If you own any of today’s most popular computing devices, such as smartphones, tablets, Bluetooth headphones, and more, chances are you’ve probably owned two to three times as many USB chargers to keep their batteries full. When your original charger gets damaged or lost, that leaves you with a shopping dilemma…which one of the numerous chargers on the market should be your replacement?
Are USB chargers interchangeable? Here’s what you must know: For the most part, yes. Within the last few years, most electronic devices and electronic accessory manufacturers have started following an industry standard for producing USB chargers, but some of the cheaper, less reliable companies haven’t joined in.
USB chargers that don’t conform to the industry standard can do a lot of damage to your devices, which can waste tons of money and potentially be a fire hazard in your home. To learn more about how you can identify and avoid buying substandard USB chargers, keep reading to see how USB chargers work and why you shouldn’t blindly trust and use other people’s chargers.
Why Are There So Many Types of USB Chargers?
Ever since personal computing and other technological devices became popular, tech companies each controlled what type of charger was compatible with their phone. Although the type of charger used for each company, product line, or device depended on designers’ choices and could differ for each, for the most part, companies began adopting similar charger types over time.
At first, several of the largest tech companies, like Samsung, LG, Nokia, and others, decided to have the charger type used for their brands. On top of the fact that consumers had a wider variety of products to choose from, including mp3 players, digital cameras, and Bluetooth devices, companies could switch between charger types often.
As a result, a single person might have to keep track of several types of chargers, which one went with which product, and where they could find a replacement for that type of charger. Over time, as the most dominant technology companies began developing more diverse product lines, brands started standardizing their chargers within their company catalogs.
Whereas in the past you could have had three products from a single brand that each used a different type of USB charger, after 2010, companies began recognizing the frustrations consumers had with constantly having to replace and find places to buy specific chargers. As smartphones began to replace a lot of other devices and become more widely adopted, most companies used mini USB charging cables.
Of course, there’s one notable exception to that rule: Apple. As smartphones became firmly divided into Android vs Apple, the company doubled down on their resistance to using the more common charger types and in 2012 introduced their Lightning to USB charger, which they currently seem to have no plans to change.
How Do USB Chargers Work?
Although we tend to colloquially use the term “USB” to refer to anything that looks like the end of the typical flash drive, not all of them are created equal. USBs are used to control the flow of power from a power source to a connected device, and different types can control the power flow at different rates.
When there was less standardization in the industry to what kinds of USB chargers were used for devices, the shape of the charger connectors was an obvious barrier to accidentally using the wrong charger on your phone or tablet.
But, as more Android phones, and later other devices, began to use the micro USB, buying the right charger for your device became a bit trickier. Years ago, the power supply rating of each type of charger was listed visibly on any USB drive or cable.
Just like how some wall chargers have different power levels (think the charger you use for a smartphone versus one you use for a tablet), USBs can also have different power levels, of which the main three types are labeled 1.0, 2.0, or 3.0. Each type has a specific number of connecting pins that control the direction and flow of power and information.
Most USB chargers today use 3.0-compatible USB connections, which are the fastest kind. Additionally, USB chargers made after 2007 have specifications that allow them to be used with different kinds of wall chargers without any risk of a power surge or fire.
What Kind of USB Chargers Exist?
The standard size connectors that everyone refers to as “USBs” are called “USB Type-A connectors.” These connectors are in use on the majority of charging cables these days, usually on the end of that is inserted into the wall charger.
Two types of chargers that aren’t in use as much today are the Type B USBs and Mini-USBs. While the former was only really in use during the mid-2010s when manufacturers were testing and switching which kinds of USB chargers worked best, the mini-USB nearly reached industry-standard status before it became obsolete.
Manufacturers readily adopted the mini-USB because of its small size, but it was quickly replaced with the slimmer, more efficient micro-USB. Up until recent years, the micro-USB became the type of USB used in device chargers for practically every company apart from Apple. However, despite the success of this type of USB, it’s currently begun being phased out.
The current favorite USB port that manufacturers are quickly adopted for new models of chargers is USB-C. As we’ll get into in the next section, there are a lot of advantages to adopting this as the new universal charger. Four of the main reasons that USB-Cs are gaining popularity are:
- Unlike USB-A chargers they can be inserted in either orientation (up or down).
- The USB-C is more powerful than current options, which will allow it to even charge energy-draining devices like laptops and power up smaller devices like smartphones, cameras, and headphones much faster.
- They allow transfer speeds for data up to two times faster than other USB types, which means that backing up your phone will take less time.
- Despite their significant advantages over micro-USBs, the smallest size connector currently used in chargers, USB-C connectors are not much larger than them, which allows more space for other important components in the accompanying devices.
While all of these are great reasons for consumers to want to start using USB-C chargers, the benefit to customers is not what made companies consider adopting this kind of USB in their chargers in recent years.
How Have Manufacturers Standardized Chargers?
While manufacturers and brands in the technology sector did all start to move toward using a common type of USB charger and temporarily settled on this mini-USB, there still wasn’t a consistent standard across the board, and it took some time to even reach that incomplete agreement.
As a result, consumers were purchasing a high number of chargers to manage their devices, especially as smartphones became more popular since the introduction of the iPhone in 2007.
The waste produced by this issue was becoming a growing issue up for debate in the European Union (EU). According to the EU, the excessive number of chargers bought produced around 51,000 tons (or 102 million) pounds of waste annually. As they’ve done for other industries, the EU began planning mandates for mitigating this matter.
To force industries to self-regulate on issues of public concern, the EU has historically legislated industry-wide policies. The way they enforce these laws is that companies that don’t adhere won’t be allowed to sell in EU countries, which takes away the profits those companies could make in the profitable markets of 27 European countries.
At first, the EU was satisfied with a 2009 agreement between manufacturers like Apple, Samsung, and Nokia to all use the micro-USB for chargers and other accessories. While most of the involved companies went along with the change, to get around this, Apple developed a micro-USB converter for its proprietary charging connector.
As of 2018, the EU regulators in charge of this initiative were dissatisfied with the results of the 2009 agreement, which expired in 2014, and they decided it was time for them to address this issue more firmly. In 2020, the European Parliament decided that all mobile devices need to have USB-C connectors or converters available.
Is It Bad to Share Chargers?
Because many technology companies had seen the EU’s decision coming, many of them have already moved to adopting USB-C chargers, which has been great for improving the safety and reliability of chargers for all kinds of devices.
If you currently use a device that uses a USB-C port and needs a compatible charger, there are a lot of options online. While in the past, chargers using different voltage/amplitude ratings would cause incorrect chargers to not work or charge slowly on incompatible devices, that’s not a major concern if you use good quality USB-C charger.
Nowadays, it’s common to lose a charger, damage it, or to just wear out the charger’s plastic lining until the wiring degrades. People frequently need to replace chargers, which makes it financially smart to look for chargers from third-party sellers rather than from the original manufacturer of your device.
While a charger cable directly from Samsung can cost $30, if you buy a compatible charger online, it can easily be a third of the price. Buying current USB-C chargers from third party brands isn’t very risky, however, that’s not necessarily true for chargers using propriety connectors, like the Lightning connector from Apple.
Thankfully, Apple has spoken out in the past about which third-party chargers, such as Anker and Aukey brands, will safely charge their devices. Since this type of charger isn’t following a widely known industry standard, you need to make sure you’re buying a cable that won’t damage your device or improperly manage the power level and overheat your phone.
Quick Note Before Reading on: I previously wrote an article answering if it is safe to leave your USB cable plugged in to your car or truck. After finding several of my cables degraded, or simply not working, after being left out in the hot summer heat and freezing cold winters, I have since been using this Anker USB charging cable for my iPhone. It feels extremely tough through its braided construction, continues to work reliably through varying temperatures, and is my top recommendation as the best USB cable for connecting any mobile device inside your car.
What Can Happen if You Buy a Poor-Quality Charger?
As we discussed previously, USB chargers have specific power ratings that control the flow of energy and data through the connections. In the past, people had to be fairly specific about what rating and type of charger they had to buy.
Over time, the specifications of USB chargers became more sophisticated, and consumers didn’t have to deal with selecting the right power level for their phone or wall charger. Instead of needing to know in advance if your charging cable was right for your device and wall charger, now you could just connect them and plug them into an outlet.
The USB connection and the power source would communicate and sort out the right power level to be sent through the connecting pins. While in the past an improperly matched charger and the device might overheat or simply not work, current chargers would simply control the power flow so that it would happen at the correct, if not optimal rate.
However, this is only true of USB charging cables that meet industry standards, regardless of if you’re dealing with a micro-USB, USB-C, or Lightning cable. That’s why it’s important to go with reliable, well-reviewed brands.
Buying the absolute cheapest option for your USB charger might seem like a great idea, but if they don’t have modern specifications, cheap chargers can shorten your device’s battery life and ruin its energy efficiency. That’s true for any device, including Android and Apple smartphones, so it’s important that you thoroughly look into reviews and other information on what you’re buying.
How Can You Choose a Reliable Third-Party Charger?
Whether you’re shopping for a replacement USB-C or Lightning charger for your smartphone, or need one for a device that still uses the older micro-USB ports, you need to be careful when buying a charger from a third-party manufacturer.
Overall, the industry has been a lot better in recent years about producing charging cables that follow consistent safety standards. For Apple products, their Lightning cables follow proprietary chargers, but you can check which accessories from third parties can be used on your Apple device.
Safe, compatible chargers will have the “MFi certification,” which stands for “Made for iPhone, iPod, or iPad” and tells you that you can trust the charger you’re looking at. Even though they’re made by third-party manufacturers, these chargers are branded “MFi” under a licensing deal with Apple.
In exchange for paying to use the MFi label, those brands are given the seal of approval from Apple, which tells you their Lightning ports will be up to safe standards for charging your Apple device.
On the other hand, for USB-C or micro-USB chargers need to follow general industry standards for power control. Specifically for USB-C chargers, you can check if they are labeled as “SuperSpeed” or “SS” cables, which will tell you that they’re safe to use. AmazonBasics cables are generally a safe bet and will clearly state the specifications of their chargers.
How Can You Make Keep Your Charger and Devices in Good Condition?
Of course, the whole point of going through all this trouble in order to find the right charger is to keep your device powered on and in good working order. In addition to selecting a good quality charger, you need to make sure that you’re storing and using both your charger and device properly so that its battery life stays healthy as long as possible.
One thing you may not realize is that waiting on replacing your damaged charger isn’t likely to save you any money. We’ve all been there, our Android or Apple charger is broken, peeling, and fraying along the wires, but we keep holding out on buying a new one until the charger completely stops working.
Despite how common that practice may be, it’s not good for your phone or your wallet. Many third-party USB chargers online can be for as little as under $10, and despite that, we often carry on using a worn-out charger that’s making our battery life worse.
The quicker we destroy our battery life, the more often we have to spend money to replace our devices, or at least their batteries, which can add up over the years to a lot of wasted money. Additionally, frayed wires on your charging cable can make your device overheat and can pose a risk of an electrical fire.
On top of always using a charger that’s in good condition, you can extend the battery life of your phone, use your charger less often, and make your new and replacement chargers last longer by:
- Avoiding using your device while it’s charging, as this will shorten its battery life over time and cause the device to overheat and get damaged.
- Let your device run out of battery life before charging it instead of frequently plugging it in, as devices that keep their battery between 30% to 80% capacity have the best battery life over time.
- Taking your device off of the charger once it’s finished charging, as overcharging the battery will damage it and make it use energy less efficiently, which makes you have to charge it more and overheats your phone, which makes the problem exponentially worse if you do overcharge the device consistently.