Travel Technology: What is an eSIM or Electronic Sim Card for Mobile Phones?

by | Mar 31, 2024

A woman holds her cell phone while traveling overseas with an eSIM card.
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Last updated on April 14th, 2024

Featured image: What is an eSIM and how can it save you money on your travels? Read on to find out! | Photo by lucigerma on Envato

eSIM mobile technology helps women stay safe and save money

by Carolyn Ray

Welcome to our Travel Technology column, where I attempt to answer your questions about the mystifying, ever-changing and evolving world of technology. Having spent years working in the technology industry with IBM and other notable firms, I have always been an early adopter of new technologies and feel (somewhat) qualified to share my personal experiences. If not, I will seek those who know more, which often includes our travel-savvy readers, as you’ll see in the quotes below. I always encourage you to review other sources and consult with experts.

Topic of the week: What is an eSIM?

One of the most frequent questions on our private Solo Travel Wisdom group is about using eSIMs to stay connected while travelling.

Question: “When travelling, what do you use to stay connected? Do you use roaming plans or buy local data in the destination country?” — Jo Anne S.

My take: One of the newest ways to stay connected is an electronic SIM card or eSIM. I discovered the world of eSIM (Electronic SIM) cards in mid-2022 when Airalo approached me to test its product. Founded in 2019, Airalo covers over 200 countries and has 10 million users around the world, and was co-founded by Abraham Burak, a Canadian businessman.  It was the first I’d heard of this revolutionary new technology. I’ve been using it ever since, in Mexico, Europe and soon, Asia. For frequent travellers, an Electronic SIM card makes staying connected easy. Recently, I spoke with the Airalo team and negotiated a 10 per cent discount for all JourneyWoman readers, as well as a 15 per cent discount on new purchases.

Please note: JourneyWoman may earn revenue from this article from the company mentioned if you choose to purchase their product, but there is no cost to you for this. Our perspective is informed by our readers and our personal experiences, not influenced by advertisers. We wouldn’t recommend a product we haven’t used ourselves and will state if an article of this type is paid for or sponsored by a company, which it is not in this case. Read our disclaimer here.

What is a SIM card?

The acronym ‘SIM’ means ‘Subscriber Identity/Identification Module’. A SIM stores data unique to the user, such as an identification number, passwords, phone numbers, and messages. The first SIM card was invented and manufactured in 1991 in Munich by smart-card maker Giesecke and Devrient. It revolutionised the industry. At launch, two versions of the sim were introduced – one the size of a credit card and one mini version. For the customer, the benefit of these new cards was that they could move a subscription between different devices – something not possible with the existing technology. Today, SIM cards are the size of a thumbnail.

In the past several years, a new kind of SIM has been developed for mobile phones called an electronic SIM card, or eSIM. An eSIM is an embedded SIM card that is built into a device’s hardware and works 100% digitally. ESIMs don’t work on older phones, so you may need to upgrade your phone to use this capability. Don’t buy an eSIM until you’ve confirmed that you have dual SIM capability and that your mobile phone carrier allows it, as some companies lock their phones so that you use their roaming service. A dual SIM card phone need not be expensive; you can find many reburbished ones on Amazon for less than $100.

Benefits of an eSIM

There are several things to consider when it comes to mobile communications, including usability, cost and safety. First of all, what kind of phone do you have? Do you want to keep your same phone number when you travel? What’s your budget for telecommunications?

ESIms offer several benefits over physical SIM cards.

It works electronically: Instead of putting a physical SIM card in your phone, you simply purchase an eSIM through an app and install it on your phone from the app. You can purchase an eSIM package for your destination, install it before you travel, and instantly connect to a mobile network upon arrival.

You keep your phone number: A major benefit for me is that you don’t have to have a different phone number when travelling. I always used to find this confusing.

An eSIM is cheaper than mobile phone roaming plans: Many of the mobile companies offer daily or monthly plans for roaming. For example, Rogers charges C$15 a day for ‘roam like home’, which can add up to hundreds of dollars per month. Verizon offers a $100 a month plan. However, as some have noted, these plans don’t always work well.

You can choose one by country or region: There are three kinds of eSIM packages. You can purchase eSIMs for a specific country, regional eSIMs or Global eSIMs. The cost is based on both the length of time (eg a week, 30 days) and how many gigabytes you need. If you run out of time or gigabytes you can purchase a ‘top-up’ package which gets automatically added to your existing package. It also allows you to use the same phone number. Keep in mind, that regional and global eSIMs cost more than country-based ones.

You need an eSIM-capable phone: An important feature of using eSIMs is that you need to have an eSIM-capable phone. Most of the newer iPhones have this but check before you purchase the eSIM. Also, check with your local phone service provider (eg Verizon) that you can install an eSIM. Sometimes the phones are locked because the provider wants you to use their long-distance service, not an eSIM. Dual-sim phones include Samsung, iPhone and Android models Check this list on Airalo to confirm if your device is eSIM capable.

I always think it’s best to own your phone rather than get it for free with a cellular phone. Apple has a very good trade-in program where you can get money back when you purchase a new phone, bringing the cost down. You can use your old phone as a backup phone.

Airalo eSIM banner with JourneyWoman promotion

How much does an eSIM cost

Costs vary by region and by gigabyte (GB), but generally start around $5 for one week. A gigabyte is a specific unit of data that’s equal to about 1 billion bytes of data. For example, when I travel to Europe, I purchase a regional eSIM that covers 39 countries. If I’m going to be in Mexico for a few months, I just purchase the Mexico eSIM.

For example, at the time of publication, a one-week eSIM for Europe with 3 GB is US$5.00 for seven days. A 30-day eSIM for one month is US$13 for 3 GB. A one-month eSIM for the continent of Africa is $27 for 3 GB, whereas Asia is $13 for 3 GB for one month.

ESims are also available in North America. A 30-day 3 GB eSIM for Canada is US$15, and it’s US$11 for a 30-day eSIM in the United States.

How an eSIM works

Having now used eSIMs around the world, I’ve learned how to do it quickly and easily. Even if you find it hard at first, don’t give up. Airalo’s customer service is very responsive and they’ve got new videos and tools to help you do this.

Purchasing an eSIM

  1. Set up an account here.
  2. Download the Airalo app here.
  3. You’ll need to connect Airalo to a payment system. I use PayPal. Airalo gives you points in the form of “Airmoney’ which can be applied to future purchases.
  4. Go to the store and purchase the eSIM for the country or region that you want. Use our code for a discount!
  5. To activate the eSIM, you’ll need to be on wifi. Don’t activate it until you have arrived in a country, because you will need to shut off your local cellular service. I usually do it at the airport or hotel when I arrive.

Special pricing for JourneyWoman readers

To help you get started, we’ve arranged special pricing for all JourneyWoman readers for your first and subsequent eSIMs.

Save 15% on your first eSIM at Use Code: JOURNEY15 at checkout here.

Save 10% on your next eSIM: Save 10% on your next eSIM at Use Code: JOURNEY10 at checkout.

How Airalo eSIM works

Installing the eSIM

Here’s the tricky part, and it takes a little practice, so don’t be discouraged! Once you’ve done it a few times it will be easy.

To learn how to install the eSIM, watch this video from Airalo.

My tips on installation

Before you take off to your next destination, turn off all of your cellular lines. Make sure you have roaming turned off and turn off ‘mobile data switching.’

I turn off all of the apps that use cellular service regularly, just to be sure. When I have my eSIM on, I turn on only the apps that I need and still use Wifi for the ones that require more data. For example, I find Maps, Facebook and Instagram can use a lot of gigabytes, so I try to use them only when I’m on wifi and shut them off otherwise. If I do need my map, I turn it on, use it, then turn it off. These apps can run in the background and use up a lot of gigabytes without you even knowing it.

Airalo also has an extensive help section on its website for iPhone, Samsung and Android device users.

For Samsung devices, click here.

For Android devices, click here.

What women say about eSIMs

“Travel with a phone with eSIM capability. If new to the world of eSIM technology, watch a few YouTube videos that explain how they work and compare a few eSIM companies. My last trip of 46 days to several countries was my first eSIM experience. I chose a 60-day Global Plan with Airalo of 5 GB. As soon as the plane touched down, I had service (data only, no phone number). It was VERY useful for navigation, booking Uber, looking up stuff on the fly, and using apps such as WhatsApp that require Wi-Fi. Many service providers use WhatsApp so having cellular data while on the move is very convenient.” — Anne B.

“I used Aíralo on my recent trip to Portugal Spain and France and it worked seamlessly from city to city and country to country. It was inexpensive and easy to use. Highly recommend it!! That gave me data and I then used email and Messenger to communicate with others. I relied on maps and the internet heavily during my months trip and I still came home with unused data!!!” — Cathi W.

I get Airalo to have on hand once we land, and I can hit the ground running so to speak…but as soon as I can, I purchase a sim for my secondary phone (I always carry 2). I can then hotspot and never worry about running out of data, or having to top up. 50 GB eSIM for 25 Euros goes further than eSIM at 37 USD for 10 GB. I also found that the eSIM strength was not always the best. I also had everyone on Whatsapp that I needed to call, so you don’t use airtime to call .— Rossana W.

Read More on Travel Technology

As the CEO and Editor of JourneyWoman, Carolyn is a passionate advocate for women's travel and living the life of your dreams. She leads JourneyWoman's team of writers and chairs the JourneyWoman Women's Advisory Council and Women's Speaker's Bureau. She has been featured in the New York Times, Toronto Star and Zoomer as a solo travel expert, and speaks at women's travel conferences around the world. In March 2023, she was named one of the most influential women in travel by TravelPulse and was the recipient of a SATW travel writing award in September 2023. She is the chair of the Canadian chapter of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW), a member Women's Travel Leaders and a Herald for the Transformational Travel Council (TTC). Sometimes she sleeps. A bit.


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