What's an ESIM and How Can It Make Travel Easier? We Asked an Expert

Technology + Gear
by Morgane Croissant Jun 20, 2024

Every traveler has its own way to use their cell phone abroad without racking a massive bill. Some add an international plan to their monthly formula when they go abroad (expensive), others opt to switch their phone into airplane mode and only use WiFi (impractical), and others still purchase a local SIM card (awkward). But there’s a new(ish) solution out there that not only simplifies international cell phone usage, but also allows travelers to save big bucks: Using an eSIM.

While the term ‘SIM card’ is clear to most cell phone users, ‘eSIM’ is a bit of a head-scratcher. To learn more about what an eSIM is, how it works, and how it can help save money while traveling, we talked to Sam King, the chief revenue officer for GigSky, a global mobile technology company that provides eSIM solutions that allow travelers to stay connected and access local data plans in over 200 countries.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Matador: Can you explain what eSIMs are?

King: eSIMs, or embedded SIMs, are digital SIM cards that are built into a device, allowing users to activate a cellular plan without needing to insert a physical SIM card. This technology offers flexibility and convenience, making it ideal for frequent travelers who want to avoid the hassle of swapping SIM cards.

How do eSIMs work exactly? Do phone owners have to make modifications to their cells to use one?

eSIMs work by downloading a carrier profile directly onto your device, allowing it to connect to the carrier’s network without a physical SIM card. Phone owners do not need to make any physical modifications to their devices. They simply need to ensure their device supports eSIM technology and follow the carrier’s instructions to download and activate the eSIM profile.

Are eSIMs easy to install?

Yes, eSIMs are very easy to install. While some providers will require you to scan a QR code, with GigSky, after you make your initial purchase, you can just tap the screen and follow the prompts to get your eSIM installed. And with GigSky, once you have your eSIM installed, topping up data or getting a plan for a new country or region doesn’t even require downloading a new eSIM. Your initial eSIM can be used for any plan around the globe, at sea, or in the air.

How is an eSIM plan different and separate from a regular cell phone plan?

Unlike most phone plans, eSIMs plans are pre-paid. Customers pay for their initial plan up front and there is no recurring future charge or commitment. You only pay for plans as you need them. Second, many eSIM plans are data only and don’t come with a phone number, though you can continue to use your current number on data-only services like WhatsApp.

Note from the editor: There are data-only eSIM plans, like the ones available at GigSky, and voice, SMS, and data eSIM plans, such as the ones offered by OneSimCard.

Can you explain the benefits of using an eSIM?

Certainly! From a traveler perspective, the benefits of using an eSIM include:

  • Saving money: Most local carriers charge rates that can be 10 times higher when you roam vs. when you are at home. By not roaming with your home carrier, and purchasing an eSIM plan, you’ll save a ton of money. When you multiply this across a family, the savings only grow.
  • Convenience: Forget about fiddling with physical SIM cards. With an eSIM you can get a second data plan with just a few taps of your screen.
  • Flexibility: You can get coverage globally all through a single eSIM. This is perfect for international travel.
  • Instant Activation: Remember the days of trying to find a local SIM? Sometimes they were available at the airport and sometimes you had to drive into town. With an eSIM, you can get your plan in advance and it will start working the moment you arrive.
  • Relying only on WiFi is just not practical. It’s still not available everywhere, particularly when you’re on the move and need, say, a mapping application to get around. Second, it is often very slow in public areas, like the airport. Lastly, it is not secure and using your device on WiFi for certain activities, like banking, is very risky.
  • Do eSIMs work for every cell phone/mobile device out there?

    For the most part, yes. Since Apple launched the eSIM in November 2018, all iPhones have had eSIM capabilities, and most new Apple devices are now eSIM only [as opposed to having a physical SIM card]. Android devices did a fast follow though not all are currently compatible with eSIM technology.

    Note from the editor: Here is a comprehensive and regularly updated list of all the mobile devices compatible that support eSIM technology.

    GigSky offers eSIM plans for when people are at sea or on flights. Can you explain how that works?

    We are especially proud of these services as they are unique to the market. For cruises, we’ve partnered with the Cellular at Sea network to provide cellular data while on any of over 200 of the largest cruise ships at sea. To enhance the entire cruise experience, our plans will also provide you with data on land, before you leave, while in port or touring, and even after your cruise. Imagine traveling to Italy for a cruise and buying a single data plan that works from the time you land in Italy, throughout your cruise, as you travel to other countries, and even before you get on the plane to go back home.

    For our inflight service, we’ve partnered with over 20 airlines, and you can join their cellular network to surf the web with a GigSky plan. There are some limitations, however, depending on your flight route so customers should look at the details on the app before they purchase.

    GigSky offers a free trial period, is that correct?

    Our 100 MB free plan works like any other GigSky plan, but without any costs or even the need to provide a credit card. We offer this service to customers who want to test out GigSky or even eSIMs in general. We’re so confident of the simplicity and reliability of our eSIM technology that we know they’ll be back when their free data is used up and that is what we are seeing. Some of our users even choose to use the eSIM at home, before their trip to make sure they are all set up before they go. Then, while away, they can add a new plan with just a few taps and don’t need to worry about downloading the eSIM.

    Is GigSky only for US cell phone owners?

    No, GigSky is available to users worldwide. Our eSIM plans can be used on any compatible device, regardless of the user’s home country. This makes GigSky an ideal solution for international travelers from any part of the globe looking to stay connected seamlessly across borders.

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