We are finally witnessing the death of physical SIM cards. The new iPhone 14 requires eSIM for mobile networks, and it’s only a matter of time before other smartphones follow suit. Unfortunately, your carrier may not yet support eSIM.
Almost every mobile phone made in the last 25 years relies on a SIM card for cellular service. This small piece of plastic is a “subscriber identity module”. It contains your phone number, but more importantly, it verifies that you are a paying customer of an operator. Without a SIM card, you cannot make calls or connect to mobile networks.
The SIM standard has managed to survive more than two decades, and for good reason: it’s very simple. Anyone can take the SIM card out of their phone, put it in a new device, and immediately transfer their cellular service. (Of course, many people never touch their SIM card and just let their carrier’s vendors do the work.)
But physical SIM cards are technically outdated. We no longer need to stick bits of plastic on our phones and, for better or worse, we’ve reached a point where the idea of a physical SIM card confuses or intimidates many smartphone users.
The relatively new eSIM standard is a modern version of the “subscriber identity module”. Basically, phones with eSIM support can manage up to five “virtual SIM cards” simultaneously. All you need to do is activate one of these “virtual SIM cards” by installing an eSIM profile from your provider.
There is no standardized process for installing these eSIM profiles. But in most cases, you’ll download an app, scan a QR code, or visit your carrier’s website to set everything up. You may need to contact your carrier to complete this process, although some carriers support “eSIM Quick Transfer” which allows you to do everything yourself.
In theory, the eSIM standard should make things simpler for both customers and carriers. Signing up for a new cell phone provider will take just a few minutes, as you don’t need to go to a store or wait for a SIM card to arrive in the mail. And if you use multiple carriers, you can switch between their networks without ever touching a physical SIM card.
But one of the biggest eSIM hurdles, at least for early adopters, will be carrier support. Several carriers, especially those outside of the United States, simply haven’t implemented eSIM. Support for the eSIM Quick Transfer protocol is even rarer, with only five US carriers offering Quick Transfer services.
For the average person, eSIM is a quiet quality-of-life upgrade. You can buy a phone from anywhere and connect it to your carrier’s network via an app, QR code, or website. There’s no need to transplant a SIM card from your old phone or visit a provider in person. (Although you may need to contact your carrier to complete this process, as only a few carriers currently support eSIM Quick Transfer.)
Also, eSIM can reduce the time it takes to switch providers. You don’t need to visit a physical store or wait for a SIM card to arrive in the mail, just follow your carrier’s instructions to set up eSIM at home.
International travelers can also benefit from eSIM as it supports up to five virtual SIM cards at a time. If you’re visiting Germany, for example, you can join a local operator’s network on your phone without having to pack a small and delicate SIM card in your luggage.
There are several other small but significant advantages to eSIM. Phone manufacturers can fit larger batteries or other components into their phones by removing the physical SIM tray, for example. And you don’t need to worry about a faulty SIM card if you are using eSIM.
Despite its many benefits, the switch to eSIM is frustrating for some people, especially advanced users. And in certain situations, the average people will experience problems due to eSIM.
The biggest drawback of eSIM is that it can (ironically) make it difficult to switch devices. If you own multiple phones without physical SIM trays, you must go through your carrier’s eSIM setup process to switch from one phone to another. This is especially frustrating for reviewers like me who regularly put their personal SIM card into new devices. (A niche complaint, obviously.)
Unfortunately, common people may encounter this problem when their smartphone gets broken. In my experience, most people become familiar with SIM cards when they temporarily switch to an old or borrowed phone. The eSIM process complicates things a bit as you can’t just transplant the SIM card from your broken phone, you have to go through an online process which may require an on-screen input from your broken device.
Carriers’ eSIM transfer services could also be overloaded when a new popular phone comes out. This can force you to wait a few hours when setting up a new device, although of course we have no evidence that eSIM transfer services actually crash.
And while eSIM will eventually make international travel easier, it could make things harder for early adopters. Very few carriers outside of the United States actually support eSIM. Until the eSIM standard becomes ubiquitous, international travelers with eSIM-only phones may be forced to use expensive data roaming in certain regions.
Most major US carriers support the eSIM standard. But if you’re not in the “big three,” there’s a small chance you’ll need a physical SIM card to use mobile data or make calls. And that may mean waiting to buy the new iPhone 14.
Here is the list of US carriers that currently support eSIM, according to to apple:
- AT&T (supports fast transfer)
- boost mobile
- creed mobile
- C Spire (supports fast transfer)
- First Network
- Wireless H2O
- mobile spectrum
- Speak clear
- T-Mobile (supports fast transfer)
- US Cellular (supports fast transfer)
- Verizon Wireless (supports fast transfer)
- Xfinity Mobile
Please note that only five of these carriers currently support the Quick Transfer protocol. Without Quick Transfer, you need to contact your carrier to set up eSIM on a smartphone.
We expect all US carriers to support eSIM by the end of 2023. But as of this writing, no carrier has announced a concrete plan to implement eSIM. Consumer Cellular, for example, simply says that it will support eSIM once you start selling the iPhone 14 (which will take several months, as is often the case with Consumer Cellular and other affordable carriers).