The traditional physical SIM card, which has been an integral part of our mobile phones for decades, may be phased out in favor of the latest SIM technology innovation, the eSIM. The eSIM promises to offer users greater flexibility, convenience, and versatility compared to the physical SIM card. But is the eSIM truly a better option? What are the core differences between an eSIM and a physical SIM card?
The physical SIM is a removable smart card used to authenticate mobile network users so they can use it. A virtual Sim or eSIM does the same job, but instead of being removable, it is very small and embedded into the device during manufacturing.
Service providers use the SIM card to store information about you as a cell phone user. What would a change to eSIM technology mean for us, then? Let’s look into how the two differ to get a better idea.
Comparison Table of a Physical SIM and an eSIM
|Physical Form||Removable||Embedded into the device during manufacturing, hence not removable.|
|Ownership||The card is owned and issued by a specific network operator||The card is owned by the owner of the device and not the network operator.|
|Flexibility||Less flexible as it requires users to obtain a new card for every network or plan change.||More flexible as users can switch between multiple networks easily|
-easy to use
|-Consumes less energy|
-Uses less space
-More versatile and can work in harsher conditions
|Portability||More portable. It can be removed and used on different devices.||Less portable. It is integrated into the device, and thus it is not easily transferable to other devices|
|Deployment||Physical SIM cards are still widely used and more widely available globally.||eSIMs are gradually being adopted by device manufacturers, carriers, and service providers|
Is It Better To Use a SIM or eSIM?
Traditional SIM cards are simple, which is their main strength. It’s quick to remove the physical card from your current phone and insert it into a new device. You’ll keep the same telephone number and contact information when you do so.
They’re also easy to access and replace – whether you’re switching network carriers, replacing a damaged chip, or looking to upgrade to a modern cellular network like 5G. You can simply order a new SIM card on your service provider’s website or pick one up at a physical store, usually free of charge.
The newer eSIM card, on the other hand, has advantages that a removable SIM card does not. An eSIM, or embedded subscriber identification module, is – as the name implies – a dedicated chip permanently connected to the inside of your mobile phone. Since there are no physical components for you to remove or fiddle with, it’s less likely that you’ll accidentally damage or lose anything.
Your eSIM needs to be registered by the network provider and enabled by them for you to connect to your cellular network. Not all network operators support eSIM at the time of writing.
Unlike traditional SIM cards, which are tied to specific carriers, eSIM cards are rewritable. This means that a phone with eSIM can connect to multiple different carriers.
This can be useful if you’re a frequent traveler or live in different places and have to figure out how to deal with roaming charges or a lack of network connectivity. You’ll be asked to pay roaming charges when you use network services.
In contrast, outside of your network service range, or in other words, anytime your mobile device is connected to a network that’s not your home network. eSIM technology allows you to connect to multiple carriers. Someone traveling overseas could add service coverage in their new location while still retaining access to their US phone number.
While working from Costa Rica and traveling back and forth to the US, I was constantly ejecting and injecting my SIM to the point of getting wear marks on the connectors. When I switched to Google Fi, I let Google handle the local network switching and roaming details. With eSIMs, I could have stayed off the Google service and utilized any local service without constantly switching chips on the planes.
With eSIM, it’s also straightforward to add your phone to a data plan. This could be useful if you plan to experiment with different mobile plans but want to keep and use the same physical device. Connecting your eSIM-equipped phone to a new data plan only takes a simple phone call and can be done within minutes. This fast provisioning of your phone removes the time it would take to pick up or ship a new traditional SIM.
eSIM Privacy Issues
Phones with eSIM can store multiple cellular profiles. You could theoretically use a single phone for both personal and business purposes while maintaining different phone numbers for each. However, just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
Using a dedicated smartphone for work will ensure better privacy and security for you and your company. We’ve written about why you should have a separate work phone, detailing the arguments.
There’s not much that can be done from a privacy standpoint about network providers gathering and storing your location data. Whether you’re using a SIM chip or eSIM to connect, your mobile service provider will still be able to identify you and track your location. This may be useful if your phone is lost or stolen.
Short of not owning or using a phone in the first place, removing your physical SIM card from your phone won’t stop your device from being identified. Your network operator has many other ways of tracking and gathering information about you.
If you’re interested in this topic, you can read more about limiting location data from your mobile provider as much as possible or explore the privacy breakdown of mobile phones.
But does using eSIM make you more vulnerable than a physical SIM card? Or would it actually be safer?
Can an eSIM Be Hacked?
Let’s consider what a malicious actor might be able to do if they had access to your SIM card. If your phone is lost or stolen, someone can physically take the SIM card from your device. If that happens, that person has complete access to your phone line. But the problem doesn’t stop there. Your name, phone number, contacts, and other personal information are tied to your SIM.
This means that someone with your SIM card can make calls from your phone number or send text messages pretending to be you. With your phone number and contacts, they can try to pose as you to scam your friends, family, and companies you do business with.
A stolen SIM card also provides access to newly received messages. It’s easy to imagine the havoc someone might be able to do if they could access your texts and calls. This is why it’s vital to not use SMS-based two-factor authentication. Additionally, an attacker could authenticate themselves to services you’ve signed up for or get your contacts to reveal sensitive information.
Situations like this illustrate the importance of being diligent and practicing digital safety so that you can protect your personal data. To reduce the chances of something like this happening to you, you should contact your service provider immediately if you suspect someone has accessed your SIM card. Your phone carrier can deactivate your card remotely for physical or embedded SIM card. You should work with your phone company to assess any damage that may have been done.
Now let’s imagine that a bad actor wants the information of someone using eSIM. Unlike a traditional SIM, there’s no danger of an eSIM card being physically compromised. Is there still any risk?
The answer is yes. Although a fraudster might not be able to swap your eSIM card physically, they can still trick your network provider into activating a new eSIM. To do this, the fraudster would simply call an operator at your mobile carrier and pretend to be you.
Whether this succeeds or not depends on how much information the criminal can obtain on you and what information or verification requests the person on the other end asks for. If a thief has stolen your device, he might have enough information to impersonate you and convince the network provider to activate a new eSIM and gain access to all of your communications.
Using Both a Traditional SIM Card & eSIM
Using two SIM cards at a time is known as Dual SIM.
You can use dual SIM with either two active eSIMs, or a SIM and an eSIM. Most modern eSIM devices support Dual SIM usage. This means if you get an eSIM-enabled phone, you can still choose to use a physical SIM card if you wish.
With a Dual SIM device, you can use both network profiles simultaneously or manually switch between them. We’ve already discussed some of the uses of having multiple cellular networks, and these situations also apply to Dual SIM.
- One number for business and another number for personal calls (although this is not recommended)
- Delegate voice calls and texts to one network and data usage to another
- Add international data plans when traveling outside of the country
Most phone manufacturers have online support sites with instructions on setting up a SIM, eSIM, and Dual SIM on your new device. Apple Support does a good job explaining how to use Dual SIM in the following video (1m34s@2x). The process is similar for Android devices though admittedly not as nicely implemented.
For reference, here is the support page for Apple iOS and for Google Android phones.
eSIMs on their own can be activated by scanning a QR code into your phone’s cellular network settings. Here are instruction pages on how to activate an eSIM for some common carriers, such as Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile.
Although eSIM is a developing technology and many US-based carriers support the standard, not all networks have emphasized onboarding new subscribers via the technology. While carriers test eSIM adoption, mobile users should keep an eye on it. Soon we can stop sticking chips into our phones.