Editor’s note: Updated 1/19/22 with product updates. Also adding information about a compatibility issue with M1 Macs and Apple’s Thunderbolt and LED displays.
Apple equips its Macs with Thunderbolt ports that are compatible with USB-C. A new MacBook Pro comes with either two or three of these ports, depending on the model you pick. A new MacBook Air has a pair. A 24-inch iMac comes with two Thunderbolt/USB 4 ports; some models also include two USB-C ports. You probably have devices that use USB-A, Thunderbolt 1, Thunderbolt 2, DisplayPort, HDMI, or something else. How do you connect these devices? With an adapter.
If you’re planning to buy a new 24-inch iMac, MacBook Pro, or MacBook Air, make sure you set aside a considerable amount of cash for the adapters you need. Apple doesn’t include any in the box, except for a power adapter.
Your best bet is to get a combination dock, like the Satechi Slim Aluminum Type-C Multi-Port Adapter ($60 on AmazonEdit non-product linkRemove non-product link). It connects via USB-C, and includes a USB-C pass-through port, two USB 3.0 ports, and an HDMI port with 4K (30Hz) support. With this, you don’t have to carry around multiple adapters.
If you don’t want a dock, or you can’t find a dock with the mix of connections you need, Apple or another company probably has an adapter for you. We’ve come up with this guide to help you sort out what you need, and we link to the appropriate adapter in the online Apple Store or on Amazon.
Be sure to check the return policies; sometimes adapters from third parties don’t work. Read user reviews whenever possible, and read the specifications to make sure the adapter can do what you need it to do.
If there’s a connection we missed, or you have advice on what adapters to buy, let us know on Twitter or Facebook.
How to connect USB-C devices
The Thunderbolt ports in the current 24-inch iMac, MacBook Pro, and MacBook Air work with USB-C devices, which have the same connector shape. If you want to use a USB-C device, you can just plug it into one of the Thunderbolt ports. No adapter necessary. Whew.
How to connect USB-A devices
USB-A is the USB connector with which you’re probably most familiar. It’s the USB connector that was on the previous MacBooks. (Terms like USB 4, USB 3 and USB 2 refer to the speed at which data travels through the connector.)
The name of the cable is confusing, because it could be mistaken for micro USB. But if you check the product page on StarTech’s website, you can see a clear shot of the micro B SuperSpeed connector on the cable, which is quite different from micro USB.
More recent iPhones and iPads include a USB-C to Lightning cable, and the iPad Pro includes a USB-C charging cable, so you don’t need the adapter for those devices.
How to connect the Lightning EarPods
There’s a USB-C to Lightning adapter, thanks to the folks at Anker. It’s $25 on AmazonEdit non-product linkRemove non-product link.Remove non-product link This adapter has a female Lightning connector on one end, so you can plug in your Lightning earphones. The other side is a standard USB-C connector that you plug into your MacBook or 24-inch iMac.
How to connect headphones with a 3.5mm headphone plug
You’re in luck. The MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, and 24-inch iMac have a 3.5mm headphone jack. Just plug it in and you’re good to go. That was easy.
However, people online have reported problems with using the Thunderbolt Display or Apple’s LED Cinema Display with Apple’s M1 Macs. As detailed by Macworld U.K., these displays show a line of flashing pixels at the top right of the screen. The display is still usable, but the flashing pixels are a distraction.
Apple has not addressed the issue, which seems like it could be a compatibility problem with the M1’s GPU. Apple declared these displays as “Vintage” in July 2021, which means that the company will not supply parts for repairs, nor do they promise to provide OS support. So there probably will be no fix coming from Apple.
To connect a display with mini DisplayPort, you need an adapter like the Answin USB C to Mini DisplayPort adapter ($18 on AmazonRemove product link).
If you have the 14- or 16-inch MacBook Pro, that laptop has a full-sized HDMI 2.0 port. You can use a regular HDMI cable and plug it into the MacBook Pro.
For other Macs, Apple offers the USB-C Digital AV Multiport AdapterEdit non-product linkRemove non-product link, a $69 device that also provides a USB-A port and a USB-C port that’s for charging only. Be warned: Apple released a new version of this adapter (model number A2119) in August 2019 that supports HDMI 2.0. The older version (model number A1621) supports HDMI 1.4. When shopping, check the model number (at an Apple store, you likely will get the new model). Apple has a support document that details the differences between the two adapters.
To connect a VGA display, Apple has a USB-C VGA Multiport Adapter ($49 on AmazonEdit non-product linkRemove non-product link). In addition to a VGA to USB-C connection, it also provides a USB-A port for connecting a USB device, and a USB-C charging port to keep your laptop battery happy.
You’ll probably use Wi-Fi most of the time, but using an ethernet connection has its advantages. To connect to an ethernet network, you need an adapter like the Belkin USB-C to Gigabit Ethernet Adapter, which is available on AmazonEdit non-product linkRemove non-product link for $35.
How to connect SD cards
If you use a DLSR or other type of stand-alone camera, it might have a way to transfer your files wirelessly. If not, you need an adapter to access the SD card, like the Cable Matters Dual Slot USB C Card Reader ($10 on AmazonEdit non-product linkRemove non-product link).
If you have a FireWire to USB-A cable, you can try using Apple’s $19 USB-C to USB Adapter. If you have a device with a FireWire 1394 4-pin connector—it was commonly used on video cameras and looks like this—and you need a way to connect, you can try using a USB-A to FireWire 1394 4-pin cable ($8 on Amazon) with the Apple’s USB-C to USB Adapter.
Many printers nowadays have wireless support, so there’s no need for a cable. But maybe you have an older printer, or you find wireless printing unreliable. Most consumer printers have a USB-B port. It’s a squarish connector, much different from USB-A or USB-C.
How to add a classic MagSafe power connector to the MacBook Air or MacBook Pro
The power adapter that comes with the 13-inch MacBook Pro and MacBook Air doesn’t have a breakaway MagSafe connector. MagSafe was a laptop lifesaver in instances where someone tripped over the power cable.
But you can still add a MagSafe connector, and you can find several charging cables with magnetic connectors that can break away when the cable is yanked. A lot of the adapters that you find on Amazon seem to be the same product but labeled by different sellers. And with Amazon user review fraud so rampant, it’s hard to rely on those reviews for advice.
Without having tested these cables ourselves, the best advice we can give is to look for cables that support Apple fast charging, have a length long enough for you to use (at least 6 feet), and is made with good quality material (like a braided cable). Some cables can also be used for data transfers, so you should check the data rate. Some have a right-angle connector; check to make sure such a connector doesn’t block the port next to it. And obviously, note the guarantee and return policy.
Roman has covered technology since the early 1990s. His career started at MacUser, and he’s worked for MacAddict, Mac|Life, and TechTV.