A gold colored microchip representing an eSIM card

What Is an eSIM?

Published: June 6, 2024

eSIM, short for “Embedded Subscriber Identity Module,” is a revolutionary technology that is changing the way we connect our mobile devices to cellular networks. Unlike traditional SIM cards that require physical insertion, an eSIM is a digital SIM that is embedded directly into the device during manufacturing, acting as a soldered chip that cannot be removed.

The evolution of eSIM

The development of eSIM technology has been significant since its inception in 2010 by the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSMA). Initial efforts focused on overcoming technological challenges such as adapting the technology to consumer devices and developing specific UICC (Universal Integrated Circuit Card) standards.

As advancements were made, GSMA recognized the potential of eSIM to enhance the user experience, both in terms of flexibility in choosing service providers and overall usability. Consequently, GSMA undertook the task of promoting global adoption of this technology.

Today, eSIM has become a leading industry standard, integrated into a wide range of devices, from smartphones and tablets to smartwatches and even cars. Its advantages have made it a preferred choice for both consumers and service providers alike.

Key use cases for eSIM

eSIM technology offers considerable flexibility for cellular usage, but it’s essential to understand the differences between its two primary use cases:

eSIM for Local Carrier Activations

Installing or connecting an eSIM plan with your local cellular carrier (such as AT&T, Verizon, or T-Mobile in the US, or carriers like Vodafone, EE, and O2 in the UK, etc.) works similarly to using a traditional SIM card. It allows for everyday cellular activities like voice calls, text messaging, and mobile data/internet browsing on that carrier’s network.

Many major carriers now support eSIM activations directly from the device settings or a carrier app. For example, Verizon allows adding a new eSIM line via a QR code on select smartphones and tablets. AT&T has an app that scans your eSIM ID to activate the service.

The convenience of eSIM eliminates going to a retail store or waiting for a physical SIM to arrive by mail for activations and line additions. It also enables bringing your own eSIM-capable device and activating it on a new carrier’s network more easily.

eSIM for International Activations

One of the biggest advantages of eSIM is for international travel. Unlike traditional SIM cards which require physical swapping, eSIM allows downloading a local data plan for the visiting country/region while retaining your existing phone number.

Many carriers and mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) now offer eSIM data packages for different countries. These plans provide affordable high-speed data access, bypassing the need for expensive international roaming charges when traveling.

For example, services like Airalo, Maya Mobile, BNESIM, Ubigi, and GigSky specialize in selling regional/country eSIM data plans upfront via their apps or websites. The eSIM profile can then be quickly downloaded over Wi-Fi before departure.

While focused on data, these eSIM plans encourage using modern apps like WhatsApp, FaceTime, or Signal for voice/messaging to stay connected at local rates instead of traditional cellular services.

The ability to have multiple eSIM profiles also allows downloading a separate international data plan without disrupting your main cellular plan back home.

Advantages of eSIM technology

Transitioning from traditional SIM cards to eSIM technology offers significant user experience enhancements in mobile devices:

  • Sleeker Device Designs

eSIM cards eliminate the need for a physical SIM slot, allowing for slimmer and more water-resistant device designs, a significant leap towards more durable and aesthetically pleasing gadgets.

  • Seamless Provider Switching

eSIMs provide unprecedented convenience by enabling users to switch between providers or plans without the hassle of physically swapping SIM cards. This feature is particularly useful for frequent travelers who need to switch between different providers or customized cellular plans on the go.

  • Multiple Active Profiles

The ability to manage multiple profiles on a single eSIM card means that one device can simultaneously hold several subscriptions, a feature that was previously cumbersome or expensive with traditional SIM cards.

  • Remote SIM Provisioning

One major advantage of eSIM is the ability for remote SIM provisioning by carriers. This allows carriers to provision a new eSIM profile over-the-air without any physical intervention required from the user’s end, streamlining activations and making switching carriers much more seamless.

  • Security

eSIMs are generally considered more secure than traditional SIM cards. They are tamper-proof and can be remotely disabled if lost or stolen, helping to protect your data and cellular service.

  • Environmental Impact

The elimination of physical SIM cards with eSIM technology can potentially reduce plastic waste associated with SIM card production and disposal, contributing to a more environmentally friendly approach.

  • Adoption in IoT and M2M Devices

In addition to smartphones and tablets, eSIM has seen increasing adoption in IoT (Internet of Things) and M2M (machine-to-machine) devices like sensors, trackers, industrial equipment, etc. The ability to provision and manage connectivity remotely is very useful for such devices.

How to Activate an eSIM

 Upon purchasing an eSIM plan, you’ll typically receive a QR code for scanning (either printed or displayed on another screen), installation instructions via email, or an SMS with the necessary details.

After obtaining the required information, you may need to activate the eSIM through your device’s settings or the provider’s application (each provider has a different activation process).

Additional Tips:

  • Ensure your device supports eSIM technology. Check if your device is eSIM compatible.
  • Perform the installation in an area with strong Wi-Fi reception.
  • If you encounter any issues, contact the support of the provider from whom you purchased the eSIM plan.

Industry Standards and Initiatives Bodies like GSMA are driving widespread eSIM adoption through standardization efforts. Initiatives like the GSMA Embedded SIM Specification ensure interoperability between eSIMs and operator networks globally.

The Future of eSIM technology is not just an innovative trend; it’s the future of cellular communication. Its inherent advantages over traditional SIM cards, such as eliminating physical constraints, improved device designs, seamless provider switching, and the ability to manage subscriptions remotely, position it as a revolutionary force in the telecommunications industry.

As adoption grows and more devices support eSIM, this technology is expected to redefine our cellular experience, making communication smoother, more flexible, and more tailored to individual needs than ever before

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