Just about every cellular telephone in existence today makes use of a SIM card. “SIM” is short for Subscriber Identity Module. Without it, you can’t make or receive phone calls. You also can’t use any internet data over a cellular connection.

You probably already knew this, but why is your phone so useless without this small piece of metal and plastic? Just what is a SIM card actually used for?

What a SIM Card Looks Like

A SIM Card is pretty easy to identify. It’s a plastic card with a distinct set of metal contacts. Inside the SIM card you’ll find an integrated circuit, which communicates with the phone through the aforementioned metal contacts.

SIM cards come in a variety of shapes and sizes. In fact, there are four sizes in total. The largest is known as “full-size” and is effectively obsolete. Measuring 3.37 in by 2.125 in, full-size SIM cards were basically the size of smart access cards.

The reason for this is quite interesting. At the outset of mobile phone technology, multiple people would share a single phone. The idea was that you would insert your enormous SIM card into the phone when you wanted to use it. Since the card would spend more time in your wallet than in a phone, the large plastic body made perfect sense.

These days most SIM cards you’ll buy have all three of the common sizes, with pieces of the plastic body breaking away until you reach the size you want. The Mini-SIM size is pretty uncommon these days and is mostly used in legacy devices or low-cost devices based on older designs.  

The Micro-SIM size is very popular and most mainstream phones use this. The Nano-SIM size eliminates virtually all plastic body around the SIM contacts and is essentially the standard for flagship and mid-high-end smartphones, where internal space is at an extreme premium. SIM cards are physically keyed to make it impossible to insert them the wrong way around. 

Here’s a tip: don’t throw away the Mini- and Micro-SIM frames when you get a new SIM card. If you ever need to move the SIM to another phone you may still need them!

What Does a SIM Card Do?

The cellular network owned by your service provider is just that –  a network. They need to control who has access to that network both for security reasons and to make the whole thing work!

So what is a SIM card? Your SIM card is an access card. It contains your credentials. So in that sense it’s like a card that stores your username and password. You “log in” to the cellular network with the SIM card. Your phone number is your unique network identity. 

No matter where you go, as long as you are within range of a cellular tower belonging to your service provider, you can be reached and reach others.

What’s Stored On a SIM?

The SIM card has information on it that the network needs to authenticate your account. One of these is the ICCID or Integrated Circuit Card Identifier. This is a number that’s unique to that specific physical SIM card.

The next important bit of data on the SIM is known as the authentication key. This is a cryptographic key used to sign data sent to the cellular network. They key is run through a cryptographic function and then compared to another calculation done with a copy of the key stored in the carrier’s database. If they match, you’re let onto the network.

The SIM also has memory on it, that you can use to store your contacts and text messages. This is pretty limited however, with most SIMs sporting between 64k and 256k of space. These days most people are better off storing their contacts on the phone’s own memory, along with a backup using something like iCloud or their Google account.

Contract and Prepaid SIM Cards

There are generally two models cellular providers use to sell their services to customers. You can sign a fixed contract agreement, or you can be a prepaid customer.

In both cases, you’ll get a SIM card. The cards themselves are no different from each other. Rather, it’s how the provider handles the account that sets them apart. You can buy prepaid SIM cards off the shelf. Although in many countries you must register the purchase, using government ID and proof of residence.

Contract SIM cards are allocated data, talk time and other resources according to your contract. Overages are added to your bill and at the end of the billing cycle the money gets deducted from your account. With prepaid cards, you’ll usually load a monetary amount onto the SIM or otherwise purchase talk time or mobile data upfront.

Depending on where you live, certain contract handsets may be locked to SIM cards only from that provider. Often this is a way to get a phone for a substantial discount, but if you ever need to use another SIM card, perhaps when travelling, you’ll find that it doesn’t work! To avoid that sort of situation, be sure to look for phones sold as “unlocked”.

Switching SIM Cards

Taking a SIM from one phone and moving it to another is pretty painless. Given that both phones use the same SIM card size. If the other phone uses a larger size, you’ll have to use an adapter to make it fit the larger slot. If the SIM card you want to use is too large for the target phone, you have two choices.

The first is to cut the SIM down to size. Some people are brave enough to do this using nothing but a pair of scissors and some sort of template. If you accidentally cut into the circuity of the SIM card, it’s game over and you’ll need a new one. The safest way to do this is by using a dedicated SIM cutting tool. Even then, you run the risk of destroying the card, so take this route only at your own risk.

The other option is to switch SIM cards.  Of course, if you just went out and bought a new SIM card, it would have a different phone number associated with it! Each service provider may have a different procedure to move your phone number from one SIM to another.

In general however, it should simply take a phone call and verification of your identity. If the provider has physical stores, you should even have the option of going in for a new SIM, with your old one disabled.

These days it’s popular to use text messages sent to specific SIM cards as a form of two-factor authentication. So now we have something known as SIM-swap fraud. Where criminals find ways to have your phone number transferred to a SIM they control. SIM duplication is another method. It’s certainly something to watch out for.

Life After SIM Cards

SIM cards, at least discrete SIM cards, aren’t really necessary anymore. We are already seeing the rise of the eSIM or embedded SIM card. This is a SIM card built directly into the phone. This card is programmable, which means you can easily change providers or use multiple providers at once.

In some countries, “dual-SIM” phones have been very popular. With these you could have two phone numbers, one for personal use, for example. You could also have a dedicated data SIM card, perhaps with better rates.

eSIMs make this redundant and turns access and authentication into something similar to fixed-line broadband usage. Where you simply enter a username and password to access a given service provider.

Few current phones have embedded SIM cards at the time of writing, but that’s set to change as the industry adopts this new standard. You next phone might very well have no place to put a SIM card at all, which would be the end of an era, but certainly a move for the better.