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Using an eSIM when you travel

How to make your mobile travels simple and affordable!

Alex Kidman
Sep 01, 2023
Icon Time To Read6 min read

For decades now, in order to get any kind of mobile service on a phone when travelling, you needed either a SIM card or a provider that supported global roaming. Given the general price of roaming, a SIM card — either a “travel” SIM from a specialised provider, or a local one from the country you were travelling to — was generally the smarter option.

Smarter … but also considerably more fiddly, because you’ve got to get the SIM card somehow, pop open your phone’s SIM card tray, try not to drop the SIM card, put it in your phone and wait for it to be ready to work, all while jetlagged and just wanting to get on with your holiday or business trip.

There’s a better way to manage all of this, via the use of eSIM ... eSIMs are electronic SIM cards built directly into the hardware of your device that rely on a software signal from a telco to activate, meaning your days of messing around in airport arrival halls with tiny pins and SIM trays could be over forever. Indeed, with a little forward planning you might not even have to find a local provider, because it’s quite feasible to set up an eSIM ready to roll the moment you land.

Is my phone eSIM ready?

The technology behind eSIM has been around for a while now, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll find eSIM capability in every handset. As a feature it’s largely found mostly in premium priced phones and some upper tier mid-range options. Sadly this means that if you’re on a budget with a more affordable phone, it probably doesn’t have eSIM.

While the activation of eSIM is largely a software matter, the underlying hardware still has to be present for eSIM to work at all, so there’s no way to add eSIM to an existing phone if it was never there in the first place.

There are always new phones being released with eSIM capability, but here’s a quick rundown of some of the available models that have the capability:

Apple: iPhone 14 family, iPhone 13 family, iPhone 12 family, iPhone 11 family, iPhone XS family, iPhone XR, iPhone SE (2020 and 2022)

Samsung: Galaxy S23 family, Galaxy S22 family, Galaxy S21 family, Galaxy S20 family, all Samsung Galaxy Z Fold and Galaxy Z Flip devices

Google: Google Pixel 7 family, Pixel 6 family, Pixel 5, Pixel 4a family, Pixel 4 family, Pixel 3a

Motorola: Razr, Razr 5G, Razr 2022, Razr 40, Razr 40 Ultra 

Nokia: Nokia X30 5G

Where can I buy an International eSIM?

Technically, anywhere, because the point of an eSIM is that there’s no actual hardware that’s needed. A wide number of providers in international destinations will “sell” you an eSIM via their apps, while others will let you sign up for an eSIM from their web sites. As an example, if you’re travelling in the US, you can use T-Mobile’s app to directly purchase a prepaid eSIM for your travels. The experience may vary by telco, naturally enough, and also depending on the local rules where you’re travelling in terms of signup process. Naturally this is a competitive market, and you may find more than one provider offering eSIM signups from the airport arrival area when you land, especially for major airport terminals.

Just as there are with regular physical SIMs, there’s a number of options available to you from dedicated travel SIM providers. These can offer more flexibility than a local carrier, especially if you’re going to be moving between a number of countries on your travel. It’s worth juggling the numbers, however, because the rates for given countries and providers can vary quite markedly. 

Some providers to consider in the travel eSIM space include Airolo, Holafly, Nomad, Simify or Drimsim.

Just as it’s the case with physical travel SIMs, not all providers cover all locations. One handy way to check for providers and locations is via eSIMDb, which lets you choose destinations before showing you which eSIM providers will best meet your needs.

Is a travel eSIM the best value option?

Generally speaking, the answer to this question is yes. The roaming options open to Australian travellers have gotten a lot better over the years, so you’re no longer having to mortgage the cat just because you wanted to use a little data overseas, but still, when the gold standard remains Vodafone’s $5/day roaming deal, there’s a pretty big value gulf for most situations.

Most … but not quite all. For very short trips indeed, the price difference might be marginal to non-existent. If as part of a longer trip you were only going to be in the UK for a weekend, for example, then that $5/day might not be that bad a deal.

The other issue to contend with is the importance of your regular Australian mobile number to your travel plans. It’s trivially easy to communicate via other platforms that support voice or video these days — FaceTime, WhatsApp and so on — so contacts aren’t so important. But if you need to keep your mobile number going for business purposes, or even for simpler matters like SMS two factor authentication for your bank accounts, then keeping your mobile number active in some way might be a wise step.

Tip: If your mobile provider supports it, you can always disengage mobile data roaming on your Australian SIM card to enable calls and texts to come through without incurring direct data roaming charges, and then using the eSIM you’ve purchased for your data needs. This will only work if you’re using a physical SIM from your Australian provider, however, and it’s worth checking the rates you’ll be charged for those calls and SMS messages. 

How to install an eSIM

For the most part, as long as your phone is eSIM-capable, getting an eSIM plan up and running is no more complicated than scanning a QR code that will typically kickstart the provisioning process.

What if you want to enable an eSIM you’ve purchased on the same device you’ve bought the plan on? You can generally manually enter those SIM details for either Android or iOS devices. Newer iOS variants will even let you import a QR code from a photo, so another option there is to grab it as a screenshot and work that way.

Of course, if you’re not travelling solo, you can always get a travelling companion to take a photo of your QR code and then use their screen to scan the QR code. It’s a simple enough travel hack that we’ve used ourselves, so we can confirm it definitely works.

How to add an eSIM on your iPhone

If you have a QR code for your eSIM phone plan, follow these steps:

  • Open Settings

  • Tap Mobile

  • Tap Add eSIM and then Use QR Code

  • Scan your QR code (or tap Enter Details Manually if you can’t scan your QR code need be) and follow the prompts

  • Select which number will be your default, and choose which number is used for data. 

For some providers you may need to alter your APN settings as well to work with your new eSIM plan. If so, check the details given to you by your provider.

If you find that you’re still not getting any luck connecting to Internet services, check whether Data Roaming is enabled for your eSIM specifically. If it’s off, switch it on to let the data good times flow. 

Conversely, if you’re leaving your Australian SIM in your phone, it’s wise to disable its roaming access to ensure that you’re not charged for usage if your phone happens to flip to your local telco’s international partner networks. 

How to add an eSIM on your Samsung Galaxy phone

If you have a QR code for your eSIM phone plan, follow these steps:

  • Open the Settings app
  • Tap Connections and then SIM card manager
  • Under eSIMs, tap Add mobile plan
  • When prompted, tap Add using QR code
  • Scan your QR code and follow the prompts

For some providers you may need to alter your APN settings as well to work with your new eSIM plan. If so, check the details given to you by your provider.

If you find that you’re still not getting any luck connecting to Internet services, check whether Data Roaming is enabled for your eSIM specifically. 

You should also probably disable roaming on your Australian SIM card to avoid any unwanted roaming charges. If you want to play it really safe, you can always pull your SIM card out of your phone entirely. Just remember that this means your phone number won’t work for calls or texts during this time, and also to store it somewhere safely so you can pop it back in when you return to Australian shores. 

How to add an eSIM on your Google Pixel

If you have a QR code for your eSIM phone plan, follow these steps:

  • Open Settings
  • Tap Networks and Internet
  • If you already have a SIM in your phone, tap the plus icon next to Mobile Network, otherwise tap SIMs
  • Tap download a SIM instead and then Next
  • Scan your QR code when prompted

There's a good chance you'll need to enable Data roaming for the SIM in question, which you'll be able to do via the same part of the Settings menu. 

Again, it’s wise to disable your local SIM when you're travelling overseas to avoid paying for roaming. You can go nuclear on this by removing your physical SIM from the slot, or by using Mobile Network settings menu under Network and Internet to set preferences for which SIM is used for each need.

FAQ

I’ve got an Australian eSIM already. Can I use that when travelling internationally?

Broadly yes, depending on the nature of your provider and plan specifically. At that level, there’s no real difference to you whether there’s a physical SIM in your phone or an eSIM.

Where it can have a difference is in roaming charges, because you’ll be hit for the same roaming costs as you would for a traditional SIM.

Alex Kidman
Written by
Alex Kidman
Alex Kidman is some kind of word-generating AI from the future that somehow worked out how to sneak back in time to 1998 to start its journalism career. Across that time, including editorial stints at ZDNet, CNET, Gizmodo, PC Mag and Finder, as well as contributions to every major tech masthead, nobody has quite managed to figure out this deeply held secret. Let’s keep it between us, OK?

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