Holiday planning

What is an eSim and should you get one for your holiday?

Photo of Jacob LewisPhoto of Jacob Lewis
By Jacob Lewis

1 February 2024 | Updated 8 April 202410 min read

Are you gearing up for a holiday abroad but dreading those pesky roaming charges? With Brexit ushering in the return of data roaming in Europe, and fees for using your phone further afield still sky high, staying connected can feel like a holiday add-on many of us can't afford.

Enter eSims – the savvy traveller's secret to cheap and easy connectivity. If you're tired of your network's hefty roaming fees, eSims are here to rescue your holiday. They offer the freedom to switch to a more budget-friendly provider while you're globe-trotting, allowing you to download, stream, and stay connected without the fear of a shocking bill on your return.

But what exactly are eSims, and how do they work? Our guide walks you through everything you need to know.

What’s the difference between a regular sim card and an eSim?

An eSim is a digital version of the traditional physical sim card. It's downloaded directly to your device, eliminating the need for a physical card. Notably, in the USA, eSims are becoming the norm, with devices like iPhones now sold without physical sim slots.

In the context of overseas holidays, eSims can be used for accessing local networks at your destination, potentially offering cheaper data and call rates. eSims can be purchased for as little as a day, or for however long you need. They can easily be topped up with more data, and you can delete them from your phone when done or choose a deal from another network provider at any point.

How do I know if it is worth paying for an eSim on holiday?

Before considering an eSim, first check with your UK network provider to see if roaming is free in your destination. If your network provider says they’ll charge you, then you’re free to take your money elsewhere, shop around and find a better deal with an eSim provider. eSims will usually offer more affordable data plans for international travel, especially in destinations where a UK network might impose high roaming charges.

Even if your UK network provider offers data for a price that sounds fair, it’s important to remember that they can be stingy when it comes to roaming speeds. On arrival at your destination, you might discover that the network speed on your UK sim is so slow that it’s barely usable and an eSim is the better option.

Which countries are eSims most useful for?

eSims are particularly beneficial when travelling outside of Europe. While many UK networks include EU roaming in their most expensive plans or charge only a modest fee, roaming costs can skyrocket in countries outside the EU. Destinations in Asia, Africa, South America, and North America, where UK network roaming fees are typically higher, are where eSims are most advantageous.

Can I keep my existing number when using an eSim abroad, and how does it affect incoming calls and texts?

When you use an eSim while travelling abroad, you have the ability to keep your existing UK phone number active. This means that even though you are using a local data plan through your eSim for internet access, your original UK number remains functional for receiving calls and texts. The eSim technology enables your phone to operate with multiple data plans – the regular UK number and a temporary data plan via the eSim.

However, it's important to note that while your UK number stays active, any calls or texts you receive on that number might be subject to roaming charges. These charges are levied by your UK provider for using your phone in a foreign country. These fees can easily be avoided by sticking to Whatsapp, iMessage or other messaging apps rather than SMS. The same goes for phone calls. You’ll want to use FaceTime or Whatsapp audio for calls instead of your phone number, which will be routed via your UK sim card and network.

If you really need to make traditional phone calls or send an SMS, check with your network provider about the potential costs for incoming calls and texts to your UK number to avoid unexpected charges on your bill.

Will my new eSim come with its own phone number?

No, typically an eSim for international travel does not come with a new phone number. Most eSims are designed primarily for data usage, allowing you to access the internet, use apps, and communicate through online messaging and calling services like WhatsApp or FaceTime while travelling.

If you require a local phone number in the country you're visiting, you might need to use a traditional, local provider or look for specific eSim plans that offer voice services and a local number. However, these are less common and might not be available for all destinations.

Will WhatsApp and all of my other apps still work?

Yes, WhatsApp and other apps will continue to work seamlessly with an eSim. Although WhatsApp requires a phone number, it will recognize your original UK sim installed in the phone and function effectively using the eSim’s data plan.

How should I buy an eSim?

Look to comparison sites such as esimdb and eSIMradar to buy an eSim. These platforms can provide a range of options from different eSim providers, allowing you to find the most suitable plan based on your destination, data requirements, and budget.

When using these sites, it’s important to:

  • Compare data plans: Look at the amount of data offered and the duration of the plan. Ensure it matches your expected usage and length of stay.
  • Check coverage: Verify that the eSim provider offers good coverage in the areas you'll be visiting.
  • Read reviews: Look for user reviews or ratings to gauge the reliability and customer service experience of the eSim provider.

Are there any other pitfalls I should look out for when choosing an eSim?

One thing to pay attention to is any mention of data throttling. This occurs when a network provider intentionally slows down your internet speed after you've used a certain amount of data. This can significantly impact your online experience, especially if you rely on fast internet for maps or streaming while travelling.

The best price comparison sites will include information about throttling in their listings. Look for any mention of data caps or throttling policies. Some plans may offer 'unlimited data', but this can be misleading if the speed is significantly reduced after a certain threshold is reached.

What is the process of buying and installing a new eSim?

Buying an eSim involves selecting a plan online (which means it can be a good idea to plan ahead and purchase one before you leave the UK) after which you'll receive a QR code. You then scan this code (or type in a very long set of digits) with your phone to install the eSim. The process is straightforward, and once the eSim is activated, you can go to your phone’s settings app to switch between your home sim and the eSim as needed.

Can all phones use eSims?

Not all phones support eSims but most new smartphone models are compatible.

Which iPhones work with eSims?

Most newer iPhone models, starting from the iPhone XR, XS, and onwards, including the entire iPhone 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15 series, support eSims. This also includes the iPhone SE models from 2020 to 2023.

Which Android phones work with eSims?

Many recent Android devices support eSims, including Samsung Galaxy S20, S21, S22, and S23 series, Google Pixel 3 onwards, and various models from Motorola, Huawei, and Oppo. Check the specifications of your specific model to confirm eSim compatibility.

I'm travelling to more than one country, is there an eSim that will work for that?

Yes, there are eSim designed specifically for travellers visiting multiple countries. These continent-wide or global eSims offer coverage in numerous countries, allowing you to use a single eSim for data across different destinations. This makes them incredibly convenient if you're planning a multi-country itinerary.

How much money could I save using an eSim in Europe?

A typical eSim in Europe could save you almost £16 on a two-week holiday to France. Three charges its customers £2 a day for roaming in the EU, while an eSim for France from RedteaGo that we found on esimdb will cost just 86p a day for 1GB of data.

If you were in France for two weeks, that works out as £12.04 for the eSim or £28 for using your Three data plan. That's a saving of £15.96.

How much money could I save using an eSim in the rest of the world?

Roaming costs can be sky high in the rest of the world and the eSim savings on a two-week holiday are huge. Travelling to Bali with Vodafone, for example, sets you back £6.85 per day to use your phone like you would at home. If you’re not a big data user and can survive on 2.5GB for a week, an eSim from GoMoWorld costs just 84p.

So, two weeks in Bali with Vodafone roaming will cost £95.90 or, with an eSim, you could pay just £1.68. That’s a massive saving of £94.22.

How can I make sure I don’t accidentally use roaming data from my UK sim? Can I keep my UK sim card in place?

Yes, you can keep your physical UK sim card in your phone while using an eSim. Modern smartphones allow you to configure settings to manage the usage of data from either the eSim or the physical sim.

In your phone's settings, you can set the eSim as the default option for cellular data usage. This ensures that your phone primarily uses the data from the eSim. To avoid unexpected charges, especially if your eSim data gets depleted, you should turn off data roaming for your UK sim card.

What about buying a local sim card? How does it compare to purchasing an eSim?

You’ll need to weigh up several factors – including convenience, cost and connectivity – when choosing between a local sim card and an eSim for your destination.

If you opt for a physical sim card at the airport, one key consideration is that you will need to remove your home sim. This means losing access to your home number, which can be crucial for emergency contacts or services tied to your number, like iMessage. However, if your home sim is already an eSim, your sim card tray will be free, allowing you to install a local sim without sacrificing access to your home number. This setup can offer the best of both worlds – local rates and data with continuous access to your home services.

On the other hand, setting up an eSim for your destination before leaving can save you time upon arrival. You can activate your eSim and ensure connectivity right as you land, bypassing the need to locate a sim card vendor at the airport or in town.

It's worth noting that local sim cards can offer competitive deals, potentially providing more data or better rates than online eSim options. These local sims are often tailored to tourists and can include various benefits, such as local call minutes and sufficient data allowances for short stays. However, comparing these on-the-spot deals with eSim plans beforehand can be challenging, making it hard to predict which option would be more cost-effective.

Ultimately, the decision hinges on balancing convenience with cost. If maintaining access to your home number is critical, or you prefer having everything arranged before departure, an eSim is an excellent choice. For travellers open to potentially better local deals and not reliant on their home number for the duration of their trip, purchasing a physical sim card upon arrival could offer savings.

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