Trying to save money with an eSIM card

Most cellphones made in the past few years allow you to add second or third SIM card, assuming the phone is unlocked. These are not physical cards, but rather software code downloaded into your phone that adds an electronic SIM card from another carrier.

As I prepared for a European trip, I could pay a $10 per day fee from Verizon for cell service and data, but I thought I’d try one of the new international eSIM cards instead. While most of them are for data only, the costs are very low.

I selected the app Airalo that sells eSIM data cards for most countries around the world. It’s the company that seems to be one of the most frequently reviewed and mentioned. Before leaving home I installed their free app and selected an eSIM card for Greece, where I would initially be visiting for a week. I bought an eSIM with 5GB data for $15 for a 30 day period. That compares with Verizon’s 2GB per day limit of high speed data for $10 (plus local calling) for each 24-hour period.

Once I paid for the eSIM, downloading began and then a message said to wait while it was activating. But it never did activate. I later learned it usually only activates once you arrive in the country, but that was not made clear. In retrospect that makes sense since you usually need contact with the local provider.

Once the card is installed, even without activation, you can go to Settings/Cellular and you’ll see settings to turn on or off your primary card (in my case Verizon) and the new card.

Once I arrive in Greece, before I turned off my airplane mode setting, I turned off the Verizon service (both cellular and data) and turned on the new Greece eSIM.

A few minutes later I got a cellular signal. I was able to get email, read my news feeds, use Google Maps and other apps that need access to the Internet. But iMessaging and What’sApp did not work using the new cell service. The lack of being able to message can be an issue for many of us while traveling, such as needing to contact a driver or communicate with fellow travelers. They will work when you’re connected to WiFi.

For some reason my Gmail app on my iPhone would not work with the new cellular provider, showing “no connection.” Apple Mail, which is a second way I have to get my gmail, did work. I eventually deleted and reinstalled the gmail app and it worked. I also discovered my Google phone number was active and was able to make and receive phone calls.

Service was generally good, often 5G, but on occasion it was the old 3G and painfully slow for most tasks.

The other caution is if you run into a problem, Airalo’s support is non-existent. I sent a query when I was having trouble activating the card, and heard back 4 days later. Another inquiry has gone unanswered after 10 days.

In checking other reviews, the ratings for Airalo are about 50% at 5 stars and 50% at one star. When people do have a problem with their eSIM not working, there seems to be little recourse, and most are unable to get a refund. Knowing that, I’d recommend buying the minimum amount of data, which for most countries is about $5 should you want to use it. Once the card is depleted you can top if off. But some complain when they do add more data to their card, it negates the balance left on it before the new purchase.

Overall Airalo’s eSims require a heavy bit of technical proficiency to deal with all the anomalies, and, while I’m pretty tech savvy, I often struggled to figure out how to get everything to work. And nowhere does the Airalo site anticipate these issues and provide tutorials.

While eSIMS are a good concept and can provide cost savings for international travel, expect some hassles. Of course, the best solution would be for all carriers to emulate T-Mobile and allow us to use our phones globally without paying extra. If eSIM providers can sell cellular data so cheaply, you know our own service providers with their high fees are taking advantage of us when we travel.

by Phil Baker