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21 June 2021

How to use electric car charging points

Everything you need to know about using charging points, including pitfalls to look out for
Adrian Porter

The electric car charging infrastructure is growing quickly in the UK, and it's going to need to continue at a prolific rate in order to stay ahead of the seismic shift in the run-up to the 2030 ban on new petrol and diesel cars.

The number of electric cars on UK roads is expected to rise from 210,000 at the start of 2021 to around 12 million by 2030, according to figures from electric car charging point mapping site Zap-map and predictions from the Climate Change Committee's Sixth carbon budget. 

That’s almost a 60-fold increase in less than nine years. 

Whether you drive an electric car today or not, a lot of us will soon be reliant on the ever-growing charging infrastructure. Here's what you need to know about the electric car public charging network.


Ready to go electric? Here are the best electric cars we've tested.


What you need to know about electric car public charging networks

There are more than 30 different charging networks across the UK. Ubitricity, BP Pulse and Pod Point are among the biggest.

Having such a large number of separate networks creates perhaps the biggest drawback to electric car charging: 

  • In the majority of cases, you can’t just park up and charge 
  • Only a minority of charging points in the UK allow you to pay directly by credit or debit card. No companies accept cash
  • Depending on the network, you'll either need to download an app, go to a website or have a pre-registered RFID card
  • Those that like to roam should prepare to have a phone full of apps and a glovebox of RID cards.

To get a charge going, you'll typically need to download a network specific app and follow the instructions to initiate and pay for the charge. 

Alternatively, you may need (or can choose) to go to the network's website to put in your details and start the charge. 

Some networks also allow you to register an RFID card (Radio Frequency Identify Card) which will allow you to start a charge by tapping the card against a card reader (not a bank card reader) - but you'll still need to manage an account online in connection with your RFID card.

In most cases you'll need a different app, website or RFID card for each different network. 

Millions of drivers will soon be dependent on the UK's charging infrastructure. We think that to make it work, a form of universal access needs to be established across all networks.

See what else we're calling for in our investigation: 5 problems with the electric car charging network, and how to fix them.

E car charging street4 478182

Essential terms - know your kW from your kWh

Before you charge your car, you'll want to understand a few basic terms. Such as the difference between kW and kWh, AC and DC and why that matters when charging electric cars.

kW (kilowatts) and kWh (kilowatt hours) are arguably the most common terms, and you'll come across them every time you charge.

  • The power of an electric car charger is given in kW (kilowatts)
  • Your electric car's battery will have a capacity given in kWh. Think of this as like the capacity of a fuel tank.

So if you had a 21kWh capacity battery it should - in theory - take three hours to charge when connected to a 7kW charger.

In reality, this won't actually be the case as a battery always require more power to charge than it can actually hold, but this provides a general idea of the concepts involved.

Slow, fast or rapid? Electric car public charging points explained

Before you visit a public charger, you need to know two things about your electric car: 

  1. Its maximum charge rate (there will be one for AC and one for DC) 
  2. What type of AC and DC plugs you can connect it to

Electric car charge points offer different power outputs - in a nutshell, the higher the power output, the quicker your car charges (provided the power output is within your car's maximum charge rate). 

You'll see terms like 'slow chargers' and 'rapid chargers' used a lot - here's what they relate to:

  • Slow chargers: up to 3kW (AC)
  • Fast chargers: have power outputs between 7kW-22kW (AC)
  • Rapid chargers: between 25kW and 99kW (typically 50kW and DC)
  • Ultra rapid chargers: 100kW and more (DC). 
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Slow to fast chargers

The most common public electric car chargers are slow to fast chargers  - they account for around 80% of all UK chargers, according to Zap-Map. 

Slow to fast chargers use one of two plugs to connect to your car:

  • Type 1 plug - which is today largely outdated. You'll find it on a few remaining plug-in hybrid cars, such as the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV
  • Type 2 plug - also called a Mennekes plug, is far more common. The EU decreed in 2014 that all new plug-in cars should have a Type 2 socket, making it the preferred standard.

All slow to fast chargers supply AC from the electricity grid to your car. The battery in your electric car, like any battery, cannot use AC to charge. So when you connect an AC (3-22kW) charger to your car, the current goes to the vehicle's onboard charger - this converts it from AC to DC.

Rapid and ultra-rapid chargers

Rapid and ultra-rapid chargers directly provide DC to your car - the special DC connection bypasses your car's onboard charger to supply current directly to the car's battery. It's a much faster way to charge your car, but can be very costly. 

Unless you drive a Tesla, your electric car will have one of two entirely different rapid charging DC plugs, both of which require their own socket:

  • CCS (Combined Charging System) socket is the most common. The 'combined' bit in the name means that the shape of the plug will incorporate the shape of the Type 1 or, more commonly, the Type 2 AC plug. So your car may look like it only has one socket, but it connects with two plugs. If you see a 'Combo 2' plug - that's a CCS plug that fits over a Type 2 plug. 
  • Chademo is the second and now much rarer type. Most cars in Europe don't have this, the outliers being both generations of the Nissan Leaf and the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV. Nissan’s 2021 Ariya SUV will have a CCS connector, which many have taken as a harbinger of the imminent demise of chademo in the UK.
  • Teslas have a modified Type 2 plug that can deliver DC current. This is unique to the company's own-brand 'Supercharger' network - which can only be used by Tesla cars.

There used to be two AC sockets, too, but in 2014 the EU decreed that all new plug-in cars should come equipped with a Type 2 AC socket. However, no such announcement has been made for DC sockets.

Streamlining the types of DC sockets available on cars will help make living with an electric car that little bit simpler in the long run.

How long does it take to charge an electric car?

Before we answer this question, you need to know that electric cars actually have two charging rates:

  1. A maximum AC charging rate (applies to slow and fast chargers, and includes home charging)
  2. A maximum DC charging rate (applies to rapid and ultra rapid charge points).

While fast (AC) charging points go up to a maximum 22kW, most electric cars on the market are limited to a 7.2-11kW maximum AC charge rate.

One of the few exceptions is the Renault Zoe, which can make full use of a 22kW charger. This makes a big difference to its charge times - as you can see in our table, below. 

Charge point power
Time to charge from 0-80%
Time to charge from 0-100%
7.4kW (AC)
6hrs 54mins
8hrs 33mins
11kW (AC)
4hrs 30mins
5hrs 48mins
22kW (AC)
2hrs 15mins
2hrs 54mins
50kW (DC - Rapid charging)
1hr 5mins
1hr 29mins

Ultra-rapid chargers, which typically have a charge rate of between 100kW and 350kW, will charge even faster, potentially taking less than an hour for a full charge from zero – provided your vehicle is compatible.

If you tried to charge the same battery from a three-pin plug at home, it would take around 30 hours to charge the battery by 80%. Which is why you'll want a wallbox if you can charge at home - see our guide on electric car charging at home to find out more.

While most cars are limited to an 11kW AC charge rate or less, you can still connect it to a 22kW charger to your car - it’s not going to blow up. The car and onboard charger will simply manage the rate of charge and take what it can.

The real problem is that if you don’t know the maximum AC rate of charge your electric car can take, you might end up choosing a charger with a higher rate of power when it’s of no use to you.

That could take it away unfairly from another electric car driver that can use it and it could cost you more. 

Electric car charging networks

There are too many networks to list them all here. So we're highlighting the key UK networks you need to know about.

BP Pulse

BP Pulse has arguably the widest chargepoint coverage across the UK. It’s gone one step beyond the government advice to add direct payment by bank card to all rapid chargers from Spring 2020, but is also updating existing chargers as well – which is excellent.

Unfortunately, BP Pulse (along with Osprey) is also one of the networks charging people more for using a bank card (tap and pay). If you use one of its rapid chargers and pay directly by bank card, you’ll be charged more per kWh than if you'd used the same chargepoint and initiated the charge via the company's website or app.

We see this as charging more for using a bank card. BP sees it as a discount for those who don’t. BP told us: ‘Those who choose to sign up for a free membership benefit from a discount on their charging costs based on the value derived by the business from their membership.’

Connected Kerb

An on-street specialist that's expanding quickly. Its chargers range from 7-22kW and all have RFID readers, opening up the possibility of more universal access.

This ambitious company is all about a smart approach - installing clusters of chargers across an area, which then communicate to balance load and stress on the UK grid. It also allows users to benefit from lower cost electricity at low demand times overnight - helping those without off-street take advantage of lower electricity rates.

Gridserve and Ecotricity 

Gridserve opened the first electric-car only forecourt in the UK, in December 2020. It can be found in Braintree, Essex, but it plans to open 100 electric car only forecourts across the UK between 2020 and 2025.

In March 2021 it announced it was forming a partnership with the energy Ecotricity, which has its own charging network the 'Electric Highway'. As part of the deal, Gridserve will swap out all existing chargers with new technology.

The companies will also put six to 12 high-power 350kW devices at all motorway service stations. When electric cars can receive a charge, in theory these ultra-rapid chargers could add 100 miles of charge in five minutes.

GeniePoint charger

GeniePoint 

This network is relatively unusual as it allows RFID cards from other networks to also be used with its own chargers. As the card is just an identifier, it can use existing RFID cards, such as an employer's staff card or public transport card. All the you need to do is set up an account and link it to your card at a GeniePoint charger. 

A spokesperson told Which? that ‘in theory, other networks could make the same decision and allow customers to use any suitable RFID cards... a customer would then be able to use one card to manage charging events on all networks.’

InstaVolt

One of the largest rapid-charger networks in the UK and it stands out example of convenience and good practice. InstaVolt shun things like membership fees, RFID cards and connection fees in favour of bank card only payments at its chargers. It has won a string of awards.

InstaVolt does have an app you can use to get VAT payments, as card-only payments means there's no printer to dispense VAT receipts. If you don’t use the app, you have to email InstaVolt with the time, locations and cost of your charge and it will email you back with your receipt. You can also access the same service online.

Osprey

You can use a bank card to pay for your charge at any Osprey charging point, like InstaVolt. Unlike InstaVolt, Osprey offers fast charging in addition to rapid charging.

The brand is also one of the few networks to allow you to pay using other companies' payment systems - this includes car manufacturer electric car charging schemes, such as the VW We Charge Plan and myHyundai, among others. These schemes allow their customers access to a number of networks via a single app or payment/RFID card, and can offer discounted charging rates with certain networks (but you typically have to pay for a monthly subscription to get the cheaper rates, so you need to work out if it's worth it).

Osprey was also a launch partner for other roaming options, including Zap Pay (see below) and the Octopus Electric Juice Network. The latter allows access to a number of networks without the need for separate apps and RFID cards. As a bonus for Octopus Energy customers, the cost of charging your car will be added to your home's energy bills.

Direct payments by card will always be convenient and Osprey should be commended for being accessible by so many roaming schemes. But what takes the shine off this easy access is that you have to download and use the Osprey app for the best price (you currently save 5p per kWh). So, like BP Pulse, you are still paying more to use your bank card (or if you pay via any other roaming options that isn't the Osprey app).

Pod Point 

One of the largest networks in the UK, Pod Point has done away with RFID cards. Users must have its app to hand or be able to access the company's website. Most of Pod Point's chargers are free to use (yes, really). 

Find out more about free charge points - go to how much does it cost to charge an electric car.

Source London 

Source London is the only major network to charge per minute across all its chargers, and not per kWh.

When we crunched the numbers, we found the cost of charging could as much as over £2,700 for a medium-sized electric hatchback like the VW id.3 - that's several times what you'd typically pay to other networks.

Source London points out that these rates include on-street parking rates, whereas others do not. However, Source London also confirmed that even if your car reaches 100% charge, you will continue to be charged at the same rate until you disconnect the car (unless charging overnight, where you will be cut off after four hours).

A Source London spokesperson told us: ‘Our price per minute pricing structure is designed to encourage users to disconnect their vehicle as soon as they have finished charging.’

Tesla

Tesla has two of its own networks: the Tesla supercharger network and its destination charger network. Tesla superchargers have power levels from 120kW to 250kW, with 350kW chargers to appear in the UK at a later date. 

The Tesla networks came out on top in a 2021 satisfaction survey by Zap-Map, and Tesla's supercharger network received particularly high praise. 

Tesla’s superchargers are not open to other brands of car, despite having a CCS connector in addition to its unique DC-delivering Type 2 connector. Asked if the company would change that, a Tesla spokesperson told us ‘we would not make future looking statements’.

Tesla's separate destination network is comprised of type 2 AC chargers with rated power outputs from 3kW to 22kW. Destination chargers can be unique to Tesla, or open to all with a Type 2 plug. 

Tesla says it encourages hosts that ‘wherever two chargers are installed, we encourage one to be universal and one to be Tesla only’. A Tesla spokesperson told us the destination chargers have ‘the same hardware, just a switch inside that makes it universal or Tesla only’.

Interested in Tesla? See our independent Tesla car reviews.

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Ubitricity 

The biggest name in on-street charging. It cleverly converts lampposts and bollards into charging points. The drawback: no card payments, not even RFID cards - access is 100% app or website. 

The network is limited to 5.5kW charging and is mostly London-centric, but is expanding.

Zap Pay

Not just used to find chargers, Zap-Map has launched a trio of options via its app and website - Zap Pay, Zap Home and Zap Work. 

Zap Pay grants users (registered or as a guest) to use Osprey and ESB Energy networks without having to create separate accounts for either network. Two more minor networks, LiFe and Hubsta, are due to be included soon.

Zap Home is slightly different and allows those with off street parking and a wallcharger to list their personal charge point publicly, set rates and allow other people to use them between certain times. Zap Work is the same concept, but to be used by companies to list their company charge points.

If an electric car isn't right for you just yet, take a look at our expert pick of the best hybrid cars.