eSIM is changing the way devices connect to cellular networks, moving away from physical SIM cards to over-the-air (OTA) delivery of Profiles directly onto the device. But how does this OTA activation process work on eSIM-enabled Consumer devices like phones, smartwatches, tablets, or PCs? And how can mobile operators (or carriers) enable their subscribers with eSIM on these devices?
Different eSIM activation methods
Today there are a few different ways for subscribers to activate an eSIM on their device. Let’s take a quick look at the two most common methods.
Activating eSIM with QR Codes
After the subscriber completes the registration and purchase process, they are given a QR code to activate the eSIM on their device. This QR code can be delivered as a physical voucher printed on a receipt at the point-of-sale or sometimes on a plastic card not unlike a gift card. QR codes can also be delivered digitally on a screen.
Either way, the subscriber must scan the QR code with their eSIM device. This is typically done through the OS of the device – both iOS and Android have ways to activate an eSIM whether by scanning a QR code or using other methods.
Scanning the QR code points the device to the Subscription Manager (SM-DP+) which is where the carrier’s eSIM Profile is stored. Once connected to the SM-DP+, the device requests, downloads, and then installs the corresponding eSIM Profile. It then connects to the cellular network to complete the entire process.
Activating eSIM via Mobile Apps
Quite often an MNO or MVNO will have their own carrier app allowing subscribers to manage their account, billing, get updates on usage and other special offers.
The app can also be used by new subscribers to browse mobile plans and sign up for services. Before eSIM, this would usually involve ordering a SIM card to be delivered to the subscriber. But now, subscribers can activate a new subscription instantly without having to wait for a physical SIM.
The registration and onboarding process is what you would typically expect – customers sign up for a new account by submitting their personal information and completing payment for the plan. When it comes time to activate their subscription, the app automatically downloads the eSIM from the carrier’s Subscription Manager. No need for a QR code or for the user to do anything since the app already knows the location of the Subscription Manager.
As you can see, the carrier app offers a much more streamlined user experience. Everything can be done on the device itself. No need for the carrier to generate and deliver a QR code, and no need for the subscriber to scan the code from a separate device, receipt, or voucher.
Which devices and operating systems support eSIM?
GSMA reported that at the end of 2020 there were 110 commercially available eSIM devices that support eSIM, and we know that number is growing rapidly each year.
All of the major device manufacturers of smartphones, smartwatches, tablets and PCs have an eSIM-enabled version available today, including Apple, Samsung, Huawei, Google, Microsoft, Dell, HP, and more. For a complete list of Consumer eSIM devices, read our blog post.
The difference between an eSIM app and native eSIM support in the OS
Both iOS and Android support eSIM and have ways for their users to activate an eSIM on the device using the QR code provided by a carrier.
The Apple iPhone has supported eSIM since the iPhone XS and iOS 12.1. Typically, users will just open their camera app to take a photo of the QR code and the device will prompt the user through the process. Alternatively, users can go to the Settings app and click Cellular Data > Set Up Cellular Data or Add New Plan depending on if they are setting up a first plan or an additional plan. Either way they are then prompted to scan a QR code to complete the activation.
Android devices have supported eSIM since Android 9, and users follow a similar process to activate. Start by opening up Settings, tap Network & internet, tap Add +, and follow the on-screen instructions to scan the QR code.
The key difference between both methods and the carrier app is that with the carrier app the user has much less work to do. With a carrier app, the user does not have to receive the QR code, display the QR code on a device (if provided digitally), or scan the QR code.
Once the user has registered and completed their plan purchase, the carrier app will automatically download and install the eSIM plan for them. This creates a much more streamlined user journey that is less prone to error that results in the user contacting customer support.
The eSIM carrier app user journey
So, what is the user journey for activating an eSIM inside a carrier app? Let’s look at our fictitious carrier, DemoTel, and how their Android app is configured.
Step 1 - Plan selection
After launching the app, the user is presented with a selection of plans. These plans can be specifically for eSIM or they can mirror plans available through physical SIM. It’s up to the carrier. The user selects a plan and proceeds onto the next step.
Step 2 - Digital Customer Onboarding
Next the user must either log in if they are an existing customer or sign up if they are a new subscriber. DemoTel offers a choice of third-party sign in services or alternatively subscribers can sign up with them directly – the choice is up to them.
Step 3 - eKYC (Electronic Know-Your-Customer)
In some regions there is a requirement for carriers to verify the identity of their subscribers. Some countries may require carriers to store and/or share the information with regulators.
The user chooses the identity document they wish to scan – passport, driving license, or national identity card – and proceed to scan the front and back of the ID.
Also, some regions mandate a biometric check where the user takes a selfie, and a facial recognition algorithm matches their face to the one in the ID document. This helps to verify that the user enrolling for cellular service is the one in the ID document and not a fraudster.
Subscription and identity fraud
account for over 30% of the
financial losses faced by mobile
network operators, according to the CFCA.
Step 4 - Mobile Payment
Next the user must choose their payment method. DemoTel is offering multiple payment methods for convenience including PayPal, Apple Pay, Google Pay, and debit or credit card.
According to a 2020 report by FIS, mobile wallets accounted for 29.3% of e-commerce transactions in North America, up from 23.7% in 2019. That share is projected to hit 40.5% in 2024.
Step 5 - eSIM Activation
Once payment has been complete, the DemoTel app automatically starts to activate the plan.
Here it connects to the Subscription Manager (SM-DP+) to begin preparing an eSIM Profile for the device, and simultaneously the Demo Tel Billing Support System (BSS) and Operating Support System (OSS) will update the user’s information and provision the plan on the network.
Once complete the SM-DP+ delivers the Profile to the device and the device installs the Profile automatically without any interaction from the user.
eSIM app strategies for mobile operators
Now why would a carrier choose to support eSIM in their app when most devices have a method to activate eSIM already included in the operating system? Carriers could easily deliver QR codes to their subscribers – with many of them opting to do just that.
The first and most important reason is that the carrier app method offers a more streamlined, user-friendly experience. This is key for carriers that want to maintain a strong relationship with the customer. Adding more functionality to their own app makes a positive impression on users and that matters a lot in today’s digital world.
Secondly, the alternative method of activating eSIM via QR codes is clunky and prone to errors. The code must be printed out or displayed on a second screen somewhere. Users must scan the QR code with their eSIM device which can be problematic if you are in a dark room or somewhere with poor lighting. Believe it or not, we’ve seen QR codes shipped to customers in the mail and the label of the activation code was the name of the SM-DP+ vendor and said the word “TEST” in uppercase next to it! All these problems can be avoided with the carrier app.
The combination of a carrier app and eSIM allows digital-only brands and offers to be created, whether for an existing MNO or as part of a new MVNO launch. These fast go-to-market brands can be part of a carrier’s strategy to address a particular target market such as inbound or outbound travellers.
As carrier apps are purely digital (no QR code to print or distribute), they lend themselves to an all-digital strategy where customer acquisition costs are much lower than through traditional channels. Customer support, loyalty, and retention costs can also be lower if all done through the carrier app.
Ultimately, it’s all about the carrier providing a digital customer experience with eSIM.
NetLync’s white-label eSIM app solution
Our UNITE Platform is a complete end-to-end eSIM solution and is capable of powering a white-label eSIM app for mobile operators.
Carriers can opt for an off-the-shelf app for iOS or Android, which is also available as a Progressive Web App (PWA). That means availability across virtually any eSIM device including tablets and PCs.
The entire app experience follows our industry-leading user journey encompassing all the steps from plan selection, customer onboarding, eKYC (optional), payment, and eSIM activation and management. The user journey can be customized to meet your requirements, much like the app’s look and feel can be tailored to match your brand.
Alternatively, clients can use our lightweight SDK to integrate eSIM capabilities into their existing carrier app. Think of it as simply adding an eSIM store into your app. Easy!
The back end is entirely managed by the UNITE Platform and a web-portal gives authorized users access to a product catalogue, eSIM Profile management, sales channel and outlet management, dashboards and reporting. A complete suite of tools to manage your eSIM app and more.