What is the ‘eSIM’ in the Apple Watch Series 3 and Series 4?
eSIMs are embedded SIMs. They replace physical SIMs in phones and other wireless connected devices. Embedding the SIM in these products reduces the physical size of the watch and enables a direct cellular connection. That means you can connect direct to the internet from your Apple Watch 4 without tethering it to your iPhone.
What does the Apple Watch Series 3 and Series 4 cost in Australia?
There are 2 main model types. a GPS only enabled watch (on which you don’t get a direct cellular connection to a phone network) and the eSIM enabled version through which you can.
The Apple Watch 3 in a GPS model (Starts at $399) and a GPS and Cellular model (Starts at $549)
The Apple Watch Series 4 in a GPS model (Starts at $599) and a GPS and Cellular model (Starts at $749).
Colours for Series 3 and 4 include:
- Space Grey
- Series 4 exclusive Colours include:
- Space black
Series 4 also comes in a stainless-steel finish as well as different models including the base model, Nike+, and Hermès.
Can I make voice calls directly from the Apple Watch?
Yes, you can. There was a lot of confusion over this in the run up to launch of the Series 3 watch. Users with the eSIM enabled variant of the Apple
Which telcos offer eSIM plans for the Apple Watch?
For now, only the major telcos (Telstra, Optus, and Vodafone) can offer eSIM plans for any eSIM device, including the Apple Watch.
We don’t know when the major telcos will give MVNOs access to the service, but the ACCC have informed telcos that they are watching the issue. Telstra recently indicated that they are working on ways to give MVNO access.
How much will the Apple Watch 5 cost in Australia?
We estimate the new Apple Watch 5 will cost slightly over $700 AUD when it is released.
Can I have a separate phone number for the Apple Watch?
No. Current eSIM plans share one phone number with your smartphone. Apple also restricts pairing to the iPhone.
- Apple Watch Series 3 was the First 'mainstream' use of an eSIM in devices
- Sets the stage for much easier SIM management
- Use data on the watch without tethering
- SIRI i built in - talks through watch speaker
- A broad range of health-related apps provided
- Only Optus, Vodafone and Telstra provide plans
- eSIM represents more 'Apple control'
- Unclear when smaller phone companies will get access
- Apple have successfully pushed the entire phone industry ecosystem to adopt a new piece of technology.
- The 2017 Apple Watch (version 3) was the first mainstream device to feature an ’embedded’ SIM. (eSIM).
- Both Apple and Samsung had been prototyping various versions of the eSIM for some time before Apple launched their Series 3 watch. (Detail below.)
- The specifications for the technology are now widely available. In fact, the second set of eSIM standards has been agreed by the GSMA.
- However, Apple have been faced with the challenge of how to integrate the eSIM new capability in a way which doesn’t confuse their customers.
- And having a range of providers (phone companies) in Australia who offer data plans which will suit the device.
An eSIM is an embedded SIM – it’s built into your device. It has the same functions as a SIM card, minus the inconvenience of physically switching out SIM cards whenever you buy a new phone plan. Instead, the eSIM allows you switch phone plans right from your phone’s settings, usually by scanning a QR code that downloads the profile from the telco.
How the eSIM works to make the Apple Watch better
The eSIM’s presence in the new Apple Watch means that there is no removable, standard physical SIM chip in the product. The watch (or phone or any other eSIM-enabled device) receives updates ‘over the air’ that changes the characteristics of the eSIM. The SIM profile you need to access your Apple Watch over a wireless cellular network is downloaded ‘over the air’ to your device. (This process is known as provisioning the device in the industry.) As with normal SIMs, eSIMs allow users to pick a phone company and plan directly from their device – any phone plan, just like a regular SIM.
Here are some important points to note about current eSIM device plans in Australia:
- Only the major telcos currently provide eSIM plans. MVNOs have no access to this service in their wholesale contracts with the major telcos. The ACCC recently expressed concern over this issue, stating that they are keeping a close watch on how it develops and expect MVNO access in the near future. This would mean more competitive plans for eSIM devices.
- Current eSIM plans allow you to share one phone number between your eSIM devices and your phone. However, on eSIM phones, you can also use your eSIM as a second number, while your physical SIM card holds another number – this is useful for those who need dual numbers, perhaps a personal and a business number.
The eSIM has a number of advantages over conventional SIMs, which we explore below. Let’s see how these ideas tie together.
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The Australian Apple Watch (Version 3) was released in September 2017 and was one of the first devices to feature an eSIM. The major difference with the eSIM, as opposed to a standard physical SIM, from a user’s point of view is that they can now access the internet directly from their Apple Watch, rather than needing to pair it with an iPhone using a ‘hotspot’. The most common use cases for the eSIM watches are circumstances in which the user is exercising or has laid their phone down and is away from it at the time they want to use the watch. For example, when out for a run.
Here are the specifics of what we now know about the eSIM in the Apple Watch:
- It is an eSIM:
There had been speculation of the arrival of the eSIM in a new Apple product for some time prior to the release of the Apple Watch Series 3. In other articles, we considered the major alternatives to the eSIM which could have been used in the Apple Watch. They included the Apple SIM and other soft/programmable SIMs. We now know that the watch features a pure ‘eSIM’. That means there is no physical SIM in the watch and the user picks an operator and plan from settings.
- Space saving:
eSIMs are physically smaller than their even Nano SIM physical equivalents. That means the Apple Watch Series 3 was able to retain the same physical dimensions (38mm x 42mm) of its predecessors. Previous smart watches with built in physical SIM trays (for example the LG Sportwatch) have had to be delivered in larger physical form factors in order to accommodate the SIM tray and the electronics to read it.
- Data Only :
The Apple watch supports data only plans, so no Dick Tracy watch talking with this particular device. Users are able to use Skype and other VoIP apps from their wrist if they’d like to.
- Qualcomm Chip:
In a break from Apple’s previous supplier (Intel), the Apple Watch’s eSIM is built into a Qualcomm chip – which has better power performance than the Intel equivalent. That means your Apple Watch battery now lasts longer.
- There is ‘non eSIM’ version of the Apple Watch 3 and 4 Series:
Apple also offer a version of their watch which does not have an eSIM enabled direct internet connection.
- Except you do need to use it with your iPhone:
Whatever eSIM technology enables technically, Apple have put some ‘business rules’ for their watches. Business rules are things Apple insist on, irrespective of the technical possibilities that exist in these eSIM enabled devices. One of those rules is that the eSIM enabled Apple watches must be paired with an iPhone from time to time. The watches can be used on their own but the user must purchase and connect an iPhone to them, here and there. Note, the Apple Watches work only with iPhones. You cannot manage it with your iPad or any other Apple product at this time.
- The SIM (eSIM) you get for your Apple Watch must come from the phone provider who gave you a SIM for your iPhone.
Again, the eSIM’s technical facilities allow you to sign up to a plan for your Apple Watch, from either Telstra, Optus or Vodafone. The business rules for this roll out say that the user must take a SIM from the same phone company they got their iPhone plan at. That does both undermine the benefits of having an independent device and provide an improved user experience with a single phone number being used in both products.
There has been a lot of talk about eSIMs recently. Actual use of one, in such a small device, hadn’t materialised in such a popular way, before the release of the Apple Watch Series 3. It’s not surprising Apple were first to market the first successful and innovative Smartwatch.
The eSIM isn’t an entirely new idea, either to Apple or the broader industry. The concept has already undergone considerable research (see below). It has been in use since March 2016 in the 9.7-inch iPad Pro, Wi-Fi + Cellular model. That particular roll out was not a storming commercial success. Others, too, including Samsung, have prototyped eSIM technology in watches before – as we cover below.
Apple have been the brains and the brawn behind the push to have the GSMA ( If the world of the SIMs, including phone companies, you, Apple and so on is a school, the GSMA is the headmaster) allow the new eSIM standard within the telco industry. The significance of this in our view goes well beyond the current watches. Once eSIMs are available in this format, every manufacturer will start including them in their devices. We believe eSIMs will be commonplace much sooner than was previously forecast. In everything from Android phones to Internet Of Things devices and laptops of all shapes and sizes.
When you think about it, the idea of going to the shops to buy a SIM is a little strange. Smartphones are little computers and they’re connected to the internet all the time. Everything that is written on a SIM and can be used to connect you to the phone company has surely, always be available for remote delivery. With an eSIM, that’s exactly what will happen. There will be no need to go to your local Coles to get a SIM. You’ll be able to connect your phone to a plan through settings.
Apple, like most phone manufacturers, have a number of motivations for wanting an eSIM. They have a desire to make their phones more waterproof, and so newer iPhones have been eSIM enables since 2018. Reducing the size of the components in the phone, by removing the SIM drawer, will help them gain space in the watch – one of their smallest products. Further down the line, the impact of saving the space a SIM would otherwise take up, on the size of a phone might be seen trivially small to you, but it isn’t to Apple. If you look at their behaviour for the last 10 years, they’ve been moving us to smaller and smaller SIMs for a long time, and they have now gone full eSIM in newer iPhones. Apple invented the Nano SIM, after all.
The end user benefits of eSIMs include enormous savings of time and money. Connecting to a phone plan, from your watch, while sitting on your sofa rather than taking a trip in to town for a SIM will be a boon for most people. However, there is also the question of cultural adoption (how readily people will accept eSIM technology) and easing the path for people who might find the change from a physical SIM hard.
Apple Watch Series 3 and Series 4 (GPS + Cellular) allow you to make calls, send texts and stream Apple music, without your phone. Not all models work in all countries or region around the world. There is no single model that supports roaming worldwide. In Australia, only Telstra, Optus & Vodafone offer plans to support Apple Watches.
eSIM devices in general can use any phone plan in Australia, provided the telco supports eSIM. So far, that means you can choose any phone plan from Telstra, Optus, or Vodafone to use with your eSIM device.
You do not need a separate data plan for your Apple Watch. However, even though your wearable wrist device uses data from your existing phone plan, LTE connectivity on an Apple Watch does not come free. You will need to pay a little extra on top of your monthly bill. For example, a Telstra One Number costs $5 per month and is what is needed to connect a secondary device, such as an Apple Smart Watch, to the Telstra Network.
- We usually suggest smaller phone companies for most SIM needs. However, in this circumstance, bigger phone companies seem more appropriate.
- Only the big phone companies (Telstra, Optus & Vodafone) currently have plans for the eSIM:
It will take a while for the industry to get used to the eSIM. Smaller phone companies (MVNOs) will need to negotiate deals with the wholesale arms of the bigger phone companies in order to get access to the provisioning infrastructure that can connect customers to their billing systems. Our prediction here has been borne out. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission currently addressed this issue, stating that they are keeping a close watch for MVNO’s to get access to the eSIM service provider market. MVNOs do not currently have eSIM plans for the Apple watch available. The major ‘retail’ phone company brands you know, Telstra, Optus, and Vodafone have been testing the eSIM for some time and currently are the only Telcos who have plans available.
- eSIM plans allow you to share one phone number for your Apple Phone and Watch:
Our view is that Apple’s business rules (see introductory bullet points) for this product are restrictive and limit the benefits that we were expecting users to get from the eSIM enabled watch. That said, insisting that the plan sold to users of the watch comes from the same phone company who provided the SIM they have in their (also mandatory to use the watch) iPhone does improve the customer experience in one regard. Optus, Vodafone and Telstra all offer ‘Single Phone Number’ plans for eSIM devices. Users are able to have a single phone number which works across both their iPhone and Apple Watch. That’s far preferable to the alternative: Having two numbers and having to tell friends and family that you might be on either one, for example.
- Bigger phone companies have data sharing facilities :
Something the big phone companies have that smaller phone companies often don’t, is a data sharing facility. This is extremely useful for circumstances such as those presented by the Apple Watch’s eSIM. The major brands are able to offer as an example, $10 per month extra data, under their shared plan scheme. Users can then share their data allocation between phone and watch.
The Apple SIM originally appeared back in late 2014. It’s what drew our attention to the whole area of the eSIM. Apple has been experimenting with the customer acceptability of their proposed solutions for some time.
In a small number of countries, primarily the UK and USA, Apple added the Apple SIM to two of its data only devices, the iPad Air 2 and iPad Mini 3. The new facility was different to the eSIM which will be used in the Apple Watch. What made these devices capable of calling themselves ‘Apple SIM’ iPads was the tinkering Apple had performed on the Nano SIM. The Apple SIM had some notable differences to SIM cards which had preceded it. As well as the Nano SIM, the device supported an eSIM. Also:
- It was made by Apple:
Importantly, the Apple SIM was a physical SIM provided to people buying an iPad by Apple. The Apple SIM was not provided to the user by a phone company. That’s quite a big deal. It’s like BP building a small car…
- You could connect to more than one phone company without leaving the house:
Just like the eSIM, people with an Apple SIM could connect it to ‘a selection’ (a small selection) of new phone companies, direct from settings. Unlike an eSIM, the Apple SIM was a physical SIM which was pre-programmed with the settings for the phone networks they attached to.
- You could also swap it out for a physical SIM:
Users with an Apple SIM can swap out the physical form factor Nano SIM which had the Apple SIM settings, for a physical SIM from their phone company if they wanted to. The device had to be unlocked before people could do that and not every operator supported unlocking in every circumstance.
So, the Apple SIM had some features which were the same as an eSIM and some features which were the same as a physical SIM. You can tell from the long-winded explanation of the limits of that trial that it was far from a perfect customer experience.
In 2016, Apple appeared to take the next step. The patent for their new idea was pending, as reported by Chris Smith on the website BGR. It appeared that Apple wanted to allow EITHER an eSIM or a full, classical, physical SIM (of the sort to which are now used) as the network connection from their devices.
This is subtly different to the Apple SIM in that the Apple SIM could not be programmed over the air, electronically as the eSIM can. A patent was issued in the U.S. which allows Apple to use two phone numbers in “some devices”, for example, for “business and for pleasure.” The patent mentioned the names of three Apple cell phone engineers, Li Su, Guojie Dong and Ming Hu. Li Su was also mentioned in an application lodged with the State Intellectual Property Office in China for a dual SIM card feature. This office is the equivalent of a patent office in China.
Here’s how it was anticipated to work back in 2016 before the launch of iPhone 8
Dual SIM smart phones are very popular in both India and China. Both are huge and expanding rapidly. Phone users in those countries like the dual SIM technology because they can use one number for business or work and the other for personal use. The new Apple iPhones do currently have this technology, which now allows them to compete with other local phone companies, like Oppo and Vivo, which have been providing dual SIM phones for a while. Apple’s smart phone sales have been dropping in Asia, including a 30% drop in China in 2016, a trend which they are hoping to reverse if Apple is to retain any sizeable sort of market share.
One of the reasons why Apple was slow in developing dual SIM technology is because of arrangements with carriers which lock phone access to the carrier.
However, phones with eSIM and physical SIMs can use separate numbers on each, providing a solution for dual SIM.
Samsung, not just Apple, have moved towards the integration of eSIMs in their next generation devices. In the case of Samsung, the process started with their smart watch, the Samsung Gear S2 smart watch.
Samsung’s approach with their watch suggested they too were prototyping e-SIMs in real life scenarios. Finding the extra space to fit the SIM housing would be a materially large part of the hardware on your wrist. So, it made sense to test the customer experience of set up and use on a small device – like the Galaxy Gear2.
It’s usually easier to adopt new technology in consumer lives than in business. If you’re a consumer and you would like a Samsung Gear watch, you go down Harvey Norman or JB Hi-Fi and buy one. If you’re a business and you would like a Samsung Gear watch, you do a business case, get it signed off by governance, submit it to procurement, wait 6 months for a competitive tender, pick a winner, develop IT support procedures for a Samsung Gear watch and then roll it out. The entire process takes a lot longer. But, the Apple watch Series 3 has shown that businesses will need eSIMs soon too for all their connections to the internet.
The Samsung Gear S2 watch was released in three different variants. Only the highest of the 3 models contained inbuilt eSIM. The operating system was unique to the Gear 2 Watch and was based on a fork of Android. The Samsung version allowed users functionality to make and receive calls and use GPS features natively, on the watch, without the need for a local smartphone to pair with. The Gear S2 3G also featured a 20 percent larger battery in comparison to the others. No doubt this is due to this version of the wrist watch needing the extra juice to charge the 3G feature.
The main difference between the S2 3G and classic model was the lighter and thinner case, which was again, due to a more traditional and sportier feel. With fewer features than the S2 3G Gear, the S3 replaced functionality for (low) weight. The Gear 3G watch is also supported by GPS navigation and Bluetooth, which allowed you to stay connected while you are travelling and on the go. While conserving battery life is a good thing, being out of contact is not. Manually connecting to WiFi will become a pain after a while which is where the soft SIM functionality comes in handy.
By all accounts, the Gear 2 trial was a bit of a flop with customers. It received some press coverage at the time of release but ultimately went nowhere in terms of sales. The trial did garner results, however, which could be used by phone companies and Samsung to improve their understanding of a significant eSIM deployment at a larger scale. All of Samsung’s smartwatches and smartphones in the near future are expected to support eSIMs, too.
The main selling point of the Apple Watch is its ability to connect independently to cellular networks, make calls or help you navigate – even if your phone is switched off. It has been heavily marketed as a great back up for when your phone battery dies, or phone is misplaced. In an emergency, (say you are being mugged), your Apple Watch is expected to swiftly come to your aid, avoiding the risk of getting shot at while reaching for your phone in the back pocket. But what if the mugging scenario actually took place and your watch failed to connect with the network?
Yes, that is a very real possibility, because the Apple Watch comes with some major connection issues. Your Apple Watch software comes with a few bugs that prevent the watch from making a cellular network connection around open wi-fi networks.
If the LTE aspect of your Apple Watch isn’t working, it is because the software is seriously flawed. The Apple Watch code is designed so that the watch automatically switches between WiFi and cellular networks. But if the watch detects an open or unsecured WiFi network, it prefers that to cellular. These public networks are everywhere – coffee shops, airports, shopping centres and restaurants. Also, they have a wide range – so even if you are far away from an open network – your watch will still detect it.
If you are too far away, your watch will detect the network and hang on to the ‘one bar connection’ that it is receiving. Obviously, that ‘one bar’ is not enough to let you make any calls, but your Watch will not understand that. It will refuse to connect with the much stronger, local LTE, essentially preventing you from making calls and sending texts without your phone nearby.
An even worse side effect of the software bug? Battery drain! Have you ever taken your phone in the remote Australian outback and experienced your phone battery draining faster than usual? This is because your device consumes more power as it attempts to detect and hang on to the weak networks in these remote areas. The phone can’t find a good connection and keeps searching – draining the battery and not letting you make calls as well.
This is the same problem with the Apple Watch. Because it keeps trying to latch onto weak open WiFi networks, the battery drains quickly. Users have reported 11 hours or less, which means your watch would probably need recharging 2-3 times in 24 hours. And you do not have to be in the remote bushland; you will probably experience the most drain in congested urban areas where open networks abound – likely even while taking a walk around your house.
In order to avoid battery drain, the best thing to do is keep your watch blue-tooth connected to your iPhone at all times. Doing so lengthens battery life to 48 hours or so. If you don’t have your iPhone with you, or your phone is switched off, put your Apple Watch in flight mode. This is the best way to avoid battery drain.
You can fix the issue, by going to your Watch App and downloading the most recent watchOS 5.1.3 upgrade. This upgrade was released on January 22nd, 2019. The connectivity issue was resolved in previous updates. The latest software may not be currently shipped in Apple products. The software in the watch you purchase needs to be updated manually.
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Summing up our thoughts on the new eSIM in Apple Watches
Everyone expects innovation in the next range of smart phones. With the marking of the first decade of the iPhone, Apple needed to come up with something special and they did with the Phone 8 / 8 Plus / X, and all iPhones after that. Perhaps that’s why they including an eSIM, in their watch. It’s a seemingly innocuous technical change which could potentially introduce, a significant change in the way we all buy phones and plans.
Industry rumours suggest that the eSIM used in the Apple Watch is a cobbled together version, based as much on Apple propitiatory rules (both technical and business) as the GSMA standard. It’s really only Apple who have the clout required to insist that phone companies do this. The fact that they insist the user pairs the watch with the phone and has a plan from the same phone company for the watch as it does for the phone is extremely strange from a technical standpoint. It does fit with Apple’s restrictive practices, however. They generally try and ‘ensure a good experience’ for their users by removing some confusing options. Android devices and manufacturers do not do that, though. As Samsung and other Android phone manufacturers start to use the facilities offered by the eSIM the benefits are likely to be felt a great deal more by early adopters who are prepared to figure out how to use it.
Tying together what Apple have been doing elsewhere in the world is often difficult. They’re such a huge company that they file a lot of patents, some of which end up going nowhere. One view of their intent, as demonstrated through the examples on this page, is that Apple (and others, including Samsung) have trailed the eSIM in various formats and settled on a version of the technology which suits the need.
There needs to be some way to transition the many millions of iPhone users around the world to the new SIM technology without confusing or alienating them. A lot of people buy the iPhone each year, and they began experiencing the processes that will need to be changed from the full commercial release of the iPhone 8 back in 2018. It is a formidable job but this eSIM watch may have been a favorable method to introduce a very new concept softly, both testing the processes which surround it and exposing people to the concept which, for many, will still be new today.
Fast forward to 2021 and the latest iPhone, the iPhone 12, has dual SIM capacity. This has been the case for a couple of years now, where the iPhone dual SIM device simultaneously offers customers a chance to have an eSIM phone and a phone which could work on a traditional SIM card. This allows you have one number on your eSIM, and another on your traditional SIM card.
- The iPhone is such a significant cash generator for Apple that many financial / investment companies follow the product’s development closely. Deutsche Bank, in particular are a consistently reliable source for Apple information.
- The importance of Dual SIM phones in Asian markets is hard to overstate.
- There is already a lot in the news about the new Apple Watch and it’s eSIM inclusion. I found this a useful article.
- Apple admits to Apple Watch LTE problems just before it ships
- Apple says it’s fixing a problem the new Apple Watch has with its Internet connection