What the EU’s ruling on USB-C chargers could mean for devices everywhere

The decision is about more than just smartphones. Here's how it could affect the gadget landscape.
a lightning and usb-c cable
A USB-C connector, left, and an Apple Lightning connector. Deposit Photos

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The European Union has just decreed that all new smartphones and other similar electronic devices sold within its 27 member countries must have a USB-C charging port by fall of 2024. This is to allow customers to be able to charge all their devices with the one charger type, and so effectively bans Apple’s Lightning port on any new models released beginning in that time frame. Although the ruling only applies in the EU, it’s likely to affect devices globally. 

While this decision is being portrayed as the EU regulating smartphones, the new ruling covers a much wider range of “small and medium-sized portable electronic devices.” Any cell phone, tablet, e-reader, earbuds, digital camera, headphones, headset, handheld video game console, or portable speaker that has a rechargeable battery that’s charged over a wire (rather than, say, a dedicated charging dock or wirelessly) will have to have a USB-C port, regardless of the manufacturer. The ruling also applies to laptops, though manufacturers have an additional 40 months to meet the requirements. 

Technically, Apple doesn’t have to remove the Lightning port from forthcoming iPhones—it just has to add a USB-C port to any that are released after 2024. However, the chance that the design-focused company will choose to add a second port to its sleek smartphone is basically zero. A more likely option that has been touted for a while is that Apple will go fully wireless with the iPhone. If it’s not charged over a cable, it doesn’t need a USB-C port. 

[Related: The EU wants everyone to use USB-C chargers—including Apple]

Bloomberg reported recently that Apple has been testing USB-C iPhones, though similar rumors have also been floating around for a few years. It’s worth noting that the iPhone is an outlier in Apple’s lineup: the iPads Pro, Air, and Mini, MacBooks Air and Pro, and even some Beats headphones are all charged over USB-C. (Apple boasts of its versatility on the iPad Mini marketing page!) Apple even had a hand in designing USB-C as part of the USB Implementers Forum, so it isn’t as if the company has entirely avoided the connector. Now, the EU is just forcing it to fully embrace it.

The EU has a patchy history of regulation in this area. In 2009, it similarly tried to force manufacturers to use the Micro-USB connector. However, because of the way the law was written, Apple was able to meet the requirements by offering a Micro-USB-to-30-pin adapter for around $15. There’s no such loop hole on offer this time. 

Fortunately, the law will only apply to new products brought to market after the law goes into effect. This will likely be useful to Apple considering how they handle the previous year’s models: It discounts them and sells them as its mid-tier and entry-level options. Right now, you can buy the iPhone 13 and 13 Pro (released in 2021), the iPhone 12 (released in 2020), and the iPhone 11 (released in 2019). If we presume the first iPhone released under this law will be the iPhone 16 (assuming that’s indeed what it’s called), the iPhone 15 and 14 can still be sold with Lightning ports.

The EU is playing this as a big win for consumers. Alex Agius Saliba, the EU Parliament’s rapporteur, said: “Today we have made the common charger a reality in Europe! European consumers were frustrated long [sic] with multiple chargers piling up with every new device.” Unfortunately, in reality, the situation could be less clear cut. 

USB-C standards are widely regarded as a “total mess.” Although all devices use the same ports, they don’t always allow for the same power or data transfer speeds. In terms of those data transfer speeds, some USB-C cables offer 5 Gbps while others offer 20 Gbps. The only way to tell the difference is to check the packaging and see what the so-called SuperSpeed USB rating is. Similarly, different USB-C wall plugs have different wattages. The 10W plug for a smartphone might technically connect to a 16” MacBook Pro (which ships with a 140W charger), but it often can’t provide enough power to keep the battery charged while it’s in use. 

The EU has also declared that “the charging speed is also harmonized for devices that support fast charging, allowing users to charge their devices at the same speed with any compatible charger.” The reality may be that instead of having a drawer filled with different chargers, many consumers will end up with a drawer filled with similar looking chargers—and devices that never charge as fast as they could.