The SIM slot is fading away, and eSIM is on the rise - that is foreseeable. Some people are afraid of this transition. However, there is no need to worry. We will list the arguments for and against eSIM.
iPhone boosts the breakthrough of eSIM
Apple's iPhone 13 series, unveiled in late summer 2022, didn't bring too many innovations. However, one change made a big impact: At least the American models of the new Apple smartphone were delivered without support for traditional SIM cards. Instead, buyers now have to activate an eSIM to register the phone on the mobile network.
It appears that European buyers of the iPhone 2023 generation will also face this situation - that's what the rumor mill says. And if history has taught us anything, it's that negative trends set by Apple quickly rub off on Samsung and other manufacturers. Keywords: Notch, removal of the headphone jack, no charger included in the box.
No wonder some smartphone fans are apprehensive. But is this justified when it comes to eSIM? Or, to put it differently: Is this trend so bad for us consumers? I say: No. Or at least: mostly no. Here are the arguments in favor of eSIM. But the arguments against it should also be mentioned.
How Does eSIM Work?
eSIM stands for embedded SIM, which means it is a programmable SIM card embedded within the device. Operating a device with eSIM does not mean not using a SIM card at all. In an eSIM-enabled smartphone (or even smartwatches, tablets), there is a "blank" SIM chip that is programmed with the necessary data through software. The provider delivers this data via download.
To activate an eSIM on a smartphone, instead of inserting a physical SIM card, you would enter a code, install the eSIM through an app, or scan a QR code, for example. The physical process of removing the SIM tray and inserting the SIM chip is eliminated.
Pros of eSIM: What Speaks in Favor?
There are several compelling reasons why the growing prevalence of eSIM is a progress.
eSIM is not uncharted territory
Although many customers have not yet encountered it, eSIM is not a new technology. The specification and initial devices have been available since 2015. Manufacturers have had eight years to gain experience with eSIM.
eSIMs are fast, easy, and convenient
As a customer, you no longer need to visit a provider shop or wait for the SIM card to arrive by mail. You scan a code, and ideally, you're good to go right away. In some cases, such as with cellular iPads, you can even subscribe to a plan directly through the system software. In the event of device malfunction, loss, or theft, you can not only block the old SIM but also receive a new one for your (hopefully eSIM-capable) replacement device. Additionally, the confusion around various SIM card formats becomes a thing of the past.
New Device Types
eSIMs are small, with the chip inside the device being approximately half the size (6 × 5 × 0.67 mm) of a conventional nano-SIM (12.3 × 8.8 × 0.67 mm, source). This makes the technology suitable not only for smartphones, tablets, laptops, and smartwatches but also for devices in the IoT sector and smart home products. eHealth devices like blood glucose monitoring systems and pacemakers have already been equipped with eSIMs, and they are also used in logistics and modern vehicles. eSIM is a technology that enables new types of devices, and we will likely see many more of them in the future.
While on vacation abroad, quickly getting a local plan, subscribing to an additional data plan, obtaining a new connection when you have limited reception with your own network in rural areas, or booking a work connection on your personal phone - all of this is much faster and more convenient with eSIM.
Even though only two eSIM profiles can be active at the same time, Apple, for example, claims that the iPhone can store "8 or more" eSIM profiles. For those who deal with multiple tariffs and phone numbers, simply activate the profiles that are currently needed and deactivate the ones that are unnecessary.
eSIMs are more sustainable, and this applies on multiple levels. Firstly, the production of regular SIM cards is resource-intensive. In addition to plastic, valuable materials such as silicon, phosphorus, and nickel are used. Although some of these materials are still required for the eSIM chip, the overall resource balance for eSIMs is likely to be significantly better.
Some may argue that these materials account for only a small fraction compared to the smartphone as a whole. However, approximately 4.5 billion SIM cards are produced worldwide each year (source), of which only a small portion is likely to be recycled after use. SIM cards weigh around 3 grams, so it amounts to approximately 13.5 million tons per year that need to be produced and transported globally. It's an enormous quantity. If we could save even a portion of these materials and the associated CO2 emissions, it would be more than just a drop in the bucket. The fewer resources we need for our smartphone enjoyment, the better.
Advantages in smartphone manufacturing
Another factor not to be overlooked is that smartphones with eSIMs only have physical advantages over devices with SIM trays. They have one less moving part and opening through which dirt or water can enter the device. This means fewer defective smartphones and, on average, an increased lifespan for smartphones - which is beneficial for us as consumers.
Likewise, smartphone manufacturers can utilize the space in the device more effectively in the future: for increased battery capacity, better speakers, or smaller form factors, for example. And, of course, the manufacturing cost will eventually decrease. Whether this cost advantage will be passed on to customers remains uncertain. Nevertheless, the elimination of the SIM tray is relatively easier to accept compared to the trend of removing the headphone jack.
eSIMs are less prone to damage
An informal survey conducted in the editorial department revealed that approximately half of the respondents have experienced a damaged SIM card in their devices. This resulted in little or no network coverage, call drops, and similar issues. Identifying the problem is often more difficult than one might think. In such cases, some individuals may have even mistakenly assumed that their device was faulty and unnecessarily disposed of their smartphone. The less frequently such incidents occur, the better it is for the environment and our wallets.
Cons of eSIM: What are the drawbacks?
Of course, eSIMs still have their disadvantages, which we shouldn't ignore.
eSIM is still relatively new
The psychological aspect should not be underestimated: Many customers have had no prior experience with eSIMs. Most of us tend to be skeptical of new technologies initially. This is human nature and, in principle, a good thing, but it also means that meaningful innovations initially face resistance. Customers need to be won over to changed processes. This means advertising, highlighting the benefits, and meticulously documenting how it works. It requires effort, and yet not everyone will be convinced right away. It takes persistence to ensure that eSIMs are perceived as a useful feature rather than as a constraint on customers.
Inconsistent eSIM support
Major German providers such as Vodafone, O2 Telefónica, and Deutsche Telekom have been offering eSIMs for years, and MVNOs like fraenk and freenet have also joined the trend. However, many providers currently do not offer eSIMs, especially for prepaid plans. Others charge exorbitant fees compared to traditional plastic SIM cards or only provide eSIMs as secondary cards if you already have a regular SIM card.
I expect that after the launch of eSIM-only iPhones, market pressure will compel a majority of providers to offer eSIMs in the near future.
Not every eSIM works with every eSIM-enabled device. For example, fraenk initially only allowed its eSIMs for Samsung and Apple devices but blocked the setup for Pixel smartphones. Booking an eSIM for a smartwatch is also not possible (Source: Teltarif). Pixel devices are now reportedly compatible, but they are still missing from the list of devices supported by fraenk eSIMs. Other providers have similar issues. Having to study compatibility lists is frustrating and not customer-friendly. Providers urgently need to address this problem.
Booking eSIMs can still be (partially) complicated
Here's an anecdotal story: In the past few months, I had to register an eSIM for secondary devices twice. In both cases, it wasn't quite easy with my provider, o2.
The first problem: In my o2 account, three different SIM cards are registered. When attempting to set up the eSIM through the mein-o2 app, the provider stubbornly wanted to register it under the wrong number, regardless of which main SIM I selected. Thankfully, it worked on the website. The second problem: It took around 12 hours each time for the devices set up with the eSIM to connect to the network, and a restart was required. The necessity of this waiting time was not communicated very transparently, and I was uncertain if it would even work.
Furthermore, setting up an eSIM usually requires an internet connection. In other words, you need (fixed) internet to connect your phone to the (mobile) internet. This complicates the setup process when no Wi-Fi is available and can create a "chicken and egg" problem in certain situations.
To convince customers of this new technology, it is essential to make the process of registering and installing an eSIM as fast, easy, and transparent as possible. In this regard, o2, it must be said, still needs to improve and eliminate teething problems. Other providers are also advised to assess the usability of their processes.
Hesitant eSIM Transfer
With the traditional SIM card, you take it out of the old device, insert it into the new one, and you're good to go. It can't get any simpler than that.
Unfortunately, it's not necessarily the case with eSIMs. While you can easily transfer an eSIM from one device to another, such as from an iPhone, two things need to be in place: Firstly, both devices and the provider must support the transfer of eSIM profiles. Secondly, the old device must still be functional. If these conditions are not met or if you're simply switching from an existing contract with a physical SIM to a device that only supports eSIM, you'll need to request a new eSIM. Although this effort is reasonable, the old way was still easier.
Once again, it's typical: Just as eSIM starts to establish itself, competing formats are already on the horizon, such as Qualcomm and Vodafone's iSIM and Telekom's nuSIM. Although both formats are primarily intended for IoT devices, they essentially cover similar functionalities as eSIM. The unique aspect is that they don't require a separate chip; the corresponding technology is directly integrated into the mobile modem.
Technological advancements are beneficial, but they can be confusing and create uncertainty for consumers. Just as I got used to one thing, why is something else already emerging? It remains to be seen whether a new standard can prevail in the medium term.
The eSIM is Software
Of course, the boundaries are not set in stone, but in general, it can be said that the eSIM is software-based, while the traditional SIM is hardware-based. This also means that cybercriminals could potentially find new ways to attack this system, such as extracting customer data or impersonating identities.
However, this is primarily a theoretical risk. The eSIM specification includes cryptographic procedures designed to prevent such attack scenarios. Furthermore, an IT expert from the network operator Vodafone argues that stealing an eSIM is actually more challenging than stealing a traditional SIM card.
Conclusion: eSIM is Coming, but No Need to Fear
The pragmatist in me says: Essentially, debating about eSIM is pointless because it will become the standard in one to two years regardless. It's best to start getting used to it now.
The idealist says: The fear that the smartphone industry is once again establishing new standards disregarding the needs of customers is, for once, unfounded in this case. Despite its initial hiccups and legitimate criticisms, the eSIM is a meaningful standard. It offers flexibility and addresses problems that have persisted for decades, making smartphones and other devices a bit more sustainable. So, let's embrace the new with courage!