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What is an e-SIM: Everything you need to know

25th February 2020

Phones have been using SIM cards for years and while they’ve got smaller over time and added support for newer mobile technologies, the concept of the SIM card hasn’t really changed.

But it’s starting to, as a thing called an e-SIM or eSIM is starting to appear in a small but growing number of smartphones, including some from Apple and Google, and it could become the new standard in the near future.

Here's everything you need to know about this exciting evolution of the SIM card.

What is an e-SIM?

An e-SIM is an embedded SIM card, meaning that unlike standard SIM cards you can’t take it in or out of the device. That might sound like a bad thing, but it’s designed so that you don’t have to, as rather than being locked to a specific network the SIM card can change network when you do.

What’s so good about it?

At a minimum it can take some of the hassle out of changing networks, plans and devices. No longer will you have to wait for a new SIM card, request a PAC code and wait for your device to change over to the new network. Instead you just request the move and your SIM card will automatically be set up on your new network or plan.

While if you buy a new device you just register it to your account and it will automatically be set up with your previous number and details, and you won't have to worry about the various different SIM card sizes we have today. When you’re ready to make the move to 5G you can also potentially switch from a 4G tariff to a 5G one without needing a new card.

It could even mean the freedom to change network as and when you choose, though in practice the mobile networks are likely to still lock you into contracts.

Multiple networks and numbers can be stored on a single eSIM too, so you can have more than one number. This could be handy if for example you want both a work and personal number on one phone, or if you’re travelling abroad and want a local number to avoid roaming fees.

Plus, if phone-makers can remove the SIM card slot they can save a little bit of space, as not only is there no need for a SIM tray and an ejection mechanism (to remove it from the phone) with an eSIM, but an eSIM itself is smaller than a nano SIM. That means there’s more room for other components or for example a slightly bigger battery. The saved space will be tiny, but then so are some smartphone components.

Alternatively, that saved space could be used to make a device smaller. In either case this could be even more beneficial to smaller devices like smartwatches, which we’re also starting to see eSIMs in.

Another advantage of them is that by not having a physical SIM card phones will likely become less popular targets of theft, since thieves won’t be able to remove the SIM card and replace it with a new one.

Are there any downsides?

Any e-SIM depends on networks supporting it. It’s unlikely that they’ll be widely rolled out before most or all networks agree to support them, but if any networks do hold out then you may be unable to use them if you have a device with an e-SIM.

At the time of writing, almost all phones with eSIM slots also have a standard SIM card for this exact reason, but this removes their space-saving benefits.

When can I get one?

You can already get devices with eSIM cards, though not many. The latest and most high-profile examples are the Apple iPhone 11 Pro, iPhone 11 Pro Max, and iPhone 11. The older iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max and iPhone XR also have an eSIM.

However, all of these also have a standard SIM card slot as well, since many networks don’t yet support eSIMs.

Apple hasn’t just put eSIM cards into phones either, as the company has also put one in the Apple Watch 5, Apple Watch 4, Apple Watch 3 and various iPad models, though it used to call it an Apple SIM in earlier devices.

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Google is the other major company pushing eSIMs. It has put an eSIM in the Google Pixel 4, Pixel 4 XL, Pixel 3, Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL, though as with Apple’s implementation there’s also a normal SIM slot in these phones.

Samsung has also dabbled with eSIMs, putting one in the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip, Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2, Samsung Gear S2 and Samsung Galaxy Watch.

The only phone that only has an eSIM at the time of writing though (as opposed to also having a removable SIM) is the Motorola Razr.

At the moment, the usefulness of eSIMs is limited as not all networks are on board. For example, in the UK only EE, Vodafone and O2 support eSIMs at the time of writing, and they don’t all support them on all eSIM-packing devices. In fact, Vodafone only supports them on the Apple Watch.

So the ability to easily change network or store multiple networks is severely lacking right now, and even your choice of a single network is more limited than with a standard SIM card. But that’s sure to change over time. We’re seeing more and more devices with eSIMs, so it’s likely only a matter of time before the networks catch up.

Handily, the GSMA has now agreed upon a standard for eSIMs, which is another thing that should help push them out into the mainstream, since the tech will be much the same whatever phone you go with.

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