We’re finally witnessing the death of physical SIM cards. The new iPhone 14 requires eSIM for mobile networking, and it’s only a matter of time before other smartphones follow suit. Unfortunately, your carrier may not support eSIM yet.
Almost every mobile phone made in the last 25 years relies on a SIM card for cellular service. This tiny piece of plastic is a “subscriber identity module.” It contains your phone number, but more importantly, it verifies that you are a carrier’s paying customer. Without a SIM card, you can’t make calls or connect to mobile networks.
The SIM standard has managed to survive over two decades, and for good reason—it’s dead simple. Anyone can take the SIM card out of their phone, stick it in a new device, and immediately transfer their cellular service. (Of course, many people never touch their SIM card and simply let their carrier’s salespeople do the work.)
But physical SIM cards are technically outdated. We don’t need to stick pieces of plastic into our phones anymore, and for better or worse, we’ve reached a point where the idea of a physical SIM card confuses or intimidates many smartphone users.
The relatively new eSIM standard is a modern take on the “subscriber identity module.” Basically, phones with eSIM support can manage up to five “virtual SIM cards” simultaneously. All you need to do is activate one of these “virtual SIM cards” by installing an eSIM Profile from your carrier.
There isn’t a standardized process for installing these eSIM Profiles. But in most cases, you’ll download an app, scan a QR code, or visit your carrier’s website to get things set up. You may need to contact your carrier to complete this process, though some carriers support “eSIM Quick Transfer,” which lets you do everything yourself.
In theory, the eSIM standard should simplify things for both customers and carriers. Signing up for a new cellular provider will take just a few minutes, as you don’t need to go into a store or wait for a SIM card to arrive in the mail. And if you use multiple providers, you can switch between their networks without touching a physical SIM card.
But one of eSIM’s biggest hurdles, at least for early adopters, will be carrier support. Several carriers, especially those outside of the United States, simply haven’t implemented eSIM. Support for the eSIM Quick Transfer protocol is even more rare, as only five U.S. companies offer Quick Transfer services.
For the average person, eSIM is a silent quality of life upgrade. You can buy a phone from anywhere and connect it to your carrier’s network through an app, QR code, or website. There’s no need to transplant a SIM card from your old phone or visit a carrier in person. (Though you may need to contact your carrier to complete this process, as only a handful of carriers currently support eSIM Quick Transfer.)
Plus, eSIM can reduce the time it takes to switch carriers. You don’t need to visit a physical store or wait for a SIM card to arrive in the mail—just follow your carrier’s instructions to set up eSIM at home.
International travelers can also benefit from eSIM, as it supports up to five virtual SIM cards at a time. If you’re visiting Germany, for example, you can join a local carrier’s network on your phone without tucking a delicate little SIM card in your luggage.
There are several other small-but-significant perks to eSIM. Phone manufacturers can stick larger batteries or other components in their phones by eliminating the physical SIM tray, for example. And you don’t need to worry about a faulty SIM card if you’re using eSIM.
Despite its many benefits, the switch to eSIM is frustrating for some people, especially power users. And in certain situations, average people will experience problems because of eSIM.
The biggest downside to eSIM is that it can (ironically) make switching devices harder. If you own multiple phones without physical SIM trays, you need to go through your carrier’s eSIM setup process to switch from one phone to another. This is especially frustrating for reviewers like myself, who regularly pop their personal SIM card into new devices. (A niche complaint, obviously.)
Unfortunately, ordinary people may encounter this problem when their smartphone breaks. In my experience, most people become familiar with SIM cards when they temporarily switch to an old or borrowed phone. The eSIM process complicates things a bit, as you can’t just transplant the SIM card out of your broken phone—you need to go through an online process that may require on-screen input from your busted device.
Carriers’ eSIM transfer services could also become overloaded when a popular new phone comes out. This may force you to wait a few hours when setting up a brand new device, though of course, we have no evidence that eSIM transfer services will actually crash.
And while eSIM will eventually make international travel easier, it could make things difficult for early adopters. Very few carriers outside the United States actually support eSIM. Until the eSIM standard becomes ubiquitous, international travelers with eSIM-only phones may be forced to use expensive roaming data in certain regions.
Most major U.S. carriers support the eSIM standard. But if you aren’t with the “big three,” there’s a small chance that you need a physical SIM card to use mobile data or make calls. And that may mean waiting to buy the new iPhone 14.
Here’s the list of U.S. carriers who currently support eSIM, according to Apple:
- AT&T (Supports Quick Transfer)
- Boost Mobile
- Credo Mobile
- C Spire (Supports Quick Transfer)
- H2O Wireless
- Spectrum Mobile
- Straight Talk
- T-Mobile (Supports Quick Transfer)
- US Cellular (Supports Quick Transfer)
- Verizon Wireless (Supports Quick Transfer)
- Xfinity Mobile
Note that only five of these carriers currently support the Quick Transfer protocol. Without Quick Transfer, you need to contact your carrier to set up eSIM on a smartphone.
We expect all U.S. carriers to support eSIM by the end of 2023. But at the time of writing, zero carriers have announced a concrete plan to implement eSIM. Consumer Cellular, for example, simply says that it’ll support eSIM once it starts selling the iPhone 14 (which will take several months, as is usually the case with Consumer Cellular and other affordable carriers).