What is an Electrical Outlet?

Ken Black

An electrical outlet is an opening or series of openings connected to a wired power source meant to power electrical equipment and components. It is one of the most commonly used items in a home or building and can be found nearly universally, although many countries have different standards or voltages. As a result, not all outlets, or the components they are intended for, are compatible with each other.

The Europlug has two openings spaced horizontally about one inch apart and is used throughout most of Europe.
The Europlug has two openings spaced horizontally about one inch apart and is used throughout most of Europe.

Most household electronic components get their power from a cord that is plugged into the outlet. The plug of the component transfers power from the electrical outlet to the device requiring it. Another wire then takes the electricity back to its original location. For simplification, in a home environment, this is the electrical panel. Due to this round-trip routing, it is often called an electrical circuit.

The United Kingdom uses outlets that form a triangle shape when the prongs are aligned.
The United Kingdom uses outlets that form a triangle shape when the prongs are aligned.

In the United States, the standard electrical outlet has a pair of parallel vertical slits less than 1 inch (2.5 cm) apart, plus a round opening centered below the vertical slits. The round opening is for the ground, which offers some safety. The voltage in the United States is usually 120 volts. In addition to the United States, this standard plug is often used in the eastern portions of South America, some Caribbean countries and in some Middle Eastern countries.

An electrical outlet.
An electrical outlet.

In most of Europe, the standard outlet has two openings spaced horizontally less than 1 inch (2.5 cm) apart. Its voltage is usually 220 to 230 volts, but it can vary by location. This type of plug is most commonly known as the Europlug, because of its use in that portion of the world. It is also the most widely used type internationally.

A grounded plug that goes into an electrical outlet.
A grounded plug that goes into an electrical outlet.

In the United Kingdom, the main electrical outlet plug has two horizontal slits at the bottom, and one vertical slit slightly above those horizontal ones. The slits together form a triangular shape. The plug can also be found in other portions of the world, such as Latin America and Africa. Its most common voltage is 230 volts.

For travelers, international adapters can allow devices made in one country to be plugged into outlets in others. Just because someone may be able to plug an electronic component into an international outlet does not mean he or she should, however. If the component is not made for higher voltage, the person will also need a converter to lessen the voltage. Otherwise, the electricity will overpower the equipment and cause it to become inoperable.

European plugs have round prongs.
European plugs have round prongs.

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Discussion Comments


I am going to Vienna for three weeks. I expect to use my laptop for about an hour each day, so obviously the batteries will need to be recharged during that time. What type of electrical plug should I take with me to use when I am recharging the batteries? --P Coelho


I never seemed to have enough electrical outlets in my bedroom. The more gadgets I got that required electricity, the more I considered adding an electrical outlet.

In the end, I went the easy route and got one of those power strips with several outlets on it. As an added bonus, they also keep my gadgets from frying in the even of a lightning strike.


@SarahGrove – You wouldn't think that electric outlet covers would be necessary on hard to reach outlets, like the one behind my microwave. A mouse recently showed me just how important it is to cover even the most obscure outlets.

My husband and I noticed a bad smell in our kitchen. It didn't smell like dead mouse, though. Instead, it smelled like fried seafood that had gone bad.

He tracked the smell to the area around our microwave. When he pulled it forward, we saw the fried mouse inside the uncovered electrical outlet. It had an expression of horror on its little face!


My friend makes and sells decorative electrical outlet covers. You'd be surprised by how many people are interested in them.

Apparently, the old standard white or cream colored outlet covers aren't good enough anymore. People want to spice up every inch of their homes.

Several of her customers are teenagers or kids with their moms in tow, looking to buy a brightly colored butterfly cover or some other creature themed cover. If it didn't take her so long to shape and paint these covers, she'd make a killing at flea markets!


I think it's awful that different countries use different outlets! That makes traveling with hair dryers and curling irons a lot of trouble.

I know you can get adapters, but how much do they cost? Do hotels offer them as a complimentary accessory, or do you have to buy one that you may never use again?


@ShellM89 - If your electrical outlet is not working it isn’t difficult at all to install a new electrical outlet. If you don’t have a friend who has experience and can show you how there are other ways to learn.

It doesn’t take much time, just be sure you *turn off your electrical breaker* before you start and be sure you have a good flashlight.

There are videos on the Internet that show how to do it or you may find that your local hardware store can show you how. You can also find some good books at the library on electrical repair.


Is it very difficult to replace an electrical outlet? The one in my kitchen is so loose that it really doesn’t work well. I have to hold the plug in to even use it.


I just want to warn people to be sure to have a electrical outlet cover on their unused outlets, and don’t get the cheap ones.

My sister’s baby can crawl over to an outlet and take the those cheap covers off in just a few seconds. We almost had a tragedy on our hands when she was visiting me.


this was an incredible article.

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