What Is an eSIM? How Does It Work and How To Get One

Jarrod Suda


Byron Mühlberg


Dec 8, 2023
Advertiser disclosure

The eSIM card is a rapidly growing technology that connects you to a wireless network to make phone calls, send texts, and access data (like a physical SIM card). But how are eSIMs different?

In this guide, we will explain what exactly are eSIMs, the difference between eSIMs and physical SIMs, and how to set up an eSIM on your phone.

Find the Best eSIMs For Your Next Trip Abroad

What Is an eSIM?

First things first. What are eSIMs? An eSIM is just like the small plastic card that slots into your smartphone so that you can connect to a local telephone network. The big difference is that eSIMs are completely digital.

This means that the next time you travel abroad, you won't need to trudge on over to a SIM card shop anymore to buy a physical SIM card. No more opening up the side of your phone, inserting the temporary travel SIM, and storing your main SIM card in your luggage somewhere.

With an eSIM, you'll be able to buy a data plan from a provider straight from their website or app. You'll install the data plan digitally on your device. Once you touch down from your flight, you'll instantly connect to the local mobile network!

What's the Difference Between eSIMs and Physical SIMs?

eSIMs are the easiest options for storing multiple networks on one device. Plus, you can buy and install eSIMs digitally.

Though, physical SIMs do offer one main functional advantage. They are convenient if you want to simply use your old SIM card in a new phone.

Here are a few more of the biggest differences:

Pros and Cons of eSIMs 🌐

Here's our overview of the pros and cons of eSIM cards:

🟢 eSIMs Pros
  • Remote: No need to insert a physical SIM into your phone.
  • Multi-eSIM: Some devices support multiple eSIMs.
  • Travel Convenience: Buy online and access local networks.
  • Secure: Embedded into your device, eSIMs can't get lost.
  • Space Efficiency: eSIMs often enable well designed phones.
❌ eSIMs Cons
  • Limited Compatibility: Not all devices support eSIM yet.
  • Lack of Tangibility: Transferring a physical SIM card to another phone is more straightforward.

Pros and Cons of Physical SIMs ▪️📲

Here's our overview of the pros and cons of physical SIM cards:

🟢 Physical SIM Pros
  • Easy Transfer: Transferring to a new phone just requires physically moving the SIM.
  • Universal Compatibility: Almost all smartphones are compatible with physical SIMs.
  • Wide Availability: All major carriers issue physical SIMs, giving you lots of options.
❌ Physical SIM Cons
  • Lack of Multi-SIM Access: Most phones only support one SIM.
  • Difficult to Replace: Physical SIMs can get lost, making phone number recovery difficult.
  • Not Travel Friendly: It's a pain to compare and shop for prepaid SIMs overseas.

Why You Should Use eSIMs

eSIMs have some clear benefits over physical SIM cards when it comes to remote activation and the ability to instantly switch between network providers. And in the realm of international travel, we think eSIMs are clearly your best option for connecting to a local mobile service provider at your destination:

  1. Simplicity of Travel: No need to carry physical SIM cards when moving across regions.
  2. Tailored Plans: Easily customize plans based on region, duration, and data requirements.
  3. Cost-Effective Roaming: Save on international roaming costs by avoiding your home provider's plans.
  4. Instant Local Connectivity: Immediately connect to local networks upon arrival for a hassle-free experience.

How Do I Get an eSIM Set Up on My Phone?

  • Step 01

    Make Sure You Have an eSIM-Compatible Phone

    Your smartphone will only be able to download eSIM plans virtually if it has an eSIM hardwired into its technology. Many new devices after 2018 are eSIM compatible, but here's a brief list of eSIM-friendly devices made by the most popular brands:

    • Apple iPhone: XS, XS Max, XR, or later.
    • Samsung Galaxy: A54 5G, Fold, Note20, S20, S21+, S22, S23, Z Flip, Tab S9, Book 2, or later.
    • Huawei: P40, P40 Pro, Mate 40 Pro (The P40 Pro+ and P50 Pro are not compatible with eSIM).
    • Google Pixel: 2 XL, 3 XL, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, Fold, or later.

    Read our full list of eSIM compatible devices.

  • Step 02

    Find the Right eSIM Data Plan For You

    eSIM companies like Airalo and Nomad specialize in eSIMs for international tourists, and offer competitive data plans that'll connect you to the local network of your travel destination:

    • Region: First, choose your destination of travel. Some plans even cover multiple countries, like countries in the EU region.
    • Duration: You can find plans that best fit your travel schedule, whether its a 1-week getaway or a 3-month excursion.
    • Size: The average data used by smartphone owners is about 15 GBs per month, but you can find plans that fit your habits.
  • Step 03

    Connect Your Device to Strong Wi-Fi

    When you're ready to buy your eSIM plan, make sure your smartphone is connected to strong Wi-Fi (or data). It may take a few minutes for your phone to download the eSIM data package.

    You can do this at the airport abroad if free Wi-Fi is available, but we recommend doing this in advance when you're still at home.

  • Step 04

    Install Your New eSIM to Your Device

    Once you buy your plan, your eSIM provider will walk you through the installation process. There are two common methods:

    1. Install in-app: This is the easier method. If you buy your eSIM plan within the provider's app (such as the Airalo app), then you'll be able to follow the on-screen instructions to seamlessly install your eSIM plan.
    2. Scan a QR code: If you don't use the provider's app, then your provider will send you a QR code and a confirmation code by email. Upon scanning the QR code with your phone, follow the on-screen instructions to add the eSIM plan. Enter the confirmation code, if prompted, to install the eSIM.
  • Final step

    Activate the eSIM and Connect to the Local Network!

    In almost all cases, your eSIM data will never activate until you're located in your travel destination and the eSIM establishes a connection with the local telecommunications network.

    (A few plans may "start the clock" upon installation. In these cases, it's best to install them just before you travel.)

recommendation icon

Exclusive Airalo discount codes for Monito readers! New customers enjoy 15% off Airalo eSIMs with code MONITO15. Existing customers can use code MONITO10 for 10% off.

These offers are valid until December 31st, 2024. Click here to read the full Terms & Conditions.

FAQ About Travel eSIM Plans and Providers

Why Trust Monito?

You’re probably all too familiar with the often outrageous cost of sending money abroad. After facing this frustration themselves back in 2013, co-founders François, Laurent, and Pascal launched a real-time comparison engine to compare the best money transfer services across the globe. Today, Monito’s award-winning comparisons, reviews, and guides are trusted by around 8 million people each year and our recommendations are backed by millions of pricing data points and dozens of expert tests — all allowing you to make the savviest decisions with confidence.

Learn More About Monito
  • Monito is trusted by 15+ million users across the globe.

  • Monito's experts spend hours researching and testing services so that you don't have to.

  • Our recommendations are always unbiased and independent.

Global Impact Finance Ltd
Rue du Pont 22
1003 Lausanne

Affiliate Disclosure
Instead of banner ads and paywalls, Monito makes money through affiliate links to the various payment service providers featured on our website. While we work hard to scout the market for the best deals, we're unable to consider every possible product available to you. Our extensive range of trusted affiliate partners enables us to make detailed, unbiased, and solution-driven recommendations for all types of consumer questions and problems. This allows us to match our users with the right providers to suit their needs and, in doing so, match our providers with new customers, creating a win-win for everybody involved. However, while some links on Monito may indeed earn us a commission, this fact never impacts the independence and integrity of our opinions, recommendations, and evaluations.