What is an eSIM?

Is it time to give your physical SIM an upgrade? Read our guide to pay monthly and prepaid eSIMs, from how they work to where to buy them.

woman using phone on place

An eSIM is the virtual version of a physical SIM, the small plastic card that slots into your smartphone and holds your personal details. The ‘e’ stands for embedded. Like a SIM card, it connects your phone to your chosen mobile network and allows you to add a second line to your phone.

eSIMs are either pre-installed on your smartphone or you can download and install one yourself. You need a compatible device and a mobile provider that supports eSIM plans. eSIMs have been around for 10+ years but are still quite new to the UK. Most top-end smartphones are eSIM compatible, and many also have a slot for a physical SIM too. In the future, this could change and eSIMs could replace SIM cards completely.

The Global System for Mobile Communications predicts that by 2025, 35% of smartphone network connections will be made using eSIM technology. By 2030, 82% of smartphones will be eSIM enabled. And eSIMs aren’t just for smartphones. They can also be used in a range of connected devices, including smartwatches and drones.

This means these devices don’t need to be tethered to your phone or Wi-Fi router. With the rise of the Internet of Things, the eSIM market is expected to be worth US $16.3 by 2027.

What are the benefits of an eSIM?

  • Convenience - eSIMs make it quick and easy to switch providers or temporarily change to another network. eSIM handsets are sold unlocked. Get the network settings from your provider and you’re ready to go. Set-up is easy and the eSIM usually starts working immediately.
  • Flexibility - you can store up to 10 eSIMs on one handset, depending on the model - although you can only use one profile at a time. A dual-SIM phone is the exception. It allows you to use two numbers and data plans simultaneously. This could be handy if you use your phone for business and pleasure or at home and abroad.
  • Saving money - generally, a SIM only deal tends to be cheaper than a contract with a new handset - and this applies to eSIMs too.
  • A smoother travel experience - you can buy an eSIM for your destination before you travel and activate it when you arrive. It’s a good way to save money and avoid roaming charges when you’re away.
  • More space for innovation - with eSIM-only phones that don’t include a traditional SIM card, manufacturers can be more creative. For example, designing models that fold or flex.
  • Sustainability - eSIMs are plastic free and there’s no postage required. A 2022 study found that using an eSIM reduced emissions by 46% over the course of its lifetime.

What are the disadvantages of an eSIM?

  • Not all UK mobile providers currently support eSIMs.
  • eSIMs are still a premium handset feature. Compatible phones are likely to be costly.
  • If your phone is locked to a network, you can only get eSIM plans from that provider.
  • In most cases, you need to get a physical SIM before you can activate your eSIM.
  • Using an eSIM means you need to rely on cloud storage to save your personal data and messages. If there is a data breach, there is a risk your data could be exposed. However, it’s more secure than a traditional SIM card, which can be stolen and put into another phone. eSIMs can’t be removed.

Should I buy an eSIM for travelling?

There are some big benefits of eSIMs if you’re travelling abroad:

  • You can buy an eSIM online before you leave the country. There is no need to hunt around for a physical SIM once you reach your destination. Some mobile providers offer prepaid eSIM set up for roaming in 190+ countries and regions. The amount of data and duration varies depending on the plan.
  • The roaming experience with an eSIM is the same as with a physical SIM card.
  • If you’re not swapping physical SIM cards when you arrive, there’s no risk of losing or damaging your home SIM during your travels.
  • You don’t need to change your UK mobile number. With the right eSIM deal, you can avoid costly roaming charges.
  • You can pick and choose the perfect travel plan without having to leave the provider you’re happy with at home.
  • You can receive calls and text messages like normal, though you might be charged by your home network.

Whether you save money depends where you’re going and whether you already have a SIM card with mobile roaming included or an international SIM card. It also depends how you use your mobile abroad. For example, for short trips to Europe, inclusive data roaming may cover you, or you can add a roaming package for a small fee.

Read more about SIM cards with roaming included.

Which devices are compatible with eSIMs?

A lot of the most popular handsets are eSIM compatible. Here are some big brands that are:

  • Google Pixel 3 or later
  • Huawei P40, P40 Pro, Mate 40 Pro
  • iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max, iPhone XR, iPhone 11 or later
  • Motorola Razr (2019), Razr (2022), Razr 5G, Edge (2022)
  • Nokia G60 5G, X30 5G, XR21
  • OPPO Find X3 Pro, Find X5 Pro, Find X5
  • Samsung Galaxy S20 or later, Galaxy Fold or later, Galaxy Z Flip or later, Galaxy Note20/Note20 Ultra
  • Sony Xperia 1 IV and later

How do eSIMs actually work?

An eSIM-compatible smartphone has a built-in microchip that allows you to change provider, data or service plan. Check first that the provider supports eSIM plans.

To find out if your smartphone supports eSIMs:

  • For iPhones, go to: Settings > General > About. There will be a Digital SIM section with an IMEI number.
  • For Android phones, go to: Settings > About > Status info and look for an EID number. These steps may vary depending on the model.

When you start up a new eSIM-compatible phone, you can activate your eSIM through the on-device menu. To add an eSIM, you can go to the relevant mobile provider app, scan a QR code or follow a link from the provider. You may need to activate a physical SIM before you can activate an eSIM to replace it.

eSIMs don’t cost more than a physical SIM card plan, although some providers may charge to activate them. As long as your phone is unlocked, you can have multiple profiles from different providers stored on one phone. You select the one you want to use in your phone settings. Each eSIM gives you a new profile with its own phone number and data plan, although they can’t all be active at the same time.

The most you can use simultaneously is two, provided you have a dual-SIM phone. This could use a combination of SIM card and eSIM or two eSIMs.

How to install and use an eSIM

If you’ve got a brand new eSIM phone with a pre-assigned plan, you should be given the option to activate your eSIM during start up. Depending on the provider, this might mean scanning a QR code, using the relevant app, or adding details manually.

If you’re adding an eSIM to a phone that’s already in use, you'll first need to compare eSIM providers to find the best eSIM deal based on your data usage, and whether you want a prepaid eSIM or pay monthly. PAYG and prepaid eSIM plans are less common. Take a look at our SIM only deals.

Once you’ve paid for your eSIM, follow the guidelines below. The steps may vary slightly depending on the make and model of your handset.

  • On a Huawei phone, go to Settings > Mobile network > SIM management. You will see options to add SIM 1 and SIM 2, even if it’s a single SIM device. By default the eSIM is installed in slot 2. Enable the eSIM as prompted.
  • On a Google phone, go to Settings > Network & internet > SIMs > Download a SIM instead
  • On an iPhone, go to Settings > Mobile data > Add eSIM > Use QR code
  • On a Motorola phone, go to Settings > Internet & network > Add operator > Next. Scan the QR Code and press Start to begin download. Activate the eSIM.
  • On an Oppo phone, go to Settings > Mobile network > eSIM > Enable download > Add eSIM
  • On a Samsung Galaxy phone, go to Settings > Connections > SIM manager > Add eSIM then scan the QR Code.
  • On a Sony phone, go to Settings > Network & internet > SIMs. If you’ve already downloaded your eSIM, tap the Add (+) icon. Follow the instructions to scan the QR code.
  • Change the settings on your phone to make your eSIM the default. If you bought the eSIM for travelling, you also need to switch on data roaming.

You can also transfer an eSIM to a new handset if you’re staying with the same operating system. You’ll have the option to do this at the same time you transfer your apps and content.

Which providers offer eSIMs in the UK and how do I buy one?

The following UK mobile providers support eSIMs:


Pay Monthly & Pay As You Go prepaid eSIM plans

Start with a physical SIM card and request to switch to eSIM. Activate your SIM. Then, in the giffgaff app, go to Account > SIM > Replace my SIM > Switch to a new eSIM.

Lyca Mobile

Pay Monthly & Pay As You Go prepaid eSIM plans

Any retailer selling Lyca Mobile SIM cards can also sell you an eSIM. Or you can buy yours from the Lyca Mobile website.


Pay Monthly plans only

You can get an eSIM when you buy or upgrade to a new eSIM-compatible device with O2. Follow the on-screen prompts during set-up. They include directions to download your eSIM. You can also sign in to your My O2 app or go to the O2 website and ask for an eSIM at any time.


Pay Monthly plans only

Sign up to a Three Your Way plan and choose an eSIM compatible handset or SIM only plan. To swap your physical SIM for an eSIM, call the Three contact centre or go in store.


Pay Monthly and Pay As You Go Plus prepaid eSIM plans

Start with a physical SIM card and go to My Vodafone account to switch to an eSIM. You can get an eSIm with a SIM only plan or if you buy an eSIM compatible phone.


Pay Monthly plans only

If you’re an existing customer, call 150 from your phone, login to your My EE account and order your eSIM from there. You can also convert a physical SIM to an eSIM. It’s not a mobile provider, but if you bank with Revolut, you may have access to the Revolut eSIM.

This can be used in 100+ countries around the world. Choose a local, regional or global plan and, if you opt for the Ultra eSIM deal, you get 3GB of inclusive global data a month.

Find out more at the Revolut website.

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