Apple has gone all-in with the eSIM (embedded SIM), a programmable internal version of the SIM (subscriber identity module) card used to identify your phone to mobile networks. With the American models of its iPhone 14 series, Apple has abolished a physical slot for the SIM card. But it also continues to extend eSIM flexibility on other iPhone models and iPads.
For decades, a SIM card acted as a secure hardware component that fit into a slot on phones used on most networks worldwide. A SIM provides hard-coded unique ID information for a phone to connect to a home network or ID itself when roaming. A SIM card allows a carrier to associate one or more phone numbers and billing information with a particular mobile device. (Technically, SIM cards were used on one of two types of mobile networks, the ones using the GSM standard. GSM predominated and became the basis for the evolution towards 4G and 5G technologies. The competing standard, CDMA, is almost extinct. )
What exactly is an eSIM? Which iPhones and iPads work with one or more? And how do you manage an eSIM? Let’s explore those questions.
What is an eSIM?
SIMs were designed in an era of flip phones and earlier, making an external piece of prefabricated circuitry impossible to manage in the hardware of the time. A modern iPhone, iPad or similar Android and other devices only need a SIM card to power the old mobile infrastructure.
An eSIM is still a piece of circuitry, but it’s embedded in a phone or tablet and it’s reprogrammable. It can essentially load the data needed to communicate with a cellular network, just as if it were a removable card with a fixed identity baked into it. Carriers need to update their networks to work with eSIMs to handle activation and integration with their billing systems, but an eSIM has the same function.
Is an eSIM better than a SIM card?
No hassle with SIM cards is a huge advantage. First, you can usually activate an eSIM for monthly service or subscriptions to use on your phone without any interaction with a customer service representative, and you almost never visit a mobile store.
Second, you don’t have to wait to receive the piece of plastic with circuitry that is a SIM card. Third, you no longer need to open the SIM slot – using Apple’s SIM eviction tool that you certainly can’t find when you need it and instead turn to a paperclip – and use a SIM card the size of a toddler’s fingernail and put another one in. I irreparably dropped a SIM card into a digital piano keyboard, and others ran across the floors of airport cafes when I arrived in another country with my family and had to trade in the local service.
Does eSIM affect a phone being unlocked or locked?
While an eSIM is programmable and handled completely digitally, it doesn’t affect whether a phone or tablet containing the technology is locked or unlocked by the carrier on whose network you’re using your device. Your ability to unlock your iPhone for use on a different network depends on carrier policies, whether you’re using a SIM card or an eSIM. Follow these links for the details at AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon.
There is concern that carriers could use the eSIM-only iPhone 14 and future models as a way to ensure lock-in on their network. However, that’s already the case with carriers that lock a phone to their network with physical SIM cards, so it’s hard to see how an eSIM offers a stricter restriction.
How do I get cell service outside of the US?
You once had to change a hardware SIM card when traveling to another country. With an eSIM you can add a second subscription for outside your region. When you get home, simply deactivate the eSIM. However, there are some countries that have not yet used eSIM, and an iPhone 14 or later with eSIM only may not work for you in some countries or for your preferred carriers there. Analysts believe Apple is trying to kick-start eSIM adoption with this move. It could work.
Before traveling, check with your carrier to see if they offer service in the country you are traveling to. Even if your iPhone remains locked to domestic services, many carriers will let you use your service outside of your home country or region if you meet certain conditions (such as having paid off your phone if the carrier finances the purchase or a certain amount of time has passed since you account), or they may offer add-ons to your subscription that enable international coverage.
Apple has a list of wireless carriers and global service providers that offer eSIM services.
Which iPhones and iPads support eSIMs?
Apple has added support for an eSIM in addition to a removable SIM card, starting with the iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max, and iPhone XR. That interchangeable SIM plus eSIM combination continues in the iPhone 14 series, with the exception of iPhone 14 models that are only available in the US.
The iPhone 13 series allows you to use a removable SIM card plus an eSIM. to use or two eSIMs for your service. This model marks a transition to where some carriers choose to activate an eSIM for your primary service or give you the option. In either case, you can still have an eSIM slot available for roaming.
The iPhone 14 series allows you to have one or two active eSIMs, while you can reportedly store up to eight eSIMs that you can swap in and out. Apple has not released this detail and it is unclear whether iPhone 14 models outside the US will also allow the same offline eSIM storage.
Frequent travelers in many countries will appreciate being able to store many eSIMs. Those of us who travel less often or less widely will likely only add the eSIM service when we travel, with the eSIM service expiring within a certain number of days after activation.
Apple also supports eSIMs on Wi-Fi/cellular iPads, starting with the 5th generation iPad mini, 7th generation iPad, 3rd generation iPad Air, 3rd generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro, and 1st generation 11-inch iPad Pro. An iPad can store two eSIM profiles, but activate only one at a time.
How are eSIMs activated?
Apple notes that there are three different types of eSIM support that vary by carrier:
eSIM provider activation: You can activate a new phone using an eSIM assigned to the phone.
eSIM fast transfer: If you have an existing iPhone that has a phone number assigned to it, be it a physical SIM or an eSIM, you can transfer that phone to a new iPhone’s eSIM. For a physical SIM card, there is an extra step you can do on your phone to “convert” it to an eSIM.
Other methods: Some carriers may require you to scan a QR code to activate an eSIM or use a carrier-provided app. This is generally the case when buying a pay-as-you-go or over time travel plan.
A combination of carrier instructions and on-screen assistance from Apple, often in Settings > mobileguides you through this process on an iPhone.
On an iPad, Apple has always let us activate mobile subscriptions via Settings > Mobile data. It’s the same with an eSIM. Since iPads don’t directly use a phone number, enabling and switching services is easier. (Normally, a carrier assigns a number for billing purposes, but you can’t use it for texting or voice calls.) An eSIM can be activated when you sign up for a subscription on your iPad, by scanning a QR code or by using a courier app, depending on the carrier.
You can see Apple’s regularly updated overview of which carriers support which eSIM features on this support page.
Where are eSIM settings?
Once you have two SIM cards active in any combination, manage them via Settings > mobile or Settings > Mobile data, where they appear as different sections below the main heading. You’ll also see two rows in the status bar, one for each carrier, with the network name and connection status for each with Apple’s cellular symbols.
When using apps that support cellular service on an iPhone, you can choose which line to use for text messages and phone calls, as well as control which plan includes your cellular data. Apple provides a detailed guide to configuring two lines and choosing which service to use for each call or other purpose.
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