If you want to use your smartphone, you’ll need a SIM card of some kind. SIM stands for Subscriber Identification Module (SIM) and it connects your phone to a mobile network or carrier so you can use your minutes, texts, and data plan (and have a phone number). A SIM card is typically issued by a phone carrier and will only work with that carrier, though some multi-carrier SIM cards allow connectivity and usage with more than one at the same time. You can’t do any of these things without a SIM card. However, in recent years, things have become a little more complicated. Following the shrinking of the original, physical SIM card, users now have three distinct options: a SIM, an eSIM, and an iSIM. In this section, we’ll explain what each of these is and how they differ: SIM vs eSIM vs iSIM.
What is a Sim card?
A SIM card is a standard, physical card that you insert into your phone. It has shrunk over the years from Mini-SIM to Micro-SIM to Nano-SIM, which is now the industry standard for these physical chips. They normally fit into your phone in a tray that pops out the side. Aside from portability, your standard SIM card doesn’t offer many advantages. Because it’s small and easily removed, switching it between devices is simple and doesn’t necessitate contacting your carrier. The disadvantage is that they take up space inside a smartphone, SIM card tray and all. Given the amount of technology packed into modern smartphones’ sleek chassis, as well as the ever-increasing demand for larger battery capacities and camera modules, every millimeter of extra space is extremely valuable.
SIM vs eSIM: SIM cards are frequently locked to a single network and require carrier intervention to make any changes. An eSIM, on the other hand, can be used with any supported phone and can be activated and deactivated on the phone itself, usually without the involvement of a carrier.
What is an eSIM?
An eSIM is a SIM card that is embedded in the phone’s motherboard. It operates on the same networks as standard SIM cards, so there isn’t much of a difference in how they work aside from the initial setup and transfer of your number and plan. One of the main benefits of eSIM over an original SIM card is the reduction in size. While the Nano-SIM may appear insignificant and difficult to insert into your smartphone, eSIMs are even more so. In fact, it’s three times smaller. This frees up space inside your phone for additional features such as a larger camera module or a larger battery. It also closes one of the gaps through which water and dust can enter, making phones more resistant to the elements.
SIM vs eSIM: eSIMS also allows for dual SIMs in one phone, allowing you to have both your personal and work numbers tied to a single device, or to buy a foreign SIM card if you’re travelling abroad and want to save some money on those stingy data costs. Many smartphones now allow you to use an eSIM solely for mobile data, which adds to their convenience when travelling to foreign countries because you can keep your contact number so you can be contacted while avoiding roaming data charges.
An eSIM is typically activated on your phone by scanning a QR code, which is frequently emailed to you after you purchase a plan from the carrier. Some eSIM-compatible carriers also offer apps that enable users to purchase plans or set rates. Some devices, such as Apple’s iPad, allow users to purchase eSIM-based plans directly from the tablet, which adds another level of convenience when travelling. Not all phones are compatible with eSIMs, though most modern flagships have added support in recent years. Most notably, Google Pixel phones from the Pixel 2 onwards, as well as Samsung phones since the Galaxy S20, are compatible. The Microsoft Surface Duo, as well as Apple’s iPhone 12 and 13 series, as well as the older 11s, XS, SE, and XR devices, support eSIM.
SIM vs eSIM: Compatibility for eSIMs is also expanding across the Android ecosystem, but you should always check the technical specifications of any handset before adding it to your cart. It’s also a good idea to double-check that your carrier supports the eSIM service. In the United Kingdom, the major carriers that currently support eSIMs are EE, O2, and Vodafone, with smaller carriers Truphone and Ubigi rounding out the offering. For those in the United States, AT&T, T-Mobile USA, Truphone, Ubigi, Verizon Wireless, and Visible all provide eSIMs, and Google Fi, the search giant’s alternative, is also available.
What is an iSIM?
The iSIM is the most recent advancement in SIM card technology, further embedding the chip into your phone’s inner workings and reducing the size over the eSIM. The iSIM, developed by ARM and announced in 2018, was designed primarily for Internet of Things (IoT) devices. iSIMs were developed in response to the manufacturers’ need for improvements in size, power consumption, and costs as IoT devices become more popular, as well as the need to authenticate devices, issue security updates, and add more services once these devices are active around the world. And they do so by being 98 percent smaller than an eSIM, 50 percent cheaper to manufacture due to fewer components and simplified designs that streamline the manufacturing process, and using up to 70% less power, which means your future phone’s battery could last even longer.
iSIMs are not a separate physical chip contained within your devices. Instead, they are integrated into the cellular module, which explains the size, cost, and power consumption reductions. But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Because iSIMs are a new technology, they have yet to be certified by GMSA or Common Criteria, the two common security standards that all SIM and eSIM cards must follow. This is less of a problem for us as consumers and more of a problem for iSIM manufacturers to solve in order to alleviate bottlenecks in production and manufacturing. The primary advantages revolve around security: they are both physically and logically more secure than eSIMs. Because it is integrated into the SoC of your smartphone – on a secure enclave, no less – it cannot be physically accessed and serves as a root of trust for the mobile network, requiring an additional layer of authentication to access.
Because iSIMs are still a relatively new technology, compatible devices and carriers are few and far between right now, so you may be better off sticking with the eSIM for the time being until these initial teething issues are resolved. Indeed, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 was the first SoC confirmed to support iSIM technology at the end of last month. The first Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 devices are expected to ship in early 2022, demonstrating how new this technology is in comparison to its predecessors.