With eSIMs, how does calling home internationally work at all?
May 20, 2024 4:54 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking into a prepaid phone+data SIM plan for my Uncle who is visiting Canada. This is the first I've heard of eSIM apps on Android and iPhone. Are eSIMs worth using? Moreover, are they a dealbreaker if my elderly uncle might need to make calls back home internationally, in case of a rare personal exigency?

Skippable explanation:

My visiting Uncle needs a pre-paid phone card for a a) some local calls with old friends, b) FaceTiming back home, etc. I was looking into popular eSIMS as a travel alternative to pre-paid phone cards, which in Canada now cost $30+ CAD and expire in 1 month (ugh, Canadian telecom oligarchy).

But this led my mom and I to debate a point—apparently eSIMS are heavily data-plan oriented, and thus many lack actual calling plans or calling ability. The scenario my mom concocted was, "What if I as an elderly had a medical emergency, and needed to call my family physician for insurance information so that the local country's emergency healthcare system doesn't charge me…" The assumption here is that SIM cards can make international calls for any personal emergency purposes, and that eSIMs cannot, and thus this would be a dealbreaker for someone like my mom, who still prefers a traditional SIM card.

So is my mom's argument right? Is international calling support for eSIMS more complicated to setup than regular local SIM cards, especially considering the rare personal emergency scenario? Should we just eat the higher price of local pre-paid SIM for the added convenience of international calling minutes?
posted by polymodus to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
eSIMs are just software versions of physical SIM cards. The service you get will depend entirely on what service you buy from what provider, the format doesn't matter.
posted by so fucking future at 5:29 PM on May 20 [7 favorites]


eSIMS are heavily data-plan oriented

No, they're not. I use an eSIM with Google Fi and use less than a Gig of data in a normal month. And it works out of the box internationally in most countries.

The assumption here is that SIM cards can make international calls for any personal emergency purposes, and that eSIMs cannot, and thus this would be a dealbreaker for someone like my mom, who still prefers a traditional SIM card.

That is an incorrect assumption. Wikipedia is a great starting point with questions like this. The one you might actually care about is that some US phones don't work well with internation eSIMs.
posted by Candleman at 5:52 PM on May 20 [1 favorite]


If he really wants international calling on a data only plan, he can set up Google Voice or another VOIP client before leaving and send SMS and make calls using the app.
posted by Candleman at 5:53 PM on May 20


Not sure where your uncle's country of origin is, but if he is visiting from the US, my TMUS plan includes texting and calling to and from Canada and Mexico. No wall. I also have a phone with dual sims. One is physical and one is an eSim. I think eSims are more secure in terms of cloning and such. (I am not an expert in that at all.)
posted by JohnnyGunn at 6:13 PM on May 20


It's definitely worth asking an actual person at the mobile provider. At T-Mobile I was prepaid and they said I couldn't get an international add-on plan without several days of notice and fiddling around. But "normal" subscribers get it standard. I would call or visit a T-Mo or mobile provider of choice and explain this to them - they are really the only ones who can actually say, yes, with this phone, these needs, this usage, you want this plan and it costs this much.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 6:17 PM on May 20


Yes, esims are just electronic versions of sim cards. The "data heavy" stuff just depends on your carrier's options.

I believe esims are just another way to eliminate ports. Once those are gone and the charging port is gone (in favor of wireless charging), it's much easier to make a waterproof phone.

If he's in the USA, get a Google Voice number. I think they're free, but it's been 10+ years since I got mine so can't say for sure.
posted by dobbs at 6:21 PM on May 20 [1 favorite]


Before getting into all of this, please check if your Uncle's phone even supports eSIM. Here's one list of compatible phones, but you should check his phone specs to be sure.
posted by gakiko at 12:41 AM on May 21 [1 favorite]


The question mentions that the Uncle is visiting Canada multiple times.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:00 AM on May 21


This is impossible to answer without know what country he's visiting from and what cell phone provider/plan he has in that country.

It's possible that his plan has international roaming; if so, Canadian eSIM or not, he'd be able to make a (possibly very expensive) emergency call as his currently existing SIM or eSIM would connect to a local Canadian cellular network (if roaming is turned on.)

Does he currently have service?
posted by rhymedirective at 10:41 AM on May 21


In the US I have T-Mobile which has international roaming but it's usually at 2G EDGE speeds, so when abroad I use it for voice/SMS and use a third-party eSIM for data.

My second SIM when not abroad is the US Mobile "Warp" MVNO on Verizon for generous hotspot data, I use hotspot a lot and root bypasses no longer work after Sprint's demise and my family going T-Mobile just before the merger. US Mobile is planning to enable true international roaming on Warp (as opposed to using eSIM QR codes) but I don't know when.
posted by neelc at 12:57 PM on May 21


Observationally, I concur that a lot of ESIM options are data only. This isn’t a technological constraint though.
posted by oceano at 3:59 PM on May 21


If we're talking U.S. to Canada (not sure?), literally just look up the option your carrier offers for international roaming. On Verizon, it's $5/day to Canada and covers both data (I think there's a cap, but it's not crazy) and voice. No need for another SIM, physical or e-.

The scenario my mom concocted was, "What if I as an elderly had a medical emergency, and needed to call my family physician for insurance information so that the local country's emergency healthcare system doesn't charge me…"

This also doesn't make a lot of sense. Presumably your uncle, capable of international travel, can bring his insurance card/form/simple info on a piece of paper along with his passport. But it's very unlikely that a Canadian ER would "accept" foreign insurance. He would have to recover the costs afterwards directly from his own insurance.
posted by praemunire at 6:58 PM on May 21


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