eSIMs for travelling abroad: how much can you save?

Your mobile network isn’t necessarily the cheapest when going abroad

With many networks stopping free EU data roaming, using your normal phone abroad can be hugely expensive. And if you go further afield you’re almost certain to get hit with a huge bill. 

Instead, an eSIM is a digital take on travel SIM cards which can save you money on roaming charges when going abroad. Here’s how they work and how you can get one. 

What are eSIMs?

An eSIM is a digital SIM that you can add to your phone. Though some networks have introduced them for your UK SIM, they’re most useful when buying one to use abroad.

Effectively you’re connecting to a local network on holiday rather than the one you use day-to-day at home. You can load several eSIMs at once in preparation for your trip away, which is especially handy if you’re going to multiple destinations. 

The eSIM handles the data, while you can use your regular SIM at the same time for texts and calls. You may have to tweak your settings to share what you want to use each SIM for, then your phone will automatically switch between them for each purpose. 

You usually only get data with these, though some are available for calls and texts too. If you opt for the data only eSIMs you won’t have a local phone number – but you’ll be able to access the internet to use WhatsApp and iMessage to communicate. 

eSIM vs physical SIM

An eSIM is pretty similar to a normal SIM, but the big difference is you don’t need to physically add it to your handset. 

So there’s no need to remove your earring or hunt down a paperclip to pop your SIM tray out, and you don’t need to worry about losing your original SIM while the temporary SIM is in place. 

Plus, you don’t have to search for somewhere to buy one once you land as you can buy your eSIM months in advance. 

But, as you don’t have a physical card, you can’t just pop out the SIM from your phone if you want to switch to another handset — such as if your phone runs out of battery. 

Where can you buy eSIMs?

There are lots of places where you can buy eSIMs including Maya and Holafly which offer data only eSIMs and eTravelSIM, which offers ones with a phone number. The setup is the same, no matter which one you choose. 

Holafly tends to be more expensive as it offers unlimited data. While it can be tempting to go with this option, you’re unlikely to need unlimited data for a couple of weeks abroad. Ofcom reckons the average person uses about 8GB of data in a month, so 3GB should be plenty for a week away, but take a look in your settings to see how much you use.

When buying an eSIM for travel, you can choose the date you plan to fly out and how long you’re away, then the SIM will activate on the day you go away. This means that you can organise your eSIM long before you go on your holiday.  

How to set up your eSIM

iPhone

  1. Buy one online
  2. Go to iPhone settings and search “eSIM” 
  3. Select “Mobile Service”
  4. Select “add eSIM”
  5. Use the QR code and scan the one provided by the mobile network provider
  6. Follow the on-screen instructions

Android

  1. Buy an eSIM online
  2. Go to settings and search “SIMs”
  3. Select the + button to add a new SIM
  4. Select “Set up an eSIM” 
  5. Scan the QR code and follow the instructions

How do eSIMs work?

Once the eSIM is loaded onto your phone, you can just turn it on and off in your settings.

Then, when you go abroad, you can use your eSIM for the data and your regular SIM for phone calls and text messages — this avoids costly roaming charges with your standard provider. 

However, be aware that you might still need to pay for phone calls and text messages if your UK SIM charges for these. You can avoid this by using WhatsApp for calls and messages while abroad. 

To get it working, you just slide the toggle to turn it on and off in your settings once it’s been set up. 

Cost of an eSIM vs roaming charges

You might wonder whether an eSIM is really worth it versus paying for roaming with your mobile network. Here are the costs for the major mobile networks, versus the cost of an eSIM. 

For the eSIM cost we’ve gone with one from Maya with 3GB data for a week away, with the average person using about 8GB each month according to Ofcom. 

Within Europe

O2EEVodafoneThreeeSIM (3GB)
CostNo extra charges £2.47/day or £25 per month£2.25 per day/ £10 for 8 days/ £15 for 15 days£2/day£6
Usage (fair-use)25GB50GB25GB12GB3GB
Cost of a week abroad – within allowance£0£17.29£10£14£6

Outside Europe

O2EEVodafoneThreeeSIM (3GB)
Cost£6 per day£25  £7.39 per day£5 per day£5
UsageUnlimitedUse your UK allowanceUse your UK allowanceUse your UK allowance3GB
Cost of a week abroad£42£25£51.73£35£5

Is my phone compatible with eSIMS?

Your phone needs to have the technology available for eSIMs, which tends to be newer devices. 

iPhones from the XR model and beyond support eSIMs. 

If you’ve got an Android device it’s a little more complicated, but most Samsung Galaxy and Google Pixel phones tend to have it. For other Android devices you’ll need to look up whether your device has it, or search your settings for “eSIM” and see if you have the related settings. If you do, your phone is compatible.

Your phone needs to be unlocked from a mobile network in order to use eSIMs. You can contact your network to unlock it for you if yours is locked or to check if yours is locked.

Can you have more than one eSIM?

Yes, you can have more than one eSIM stored in your phone, though you can only use one at a time. You can have 20 eSIMs installed on an iPhone and about ten on Android phones — for Android this varies.

Should you get an eSIM?

Unless you have free EU roaming, in most cases an eSIM will save you money when headed abroad. However there’s the caveat that you may have a different phone number, or might not be able to take calls for your time away without additional costs.

To find out whether it’s worth it, spend a little time looking at how much your mobile network will charge you when you go away. For example, if you have a contract with O2 and are travelling to Europe, you can use your phone for no additional cost, but it’s one of the most costly networks when travelling to the States (though it is free if you also have Virgin Media broadband).

You also want to consider whether you’ll have access to WiFi at your accommodation, as this could impact whether you’ll need more data than you typically use at home.

On a recent two-week trip to Spain, while I was revelling in O2’s free roaming, my partner on EE spent a whopping £25 for two weeks of roaming using his existing SIM. If he’d been slightly more prepared, he could’ve spent as little as £7 for the fortnight of data, and still used his regular SIM for phone calls. 

We also have some tips on reducing your mobile phone bill when going abroad in our full guide.

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