Carrier-agnostic SIM cards are in our future

Apple’s new multiple-MNO SIM means you should be able to chop and change between carriers—theoretically.

sim lead image
By Epop (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Apple quietly introduced a carrier-agnostic SIM card for some of its latest mobile network iPads this month.

SIM cards store and authenticate a device’s subscriber identity. They’re the slivers of circuit-embedded plastic that insert into the tablet or phone.

Writable SIM cards

The idea behind this new data-only SIM card concept, called an Apple SIM, is that multiple MNOs, or Mobile Network Operators, are pre-programed in the card. Users choose which carrier they want to use over time.

The idea is that instead of having to swap out cards to change carriers, the user just selects from supported operators in the iPad’s Settings menu.

It’s not a virtual subscriber identification, because it’s still a distinct card.

Some information, like subscriber information, can also be changed on the card via software, according to Roland B. in Mobile Industry Review, a news source.

The concept

What’s great about the theory is that you should be able to chop and change between carriers.

This could be particularly useful in a pre-pay or travel scenario, but less so for those who’ve sold their soul for a subsidized device—you’re often locked into your MNO,

However, for some, it could be welcome.

For example, when traveling—where disparate countries have distinct MNOs, all with their own roaming agreements, and pricing structures—you could spot an MNO newspaper ad, say, with a specific discounted deal for the country you’re in.

Then, theoretically, you could just switch to it, without having to haggle for a regional SIM card—along with the palava that involves.


Or, in a domestic scenario, you could use up a data allowance on one MVNO, or Mobile Virtual Network Operator, like Straight Talk, and then switch to another MVNO mid-month, returning to the original MVNO at the start of a new billing cycle. All from a Settings menu, and without card-swaps.

Unfortunately, “theory” is the operative word here, because you can’t, in fact, choose any operator globally through the Settings menu with Apple’s new SIM card. Only a few carriers in the UK and U.S. are available.

Current plans

T-Mobile CEO John Legere, in a series of Tweets, has said that if you buy your iPad from an Apple store, it will have the virtual SIM.

He says Verizon will continue to have its own SIMs and that Verizon will not be an option on the Apple card.

If you choose AT&T you can’t switch again. If you choose another MNO, AT&T is removed from any subsequent choices, he says.

T-Mobile and Sprint allow multiple choices over time.

If you buy the iPad from an MNO, things are a bit different. Legere says Sprint’s device has its own SIM in it—along with Verizon, of course.

T-Mobile in the U.S., and also AT&T, will be receiving devices with the Apple SIM, but the SIM will be pre-configured for the respective carrier.

You’ll need to swap the SIM if you bought the iPad at a carrier-specific outlet and you want to change MNO. If you want to take another MNO's iPad to Sprint, you can’t unless the IMEI, or device registration, is added to Sprint’s registry—even with the Apple SIM. It’s unclear how you’d do that.

Apple’s explanation

Apple explains via a support article published by that you should be able to choose a domestic plan from either Sprint or T-Mobile, and then choose an alternative plan from the other carrier as you need it. An AT&T-specific device has its Apple SIM dedicated to its network only.

You should be able to buy a new Apple SIM from an Apple store, though, if you ever get handcuffed.

So, anyway, as you can see, it’s not all that simple.

By the way, does anyone have a paperclip?

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Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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