What is an eSim and should I have one for my holiday?

tourist in vienna
The technological revolution that is the eSim is changing how holidaymakers stay in touch - Getty

Staying connected while travelling is, more often than not, essential. Having access to the internet is the backbone of planning days out, making reservations and avoiding getting lost. The ability to call family or friends is imperative to your safety. But the way holidaymakers keep in touch is changing.

Leading the technological revolution is the eSim – a chip in your mobile phone that is replacing the role of the traditional, transferable Sim card. With most major mobile operators reintroducing data roaming charges in Europe since Brexit, this new technology is presenting travellers the chance to save money when calling, messaging and using the internet on holiday.

Find out everything you need to know about the device here, plus how it could help on your next holiday.

What is an eSim?

A Sim – or a subscriber identity module – has typically taken the form of a small plastic card. It slots into a mobile phone and holds crucial information like your contact number, plus allows you to make calls and use data to go online.

An eSim holds all the same information as a physical Sim card, but it takes the form of an embedded chip in your mobile phone, and is operated via an app. Unlike with the physical card, you can have multiple eSims on your phone, each with its own phone number and data plan.

The new technology has proved popular with people who use two numbers, for example those with separate home and work accounts. Only one account can work at any time, but it means there is no longer any need to carry around multiple Sim cards, or indeed handsets.

Are all mobile phones compatible with an eSim?

Many phones now don’t have the plastic tray that the physical Sim sits in – they just have an eSim. But, be warned: as eSims are relatively new, they might not be compatible with every phone. If you use an Apple handset, anything from the iPhone XS – first released in 2018 – should work. It’s likely that all iPhones in the future will scrap the physical Sim tray, and instead be entirely reliant on the eSim.

Most higher-end Samsung devices released from 2020 onwards, such as the Galaxy XS, are likely also operational, although mid-range options like Galaxy A53 are not. All Google Pixel phones released after 2018 support eSims. Older phones, or those released with other manufacturers, might still use the traditional Sim.

Should I get an eSim for my holiday?

Getting an eSim for your holiday could be a way to save money on excessive roaming costs abroad. Post-Brexit, most major phone operators have reintroduced data roaming costs, which means that UK travellers could be stung with large bills if they use their usual phone contract in Europe.

woman walking with suitcase looking at phone
eSims mean you can simply buy and activate a plan with a cheaper mobile phone provider upon landing via an app - Digital Vision

Buying a physical Sim from the airport upon landing used to be a way to mitigate this (allowing travellers to use a local service at cheaper rates). Some UK providers also offer data bundles in advance (although these are often more expensive than options with local firms).

Now, the eSim means you can simply buy and activate a plan with a cheaper provider upon landing, via an app. You can use your phone immediately, often at a fraction of the roaming cost charged by your existing UK network.

What are the top eSim providers?

There are several eSim providers, all of which can be operated via your phone. Airalo, for example, offers eSims for over 200 countries. Download the app, select the country you’re travelling to and the contract of choice, and then activate the eSims. The amount of data and time is customisable, which means you’re unlikely to overpay.  Take, for example, a 15-day, 2GB package for travelling in France. It costs around £6, with top-up options available if you find you need more data. If you’re travelling between countries, you can choose a regional rather than local eSim – meaning you can purchase options that work across whole continents.

Other companies like Holafly, Airhub, Simify and Nomad all offer similar deals for tourists. Holafly is particularly popular among those who need a large amount of data, as its eSims typically have unlimited internet access. The downside of this, of course, is that its offering is more expensive than its competitors. A 15-day package for France with Holafly costs just around £40, but that includes unlimited data and calls within the country.

Nomad claims to offer a ‘near local’ price, with plans in France starting from £6.50 for 3GB of data over 30 days. Airhub allows users to compare local operator prices, which gives users more control. And Simify, largely known for providing travellers with physical Sim cards, is now moving into the virtual space too.

What do I need to look out for when choosing an eSim?

Your particular needs will likely vary, so it’s best to compare the eSims on offer and make a choice based on how much data and messaging you’ll use on holiday. The most basic options only include data, which means you can use Whatsapp to message and call over the internet, but not send texts or make calls. Paying slightly more will allow you to text and ring people, too, although likely from a local number rather than your usual one. Prices also fluctuate greatly, so always check the overall cost before travelling.

It’s also worth finding out the rates to use data on your existing contract when overseas. If you’re unlikely to use your phone much at all, a £5 daily cost and slightly less internet might be sufficient – and the extra eSim might not be needed at all.

This story was first published in September 2023 and has been revised and updated.