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Updated December 2018 with information on international eSIM data options.
They’re the best way to stay connected internationally, since you’ll typically get better rates and/or speeds than when you’re roaming, plus a local number for people to call you on.
However, as much as we love local SIMs, they’re not without their problems. They can be time-consuming and difficult to buy due to language and technical issues, and you have to mess around with swapping little pieces of plastic in and out of your phone.
Since you often can’t get hold of one until you’re physically in a country, you can also find yourself disconnected during those vital first few hours after arrival unless there’s a store at the airport or station.
Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a way to simply turn on your phone once you arrive, and connect to a local carrier at local rates instead? Well, there is — and surprisingly, it’s already been on the market for a few years. Welcome to the eSIM.
If it doesn’t ring a bell, it’s probably because you haven’t been following Apple’s latest launch announcement — the new iPhone XR and XS models having support for eSIM was one of the highlights.
In theory, the technology should be a boon for travelers and the future of connectivity on-the-go. In practice, though? Well, things are a little different.
So What Is eSIM, Anyway?
First things first: the “e” doesn’t stand for “electronic.” Unlike most examples that come to mind (e-mail, e-card, e-bill, e-whatever), eSIM stands for “embedded Subscriber Identity Module.” That tells you a lot about what this thing actually is.
A piece of hardware built into an electronic device, an eSIM acts like a traditional physical SIM card, identifying and authenticating a device on a cellular network. Since it’s embedded, the eSIM always stays inside the device. There’s no need or possibility to remove it.
What does this mean in practical terms? Easy: a device with an eSIM will be ready to use once it is turned on and activated on a network. You don’t have to find a store, buy a piece of plastic, or fumble around with the SIM slot. Sounds amazing, right?
Which Devices Support It?
Devices that support eSIM are still quite rare. Apple adding it to the new iPhones improves things a lot, although it wasn’t enabled until a few months after release. It’s been available in the Apple Watch series since late last year, along with recent models of iPad Pro.
Apple wasn’t first out of the gate, however. Samsung bundled an eSIM into the Gear S2 smartwatch back in 2016, while Google has included one in its Pixel smartphone range since the Pixel 2 in 2017. Other companies using the technology include Nuu (in its Mobile X5 smartphone) and Huawei, with its Watch 2 wearable.
Of course, the hardware is only half the story. For eSIM technology to work, cellular providers also need to support them on their networks. That’s where things get tricky.
Where Are eSIMs Available?
So far, you can only enable local eSIMs in 10 countries: Austria, Canada, Croatia, Czechia, Germany, Hungary, India, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
If that wasn’t limiting enough, in most of those countries, eSIMs aren’t supported by all providers. In the US, for instance, T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon offer it, but Sprint and virtual carriers like Boost and Cricket don’t. Sprint announced its plans to support eSIM in the near future, but no specific timeframe was provided.
It’s even harder to find in the UK, with only EE currently offering it. Across all ten countries, only 14 carriers support eSIM right now. While you could argue that the surge in eSIM-enabled devices may make more networks jump at the opportunity, it remains unclear whether they will.
Most carriers are scared of the technology, since eSIM makes it far easier for existing customers to change providers. When a better deal is available right there on the device, with no need to do any real research or go into a store, you can bet more people will switch, more often. That’s the last thing a mobile company wants.
That’s undoubtedly one of the reasons why, right now, even the few carriers with eSIM support won’t offer it on a prepaid plan — hardly ideal for travelers, and another hurdle in the way of widespread adoption.
If eSIM somehow takes off anyway, that fear of losing customers could provoke price wars, with providers battling over who can offer the best deals in a bid for market share.
Are eSIMs Really The Future for Travelers?
At first sight, eSIM sounds like a dream come true for travelers. Who wouldn’t want to turn up in a new country, turn on their phone, and connect to a network with a couple of taps before even leaving the airport?
The technology sounds like it will bring nothing but benefits — but is that really the case?
When it comes to convenience, there’s little doubt eSIMs can make the process of joining a carrier much easier than it is today. Simply purchase a plan from your device, follow any authentication instructions, choose a payment method, and you’re done. There’s no need to leave your home (or the airport) to do it.
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This is ideal for constant travelers, allowing them to stay connected no matter how often or how suddenly they change locations. Even for those with a home base, though, it will make travel easier, especially for those regularly going back and forth between their usual location and another destination.
Business travelers or expats who visit their home country regularly, for instance, can maintain two profiles on their eSIM and switch between them at will. Other than the obvious convenience, it means there’s no chance of losing a physical SIM card when it’s not being used. Not that we know anyone who’s done that. Ahem.
Replacing physical SIMs with eSIMs also saves space inside the device. This can be used for other features, extra battery life, or just making the hardware a little smaller.
It also helps with waterproofing, with one less slot for liquid to enter. There can also be minor savings in production costs, which may or may not be passed onto the customer.
The problem, of course, is that none of these potential advantages amount to much until there’s widespread support from carriers, including prepaid options. Until then, it’s a useful gimmick if you happen to be in the right country, but far from something you can rely on using worldwide.
So How Should I Use My Phone’s eSIM When Traveling?
Since all phones with eSIMs currently have a physical SIM slot as well, the best way for many travelers to use the embedded SIM may actually be at home.
If you live in the UK, US, or one of the few other countries where carriers have eSIM support, see if it makes sense to switch across. If so, that frees up the physical SIM slot for use while traveling without losing access to your home number.
Where local carriers have been slow to offer prepaid eSIM options to travelers, international SIM card providers have seen an opportunity.
Companies like Gigsky and Truphone are already offering eSIM-based data services in many countries around the world, enabled via an app. They’re not as cheap as most local data packages, but aren’t bad for light to moderate data use.
Note that whatever approach you take, neither Apple nor Google’s latest phones support having the embedded and physical SIMs active at the same time. When you’re on a call, you won’t receive calls or texts from whichever one isn’t in use.
All things considered, then, eSIM is a promising technology, but far from the holy grail for connected travelers as yet.
Until that glorious time in the future when it finally goes mainstream, we’ll just have to stick with the tried, true, mildly-frustrating approach we’ve used for years: growing our endless collection of local SIM cards instead.