Why the e-SIM could be the killer feature of the iPhone 7

Recent reports suggest that the humble SIM card’s days are numbered, with an e-SIM alternative set to provide a significantly neater solution. But what exactly is an e-SIM and when can we expect to see one pop up in an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy?

From the day you opened up the box of your first feature phone (it was a Nokia, right?), you’ve been reliant on a little oblong piece of plastic called a SIM card to make calls and send texts.

This SIM solution is a clumsy physical way to get your generically built phone connected to a specific network in a particular country. But really, there’s no good reason for them to exist, and they won’t do for much long.

What is an e-SIM?

An e-SIM is an electronic SIM card. As the name suggests, it will replace the physical, plastic SIM card all current smartphones run on with a virtual embedded equivalent that cannot be removed.

It’s been reported that both Apple and Samsung are in advanced talks with the GSMA to embed a standardised e-SIM card within future handsets.

The GSMA is the organisation that represents the interests of mobile operators around the globe, and according to the Financial Times it’s set to announce a new e-SIM standard in the near future.

Besides the world’s two biggest smartphone manufacturers, AT&T, Deutsche Telekom, Etisalat, Hutchison Whampoa (owner of Three and soon O2), Orange, Telefónica (the current O2 owner) and Vodafone are also said to be on board.

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Will the next iPhone and Samsung Galaxy phone feature e-SIM card support?

Easy operator switching and more flexible roaming

An e-SIM is non-removable, simply because it doesn’t need to be removed. With such an embedded standard, the idea is that you can switch to a new operator without having to insert a specific SIM card. It’s all done through software.

The network data that a standard SIM card carries will be rewritable on future e-SIM devices, so all you’ll need to do to change operator is make a phone call or two – rather like when you arrange to bring your phone number across to a new network now (though hopefully even easier).

Another advantage will be when travelling. It will be much easier to switch to a local network if you’re going to be spending any great amount of time abroad – particularly useful when travelling outside the EU, where roaming charges can be extortionate.

No dodgy adapters

The other problem with physical SIM cards is that there are currently two or three sizes in play.

Have you ever tried swapping your iPhone for an Android phone, or vice versa? Very often, they use different types of SIM entirely. This necessitates the use of an ugly and flimsy plastic adaptor, or else an entirely new SIM, neither of which is ideal.

Let’s not even mention the agony of requiring a hairpin-like SIM tool to access the wretched things, or the sharp edged alternatives you have to come up with when you invariably mislay them.

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You’ll need a new phone

As this new e-SIM will be an embedded standard, it means that no smartphone in existence today will benefit from it. Nor, we suspect, will any phone released within six months or even a year from now.

The aforementioned FT report reckons that the first e-SIM device could be a year away, which has led many to conclude that the iPhone 7 could be the first SIMless phone to hit the market in September 2016.

That sounds like a good bet to us, given Apple’s previous experience with SIM-less technology…

Apple already offers something similar

Apple has already offered us a glimpse at what an e-SIM might entail.

Last year’s crop of new 4G-enabled iPads, led by the iPad Air 2 but including the iPad Mini 3, incorporated something called Apple SIM. This is an entirely software-based SIM, which offered the freedom to swap operators at will.

Or rather, it did so in participating countries. The whole problem with the e-SIM concept isn’t the technology, which has been viable for some time, but the cooperation of all the various parties – and that includes networks as well as manufacturers. That’s where the GSMA’s soon-to-be-universally-accepted e-SIM standard comes in.

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It’ll mean smaller phones

Whatever the first e-SIM phone is, the chances are it’ll be slimmer for not having a physical SIM card inside it.

Given that physical SIM cards are very simple in function, they’re primarily made up of useless plastic – the actually SIM part is that thin strip of golden material you see on one side of it. This means that doing away with SIM cards will free up a fair amount of extra space.

It’s not just the space occupied by the SIM itself, but the housing, reader, and tray mechanisms that support it. With space at an absolute premium in modern smartphones, and every millimetre counting, the e-SIM will help bring about even slimmer phones.

Are you excited by the prospect of e-SIM cards? Let us know in the comments section below.

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