Those little chip-size SIM cards that plug into our smartphones are on their way out. Apple says so, and there’s a good chance Apple is right.
This week, Apple said its new iPhone 14 devices will no longer use physical SIM cards to activate cellular voice and data service. Instead, users will turn to eSIM, a technology that stores the data on a chip built permanently into the phone. Owners of the new iPhone won’t have to shove a pin into a little tray to insert a SIM card. Instead, they’ll activate their phone simply by downloading a bit of software.
It’s partly a replay of Apple’s decision to do away with headphone jacks. Eliminating the physical SIM card makes room for more sophisticated electronics and more cool new features. And since eSIM technology was developed about six years ago, it’s high time the hardware version went away.
Already, a lot of phones are eSIM-compatible, including some late-model iPhones and Samsungs, and many Google Pixel phones. These devices all include a physical card tray as well, for compatibility with wireless carriers that don’t yet support eSIMs. But quietly — very quietly — the nation’s Big 3 wireless companies have introduced eSIM support. Until recently they haven’t wanted to talk about it, because eSIM makes it easy for their customers to defect to other carriers.
A disgruntled Verizon user won’t have to drive to the nearest AT&T store to make the change, because she won’t need to pick up a new SIM card. Instead, she can go to the AT&T website and place an order to switch to the new carrier. All the necessary data is installed on the phone’s eSIM chip, and she keeps the same number. The whole process takes a minute or two.
But eSIMs aren’t just for switching. For instance, it lets one phone connect to two separate accounts — one for business, one for family. The two accounts can even be running on different wireless carriers; with eSIM, the phone doesn’t care.
Alas, the big carriers still do. Buy the new iPhone from one of them, and they’ll lock it to their networks. So if you go with, say, Verizon, you can only install Verizon eSIMs.
But the problem goes away if you purchase the phone unlocked, or if your carrier agrees to unlock it for you. That usually happens once you’ve finished paying for the phone, but Verizon automatically unlocks new phones 60 days after activation.
Want to give eSIM a try? If you’ve already got an unlocked eSIM-compatible phone, T-Mobile will give you a taste of the technology. It’s offering an eSIM-based “test drive” of its wireless data network. The company is offering 90 days of unlimited data-only service free of charge. And it won’t interfere with your existing wireless voice service. Just download the T-Mobile smartphone app to set it up.