Something that has long been the traveler’s nemesis is the dreaded data roaming charge. We’ve all been in that agonizing situation where you have no WiFi and nowhere to buy a local physical SIM card for your phone and you end up forking out for a crazily high roaming bill at the end of the trip. In the 21st century, access to the internet when you travel should be easy, right?
Well, finally, it is. There is now a clever thing called an eSIM which magically gives you access to the internet on your phone in affordable packages. There are a few things to know about the eSIM first, like the fact that it’s not yet available for all phone models, but before long there’s no doubt we’ll all be swearing by eSIMs to keep up our communications. The best thing – they require no physical fiddling around with tiny bits of plastic in the form of the physical SIM!
What is an eSIM?
Mobile phones are always evolving and developing, and it can often feel hard to keep up with the latest technologies. Especially if you’re busy living a life on the road. But one area that’s had surprisingly little development is the all-important SIM card. These pivotal components of cellular phones haven’t changed much over the years. Until now.
New smartphones (most notably the latest Apple and Google models such as the iPhone XR, XS, XS Max and 11, the Google Pixel 3 and 4, and the Samsung Galaxy S20 and Samsung Galaxy Z Flip) are now being fitted with something called an eSIM. This basically means the phone has an embedded SIM card inside it from the start.
If you have one of these, you can download and support different SIM configurations whenever you like, access different data packages, and connect to a different service for varying lengths of time. When you get a virtual SIM card, you can also keep the same mobile phone number as you use on your service back home, which is incredibly useful.
Something that’s worth mentioning is that an eSIM can be used not just on your mobile phone but also with certain tablets and laptops.
An eSIM is kind of like Netflix or Amazon Prime. Rather than pulling together a bunch of different movies and TV series to put all the choices in one place and save you from going to the rental store, you can now pick and choose all the best data plans without having to pay for the new physical SIM card for your mobile phone each time you want to use one.
How they are useful for travelers
There’s nothing worse than trying to keep track of a bunch of minuscule physical SIM cards – one for each country you visit. These cards are easily lost or broken and can be a real pain, especially when you’re arriving in different countries for the first time, laden with a bunch of heavy bags and running on little sleep.
Not to mention all the stress that you’ll avoid in the airport trying to hunt down somewhere to purchase a travel SIM (and fumbling with difficult foreign vocab) as soon as you arrive in your destination country.
The idea of being able to buy data packages from your phone just like you would at home certainly has a lot of appeal. The idea is that you can keep a collection of different SIM cards on your device, and flick between them easily whenever you want. As soon as the seatbelt light goes off and you’ve switched off Airplane Mode – the internet is your oyster.
As they are virtual SIMs only, you don’t need to do anything to your physical SIM card slot, and so you can keep your home SIM card in there for when you get back, making the transition between countries and each different data service really smooth.
Which kind of travelers they are useful for
It’s hard to imagine anyone that wouldn’t benefit from eSIMs as there’s no doubt they’ll save a lot of time and effort. However, the people that will profit the most are travelers who are on the move a lot. If you’re planning an interrail trip, backpacking adventure, or a vacation that incorporates multiple countries, then making use of different eSIM data plans on your device is going to be invaluable.
A great feature is that by using an app called Airalo, you can store multiple eSIMs in your account and activate and deactivate each of them whenever you like, from country to country, keeping the rest of the package to use when you next need it. Ideal for travel between countries, and keeping an air of spontaneity that is so easily lost when you have to fine-comb your travel plans in advance!
What is Airalo?
As mentioned already, Airalo is a great new resource for using an eSIM. To put it plainly, Airalo is the first-ever eSIM store where you can buy temporary smartphone data plans according to what country you’re in, how much data you think you’ll need, and how much time you’re there for.
As well as having a website, Airalo takes the form of a mobile phone app, that you can use just like any other app on your device. You can use Airalo with any eSIM compatible smartphone, tablet or computer (see the complete list at the bottom of this post).
Airalo is clever because it uses all the best local service rates from countries around the world so there aren’t any hidden charges or nasty data roaming bills. It works in over 100 countries and the process is really simple.
What the store offers
When you make an account with Airalo you can then sift through their different eSIM options depending on where you are in the world, on either the app or through their website. You then purchase a data plan. To give you an idea, this might be, say, a 1GB plan that lasts for 7 days for $5, or a 30-day 10GB plan that costs $37. It completely varies and there are loads of choices to use on your phone.
You can then purchase any number of eSIM data plans depending on your device and manufacturer. You can only have one SIM activated at a time on each phone or device, but it’s really easy to switch between each eSIM on your mobile or cellular data settings and it makes life much smoother when you travel from country to country.
Another nice feature to use is Airalo’s rewards scheme, with their custom currency called ‘Airmoney’. This means that every time you get a different eSIM plan for your phone or top up an existing eSIM, or basically do anything via the app, you build up credit that you can then spend next time you buy a cellular eSIM.
How it all works
So when you know you’re going to a foreign country and are going to be needing a local SIM, you go on the Airalo app and purchase a data plan that suits you. If you’re going to a few different countries in a row, you could even go ahead and get plans for each of the countries, so they’re ready to activate as soon as you arrive. You pay for the plan using either PayPal, credit card or the in-app currency, Airmoney.
Once you have purchased an eSIM plan, you then need to download it to your phone. This can only be done through an active internet connection so it’s a good idea to do this before you arrive in your destination.
To do this, you’ll be sent confirmation details and this will include a QR code to scan, to start your data plan. If you are doing all of this on the device you want to use the eSIM on however, you can’t scan the QR code. In this case, you can just follow the manual instructions in the confirmation email to activate your international cellular eSIM and use data abroad. This normally just entails entering a confirmation code into your device.
You can label the various eSIMs you have downloaded to your phone so you can tell at a glance which country they’re for.
When it’s downloaded to your phone, the next step is to activate the cellular plan, which is dead-easy and takes very little time compared to seeking out a kiosk to buy a physical SIM card for your device. This is done by just heading to Settings > Mobile Data > choose eSIM > Turn On This Line.
Why haven’t I heard of it?
As with all new technologies, these things take time to be adopted by everyone. The biggest problem with eSIMs is that not many people understand them, or realize international virtual SIM cards are an option at all.
According to Bahadir Ozdemir, Arialo’s founder, there are over 60 millions devices that could support eSIMs but most people don’t make use of the feature as they don’t realize their mobile phone, tablet or PC is compatible, or simply don’t know how to get hold of an eSIM. It’s not going to be long before this is the go-to means for buying SIM cards abroad.
However, it’s still a work in progress and not yet available for everyone. The devices that support eSIMs are mostly Apple and Google products but there are a few more companies getting on board too. You can find the complete list here