French Electricity Explained

If you want your American gadgets to run on French electricity, there are two things you need to know right from the start.   First of all, the plugs are different.  And second, the juice coming out of the wall in France is 220 volts compared with 110 volts in the U.S.   You don’t need to throw out or store your U.S. lamps, toasters, and stereos but you will need to invest in two things:  adaptors (so you can plug things in) and transformers (so your gadgets don’t blow out from the power of the current).  In some cases, you may also want to invest in local appliances.  British appliances run on 220 voltage but require plug adaptors.

There are two different kinds of transformers.  Some (often less expensive) only work in one direction.  Others do both; they can step down the power from the French outlet to the American appliance and also step up the juice from the American outlet to a French appliance.   A two-way transformer is a good investment if you wish to buy appliances in France that you will later use in the U.S.

Transformers come in different sizes, ranging from 200 watts to about 2,000 watts.  Small appliances such as electric clocks can run off the smallest ones.  Devices that make heat (such as coffee pots, hair dryers, toasters) usually run at 1,600 to 2,000 watts.  The manufacturer’s label on the bottom of your appliance usually indicates the wattage. 

Computers and other electronics equipment are often dual voltage; they are manufactured to work under either type of current.  Some require that you flip a switch on the back; others work perfectly well with just an adapter for your U.S. power cord.  Check the manufacturers’ specifications to be sure.  And fair warning:  speakers for your computer are usually NOT dual voltage.  I found out this the hard way.  After the pop, spark, and smoke, the speakers had to go straight into the trash.

U.S. lamps work with an adaptor but leave your U.S. light bulbs at home and instead use those available in France.  Using your U.S. bulbs will cause them to blow or even catch fire. 

Some appliances will never work optimally even with a transformer because the transformer only changes the voltage, not the cycle.  (In U.S., the current is 60 cycles; in Europe it runs at 50 cycles.  Transformers do not correct this difference.)  Problems might occur with clocks, sewing machines, CD players, mixers, drills, and other gear with mechanical motors. 

In our house, we have separate transformers for our living room stereo, a CD player in one of the bedrooms, and our cordless American phone.  We have a large transformer in the kitchen which we use for a toaster oven, electric mixer, food processor, and blowing up the Aero bed for guests.  We opted not to put a transformer in the bathroom and instead bought a hair dryer in France.  Our computers and printer work with only plug adaptors and no transformers.  We bought speakers in France to replace the computer speakers that got fried.  And because transformers generate a lot of heat, each transformer sits on a ceramic tile.

In the U.S., transformers run from $25 to $150, depending upon the size and performance.   If you are lucky, you may be able to purchase used ones in France from folks who are heading back to the U.S.  School bulletin boards, FUSAC, and word of mouth are good sources for moving sales.

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