EV Charging Stations: Where to Charge Your Electric Car on the Road

Learn where to charge, how to pay, and what to expect.

Electric vehicle charging station in parking garage

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Any new technology can be intimidating at first, and knowing where and how to charge an electric car is no different. First learning how to use a gasoline pump was probably challenging for many people when they were learning to drive, but rarely do experienced drivers try to pump diesel into a gasoline car or drive away with the gas-pump nozzle still in the tank. Even experienced EV drivers are bound to make a few mistakes now and then at a charging station, but with practice, the process becomes as familiar as pumping gas.

How to Use a Public Charging Station

At their most basic, using a public charging station is very similar to pumping gas. Pull the EV up to the charger, turn it off, plug in a fuel-supply cord, swipe a charge card, make a few selections on a touch screen, wait until the fueling is completed, then unplug and drive away. The main differences are in types of charging and connectors, and how to pay.

Choosing a Charging Level

There are three levels of charging, based on how much power they deliver to an EV. 

  • Level 1 charging is the slowest and uses just a 120-volt outlet like an ordinary home outlet. This is sometimes available at businesses that provide public charging to their customers. It's called “trickle charging” for a reason, but it's often free.
  • Level 2 charging provides 240 volts of power and is the most common option at public charging stations. 
  • The third option is a Level 3 charger (also known as a DC Fast Charger), which can add up to 100 miles of range within 15 to 20 minutes, depending on how much power the fast charger delivers. Not every EV can accept fast charging, and not every charging station provides it.

Connector Types

CHAdeMO EV charging plug
CHAdeMO EV charging plug.

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There is no single standard charging connector that all car companies use. For example, Teslas are charged with a connector that only works on Teslas. But 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 and what kind of connectors a public charging station provides. 

How to Pay for Public Charging

Driver using phone app to charge an electric vehicle.

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Many smaller businesses have stand-alone charging stations that have their own payment systems—usually just a credit card—or they are free. But there are about 20 public charging networks in North America competing for your businesses. Some are regional, such as Circuit Électrique in Quebec and Ontario, Canada, while others span the continent, like Electrify America and EVgo. Most require membership for you to use their chargers, but membership is free in most cases. 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 which you hold up to the touchscreen, then get billed for your charging. Networks also have mobile apps that allow you can activate and pay for EV charging from your phone. A mobile app allows you to enjoy a coffee or shop for groceries while still monitoring the progress of your charging.

Warning

For safety reasons, charging speeds slow down dramatically when the battery reaches 80% full. Since EV charging is billed by the minute, you are paying a lot more for each kWh if you charge above 80%. If you use a mobile app, you may be able to set it to stop charging when the battery reaches 80%.

Where to Find EV Charging Stations

Unlike gasoline stations, only the most high-speed EV charging stations are found in highway rest areas or at entrances and exits. Since EV charging still takes longer than pumping gas, charging stations are often located in places that allow EV owners to do something else while waiting for their vehicle to charge. Tesla recently filed a trademark to cover “restaurant services” as part of its Supercharger network. Other public charging stations are installed at grocery stores, convenience stores, and shopping malls, but for wider adoption of EVs, locating charging stations on residential streets will make overnight charging available to the EV owners who cannot otherwise charge at home.

Public EV charging station in London, UK

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With the largest market for electric vehicles, China has been aggressively installing EV charging stations, with over 800,000 installed by the end of 2020. There are some 260,000 public stations throughout Europe, with the leader being the Netherlands, which has installed 1.6 charging stations for every EV owner. The U.S. and Canada lag behind Europe and China, with 43,572 stations in the United States and 6,209 in Canada by mid-2021.

Increasingly, EVs are internet-enabled and can provide interactive street maps to help you find charging stations. You can download a number of apps that provide maps with sometimes more up-to-date information. In North America, the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has apps for both Apple and Android devices that is updated annually. If your EV supports Apple's CarPlay or Google's Android Auto, you can search for charging stations from your car's touchscreen.

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

Person putting a charging cable into front trunk of an electric vehicle

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  • Have a backup plan. Like any new technology, there is a bit of a Wild West feel to EV charging. You may show up to a charging station that your app says is available, only to find that it's suddenly out of service, all the chargers are in use, or—worst of all—you've been “ICEd out” by some inconsiderate internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle owner who has decided to park in an EV-only parking spot. To date, 15 states have legislation prohibiting the practice of non-EV's parking in a spot reserved for EV charging, but that won't do you much good at the moment.
  • 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. Level 1 chargers can plug into any household outlet, so you may be able to use your hotel, vacation rental, or crash pad to charge your vehicle overnight.
  • Don't overstay your welcome. Charging stations are meant for charging, not for parking (and in some states, you can be fined or towed for parking an EV at a charging station without actually charging). Leave a note for other EV drivers if you're not able to get back to your car to unplug it once it's done charging. It may not be possible for others to unplug the charger, however, as some EVs automatically lock the plug to the charge port when you lock your car.
  • Keep your charging apps updated. Especially with the Biden Administration's plans to expand the EV charging network in the United States, things change fast. Make sure your charging apps are up to date. While most of their data is stored in the cloud, your app still needs to be able to read it.
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