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Using eSIM for International Travel: A Guide

The eSIM: A Boon for Travelers and the Future of SIM Cards

As vacation season approaches, it’s time to familiarize yourself with a smartphone feature that many of us have ignored for years: the eSIM. The digital version of the SIM card that carries your phone number is set to become prevalent and offers affordable cellular data abroad.

Apple eliminated the SIM card tray from the iPhone 14 last year to free up space, and other handset makers like Samsung and Google are expected to follow suit. The eSIM is a digitized SIM card embedded into the phone’s computer chip that you can activate with any cellular network’s service plan.

The Federal Communications Commission favors eSIM technology because it makes it easier for people to switch to a different carrier by using software instead of going to a store for a physical SIM card. The technology also has security benefits: If your phone is stolen, thieves can’t remove an eSIM to hijack your phone number and commit identity theft, as they could with a physical SIM card.

Most important, the experience of using eSIM data plans for travel has greatly improved. About five years ago, eSIM data plans for international roaming were overpriced, and cell service was sometimes unreliable. But in the last year, eSIM services have become cost-effective and zippy.

Activating a data plan on a foreign network with an eSIM is not as straightforward as sticking a different SIM card into your phone. The process is especially challenging for those who are less familiar with technology, putting the onus on more tech-savvy companions to help them make the switch.

The main reason to use eSIM services for travel is to save money. The big U.S. carriers, like AT&T and Verizon, offer international roaming options, including $10 day passes for using your phone in foreign countries. In contrast, an eSIM data package that can be used for the entirety of your trip costs a few dollars.

Choosing an eSIM service provider can be tricky because there are many unfamiliar brands like Airalo, GigSky, and Flexiroam. Apple provides a list of eSIM service providers on its website.

After you buy a plan, the eSIM service provider sends you a list of instructions. The Nomad app showed a list of steps. In the iPhone’s settings app, you click on the cellular menu, click “Add eSIM” and type in an activation code. As you cross the border into another country, you go back into the cellular settings, select the eSIM phone line and toggle on the option for “Turn on this line.”

Less tech-inclined folks are probably not going to know how to use eSIM services. Many eSIM service providers offer apps that collect your data for tracking purposes. All the eSIM service providers researched in Apple’s App Store said in their app descriptions that they did some tracking of users across different apps and websites.

A simple workaround to data collection is to avoid logging into an app with third-party sites like Facebook and Google. Apple users can also click “Ask app not to track” when opening an eSIM app for the first time.

Overall, the pros of eSIM outweigh the cons. Traveling with a smartphone with SIM cards wasn’t relaxing because you needed to carry a pin to eject the card tray; plus you had to make sure not to lose the tiny SIM card. When returning from a trip using eSIM services, all you have to do is go back into the phone’s settings app and switch your domestic phone line back on. That simplicity and peace of mind make eSIM worth the hassle.