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A strange iPhone bug is causing iMessage and FaceTime to be randomly deactivated for some people using an eSIM instead of a physical SIM card.
It’s unclear exactly why this is happening, but after Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman highlighted the problem with his own iPhone on T-Mobile, several folks chimed in on Twitter to share how they’d encountered similar issues on other carriers, including Verizon and AT&T.
The problem appears to be unique only to recent iPhone models where customers have set up their accounts with eSIM rather than a physical SIM card. In fact, according to Gurman, switching his T-Mobile account back to a physical SIM was the only way he was able to resolve the issue.
This also doesn’t appear to be limited only to recent iOS versions. Gurman adds that he has confirmed the problem existed on iOS 15.4, iOS 15.5, and even the first beta of iOS 15.6 that was released this week. Another user noted that they experienced the problem two years ago with eSIM on an iPhone XS Max with AT&T after upgrading to iOS 13.
This suggests that the problem has been around for a while. It’s likely flown under the radar simply because it’s only recently become more common for customers to rely on eSIM for their primary cellular service.
When Apple introduced dual SIM capabilities in the iPhone XS and iPhone XR in iOS 12.1, it took some time for carriers to get on board even for secondary phone lines. Although it was possible to use eSIM for a primary line, none offered an easy way for most customers to set this up. Using a physical SIM card was still the norm, and eSIM was generally reserved for avoiding roaming charges when traveling internationally.
Fast forward to 2021, and carriers have embraced eSIM to the point where many will let you set up your iPhone entirely online without visiting a store or waiting for a SIM card to arrive in the mail. T-Mobile even has an app for that.
Further, some carriers even provide a fast and easy way to port your physical SIM card over to an eSIM. Complete a few steps online, and within minutes your eSIM takes over, and you can pull out your physical SIM card and toss it in the trash.
One significant advantage to moving your primary line to an eSIM is that it frees up the physical SIM card slot for travel to places where eSIM won’t be available. Things are even more versatile with an iPhone 13 since it supports two eSIM profiles and a physical SIM card slot. This means you can move your primary line to an eSIM and still have the option of using either another eSIM or a physical SIM card when traveling.
Unfortunately, as Gurman and others have discovered, there seems to be at least one big disadvantage to using an eSIM for your primary line: losing access to iMessage and FaceTime — at least when using your phone number.
As Gurman notes, iMessage and FaceTime get deactivated “for a device’s phone number.” These services will continue to work for messages and calls to an email address, but texts sent to your phone number will come through with those annoying green bubbles, making all your friends think you’ve switched to Android.
Why This Happens
This is definitely a bug, but it’s also a result of Apple being diligent — perhaps overly so — about deactivating phone numbers for Messages and FaceTime when cellular service gets deactivated.
In the early days of iMessage, some folks discovered that iMessages sent to them were still going to an iPhone that was lost or stolen — even after they deactivated their cellular service. This was caused by Apple keeping the original owner’s phone number tied to iMessage on their old iPhone even after they’d otherwise taken steps to remove it.
Unlike traditional text messages, iMessages and FaceTime calls travel through Apple’s servers. Your phone number is merely an address used to contact you. To prevent spoofing, Apple reads that phone number from your SIM or eSIM card and performs a quick background SMS exchange with Apple’s servers to confirm that it really belongs to you. Once that’s happened, Apple’s servers tie that phone number to your iPhone and your Apple ID.
As I wrote back then, the problem Apple was having was that it only performed this validation when your phone number actually changed, and this is what was getting iPhone users in trouble. Deactivating your line didn’t remove your phone number from iMessage or FaceTime.
However, once Apple realized that this was a problem, it addressed it by making sure that it regularly confirmed the SIM card registration to ensure it was still in the iPhone and hadn’t been deactivated. This has never been a problem with physical SIM cards, but clearly, some bug related to eSIM causes iOS to believe that the phone number is no longer valid.
This is also complicated because you can’t just remove an eSIM card and reinsert it. That would be the typical fix if you encountered this problem with a physical SIM since this would force iOS to re-read the SIM card and re-register your phone number with Apple’s servers. The only way to “remove” an eSIM is to ask your carrier to reset it, which usually involves de-provisioning and re-provisioning it for your cellular plan. That’s not exactly a simple process.
Hopefully, with someone as high profile as Gurman speaking up about this bug, Apple will take notice. However, in the meantime, you may have to go back to using a physical SIM, and if you’ve been thinking about migrating to using an eSIM for your primary line, you might want to hold off until this problem has been fixed.