The SIM in ‘SIM card’ stands for ‘subscriber identity module.’ These tiny plastic chips hold data for your phone – such as your phone number, contacts, messages and photos. Up until two years ago they were the only way to connect your phone with your local mobile network and to make calls and texts. But more phone suppliers are now shipping phones with eSIMs, including the first handset with a 5G standalone-compatible eSIM in Australia, suggesting that some time soon most new handsets will support eSIM technology, if not as a replacement to SIM cards, as an additional SIM option.
What’s an eSIM?
An eSIM, or ‘embedded SIM,’ replaces the need for a physical SIM card. It’s essentially an electronic SIM card that’s been embedded into your phone at the time of your phone’s manufacture. Using an eSIM has benefits and also limitations. Let’s have a look at some of each:
Advantages of using an eSIM
You can have more than one phone number
Like using a phone with duel SIM card slots, having an eSIM enables you to have multiple phone numbers. The main benefit of this is you can make and receive calls and texts with either number, so you can more easily manage your incoming and outgoing communications.
For this reason they can be highly useful for separating your personal and work missives. You can also use an eSIM in conjunction with a physical SIM card, so they allow you to personalise your connectivity across your devices.
They are easier to activate than SIM cards
While physical SIM cards need to be inserted into your phone for them to be activated, a task often requiring the hand steadiness of a surgeon, an eSIM can be activated simply by scanning a QR code that registers your eSIM profile with your mobile network. Some networks may require you to also enter a pin number. In most cases in Australia, you can be connected to your network in no more than 15 minutes.
They make changing service providers easier
Having a phone with an eSIM allows you to change networks much faster, since it eliminates the need for you to get a new plastic SIM card. That means not having to visit your network’s retailer or to wait for a card to arrive by post. By using an eSIM in your phone you can choose your service provider and then connect to their network remotely, getting the information you need to connect over the phone or online.
You won’t have to permanently disable accounts
eSIMs can store multiple profiles, meaning you can temporarily switch between networks and back without having to permanently disable accounts. This feature is especially useful while travelling, allowing you to stay connected to a network wherever you go. It’s also often a more affordable alternative to activating global roaming functionality.
They take up less space inside smartphones
Nano SIMs are the cards currently in use in most modern smartphones. These tiny cards measure approximately 8.8mm, but eSIMS measure just 4mm. The smaller size means phone manufacturers have more space to add extra features, like more battery capacity or to enhance a phone’s processing power with a faster CPU. It also allows them to improve a phone’s IP rating against water and dust, since the absence of a SIM card slot means there are less ingress points.
Disadvantages of using an eSIM
It takes longer to restore in a new phone
If your phone breaks, chances are your tiny plastic SIM that was tucked away inside your phone will be relatively unscathed. You can simply pull it out and insert it into a new handset – but this is not the case with an eSIM. You will need to retrieve and download your eSIM profile from the cloud, which is considerably more time-consuming to do. It also takes longer than it would take to transfer into a new handset when you upgrade.
Users can be more easily tracked by network providers
Users worried about privacy can easily prevent their mobile network from tracking their location by removing their phone’s physical SIM card. However, since eSIMs can’t be removed and are hardwired into the device, eSIM user’s phones will be constantly active on their carrier’s network, and more easily traceable. While admittedly this shouldn’t be an issue for most citizens in countries like Australia, elsewhere in the world this could be a big issue, such as for individuals belonging to groups being persecuted by their governments.
From a security perspective, eSIMs are generally very safe in that they can’t be physically removed and placed in other devices by thieves and they can be programmed to request verification from operators whenever someone tries to change a user profile. However, they aren’t completely safe from fraud with hackers often going to great lengths to hack into vulnerable mobile carriers' systems to retrieve user profiles or information.
Which smartphones have eSIMs?
The current crop of Apple iPhones, including the iPhone 12, iPhone 11 series and iPhone XS, XR and SE 2, smartphones have eSIMs, as do Samsung’s latest smartphones, including the Samsung Galaxy S20 and Samsung Galaxy S21. Some recently reviewed phones that include eSIMs include: