You must’ve heard of the term virtual SIM card before. That surprises no one—following the increase in offers of eSIM cards from carriers worldwide, shying away from inserting a SIM card became a far more convenient option. However, if you’re familiar with the concept, you know you require a modern device that has an eSIM built-in, which may cost hundreds of dollars. This isn’t ideal and is the key barrier to its adoption as the primary form of SIM (Subscriber Identity/Identification Module). That brings us neatly to the answer to, “what is a virtual SIM card?”
Definition of virtual SIM card
A virtual SIM card is a cloud-based SIM that grants users one or more phone numbers and all additional features without requiring the presence of a physical SIM card. It’s a digital version of the regular SIM card you’re likely familiar with. You can download and erase data that gives you an identity on the network at any time. Moreover, that data requires minimal storage on your phone. Also, once applied, the SIM doesn’t demand a permanent link to the server.
Most importantly, data can be provisioned without a connector, operator assistance, or physical actions of removing a SIM to insert another one. Moreover, security, performance, and quality-of-life updates do not require you to replace a SIM card. Instead, they are pushed OTA (over-the-air). The current form of a virtual SIM card relies on a built-in electric chip added to the phone’s motherboard using surface mount technology (SMT) format. However, unlike physical SIMs, virtual SIM cards rely on a plastic rim to provide insulation from electronic interference or short circuits.
As mentioned, the primary downside to the present kind of virtual SIM cards is the price tag. Despite storing necessary data in the cloud (and updates thereafter), device manufacturers must embed a SIM chip to make devices compatible. Some notable examples include smartphones, tablets, IoT (Internet of Things), and smart mirrors. You’ll also find virtual SIM cards in gadgets such as MiFi, GPS trackers, and onboard diagnostics (OBD).
Are embedded SIM and virtual SIM identical?
We knew this one was coming. The answer is yes—a virtual SIM card and embedded SIM card often refer to the same thing for now. Both are also called an embedded universal integrated circuit card (eUICC), a digital SIM card, and MFF2 (machine-to-machine form factor). Therefore, we don’t feel the need to go too in-depth into the specifications. The analysis of the eSIM already covers the vast majority of information. We’ll take this opportunity to add information or clarify things a tad more.
Things are changing for virtual SIM cards
Because the two terms above are synonymous at this time doesn’t guarantee they will stay that way. There are two emerging applications associated with the virtual SIM card worth mentioning:
Virtual phone number/Cloud SIM card
Terms such as “cloud SIM card” and “virtual phone number” are often used interchangeably with “virtual SIM card”. That only leads to further confusion and is incorrect. That may be the reason you came to us seeking answers. There’s a clear distinction: the first two terms refer to software-only cloud-based service, which means SIM card, embedded or physical, is unnecessary. Instead, the device operates on a client-server model.
To clarify, you can download a special application for, say, Android and iOS. Once you create a user account, the app will generate a phone number and link it to one of your social media profiles, your e-mail address, or something similar. It bypasses the need for connecting to a network such as 3G, 4G, or 5G. All calls you make utilize the Voice-over-the-Internet-protocol (VoIP) over mobile data or Wi-Fi. For that specific example, check our guide about calling without a SIM card. You can also text or chat, among other things. The app syncs subscriber identity information when users connect to the Internet, too.
Additionally, while you can call a regular SIM card phone number using VoIP, the other side cannot reach the phone number generated through software without an app installed. Like embedded SIM, some apps allow you to discard one phone number for another at the drop of a hat, without limits. This is akin to burner phones, except you don’t need to buy SIM cards or switch them physically. Essentially, these virtual SIMs emulate a SIM card through software. Additionally, some even offer encryption and act as a VPN (Virtual Private Network). Sadly, that makes them commonplace in criminal activities to avoid tracking and identification.
Verizon brought the terms “VSIM” and “virtual SIM card”, to light back in September 2019. On September 10, 2019, the United States Patent and Trademark Office granted them a patent for vSIM technology. It’s similar to a virtual phone number but solves primary problems with security and misuse. The concept also bypasses the use of embedded SIM cards. Instead, users can create an account that can store vSIM data for one or multiple phone numbers and all accompanying network features.
However, instead of data being stored in the cloud, the patent involves the use of blockchain technology to create nodes on a so-called “distributed consensus network”. That means there will be a ledger, or a collection of all records, identities, and transactions, along with timestamps, to prevent shady business. Most importantly, the concept includes encryption and hash-free storage that will ensure all blocks on the blockchain remain unaltered and have arrived at the destination.
Finally, users can easily generate vSIM certificates. That way, they don’t need to rely on a cloud repository, which may malfunction and suffer data loss. Users can link and unlink certificates to their accounts at will, even temporarily, or assign them to someone else. Finally, users can create their vSIM repositories by implementing API (application programming interface) into products and services.
Is virtual SIM card free?
Virtual SIM cards may or may not be free. It depends on the service provider—regular carriers require you to sign up for a pay-as-you-go SIM card, prepaid SIM, or postpaid SIM before you can download eSIM data. In contrast, virtual phone numbers are often free but limited in some way unless you upgrade to a premium plan. As for blockchain-based vSIM, providers are yet to determine a cost, if any. It will depend on the implementation—likely remain free to access but probably utilize transaction or setup fees.