When Edward Tsien booked a trip to Bucharest, Romania, through Kayak, he noticed something he’d never seen on a travel site: an offer to buy an eSIM to stay connected when he was in Europe.
I’ve seen hotels, car rentals, all sorts of insurance, and even a tour package in my booking path,” says Tsien, a computer research scientist from Boston. “But not an eSIM offer.”
He’d better get used to it.
Selling eSIMs through a travel site is a fast moving trend. Kayak’s partnership with Celitech, a business-to-business creator of eSIM products, is only the first in a series of agreements that could revolutionize the way you get connected when you’re abroad — and maybe even, at home.
What’s revolutionary about eSIM technology?
The latest phones have the ability to download an eSIM (short for embedded SIM) which allows you to activate a cellular data plan without having to use a physical SIM card. In the short term, that renders all of those little airport shops that sell physical SIM cards obsolete. But down the road, it could disrupt the telecommunications industry, making the need for cellular plans as dated as a rotary phone.
More than 1.5 billion smartphones globally will have eSIMs for cellular connectivity by next year, and that number is projected to grow to 3.5 billion by 2027.
“eSIM technology is a game-changer,” says Al Fares, the CEO of Celitech. “It is a new way of consumer communication services — and right now, the low-hanging fruit is travel.”
That’s how the meta-search engine Kayak sees it, too. International travel has been trending upwards for the last year, with flight and hotel searches up between 13% and 28% for 2024, according to the company.
“As international travel continues to rise, the significance of eSIM cards has become increasingly relevant,” says Alex Hlivka, director of commercial partnerships at Kayak. “Recognizing the necessity, particularly among budget-conscious travelers, we’ve partnered with Celitech so staying connected and informed when on the road is as easy and seamless as possible.”
But why are international travelers getting these eSIM offers when they book travel? What are the benefits of eSIM technology, and what will it do in the future? The answer is: Much more than you would think.
Why travelers are getting the eSIM pitch
If you travel internationally, chances are you’ll see an eSIM offer at some point.
“No matter where your travels take you, keeping your phone connected is a must,” explains Abe Burak, co-founder of Airalo, a business-to-consumer provider of eSIMs. “But the traditional methods of connectivity when traveling — roaming fees, the hassle of finding a physical SIM card, navigating provider international data packages, or staying offline altogether — can be hugely frustrating and unsafe.”
Also, travel companies are keen to get their name in front of you. Since 47% of all travel bookings are made on mobile, seeing the name of your online travel agency on your phone whenever you look at it is a powerful incentive to buy travel through a site like Kayak.
So what are the benefits of using an eSIM over a regular SIM card or a cellular calling plan?
- It’s easy. You can activate an eSIMs remotely, which means there is no need for a physical card. “That’s the biggest advantage for me,” says Jens Johansson, who publishes an airport information site. “I can activate a local plan before landing.”
- It’s flexible. Most phones allow you to download multiple eSIMs, which let you switch between different carriers and plans without the need for physical SIM cards. Some phones will even give you the option of automatically switching between whichever plan offers the best connection at the time.
- It’s less expensive. With an eSIM, you don’t have to buy a pricey international calling plan or an inflexible physical SIM. Ladina Schöpf, an architect who lives in Zürich, Switzerland, says eSIMs allow her to continue using her Swiss phone number to receive updates from her bank while still communicating when she’s abroad. “It allows me to keep connected without the fear of exorbitant roaming charges,” she says.
- It’s safer. Being connected all the time with an eSIM means you experience zero downtime. And you also don’t have to worry about a physical SIM card falling into the wrong hands.
With all of those advantages, it’s a wonder that more travelers haven’t used eSIM technology. But adopting new technology takes time. For people who have tried it, there is no going back to the old way of communicating. (Related: What to do when you lose your phone while traveling.)
How eSIMs are helping travelers
International travelers say eSIM technology can help them stay connected for less money.
Eric Newman, a travel advisor who specializes in trips to Iceland, says he’s impressed with the way eSIM technology can save money. He’s started recommending eSIMs to his clients recently.
The economics are pretty simple, and persuasive. If you want to use your Verizon or AT&T plan in Iceland, it’ll cost you an extra $10 a day. Instead, Newman bought an eSIM, which cost him $10 for 3GB of data, which lasted the entire week.
Paul Yawn, a freelance videographer from Charlotte, saw an offer for a Celitech eSIM when he booked a recent trip to India. Buying 30 GB of data was far cheaper than buying an international plan through his wireless carrier. He says as long as he monitored his data usage, “Celitech was the way to go.”
Eric Bilodeau, an artistic director for a film festival, was traveling to Germany when he saw an offer for an eSIM through Kayak. He hadn’t planned on buying an international plan, but the price — $16 for 3GB of data — seemed like a bargain.
“It was a nice surprise to see that I could be Wi-Fi independent for such a reasonable fee,” he says. “As fate would have it, my hotel Wi-Fi went down for over 24 hours, and I used my Celitech data to create a hotspot so I could continue working from the room.”
Tsien, the researcher who bought an eSIM for his trip to Romania, says he was impressed with how easy it was to set everything up. It’s as simple as scanning a QR code. He says he paid $14 for 3GB of data in Europe.
“It was entirely enough for my conference work and sightseeing,” he says.
Bottom line: eSIMs are cheaper, easier and more flexible than conventional SIMs or calling plans. And that raises the question: Why limit this technology to international travelers?
The answer is: You don’t have to.
What’s the future of eSIM technology and travel?
Fares, Celitech’s CEO, says selling eSIMs to international travelers is the beginning of a major disruption in communication. Many forward-looking users have already discarded their traditional calling plan in favor of an eSIM. Buying an eSIM almost always costs significantly less than a cellular data plan. But if you travel frequently, you can also buy an eSIM for coverage at a reduced price.
Fares says that as more phones accept eSIMs, adoption rates will soar. Domestic travelers are next. He sees a world in which airlines give their most loyal customers eSIMs as a way of saying “thank you,” and where you can buy eSIMs at Chevron and Starbucks.
“You can print a QR code on your receipt and scan it — and you’re connected,” he says.
That’s right, you’ll be able to get a gig with your latte someday.
It isn’t too hard to imagine eSIMs everywhere in the near future. But before that happens, more phones have to accept the digital cards, and people have to get used to buying their data. There’s also the one major downside of using an eSIM, which is that it doesn’t come with a phone number. Most users have either switched to a voice over internet protocol (VoIP) phone service or don’t have a phone at all and use services like Zoom or WhatsApp to stay connected.
eSIM technology has the potential to not only change the way travelers communicate, but also the way consumers stay connected.
“This is not only technology,” says Fares. “This is a movement, and it’s here to stay.”