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Advantages and disadvantages of eSIM

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With the iPhone 14, Apple has gathered the courage to remove another physical connector.

This time it is the physical SIM card slot that mobile networks use to identify their subscribers. In the United States, Apple will only sell the iPhone 14 without a SIM card slot and will instead only support eSIM, with a digital version of the card built into the phone itself.

Like the headphone jack for it, Apple is taking its step to ditch physical SIM cards as a consumer boon. The company says eSIM is more secure and easier to connect, and it allows customers to add multiple lines on one phone, each with their own phone number.

But the switch to abolishing physical SIM cards will also cause many problems in the short term, in particular by limiting customers’ choice of carriers at home and abroad.

Here’s everything you need to know, both good and bad, about Apple’s move to eSIM.

How do you set up an eSIM?

Apple currently offers three ways to set up an eSIM:

  • eSIM fast transfer wirelessly converts a physical SIM on one phone to an eSIM on another, or moves an existing eSIM between phones.
  • eSIM provider activation turn on a new service line as part of the iPhone’s initial setup process.
  • Carrier apps or websites serve as a fallback for providers that do not support the above methods. After users provide their account information, they can scan a QR code to set up an eSIM on the new phone.

In the United States, all three major carriers — AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon — support Quick Transfer and Carrier Activation, so setup should be pretty straightforward. Some smaller “MVNO” providers and overseas carriers also support these activation methods, according to Apple’s website.

For carriers that don’t support Apple’s Quick Transfer and Carrier Activation tools, setting up an eSIM can be more of a hassle than swapping out a physical SIM card, but it’s better to go out and buy a new card if if you don’t already have one.

However, due to the finicky nature of physical SIM cards, eSIM may be easier for some people. “Those SIM card slots and holes are a nightmare for people with fine motor problems,” said Techsponential analyst Avi Greengart.

What are the benefits of eSIM?

For users, eSIM offers some clear advantages over physical SIM cards:

  • It is safer, because no one can remove it from the phone and use it to intercept phone calls or text messages. (This is not the most common form of) Sim card hijackingbut it is still possible for someone with physical access to the phone.)
  • Switching providers is easier because you don’t have to wait for a SIM card to arrive or pick one up at a store.
  • Adding extra rules is easier, because you no longer need a phone with dual SIM card holders. (On the iPhone, Apple supports up to two phone numbers and eight data lines with eSIM.)

An eSIM also benefits phone manufacturers and wireless carriers. For Apple, eliminating the SIM tray means freeing up more precious space in the device, which it can use to pack in extra technology. And as Greengart points out, they save money for carriers, who no longer have to spend what he estimates is $10 to $20 per physical card.

Is eSIM compatible with any US carrier?

Unfortunately not. Some alternative carriers that lease capacity from the major carriers — known in industry jargon as Mobile Virtual Network Operators or MVNOs — don’t support eSIM these days, meaning you can’t use an iPhone 14 on their networks.

Jeff Fieldhack, a research director for CounterPoint Research, estimates that about 60% of MVNOs don’t yet support eSIM, but those that do offer eSIM support cover about 85% of total subscribers. Some notable exceptions include Ting, Walmart Mobile, US Mobile, Net10, and Tello.

Whether that will change in the near future is unclear. Ting, an MVNO owned by Dish Network, has previously: regretted the difficulties in adopting eSIMand has not yet committed to adding it for the iPhone 14.

“This transition will certainly be the hardest for MVNOs that need to update their infrastructure and processes and hope they don’t lose too many subscribers,” said Greengart.

Is eSIM a problem for traveling abroad?

Right now, yes. Some countries’ wireless carriers still require a physical SIM card, and for countries that do: allow eSIM, the options are sometimes limited. At XDA-Developers, Adam Conway refers to Ireland as an exampleand notes that you can only get an eSIM through Vodafone, whose pay-as-you-go plans are twice as expensive as other local carriers.

If you are unable to activate an eSIM from a local carrier, you can turn to global service providers such as: airalo and Ubigibut these tend to be more expensive than local options, and they only cover data, so you can’t get a local number to contact businesses in the area.

How does eSIM affect competition between carriers?

In theory, eSIM could make the wireless industry more competitive by lowering barriers to switching. A company like Apple might even be able to offer some sort of marketplace where users can easily shop around for services from different providers.

That said, wireless carriers have other ways to keep you hooked, like the generous subsidies they offer on new iPhones in exchange for long-term payment plans. You can’t switch providers without losing those subsidies, so leaving is hard, even if eSIM makes it technically easier.

Does eSIM make unlocking your phone easier?

eSIM does not affect whether a phone is locked or unlocked. If your phone is locked to a specific carrier, you cannot add another eSIM card to it, for example when traveling abroad. (Verizon automatically unlocks new phones after 60 days for postpaid customers, even for installment phones, but AT&T and T-Mobile both require you to pay for the phone in full first.)

What does eSIM mean for the geeks who are constantly switching between phones?

This is one area where eSIM is likely to be more annoying in the long run. Rather than just being able to swap out physical SIM cards — a process that takes less than a minute — you have to go through the wireless carrier’s app or online portal to transfer the service.

Verizon spokesperson George Koroneos notes that you don’t have to pay an activation fee every time just when you activate a new line, but the process can still be a hassle as you have to get the carrier involved in the first place.

Most users will never have to worry about this, but think about the gadget critics, industry analysts and tech enthusiasts who do.

“I expect this to be a personal nightmare, but we’ll see,” Greengart says.

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