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Gadget of the Week

Gadget of the Week: The eSIM
sun has risen

After haphazard attempts at introducing virtual SIM cards in South Africa, all operators are now on board, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

What is it?

The eSIm is the natural evolution of the SIM (it stands for Subscriber Identity Module, in case you want to know) card that used to be essential to connect a cellphone to a network. As phones become smarter, and data connectivity becomes more important than voice calls, it makes sense for the connection between the handset and cellular tower to be built into the phone. Just as one logs onto any bank account or social network or email via data, one should be able to do the same with one’s network.

There are a few complications in the way since that network connection makes possible all the other connections on the phone. However, it is nothing that a few extra settings on a phone can’t handle, as long as one has an eSIM-enabled handset. It also currently takes a leap of imagination for mobile networks to embrace the idea that they now function in a victual, data-driven world, rather than one that can be controlled from physical shops and objects.

The good news is that all South African operators have now embraced the latter – ie accepting that physical SIM cards should not dictate the user experience. The bad news is that, for most, you still have to go into a store to activate an eSIM. You can only drag vast businesses like mobile networks into the 21st century a step at a time.

MTN, Vodacom, Telkom and Cell C all require eSIMS to be activate it in store, despite the fact that physical SIM cards can be ordered online.  Melon Mobile, a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO), has shown the way in allowing eSIMs to be bought and activated online.

Each of the operators has a slightly different approach to eSIMs, as this overview shows:


MTN SA this year expanded eSIM functionality to prepaid customers, after launching to contract customers in 2019.

It allows customers to have multiple MTN eSIMs on their smartphones, enabling switching between their cellphone numbers.  Customers can also switch between devices and activate their eSIM profile on new phones via a few steps.

MTN’s eSIM functionality enables access to local networks while travelling abroad. It also allows international tourists to activate eSIM-enabled devices on the MTN network.

Melon Mobile

True to its self-description of being a “digital telco”, Melon allows a user to be up and running within 5 minutes without the need to visit a store.

Melon also offers family plans, allowing anyone to create multiple Melon subscriptions on one account, with data and voice allocated to several profiles, and the main account holder managing top-ups and monthly plans.

Customers have a choice to use the service over eSIM or physical SIM, or have a Melon eSIM as a secondary SIM to take advantage of data and voice prices.

Users can get started via a WI-Fi data connection, by downloading the Melon Mobile App on iOS or Android, selecting “I need a SIM” and choosing “eSIM”, Prompts in the App activate the eSIM.

Two other MVNOs, namely Me&You Mobile and uConnect, also offer eSIMs that can be bought online.


Telkom Mobile launched eSIM support in 2021, offering customers an eSIM voucher pack containing a QR code, which takes them through the steps to install an eSIM profile, which has the network information normally configured on a traditional SIM,  on an eSIM-enabled handset.

To use the eSIM, the customer loads a prepaid or post-paid service, such as a Telkom More or FreeMe package, and uses the QR Code to download and install the eSIM profile. Telkom allows up to eight different profiles to be installed, if the handset supports it. Most can handle eight, but some only handle two. Telkom supports only specific devices, so users should double-check.


Vodacom launched eSIM support for personal and business customers in mid-2023, across prepaid, top-up, and contract plans. It said that the service was compatible with all smartphones purchased from Vodacom, but this should always be double-checked.

To obtaina Vodacom eSIM, customers must visit a Vodacom-branded store, and availability may vary. eSIM buyers must still complete the RICA “know your customer” process, as with physical SIMs.

Cell C

Cell C launches its eSIM offering in 2021, supporting only flagship devices for now. It has promised an online option in the course of 2024.

International roaming options

I now use only eSIMs when travelling, and usually shop around ahead of a trip. I have used eTravelSim as far afield as India and Spain, KnowRoaming in the USA and Europe, and Airalo in Korea and United Arab Emirates. All have their advantages and disadvantages, and some have better packages than others for limited trips or specific countries. Other travelers may well have discovered even better options.

What does it cost?

The eSIM itself is free, but you have to activate it with a paid account, based on the package you select. Vodacom and MTN charge a R25 monthly fee for linked numbers.

Why does it matter?

eSIMs are embedded in devices, allowing them to switch between network operators with only a change in settings, rather than an exchange of SIM cards.

A Juniper Research study has found the value of the global eSIM market will increase from $4.7-billion in 2023, to $16.3-billion by 2027. The market will be driven by the adoption of eSIM-enabled consumer devices, which will trigger accelerated operator support.

It found the total number of smartphones leveraging eSIM connectivity will increase from 986-million in 2023, to 3.5-billion by 2027, with manufacturers like Google and Samsung developing eSIM-only Android devices. Eventually, physical SIM cards will probably disappear altogether.

What are the biggest negatives?

  • Several major operators still expect customers to go into stores to activate eSIMs.
  • The settings for switching between eSIMs are still confusing and clunky on most phones.
  • Mainly high-end handsets are currently supported.

What are the biggest positives?

  • Users will be able to switch between networks at will, once the eSIMs are set up on a handset.
  • Buying limited data plans for most international trips has become seamless and cost-effective.
  • Fewer bits and pieces to worry about when upgrading phones.

* Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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