EV Charging Stations: How to Use Them and What to Expect

Learn where to charge, how to pay, and how the charging station works.

Electric vehicle charging station in parking garage

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Public electric vehicle (EV) charging stations are easy to use and locate. While charging an EV is different from refueling your car at a gas station, expanding infrastructure means that EV charging has never been easier.

How to Charge Your EV

The basic steps of recharging your EV at a public station are:

  • Pull the car up to the charger.
  • Turn the car off.
  • Plug in a fuel-supply cord.
  • Swipe your payment card and make a few selections on a touch screen.
  • Wait for the fueling process to finish.
  • Unplug and drive away.

If it's your first time using an EV charging station, there are two key concepts you'll need to understand: charging levels and connectors.

EV Charging Levels

There are three levels of EV charging, based on how much power they deliver. Public chargers may offer charging options, with costs increasing as charging levels become more powerful.

  • Level 1 uses a 120-volt outlet. It is the slowest charge but is often free. Some businesses provide Level 1 charging to their customers.
  • Level 2 charging provides 240 volts of power and is the most common option at public charging stations. While it charges EVs faster, this option is rarely free.
  • Level 3 chargers (also known as a DC Fast Charger) can add up to 100 miles of range within 15 to 20 minutes. Not every EV can accept fast charging, and not every charging station provides it. This is also the most expensive way to charge.

Charging Connector

CHAdeMO EV charging plug
CHAdeMO EV charging plug.

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What Is a Charging Connector?

Charging connectors are the interface between a charger and a car. It's the EV equivalent of a gas pump.

There is no universal charging connector that all car companies use. However, most EVs are able to use multiple types of connectors. 

A J1772 plug is the most common connector and works for both Level 1 and Level 2 charging. All EVs can accept a J1772 plug, including Teslas (with an adapter).

CHAdeMo and SAE Combo CCS are Level 3 charging connectors. They are not compatible with each other, and most electric vehicles have the ability to accept one or the other.

Not every charging station has every type of connector. Some do not provide both Level 3 charging connectors, others do not provide J1772 chargers. So it's important to know what types of connectors your vehicle can accept.

Paying for Public EV Charging

Driver using phone app to charge an electric vehicle.

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If EV charging isn't free, you can often pay with just a credit card. But there are also about 20 public charging networks in North America competing for your charge.

Some networks are regional, such as Circuit Électrique in Canada, while others like Electrify America and EVgo span the continent. Most require a free membership for you to use their chargers. Some offer monthly memberships, where you pay a flat fee to use their services, but also offer pay-as-you-go rates. In most states, charging stations are only allowed to charge by the minute, not by the amount of electricity used.

Each network will send you an RFID card to use for billing. Networks also have mobile apps that allow you to activate and pay for EV charging from your phone.

Treehugger Tip

Charging speeds slow down dramatically when the battery reaches 80%. Since EV charging is billed by the minute, you are paying a lot more if you charge above 80%. If you use a mobile charging app, set it to stop charging when the battery reaches 80% unless you need the extra charge for a road trip.

Locating EV Charging Stations

Public EV charging station in London, UK

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Charging infrastructure is well-established, and expanding rapidly. With currently the largest market for electric vehicles, China has over 800,000 charging stations installed. There are some 260,000 public stations throughout Europe, with the Netherlands in the lead. The U.S. and Canada lag behind, with 43,572 stations in the United States and 6,209 in Canada by mid-2021.

EVs are often internet-enabled and can provide interactive street maps to help you find charging stations. There are also phone apps by organizations like the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

Each charging station network has its own station-finder app, but the most popular comprehensive apps covering all networks and private stations are ChargeHub and PlugShare.

Google Maps also has an Electric Vehicle Charging category you can select. Each app shows the number, type, speed, and sometimes photos of each charging station location. Some apps have live data about which stations are available at that moment.

Tips for Finding Charging Stations

  • Have a backup plan. Even if you plan everything right, it’s best to have a backup charging plan. Apps may be wrong about charger availability, as they’re unable to recognize if a gas-powered car parks in an EV charging space.
  • Bring your own charger. Every EV comes with its own charging cables—sometimes for multiple types of charging. You can also buy after-market charging cables and adapters for many EVs.
  • Don't overstay your welcome. Charging stations are meant for charging, not for parking. In some states, you can be fined or towed for parking an EV at a charging station without actually charging. Make sure you charge efficiently and move to a normal parking space when you're finished charging.
  • Keep your charging apps updated. EV charging can change fast. Make sure your charging apps are up to date and that you have the data or service needed to access them.
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