As announced by Apple during their “Far Out” event in September 2022, all iPhone 14 models sold in the U.S. will not have physical SIM slots and will rely exclusively on eSIM for connecting to wireless carriers (see iPhone 14 specs and iPhone 14 Pro specs).
This has caused a lot of confusion, concern, and skepticism online, especially among international travelers and prepaid MVNO (Mobile virtual network operator, sometimes known as “reseller”) customers. In this article, I’ll attempt to address this matter and provide my thoughts.
History of eSIM
eSIM is not invented by Apple. It’s a standard created by the GSMA (The GSM Association), an industry organization that represents mobile carriers worldwide, in 2016.
The eSIM standard has been around for several years. In 2016, the Samsung Gear S2 classic 3G smartwatch launched with eSIM support, being the first device to implement eSIM.
Apple followed soon after. In 2017, Apple introduced the Apple Watch Series 3 with LTE. It uses eSIM to provision cellular connectivity, and it’s supported by a large number of carriers around the world.
The iPhone got eSIM support in 2018. The 2018 iPhone lineup (iPhone XR, XS, and XS Max) are the first iPhones to support eSIM, as well as dual SIM. Since then, all iPhone models launched since then have eSIM support. These devices support an eSIM and a physical Nano SIM to be used simultaneously.
Things started changing with the launch of the iPhone 13 lineup in 2021. When you purchase an iPhone 13 from a major carrier in the U.S., you likely will not receive a SIM card pre-installed (like all previous iPhones). Instead, you’ll be prompted to activate your new iPhone with eSIM during iOS setup.
If you’d like to learn more about eSIM, including its history and design, see eSIM on Wikipedia.
Implications of eSIM-only iPhones
Since all major U.S. carriers now support eSIM activation during iOS setup (now known as eSIM Carrier Activation), it’s not too surprising that Apple has decided to remove the physical SIM tray in favor of eSIM-only iPhones.
For a significant proportion of U.S. iPhone users, this probably will not affect them in any way. Many U.S. cellphone users purchase new devices from their wireless carrier (or the Apple Store or another authorized retailer) and connect their new device with their carrier account at time of purchase. As it turns out, eSIM Carrier Activation is designed for exactly this scenario. When someone purchases a new iPhone, their wireless carrier will assign an eSIM profile to their new device (based on IMEI and/or EID). Once the device is received, the user will simply power on the device and be prompted to set up a cellular plan. This process is probably familiar to many, as this is not too different from the “old” process, which involved a pre-installed SIM in their new device.
Unfortunately, for users with prepaid plans, it’s not as straightforward. A number of prepaid wireless carriers, including AT&T Prepaid, T-Mobile, Mint Mobile, Red Pocket, Visible, etc., already support eSIM. However, few support eSIM Carrier Activation, and many require contacting customer service for setting up a new device. This means that a user has to set up their new device on WiFi and without any wireless carrier. Once it’s fully set up, they can download the carrier’s app from the App Store and install the eSIM.
I have some experience using eSIM on an iPhone XS with two MVNOs: Mint Mobile and Visible. The setup process for Mint Mobile isn’t too bad. I can simply download the Mint Mobile app, log in, and get a replacement eSIM from the account menu. However, it isn’t as simple for Visible. If I ever need a new Visible eSIM, I’d have to contact support via live chat and request a new eSIM, and this tends to take quite a bit of time.
If you happen to be using a carrier that doesn’t offer eSIM, you’re out of luck. For now, you won’t be able to use the iPhone 14 at all without switching to a different carrier.
For frequent international travelers who use local SIMs, this situation could be even more problematic. In many countries, especially East and Southeast Asian ones, one can easily purchase a short-term prepaid SIM card from a local carrier for a very reasonable price. These SIM cards tend to be readily available at international airports and many convenience stores. However, these are almost always physical SIM cards. If you have an iPhone 14 from the U.S., you simply can’t use these, unless you bring (or buy) another device.
As a traveler, you’ll lose out on convenient and low-cost wireless service at your destination. Instead, you’ll have to rely on international roaming (which is often quite costly) or some international eSIM provider (which is cheaper than roaming but still much more expensive than local SIMs).
Given the three scenarios discussed earlier, here are some of my thoughts:
- I like eSIM a lot, as I consider it beneficial to both users and carriers. As a user, I no longer have to wait for SIM cards to be shipped to be. I can easily activate an eSIM in just a few minutes, on a device I already have, with whichever carrier I prefer. It also makes switching carriers a lot easier. As a carrier, eSIM will likely reduce operating costs in the long run, as they no longer need to distribute physical SIM cards. They also have the option to automate eSIM provisioning, so that most users can set up new devices on their own without support from a store or call center representative, which leads to reduced support costs.
- It’s very likely that Apple decided to remove physical SIM slots because most of their users fall into the first category (phones purchased through major carriers) and have no need for local SIMs during international travel. If this isn’t the case, this change would affect a lot of people, and I think Apple would not do this.
- Prepaid carriers in the U.S. need to adapt, or they may risk losing a significant number of customers. As of September 2022, research suggests that iPhone has over 50% market share in the U.S. This means carriers simply need to support all iPhone models, which means supporting eSIM, if they want to maintain and grow their customer base.
- I’m not sure how I feel about losing support for international SIMs. I used to travel internationally quite frequently, and having access to local carriers has saved me a lot of time and money. I have rarely used international roaming, and in fact, my current carrier – Visible – doesn’t offer international roaming at all.
I’m confident that for most people, especially ones using a major U.S. carrier, this will not affect them in any way.
However, others, including ones on prepaid MVNOs, may need to hold off on purchasing the iPhone 14 or iPhone 14 Pro for a bit. It’s not a bad idea to wait and see how MVNOs respond to this change and re-evaluate once we have more information. If you really want an iPhone 14 or iPhone 14 Pro now, and your carrier doesn’t support eSIM, you should consider switching to one with eSIM support.
For international travelers with a need/desire for local SIMs, it might not be a bad idea to keep your old device around and bring it with you when traveling internationally. Your old device almost definitely supports physical SIM cards, and you could use it for the local SIM. It’s inconvenient and unfortunate to have to carry two devices, instead of one with dual SIM, but that’s probably the only option right now (until eSIM becomes more popular around the world).