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Anyone in the market for a new smartphone has likely been introduced to the term eSIM; most of us are aware of that small chip we place in our phone, but the traditional cute little SIM chip may soon be replaced by embedded SIMs (eSIMs) which are being hardwired into newer phones.

It goes without saying that technology evolves rapidly, and what was top of the line only yesterday is being replaced with a more superior 2.0. We’ve seen it with how we watch movies and how we listen to music, and now it looks like our phones will be morphing into a new species.

Newer, more advanced smartphones are ditching those physical removable SIM chips we’ve all come to recognize and are replacing them with embedded SIM chips that are reprogrammable.

Why the change?

Let’s explore the pros and cons of new eSIM-enabled smartphones and discuss what eSIMs mean for world travelers with this international sim cards comparison I’ve put together.

SIM cards have long been used by travelers to avoid paying exorbitant prices for roaming charges, but how will eSIMs change the way we connect while traveling?

Traveling With an International eSIM Card vs Traditional SIM Cards

The Transition Phase

Sim card phone RF

With any tech revolution, there’s often a transition phase and this is what we’re seeing with eSIMs and their incorporation into smartphones. Many newer phones are dual-enabled, meaning they incorporate both a traditional SIM card slot as well as the newer eSIM technology.

Dual SIM phones allow users to continue using their current physical removeable SIM, but then also give them the option of adding an additional mobile number or data contract via the inbuilt eSIM.

Many people are using this ability to have both a business and personal mobile number on the same smartphone.

While you can have access to two accounts via the two different SIMs, they must be used one at a time. One service will become inactive if you are currently using one service such as taking a call, responding to a text, or using data.

Smartphones currently using the dual eSIM/traditional SIM setup include iPhones 11-13, Google’s Pixel 2 phones and up, and Samsung phones such as the Galaxy S20.

Motorola Razr, one of the world’s first foldable smartphones, looks to be surging even further ahead by solely making use of the eSIM technology and completely doing away with using a physical SIM.

Closer Look at Traditional SIMs

sim phone RF

A traditional SIM is the physical small chip/card that most of us are used to using. They now of course come in all kinds of sizes including the larger standard size as well as mini, micro, and nano versions found in newer generations of smartphones.

The reduction in size of traditional SIMs in smartphones over the years has allowed mobile designs to get slimmer and gave room for added features. This saw SIMs going from roughly postage stamp size down to around 12mm in the case of nano SIMs.

It’s quite incredible just how much information can be stored on such a small chip, SIMs holding our customer ID and other details that allow us to connect to a mobile network.

Physical chips also made it quite easy to simply remove our SIM and insert it into a newly upgraded phone whether it was with the same mobile carrier or a new one. Similarly, when traveling internationally, you could simply purchase a new foreign SIM and then insert that into your phone to make use of cheaper international data, calls, and texts.

While you can still switch networks with a newer eSIM, carriers may make it more difficult to select a pay-as-you-go option and may require a contract when signing up for an eSIM.

Downsides of a Traditional SIM

woman phone street RF

While it isn’t all that difficult to switch out your home country’s SIM to a new foreign one while traveling, there are a few drawbacks of this older technology.

For one, having a SIM that is removable always comes with the risk of losing or damaging it while removing and inserting it between phones, even more so when we tend to rush things while traveling.

Another problem that does come up is not having a local mobile service on your phone the minute you land in a destination.

You are forced to search around to locate a foreign SIM and this can leave you without data, call, and text ability for some time, when you may need to call an UBER or confirm reservations/directions with your accommodation.

Traveling through a country where the language is different may also make purchasing a foreign SIM in-person more difficult, something that is often an easier process when seeking out an eSIM online with a website that may offer several different languages.

Closer Look at Embedded-SIMs (eSIMs)

phone RF

An eSIM is so named for the fact it is a SIM which is embedded into a compatible mobile or device. You cannot remove it and because of its tiny size, it frees up space for other added tech or simply slims down your mobile.

The technological advancement was vital for devices like smartwatches where space is a premium. You saw the Samsung Gear S2 Classic 3G smartwatch implement the technology in 2016 and then Google Pixel phones and iPhones followed suit in 2017 and 2018 respectively.

If you have a newer mobile or are currently in the market for one, chances are good that you will have access to an eSIM. Some devices may be exclusively eSIM, but the majority are still dual SIM compatible which offers both new and old tech.

And eSIMs aren’t exclusive to just mobile phones. As already covered, smartwatches use eSIM technology as do many laptops which offer cellular connectivity such as the Microsoft Surface Pro X.

An eSIM will do pretty much everything that your old SIM would do, it just cannot be removed from your device and software must instead be used to switch mobile plans as opposed to getting a new physical SIM card.

How Does an eSIM Work?

QR code phone RF

Instead of physically inserting a new SIM when signing-up to a new service with a mobile carrier, you will download your eSIM profile using a QR code.

This is achieved by first connecting to Wi-Fi and then scanning the QR code of your new mobile plan using your smartphone’s camera.

You’ll then simply follow the prompts. Alternatively, you can manually download your new plan by searching through your phone’s settings for the add-mobile plan or network option.

Of course you need to have an eSIM compatible phone for this to work, which you can tell by a phone or device embellished with the eSIM symbol.

You also have to be connected with a mobile carrier which offers the eSIM service, which currently stands at over 120 providers worldwide.

Benefits of an eSIM

Apps that work with inflight wifi phone plane

There are a number of benefits that come with using a device enabled with eSIM technology. Firstly, having an embedded SIM card does away with the insertion tray that would otherwise be needed with a standard removable SIM.

This not only frees up even more space to make a phone smaller or add additional features, but also can assist with making a mobile phone more water-tight.

Freeing up space means possibly allowing for a larger battery or once again making your phone even slimmer than they have already become. An eSIM is not only a third of the size of the smaller nano-SIMs, but you again also remove the insertion tray and any associated card reader.

Getting connected to a network may even be much quicker in that you do not have to seek out or wait for a physical SIM to arrive, rather the process of getting an eSIM can be done online.

You again don’t have to worry about losing any physical SIM card since it’s embedded and don’t have to navigate opening a SIM tray which often requires a special tool and bit of precision to do.

Mobiles that are equipped with both standard SIM and eSIM can connect to two separate networks which will be displayed on your phone. You can set one network to be your default for SMS and voice, while another can handle your various data apps.

Downsides of an eSIM

There aren’t too many major drawbacks of eSIM technology, but there are a few points to consider. The first is that it isn’t as easy to use a single network plan/number across multiple devices.

While you could simply transfer your physical SIM from one mobile to another quite quickly, you have to undergo an activation process each time you want to transfer your eSIM profile from one device to another and this may require contacting your mobile provider.

The other potential problem at the moment for some people is that they again may find it difficult to subscribe to a prepaid plan since few carriers don’t offer them. You instead have to sign onto a more committed contract.

Traveling with an eSIM-Enabled Mobile/Device

Phone airport traveler plane RF

If there’s one thing travelers love most, it’s making things easier and less stressful. Travel causes enough anxiety without having to worry about how you’ll stay connected to family and friends back home, manage and book reservations while en route, and stay up-to-date with all your social media notifications while traveling overseas.

Having an eSIM allows you to set up a mobile profile online with a local provider before you even arrive, allowing you to be connected from the moment your plane touches down on the runway.

Having an eSIM allows frequent travelers to always stay connected no matter how much they are on the move and at cheaper local rates, and also means you can retain your home phone number if needed so you don’t miss important calls.

The number of nations offering eSIM mobile plans has jumped from just under a dozen to more than 60 in a short period of time. However, it’s important to note that not all carriers support eSIMs use, so you may need to do a bit of research before your trip. You should find it offered by most of the major carriers around the world.

Not only do eSIMs benefit travelers by having the potential to forever eliminate expensive international roaming charges, but they can also allow you to quickly switch to a different service provider straight from your phone in instances where one network may offer great reception while another is patchy or nonexistent.

As more and more mobiles and devices begin to incorporate eSIM technology in the future, having this feature will soon be the norm whether it’s part of a dual SIM setup or exclusively eSIM enabled.

When it comes to tech, it’s always about saving space, so you’re likely to see most devices make the switch to eSIMs eventually. And then there will come a day when eSIMs are replaced with something newer and better. It seems that may already be in the process of happening thanks to the expansion of iSIMs which are on the horizon.

An iSIM goes a step further by allowing the SIM to operate without a separate processor as is needed by an eSIM. This will allow for more energy efficiency. But let’s save the full details of iSIMs for a future article.

Megan is an Australian Journalist and award-winning travel writer who has been blogging since 2007. Her husband Mike is the American naturalist and wildlife photographer behind Waking Up Wild; an online magazine dedicated to opening your eyes to the wonders of the wild & natural world.

Having visited 100+ countries across all seven continents, Megan’s travels focus on cultural immersion, authentic discovery and incredible journeys. She has a strong passion for ecotourism, and aims to promote responsible travel experiences.


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