Apple Is Driving the iPhone to eSIM: Here’s What You Need to Know

Perhaps the most surprising change in the iPhone 14 line, at least in the United States, was the shift from using removable SIM cards to eSIM.

Before you read on, let me just say that at this point if you don’t know what a SIM is or haven’t had to deal with them before, save yourself the time and just skip this article. It’s something that probably will never come up as this change doesn’t affect most people.

What is a SIM?

Though everyone uses a SIM or eSIM, you generally hear the discussion of it in the context of international travel since many people change them as they change countries. If you stay within your home country your SIM or eSIM gets set up once when you get your new phone and that’s it.

SIM cards—SIM stands for Subscriber Identity Module—have been used for many years. When you have a cell phone number, your number and cellular service is not attached to your phone itself; it is attached to the SIM card. This little card in your phone is how the cell phone company knows who you are.

eSIM, or embedded SIM, is a programmable SIM is built into your phone. eSIM is virtual, so instead of fussing with a card tray and paperclip, you add a plan to your phone using a QR code or a link in an app.

Do you need to deal with SIM and eSIM?

Using an eSIM or SIM quite honestly is not the best option for most travelers. All of the various options, plans, and settings will take some time to get set up properly. And if you don’t have it set up properly it’s very easy to accidentally incur roaming charges. For the casual traveler (less than 2 to 4 weeks out of the country per year) your best option may be to simply use your carrier’s roaming options, which can range from free to $10/day. eSIM and SIM cards are best for people spending significant amounts of time in other countries or for travel to countries not covered by your carrier’s standard roaming plan.

  • Verizon and AT&T both offer a $10/day plan in most countries ($5 in Mexico/Canada) if you have a post-paid account (most people do). Simply make sure that the feature is enabled in your account, and when you arrive you will receive a text message with the details for that country. Essentially, for every day that you use your phone in a foreign country, you will simply get a $10/day charge on your cell phone bill, and it behaves exactly as it does in the US. There is nothing more to worry about and manage. Just make sure that “Roaming” is enabled in your iPhone Settings app > Cellular. Verizon calls this feature TravelPass and AT&T calls it International Day Pass. If you don’t know where to find this setting in their app or website you can call customer service at 611.
  • T-Mobile post-paid customers (most customers) get free international roaming at low speed in most countries. It’s not fast enough to watch a video but it’s fast enough to email, text, use maps, and browse the web. Calls usually run 25¢/minute. If you want high-speed data and unlimited calling, you can buy an International Pass starting at $5/day. Do be careful if you spend a lot of time overseas. If more than half of your cellular usage over a three-month period is outside of the US they may terminate your account. But as long as you are spending most of your time within the US you’ll be fine.

Either way, if you are unsure you may want to call 611 from your mobile phone before traveling to talk with customer service to make sure you are set up properly. If you travel on AT&T or Verizon without having these passes set up, you can end up getting astronomical roaming bills just from sending texts or looking up a map.

What is and isn’t happening with this change to eSIM?

  • If you aren’t familiar with SIM cards and how they work and why you need them, then this entire topic is irrelevant to you.
  • The industry is switching from SIM cards to eSIM, which uses software instead of physical chips. Some carriers have made this transition, some have not.
  • This is not a proprietary Apple thing. Apple is just pushing the technology forward more quickly as they did when dropping floppy drives and CD drives. It’s a little premature for some customers but in the end the industry needed this push.
  • You can still get SIMs, they will just be in a virtual format instead of a physical format. Instead of buying a SIM card when you arrive in a new country, you add an eSIM to your phone by the use of a QR code or an app.
  • If you have eSIM on your US carrier, you will have no problem using your phone in any country if you choose to roam. In other words, cell phone networks don’t have to be on board with this new technology; just the company that bills you for your service.
  • eSIM has been supported by the major US carriers since 2018 with the introduction of iPhone XS. Many people in the US have been using eSIM for years without even knowing what it is.
  • There are several advantages. Among them: no more SIM cards to keep track of and potentially lose, fewer contact points means better reliability, no more fussing with a paperclip and tray, one less spot for water to get into your phone, and in the future that space can be used for other things to make your phone more powerful.

Apple’s eSIM Transition

eSIM support is widespread among US carriers but less so internationally, which is why models of the iPhone 14 sold outside the US retain the SIM tray. The use where lack of eSIM support is likely to be an issue—at least for the near future—is international travel. Historically, it was easy to purchase a pre-paid physical SIM card for a local carrier in the airport upon arriving, but that will no longer work for a US iPhone 14. The iPhone is sufficiently popular that international carriers are adding eSIM support, but it’s still possible to travel to a country where you can’t easily get local service with an iPhone 14 due to the lack of a SIM tray. Apple maintains a list of international carriers that support eSIM in various ways, including with pre-paid plans for travelers, and offers advice on how to use eSIM when traveling. eSIM isn’t available at all in mainland China, but Apple’s list includes worldwide service providers that sell pre-paid data plans you can use when traveling in China and other countries without eSIM support. One great source is the Airalo app I mention below.

Apple has been moving toward eSIM for several years, starting with the iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max, and iPhone XR in 2018. Those iPhones—and every model up to the iPhone 14—had both a SIM tray and eSIM, which enabled the use of two separate cellular plans, simultaneously, each with its own phone number. With the iPhone 13, Apple enabled Dual SIM support with eSIM alone, and some carriers started giving customers the option to activate their primary service with eSIM, leaving the SIM tray or the second eSIM available for a second plan. You can store and switch among up to eight eSIMs, two of which can be active at any time.

Cellular-capable iPads have had eSIM support since the seventh-generation iPad, fifth-generation iPad mini, third-generation iPad Air, first-generation 11-inch iPad Pro, and third-generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro.

How to Activate an eSIM

Precisely how you activate an account with eSIM varies by carrier and your situation, but Apple describes three basic options:

  • eSIM Carrier Activation: Some carriers can assign a new eSIM to your iPhone, making it easy to switch to a new iPhone or enable an eSIM-based plan after setup. eSIM Carrier Activation involves following a few simple onscreen instructions where you basically acknowledge that activation is happening.
  • eSIM Quick Transfer: If you’re transferring a SIM or eSIM from an old iPhone to a new one and you have both at hand, you may be able to use eSIM Quick Transfer. It will provide instructions during setup, or you can initiate it after setup with Settings > Cellular > Add Cellular Plan and either selecting a plan from a list or tapping Transfer From Another Device. You can also convert a physical SIM to an eSIM on the same phone if your carrier supports eSIM Quick Transfer; check to see if Settings > Cellular has a Convert to eSIM option. If so, tap it and follow the instructions. I know AT&T offers this option here but Verizon requires you to choose the option on their website.
  • Scan a QR code or use a carrier app: Carriers that don’t support eSIM Carrier Activation or eSIM Quick Transfer initiate setup by providing either a QR code you can scan—during setup or afterward—or a custom app. Either way, follow the iPhone’s instructions to complete the setup. One way to get a data-only eSIM quickly is with the Airalo app. You can pay for a plan in the app and it will install an eSIM for you. Just make sure you do it in your destination country while connected to WiFi.
‎Airalo: eSIM Phone Internet
‎Airalo: eSIM Phone Internet
Developer: Airalo
Price: Free

Although we’ve become accustomed to swapping SIM cards in and out of our iPhones such that eSIM feels new and confusing, it should be a better overall solution once the industry fully adopts it. It’s easier to set up, less error-prone, and more secure. There may be some short-term annoyance for US iPhone 14 owners who travel internationally, but I anticipate that will dissipate quickly as international carriers start supporting eSIM.

Further help

If you are an existing customer who needs help with this or if you have other questions, or if you are in San Francisco and interested in becoming a client I invite you to book an appointment with me. Otherwise, you may wish to contact Apple Support or find a local Apple consultant.

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(Featured image by iStock.com/fz750)