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eSIM vs. SIM: What's the difference? [Ask ZDNet]

Got a tech question? Ed Bott and ZDNet's team of editors and experts probably have the answer.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor on
SIM card swapping
Image: Brett Jordan

Welcome to another installment of Ask ZDNet, where we tackle the questions even Google can't solve.  


In the mailbag today: What's the difference between an eSIM and a physical SIM?

What is an eSIM and how do I use it?

I just upgraded my mobile phone and I see that it has a section in Settings for two SIMs, one of which is an eSIM. What's the difference between an eSIM and a physical SIM? Which one should I choose?

Embedded SIM (eSIM) is a technology that allows a mobile device to join a carrier's network without the need for a physical SIM card. The first eSIM-equipped device appeared in 2015, but the technology has only started to hit the mainstream in the past year or two. 

Every iPhone since the iPhone XR has had support for two SIMs, one physical nano-SIM and one eSIM. All Google Pixel devices since the Pixel 2 include dual-SIM support, as do most recent Samsung Galaxy models and a smattering of phones from other carriers. 

Also: How to clear the cache on your iPhone (and why you should)

The most obvious advantage of using an eSIM is that you don't have to go to a carrier's store to pick up a physical SIM or wait for one to arrive in the mail. You can sign up for a mobile plan and activate it immediately by scanning a QR code, using a carrier's app, or even manually creating a carrier profile. (Your phone must be unlocked, of course. If you try to set up an eSIM for an alternative carrier on a carrier-locked device, you'll get an error message.) 

But having two SIMs available unlocks other useful scenarios. For example, you can use one SIM for a business line and the other for a personal line. In that configuration, you can make and receive calls and use SMS messaging on either number. For cellular data, you have to designate a line, although you can switch lines by flipping a switch in settings. You can even have multiple eSIM profiles set up and switch between them in settings. 

Also: Google Fi: The best phone service for international travel

Having dual SIMs is especially important when traveling internationally. You can use a local carrier's plan for data coverage without losing calls and texts to your home number. 

Most large carriers these days offer eSIM support, although many smaller carriers and MVNOs still require physical SIMs. 

For instructions on how to set up an eSIM on an iPhone, see these two Apple Support articles: "About eSIM on iPhone " and "Using Dual SIM with an eSIM." For Google Pixel devices, see "How to use dual SIMs on your Google Pixel phone." This Samsung support article includes links to support pages for the three major U.S. carriers. 

Send your questions to ask@zdnet.com. Due to the volume of submissions, we can't guarantee a personal reply, but we do promise to read every letter and respond right here to the ones that we think our readers will care about. Be sure to include a working email address in case we have follow-up questions. We promise not to use it for any other purpose.  


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