eSIM: The Future of Cellular Connectivity

SIM Cards have revolutionized the way we live our lives—removing barriers to global communication, and fueling the millennial culture of on-the-go media consumption. The first SIM card was developed back in the 1990s as a way to connect mobile phones to wireless networks, as well as securely identify and authenticate subscribers. Today, SIM cards are ubiquitous, enabling over 7 billion devices to connect to cellular networks globally. Now, with the new generation of the eSIM, our days have just become better, with tons of advantages and an unlimited number of possibilities.

As the “e” in eSIM implies, an eSIM is a digital electronic SIM that allows you to activate a cellular plan from your carrier without having to use a physical nano-SIM. That’s right, eSIMs are just blank SIMs pre-built into your device that download plans instantly instead of waiting for the delivery of a physical SIM and then installing it into your phone. The opportunities eSIMs present, like instant connectivity, customizability, remote provisioning, and more, will bring connectivity into the future. Although the huge majority of phones currently don’t support eSIM, it’s only a matter of time before many smartphones adopt electronic SIM cards – essentially removing the need to have a physical SIM card (and so a SIM slot).

How exactly do eSIMs work?

With physical SIMs, carrier data is stored on the physical SIM card itself, and devices need that data to access the network. An eSIM is essentially a SIM card with empty data slots embedded into a device. Instead of using a physical SIM to send the data required to connect to the network, the carrier can send that data over the internet, which the eSIM can use. Here’s an example of how it would work with a user holding an eSIM enabled device:

  1. The user picks a plan that they like and places an order to buy it.
  2. The carrier sends a QR code instead of sending a physical SIM.
  3. The user scans the code and activates the plan, which triggers the next step.
  4. The provisioning system sends a SIM profile (the same data stored in the physical SIM) into an eSIM slot on her phone.

The Provisioning System is called the Subscription Manager Data Preparation, or SM-DP for short. You may see that term in eSIM activation instructions sent by carriers.

Once installed, the device uses the eSIM and the data stored in that slot as if it were a physical SIM. However, unlike physical SIMs, which would only allow you to access data to one carrier, eSIMs can store SIM data from multiple carriers. If a user decided they wanted to try another carrier or needed a different number for work, they can download new plans on the same eSIM but in different slots.

SIMs vs eSIMs: Are eSIMs right for you?

Currently, not all phones out there have eSIMs. Since it is a newer technology, it is restricted to the newest, and often, not the most affordable phones. So, before you decide to buy the latest phone, you should know the pros and cons of eSIMs for consumers. Below I have listed the most popular phone models with eSIM support, as well as recent models lacking support (as of 3/2/2020):

Apple

  • iPhone 12, 12 Pro, 12 Pro Max, 12 Mini
  • iPhone SE
  • iPhone 11, 11 Pro, 11 Pro Max
  • iPhone XS, XS Max
  • iPhone XR

Samsung

  • Samsung Galaxy S21+ 5G
  • Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G
  • Samsung Galaxy Note 20 FE 5G
  • Samsung Galaxy Note 20 FE
  • Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, Ultra 5G
  • Samsung Note 20+
  • Samsung Galaxy Z Flip
  • Samsung Galaxy S20, S20+ and S20 Ultra (Single SIM and/or eSIM models)

Google Pixel

  • Google Pixel 5 
  • Google Pixel 4a
  • Google Pixel 4
  • Google Pixel 3 & 3XL (Limited Support)
  • Google Pixel 2

These devices have no eSIM:

  • iPhone models purchased from China or Hong Kong have physical dual sim slots, with no eSIM.
  • Pixel 3a purchased in South East Asia
  • Samsung Galaxy S20 Hybrid Dual SIM – Samsung produces both eSIM and no eSIM versions
  • Huawei P40 Pro+ has no eSIM support
  • Oppo, LG, HTC, Xiaomi, Honor, RealMe, OnePlus, Vivo – no eSIM support yet

Pros of eSIMs

Some of the main advantages of an eSIM for you would be:

  • eSIMs give you instant connectivity. No more waiting for a SIM delivery or installing it on the phone. You will be able to get a plan with a few taps.
  • One phone with many plans. eSIMs let you store as many profiles and plans as you need in one device so you can easily shift between networks. This means you can:
    • Use one number for business and one for personal calls on the same phone
    • Add a local data plan that starts working from the moment you land when you are outside of the country without switching SIMs.
    • Have separate voice, text, and data plans.
  • Smaller devices. eSIMs are smaller and don’t need bulky compartments. Those extra millimeters can mean huge gains in thinness for your phone or watch. Or, in Apple’s case, dual SIMs as well.
  • eSIMs are more secure. Unwanted SIM Swaps will become impossible. Moving your number from one phone to another will be done completely digitally, over the cloud.

Cons of eSIMs

As much as we like eSIMs, and believe this is the way of the future, there are definitely some disadvantages that you may need to consider:

  • eSIM won’t work on older phones. Older phone models most probably do not have eSIMs, and you may have to pay a bit more for a newer model. Check out the list of all eSIM compatible devices here.
  • Data is more difficult to transfer. A physical SIM could store some contact details for you that would move with it as you switched it from one phone to another. With eSIMs, you will have to download and reupload that data. However, if you are using any service like iCloud or syncing your device with Google, the transfer should be hassle-free.
  • eSIM can only be used on one phone. You cannot just pull out a SIM and use it on different phones since it is embedded in the phone.

eSIM plans

If you have decided that the pros of eSIMs outweigh the cons, the next thing you need to look for are carriers with eSIM plans. Despite the simplicity of eSIM, many carriers are resisting the change because they’re afraid of making it so easy for people to switch plans or can’t build the technology for it.

In India, all three major telecom operators—Reliance Jio, Vodafone-Idea (Vi™), and Airtel support the eSIM functionality. In the USA, all major carriers—AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon provide general support for eSIM, however, not all plans support it. For example, on some carriers, eSIM on postpaid is not available, with prepaid being the only option. Please check with your carrier if it is available to you, and if so, how you can enable it.

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