is called the ‘grounding pole’). The aim of this extra pin is to send any excess power into the ground, preventing power surges and damage to any appliance or device being powered.

When the US first developed its mains grid in the 1880s, the two-pin system provided a simple way of completing the circuit – electricity comes in through the ‘hot’ side on the right of the outlet, and returns via the ‘neutral’ side on the left. However, in the 1920s engineers decided that grounding would make
plugs safer, and so a third pin was added. The US began adopting three-pin sockets in the 1960s, but it didn’t become the standard until 1971. [1]

An ever-changing world

There are numerous reasons for the proliferation of socket types, from the era of electrification and engineering preferences to financial needs to war, shifting national borders and colonialism. As mains electric power grids were developed at different times, each nation adopted its own style of sockets and plugs. These designs were then exported to friendly countries, adopted by colonies, or shared by adjacent states, resulting in the patchwork of standards we have today.

There are 15 different plug types currently in use around the world.
There are 15 different plug types and standards in use around the world today.

It’s the same reasons why many countries end up with a number of different sockets, as they move away from legacy systems, introduce their own chosen plug type, or try to share electrical standards with their neighbors. The Maldives is seemingly the worst culprit, supporting no fewer than six sockets types - C, D, G, J, K and L! [2]

The most prolific plug socket types are the circular, two-pin C, E and F types, which are compatible with one another. These are found all across mainland Europe, Russia, parts of the Middle East, most of Africa and a chunk of South America. The second most prolific are Type A and Type B, which are used across the whole of North America and Canada, Mexico, a dozen countries in South America, plus China and Japan.

Exceptions to the rule(s)

There are a couple of standouts, however. These include the chunky three-pin Type G plugs used in the UK, Ireland and in 48 countries across the Arabian Peninsula, Africa and Southern Asia, many of which were colonial outposts or are part of the Commonwealth. After World War II, Britain was short on copper to rebuild its infrastructure and so decided to build a fuse into the plug itself rather than be connected to a separate fuse box, which is why type G plugs have a different format to mainland Europe. [3]

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The one unique plug and socket combo is Type O, which is used exclusively in Thailand. The system was introduced in 2006, with a plan that would phase out American-style Type A and Type B sockets over time. Why the government decided to not standardize on global favorite Type F is anyone’s guess. For the time being, most sockets in Thailand are a hybrid of Type C and Type O standards.

The sheer cost of changing the multitude of plugs, sockets and appliances – not to mention the power grid itself – means that a global standard won’t be happening any time soon (if ever). Fortunately, there are enough power adapters available to make this mish-mash of global standards bearable. All you need to remember is what plug type (and what voltage) works in each region. And we can help you with that. 

For a full list of all international plug types from Type A to Type O, and to see where Brandstand's Cubie Power Products may be used, click here to view and/or download our infographic or click on the image below.

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