Is It Illegal To Charge Your EV for Free at a Public Outlet?

Maybe you have an EV and have wondered about plugging it into a public outlet–in a parking lot or on a street lamp post–to charge it up for free. When something seems too good to be true, it usually is. If you can find a public outlet that’s switched on, it would technically be legal to plug in your EV. But because you’re dealing with a 110-volt outlet it could take multiple days to top off your battery. There are much better free charging options available.

Is it illegal to plug an EV into any open outlet?

This depends on the outlet: it is illegal to steal electricity from some random homeowner or business owner. Some municipalities offer power outlets on street lamps or in parks for citizens to charge phones, etc. But local bylaws may forbid you plugging in your EV.

Closeup of the hand of Ford EV driver plugging in a cable to charge up their vehicle's battery.
Charging a Ford EV | Ezequiel Becerra/AFP via Getty Images

Think about it this way: If you plug in your EV, someone will have to pay for the electricity you put in your battery. If the outlet belongs to your local town, you pass the cost of your charge along to the taxpayers.

If you plug into a lampost in a Walmart parking lot, you pass this cost along to Walmart corporation. This might not seem like a bad thing, but if enough people do this, they’ll probably shut off their outlets. You would also hate to give EV drivers a bad name.

It is bad etiquette to plug your EV into a random charger without asking–according to CNET. If you are parked at a friend’s house and notice a 110-volt outlet in the driveway, it’s easy enough to ask if you can plug your EV in. You will only be adding a few dollars to their electricity bill, so you can always offer to give them a few bucks for the privilege.

Is plugging an EV into a 110-volt charger worth it?

A 110-volt outlet is known as a “Level 1” charger. It can only add four to five miles of range for each hour of charging time–depending on your EV. You would need to leave your vehicle plugged in for days on end to charge its battery all the way up from empty.

A Tesla owner plugs a free EV charge cable into the port of their EV sedan.
Charging a Tesla EV | Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images

If your EV is completely dead and you are only a few miles from home, any 110-volt outlet you have access to will have to do. And if you are visiting a friend for a three-hour barbecue–just two miles from your house–leaving your dead EV hooked up to their 110-volt outlet should give you enough juice to get home. But if you are looking for free charging, you may have much better options than an unguarded 110-volt outlet.

Where can you charge an EV for free?

Businesses and other organizations that would benefit from your visiting often offer free charging. This includes many museums, visitor centers, colleges, casinos, and national parks. Some businesses, such as hotels and restaurants, have begun offering free charging along with other purchases.

The round green power cable symbol that signals a free EV charge station.
EV charging station symbol | Karol Serewis/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Some businesses with for-pay EV charging stations even offer special discounts based on holidays, so it’s a good idea to re-check local free chargers often. Some businesses looking for good publicity, such as energy companies and EV dealerships, also offer free charging.

My colleague Amanda Cline reported that there are hundreds of locations where you can charge an electric vehicle for free. Start by searching your App store for an app listing charging stations. Then sort them by free charging to find the latest deals in your area.

Next, find out if buying a used plug-in hybrid is a good idea or see more ways to charge an EV for free in the video below:

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