International travel has become more affordable and accessible than ever and travel eSIM is expected to support this trend. Consumer-centric, online travel agencies, low-cost airlines and shared lodging options have all made travel way more economical and convenient. Accordingly, international tourist arrivals topped 1.4 billion in 2018 – two years ahead of forecasts – and are expected to exceed 1.8 billion by 2030, as per the UNWTO. Putting growth aside, will eSIM change the way you travel internationally?
As mobile penetration tops 67% of the global population, currently 1 billion international travelers carry at least one device that can be connected to the internet while away from home. Whether it is a smartphone, a tablet or a wearable, such devices and their associated applications are typically not useful without internet connectivity, especially cellular data. Think of your digital maps, ride-sharing, mobile banking, social media, messaging and browsing apps; they are all useless without internet access.
While this newest industrial revolution keeps expanding into all sorts of applications, today, the majority of international travelers turn off their cellular data roaming because it is expensive. They’re shelling out as much as $60 for sharing a holiday photo. In spite of this, many people don’t get a local SIM card or a second device because it is inconvenient to manage another hardware element. So, how do the majority of international travelers stay connected today? They simply stick to public Wi-Fi provided either by their hotel or at the nearby coffee shop.
From what I’ve seen in my travels, this trend has encouraged certain touristic cities, like New York City, to offer free Wi-Fi in more places. Yet, Wi-Fi comes with its fundamental issues, including its limited security, reliability and coverage. Based on data from over 32 million Wi-Fi hotspots from around the world, it is estimated that a quarter of Wi-Fi hotspots don’t use any sort of encryption and, thus, expose their users to man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks and eavesdropping.
For an always-connected lifestyle, Wi-Fi is only complementary to cellular data connectivity, especially for international travelers who now seek unique experiences on the go instead of typical trips. Thanks to the shift to cloud computing and the explosion of mobile applications experienced over the last decade, data connectivity has become a vital gateway to valuable experiences provided by such applications, whether at home or abroad. Nowadays, you expect to get transparent pricing for your airport cab ride, to know the wait time at any given attraction before visiting and to easily find top-rated or top-visited restaurants and activities. After all, we are now traveling more and for shorter periods, so the last thing we expect is a bad experience on a short trip. The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that Americans who traveled overseas in 2017 went on 2.5 trips on average, while over 80% of international travelers visiting the United States typically spent 9 days or less on a given trip.
Cellular data has been climbing up travelers’ hierarchy of Maslow’s needs, but it is still either expensive, when on international roaming, or not easily accessible via local SIM cards. Consumer embedded SIM (eSIM) could change all that, so what is, exactly, eSIM? In simple terms, eSIM is a new cellular connectivity module, standardized by GSMA and built into new consumer devices* including smartphones, tablets, laptops and smartwatches. Such feature can be used both locally and as a travel eSIM.
eSIM modules enable the above devices to digitally get cellular connectivity from different cellular networks without the need to change physical SIM cards. Such connectivity can be activated within 30-40 seconds using either a QR code or an application. In fact, eSIM-enabled consumer devices are on track to exceed 250 million by the end of 2019 and are expected to expand beyond flagship devices to reach 1 billion within 2 years. Eventually, eSIM could become a standard feature — like NFC and Bluetooth — in new smartphones, especially as it evolves to become integrated within the device processor (referred to as integrated SIM), which will make it much cheaper to manufacture.
On the flip side, eSIM brings with it some disadvantages. As it is mostly included in devices with a SIM card slot, when both eSIM and SIM are turned on, the battery life of the device tends to be a bit shorter compared to a device using one connectivity module only. Another disadvantage is that eSIM is currently built into pricey premium devices, so budget travelers who prefer more affordable options may want to wait until a wider range of eSIM-enabled devices is expected to be released. Furthermore, if you’re financing your eSIM device through a home carrier, your eSIM might be locked solely to your carrier service until you fully pay off your device.
So, should travelers look for technology with travel eSIM included? With these modules, they can get cellular data that is both affordable and convenient, without compromising on security or being exclusively restricted to the home carrier service. Consequently, they can maintain mobile data access while abroad and utilize their different applications to immensely improve their travel experiences. From discovering a hidden beach in Hawaii or the best baguette in Paris to getting an affordable and top-quality ride, cellular data connectivity accessible by eSIM could make your travel experiences reach new heights. Just be aware of the possible costs that come along with this new technology.
*N.B. eSIM enabled phones currently include iPhone SE, 11, XR, XS, Google Pixel 4 or 3, Samsung Galaxy S20 or Fold, Huawei P40 and Motorola Razr. eSIM is also available in laptops and pads including Lenovo laptops, iPad Pro and Microsoft Surface among others.
This Celitech article was initially published by Forbes on Aug. 30, 2019.