You’ve probably heard the term “eSIM” recently, possibly in relation to more and more smartphones being labeled as “eSIM-compatible” or “eSIM only.” But what does it mean, exactly? Let’s back up a step. A SIM, short for Subscriber Identity Module, is a unique identifier inside every cellular device that helps wireless service providers to know the user’s assigned phone number. Sort of like a thumbprint for your phone number. As with all technology, SIMs have evolved over time. In order to minimize the space occupied by physical SIM cards, a digitally embedded version, eSIM, was born.
Definition of eSIM
An eSIM, also known as an embedded SIM, is a completely virtual programmable card that does what physical SIM cards do: securely connects you with your network and provides access to your service so you can use your plan.
eSIM cards can easily be installed onto your phone or device online or via app, and they’re essentially what makes your phone usable (beyond surfing free Wi-Fi…or pretending your phone is on to avoid talking to people in public).
While most of today’s cell phones still rely on physical SIM cards, many believe eSIMs are the future and it’s only a matter of time before they’re more widely-adopted. Some phones, like all iPhone 14 models, are only compatible with eSIMs, while other models, like the iPhone XR and iPhone SE, are compatible with both.
In this guide, we’ll discuss everything you need to know about this cutting-edge technology.
How does eSIM work?
As mentioned above, eSIMs work much like physical SIM cards. However, instead of having carrier data pre-stored on the card, your chosen phone carrier can send you their data over the Internet (using a QR code) or through an app (like the Mint Mobile app for iOS). Once they have, your eSIM uses the data stored on it as physical SIM cards do; and instead of swapping out a physical SIM card, if you want to try different carriers or add a new number, that information can be downloaded onto the eSIM in a different slot (or reprogrammed into your eSIM entirely). Think of it as a wardrobe change for your phone.
If you want to know more, check out our articles covering what is a SIM card and what is stored on a SIM card.
Can eSIM be activated instantly?
Yes. You can activate an eSIM online (or, if you’re switching to Mint Mobile, through our free app), instead of having to visit a brick-and-mortar store and wait in a long line to get a new one. All it takes is a few taps on your phone or a quick scan of a QR code to get started.
How do I use dual SIM with eSIM?
With dual SIM, available on certain iPhone models, you can use multiple phone numbers on one device and easily get a local data plan if you’re traveling outside of the country or region. Dual SIM also allows users to have separate voice and data plans on a single phone.
You can use dual SIM with either two active eSIMs or a nano SIM and an eSIM, depending on which model you have. As mentioned earlier, all iPhone 14 models are eSIM only; while iPhone 12 models, iPhone 11 models, iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max, and iPhone XR are all dual SIM-enabled with a nano SIM and an eSIM. But remember that in order to utilize dual SIM you also need a wireless carrier that supports eSIM.
For more on dual SIM, check out our article What is dual SIM?
Is it easy to add different data plans with eSIM?
Yes, eSIM makes having separate data, voice and text plans on the same phone easier, enabling users to keep personal messages and expenses apart from business messages and expenses, to name just one example.
Can you set up your phone with international carriers via eSIM?
If you’ll be out of the U.S. for a long time (or if you’re traveling and don’t want to search for a physical SIM card when you land), eSIM users can simply buy a physical SIM card when they get to their destination. In fact, they may one day eliminate roaming charges altogether. And we love eliminating charges.
Is eSIM more secure?
The short answer is yes, many believe eSIM is safer than physical SIM cards; another card can’t be forcibly inserted into your phone, and switching numbers from one phone to another can be done virtually. It can’t be stolen since it’s digital, and they’re also incredibly difficult to hack thanks to built-in billing-process security features.
Some other nice perks that come with eSIM:
It’s easy to switch operators with eSIM
Data on eSIMs can be reprogrammed or, in some cases, downloaded onto another slot on the eSIM. This is great if you’re in an area that doesn’t get a good signal with your current carrier and you need to make a quick switch. It also makes freeing up space for more battery life or features an option.
eSIM eliminates the need for SIM trays
Getting rid of physical SIM cards, and thus SIM card trays, makes even-thinner phones or bigger phone batteries an option in the future…more pocket space, anyone? Embedded SIMs could also be used to make slimmer laptops or tablets, or even allow connected devices like fitness trackers and wearable technology (Google glasses) having more 4G or 5G connectivity. They can lead to smaller connectable devices as well, like smartwatches, since they’ll no longer need to fit a physical SIM card.
eSIM also has an environmental benefit
Since greater eSIM adoption means physical SIM cards wouldn’t have to be created and mailed, less SIM cards will be thrown away, so we can keep the Earth
eSIM vs physical SIM: Which is better?
Physical SIM cards are used globally and by all major mobile data carriers for the majority of their plans. They can be swapped between phones if yours dies or is irreparably damaged. You can get a new SIM if it stops working or you want to upgrade; you just have to get a new one from your carrier. Plus, you can easily track down a new physical SIM card if you’re traveling abroad.
Some other things to consider:
- Memory is limited—they can only keep 250 contacts and some of your text messages.
- Although it’s rare, physical SIM cards can become worn out or be damaged since they’re physical chips. But this is an easy fix—you can just get a new one.
An eSIM is just a virtual version of a SIM card and can do everything a physical SIM card does: it securely connects you to your carrier and makes it so you can access your service. Like a physical SIM card, it also stores information like your contacts and phone number.
And while a physical SIM is a small plastic card that can be placed into your cell phone (and swapped to other phones), an eSIM is already in your device (hence why the “e” stands for “embedded”).
But, in short, physical SIM cards are removable and can be held physically, whereas eSIMs cannot be removed and are entirely virtual. You can learn even more about eSIM vs physical SIM cards here.
However, if you’re a fan of Apple products, you might want to consider a dual SIM device.
How do I get started with eSIM?
If you have a compatible phone and a carrier that offers eSIM, the process is pretty simple. But first, you’ll need to check if your phone is compatible; then make sure you’re connected to Wi-Fi; then activate your new eSIM using a QR code or via an app.
How to activate eSIM with iPhone
- Go to Settings
- Select Mobile Data
- Select Add eSIM
- Select Use QR Code
- Scan your QR Code
How to activate eSIM with Android
- Go to Settings
- Select Network & Internet
- Select “+” next to SIMS
- Select Download A SIM Instead option
- Select Next
- Scan your QR code
- Select Done
Is my phone eSIM-compatible?
Not all phones are compatible with eSIM since it’s such a new technology. Right now, only certain Apple iPhones (including iPhone XS and newer, such as iPhone XR, any iPhone 11 or iPhone 12 models, iPhone SE, and iPhone 14, which is eSIM only) and Google Pixel devices can use it with Mint Mobile. Find out if your phone is eSIM compatible here.
If you have a compatible device, you’ll also need it to be unlocked if you want to use it for your Mint Mobile service (friendly side note: we only support phones, not watches, cars, or other non-phone devices). But one of the benefits of both SIM card options is that you can use your own phone and don’t have to switch phones to switch carriers. Once you have both a compatible and unlocked device, head here to find out how to switch to an eSIM.
You’re unlocked. You’re compatible. You’re ready to embrace cutting-edge technology. Good. Now get started with Mint Mobile eSIM and check out our wireless phone plans… and we’ll catch you in the future.
First published: June 2022, updated October 2022