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What is an eSIM, and how does it work?

We explain to you what an eSIM or virtual SIM card is, how it works, its main benefits, and which carriers and devices have this technology.

Julio O.

November 27, 2023

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The eSIM is the future of cellular communication and will replace the old plastic SIM cards. In this article, we describe what they are, how they work, their advantages, and more.

Virtual SIM: Instructions for iOS and Android

If you have an eSIM and need to configure it, you can follow these eSIM instructions for iOS and how to set up eSIM in Samsung.

What is eSIM or Embedded SIM?

An eSIM (the short version of embedded SIM) is the virtual or digital version of the traditional data SIM card. Similar to the SIM card, people using a virtual SIM card get access to mobile data plans. Depending on who’s the eSIM provider, people will have features such as roaming, phone calls, text messages, and much more.

These works thanks to a microchip that is installed on your cell phone and that allows you to install several “eSIM profiles”, the equivalent of physical SIM cards, with their respective phone numbers and data plans.

Two of the first companies to incorporate them into their phones were Google and Apple. In collaboration with local operators in the country, both allowed eSIMs to work

Thanks to this technology, it’s easier for people to stay connected. Buying one no longer requires going to a store, but that will depend on each carrier’s policies. The good thing is people won’t have to wait to get a plastic or something like that, as it’s all managed digitally.

eSIM iphone
iPhone is one of the main eSIM-compatible devices in the world. Source: Pexels.

The embedded chip on an eSIM-compatible phone is smaller than a nanoSIM and allows up to 8 profiles to be stored, with their different phone numbers and data plans.

This technology can be found in various wearable devices for home appliances, cars, or other gadgets that stay connected to the Internet at all times.

Find out how renowned brands such as BMW include eSIM in their cars.

>You might want to know how to transfer an eSIM between Android devices<

How do you set up an eSIM?

Setting up a virtual SIM card can be done by the user at home following a process that is almost as simple as taking a selfie: just aim the phone’s camera to a 2-D barcode (or BIDI code) provided by the operator for the phone to capture the configuration that will be transferred to the virtual card.

Afterward, depending on the phone and whether you use an Android or iOS phone, the virtual SIM card configuration process is completed by following a series of steps that include choosing whether the virtual SIM card will be used for calls and data or only for data, and also choosing whether the digital SIM will work as a single line or together with another line, either in another eSIM profile or a conventional SIM card.

Difference between eSIM card and SIM card

The main difference between the eSIM and SIM card is that the eSIM is completely virtual, so to use it, you don’t need a physical chip like the traditional SIM card, but you need a compatible cellphone. Usually, only the last-gen devices support it.

This means that to get a virtual SIM, you don’t need to wait days at home for the SIM to arrive or another couple of days for it to be activated. You just need to go to an online store, buy it, and download it. All in a couple of minutes!

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What are the cons of using an eSIM?

  • People must have an eSIM-compatible device.
  • Some eSIMs don’t have unlimited data. Holafly does have different eSIMs with unlimited data.
  • Depending on the device, people can only add between one to two eSIMs. iPhone 14 and iPhone 15 do allow to use up to 8 eSIMs.
  • Some eSIMs don’t include phone calls and text messages. Only local carriers with eSIMs and companies like Holafly include these features.
  • You can buy bundles with coverage in full regions like a data eSIM UK or EU eSIM.
  • Changing an eSIM from one device to another is not as easy as changing a traditional SIM card.

eSIM Advantages

For the client

  • No plastic waste. People won’t have to worry about needing to introduce something on their phones.
  • Easier to change data packages from the carrier you are using. No need to visit a store to ask for a change.
  • Some virtual SIM cards can be purchased from an online store, such as the one provided by Holafly.
  • People have an easier time recovering their information in case their mobile gets stolen or lost.
  • The information available on the eSIM remains stored in the cloud.
  • When traveling, with the MultiSIM feature, users can use the same number and mobile data on different devices at the same time.
  • eSIMs improve sustainability as they reduce the amount of waste per year in terms of plastic and metal.
  • Virtual SIM cards include phone calls and text messages to improve communication.
Holafly online store. Source: Holafly.

For the manufacturer

Bye-bye, slots. Now the artists who make your phone look so stylish will have more freedom as they won’t have to design a device without a slot to insert your SIM card.

For the network operator

Less paperwork. Operators will not have to worry about providing their customers with SIM cards due to cellphone loss and renewals, among others. With eSIM, the processes and tasks are simplified.

Other benefits of eSIM

Dual-SIM phones

Many phones come equipped with a capacity for two or more SIM cards, meaning you can activate your eSIM while maintaining your current SIM card. 

Bye bye, data roaming: no more hefty phone bills

With an eSIM, you can say goodbye to data roaming charges. Using ‘Data roaming’ from your current cellular provider is the traditional way of connecting to the internet abroad. But this method is very expensive. It could cost you up to $15 per megabyte, meaning you could receive a phone bill worth $100 for common internet consumption. 

With an eSIM, you’ll never receive surprise bills. And you can even get unlimited mobile data depending on the carrier you use.

The eSIMs with the main mobile network carriers in the World

Many network providers now offer eSIM. Let’s take a look at what they offer:

  • AT&T: The main carrier within North America. Having access to different data plans and the chance to use an eSIM on Android, iOS, and other devices makes it a great option for travelers. It offers roaming services while using the virtual SIM card, which is great for travelers.
  • T-Mobile: T-Mobile is a pioneer in the eSIM market. People can access different data plans when using this carrier while also getting to use different features that are only available to their users. It also includes an app to make things easier for people and roaming services for travelers.
  • Verizon: While using Verizon, people have access to different features. For people who want to get an eSIM, it’s easy to do this by using the My Verizon App. The company offers different data packages and a huge variety of compatible mobiles. It also includes roaming services worldwide.
  • Vodafone: One of the most important mobile carriers within Europe, Vodafone is part of the list of eSIMs carriers people can easily access. Vodafone offers virtual SIM card service on Apple and Android devices while also offering a huge variety of data plans that include roaming for an extra fee. The activation process is quite simple, and customer support is ready to help when needed.
  • Orange: One of the first providers to offer eSIMs around the world, Orange has become a great option to use virtual SIM cards around Europe and around the world. People can easily change their SIM card for an eSIM, and these are all compatible in terms of data packages as well as roaming and other major features.
  • O2: A great company within the UK that offers people the chance to travel the world with their virtual SIM cards. The activation process is a bit more complicated, but the good news comes with the different data plans and features the company offers to travelers and locals. Changing from a SIM card to an eSIM with O2 is also not complicated.

eSIM in Smartwatches

Smartwatches compatible with eSIM are perhaps the ones that have had the greatest reception in the market. Several operators have brought eSIM to their customers through these devices.

However, the eSIM in smartwatches still faces two major challenges. First, because they are so small and have tiny batteries, GSM connectivity with 4G increases power consumption and lowers their independence. Therefore, it is not surprising that a watch with a Bluetooth connection can be worn for weeks without recharging, whereas a smartwatch with eSIM almost has to be connected to a charger every day.

eSIM Smartwatches
Smartwatches now have access to eSIM and more features. Source: Pexels.

The second challenge is in the Apple Watch. For these cellular devices, unlike other smartwatches, the management of the eSIM needs to be done through development on the operator’s web platform. The place from where you can activate the service.

>Learn how to transfer an eSIM from iPhone to Android<

Conclusions of the Virtual SIM

Opinions are divided on this new technology. On the one hand, it eliminates the need for a physical SIM card, which can be convenient and save space on cellular devices. In addition, it allows you to change operators without changing SIM cards. However, the technology is not yet widely adopted by all operators.

Moreover, according to a study conducted in 2020, it is estimated that 70% of equipment will operate with this type of technology. This includes cars with virtual SIM cards and gadgets connected to the Internet.

In the future, eSIM will surely become more and more common, and so far, it’s a great addition to the communications industry, but it still needs more improvement to be a complete alternative to the old SIM card.

Frequently Asked Questions about eSIM

Which devices are compatible with eSIM?

Almost all Apple devices and most of Android’s high-end devices support eSIMs. You can see the eSIM-compatible device list here.

Which cellular carriers offer virtual SIM cards?

Almost all operators in developed countries offer virtual SIMs, but not all of them allow you to use any compatible device. For example, Yoigo does not support the Apple Watch. Check the network that supports your device before purchasing, as not all mobile networks around the world are the same.

How much does an eSIM cost?

People will find different prices when using an eSIM. For example, mobile carriers will have different data packages varying from $20 to more than $50, depending on what they offer. International eSIM companies such as Holafly have different prices as well, which vary from $19 to more than $99 depending on the data plan and how long people need the eSIM to work.

How many virtual SIMs can I use at a time?

It depends on the device. An iPhone allows you to have up to 8 profiles activated at the same time, depending on the device. iPhones 14 and 15 have recently allowed people to use more than one at a time. The latest Samsung Galaxy devices allow more than 5 eSIMs but only allow the use of one.

Can I buy an eSIM from another country?

Yes, in Holafly, you can buy an eSIM from any country you travel to, so you have data without paying roaming charges. You can also keep your domestic phone number if someone calls you (dual SIM). If you need an eSIM for Europe, Australia, or Latin America, Holafly is your go-to.

Does T-Mobile support eSIM?

Yes, if you are a T-Mobile customer, you can get a local virtual SIM card from this provider with a monthly subscription plan at one of their physical stores.

How does dual SIM work?

Dual SIM is an option that some cellphones have where you can use two SIMs simultaneously. Two SIM cards; One SIM card and One eSIM or two eSIMs, such as the new iPhone 14 that only supports virtual SIM cards in the US.

Why would I want an eSIM?

When traveling worldwide, people have the chance to access different options to have an internet connection. The same goes for people who want to use an eSIM locally. Either way, eSIMs have simplified the process of staying connected and getting mobile internet. The only thing to worry about is to have an eSIM-compatible device, as this has become a way better option to stay connected locally and while traveling.

How do I convert my SIM to eSIM?

To convert a traditional SIM card to an eSIM, people should read about how their mobile carrier works. This is something that will vary depending on the company people are using, as some companies can send a QR code with the eSIM for people to scan it, while others require people to visit a store to get their eSIM activated.

Does my physical SIM stop working after eSIM?

Not necessarily. When it comes to using an eSIM, the SIM card will keep working the same as before. People won’t have to worry about it stopping working in case they need it in the future or something like that. But this might vary from one carrier to another, so it’s always important to ask for extra information about this to the carrier.