eSIM now open for Korean telecom users

From the left, a mini SIM card, a micro SIM card, a nano SIM card, and a chip that allows users to download an eSIM. [YONHAP]

From the left, a mini SIM card, a micro SIM card, a nano SIM card, and a chip that allows users to download an eSIM. [YONHAP]

KT will allow customers to use electronic SIM cards, or eSIM cards, in their phones starting Thursday.

Electronic SIM cards perform the same functions as a physical SIM card, but are downloaded to the phone and allow users with an existing SIM or eSIM to use a second phone number on a single device. eSIMs have been adopted in other countries, some more than four years ago.

Each of Korea’s three telcos announced plans to launch eSIM subscription models after the government gave the final go-ahead to roll out eSIM last December, but KT is the first to announce an actual date and method.

KT announced on Sunday that it will introduce its 5G LTE dual number plan, which provides 1 gigabyte of data for the eSIM phone number for an additional 8,800 won (US$6.56) per month, with the aim of attracting customers who want to use their SIMs. existing and new eSIM cards at the same time.

SK Telecom and LG U+ have not yet launched any subscription models.

The introduction of eSIM is expected to be a game changer in the telecommunications market, because eSIMs not only allow customers to choose a subscription model with a different price, but also a completely different operator. So an SK Telecom user could download a KT eSIM to their phone and use the second number for a cheaper rate.

An announcement of KT's 5G-LTE dual number phone plan. [KT]

An announcement of KT’s 5G-LTE dual number phone plan. [KT]

For home consumers, the concept of eSIM was a pie in the sky for a long time. After Apple introduced eSIMs for iPhone XS, XS Max, and XR models in September 2019, more than 170 carriers in 69 countries, including the United States, began operating eSIM services. Samsung Electronics, Apple and Huawei have been making eSIM compatible phones for export since 2020.

But in Korea, opposition from telcos had been a stumbling block. Currently, SIM cards are sold at 7,700 won to 8,800 won a piece, but eSIMs can be downloaded for 2,750 won, a third of the price. Telecom companies saw the cheaper selling price of eSIMs as a disadvantage.

According to the telecom industry, the combined SIM card sales of the top three companies last year amounted to more than 20 billion won.

In particular, eSIMs were an unwelcome addition to the major telcos in that, if allowed, consumers of all three carriers would be more likely to open a second number with other carriers or mobile virtual network operators. (MVNO), also known as budget phones.

The government stepped in last year when consumer demand for eSIMs grew stronger, and the Ministry of Science and ICT changed regulations to allow eSIMs from September.

“eSIMs are important in terms of consumer convenience and economic effect,” said Hong Jin-bae, head of network policy at the Ministry of Science when announcing the approval of the 5G mid-rate plan last month. “This will serve as an opportunity for consumers to switch not only between the top three telcos, but also between MVNOs.”

People who have purchased a newer phone that supports eSIM will be eligible to use them. Apple supports eSIM on all iPhone XS series products, so users of iPhone models released after 2018 will be able to use the eSIM service immediately starting in September. For Samsung Electronics products, the Galaxy Z Fold 4 and Flip 4 models that were released in August support eSIM.

Samsung Electronics' Galaxy Z Fold 4 and Flip 4 phones are on display at the KT Plaza Gwanghwamun Station branch in Seoul on August 23, when pre-orders for the Galaxy Z Flip 4 began. [YONHAP]

Samsung Electronics’ Galaxy Z Fold 4 and Flip 4 phones are on display at the KT Plaza Gwanghwamun Station branch in Seoul on August 23, when pre-orders for the Galaxy Z Flip 4 began. [YONHAP]

The main benefit of the eSIM service is that customers can use two phone numbers on one phone. Three phone numbers are not allowed. eSIMs can be used with physical SIM cards or with another eSIM.

eSIMs can be used right out of the box, by scanning a QR code provided by telecom companies, deciding on a plan and downloading a profile.

One reason for having two separate numbers would be that users might have two accounts for online services, such as social networks or messaging apps.

Kakao Talk has already added features for its app to support dual messaging feature. An icon for the second number will be created next to the Kakao Talk icon that pops up, and users can switch between the two different accounts.

Local telecommunications have allowed customers to use two numbers in the past, but the process was much more inconvenient.

For an additional fee of 3,000 won per month, the companies would provide random virtual numbers. However, when calling or texting the new number, customers would have to enter numbers or special characters like an asterisk or hashtag. Upon receiving a text message through the second number, a banner would appear in front of the text, and if consumers forget to enter the extra numbers or special characters in their text messages when replying, they would expose their original phone number. The dual messaging feature allowed the creation of additional Kakao Talk and Line accounts on Android phones, but not iPhones.

When enabling the combination of two phone plans, some have said that the best combination for a dual number phone for work and home would be to use the cheapest plan focused on the minutes of calls for the work number and a plan focused on details of an MVNO for the personal number. .

At the three major telecom companies, unlimited data plans start at 80,000 won; but for cheap phones, unlimited data is provided for around 20,000 won.

Starting September 1, consumers can select and open phone plans from local telecom companies with an eSIM, meaning there will be no need to buy a local SIM card to save data charges when traveling abroad.

SK Telecom and LG U+ are seen as likely to follow in KT’s footsteps.

Budget phone companies are making the most of the opportunity to launch eSIM services in a bid to attract new consumers. Viva Republica, operator of financial platform Toss, acquired Merchant Korea, an affordable phone company, in July and announced the launch of a new affordable phone plan within the year.

Budget phones, which had more than 10 million users last year, already hold a 15 percent market share of the telecommunications market.

BY KIM KYUNG-MI [[email protected]]

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