Do I need a new phone and a new SIM card for 5G?

5G mobile networks have been around for a couple of years now in many countries but there is still confusion around the device and SIM needs. It is important to clarify these questions so that you don’t end up buying a phone or SIM that does not fully meet your requirements.

If you want to access the 5G network, you need a 5G compatible mobile phone because 5G uses the New Radio (NR) technology which is different from the LTE technology used by 4G. As a general rule, you do not need a new SIM card for your 5G phone and your existing SIM will work in your new 5G phone.

We see a new cellular technology roughly every ten years, and every time there is a new technology, people have some basic questions surrounding the SIM, device and services. It is important to make all the necessary checks before buying yourself a new shiny 5G phone. This post aims to answer the most fundamental questions you need to think about to access the 5G network services.

SIM and mobile plan4G mobile phone5G mobile phone
Existing 4G SIM but tied to a 4G plan (tariff)You can access 4G, 3G and 2G but not 5GYou can access 4G, 3G and 2G but not 5G
Existing 4G SIM not tied to a 4G plan (tariff)You can access 4G, 3G and 2G but not 5GYou can access 5G, 4G, 3G and 2G
New 5G-Ready SIM (just a new SIM)You can access 4G, 3G and 2G but not 5GYou can access 5G, 4G, 3G and 2G
—What you can and can’t do with 4G and 5G mobile phones and SIM—

Do I need a new mobile phone to access the 5G network?

You need a 5G compatible mobile phone to access the 5G network because 5G uses a new cellular technology called New Radio (NR) which requires new phone hardware. If your current phone is a 4G LTE mobile phone, then it will not support the 5G connectivity. Your 5G phone will however support 4G also.

5G uses New Radio (NR) cellular technology which is different from LTE (Long Term Evolution) used by the 4G networks. If you want to access the 5G network, you need a 5G compatible mobile device with a 5G chipset inside. If you currently have a 4G LTE phone or an LTE hub or router, you will not be able to access the 5G network using those devices. You need a buy a new device with 5G hardware and software inside. If you already have a new mobile phone and you are not sure whether it supports 5G, check out this dedicated post to help you determine if your phone is 5G compatible. It is important to note that all mobile devices are backwards compatible but not forward compatible. It means if you have a 5G phone or router and if you don’t have great 5G coverage in your area, you will still be able to access the 4G LTE network.

Will my existing 4G SIM work in a 5G mobile phone?

Your existing 4G SIM will work in your new 5G phone as long as your mobile plan (tariff) is not locked to 4G. The SIM cards in 3G (UMTS), 4G (LTE) and 5G (NR) follow the same specifications so if your tariff is entitled to using 5G services then you don’t need a new SIM for your 5G phone.

One of the most frequently asked questions on 5G is about the SIM card and whether or not you need a new SIM to access 5G services? It is probably a confusing topic because different mobile operators have different stances. Interestingly all the different answers are technically accurate, making the topic slightly more confusing than it should be. So, let’s simplify it here. The short answer is that you do not need a new SIM for 5G, and your existing 4G SIM will work in your 5G phone; however, there may be some limitations.

The SIM card used in 4G networks is based on the same specifications as the 3G SIMs (USIM), making them backwards and forward compatible. The SIM card is an integrated circuit that is a combination of hardware and software. Your mobile subscription’s privacy and security aspects get more advanced as new technologies come, and 5G also adds new levels of security. So, if you use a 4G SIM in your 5G phone, it will technically still allow you to access 5G, but the levels of privacy and security will depend on what programme sits on the SIM. As a result, you may find mobile operators in the UK, who will advise you to get a new SIM for your 5G phone, but you may also find operators who will advise you otherwise. If a friend of mine asked for advice on this subject, I would say go for a new SIM card to be on the safe side.

Will my 5G SIM work in a 4G mobile phone?

Your 5G ready SIM will work in a 4G phone but will only allow you to access 4G LTE and earlier networks. So, if you have a new SIM card that is sold as a 5G ready SIM (not locked to a 4G tariff), it will still only allow you to access the 5G network if it is used in a 5G mobile phone.

If you have a SIM card advertised as a 5G SIM, it will still work in older mobile phones, but you will not be able to access the 5G network when using the SIM with older phones. SIM cards from the 3G UMTS network onwards are backwards and forward compatible, and mobile phones are backwards compatible. So, a 5G SIM card will work in a 4G phone, but will only allow you to access 4G, 3G and 2G networks if used in a 4G phone. The only way to take advantage of the capabilities of a SIM is to use it with the latest mobile phone for your needs. The other practical thing to keep in mind is to have the correct SIM size for your device. Nowadays, most operators provide a triple SIM that includes standard, micro and nano SIM sizes. So, for example, if your phone only takes a micro SIM, you want to make sure that you have the micro SIM size available.

How to find out if you have a 5G SIM?

If you have a 5G compatible phone and your mobile operator has 5G coverage in your area, then it is very easy to find out if your SIM supports the 5G network. Basically, as long as 5G is included in your mobile tariff (mobile plan), your SIM should automatically support 5G by default. To find out, all you need to do is simply insert your SIM card into a 5G compatible phone and try one of the following options:

If you are in a geographical area with 5G cellular coverage, then your phone should display the 5G symbol in addition to the other cellular connectivity symbols like 4G,3G, H+, H and E. The phone will display only one of these symbols at a time so you may have to wait before you see the 5G symbol.

If you are in a geographical area with no or little 5G coverage, then the best way to find out if your SIM supports 5G is to locate ‘Preferred network type’ on your phone which you can find in the phone settings under ‘Mobile Networks’ or ‘Network & Internet’ depending on your phone type.

Have a look at the screenshots below. The screenshot on the right is for the first option where you just locate the symbol. The other screenshot for locating “preferred network type”.

How to find out if your SIM supports 5G cellular connectivity
How to find out if your SIM supports 5G cellular connectivity

What device and SIM you need to access 5G

We have put together a quick and simple diagram to help you visualise what you need to think about when procuring 5G services. Essentially you need a 5G device, a SIM that works on 5G, a 5G mobile plan and 5G network coverage in your area. Below is a checklist and the necessary details for each item on the list.

SIM, Phone and Network for 5G
A checklist for getting 5G services

Requirement # 1: You need to have 5G cellular coverage in your location of interest

The first thing you need to do is to find out whether your mobile operator has decent 5G coverage in your area or not. The best way to do that is by contacting the operator or checking the coverage map on your operator’s website. If you find out that your home or work location where you want the 5G services are not yet covered, the operator may be able to give you an idea of the timelines if you contact them. If you live in the UK, you can use the following links to check the mobile network coverage in your area.

Vodafone UK network coverage

EE network coverage

O2 network coverage

Three network coverage

If your current mobile service provider is not listed above, you may be using the services of an MVNO. MVNOs are Mobile Virtual Network Operators (e.g. Tesco Mobile) that use mobile networks of Mobile Network Operators (e.g. O2) to reach your phone. Here is a Wikipedia link to find out which MVNOs in the UK are using which mobile operators. The “Host network” column shows the mobile network operators (MNO).

Requirement # 2: You need a 5G compatible mobile device to access 5G network because 4G phones will not connect to 5G

5G uses an entirely new access technology called New Radio (NR), which differs from what 4G uses. 4G networks are based on the LTE (Long Term Evolution) technology. So to access the 5G network, you need the necessary hardware and software that is compatible with 5G NR. Since all mobile cellular technologies are backwards compatible, your 5G device (phone or router) will also allow you to access 4G LTE and 3G UMTS/HSPA. 5G networks work in two modes; NSA (Non-Stand-Alone) and SA (Stand-alone). The NSA mode is more common at the moment, and it uses both 4G and 5G networks simultaneously to improve your data rate. This capability is called dual connectivity, which is something that 4G phones can’t do.

Requirement # 3: Your mobile tariff (plan) needs to be entitled to using 5G services

As 5G is still new and the coverage isn’t as mature in most parts of the world, your mobile operator may not have 5G available on all tariffs. They may sell both 4G and 5G tariffs separately so that people who live in areas without 5G have a cheaper option in the form of 4G tariffs. If you want 5G, make sure to check your plan before buying. When 5G becomes more common, you may get 5G on all tariffs as a standard. That depends on each operator as to how long it takes and how they want to sell 5G services in your country. Also important to check that there aren’t any “limitations” such as throttling or speed cap.

Requirement # 4: Your existing 4G SIM will work in a 5G phone but still confirm with your operator

You may or may not need a new SIM card to access 5G services on your 5G phone. As explained above, some operators advise you to use the same 4G SIM, but some other operators advise customers to buy a new 5G SIM. Technically, your 4G SIM should be able to access the 5G network, but you should check with your operator. The preferred option is to get a new “5G Ready” SIM from your operator to be on the safe side.

Conclusion

You will need a new 5G compatible (5G Ready) mobile phone to access the 5G networks because your old 4G phones will only be able to connect you to 4G, 3G and 2G networks. You may also need a new 5G ready SIM card for your new 5G phone unless your mobile operator advises you otherwise. Mobile phones are backwards compatible, so your 5G phone will still allow you to automatically connect to 4G, 3G and 2G networks if you are in areas with limited or no 5G coverage.

Here are some helpful downloads

Thank you for reading this post. I hope it helped you in developing a better understanding of cellular networks. Sometimes, we need extra support, especially when preparing for a new job, studying a new topic, or buying a new phone. Whatever you are trying to do, here are some downloads that can help you:

Students & fresh graduates: If you are just starting, the complexity of the cellular industry can be a bit overwhelming. But don’t worry, I have created this FREE ebook so you can familiarise yourself with the basics like 3G, 4G etc. As a next step, check out the latest edition of the same ebook with more details on 4G & 5G networks with diagrams. You can then read Mobile Networks Made Easy, which explains the network nodes, e.g., BTS, MSC, GGSN etc.

Professionals: If you are an experienced professional but new to mobile communications, it may seem hard to compete with someone who has a decade of experience in the cellular industry. But not everyone who works in this industry is always up to date on the bigger picture and the challenges considering how quickly the industry evolves. The bigger picture comes from experience, which is why I’ve carefully put together a few slides to get you started in no time. So if you work in sales, marketing, product, project or any other area of business where you need a high-level view, Introduction to Mobile Communications can give you a quick start. Also, here are some templates to help you prepare your own slides on the product overview and product roadmap.

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