Living abroad is continuously fumbling through normal, everyday activities just hoping that you don’t make any drastic errors.
I’ll give an example!
American and European electricity work differently, and this can cause any number of problems if one is not careful and doesn’t do their research. One day, the power in our apartment shut off. Like, just shut off for an unknown reason – which is common – but this time I couldn’t figure out how to get it to come back on. Usually, we can fix it by flipping a switch on our in-apartment circuit breaker, or by taking the elevator down to the basement level of our building to flip a switch on our secondary breaker.
After calling to make sure we hadn’t missed a payment, and after getting our landlord to come out and have a look after work, he ended up telling us that there was in fact just a tertiary circuit breaker that we should have known about all along that fixed everything with just a flip of its switch.
We were embarrassed. And to make it worse, this was the second time we had asked our landlord to come out to what we thought was a broken apartment, only to be told that we just don’t know how electricity works here.
So, to save you some of the drama, here are three things you should know about electricity in Italy if you are considering moving here, or even if you just plan on staying in an AirBnB during your trip!
1: American Voltage vs. European Voltage
In the United States, our outlets run at 110 volts and our appliances are made to work accordingly. In Europe, the outlets run at 220 volts. If you try to plug something that does not already have a dual voltage setting (like an American lamp) into a European outlet with just an adapter, it will still not work, even though the outlet and plug shape will match. In fact, if you do plug in the lamp, all you will manage to do is blow out the bulb!
If you are coming to Italy, be sure your hot tools are dual voltage, and all will be well! You can determine this by checking the small print on the device itself or on its charger. If it says it supports 100 – 240 V, or 50-60 Hz, then your device will have no problem charging or being used with just an adapter. And when it comes to phones, laptops and tablets, you don’t have to worry about bringing anything other than a plug adapter because these devices are often dual voltage themselves, or their chargers already come with an adapter – as is the case with MAC laptop computers.
2: The Difference Between Adapters and Transformers
Adapters: A device that you plug your American plugs and USB cables into that have the correct plug shape for another country’s outlets.
The easiest way I have been able to make sure I have the correct outlet adapters with me while traveling in South Korea or Europe is to purchase a couple inexpensive universal adapters.
Here is an example of one you can purchase from Walmart!
Each one comes with a place into which you can put your American-shaped plug, and it will also have one to three USB ports, too. Then, it will have plug shapes that correspond to the outlets in Australia, Asia, continental Europe and the UK, which you can choose from depending on what you need at the moment. These will work for your phones, laptops and other low-power electronics, but they will NOT work with high-powered electronics – like hair straighteners – if they are not dual voltage. Be sure to check your hot tools multiple times to ensure they are the right kind!
Transformers: A device that changes the voltage of an appliance or hot tool to match the voltage needed for the country you’re in.
For high-power appliances, like irons, hair dryers and other single-voltage hot tools, you would need to have a transformer, which looks like this. In our Italian apartment, we use these for our American TV, our American kitchen appliances and any other small things we have that will not work with just an adapter.
I think it should be noted that we only use our American appliances because many of them were wedding gifts, and we know we will be moving back to the states one day. If we were to be in Italy permanently, it would definitely be better for us to just purchase European appliances because even with transformers, we can often overpower our circuit breakers if too many electrical things are running at once!
Overall, transformers are much bulkier, and they are not exactly travel-friendly. So, unless you are planning to be living for a long period of time in another country with your American tools, I would suggest just purchasing tools that are dual voltage.
You can learn more about adapters from Rick Steves here!
3: Circuit Breakers and Kitchens
Whether you live or stay in a stand-alone house, duplex or apartment building in Italy, you will have multiple circuit breakers that manage the electricity in your home. We have one in our entryway and two in a room in the basement of our building. If your power ever goes out, use the process of elimination by going to each breaker one by one until you have found the switch that is flipped downward (they should all be flipped upward at all times). Flip it back up, and chances are you will be good to go!
Now, we have also discovered that Italian kitchens sometimes also have switches on the wall that can be used to shut off electricity directly to specific parts of the kitchen individually. For a while, we did not know this. And yes, this was another fake electrical problem that we asked our landlord to come out to fix only to be told that we just had to flip a switch :).
Living or traveling abroad for the first time can be scary, but it helps when you know what to expect. Let me tell you that when you feel confused, alone and scared because you don’t understand how to work things that used to be second nature, you are not alone – and you probably won’t break anything! Electricity and how homes are structured in Italy are different, but they doesn’t make these things out of your reach for understanding.
Whenever you get frustrated, just remember it takes practice, and soon you will know just exactly how many appliances you can run at the same time without shutting off your power.
Until next time, you can do hard things.