As vacation season looms, now is as good a time as ever to bite the bullet and become familiar with a smartphone feature that many of us have ignored for years: the eSIM, the digital version of the SIM card that carries your phone number.
Among many benefits, eSIM technology is a boon for travelers, and pretty soon we will all be using it because the physical SIM card will be no more. Let me explain.
Last year, Apple eliminated the SIM card tray from the iPhone 14 to free up space. That means the SIM card, which acts as a key that connects your phone with cellular networks, is being phased out for Apple phones.
Where Apple leads, others typically follow, so you can expect handset makers like Samsung and Google to also go all-in on eSIM — a digitized SIM card embedded into the phone’s computer chip that you can activate with any cellular network’s service plan.
“Whether we like it or not, it’s coming,” Roger Entner, a telecom expert and founder of the research firm Recon Analytics, said about eSIM technology.
But this move isn’t really all about Apple. The Federal Communications Commission also favors eSIM technology, because it makes it easier for people to switch to a different carrier by using software instead of going to a store for a physical SIM card. And the technology has security benefits: If your phone is stolen, thieves can’t remove an eSIM to hijack your phone number and commit identity theft, as they could with a physical SIM card.
Most important, the experience of using eSIM data plans for travel has greatly improved. About five years ago, eSIM data plans for international roaming were overpriced, and cell service was sometimes unreliable. But in the last year, I’ve tested a few eSIM services when I left the country and found them to be cost-effective and zippy.
As is always the case with new technology, there are downsides. Activating a data plan on a foreign network with an eSIM is not as straightforward as sticking a different SIM card into your phone. The process is especially challenging for those who are less familiar with technology, putting the onus on more tech savvy companions to help them make the switch.
There are also privacy concerns. Many eSIM service providers offer apps that collect your data for tracking purposes.
You can use my experience as a template for navigating the inevitable transition to eSIM. Recently, I tried eSIM data plans when traveling with several members of my family and acted as their tech sherpa through the switch.
Step 1: Pick an eSIM
The main reason to use eSIM services for travel is to save money. The big U.S. carriers, like AT&T and Verizon, offer international roaming options, including $10 day passes for using your phone in foreign countries. The costs quickly add up for a two-week trip with family.
In contrast, an eSIM data package that can be used for the entirety of your trip costs a few dollars. The tricky part is choosing an eSIM service provider because there are many, and most are unfamiliar brands like Airalo, GigSky and Flexiroam. (Apple provides a list of eSIM service providers on its website.)
For a recent weeklong trip to Montreal, I researched travel blogs and picked Nomad, which offered a gigabyte of data that could be used for seven days in Canada for $7. I had the option to activate the plan with Nomad’s app or by following setup instructions on the company’s website. The app had high reviews in the App Store, so I clicked the download button.
Step 2: Activate the eSIM Service
A nice thing about eSIM is that you can buy a plan and set up the service on your phone well in advance of a trip, then activate it when you arrive at your destination. After you buy a plan, the eSIM service provider sends you a list of instructions.
The Nomad app showed a list of steps. In the iPhone’s settings app, I clicked on the cellular menu, clicked “Add eSIM” and typed in an activation code. As I crossed the border into Canada, I went back into the cellular settings, selected the Nomad phone line and toggled on the option for “Turn on this line.”
(If you still use a physical SIM card for your domestic phone line, you need not remove it. In the phone’s cellular settings, you just switch off the service for your primary line to avoid roaming charges.)
After I picked this eSIM plan, I shared the Nomad app with my wife and brother-in-law, who each followed the instructions to set it up by themselves. I didn’t know how to advise my mother-in-law, who never downloads apps, how to set up the plan, so I did it for her.
Herein lies the real problem: Less tech-inclined folks are probably not going to know how to use eSIM services. When my mother-in-law went on a trip to Hong Kong alone and I wasn’t nearby to set up the service for her, I told her to pay for AT&T’s international roaming plan and find a store later to buy a SIM card from a Hong Kong phone carrier.
Terry Guo, a chief product officer of LotusFlare, the company that developed Nomad, agreed that the main demographic of travelers using eSIM service plans comprised younger, more tech-savvy people.
“We are doing a lot of work in the app to make this simpler,” he said.
Optional (but Important) Step: Protect Your Privacy
Another downside to eSIM services is privacy-related. All the eSIM service providers I researched in Apple’s App Store said in their app descriptions that they did some tracking of users across different apps and websites.
Toni Toikka, the chief executive of Alekstra, a company that helps businesses reduce their wireless bills, underlined the importance of safeguarding personal information from eSIM providers. He said many of these companies, known as mobile virtual network operators, had struggled to generate profit.
“One way they think they’ll make money is selling your information,” Mr. Toikka said. “That’s why you should always opt out of any tracking. You shouldn’t sell yourself for pennies on a dollar.”
Mr. Guo said that the Nomad app contained Google’s analytics technology to see how people were using the app, and that people who logged into the app with their Facebook accounts could also be tracked by Facebook.
A simple workaround to data collection is to avoid logging into an app with third-party sites like Facebook and Google. Apple users can also click “Ask app not to track” when opening an eSIM app for the first time.
Android users don’t have the option to ask apps not to track them, so their best option is to buy the eSIM plan from the company’s website and set up the service without downloading the app.
Overall, the pros of eSIM outweigh the cons. Traveling with a smartphone with SIM cards wasn’t relaxing because you needed to carry a pin to eject the card tray; plus you had to make sure not to lose the tiny SIM card.
When returning from a trip using eSIM services, all you have to do is go back into the phone’s settings app and switch your domestic phone line back on. That simplicity and peace of mind make eSIM worth the hassle.