SIM Card Guide
But - just what is a SIM card?
SIM is short for Subscriber Identity Module - and it is the tiny bit of circuitry that identifies your account to your carrier's network.
You can think of the SIM card as containing your phone number - because essentially it does. Moving a SIM to another compatible device moves your service and your number to that new device.
But while SIM cards are simple in concept, there are still some important things to be aware of before you set off to move your service around.
For one - not all SIM cards are removable, and not all SIM cards are physically the same size. And just because you CAN move a SIM doesn't mean that it will always work as expected in your new device.
And some devices even support more than one SIM installed at a time - potentially allowing you to carry around multiple phone numbers (and data plans) in your pocket at once.
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This 15m video overviews the content below introducing SIM cards, their sizes, re-sizing them, installing them into smartphones, hotspots & routers - as well as how to obtain them and keep within carrier policies for SIM swapping.
Introduction to SIM Cards
A SIM card is usually a small piece of plastic with an embedded chip integrated into it.
This chip contains a unique serial number known as an ICCID (Integrated Circuit Card Identifier) that is cryptographically secured so that each SIM card is essentially impossible to copy.
This makes it incredibly difficult for anyone short of the NSA to impersonate you on the cell network, or to listen in on your calls or messages without the cooperation of the cellular carrier.
A cellphone without a SIM card is anonymous to the network, and it will be ignored for everything other than 911 calls and emergency alerts.
Since your identity is tied to the SIM card and not to the phone (or tablet, or hotspot) - it is theoretically possible to move your SIM card to another device to transfer your service.
This can be extremely handy – you can often take a SIM from a Mobile Hotspot and put it into a tablet, for example.
Or… you can keep an old beater or more rugged phone around for when you are heading out into rough conditions – such as a backcountry hike or kayaking. Before you head out, just pop your SIM into the adventure device and you can still keep online and get phone calls, without putting your flagship expensive smartphone at risk.
Or… when you are traveling internationally, rather than paying expensive international roaming fees, you can instead get a SIM (and a local phone number) from a local cellular company, and then get online much, much cheaper while still using your existing phone.
And if you ever break your phone - you can usually just move your SIM to a borrowed spare until you get a chance to get your primary device fixed.
The convenience and flexibility that comes from SIM cards is undeniable.
Finding Your SIM
The first step towards taking advantage of your SIM card is finding it - and this can sometimes be difficult.
The SIM is often found lurking underneath the battery of many phones or mobile hotspot devices, and it can usually be carefully slid out of its little slot with a fingernail.
For devices that lack removable batteries, the SIM is usually in a tiny ejectable tray that can be removed by pushing a pin carefully into a pinhole - often found on the top or the side of a phone.
Or there might be a SIM slot, potentially hidden behind a cap. If the SIM is in a slot, it is usually spring-loaded. Pushing the SIM in with a fingernail will trigger the spring and eject it outward.
On other devices the SIM might be more hidden - and you may need to dig deep into the manual to find where it is lurking.
And though there is always a SIM of some sort to be found on every LTE device, in some cases (especially on things such as embedded devices like smart cars) the SIM might actually NOT be removable without voiding a warranty to literally crack open the modem module.
And even then - it might actually be soldered in place!
But fortunately - on most phones, hotspots, tablets, and cellular routers the SIM card is usually not that hard to get at.
TIP: When you remove a SIM card, pay attention to how it is oriented. It will only work (and fit) one way, and while this is often obviously indicated being certain of the correct orientation helps you avoid the mistake of accidentally wedging a SIM card in upside down or backwards.
SIM Card Sizes
SIMs have been getting smaller over the years – the original full-size SIM from the early 1990's was the size of a credit card!
But the ones you are most likely to see today are:
- Mini-SIM (aka 2FF)
(now often called "standard" or "regular" size)
- Micro-SIM (aka 3FF)
- Nano-SIM (aka 4FF)
Fortunately - even though SIM cards have been shrinking, electrically they have remained compatible. So it is (usually) possible to alter the size of a SIM card to deal with size mismatch issues.
And many carriers are now issuing universal SIM cards that can easily be punched out to fit into any device.
TIP: Though SIM cards are electrically compatible, some older SIM cards might not support features built into newer phones like Voice-Over-LTE (VoLTE) or using contactless payments to use your phone as a credit card while checking out. If you run into an oddball issue like this, your carrier should be able to replace your old SIM with a newer one.
Modifying SIM Sizes
The carriers actually make it pretty easy to obtain a SIM card of the proper size for your device. All the carrier needs to do is provision your plan to a new SIM card. This can often even be done over the phone if you have an unused carrier SIM card in your possession.
But if you have a grandfathered in plan, are SIM swapping to devices that may not be officially supported by your plan, or are frequently swapping between devices that take different sizes - sometimes you might not want to involve your carrier.
Because SIM cards are all electrically identical – it is actually possible to carefully cut down a Mini-SIM or Micro-SIM to put it into a device that has a Nano-SIM slot.
And you can use a small plastic cradle to put a smaller SIM into a Mini or Micro slot.
TIP: For a good list of what SIM sizes are used by many popular phones, look here.
Some people have been known to modify SIM cards with razor blades or scissors, but for less than $10 on Amazon you can buy a SIM cutter tool to make the process easier
- Sizing Down: The QQ-Tech Nano Sim Card Cutter is an example used for cutting both Mini and Micro SIMs down to Nano-sized.
- Sizing Up: For going the other way and using a smaller SIM in a device with a larger slot - an Adapter Kit will do the trick.
Cutting a SIM can be scary the first time - especially if you have never seen it done.
Nano-SIM cards are slightly thinner than the two other sizes. This usually is not an issue, but some devices have VERY tight Nano-SIM slots and you can end up with a cut-down SIM wedged inside and trapped.
Particular when swapping a cut down SIM card into a 6620L JetPack - you do need to lightly sand down the NON-electronic side of the card for it to fit. For more information on swapping into a 6620 (including a quick demo video), and what to do if you get your SIM card stuck: Opening up a Jetpack® 6620L to Remove a Stuck SIM card
On the other hand - starting with a NanoSIM and using adapter trays to size up is usually not a problem at all. If you have the option - start with a Nano!
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SIM Swapping: Moving SIM Cards Between Devices
This section goes into considerations of moving SIMs between devices - from carrier compatibility, locked devices and the carriers current policies on swapping SIMS between devices and device types.
SIM Locks & PUK Codes
For safety, you can lock your SIM card to a particular devices - but if you forget your unlock PIN number, you'll need a special PUK code to move your SIM card later.
Obtaining SIM Cards
This section goes over how to obtain SIM cards in the first place, including some tips on caring for them.
Dual SIM & eSIM
Higher end routers have long supported dual SIMS - allowing you two keep two data plans at the ready to switch between. Newer consumer devices, including smartphones, are also now supporting the feature - and now even electronic SIMs can have plans on them. This section goes deep into understanding how to utilize dual SIMs and eSIMs effectively.
Summary: An Easy Way to Switch Service Between Devices
SIM cards are in every mobile cellular device, whether it's a phone, tablet, or hotspot. Without it, your device would be invisible to the cellular network.
SIM cards are what identify your account to your carrier's network. Many of them are removable and can be transferred from one device to another.
If you do want to switch a SIM card into another device, make sure its compatible with the device you're switching to, both in regards to the carrier and the size of SIM card slot.
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