The term eSIM stands for embedded SIM card. The biggest difference between an eSIM and a traditional physical SIM is that, unlike a traditional SIM card, the eSIM is fixed onto the phone’s (or other device’s) motherboard.
You don’t need to insert it, and you can’t remove it. But that doesn’t mean you can’t switch numbers or change carriers since the information on the eSIM is rewritable.
In fact, switching or setting it up might even be easier. You don’t have to wait for a new SIM to be delivered to your house or mess around with a SIM ejector tool; it could all happen instantly with just a quick phone call.
eSIM cards use the same tech and run on the same GSM networks that normal SIM cards use.
Can I use an eSIM?
To use an eSIM, you’ll need to be with a carrier that offers it and have a phone that supports it. Locally, only two carriers support eSIM, Faiba 4G introduced the service back in January 2021 while Safaricom did so in June 2021. The other two major players, Airtel and Telkom are yet to offer this service.
eSIM cards are currently used to bring dual SIM capability to smartphones, including the iPhone 12 and iPhone 13 range, the Pixel 6, the Samsung Galaxy S22 range, and smaller devices like the Apple Watch.
At the moment, most of these phones offer dual-SIM support. They have a physical SIM slot and you can use an eSIM as well. In time, all phones and tablets will likely switch to using eSIM exclusively as seen with the iPhone 14 Pro lineup recently announced. Its much smaller size means that it could also become a common feature in Internet-of-Things devices, although there’s an even newer and vastly smaller tech called iSIM just around the corner.
How to set up an eSIM card
You connect most phones to a network by inserting the SIM card into the tray. But if it doesn’t use cards, how do you connect an eSIM phone?
The set up process mainly depends on what device you’re using and whether the carrier has eSIM support for it.
For Faiba users:
- Visit any Faiba shop and either buy the eSIM profile from them, or have them swap your current physical SIM card for an eSIM, to get the profile. (New customers pay KES. 300, while existing customers pay KES. 150 for the eSIM).
- Scan the QR code on the profile you get from the shop to activate the eSIM on your device so that it recognises the Faiba 4G network.
For Safaricom users:
- Visit a Safaricom Shop with a supported device
- Scan the eSIM QR Code you’ll be given by Safaricom with your supported device
- Your device will download and install the Profile Settings and set up the Safaricom Network on your eSIM
- At the Safaricom shop, you will pay KES 250 for a new eSIM line, while the operator will charge KES 150 for a swap.
On your devices follow the following steps to scan the eSIM QR code:
- iOS: Go to Settings > Cellular (or Mobile Data) > Add Cellular Plan, then scan the code when prompted.
- Android: You can set up your eSIM at Settings > Network & internet > Add. Follow the onscreen instructions and choose Use 2 Numbers when prompted. This may, of course, differ depending on which Android version and phone you own.
Your Apple Watch will come with the eSIM preconfigured when you buy it with a plan, or you can add the details through the Apple Watch app if you don’t. On a Samsung Galaxy Watch, you must complete the setup through a mobile app on your phone.
Dual-SIM devices need to support DSDS (Dual SIM, Dual Standby) to offer full functionality. This is available in iOS 13 and later, and in Android 10 and above. DSDS enables both SIMs to connect to a network at the same time. When you set it up, you’ll need to choose which line to use as your default line.
What are the benefits of eSIM?
Is eSIM better than a physical SIM? The main benefit of the eSIM is that it’s tiny. Nano SIMs might already seem pretty small, but with a surface area of 108.24mm² (0.17 square inches), they’re actually more than three times larger than an eSIM, which measures just 30mm² (0.05 square inches).
That’s before we even factor in the additional size of the SIM tray and the card reader inside the device. These are no longer needed with embedded technology.
This not only allows extra room for other components, or perhaps a larger battery, but it also enables manufacturers to rejig the internal layout of their devices. An eSIM doesn’t need to be near the edge of the phone and could make waterproofing devices even easier.
There are also benefits for us users. There are no fiddly cards to work with, and there is no need to find a paperclip if you ever need to extract the SIM tray.
And as we’ve seen, eSIMs enable devices to offer dual SIM capabilities easily. This is ideal if you want to keep separate personal and work numbers or if you’re traveling overseas. Dual-SIM phones make it much easier to hop onto a local network and avoid the expensive roaming fees you’d expect to pay on your usual plan.
What are the downsides to an eSIM?
The main downside to an eSIM is that it’s less convenient when you’re switching phones. You can’t simply remove the SIM card from one device and pop it into another.
It also makes it more difficult to test for problems with your device. At the moment, when you have connection or signal problems, an easy test is to stick your SIM into a different phone to check if the problem is with your network or your device. You can’t do that with an eSIM.
And then there’s the fact that new technologies take a while to become mainstream. eSIM support and availability are still limited, although, with support from Apple, Samsung, and Google, this is likely to change.
What devices use eSIM?
The iPhone 12 and iPhone 13 series, plus the older iPhone 11, XS, and XR devices all use an eSIM alongside a nano-SIM. The smaller iPhone SE also supports eSIM.
On the Android side:
- Google’s Pixel phones since the Pixel 2 have the same eSIM-nano-SIM setup, including the Pixel 5a 5G and Pixel 6.
- Samsung phones, including the Galaxy S20, S21, and S22 ranges, the Fold and Flip, and the Note 20 series offer eSIM support.
- Huawei’s P40 and P40 Pro support eSIM.
- Microsoft’s Surface Duo has eSIM support.
- The Moto Razr 2019 also offers eSIM support.
More Android phones are adopting the new technology all the time, so there’s a good chance your next upgrade will have it.
As for other devices, the cellular versions of the Apple Watch, Samsung Galaxy Watch, and Huawei Watch are among those that use eSIM. There’s eSIM support in Windows 10 and Windows 11 as well, so always-connected laptops may well become a more common sight in the future.
Do more with your eSIM card
The eSIM is very much the future for smartphones and smart devices. Even if you don’t have it now, it’s likely that your next phone, or certainly the one afte will make use of it.
However, there’s no immediate rush to change. While your phone still offers a physical SIM slot you can continue using that for as long as you want. The underlying technology is the same, so there’s no difference in performance or overall experience.