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The worst thing about the eSIM-only iPhone 14

FAQ: What does iPhone 14's switch to eSIM mean for privacy, security, and travel?
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor
Phone Sim Card
Getty Images/simon2579

When Apple announced the iPhone 14 last week, it dropped a bit of a bombshell: physical SIM cards were going away, to be replaced by embedded (or eSIM) cards. In this FAQ, we're going to unpack that announcement, and explore what that means for iPhone users from a privacy, flexibility, and lock-in perspective.

Also: eSIM vs. SIM: What's the difference?

What are SIM cards?

SIM cards are small data cards, roughly the size of a Micro SD card. The SIM (subscriber identity module) contains, as the name implies, subscriber identity information that tells the telephone service carrier about who is using the phone. This is necessary to grant access to the carrier's network, as well as for billing. Law enforcement organizations also use SIM information to identify phones and their users.

SIM cards are removable. Removing the card from one phone and placing it in another effectively moves the phone number and billing data from the first phone to the second.

What are burner phones?

If you've ever watched NCIS or any of the thousand cop shows on television, you've undoubtedly heard the term "burner phone." On those shows, the plot usually involves a law enforcement officer finding a phone and looking for the owner's identity based on the phone. Frustration ensues when there's no associated identity, because the suspect/perpetrator/victim/etc. prepaid for the phone with cash and there's no personal identifying information associated with the phone.

Burner phones also have SIM cards, but those cards are tied to a prepaid telephony service, and so the carrier allows phone calls or text messages without having a record of the identity of the person actually making the call.

What is a locked or an unlocked phone?

A locked phone is a phone device that can only be used with SIM cards from a specific carrier. This made sense for carriers when they sold included phones as part of their subscription plans. By locking the phones to their service, they made switching to another carrier more difficult.

According to Apple, iPhones bought from Apple are unlocked, and can be used with any supported carrier. Apple states, "The exception is when you buy an iPhone with an AT&T Installment Plan. It will be locked to AT&T and will only work on the AT&T network for the term of your Installment Plan agreement."

How can I tell if my iPhone is locked or unlocked?

On your iPhone, open the Settings app. Choose General->About and scroll down to Carrier Lock. If it says, "No SIM Restrictions," your iPhone is unlocked.

What are eSim cards?

eSIM cards are embedded SIM cards. The FCC describes them as "hardwired into the phone itself," and they can be discrete components mounted to the phone's circuit board, a semiconductor module embedded into the phone's primary chipset, or merely a secured algorithm running on the phone's software depends on the manufacturer.

How does Apple implement eSIM?

According to Juniper Research, Apple implemented eSIM as "hardware components that are directly soldered into" the phone.

ZDNET has reached out to Apple to get a better answer about whether the eSIM in the iPhone 14 is implemented solely via its own dedicated hardware component, embedded into the SBC (single-board computer), or via software. We'll update this article if we get a more definitive answer.

What iPhones support eSIM?

Despite all the fuss since the Apple announcement on September 7, eSIM was not introduced for the iPhone 14.

iPhones up through the iPhone X supported SIM cards only. iPhones after the iPhone X (the XR through iPhone 13 series) supported what Apple calls Dual SIM (nano-SIM and eSIM). Essentially, these devices have both a SIM tray with a removable SIM card and eSIM capability. The iPhone 13 series introduced the ability to support Dual eSIM as well.

What makes the iPhone 14 unique is that it removed the physical SIM support for all US-sold phones and only supports eSIM. It, too has dual eSIM support. XDA reports that there will be three SIM variants of iPhones, "There's an eSIM-only version for the United States, an eSIM plus physical SIM version for most of the world, and a dual physical SIM version for China."

Will removal of SIM trays provide space for more phone capabilities?

This is a benefit we've heard floating around the internet. There is some truth to the premise. Smartphones have to cram a tremendous amount of capability into something that you can hold in your hand. SIM trays are roughly 100 square millimeters in volume (not very much), but phone vendors could conceivably use that space for one more chip or for a very slightly (very slightly) bigger battery.

What about SIM support in China?

It should be noted that eSIM is not permitted in China. That will present issues for American travelers to the PRC who expect to swap SIM cards once on the ground. US-sold iPhone 14 models will not be compatible with China's telephone carriers.

According to MacRumors, iPhone 14 models sold in China will have a SIM tray. An image captured by a Reddit user shows that Dual SIM support will be available for iPhone 14 devices sold in China.

Do all non-China carriers support eSIM?

No. Most of the major US carriers and many of the bigger carriers across the world (except China) support eSIM. However, small carriers and many MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators) do not support eSIM. In some cases, the mobile carrier would prefer to support eSIM, but they haven't been able to make it happen across their service providers. An example of that is Ting, which offers very low cost phone plans. It does not support eSIM.

In a support thread, a new iPhone 14 purchaser verified that they were giving up their Ting service. Earlier in the thread, a Ting representative stated "We do not support eSIM at this time. We want to, badly. But we need approval from several different entities, as we do not own our own towers. These entities have not given their approval to us or any other MVNO for eSIM, so it's not supported."

Also: Here's how the major carriers are handling the iPhone 14 eSIM

Do I give up my privacy if I use eSIM?

You cannot use an eSIM-only phone and remain entirely anonymous. You will have to register with a carrier to purchase a phone plan, and that registration will contain identity and payment information. It will be considerably harder, if not impossible, to use eSIM-only phones as burner phones.

Are there security benefits to eSIM-only phones?

Maybe. The US FCC states that there are "significant security benefits." According to the FCC:

An eSIM card cannot be stolen without stealing the phone, whereas removable SIM cards are sometimes stolen, and used in port out scams. That's when identity thieves fraudulently swap stolen SIM cards into different phones to gain access to the victim's calls and text messages. The thieves may then try to reset credentials and gain access to the victim's financial and social media accounts.

There are some gotchas to this. It's still possible for a savvy social engineer to convince a carrier to swap credentials even if the phone is eSIM-only. This is the case with nearly all social-engineering hacks, though. Human error, a lack of human attention, or overworked or tired operators could miss a security verification step and assign credentials to a crafty grifter. But eSIMs do make it harder because the hackers don't have a blank SIM to start with.

What is the worst thing about eSIM-only iPhone 14s?

The lack of a SIM tray makes travel considerably less convenient with US-sold iPhone 14s. Gone will be the day of landing in an airport and quickly picking up a new SIM card, and then running on the local telephone system. Instead, travelers will likely incur hefty roam charges, or switching charges to provision eSIM in the destination country.

In some cases, bargain carriers will be unavailable, so whether in the US or traveling abroad, those used to finding carriers who provide the best deals will undoubtedly find themselves paying more.

What is the best thing about eSIM-only iPhone 14s?

From a consumer perspective, not much. Yes, it's easier to pick a menu item than swap those fiddly little nano-SIM cards, but that's about it. SIMlessness isn't really a feature that will sell iPhones.

From Apple's perspective, had they only one variant, you could say that it was simplifying the circuit. But since Apple appears to be supporting some SIM-free phones, some with SIM and eSIM, and dual SIM in China, that simplification benefit isn't there.

From the perspective of major carriers, it somewhat herds users into the premium carrier club, preventing iPhone 14 users in the US from using cheap seat carriers like Ting.

From the perspective of law enforcement, iPhones 14s will be easier to trace back to their owners, but all of the other legendary iPhone privacy features remain intact.

So there you go. Are you concerned about losing physical SIM cards? Do you travel? Will using your iPhone 14 in China be an issue for you? Let us know in the comments below.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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