An eSIM, short for embedded SIM, is a virtual SIM card that is built directly into a device, such as a smartphone or tablet. Unlike traditional SIM cards that need to be physically inserted and removed, an eSIM is embedded in the device's hardware and can be activated remotely. This means that users no longer need to fumble with tiny SIM cards or worry about losing them. With an eSIM, switching between mobile network providers is as simple as a few taps on the device's settings. It offers greater flexibility and convenience, especially for frequent travellers who need to change their network provider frequently.
Additionally, eSIMs are compatible with a wide range of devices, from smartphones and tablets to smartwatches and even some laptops. As technology continues to evolve, eSIMs are expected to become more prevalent, offering users a seamless and hassle-free mobile experience. The push by Apple to make eSIM the standard has led to more digital nomads starting to use it.
However, there is still a big downside to eSIMs which I find is not talked about much, it has to do with the number portability between devices. For instance when you upgrade or when one phone is broken.
I will give some real-life examples of the benefits and drawbacks of using eSIMs as a digital nomad and what you can do to minimise the latter.
eSIMs are great for getting a temporary phone number or for data usage
Last summer I was travelling throughout the Balkans and my Italian SIM would cover data and phone access in EU countries. But as quite a few countries in the Balkans are not part of the EU, I had to find an alternative to keep data access. I used a company called Airalo which has an app that allows you to download eSIMs for data usage that can be used in over 200+ countries.
Airalo has country-specific eSIMs, regional eSIMs and global eSIMs. For North Macedonia, I purchased its 2GB 15-day data-only eSIM at a cost of $14. This may be a bit more expensive than going for a local SIM or eSIM provider but it is super convenient. The whole process took 5 minutes and I knew as soon as I drove over the border I would have continual data access. It beats going into a local mobile phone store, queueing and going through the whole registration process. Plus you might end up having to use an app that is in the local language only, to top up or activate the SIM or eSIM.
Besides Airalo there are many other providers that operate in this space, however, I found pricing and the whole app experience the best with Airalo so far.
eSIMs can not change easily between phones
Giants like Apple, Samsung and Google are pushing eSIMs to become more of a standard. Some offer hybrid phones where you have a combination of a physical SIM and an eSIM, Apple in North America has decided to go eSIM only since the iPhone 14. This has some serious drawbacks for digital nomads. I will explain with two real-life examples below.
In my infinite wisdom, I thought it would be great to use Optus eSIMs for all my online banking and government needs in Australia. Many Australian banks use two-factor mobile phone authentication to transact, especially when you want to do larger transactions. I understand that from a fraud prevention point of view, two-factor mobile phone authentication can be useful.
Then on my trip to South East Asia, my mobile phone camera stopped working and I bought a new phone. To my surprise, I found out that I could not transfer the eSIM to a new phone. The Optus website told me that I had to go into an Optus store in Australia to move my number. Not useful when you are not in the country. Luckily I still had access to my old phone, what would happen if my phone completely stopped working, I would lose access to all sorts of banking apps.
After doing some more research into this I found out that it is a common problem that moving eSIMs between phones is hard, especially when abroad. Welcome to the new iPhone upgrading cycle now that the iPhone 15 has launched and people transferring eSIMs between phones. I thought the age of the eSIMs was supposed to make life easier.
When I arrived back in Italy I found out that the eSIM I had used with Wind Tre was not active anymore as I was away for 10 months. Unfortunately, my Amazon account requires 2-factor SIM authentication and it was linked to this number. In my infinite wisdom, I also moved the Amazon app to my new phone and deleted it from my old phone as Amazon can also do 2-factor authentication via the old app. But as I had no use for Amazon in South East Asia I only became aware of it when I tried to log in again and I could not.
Needless to say, getting access to my Amazon account is another saga. After calling the call centre I was told my account was dormant and could not be reopened. 20 years of Amazon history wiped off, I do not understand how this helps Amazon.
Use physical SIMs for things like SMS 2-factor authentication and your WhatsApp number as you can transfer them more easily from your old phone to a new one. If the app that you use allows it to move away from SMS-based two-factor authentication and use something like Google Authenticator, do it. Especially now that Authenticator can be backed up to the cloud via your Google account. This allows for easier transfer between phones with the extra layer of authentication.
A broken phone abroad can turn into a nightmare when you lose access to vital services, especially when your business depends on it. eSIMs are great for getting local data access quickly and almost effortlessly, especially through companies like Airalo.