The new iPhone 14 family ushers in perhaps the biggest change yet for travelers.
And no, I’m not necessarily talking about the upgraded cameras or the better performance, though I’ll touch on those improvements later. Instead, there’s one subtle change that’ll have lasting implications for people who are always on the go: the elimination of the physical SIM card slot.
If you’re unfamiliar, a SIM (which stands for subscriber identity module) card is a small chip that essentially associates your phone number with your cellular provider’s network.
For the past 15 years, Apple has sold iPhone models with a SIM card slot. While some smartphone users may only pop open the SIM tray once during the initial activation process, this slot is incredibly important for international travelers.
That’s because buying a local SIM card when traveling has become a popular way to save money on expensive roaming fees.
But, without the SIM card slot on iPhone 14 models, is Apple really taking a step backward with its latest flagship smartphones?
I’ve spent the last few days traveling around with the iPhone 14 family to find out.
Putting an ‘e’ in the SIM card
Instead of the physical SIM card slot, the tech giant is going all-in on a new-ish digital SIM card standard, called eSIM.
These embedded SIM cards first debuted on the iPhone XS family, though Apple continued to offer a physical SIM card slot for those who preferred using a chip.
This year, iPhone 14 models sold in the U.S. are dropping the physical SIM slot. I’d imagine that as support for the eSIM standard expands globally, the tech giant will bring this change to other regions, too.
With eSIM, you don’t need to keep track of a physical SIM card, which can be especially hard when you’re crisscrossing the globe carrying multiple chips for different carriers.
Over the years, I’ve lost a few of those 9-millimeter-by-12-millimeter SIM cards, despite my best efforts to keep them in a safe compartment in my backpack.
Also, physical SIMs are less secure — if your phone is lost or stolen, someone could remove your SIM card to start making calls and texts (and receiving two-factor authentication codes) with your phone number.
With the digital SIM card technology, the latest iPhone 14 models can store at least eight eSIMs on a single device, which should be plenty for most trips. (Depending on the size of the SIM card profile, you may have room to store many more eSIMs on your phone.)
You can even use two eSIMs at one time, as part of a helpful dual SIM feature that first debuted back in 2018.
I’m a big fan of this feature. When I’m on the road, I usually buy a local SIM card or connect to Google Fi for cheaper international data. At the same time, I can also stay connected to my primary U.S. carrier, Verizon, without incurring the daily $10 TravelPass charge.
The eSIM is growing up
When Apple first brought eSIMs to its smartphone family, the technology was just in its infancy.
I remember spending hours on the phone with Verizon in years past trying to get mine activated. This process first required finding a Verizon agent who was familiar with eSIM and then asking that representative to send a QR code to your email for digital activation.
More often than not, this process failed. In fact, I once needed to visit a Verizon store to pick up a physical SIM card because my account had been locked due to multiple unsuccessful activation attempts.
So, when Apple dropped the news at its “Far Out” special event that the physical SIM card slot was disappearing, I panicked (and blocked out extra time on my calendar on launch day for possible issues with the activation process).
That said, my fears were unfounded; activating the eSIM couldn’t have been easier.
Over the past year, Apple has worked with some of the biggest wireless carriers worldwide to support a new digital SIM card transfer process that debuted with the recently released iOS 16 software.
When I activated my iPhone 14 Pro Max, I was asked if I’d like to transfer my phone number from my existing iPhone.
After a few taps and one press of the power button on my old phone, my phone number had been digitally ported over to the new iPhone — no physical SIM card, paper clips, or microscope required.
In the U.S., all three major wireless carriers (AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon) support this feature, and there are plenty of international carriers that have adopted this technology, too. You can find the full list in Apple’s dedicated support article.
If you’re activating a phone with a new carrier, your iPhone can even be preprogrammed with your eSIM profile thanks to a new technology dubbed “Carrier Activation.”
Choosing an international carrier
While activating eSIM service may be easy in the U.S., the story gets a little more complicated when you’re traveling abroad. There are three ways to connect to international mobile networks. You can roam with your primary home carrier, purchase a local SIM card or subscribe to a package from a worldwide service provider.
While the first is the most seamless option, with little to no additional setup required, your bill might add up quickly depending on the length of your trip and the details of your plan.
Of course, it’s worth noting that many T-Mobile plans include unlimited international data.
Another option is using Google Fi, which offers considerably cheaper international service than most U.S. carriers. Plus, you can pause and resume your Fi service as you wish depending on your travel schedule.
Both T-Mobile and Google Fi support easy eSIM activations. For $20 in Google Fi credit, sign up using this personalized link.
When I went to add my Google Fi line to my new iPhone, I was instructed to visit a website, scan a QR code and wait a few minutes for the service to activate.
All in all, the eSIM activation process was no harder than activating a physical SIM card for the first time.
If you prefer using a local SIM card when you travel, you’ll want to look at Apple’s list of over 400 wireless carriers that support eSIM.
Many of these companies have outposts in the arrivals halls at major airports, and I’d expect that eSIM support from international carriers will continue to grow in the coming weeks and months.
That said, there’s no question that Apple’s transition to eSIM-only iPhones will be challenging in parts of the world where this technology isn’t available.
In those cases, I’d recommend taking a look at worldwide service providers that offer data-only eSIMs for international travel.
I’ve recently had lots of success with RedteaGO, a company that sells digital, data-only eSIMs for over 190 countries around the world.
When I was in France last week, I downloaded a RedteaGO eSIM card in minutes and added it to my iPhone without stepping foot in a store or dealing with a ground-based agent.
I paid $14 for 5 gigabytes of high-speed 5G data. With Verizon, that would’ve cost $100 and with Google Fi, that would’ve been $50.
Several of my colleagues have had similar success with apps such as Truphone and GigSky.
Just note that, in most cases, these online carriers only offer international data packages, so you’ll need to stick to internet-based apps, such as FaceTime and WhatsApp if you need to make phone calls.