eSIM vs. Physical SIM: What’s the Difference?

eSIM vs. Physical SIM

eSIM vs. Physical SIM: What’s the Difference?

Key Points

  • eSIMs are programmable computer chips embedded in cell phones, eliminating the need to swap physical SIM cards.
  • Switching carriers is easier with an eSIM, but locked phones may require a fee to switch providers.
  • The practical application of eSIM vs. physical SIM depends on factors such as international travel and the need for multiple phone numbers.

Are you gearing up for your next cell phone purchase? The time has arrived for us to delve into the topic of eSIM vs. physical SIM cards. Cell phone carriers aren’t pushing the eSIM concept too hard, but the release of Apple’s iPhone 14 has woken us all up.

We’re on the cusp of the elimination of the physical SIM card if other cell phone manufacturing companies follow Apple’s lead. The physical SIM card, and its SIM card tray, are noticeably missing from Apple’s latest flagship cell phone models.

We love technology as much as the next person, but is switching from the physical SIM card to an eSIM the best move for us as consumers, or is it just the best move for cell phone manufacturing companies?

Let’s look at the eSIM vs. physical SIM debate and determine which SIM configuration is best for you. Choosing between a phone with an eSIM or physical SIM may be a critical feature to consider when it’s time to purchase your next cell phone, or it might be nothing at all.

It’s time to jump into the subject of eSIM vs. physical SIM and determine where you land in the debate.

eSIM vs. Physical SIM: Side-by-Side Comparison

eSIMPhysical SIM
MountingSurface mounted to cell phone motherboardPhysical cards are inserted and removed from the cell phone via a SIM tray
TypeMFF2 form factorMini, Micro, or Nano SIMs
ConnectionConnect up to five different carriersConnect to different carriers when you change your SIM card
ConceivedMultiple profiles One profile per SIM card
Cell Phone version compatibilityApple XS models forward and carrier dependentAndroid models: Open Source operating systems; your best bet is to check with your cell phone plan carrier

Physical SIM vs. eSIM: What’s the Difference?

Choosing between an eSIM and a physical SIM sounds complicated, but it’s relatively easy. Let’s examine the differences between the two types of SIM connectivity.

What’s a Physical SIM?

A subscriber identity module (SIM) is a computer chip that contains unique information that identifies your cell phone on mobile phone networks. The computer chip is portable, and you’ll take it with you from cell phone to cell phone.

On a recent trip to South East Asia, we swapped SIM cards in each country we traveled in. It’s quite simple. An enormous advantage of physical SIM cards is the ease of exchanging them for a local SIM card when traveling internationally.

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While using your US-based cell phone carrier plan may cost you $10-15 a day for international connectivity with limited data download (Hey, we still need to stream our favorite shows! Let’s not be uncivilized!), a local carrier plan may only cost you $10-15 a month for unlimited connectivity.

We found that international airports offered eSIMs, but local vendors (7-11, Circle K, Family Mart) didn’t necessarily have an eSIM option.

What’s an eSIM?

An eSIM is an electronic subscriber identity module. An eSIM has the same functionality as a traditional SIM card. When you use an eSIM, there’s no SIM tray to open, no SIM card to exchange, and no chance of losing the SIM card. In theory, eSIM is far simpler than physical SIM cards.

The eSIM is a programmable computer chip embedded or mounted into the cell phone’s internal hardware. It works the same way as a physical SIM card, but there’s no need to change SIM cards to switch to a different carrier.

Knowing that you don’t need to swap a physical SIM card is a major advantage of eSIMs. While it’s easy to change physical SIM cards, it’s also easy to drop (and lose!) a physical SIM card.

Can I Switch Carriers Easier with an eSIM? 

The Federal Communication Commission certainly thinks so! The FCC likes the ability for consumers to be able to switch cell phone carriers from the comfort of their homes without having to visit a sticks-and-bricks store.

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While switching carriers is quite easy with an eSIM, don’t forget to factor in the little bit of technology concerning “locked” phones. Cell phone carriers (AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, etc.) will practically give you a cell phone, but the cell phone is “locked” to that specific provider.

You can’t decide to switch (for free) to a different provider. eSIM or no eSIM, you’ll need to cough up some cash to switch carriers.

Please Note: As of July 19, 2023, the OneSimCard Travel eSIM card is currently unavailable on Amazon. If you are unable to locate this product elsewhere, please check back later.

eSIM vs. Physical SIM: 11 Must-Know Facts

  • Cell phone companies are transitioning away from physical SIM cards and enabling eSIM connectivity.
  • Cell phones older than five years most likely don’t have eSIM capability. You can check with your cell phone carrier to determine if your cell phone is capable.
  • Apple’s iPhone 14 eliminated physical SIM cards. You’ll no longer be able to use a physical SIM card, and it’s all eSIM cards moving forward with iPhones. Knowing that other cell phone manufacturing companies follow Apple’s lead, it seems likely that the physical SIM card is going the way of public telephone booths.

Are You Accident-Prone?

  • Losing your physical SIM card means that your SIM card can be removed from your cell phone and used to access your sensitive data (banking, social media, etc.).
  • Losing your cell phone with an eSIM isn’t quite the nightmare that losing a cell phone with a physical SIM card may be. eSIM cards store your data in the cloud, so if you lose your phone, your cell phone carrier can turn off the eSIM.
  • If you break your eSIM cell phone, you’ll be talking with a representative from your cell phone carrier. You’ll need their assistance to move your eSIM to a new cell phone.
  • If you break your SIM cell phone, you can “pop out” your SIM card and install it into a new cell phone. There’s no need to deal with the cell phone carrier unless you don’t own the phone.

Big Brother Is Watching!

  • eSIM companies may track your online activity and sell it. Buyer beware! You’ll need to opt out of any tracking when you enable the new eSIM card.
  • Profit margins are razor-thin for eSIM companies, so you’d be wise to deactivate tracking data from Facebook, Insta, and other social media accounts.

Select Your Plan!

  • eSIMs allow you to select international cell phone plans before you leave the comfort of your home. Choose a carrier plan before you leave home and activate the eSIM plan when you arrive in a foreign country. You’ll have the flexibility of shopping without the stress of competing with cell phone employees trying to pull you to their airport booth! No need to show a passport or wait in a long queue at the airport.
  • Unlocked eSIM cell phones give you the flexibility to switch cell phone carriers at the drop of a pin. Locked eSIM cell phones don’t have the same flexibility due to cell phone company restrictions, but that’s about locked phones, not eSIM technology.

eSIM vs. Physical SIM: Which One Is Better? Which One Should You Use?

Viva revolution! The revolution is underway! Just kidding, the evolution from SIM cards to eSIM has been occurring for the past four or five years.

Understanding that we’re in the midst of a technology shift from physical SIMs to eSIMs, we believe that the eSIM is the best choice for the long haul. If other cell phone manufacturing companies follow Apple’s iPhone 14 lead, the physical SIM card is on its way out the door.

Determining which one you should use, a physical SIM card versus an eSIM, may be a matter of practical application. As frequent international travelers, we care (a lot!) about the ease of switching cell phone carriers.

We have an unlocked cell phone that we paid full price for when we purchased it. Our Carrier Lock equals “No SIM Restrictions.” Flexibility is key, and we might use five or six different carriers in twelve months.

If you have a locked cell phone (the cell phone company subsidized its purchase price when you switched cell phones), you may not be able to switch carriers without paying a stiff penalty, so the reality is that you’re not going to switch carriers.

If that’s the case, who cares about an eSIM vs. a physical SIM? You may be able to add another “compatible” eSIM card. For example, if you’re locked into T-Mobile, you can add another T-Mobile eSIM line, but not an AT&T eSIM.

The eSIM vs. physical SIM discussion has minimal practical application for non-international travelers with a single primary phone number. If you wish to have multiple phone numbers, an eSIM will enable you to do so without switching a physical SIM card. If you lose your cell phone, an eSIM provides you with the ability to protect your personal data from being hacked.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Is an eSIM better than a physical SIM?

The removal of the physical SIM card provides cell phone manufacturing companies with more physical space inside the cell phone. The additional space can be used for bigger batteries or other additional components.

What are the disadvantages of eSIM?

If you break your phone, you’ll need to work with the cell phone carrier to port your eSIM to a new cell phone. The cost to purchase a phone with eSIM capabilities is higher than the cost of phones with a physical SIM card.

Should I use eSIM or physical SIM on iPhone?

The eSIM provides another layer of protection if you lose your phone while traveling internationally.

Why is eSIM not popular?

Some carriers charge an extra amount to switch from a physical SIM card to an eSIM. Less expensive cell phones may not have eSIM compatibility, so users would need to cough up extra cash for a higher-end flagship cell phone model to enjoy eSIM capability.

Why is eSIM so difficult?

A physical SIM card requires that you physically swap the card. The cell phone will do the rest automatically. eSIM cell phones don’t have a physical card, so you’ll be going into your General/Setting to modify the eSIM configuration each time you change carriers. (If you’re the primary “tech support” for aging parents, as we are, this sounds downright nightmarish.)

Can I use multiple eSIM at the same time?

Beginning with the iPhone Apple 13, Apple cell phones allow for the use of two eSIMs simultaneously. You can configure your cell phone to ring when a call is received from either eSIM (a phone number).

You can answer calls from a specific number as well. Older phones (pre-iPhone Apple 13) would require the user to switch the eSIM configuration before using that number.

Does physical SIM stop working after eSIM?

Nope, the physical SIM will continue to work (if it’s a different phone or data cell phone package) even after the eSIM is activated. You’ll need to switch between the two devices in your cell phone configuration.

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