MAY 22, 2024 / Mobile Phones

What is an eSIM: Why you might never need a SIM card again

While these days we’re tending to keep our mobile phones for longer periods of time – up to 3.5 years according to research, if you purchase a newer phone, and especially a premium device like an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy S device, it’ll come with eSIM capability.

As a technology, eSIM has been around for a while now, and the three major carrier networks – Telstra, Optus and Vodafone – have offered it as an option to new phone buyers. Telstra recently announced that it’s adding eSIM capability to its Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) partners – these are the brands that use parts of the Telstra 3G/4G network but sell under their own branding, including supermarket brands Woolworths Mobile and ALDI Mobile, amongst others.

As such, you’re more likely to come across the term, and be offered an eSIM option for your next mobile phone, and possibly even tablet or laptop device in the future. Here’s what you need to know about eSIM.

eSIM vs physical SIM: What’s the difference?

Any mobile phone user – whether you favour a smartphone or a simpler “feature” style phone – will be familiar with the SIM card as the part of the phone package you get from your mobile provider that lets your phone play nicely on their networks. Over the years we’ve seen gradual reduction in the size of SIM cards, down to the Nano SIMs that most phones these days use. Mechanically, they can’t get much smaller, or they couldn’t until you introduce eSIMs.

Where SIM cards require those tiny bits of plastic and metal, and (typically) pop-out trays for them to sit in, eSIMs are embedded “virtual” SIM cards that live within the phone itself. No need for additional cards, nothing to drop on the floor and lose if you’re changing handsets, and no need to hit up a store or wait for a postal delivery to get your handset up and running.

So far, we’ve seen very few devices in Australia opt for an eSIM-only approach, with most still keeping a regular SIM card tray as part of their physical build. That does mean that just about any phone with an eSIM will in effect be a “dual SIM” style phone, capable of running two phone accounts if that’s useful to you.

For most providers, setting up an eSIM is no more difficult than scanning a QR code on the relevant device, at which point it sets about authenticating itself and writing the necessary code to the eSIM to identify it as your device and your phone number.

What happens if I want to change provider?

This should be easier than with a regular SIM card and new provider, because as long as both providers support eSIM, all you should need is to close one account and open a new one, scanning the QR code – or whatever process your new provider requires – and you’re good to go. Comparatively, signing up with a new telco with a physical SIM requires an entirely new SIM card, activation of that SIM card and a waiting period to get all that done. We’re still in the early days of cross-network eSIM activation, however, so it’s always wise to be ready in case you need to dig further with any network or provider change.

What happens with eSIM if my phone, tablet or laptop is stolen or lost?

You’ll need a new device, that’s what. Obvious answers aside, there’s little practical difference here with eSIM or a physical SIM. If you do lose a device, or it’s stolen or otherwise inaccessible to you on a presumably permanent basis, contact your provider and get them to block the eSIM. That’ll block down the device so that malicious types can’t use it for other purposes, as well as avoiding any additional charges to you. From there, your provider should be able to provide you with a fresh eSIM code – while still retaining your existing phone number – with relative ease.

There are some catches specific to providers with eSIM, and not every data or phone plan will offer an eSIM option. Some providers may only offer eSIM in their stores, while others will offer it online partially or in full.

Can I upgrade my old phone for eSIM?

Nope, although it is worth checking if it’s already eSIM capable. If you’re an iPhone user with an iPhone XS or newer, you’re already packing eSIM capability, for example. The reality here is that while eSIM will almost certainly become more widespread – it’s more environmentally friendly than printing all those SIM cards, for a start – it’s not likely that they’ll supplant traditional SIM cards particularly quickly. If your current mobile only has a standard SIM card slot, the odds are that it’ll stop working due to age before SIM cards are entirely phased out across phones in any case.

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Alex Kidman
A multi-award winning journalist, Alex has written about consumer technology for over 20 years. He has written and edited for virtually every Australian tech publication including Gizmodo, CNET, PC Magazine, Kotaku and more.