Lonely Planet's Destination Editor for Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent, Akanksha Singh, weighs in on which is better for cell phone users on the move in Europe and Asia: physical SIM cards or eSIMs.

Question: I will be traveling to Europe for a month and then backpacking through Asia. I typically use WhatsApp and FaceTime to call friends and family back home, but don’t want to pay the absurd roaming charges. Does an eSIM card make more sense or should I get a physical (local) SIM card in each place I visit?

Answer: Technology’s a miraculous thing, isn’t it? I remember being a kid and thinking a banana phone (you know, like in The Matrix) was the pinnacle of technology. Nowadays, though, we have these rectangles in our palms where we can do everything from stream a show to set up a second SIM ahead of our travels.

A woman using a mobile phone on a street in Paris with the Eiffel Tower in the background
An eSIM is a digital version of a SIM card that you can buy in advance of arrival at your destination © F.J. Jimenez / Getty Images

The difference between physical SIMs and eSIMs

SIM stands for Subscriber Identity Module. An eSIM is an embedded SIM card – it’s essentially a digital version of a SIM card that’s remotely programmable. In other words, you don’t have to open your phone’s SIM card slot to insert it. You do, however, need an unlocked and compatible device to use an eSIM – it won’t, sadly, work on the banana phone, for instance. 

Which phones support eSIMs?

This depends on a number of factors. iPhones, for instance, have supported eSIMs since 2018. A good way to check your phone to see if it’s eSIM compatible is to check the (phone handset) compatibility requirements of the eSIM provider you’re using. HolaFly is a popular option for Europe; Airalo is the go-to choice for parts of Asia, but also check out any eSIM plans offered by your mobile service provider (here is a handy list for iPhone users).

eSIMs offer flexibility and are easy to set up

For multidestination travels, eSIM providers offer plans that span several countries. As with physical SIM cards, it’s worthwhile doing your homework and seeing which plans and providers suit your needs – data, voice calling, etc.

The major pro of going the eSIM route is that you can buy your plan ahead of your travel date (or even a few hours before leaving), saving you both time and the hassle involved in buying a physical SIM card. What’s more, you can activate your eSIM the moment you land, meaning you’re good to go when you’re at your destination. (Just be sure to switch from your home country’s SIM to the eSIM provider to avoid paying roaming charges.)

Two people on a boat look at cell phones and smile
In some places, rates and connectivity might be better with a physical SIM © Image Source / Getty Images

eSIMs are plastic-free

As a small added bonus: if you skip a physical SIM card, you’ll avoid the tiniest bit of plastic waste – there’s no nano SIM, and no packaging waste to worry about. Plus, unless you have a second slot for a physical SIM card, you won’t need to worry about taking one fiddly SIM out and putting another one in.

Physical (local) SIMs might offer better rates and connectivity

Depending on where you’re traveling to, physical SIM cards might be the cheaper option (and if you don’t have an eSIM-compatible mobile device, it’s also your only option). 

eSIMs require stable wi-fi for activation at your travel destination, and, depending on which eSIM carrier you go with and where, connectivity can be patchy. With a physical SIM, there’s a level of guarantee when it comes to connectivity – you simply plug in your new SIM and you’re good to go. 

All this aside: the future certainly points to eSIMs (with some phone companies manufacturing eSIM-only models). If you’ve got the option at your destination and you’ve done your homework, give eSIMs a go.

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