What is an eSIM | Which operators offer eSIMs & which phones come with eSIMs.

12 May 2022

what is an esim | esim uk

Contents list

  1. What is an eSIM?
  2. Advantages and disadvantages
  3. Which networks offer eSIMs?
  4. Which phones support eSIMs?
  5. How to setup an eSIM
  6. FAQ

Introduction

eSIMs are the next generation of SIM cards, and a number of UK networks already support them – so if you have a phone with an eSIM slot, or you’re interested in getting one, you’ll be able to make full use of this futuristic tech.

Below, we’ve detailed exactly which networks offer eSIM support, along with the specific details of their offerings. We’ve also included a list of those networks that don’t yet offer it.

And if you’re not sure what an eSIM is or why you should care – or simply have other questions about the technology – you’re in the right place for that as well, as this guide includes an explanation of eSIMs and a full FAQ.

What is an eSIM?

SIM cards are those small bits of plastic that operators give you to make your phone number work with your phone.

The acronym SIM stands for Subscriber Identity Module. Each SIM contains a unique serial number (ICCID), an international mobile subscriber identity (IMSI) number, several security authentication methods, and any temporary information needed to connect your phone to your chosen mobile network.

Embedded SIMs, or eSIMs, fulfil the exact same function, but they make the process of changing your number or network a virtual one.

As the name suggests, these eSIMs are embedded as a permanent part of a smartphone’s motherboard. When you change network or phone number with an eSIM, it involves a simple software update rather than a physical transfer process.

Advantages and Disadvantages of eSIMs

Advantages

  • Can't be lost or damaged

Using an eSIM means that you’ll never lose or break this essential part of your phone, as is possible with old fashioned physical SIMs. It also lessens the likelihood of damaging your phone, as removing a SIM can be a fiddly process.

  • No waiting for post to arrive

Because sign up is virtual, you no longer have to wait for a network to send you a physical SIM card through the post.

  • Saves space inside a phone

eSIMs take up much less space within a smartphone than a physical SIM. They’re around half the size of a nano SIM, and they don’t require the same elaborate housing mechanism (such as the removable SIM tray). That’s precious space that  could potentially be used for bigger batteries, more water-tight designs, or simply smaller phones.

  • Multiple profiles 

The virtual nature of the eSIM means that they can hold multiple profiles simultaneously. You could conceivably switch between up to five numbers and operators across multiple countries with a simple tweak in your phone’s settings menu.

Disadvantages

  • Not as easy to switch to a new phone

When your phone breaks, it’s easy to quickly switch a physical SIM to a new device. With eSIMs, the process is more laborious, and requires that you order a new eSIM pack from your network.

  • Privacy concerns

If you’re concerned about the ability for phone companies to track you, then eSIMs are potentially problematic. You can physically remove that ability with a SIM card, but not with an eSIM.

  • Single number sharing is more difficult

If you like to switch a single number between multiple phones, you’re better off with a physical SIM. With eSIMs you’ll need to go through the process of requesting a switch from your network each and every time.

  • Not available on PAYG

At the time of writing, there are no Pay As You Go plans offering eSIMs, only Pay Monthly contracts. This excludes a considerable number of mobile users from taking advantage of eSIM.

Which UK networks offer eSIMs?

Network

UK Networks offering eSIMs

Find out more

EE Logo

Pay Monthly plans

Find out more

Vodafone Logo

Pay Monthly plans

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Pay Monthly plans

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Compare SIM only deals

As of the time of writing, three of the UK’s four major mobile networks – EE, Vodafone and O2 – offer eSIM support for compatible devices. The fourth, Three, has had trial periods of supporting eSIMs, and has promised to start again sometime in 2022.

Outside of the major networks, Virgin Mobile also supports eSIMs. BT supports eSIMs too, but only if you're a BT Business customer.

EE eSIMs

EE supports eSIMs on most phones that include an eSIM. Its list mentions every iPhone from the iPhone XS onwards, all Google Pixel devices from the Pixel 3 onwards, and many recent Samsung devices, including most flagships from the Samsung Galaxy S20 onwards, plus the Motorola Razr 2020.

To get an eSIM from EE as an existing customer you can call 150 from your EE phone, login to your My EE account and order one from there, or head into an EE store. New customers meanwhile can request an eSIM during the normal checkout process on EE’s website when ordering a SIM Only plan or a handset contract with a compatible phone.

You can find up to date details of EE’s eSIM offering (including setup guides) on EE’s eSIM help page. Or keep reading for full details on setting up an eSIM below.

O2 eSIMs

O2 offers eSIMs with Pay Monthly and business plans (but not Pay As You Go). You can get one by asking in a physical O2 store, or contacting O2 online to request one.

O2 supports eSIMs in iPhones from the iPhone XS onwards, the Samsung Galaxy S20, S20 Plus, S20 Ultra, Galaxy Z Flip, Google Pixel 3, Pixel 3 XL, Microsoft Surface Pro X, Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2, and Galaxy Watch 3 at the time of writing.

You can find more details of O2’s eSIM terms and offerings on the company’s eSIM support page – or read on for general eSIM information that’s not specific to O2.

Vodafone eSIMs

Vodafone lists a wide range of devices as compatible with its eSIMs. This includes every iPhone from the iPhone XS onwards, except the iPhone SE 2022, though the network possibly just hasn’t updated its list yet.

The network also lists various iPad models, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, Galaxy S21 Plus, Galaxy S21, Galaxy Note 20, Galaxy S20 Ultra, Galaxy S20 Plus, Galaxy S20, Galaxy Z Flip, Google Pixel 5, Pixel 4a, Pixel 4, Pixel 3a XL, Pixel 3a, Pixel 3 XL, and Pixel 3 as being compatible. Plus the Huawei P40 Pro and the Oppo Find X3 Pro.

Vodafone only offers eSIM plans to Pay Monthly customers with a compatible device, and you need to start with a physical SIM card. Then you can swap your plan from a physical SIM to an eSIM in your My Vodafone account. For more details, head to Vodafone’s eSIM help page.

Virgin Mobile eSIMs

Virgin Mobile is the only MVNO (mobile virtual network operator) that offers eSIMs in the UK currently. To get one, you need to be a Pay Monthly customer with an eligible device, then you can call 789 from your Virgin Mobile phone to request a move to an eSIM, or make the request through your online account.

If you’re a new customer, you can request an eSIM for compatible devices during your purchase if you make the purchase online, or you can request one by calling 0800 052 0422.

The list of eligible devices is similar to other networks, but can be found here. Or for other information, head to Virgin Mobile’s eSIM help page.

Which UK networks don’t offer eSIMs?

None of the following networks currently offer eSIMs:

  • Three 
  • BT Mobile (non-business customers)
  • Sky Mobile
  • Asda Mobile
  • Giffgaff
  • iD Mobile
  • Lebara Mobile
  • Lyca Mobile
  • SMARTY
  • Tesco Mobile
  • VOXI
  • CMLink.
  • No other conventional UK networks offer eSIMs at the time of writing either.

Which phones support eSIMs?

Back in 2020, the Motorola Razr that was offered through EE was a rare phone that used an eSIM exclusively. That phone is no longer a going concern, and the vast majority of new phones that currently support eSIM will also support a physical SIM.

Phones that support eSIMs

Manufacturer Model

Apple 5G phones

iPhone SE 2022, iPhone 13, iPhone 13 Pro, iPhone 13 Pro Max, iPhone 13 mini, iPhone 12, iPhone 12 Pro, iPhone 12 Pro Max, iPhone 12 mini, iPhone SE 2020, iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro, iPhone 11 Pro Max, iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max, iPhone XR

Google 5G phones

Pixel 6, Pixel 6 Pro, Pixel 5, Pixel 4a, Pixel 4, Pixel 4 XL, Pixel 3a, Pixel 3a XL, Pixel 3

Microsoft

Microsoft Surface Duo

Motorola 5G phones

Razr

Oppo 5G phones

Oppo Find X3 Pro, Oppo Find X5 Pro

Samsung 5G phones

Galaxy Z Flip 3, Galaxy Z Fold 3, Galaxy S21, Galaxy S21 Plus, Galaxy S21 Ultra, Galaxy Note 20, Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, Galaxy S20, Galaxy S20 5G, Galaxy S20+ 5G, Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G, Galaxy Z Flip, Galaxy Fold, Galaxy Z Fold 2, Galaxy S22, Galaxy S22+, Galaxy S22 Ultra.

Note that while the phones in the chart above all support eSIM, they won’t necessarily all be available with an eSIM from every network that offers eSIMs. Note also that in addition to phones there are a selection of tablets (mostly iPads) and smartwatches that support eSIM.

How to set up an eSIM

Assuming you’ve checked that your phone supports eSIM, first ensure that your phone has Wi-Fi turned on. Then, if you received an eSIM QR code from your network, scan it in using your phone’s camera app. Your eSIM will install your profile automatically. If you’re prompted to install a ‘Data Plan’ or a ‘Mobile Plan’, do so.

Alternatively you may have to use your network’s app or website to set up your eSIM. You should have full instructions from your network to do this, but the process basically involves launching the app or loading your account on the website from the device you want the eSIM on (so you’ll need to be connected to Wi-Fi), then selecting the download eSIM option. As above, you should select to add ‘Data Plan’ and ‘Mobile Plan’ if asked.

You may also have the option to bring up an eSIM QR code on the network’s website or app. This will require you to open the website or app on a different device, then to scan the QR code with the device you want to add the eSIM to.

How to switch from a physical SIM to an eSIM?

Just contact your network and ask them to make the change from SIM to eSIM. They’ll typically send you an eSIM pack with a QR code. Follow the relevant operator links listed above to initiate the switch.

Roaming with eSIM

Note that if you are using a dual-SIM phone with an active eSIM, you might be charged roaming fees on both lines when you go abroad. Our recommendation would be to go in and deactivate the secondary SIM whilst travelling abroad, just to be sure that you don’t get any nasty billing surprises.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is an eSIM?

An eSIM is an Embedded Subscriber Identity Module. Like a regular SIM, an eSIM contains everything needed to connect you to your unique phone number. 

However, whereas physical SIMs can be physically removed and swapped between smartphones, eSIMs are a fixed internal component. Any changes made to your account, network or number are done virtually. 

Can I access 5G with an eSIM?

If your particular phone supports 5G, and your network covers 5G in your area, then yes. 5G support won’t be a problem.

How do I get an eSIM?

Contact EE, Vodafone or O2 and ask to get set up with an eSIM. 

How do I set up my device for eSIM?

Once you’ve requested an eSIM from your network operator of choice, you will typically be sent a pack either in the post or digitally. This will include a QR code which, when scanned in with your phone, will install all the relevant eSIM information. In some cases, your eSIM might alternatively be installable from your network’s app or website, but you will be provided full instructions if so. 

Can I move an existing line from a physical SIM to an eSIM?

Yes you can. Again, just contact your network operator and request the move, and they’ll supply you with an eSIM pack.

Are eSIMs a fad or the future?

eSIMs are the future for the benefits listed above, though they won’t be ubiquitous for some time yet. According to a 2019 report from analyst firm Ovum, eSIM-enabled phones will rise from 5% of all smartphones in 2020 to 20% by 2024. Similarly, a 2020 report from Kaleido Intelligence found that eSIMs will connect 2.4 billion devices in 2025, up from 36 million in 2019. 

Do any other devices use eSIMs?

eSIMs have been used in several generations of Apples iPad family, and also in numerous smartwatches, including the Apple Watch and Samsung Galaxy Watch. Its use in the smartphone form factor perfectly illustrates the space saving potential of going with an eSIM over a physical SIM.

Certain laptops can also make use of eSIMs, as can modern connected cars.

Jon Mundy
About Jon Mundy

Technical Writer at 5G.co.uk

Jon has nine years experience of writing and editing copy for leading publications, as well as attending technology shows and events and conducting interviews. Currently working with 5G.co.uk, TechRadar, Trusted Reviews, T3, Digital Spy, What Mobile, Pocket Gamer, and The Gadget Show.

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James Rogerson
About James Rogerson

Editorial Manager

James has been writing for us for over 10 years. Currently, he is Editorial Manager for our group of companies ( 3G.co.uk, 4G.co.uk and 5G.co.uk) and sub-editor at TechRadar. He specialises in smartphones, mobile networks/ technology, tablets, and wearables.

In the past, James has also written for T3, Digital Camera World, Clarity Media, Smart TV Radar, and others, with work on the web, in print and on TV. He has a film studies degree from the University of Kent, Canterbury, and has over a decade’s worth of professional writing experience.

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