USB Type C Explained: What It Is & How It Works



What is USB Type C? In this guide, we’ll detail exactly what USB Type C is, how it works, why it is better than Apple’s Lightning standard, and its many, many benefits for your phone, tablet, and laptop…


Most people charge their phones every day. You don’t think about it or give the technology that makes it possible much thought. If you have an Android phone, you use USB Type C charging cables. With iPhones, you use Apple’s Lightning charging cable (for now). But things are about to change.

In a bid to make phones more useful and do away with waste, the EU has now ruled that as of autumn 2024 all phones sold in the block will have to use USB Type C charging ports. And, yes, that includes Apple’s iPhone which means Apple has effectively been forced to adapt USB Type C for its future iPhone releases, likely starting with the iPhone 15 in 2023.

But before that happens, let’s take some time to explore just what USB Type C actually is, how it is different from Micro USB and Apple’s Lightning port, and why the EU is now pushing for a standard based around USB Type C. But before we do that, let’s first outline just what USB Type C is and why it is so important to have it on your phone.

What is USB Type C? A Quick Definition…

what is usb type c
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First released in 2014, USB Type C is a new form of data transfer cable. It can be used for charging and transferring data. USB Type C can handle more power – this is why it is used on laptops, as well as phones and tablets. On top of this, USB Type C can handle transfer speeds of 10 Gbps – that’s 2X the speed of USB 3.

On top of this, USB Type C connectors are smaller and reversible. The new standard is also backwards compatible too, so you can use an adapter to connect a USB 3 to a USB Type C device. All of this put together makes USB Type C a kind of unicorn connection tool – it has the power to effectively become ubiquitous, replacing older standards like Thunderbolt and DisplayPort.

USB Type C is also starting to replace the headphone jack on phones too, giving users that want a wired connection for their headphones an option. You can now get a whole host of USB Type C-powered headphones. And the best part? USB Type C headphones get better audio quality than their 3mm headphone jack counterparts.

All of the above-mentioned benefits are great. Everyone wants faster data transfer and better-sounding audio. But the single best benefit of USB-C is not related to any of its features or abilities. Rather, it is because USB-C has the power to create a universal standard for ALL electronic devices which, in turn, cuts down on billions of tons of waste.

Type C USB is Better For The Environment

The push to create less waste is why most modern phones no longer come with a charger. If you use an Android phone or an iPhone, you will probably have several or more chargers in and around your home. You don’t need a new one. And by not including a new one in the box of your new phone, tech companies are saving billions of tons of materials every year.

By switching to one universal standard, your life – as a consumer – also gets easier too. You have a phone, you have a laptop, and you have a tablet and an e-reader and, hell, maybe even a vape mod. And by 2024 ALL of these things will use USB-C.

Back in the day, you’d need different cables to charge them. And this sucked. With USB Type C, however, all you need is one USB Type C cable to charge them all. And that is why there is now a massive push by regulators to make USB Type C the standard charging protocol for all electronic devices.

And that means, whenever you go on holiday, you don’t need to take about five different cables with you. All you need is a USB Type C – one with USB PD if you’re charging a laptop – and you can charge everything up from one cable. This makes life much easier for consumers. And if that wasn’t enough, with standards like USB Type C you also get things like Fast Charge, whereby your phone can be charged from dead to 100% within 20 minutes.

USB-C Generations Compared – USB 3.2 to USB4

NEW USB NAMEPREVIOUS USB NAMEUSB PERFORMANCE SPECIFICATIONDATA TRANSFER SPEED​​​​​​​YEAR INTRODUCED
USB 3.2 Gen 1USB 3.0
USB 3.1 Gen 1
SuperSpeed5 Gbps2008-2013
USB 3.2 Gen 2USB 3.1
USB 3.1 Gen 2
SuperSpeed+
(10 Gbps)
10 Gbps2013
USB 3.2 Gen 2×2USB 3.2SuperSpeed
(20 Gbps)
20 Gbps2017
USB4USB 4 Gen 2×2
USB 4 20 Gbps
20 Gbps2019
USB4USB 4 Gen 3×2
USB 4 40 Gbps
40 Gbps2019*

How Does Fast Charging Work on Your Phone?

Back in the day, most phones used chunky USB charging ports. But since about 2012, MicroUSB became the standard for Android phones. Apple uses its own, proprietary method. In 2014/15, the switch to USB Type C began and this helped to bring about one of the biggest changes to hit mobiles in AGES – fast charging.

In layman’s terms, Fast Charging is where more power is sent to your phone’s battery over a shorter period of time, resulting in quicker charging times. Most major phone brands use the USB-PD (Universal Serial Bus Power Delivery) standard, which allows for up to 18W power delivery. Apple uses it, but charges for a cable, whereas most Android phones can do it out of the box.

The only downside here, however, is that there are LOADS of different Fast Charging standards and solutions. As of right now, there are a bunch of different fast and quick charging options available from a host of manufacturers:

  • Qualcomm Quick Charge
  • Samsung Adaptive Fast Charging
  • Apple Fast Charging
  • Huawei SuperCharge
  • Motorola TurboPower
  • Oppo Vooc
  • OnePlus Dash Charge
  • MediaTek Pump Express

Don’t get yourself too bogged down with the details, however. The main thing here is that fast charging is now becoming common on nearly all major phone releases. By 2023, it will be standard on all handsets. Even iPhones.

How fast is fast charging? Right now, the average across all major phones is around 7 hours worth of usage per 15-minute charge. Example: it’s 3 pm; you finish work soon, but your phone is dead. If you have a phone that can fast charge, all you’d have to do is plug it in for 15 minutes and it’d be fully charged by 3:30 pm and 70% full by 3:15 pm.

USB Type C For MacBooks & Laptops

As noted in the opening intro, USB Type C is now available on laptops and MacBooks. The benefit of USB Type C for laptops and MacBooks is that the machine can be charged from a standard USB Type C connection. You can even connect your laptop to a power bank via USB Type C for on-the-go charging.

Another benefit of USB Type C for laptops/MacBooks? You can use the USB Type C cable to connect your laptop to an external monitor, and the USB Type C cable will use the monitor’s power to charge your laptop, as well as send information from your laptop to the monitor’s display. Cool stuff, right?

The ONLY caveat here is that in order to charge a larger device like a laptop or a MacBook your USB Type C cable must have USB PD. Without USB PD, you won’t have the requisite power to charge the device’s larger internal battery. Fortunately, USB Type C cables with USB PD are not expensive, so once you’ve invested in one you can then use it for your phone, tablet, laptop and pretty much anything else that has a USB Type C port.

Is USB Type C Backwards Compatible?

USB Type C itself isn’t physically backwards compatible, in that you can’t insert a USB Type C connector into a phone that runs USB 3.1 – it simply won’t fit.

However, USB Type C and the USB 3.1 standards ARE compatible at their core, you just need to get a converter for your USB Type C cable so it can attach to the older USB 3.1 port. This is why you can get cables with USB 3.1 and USB Type C connections.

Making USB Type C and USB 3.1 compatible was key. You can’t just change how devices are charged overnight and expect everybody to get on board. Big, sweeping changes like this require slow transitions. This is why USB 3.1 is now being slowly phased out on newer phones, tablets and laptops. It is also why USB 3.1 is still compatible with USB Type C.

USB-Type-C-Explained
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From about 2021 onwards, the number of USB 3.1 devices on the market will have dropped to about zero. From here on out, USB Type C will become the #1 connector for all major electronic devices – phones, tablets, laptops, and MacBooks.

Once we have a standardised foundation, developments – meaning more power – will be added to the mix, bringing faster and faster charging. From 2024, even Apple’s iPhones will use USB-C charging ports. And so too will its iPads.

By the mid-2020s, you might be able to charge your phone fully in seconds. Imagine that? Charging your phone for a few seconds and getting 100% charge. Sounds insane, right? But that’s where we’re heading. And I cannot wait!

Richard Goodwin

Richard Goodwin has been working as a tech journalist for over 10 years. He is the editor and owner of KnowYourMobile.
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