How to Charge Your Laptop With USB-C: Your Questions Answered

How to Charge Your Laptop With USB-C: Your Questions Answered

Those sleek oval-shaped USB-C ports seem to be everywhere these days. They’ve become ubiquitous on smartphones and tablets, and they regularly show up on laptop and desktop PCs, too. But if you’re in the market for a new laptop, you might be surprised to see them being used for charging (in place of a dedicated power port), in addition to being used for connecting peripherals. How common is it? Nearly half of the best laptops we recommend feature USB-C charging. 

Among those that do, however, the feature has nuances that can vary from model to model. Different charging options may be available, and you won’t see any standard specs or labels on today’s laptops that indicate what form the charger may take, or which USB-C ports are used for charging. And that’s before we even get into variations around matters like bandwidth, feature support, and total wattage.

From the basics of USB-C to the cool features and sometimes-confusing aspects of the format, here is your explainer for everything USB-C as it relates to laptops.

What Is USB-C?

USB-C (often referred to as USB Type-C) specifically describes the kind of physical USB connector used on a couple of different USB formats. The connector was first revealed back in 2014 by the USB Implementers Forum. Developed alongside the USB 3.1 specification that same year, the small connector was a major departure from the USB plugs used at the time.

Instead of a blocky, rectangular plug end, USB-C uses a rounded profile, and the 24 pins inside are laid out in such a way that you can plug it in upside-down, a feat the older USB-A standard didn’t support.

USB-C ports on a laptop

Sleek, oval-shaped USB-C ports have become ubiquitous on smartphones and tablets.
(Photo: Molly Flores)

More accurately, thanks to a reversible, symmetrical design, there is no upside-down for USB-C. So long as the male plug and female ports line up, you can plug it in for sharing power or data. It’s also smaller than the ubiquitous rectangular USB Type-A, allowing it to be used on devices big and small, from phones to laptops.

USB-C connectors deliver both power and data. The USB-C port is the standard connection for USB 3.1, Thunderbolt 3 and Thunderbolt 4, along with the latest USB4 format. And thanks to the expanding functionality of USB, those connections can be used for everything from connecting simple external storage and displays to working for power delivery—both inbound power to charge your laptop, and outgoing power to juice up your phone or other device. (Learn more about USB-C and its other uses in our article What Is USB-C? An Explainer.)

Our Favorite Laptops With USB-C Charging

The good news is that USB-C has made plugging in new USB devices and cables much simpler. What isn’t simple? Pretty much everything else. Despite the connections all appearing similar, you can find several different types of protocols using USB-C, including USB 3.1, USB4, Thunderbolt 3 and 4, DisplayPort over USB, and Power Delivery over USB-C. (The last, also dubbed “USB-PD,” addresses power for charging other devices from the laptop, as opposed to using the port to charge the laptop’s battery.) On top of that, the device settings of the laptop can enable some of these connectivity features, or disable others. So much for simple.

Can I Charge My Laptop With USB-C?

When it comes to current laptops sold within approximately the last eight years, the answer is, “It depends.” Though USB-C ports have become very common on laptops, and USB-C power for laptops is fairly common, power over USB-C isn’t standard, and it’s not always easy to tell if it’s even supported.

Let’s start simple. If your laptop came with a USB-C style plug on its power adapter, then the answer is “yes.” Note: Using that bundled power adapter is your best bet, since it matches the wattage your laptop needs, while having the right connector type.

Complicating things a bit, some other laptops support USB-C laptop charging but also offer another charging method. Systems like the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 9 (2021), the Lenovo Yoga 9i Gen 7, and the Microsoft Surface Pro 8 all support charging via USB-C but come with a different style of charger in the box. If you want to take advantage of the USB-C charging support, you’ll need to provide your own power cable.

Top Laptops With Optional USB-C Charging

Even more confusingly, many laptops with USB-C ports do not offer charging of their batteries over USB-C. Those that do will usually not have an additional charging port, but you will see exceptions to that. And sometimes a USB-C port will be marked with an icon or label to indicate its use for power delivery, while other times it won’t.

Laptop with USB-C and charging ports

This HP Spectre laptop has a dedicated charging port (center) and two USB-C ports not used for charging.
(Photo: Molly Flores)

In general, thin ultraportable laptops support USB-C charging whether or not they also have an additional charging port. Meanwhile, gaming rigs and other laptops with powerful graphics cards usually do not. (That said, we have started to see some gaming and power-user models that support USB-C charging of the battery, but potentially not at a rate that can outpace the battery drain when in use.) If you’re not sure whether your laptop can be charged over USB-C, your best bet is to check the product documentation or ask the manufacturer customer support for clarification.

Is USB-C Charging Faster for Laptops?

As with most questions around USB-C, the answer is, “It depends.” Low-end laptops will frequently come with power adapters in the 30-to-65-watt range. In this case, using a 100-watt USB-C power adapter instead should offer more power, which will generally translate into faster charging. Some quick-charging features are actually made to take advantage of this higher wattage, meaning you can get more battery charge in less time.

But again, it’s not quite that simple. There’s also the question of power regulation for both the power adapter and the laptop, either of which may regulate the flow of power down to simplify the battery management. Therefore, it’s always best to use the cable and AC adapter that came with your laptop, or one recommended by the laptop maker, to ensure problem-free charging and to avoid damaging your battery.

Plugging a USB-C cord into a laptop

The tiny plug design of USB-C helps laptop manufacturers shave thickness off of laptop designs.
(Photo: Cronislaw/Shutterstock)

Many powerful laptops will demand more than 100 watts when in use. In these cases, USB-C may be great for charging a battery when the system is off or idle, but might not even be able to charge the battery and power the system at the same time. As mentioned earlier, you may just see a slower rate of battery depletion with a system like this plugged in for USB-C charging.

One last complicating factor here: Last year, the USB Type-C specification was updated to support power delivery up to 240 watts—a change that isn’t supported on most machines, and will generally require a new cable.

Can I Power My Laptop Using Another USB-C Charger?

One other benefit of charging over USB-C is that you don’t necessarily need your laptop’s own charger on hand to power the laptop. So, if you’ve been wondering how to charge your laptop without its included charger, the new USB-C option might be the answer. With the near-universality of USB-C, you can plug pretty much any USB-C charger into your laptop’s USB-C charging port and it will (in theory) provide power.

That comes with some major caveats. You’ll need a charger that matches your laptop’s wattage. And you may be able to charge the battery a little when the laptop is powered off, but not get enough power to actually use your computer powered up if the battery’s empty. Still, most USB-C power sources are interchangeable. In fact, built-in power regulation is part of the USB-C spec, and which makes mixing and matching power adapters that much easier.

But not every USB-C laptop will play nicely with other USB-C chargers. Manufacturers can limit compatibility to specific, approved chargers. If that’s the case on your laptop, you’re out of luck, so be sure to try any “backup” charger at home or in the office before you take it (and only it) on the road with you. You don’t want to rely on a charger that can’t do the job when the time comes, leaving you powerless.

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Can I Use My USB-C Laptop Charger to Recharge My Phone?

Looking at your phone’s USB-C port and your laptop’s USB-C power adapter might raise one more thorny question: Can I safely plug the laptop charging cable into my phone to recharge it?

Thankfully, the answer here is usually, “Yes!” Most USB-C power adapters offer variable power output—as mentioned earlier, power regulation is part of the USB-C spec, and the seemingly simple cable that powers your laptop should be smart enough to step down the power to something your phone can handle.

Phone with USB-C charging port

Many phones also use USB-C charging.
(Photo: Molly Flores)

But that does assume that the power adapter offers variable power output. Many do, but if you’re using a third-party power brick or a cheap phone, it’s not guaranteed. When in doubt, do some Googling to make sure your device will work with your charger, or be ready to play Russian roulette with your phone when you plug it in. Be on the lookout for signs of overheating, and watch for any warning messages on your phone.

What About USB-C Adapters and Hubs?

With so many simple questions getting complicated answers, we bet you’re already cringing in anticipation of the next question. What about USB-C docking stations and adapters, which transform the tiny USB-C port into the larger USB-A, HDMI or Ethernet ports my devices need?

Here, finally, we can offer a straightforward answer. If the adapter offers USB-C power input, and then plugs into the USB-C charging port on the laptop, it should pass that power right along. Finally, something that’s easy to understand without digging into the specs and voltage ratings of every cable and device!

USB dock

Some USB-C hubs can pass power to your laptop or other device for battery charging.
(Photo: Molly Flores)

Obviously, however, you won’t get that same power pass-through on a simple port adapter that doesn’t accept power to begin with.

Are There Any Downsides to USB-C Charging?

As you might have noticed, despite the mission of uniting USB under a single, easy-to-use connector, USB-C implementations can vary hugely. That’s the biggest drawback of USB-C charging. There are several formats, each with a distinct feature set, and the nearly identical cables that connect them all aren’t made to support every variation of data and power that you might encounter.

One of the other big issues with USB-C is that the connectors are more delicate than the round barrel connectors that many laptops used to rely on for charging. When a USB-C connector is plugged in, you’ll need to be careful about tripping over cables or bumping the plug at the wrong angle. The smaller USB-C jack isn’t even as robust as the older USB-A connectors used to be, making it even more important to protect that connection.

Despite these challenges, USB-C charging is convenient when it works and will likely be a mainstay of thin-and-light laptops for years to come. If you’re in the market for one, check out our guide to the best ultraportable and 2-in-1 convertible laptops, nearly all of which offer USB-C charging.

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