Last update: January 18, 2024
Using an eSIM for cell phone service in Iceland can be a great option. But it’s also very confusing if you’ve never used one before. How do you know if an Iceland eSIM is the best choice for you and your phone? And if it is, how you you get your eSIM to work in Iceland?
Here’s what you need to know to use an eSIM in Iceland. (This information should work for other countries as well, not just Iceland, as long as you purchase an eSIM for the country you are headed to!)
What is an eSIM?
Most of us are used to getting cell phone service using a physical SIM card. This is a little card that you insert in your cell phone to receive service from your carrier.
An eSIM is an electronic SIM card. It replaces the functionality of that physical card with virtual technology.
Most phones still have a physical SIM card slot and also an eSIM, so 2 different SIM cards of some kind. This is really nice, once you get past the initial set-up. You can tell your phone to route all data through the eSIM, but still keep your phone number active through your physical SIM card.
Make sure your phone can handle an Iceland eSIM before you purchase one to use in Iceland
More and more new phones support eSIM technology, but not all do. It’s not easy to tell if your phone can handle eSIMs by just looking; most phones that support eSIM still have a physical SIM card slot as well. (The exception is the latest 2 versions of iPhones sold in the United States, the iPhone 14 and 15. These only have eSIMs.)
Make sure your phone is unlocked before you head to Iceland
This is a critical step that throws a lot of people off (especially people visiting Iceland from the United States.) If your phone is still locked by your carrier, you can purchase an eSIM, but you can’t use it. Everything will work just fine until the very last step, and you might be in Iceland by the time you get to that step!
How do you know if your phone is unlocked? You’ll need to check with your cell phone company (Verizon, AT&T, TMobile, etc.) to be sure. But in general:
- Verizon unlocks their phones after 60 days. (But it can’t hurt to check with them.)
- The other carriers generally unlock the phone once it’s paid off. If you are still making monthly payments, odds are your phone is still locked to your carrier, and you won’t be able to use an eSIM.
Choosing an Iceland eSIM provider for your Iceland trip
Lots of companies provide eSIMs that will work in Iceland. But many of them are expensive, and not necessarily tailored for use in Iceland. Some companies offer “global eSIMs” which will work in almost any country. But you’ll pay up to 5 times more money for one of these. It’s almost always better to purchase an eSIM that is for your particular destination.
We recommend 2 companies with eSIMs tailored for Iceland:
Airalo. Airalo claims to be the World’s first eSIM store, and their focus is on value. You can get 1 GB of data to use in Iceland for $4.50 US or less. There are often coupon codes that can make this even cheaper. For example, in December 2023 new customers can use code DEC15 to save 15%, and returning customers can use DEC10 to save 10%. (If I forget to update this post in 2024, try changing that to match the current month!)
Airalo also has clear directions for how to install your eSIM on your iPhone.
In Iceland, Airalo only uses the Nova network, which is a newer cell phone carrier in Iceland. Nova coverage should be fine for most trips to Iceland, especially if you’re visiting the main tourist areas: Reykjavik, the Golden Circle, and even for a Ring Road trip.
But, if you’re venturing into the Highlands, or remote parts of the Westfjords or even villages up in the far North of Iceland, you may want a card that offers service from more than just Nova.
But, Breeze uses both Nova and Siminn as their cellular data providers in Iceland. Siminn is the oldest and largest carrier in Iceland, and Icelanders think it’s more reliable in remote areas of Iceland. And a Breeze representative told me, “Your eSIM will automatically connect to the stronger network while you are using it, but you are also able to manually choose which network you would like to connect to.”
Update January 2024: Use code 10OFFNEWYEAR to save 10% off of your Breeze eSIM, Valid through the end of February 2024.
One thing to note is that spending more money gets you both a lower cost per Gigabyte of data, and also more time to use the data. For example, if you get 5 GB of data, the cost is $14 at Airalo and $19 at Breeze. Both packages are valid for a trip of up to 30 days, and the cost per GB is cheaper than just buying 1 GB. (You can top-up your data package if you use up your allotted data, but you have to pay for a full new package, not the incremental cost.)
The 3 steps to using your eSIM in Iceland
There are 4 steps you need to do in order to use your eSIM in Iceland. Don’t worry- all of them are very very easy! We used an eSIM in Iceland at the end of 2023, and we’ll share screenshots of the process below.
- Purchase your eSIM. Airalo currently offers 6 packages for Iceland:
(Airalo has all of the same packages Breeze offers, plus a 2 GB option.)
How much data do you need in Iceland? It’s difficult to know, and you will likely end up wasting any extra data you purchased. I used about 3.7 GB for my 8 day trip, though a good chunk of that was booking a new hotel last-minute after a storm changed my plans. You may use very little if you end up on WiFi for most of the trip. But somewhere in the 3-5 GB range should be a good insurance policy, so you have data if you need it. Just don’t watch videos, since that will chew through your data allotment quickly! You’ll receive an e-mail with an option to top-up when you get close to your data limit.
2. Install your eSIM. You may do this step and the next step at the same time, but you don’t have to! Installing your eSIM is similar to putting your physical SIM card into your phone. Once it’s installed, it’s in your phone, but it’s not necessarily active yet.
3. Activate your eSIM. This is the part that confuses people (me included!) When can you activate the eSIM? If you’re still at home, will this mess up your current cell phone service? If the eSIM is only valid for 14 days, do I need to wait until I’m in Iceland to activate it?
The answer is that you can activate your eSIM before you leave for Iceland! The valid number of days doesn’t start counting until you first use the eSIM in Iceland. Note that this is not true for every eSIM in every country, but it is true for Airalo and Breeze eSIM cards in Iceland. Here’s what Airalo says right in the eSIM itself:
Note the Airalo activation policy for the eSIM: the activation period starts only when it connects to the Nova network in Iceland.
So you can just activate the eSIM at the same time you install it, and make life easier for yourself once you’re in Iceland.
But will activating the eSIM impact your cellular service at home? If you have an issue, you just need to tweak your settings to send all data through your primary cellular service. I named my Airalo eSIM “Travel”, and my normal home service “Primary.” Under Cellular settings, just make sure your Cellular Data is set to use Primary:
Then when you arrive in Iceland, just go back to your cellular settings and choose “Travel” for cellular data.
Note that it took several minutes for my phone to start using the Nova network. Eventually, I could see the data on both of my SIM cards (1 physical and 1 electronic):
What about calls and texts while I’m in Iceland?
Here’s where you need to be careful. If you’re using AT&T or Verizon, you’ll pay quite a bit for voice calls and texts. Remember, these are still going through your primary SIM- the eSIMs are data only! Without an international plan from your carrier, calls can cost $1.79 per minute, and sending a text can cost 50 cents. (These are Verizon’s current prices as of December 2023.)
You can turn off cellular service on your primary SIM to avoid these charges.
And you can make voice calls and send messages using a data-based communications app, such as Whatsapp or Skype.
Is an eSIM the right choice for your Iceland trip?
Maybe! (But maybe not.) If you need to use your phone number to make calls and send texts, an eSIM won’t help. You’ll want to sign up for a Travelpass plan with Verizon or AT&T. (TMobile offers free texting and much less expensive phone calls, along with free low speed data.)
But those passes cost $10 a day, so you’re paying $80 for a Saturday to Saturday trip. An Airalo eSIM with enough data for your trip should only cost you $10 or less. If you’re willing to do a bit of extra work, and not use your main cellular plan, an eSIM in Iceland can definitely save you money.