Since the dawn of the smartphone age, changing your cellular provider followed the same pattern: You’d get a SIM card from your new carrier, find something small enough to poke the tiny hole on the side of your phone, remove your old chip and replace it with the new one.
That process will soon be a thing of the past. Millions of people have moved away from physical SIM cards to virtual ones. One day, the rest of us will do the same.
SIM cards are being replaced by their “embedded” counterparts known as eSIMs. Rather than getting a physical card from a carrier, you’ll instead activate service digitally by logging into an app or by scanning a QR code.
The software connects you to a new cellular network on the fly, letting you quickly sign up for service without tracking down a store. Because phone makers don’t have to include space for the SIM card tray, they can build sleeker devices, say industry veterans. ESIMs even let you have two phone numbers on your phone at the same time: You could have one for work and one for personal calls, or set up an international number alongside your normal service when traveling.
“The vision is, you can get a phone from anyone, and as you’re activating the device, you pick your service operator and off you go,” said Chetan Sharma, a wireless industry analyst who leads his own consulting firm.
ESIMs have become popular in Europe and Asia, where consumers tend to switch between prepaid plans to get the best data package available, he said. In the U.S., people typically stick with one carrier.
The three biggest U.S. wireless providers—T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon—say a cardless future is approaching here, too. With last year’s iPhone 13, Apple stopped including physical SIM cards in the box. And Motorola’s foldable Razr phone from 2019 didn’t support physical SIMs at all.
“It’s a natural evolution,” said Jeff Howard, vice president of mobile devices and accessories at AT&T. “It’s going to make the experience better down the road.”
Right now, setting up an eSIM isn’t always painless. Even if your phone supports it, your carrier may not. And if you try to move eSIMs between devices, you likely have to go through setup all over again.
A slow start
SIM cards relay your user details to the carrier to authenticate your smartphone and enable you to make and receive calls, texts and data.
But when you want to change phones or switch service providers, SIMs can be cumbersome. Anyone who’s hunted for a tool to open the SIM tray (a skinny paper clip, for instance) knows what a pain that can be. Once you actually get the card out, the tiny dimensions of today’s popular nano-SIMs—about the width of an M&M but thinner than a credit card—make them easy to lose. SIM cards also are vulnerable to hacks and have been tracked and exploited by cybercriminals.
ESIMs aim to solve those issues. While they still require a chip inside the phone, that component is smaller than physical SIMs and can’t be removed. No more worries about dropping your eSIM and losing it in your floor crack.
The digital chips allow carriers or device makers to quickly roll out software updates if security vulnerabilities are identified, said Anthony Goonetilleke, group president of technology and head of strategy at Amdocs, an eSIM software company.
“You can suddenly send out a security update to millions of people globally if an issue is found,” Mr. Goonetilleke said. “You can’t do that with physical SIMs.”
Another plus: Activating service over the air makes it easier for customers to switch wireless providers. That’s a big reason why U.S. carriers were hesitant to adopt eSIMs, said Bernd Mueller, head of technology, solutions and strategy at the SIM-card production company Giesecke+Devrient.
Picking up speed
You may already have an eSIM-compatible phone and not realize it. Google’s smartphones have had eSIM capabilities since 2017’s Pixel 2, and Apple added it to iPhones starting with 2018’s iPhone XS. Roughly 40% of all phones Verizon carries this year have eSIM capabilities.
Because last year’s third-generation iPhone SE didn’t come with a physical SIM included, Verizon started training staff to onboard more eSIM customers, said Brian Higgins, Verizon senior vice president of device and consumer product marketing. Those customers can set up service through Verizon’s app, rather than getting a SIM in the mail or in a store.
AT&T added an activation guide on its website and will let customers scan a QR code to set up an eSIM on their device. During the setup process on T-Mobile’s network, the carrier prompts customers with compatible phones to activate their eSIM over Wi-Fi.
If you prefer to frequently switch between different phones, it may be simpler to pop your SIM card in and out of devices than to transfer your eSIM back and forth. And if you transfer your cellular plan from a physical SIM to an eSIM, your older card can be permanently disabled.
Physical SIMs won’t disappear immediately, but once Apple stops supporting them in its new iPhones, the writing is on the wall. Wall Street Journal