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How I Discovered eSIMs to Be the Smart Choice for Travelers

So long, roaming hassles! Using an eSIM for roaming is the best travel decision I've made in a long time.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
5 min read
iPhone with Airalo app open

Want to carefully manage and minimize roaming charges? An eSIM could be ideal.


Back in 2010, I took a backpacking trip around Indonesia for two months. I didn't travel with a mobile phone. All I had was my trusty Lonely Planet guidebook for recommendations, and the occasional stop at an internet cafe to email location updates to my parents.

Now, in 2024, I can't fathom how I managed to travel without the internet constantly at my fingertips. A phone is a travel essential and roaming while I'm overseas is non-negotiable -- and if I listed the reasons why, I'd be here all day. But roaming, if you're not careful, can also get expensive.

No matter where you're coming from or where you're traveling to, ensuring that you have internet access without running up a scary bill is a travel essential, and something you should ideally look into before you leave on your trip.

Carriers know how important it is for you to stay connected while you're traveling, and most have some kind of roaming deal you can take advantage of. But what happens when your network's roaming offering doesn't meet your data requirements for your destination, or is just too expensive?

Discovering the brilliance of eSIMs

Turns out, there's a very simple, practical solution if you have an unlocked phone like me: the eSIM. It's an electronic form of a SIM card embedded into your phone, which allows you to switch between carriers and data plans without the faff of removing and replacing physical SIM cards. The result is that you can have several SIM cards associated with your phone at once, allowing you to easily switch between plans and carriers as you travel.

In the past I'd opted for a Mi-Fi device equipped with a local pay-as-you-go SIM card when I touched down in a new country. This let me keep using my phone number and ensured I had internet access when I was out and about during the day. It's a fiddly solution, though, which usually involves finding somewhere to buy a SIM card immediately after getting off a long flight, and then remembering to charge the Mi-Fi every night.

I turned to eSIM as a last resort, but I won't be going back. I'm based in the UK, and my operator GiffGaff only allows limited roaming in select European countries. While planning a trip to the US and Canada last year, I was once again about to reach for my trusty Mi-Fi when I remembered something I'd heard about eSIM roaming operators.

From attending mobile phone events over the years, I had a vague understanding of eSIM technology, but I'd never considered using it personally for travel before this trip. It's not unusual to have a lack of awareness about how eSIM technology could benefit you while traveling. According to research due to be published this month by tech analysis firm CCS Insight, only 37% of Americans have heard of eSIM and only 8% have used an eSIM roaming provider.

One of the biggest challenges for eSIM providers is that most people are still unaware that eSIM exists as an option for them, says CCS Insight Director Kester Mann. Even if they have heard of it, less technically savvy customers may be put off by the installation instructions. Plus, it's often another thing to add to a long prevacation to-do list (although you can also do it when you arrive).

Another obstacle is that a lot of the names in eSIM game are new, said Mann. "People perhaps are a little bit nervous around signing up to the company they haven't heard of, or one that perhaps hasn't got an established reputation."

How I used Airalo's eSIM for traveling

There are a number of roaming eSIM providers that you can use, all offering competitive rates on data bundles, and different benefits across different regions. There's scope for many more providers to pop up in the near future, but for now some of the biggest names include Airhub, EasySim, Holafly and Airalo.

iPhone showing instructions in Airalo app

All the instructions you need can be found in Airalo's app.


In my research I couldn't find much to separate them and decided to take a chance on Airalo due to the diverse range of countries it supported. Installing an eSIM and getting it up and running isn't an entirely frictionless process, but by carefully following Airalo's in-app step-by-step instructions, I got it right the first time. 

Each country requires a different eSIM, and you can have multiple eSIMs installed on your phone at once. After you've installed your first eSIM, adding more is pretty intuitive -- everything can be done from within the Airalo app.

For a trip at the end of 2023, I activated two eSIMs, one for the US and one for Canada, buying 20GB of data for $42 and 3GB of data for $15 respectively. I was pleased to find when I returned to Canada this year that I could simply reactivate the eSIM I'd installed and upload more pay as you go credit to see me through my trip.

As I landed in Canada from the US, I switched my primary data plan to my preinstalled Canada eSIM in my iPhone settings and I was good to go immediately. It was so frictionless that I even decided to plump for eSIM on my trip to Barcelona for Mobile World Congress in March. My UK plan allows me to use 5GB of data while roaming in Spain, but for an intense week at a conference I knew this wouldn't be enough. Instead I spent $12 on a 10GB eSIM, and even though I had to top this up during the week, it remained a bargain.

Like me, most people who try eSIM roaming have a positive experience, says Mann. But he advises people to do their research and compare costs with their domestic provider before they head off on vacation to ensure it makes sense for them. Opting for eSIM might be especially good if you're traveling to "more far-flung destinations that aren't typically covered in operators' roaming packages," he adds.

Which phones have eSIM capability?

Another key thing to bear in mind if you're considering an eSIM for roaming is to check whether it's available on your phone. Not all phones are currently eSIM-compatible, but if you have an iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max, iPhone XR or any post-2019 Apple phone, you'll be able to take advantage of the technology. Some Samsung, Motorola and Google phones also have eSIM compatibility, but you'll have to look up your model individually if you're not sure. You'll also need to make sure your phone isn't locked by your carrier.

Something I discovered on my eSIM journey so far is that it's a fairly low-stakes technology to experiment with. It's affordable, flexible and temporary. If I find a better deal on another provider later, it'll be easy for me to switch. 

The market is booming right now, with about 700 million people in the world owning eSIM-compatible devices and as many as 10% of people in some countries purchasing an eSIM before they travel, according to CCS Insight. If you're traveling abroad this summer, whether it be to Europe, Asia or just over the border to Mexico or Canada, why not join us?