Can you get a digital copy of a game you already own on Switch?

Lost or broken your favorite physical Switch game? Ouch, I know the feeling. However, Nintendo is not quite so sympathetic. 

Can you get a digital copy of a game you already own on Switch?

Buying a physical Nintendo Switch game doesn’t mean you can download that same game in digital format for free from the Nintendo Store. If you want a digital copy of the game, you’ll have to buy it separately. 

I’ve lost and damaged physical Switch games. In both cases, I was forced to save up and buy the games again. 

Can you download a switch game if you lost the cartridge?

If you lose your Nintendo Switch game cartridge, you won’t be able to simply head to the Nintendo Store and download a replacement digital copy for free. 

Trust me, I’ve been there. I accidentally left my copy of Mario Odyssey on a plane. I am an idiot.

Mario Odyssey Switch game card behind a white aeroplane on a bakcground of a disappointed hooded man

Think about it. If you lost or damaged your Nintendo Switch game and Nintendo was happy to hand out free digital copies as replacements, there would be plenty of mischievous people ready to take advantage. 

I’m not saying you or I would do this, but I definitely know people who would say their physical copy is lost or damaged in order to get free access to a digital copy, thus allowing them to sell or give away the physical copy that they still have.

Can Switch cartridges be downloaded?

It’s not possible to download the entire contents of a physical Switch cartridge to either your console’s hard drive or an inserted SD card. 

For physical Nintendo Switch games, the only data downloaded to the console storage is save data, which is stored separately from downloaded games. This also means that if you have a digital copy, the Switch game save data remains even if you archive or delete your game.

One of the big advantages the Switch has over other consoles (in my opinion) is that no installation is required before playing a physical Switch game for the first time. When you first insert the game card into the console, you can play straight away.

I don’t know about you, but there’s nothing worse than buying a new game, inserting it into the console, and then having to wait for ages while a huge file is installed (God of War Ragnarok I am looking at you).

Can you trade in physical Switch games for digital ones?

No, it’s impossible to trade physical Nintendo Switch game cards for digital Switch games. 

However, you could trade in physical Nintendo Switch games for store credit (in order to buy prepaid Nintendo eShop cards) or cash which you could then use to buy digital games for your Switch.

While trying to think of a good reason for wanting to do that, I thought about a few more questions on the differences (or lack of) between physical and digital Nintendo Switch games:

What’s the difference between physical and digital Nintendo Switch games?

Are digital games cheaper on Switch?

In general, the retail prices for physical and digital Nintendo Switch games are the same.

Physical Switch games can be found on sale at certain times at certain retailers, while Nintendo has its own sales on the official eShop (the Switch has no internet browser so the eShop is the only place to buy digital games). 

However, Nintendo Switch games seem to hold their value because of (among other things) high demand, so it’s not all that common to find popular physical or digital Switch titles available at steep discounts

Do Switch games run better digital or physical?

The performance of physical Switch games is nearly identical to digital Switch games. The only difference is that digitally installed games can sometimes load ever so slightly faster than the physical equivalent. 

Digital Foundry ran some tests on Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and discovered that the fastest loading times were achieved with a digital copy of the game downloaded onto the Switch’s internal storage

As you can see, the difference in loading speed is pretty minimal and not really an issue unless you are, like, a professional speed runner or something.

Like physical games, digital Switch games can be played offline, provided you are playing on the primary console associated with the Nintendo Account that purchased the game.

Will Nintendo refund a digital game?

Nintendo won’t refund you for a game purchase made on the Nintendo eShop. Them’s the rules, even if you accidentally purchased the wrong game, or you didn’t like the game, or the game wasn’t suitable for some other reason. 

Don’t believe me? Here’s the exact wording as per the Nintendo Americas support page for downloaded game or DLC refund requests:

Screenshot of Nintendo Support page confirming refunds cannot be issued for digital game purchases

Can you sell digital Switch games?

It’s not possible to sell digital Switch games. 

In theory (and I am thinking aloud here), I guess you could sell an account to which digital game purchases are tied to. However, that’s about as clear a violation of the Nintendo Network Services Agreement as they come. So don’t do that.

There’s also no third-party marketplace for Switch games like there is for Steam keys and other digital downloads. The only place that sells digital Nintendo Switch games is the Nintendo eShop. 

Can you lend digital Switch games?

You cannot lend digital Switch games to a friend (or an enemy, for that matter). 

I think this is one of, if not the biggest disadvantages of downloading digital Switch games compared to purchasing physical game cards – especially now that 56% of Nintendo Switch game sales are digital.

I have regularly borrowed physical Switch games from friends and family, and I have regularly lent out my game cards for them to try, too. It’s especially nice to be able to do this with single-player-only games. 

How long will Switch cartridges last?

A Switch game card kept in a sensible condition should last several decades before any problems relating to deterioration can be expected.

I have lots of physical Switch games so that’s great news for me – especially if the next Nintendo console features backward compatibility with Switch.

The plastic casing of the game card itself will be around long after you and I have left this earth, but other elements like the soldering or the flash memory could feasibly degrade or corrupt if given enough time.

The video game industry certainly has a sustainability problem, and that’s one clear reason (for me, at least) to avoid buying physical copies of every single game you want to play. 

Yes, digital downloads have an environmental cost too in the sense that it takes a chunk of energy to be able to complete the download, but at least you’re not buying Switch game cases that are 4.1” wide and 6.7” high to store a card that measures 1.2” x 0.8”.

Do digital games last forever?

When you buy digital games, what you are effectively purchasing is a license to download the game onto your device. 

That means you definitely don’t own digital games forever in the same way that you are the owner of the physical piece of plastic and metal (or whatever it is) that makes up a physical Nintendo Switch game.

That’s something to keep in mind for games that don’t get a physical release, like some of the titles on my list of Switch adventure games without combat, for example.

If Nintendo decides to shut down its eShop for Nintendo Switch, you will lose access to digital games that you have purchased but have downloaded.

Nintendo has some form here: The Wii U/3DS store closed for good in March 2023. That means there are a bunch of games that will no longer be available (seeing as there is no official way to play 3DS games on Switch unless the game has a Switch port).

Can you get a digital copy of a game you already own on switch? (Conclusion)

You won’t be able to get a free digital download of a Nintendo Switch game if you’ve bought a physical copy. If you want a digital copy, you will need to pay for it as normal. This applies even if you have lost or damaged your physical game card.

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