If you’re a cell phone user whose carrier uses the GSM standard such as T-Mobile, AT&T, Vodafone, and others, your phone includes a tiny electronic card that offers a lot of value. The card is called a SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) card and it can maintain your preferences. Just as important, this removable smart card can secure your data, which makes it much easier to move from one phone carrier to another.
Part of the problem with cell phones is that they are complicated compared to a regular landline phone. As a result, few people take advantage of all the features. One area people overlook is using the SIM card. I’ve known friends who have recycled or sold cell phones without removing these cards.
What Are SIM Cards
All GSM phones need a SIM card to run. Some of the newer phones that use a 4G LTE network also need the card even though they are on a CDMA system. A SIM card is a tiny printed circuit board that identifies you to the phone network. Each carrier has its own SIM cards and they can vary in size based on the phone. Your cell phone may come with one or you can buy them from retailers. The picture below shows an example of a card I bought years ago from the old Cingular network. The red circled area is the actual SIM card that you punch out.
What Data do SIM Cards Hold
SIM cards vary in the amount of data they can hold. Current cards hold between 16 and 64K. In comparison with a SD card that may not sound like much, but it is enough to hold your:
- cell phone number
- rate plan
- LAI (Location Area Identity)
- Service features and preferences
- Text messages
- Address book (info for about 250 contacts)
- PIN lock
Portability and SIM Locking
As you can see from the list, it is not your cell phone that knows your cell number, but your SIM card. The SIM card is used to authenticate you to your GSM carrier. This means you can remove your SIM card from your cell phone and place it into another GSM phone and use it. Conversely, if you travel overseas, you might pop in a SIM card for another carrier serving that country into your phone.
While SIM cards are designed to be portable, there are situations where a SIM card won’t work in another GSM phone. More to the point, the cell carrier won’t accept the card because of SIM locking. This is a practice the carriers use when they subsidize the purchase of your phone. For example, Carrier A offers you a $600 Smartphone for $200 with a 2-year contract. If you were to place your existing SIM card from Carrier B into the phone you might see a message such as Enter Subsidy Password or Enter Special Code. A common example in the US is the locked ATT iPhone.
The practice of SIM locking is more common in the United States. Each country and carrier has its own rules. Some carriers will unlock the phone for you after a set period. This restrictive practice has led many buyers to choose unlocked cell phones which sell for a premium.
Protecting Your Data with a PIN Lock
Most GSM phones offer the option for people to save contact information to the phone or to the SIM card. Saving your addresses to the card has advantages. The first is that if you stay with the same carrier, you don’t have to re-key your contact phone numbers. Even if you change carriers, you can get a SIM card reader and software that allows you to manage the data.
Another advantage of saving contact information to the SIM card is you can protect your data using a PIN lock. Many phones have a setting for a phone lock. A phone lock simply protects someone from using the phone. But, if your phone was lost or stolen, someone could remove the SIM card and use it unless it is locked. This is an added layer of protection.
Each SIM card comes with a default PIN that is set by the carrier or manufacturer. Sometimes the default PIN is in the documentation or is set during the activation process. If you have enabled the SIM Lock feature and don’t know the PIN, don’t guess. Most cards allow three mistakes and then require you to enter a PUK code. Until you enter the PUK (personal unblocking key) code, the phone is inoperable. Your carrier can tell you the correct PUK code to unlock your card after they’ve verified you’re the account holder.
Changing the PIN on your SIM card
If you know your PIN code, you can change it using this string,
**04*old PIN*new PIN* new PIN #
For example, if my old PIN was 12345 and I wanted to change it to 56345, I would type:
Recording your IMEI Number
Another precaution you might take is to record your IMEI number. This is the 15 digit International Mobile Equipment Identity number for your phone. This is a number assigned to each phone that you can report to your carrier if the phone is lost. This would prevent the phone from using the network. The number is usually stamped underneath the battery area. Most phones also allow you to get the number by entering this string on your phone: *#06#
Some phones will show your IMEI number in the settings panel. This is usually easier than trying to find the number on the phone as it may require you to remove the battery. Alternatively, if you have an Android phone, you can find your number online.
- Log into your Google settings page
- Scroll down to the Android section
- Click the small triangle to the left of the green Android icon
- The panel should expand and show you your phone details. The IMEI number is listed as MEID.
The rules vary about unlocking phones so they can be used with any GSM carrier, but it’s illegal to change a phone’s IMEI number. You can enter this number to find out details of your phone such as brand and model. This can be useful information if you’re buying a used phone and the brand and model display as something different.
Although SIM cards are tiny, you can see they offer some big features in terms of portability and security. Instead of worrying about your data if your phone gets lost, it may make sense to protect your investment now. And if you plan on selling or recycling your phone, make sure you remove the SIM card.