Although all three terms are often used interchangeably to mean “that thing in the wall that you plug a cord into,” each has a different, specific meaning:
Outlet - The National Electrical Code (NEC) defines it as “a point on the wiring system at which current is taken to supply utilization equipment.” This would include a receptacle, but also could be a light fixture, appliance, ceiling fan, or smoke alarm.
Receptacle - “A contact device installed at the outlet for connection of an attachment plug,” according to the NEC. So, essentially, a receptacle is one type of outlet.
Receptacle Outlet - “An outlet where one or more receptacles are installed.” This is the technically correct name for what is pictured at the top of this page.
Attachment Plug - Usually referred to as simply a plug, it more formally described as an Attachment Plug by the NEC, and defined as “a device that, by insertion into a receptacle, establishes a connection between the conductors of the attached flexible cord and the conductors connected permanently to the receptacle.”
None of this is going to stop people from using the words receptacle, outlet, and plug to mean the same thing; but the difference is worth remembering when each one is used in the context of a building code.
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To learn more about electrical wiring, devices, and receptacles, see these other blog posts:
• What is the difference between what trips a GFCI (ground fault) receptacle and a circuit breaker?
• What is the code requirement for GFCI protection for receptacles near a wet bar sink?
• What is the requirement for a service receptacle outlet for heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration (HACR) equipment?
• Why is an opening in the wall around the side of an electrical receptacle outlet a safety defect?
• When was GFCI-protection for kitchen dishwasher receptacle outlet first required?
• What is allowable voltage range at a wall receptacle outlet in a house?
• When should I replace electric receptacle outlets?
• Does an electric receptacle outlet in a storage shed require GFCI protection?
• What are "self-contained" electrical receptacle outlets and switches?
• What is the difference between an electrical receptacle, an outlet, and a plug?
• Does a washing machine receptacle outlet require GFCI protection?
• What is the building code requirement for receptacle outlets at stairs and stair landings?
• Can I remove a 240-volt range receptacle and hard-wire the range?
• What is a "backstab" receptacle outlet?
• Why are some electric receptacle outlets upside down (ground slot up) in a house?
• What is the height requirement for an electric receptacle outlet?
• Where are GFCI receptacle outlets required?
• When were GFCI receptacle outlets first required?
• Does a home inspector remove receptacle outlet cover plates?
• What is the minimum height for an exterior receptacle outlet?
• When was the current receptacle/outlet spacing of 12-feet first required?
• When was the three-slot (grounding) outlet/receptacle first required?
• Why does painting an electric receptacle (outlet) make it unsafe?
• Why are electrical outlets and plugs polarized?
• How many electrical receptacles (outlets) are required in a hallway?
• What problems does having too many electric receptacle outlets on a single circuit cause?
• Is a house required to have outdoor electric receptacle outlets?
• How I can tell if a receptacle outlet is tamper resistant?
• Why is there a GFCI breaker in the electric panel for the bathroom shower light and exhaust fan?
• What is a false ground, bootleg ground, or cheated ground receptacle?
• How can adding wood paneling or a wainscot create an electrical safety hazard?
• How far apart should kitchen counter receptacles be spaced?
• How far above a kitchen countertop do electrical outlets have to be?
• What is reversed polarity at an outlet/receptacle? Why is it dangerous?
• How high above the floor do electric outlets/receptacles in a garage have to be?
• How far apart should electric receptacles be spaced in a bathroom?
• Is an ungrounded electric receptacle outlet dangerous?
• My bathroom electric receptacle/outlet is dead and there are no tripped breakers in the electric panel. What's wrong?
• Is there an adapter that can be placed on a two-slot receptacle to make it safe?
• How do the new tamper-resistant electric outlets work?
• Why is there no bathroom electric receptacle in this old house?
• How can I tell if the electric receptacle outlets are grounded?
• How far apart should the electrical receptacles be placed?
• What are the most common problems/defects found with electric receptacle outlets during a home inspection?
Visit our ELECTRICAL page for other related blog posts on this subject, or go to the INDEX for a complete listing of all our articles.