Do you ever feel stupid slotting in a piece of plastic into your shiny new iPhone? Probably not. SIM cards are such a part of modern life that most of us don’t stop to question how silly the whole concept is. I certainly didn’t stop to think about it until I started working on this review.
Lucky for you and me, the days of the SIM card are numbered. You will no longer have to shove plastic into smartphones just to gain access to local networks. eSIMs are the present and the future, all thanks to the innovative effort of start-ups like Airalo.
This review doubles as a guide on eSIM basics; you can hardly understand what Airalo does without a basic understanding of what eSIMs can do. The first half of the review is all talking about eSIMs. And then for the second half, we zone in on Airalo and its features. If you already know the gist of how eSIMs work, you can jump straight to 5 - Introducing Airalo. Otherwise, it’s best to start from the beginning.
Table of Contents
1 - What is an eSIM?
[Caption: Yes, the first SIM cards were as big as credit cards. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.]
I had never stopped to question what SIM cards are for before. It just felt natural to use them. You buy a new phone, and the first thing you need is a SIM card to make it work. The card lets you connect to the phone towers or something, right?
Indeed, that’s the gist of it. “SIM” stands for “subscriber identity module”. The primary purpose of a SIM card is to act as a digital ID, giving you access to restricted telecommunication networks around the world. Think of it as getting your friend’s wi-fi password, but at a much grander scale.
SIM cards are a secure way to make sure your device is unique and has permission to use that network. On top of that, a SIM’s ID number can be matched to your personal information in the service provider’s database. That helps providers keep track of how much of their service you are using, and it helps them charge for it.
The problem is that there is no other secure way to deliver that ID number to a user. Meaning that if you are traveling to another country, the only way to gain access to a local network is to physically have a SIM card delivered to you at the airport or the hotel. Then you need to remove your old SIM card from the phone to slot in the new one, which means you can no longer receive calls directed at your old number. These, and many other problems, are solved by eSIM technology.
The “e” in “eSIM” stands for “embedded”. eSIMs are little chips that are attached to your phone’s motherboard. They can perform all the functions of a traditional SIM card, and come with many additional advantages. Oh, and they aren’t “new”. The standard for eSIM technology around the world was defined back in 2012. They just hadn’t been used in Smartphones until late 2018.
2 - How eSIMs work
While a SIM card comes bundled with a single ID number, an eSIM is able to be programmed with new ID numbers on the fly, without the need to change any physical part. Essentially, that allows you to download new SIM cards whenever you want, wherever you are in the world.
There are two ways to add an ID to an eSIM. The simplest one is to scan a QR code with your phone’s camera. Once scanned, you’ll be able to access that provider’s network. This means you can have your phone ready to make calls or use data plans in Italy long before you leave the US. It’s all the convenience of having a friend text their Wi-Fi password to you, with enough security to get telecommunication companies on board with this idea.
To make things even better, you are not limited to only one phone plan per eSIM. An eSIM can store as many as 50 different mobile plans, and you can have several of them active at once. Meaning you can have a local roaming plan active in Japan while keeping your home Swedish number active to receive calls from friends and family.
As you can imagine, travelers are the ones who presently benefit the most from eSIMs. But this technology is poised to bring benefits for all phone users in the near future. And if you are looking for instructions on how to install an eSIM, click here to jump to that section of the guide.
3 - The benefits of eSIM
There are four key benefits to using eSIMs: size, price, convenience, and choice.
3.1 - How eSIMs benefit manufacturers
Since they don’t have to be handled by users, eSIMs can be made much smaller than traditional SIM cards. They also remove the need for the SIM tray present in many phones and different devices, which frees up space that developers can use for other features.
Smartphone design is a complex art, and every tiny bit of real estate counts. Removing SIM trays could help manufacturers make their phones smaller, lighter, or give users more battery life. It also makes it easier to waterproof a phone, and the small size makes eSIMs an attractive solution for those building wearables and other compact smart devices.
Reading all this, it’s easy to assume that eSIM technology is quite expensive. And indeed, most eSIM-enabled devices in the market today are quite expensive. However, the technology itself is relatively cheap.
It’s hard to gauge how much each eSIM costs for a manufacturing giant like Apple. But the company Hologram sells eSIMs to be used by manufacturers around the world, and they cost $6.31 each. Given that the same company sells SIM Cards for $5, it’s safe to say that the hardware cost of adding an eSIM won’t be the reason why the next iPhone costs over a thousand dollars. That hypothesis is supported by the fact that you can buy eSIM-enabled mobile routers for less than $100 on Amazon.
I wasn’t able to find an eSIM router that allowed me to use Airalo plans (yet), but it highlights the fact that eSIMs are not particularly expensive to implement. It’s safe to say that novelty is the reason why so many eSIM smartphones are so expensive. Once eSIM use becomes more widespread, cheap eSIM smartphones are sure to enter the market.
3.2 - How eSIMs affect mobile plan prices
At the time of writing, some of the eSIM plans being offered on Airalo are still more expensive than locally available options.
However, eSIM technology is expected to bring down the prices of mobile plans around the world. It’s easy to switch mobile plans on eSIM, meaning that in theory the industry may be forced to compete a lot more to earn the consumer’s hard-earned money. Competition could lead to a drop in prices, especially if the current trend of no-strings-attached eSIM plans continues.
And the price should come down. Widespread implementation of eSIM technology will mean that phone carriers no longer need to spend millions of dollars shipping plastic cards to every corner of the world. That’s a cost reduction that phone companies could use to bring down prices.
It’s also worth noting that while some Airalo plans cost more than the local alternatives, that is in no way the norm. Many of their plans are much cheaper than what you can get with a local SIM. You can get even more value if you are planning to visit many countries in a short period of time. Airalo offers regional and global plans, both of which can help you stay connected in several countries for surprisingly low prices.
3.3 - How eSIM makes traveling more convenient
Forgetting to consider roaming charges is a classic mistake made by first-time travelers. To make matters worse, you may only realize your mistake when you are back home and the phone bill arrives. Horror stories of consumers who racked up bills of hundreds — or even thousands — of dollars are not uncommon around the web.
One way to avoid that problem is to buy a local SIM card the moment you arrive at your destination, but that causes new problems.
First and foremost, you need to find a phone store and get your local plan set up. That process is relatively easy in big tourist locations, but out of the way travel destinations may provide a challenge. Especially if you don’t speak the local language, and haven’t gotten your hands on some local currency yet. And even in popular tourist destinations, trying to buy a SIM card right after landing may mean dealing with long lines and unhelpful store clerks.
You can bypass all those issues by using an eSIM. It allows you to be online the moment the plane touches down. If you are lucky, your phone will connect to the nearest tower automatically. If not, the setup process only takes a minute, as we covered in the “how to install an eSIM” section of this guide.
3.4 - eSIM gives you choices like you never had before
One of the most interesting aspects of eSIM technology is the fact that it allows you to have as many as 50 SIM cards bundled together into a single chip, and that you can use several of them together.
You can’t have all 50 phone numbers active at once. However, you can keep one card for phone calls, one for texting, and one for roaming. Meaning that instead of relying on a single carrier for all three, you can now price shop for each service with a lot more freedom, and discard the services you need the least.
If you are one of many who never make phone calls and never send SMS text messages, eSIM might help you save a lot of money, especially when you are abroad.
Keeping your home number active abroad is also made much easier with eSIM technology. Before this, unless your phone supported dual-SIM, you had to take out your home SIM in order to use a local one. This meant you could no longer be reached on your usual number, forcing you to send that new number to all your friends, family, and business associates in order to stay connected during the trip.
An eSIM allows you to keep your home SIM card active to receive calls and texts from your friends and family. Meanwhile, you get to roam at local rates by using your eSIM data plan.
4 - What devices can use eSIM?
At the time of writing — June of 2020 — only a handful of eSIM-enabled devices are in the market. Most of them are smartphones, but there are a couple of tablets and notebooks in this list.
- iPhone SE 2020
- iPhone 11,11 Pro, 11 Pro Max
- iPhone XS, XS Max
- iPhone XR
*iPhones bought from China or Hong Kong do not support eSIMs.
- Samsung Note 20+
- Samsung Fold LTE model
- Samsung Galaxy Z Flip
- Samsung Galaxy S20, s20+, and S20 Ultra
- Samsung Galaxy Fold
- Google Pixel 3 & 3XL
- Google Pixel 4 & 4XL
- Huawei P40, P40 Pro
- Nuu Mobile X5
- Motorola Razr 2019
- Gemini PDA
- iPad Air (3rd Generation)
- iPad Pro (3rd Generation)
- iPad Mini (5th Generation)
- HP Spectre Folio
- Lenovo Yoga C630
If you are reading this long after publication, eSimfy keeps an updated list of eSIM-enabled devices. And as mentioned before, some mobile routers give you access to eSIM data plans, which is a topic we are going to cover in-depth in the near future.
We’ll update this article with the link once the eSIM router guide is live, but if you are curious, check out the products offered by Nommi. They give you eSIM access, but you are limited to the data plans available on their app.
5 - Introducing Airalo
After reading all those beautiful things about eSIM and how great it is, you might be wondering where you can get yourself an eSIM plan. There are many ways to do it, including walking into a phone store and buying an eSIM pack.
In the UK, providers O2 and EE both sell eSIM packs in their physical locations. Those packs look just like traditional SIM packs, but instead of a plastic chip, these packs come with QR codes you can scan to add an eSIM plan to your phone.
Physical eSIM packs exist mostly as a way to make consumers aware that the technology exists. It’s much easier to buy eSIM plans online. They are sold on many different websites, including Airalo.com.
Airalo is the world’s first eSIM store for travelers. They bring together over 100 eSIM plans in one place, allowing you to stay connected in over 190 countries. Their website and app make it easy for users to purchase and install different eSIM data plans, and the company is actively working with telecom providers around the world in order to make more plans available in their stores.
5.1 - How to get Airalo
The Airalo app is available on both the App Store and Google Play. Be careful, though. Even though Airalo can be installed on a wide range of Apple and Android devices, only unlocked eSIM-enabled devices (see Item 4 on this review) can activate Airalo data plans.
On top of the two apps, you can also access Airalo via any web browser. Their home page allows you to create an account and buy plans on the site itself. That is probably the best way to use Airalo. You can buy a plan on your personal computer then scan the associated QR code using your phone. We’ll explain this better in the “how to install an eSIM” section of this review.
5.2 - How to buy an Airalo plan
The process is as simple as using any other digital store. Just head to Airalo’s website or their app, search for your desired destination, select the plan that interests you the most, and then press buy. Airalo accepts payment via credit card, PayPal, or Airmoney — the latter is part of their loyalty program.
Remember that almost all Airalo plans are data-only. Meaning that they don’t come with phone numbers attached to them, all they do is give you roaming abroad at local rates. There are two exceptions to this, Thailand’s Dtac eSIM and Vietnam’s Unicom eSIM. According to Airalo support, they’re hoping to expand that list in the future, so there may already be more options by the time you read this.
Another thing to keep in mind is that you should always check regional plans for your destination. You may find that a European plan offers better value than the Hungarian plans, even for those who don’t plan to visit any countries besides Hungary.
[The Hungarian plan is 3G-only, by the way. The Europe plan offers 4G connection for the same price, and coverage on 40 more countries beyond Hungary.]
5.3 - Airalo features
It’s clear that the Airalo team was shooting for simplicity when they designed their homepage and their app. There isn’t much to fiddle with when looking for an Airalo data plan. They give you a list of plans with detailed features and conditions, and you decide which plans to buy when visiting a given destination.
All Airalo eSIM plans are prepaid and contract-free. Meaning you pay once and you are done. No tricks, hidden fees, or long-term commitments. This is crucial for travelers on a budget, as the last thing you want when you are abroad is an unexpected bill.
Both the app and the website help you keep track of past transactions and track eSIM plans you currently own. Airalo also has a loyalty program in the form of “Airmoney”. Their marketing blurb explains it best:
“Earn Airmoney as you spend! Your account will automatically be credited with Airmoney worth 5% of each transaction made. Use Airmoney for your future purchases - the more you spend, the more you earn!”
It’s not a bad deal. Frequent travelers will be able to use Airmoney to gain freebies from time to time.
5.4 - Company history
[Airalo co-founder Bahadir Özdemir. Source: Antler.co.]
Airalo is a relatively new company. It was founded in March of 2019, in Singapore. Co-founders Bahadir Özdemir and Duran Akcaylier met as part of a company incubation program run by a prominent venture capital firm.
The company is the brainchild of co-founder Bahadir Özdemir, a college dropout and serial entrepreneur with a vast amount of experience in the telecommunication industry. His previous startup, Sim4crew, helped sailors around the world stay connected through the sale of Global SIM cards that catered to their needs. Once Özdemir caught wind of the upcoming eSIM revolution, he saw a chance to lead the way and disrupt his own field.
As he said in his Antler interview:
“eSIM technology is very new, and just to give you an idea how new: Apple just shipped the first eSIM compatible phones in September 2018. So, we couldn’t have started this store even if we wanted to one year ago because there were no devices, no phones or tablets that were compatible with these SIMs.”
Airalo has received a ton of investment money already. Combine that with Özdemir’s experience, and you get a company that can play an active role in determining what eSIM is going to be. The company is presently working closely with telecoms around the world in order to mitigate those company’s concerns and bring more eSIM plans into the market — and subsequently into the Airalo store.
6 - How to install an eSIM
The step-by-step of how to install an eSIM is slightly different depending on what device you’re using. We’re going to show you how to do it on iOS. If you would like more detailed instructions, Apple released a video tutorial on this topic. The setup procedure on other devices is relatively similar.
There are two ways to add an eSIM plan: you can use a QR code, or you can install the plan manually. If you are buying a plan off Airalo, you will need two screens in order to scan the QR code, since you obviously can’t scan the QR code being displayed in your own screen.
If you have a computer, a second phone, or another device available, you can (a) open Airalo on the secondary device and see the QR code there, or (b) send a screenshot of the QR code to your secondary device, so you can scan it with your main phone. The latter is ideal if you don’t want to risk compromising your login information on a public computer or a borrowed phone. I didn’t try printing out the QR code to see what happens, but that should work too.
6.1 - Installing an eSIM using a QR code
On your iPhone, tap Settings > Cellular > Add Cellular Plan. Then all you have to do is scan the QR code and follow the instructions on the screen.
6.2 - Installing an eSIM without a QR code
Tap Settings > Cellular > Add Cellular Plan, and then tap on “Manual Installation”. The bottom may also be called “Enter Details Manually”, or some other variation.
Your iPhone will then request two different pieces of information: an SM-DP address and an activation code. If you already bought your Airalo eSIM plan, then that information is already in your Airalo account.
All you have to do is open the Airalo app, head to the “My eSIMs” tab, find the plan you want to install, then tap Details > “Manual Installation”. Copy the information you need to input on the iOS manual installation screen.
After you add the SM-DP address and the activation code, all you have to do is follow the instructions on the screen.
6.3 - Troubleshooting and precautions
Unfortunately, the newness of eSIM technologies means that it can be janky at times. You may need to turn your phone off and on again before it will recognize the new eSIM plan. You may also have to head into your phone’s cellular settings — the same place where you added the eSIM plan — and disable automatic network selection, as that may prevent your eSIM from connecting to available networks.
Not all users run into such problems. And if you do, you will likely only need to figure out the solution once and never worry about it again. But these little hiccups can get in the way of what is usually marketed as a seamless experience.
As things are now, I recommend that you test an eSIM plan in your own country before trusting it abroad. Since many Airalo plans only cost $5, playing it safe shouldn’t hurt your budget.
If you are unable to use your eSIM for whatever reason, you’ll be happy to know that Airalo customer support is both helpful and quick to respond, which is something we cover in the next section of this review.
7 - How good is Airalo?
At the time of writing, Airalo has officially existed for less than 500 days. The company was founded in March of 2019, and they didn’t even have a Twitter until July of that year. The first version of the Airalo app was launched on the App Store in October of 2019. With all that in mind, the fact that they already cover over 190 countries is nothing short of remarkable.
Their regional offerings are even more impressive. For U$13 you get 30 days of 4G internet valid for 41 European countries. There are only about 50 countries in the EU, by the way.
Is Airalo the best eSIM store in the market right now? Yes, definitely. Can you find cheaper plans elsewhere? Maybe. But you won’t be able to find such a large number of affordable eSIM plans brought together into a single app anywhere else in the world.
Even if you can find lower prices elsewhere — and we at eSimfy are here help you do just that —, the money you’ll save may not be worth the hassle of going outside the Airalo platform. Here’s what you get by buying your plans from Airalo.
7.1 - Selling point #1: Curated eSIM plans
Airalo has nothing to gain and a lot to lose by letting scammers into their platform. They also work with telecom providers directly to ensure that each data plan on their platform is stable and delivers on its promises. As a result, Airalo is one of the safest places to buy eSIM plans right now.
Here at eSimfy, we are working hard to compile other eSIM providers that are upstanding and trustworthy. But outside the big names featured here and on Airalo, buying eSIM plans online is always a bit risky. Especially since you can’t test many of those plans until you are actually on your destination, and at that point having no internet may be catastrophic.
7.2 - Selling point #2: Incredible customer support
In researching for this review, I saw many sources citing that the Airalo team only has about 10 people in it. If that’s true, and they didn’t outsource customer support, it means that they likely have only one or two community managers answering all customer queries on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and via email. If that’s true, I would like to give that person my most sincere congratulations, because they are doing an awesome job.
Take a quick peek at Airalo’s many social media profiles and you will find example upon example of customers being helped by Airalo’s support team to handle all sorts of different issues. If you buy an Airalo plan and are not satisfied with what you get, there is a good chance you’ll get the help you need right away.
Fun fact, when I emailed Airalo to request information phone call options in their eSIM plans, they got back to me within three minutes. I barely had time to write a note to check my email later, and their response was already here.
7.3 - Selling point #3: Track your eSIM plans in one place
It’s worth remembering that, even though eSIMs can theoretically store as many as 50 different plans, that’s not the case in every phone. Due to either hardware or software limitations, many phones limit the user to only 1 or 5 eSIM plans at a time.
For frequent flyers whose phones contain such limitations, buying all your eSIM plans from Airalo provides an extra layer of convenience, since it helps you keep track of them all in one single app. It’s also easy to repurchase and top up your eSIM plans all on the Airalo app.
8 - Final thoughts
One should never underestimate how remarkable the existence of Airalo is. I doubt either Apple or Google expected such a robust store to come into life so soon after they started adding eSIMs to their flagship devices. Bahadir Özdemir’s expertise, with the help of a ton of investment money, allowed for a sudden leap in eSIM plan availability.
Airalo is something that should only have come to life a few years down the line, but that is already here now, and ready to help you. You should definitely give it a try if your cellphone has eSIM technology.
Funny enough, despite having just written 4k words on the topic, my phone — an old LG K11 Alpha — does not have eSIM. But if you are in that situation, don’t worry. Figuring out how to use eSIM without the need for a super expensive cell phone is my next goal. Airalo support said that wasn’t possible, but then I found Nommi’s eSIM mobile routers a couple of hours after I emailed them. I wonder what I can find with a few more weeks of research? Hopefully, there’s a router out there that lets you use Airalo plans on them, since Nommi’s power bank router does not.
Keep an eye on the eSimfy blog to find out. Oh, and subscribe to our newsletter to be warned of new content via email. Thank you for reading :).