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What is eSIM? Everything you need to know

The physical SIM is over 30 years old. Are we ready to move on from it yet?
By
December 6, 2019
fossil gen 5 lte review mobile lte data esim
Jimmy Westenberg / Android Authority

SIM cards have been around for just over 30 years at this point. While they’ve definitely become smaller over the years, the basic premise has stayed the same: insert the physical card into your phone to get connected. Switching phones? Just swap the SIM card. Convenient as this process is, though, the cellular industry has been pushing for a new standard that could eventually make physical SIM cards completely obsolete. Here’s what eSIM is and everything you need to know about it.

What is an eSIM?

eSIM chip on a finger

Simply put, an embedded SIM (eSIM) is a programmable chip that is built into your smartphone, tablet, or smartwatch. It serves the same purpose as a physical SIM, except that it is carrier-independent and can be programmed via software instead.

With an eSIM compatible smartphone, switching providers is even easier than acquiring and installing a physical SIM card. All you have to do is obtain a configuration file and activate it on the device. Providers generally refer to this as an eSIM profile and offer it as a QR code that you can scan to download.

Carriers typically present eSIM profiles as a QR code that you can scan to download.

Devices with eSIM functionality have a small chip soldered directly onto their main circuit board. In comparison, even the latest tiny nano-SIM standard from 2012 has a fairly large physical footprint. Furthermore, the user-replaceable nature of it means that smartphone makers have to give up valuable space around the physical SIM slot.

What are the benefits and downsides to using eSIM?

Huawei mate 20 Pro - Nano Memory card in the SIM tray slot.

In theory, eSIM allows you to store multiple carrier profiles on your smartphone and switch between them on the fly. That means you can switch between a dozen different plans in mere minutes, which can come in especially handy if you’re traveling internationally and need a temporary local SIM card.

Besides the convenience aspect, the race to make smaller, more fully-featured devices means that many of them can’t fit a SIM card tray. That’s especially true for smaller electronics like smartwatches. Furthermore, the tray area represents a potential ingress point for liquids, hampering the device’s water resistance to some extent.

Related: Everything you need to know about IP and ATM ratings

While manufacturers can line the SIM tray with a rubber gasket (pictured above) to keep liquids out, it’s easy to see the benefits of not having a slot in the first place. After all, many manufacturers cited similar space and waterproofing reasons to get rid of the 3.5mm headphone jack. Thankfully, there’s less of a drawback when switching from physical to eSIM.

eSIM is often more convenient than dealing with physical SIM cards, but you can still choose between the two on most smartphones.

The only downside to eSIM is that not all carriers support it, as we’ll discuss in a later section. To remedy this, smartphone makers still typically include a physical SIM slot alongside eSIM support. You can often combine both to use dual-SIM — or two different plans simultaneously.

However, on many devices — including smartwatches and even some laptops — you have no option but to use eSIM. One of the only smartphones in recent memory to not feature a physical SIM slot at all was the Motorola Razr in 2019. Another thing to bear in mind is that eSIM devices can also be locked to specific carrier networks, just like with physical SIMs.

Which devices support eSIM?

Google Pixel 6 Pro vs Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max shaddow
Robert Triggs / Android Authority

Even though eSIM has been around for a few years at this point, adoption has progressed quite slowly in the smartphone industry. This is partly because many international carriers took a while to accommodate the new standard. Consequently, smartphone manufacturers have continued to play it safe and include a physical SIM slot alongside eSIM capability.

All in all, you’re more likely to find eSIM support on high-profile, premium devices that are popular in developed markets like the US and EU. Google and Apple, for instance, were among the first smartphone manufacturers to offer eSIM — starting with the Pixel 2 in 2017 and iPhone XS in 2018. Samsung followed shortly after, but only on premium devices like the Galaxy S and Note lineup.

Many flagship smartphones sold in North America and Europe support eSIM these days, as do all LTE-equipped smartwatches.

The technology has started to trickle down somewhat, with some mid-range devices like the Pixel 5a now offering eSIM functionality. Still, the only way to know for certain is to consult the smartphone’s specifications page. Besides Google, Apple, and Samsung, not many manufacturers support eSIM. Chinese OEMs like Xiaomi and OnePlus have yet to migrate away from physical SIMs for smartphones. Moreover, iPhones sold in China don’t include eSIM support either.

See also: What’s taking eSIM so long to become mainstream?

The story is a bit different in the smartwatch industry, however. Samsung was the first to offer eSIM functionality, even before the LTE-capable Apple Watch existed. Today, virtually all smartwatches with cellular capabilities use an eSIM to achieve that functionality.

Finally, as we alluded to earlier, you’re also likely to find eSIM support on portable computing devices like tablets and laptops. The Galaxy Book Go and Surface Pro X are eSIM-compatible, for instance.

How to activate an eSIM on Android and iOS

The Samsung Health app running on a Google Pixel 5a showing the Galaxy Wearable app.
Jimmy Westenberg / Android Authority

Activating an eSIM on your device is a rather straightforward process. You can request an eSIM while signing up for a new line or choose to migrate away from a physical SIM.

Your service provider should deliver you a QR code, either via their website or an email. The exact process varies depending on the carrier, but you should be able to find instructions online. Check out the support pages from VerizonVodafone UK, and Airtel India for example. Alternatively, select carriers like T-Mobile offer a smartphone app you can download to simplify the process. Keep in mind that you need an unlocked device if you’re planning on switching carriers.

Read more: What is an unlocked phone, and how do I know if my phone is unlocked?

Once you have the QR code from your operator, simply follow these instructions:

Android:

  • Enter the Settings app, then tap on “Connections” or “Network & Internet.”
  • Select “Mobile Network” or “SIM Card Manager.”
  • Tap on “Add mobile plan” or “Download SIM card.”
  • Follow the instructions displayed on-screen and scan the QR code when prompted.

The setting labels may vary depending on your smartphone’s brand and software implementation, but the general process should largely be the same.

iOS:

  • Open the Camera app.
  • Aim your phone’s camera at the QR code.
  • Tap on the “Cellular Plan Detected” notification.
  • Follow the instructions on-screen and confirm the addition.

As for add-on devices like smartwatches and tablets, this will typically entail opening the manufacturer-provided app. The Samsung Galaxy Watch 4, for example, comes with the Galaxy Wearable app. There, you’ll find the “mobile plans” menu. The rest of the process is fairly straightforward — just follow the on-screen instructions. The same applies to cellular models of the Apple Watch too — or you can reference Apple’s helpful guide instead.

Does an eSIM cost more than a physical SIM card?

Samsung Galaxy Book S SIM tray

Most operators do not charge you extra for provisioning an eSIM over a regular SIM card. If you think about it, eSIMs are also cheaper for the provider as they don’t have to bear the manufacturing costs associated with physical SIM cards. And, of course, skipping the packaging and plastic makes eSIMs marginally better for the environment as well.

However, keep in mind that policies may vary depending on your carrier and region. For example, certain service providers — like Verizon in the US — may only let you use eSIM functionality if you’re on a certain plan, like postpaid instead of prepaid.

An eSIM doesn't typically cost more than a regular SIM card, but carriers may only offer it on certain plans.

Furthermore, activating an eSIM on a secondary non-smartphone device like a smartwatch or tablet may entail an additional fee every month. In the US, that’s typically a $10 value add service, while in other regions like India, you may not have to pay an extra fee at all. Once again, this information is typically available on your carrier’s website.


Now that you know what is eSIM, check out our guide to the best phone plans for every type of user.