How to Get Free Government Cell Phone Service

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Ever get fed up with the high cost of wireless service? We do too.

Even if you cut costs by avoiding expensive unlimited plans you may still need a more affordable option. How does free sound?

If you fall within certain low-income guidelines, you may qualify for a free government cell phone and service through a government program called Lifeline.

This option is a great solution if:

  • You don't need tons of data
  • You're a senior citizen
  • You need a phone for work or job searching
  • You need a phone in case of things like car problems or medical emergencies

In this guide, you'll find everything you need to know about this free cell phone program and how to get started.

Who Qualifies for a Free Cell Phone?

While there may be minor differences from state to state, Lifeline is a federal government assistance program so qualifications are universal for the most part.

There are two ways to qualify for the Lifeline assistance program.

The most common way is participation in one of these government programs:

  • Medicaid
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps)
  • Section 8 (Federal Public Housing Assistance)
  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
  • Veterans or Survivors Pension Benefits
  • Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) General Assistance
  • Tribal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TTANF)
  • Tribal Head Start (must meet income thresholds)
  • Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR)

The second way to qualify is by your income.

Most states require that your total household income is less than 135% of federal poverty guidelines. So, for most states, 2018 income for a two-person household would need to be at or below $22,221 ($16,460 multiplied by 1.35).

Income levels vary by state, with a few states allowing for higher income:

  • California - 218% of federal poverty guidelines
  • Nevada - 175%
  • Florida, Kansas, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, Rhode Island, Texas - 150%

It's best to check with Lifeline carriers in your state to confirm income level requirements.

How to Get Free Cell Phone Service

Signing up for free cell phone service through the Lifeline program is simple:

  1. Find a provider in your state: In the next section, you'll find a list of all Lifeline carriers along with the states in which they operate.
  2. Review the information on each carrier's website: It's important to look at what each company has to offer Lifeline customers. Cellphones and service plans vary from carrier to carrier so you'll want to make a thorough assessment before deciding which one is right for you.
  3. Enroll online or by phone: The most convenient way to enroll in Lifeline's free cell phone offer is to sign up on the provider's website. You can typically choose to call instead, if you prefer, however it's much easier to enroll online so that you can quickly and easily upload any required documentation.

If possible, enroll in Lifeline via a qualifying program rather than by income requirements. Verification is automated if you participate in a qualifying program, making the process faster and easier. If you register based upon your income level you may be required to provide proofs. Arrival time for your phone may range from a week to several weeks.

Free Cell Phone Carriers

There are several free government cell phone companies. SafeLink and Assurance Wireless are the two major providers involved in the Lifeline free cell phone program. There are other options in some states, however, so be sure to look at all of your options before making a decision.

  • SafeLink Wireless – SafeLink is operated by TracFone Wireless and is the biggest and oldest Lifeline provider. SafeLink provides service in: Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Washington D.C., West Virginia, and Wisconsin.
  • Assurance Wireless – Run by Sprint Nextel, Assurance operates in: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Washington D.C., West Virginia, and Wisconsin.
  • Q Link Wireless – Q Link is powered by the Sprint network. This carrier services Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.
  • Access Wireless - Another Sprint network provider, Access is available in Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Washington D.C., Wisconsin, and West Virginia.
  • Life Wireless - This Lifeline carrier runs on the AT&T network. Life Wireless operates in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.
  • Assist Wireless - This provider operates on both the Sprint and T-Mobile networks. Assist Wireless only services a handful of states - Arkansas, Maryland, Missouri, and Oklahoma.
  • enTouch Wireless - enTouch, a Verizon Wireless free government phone provider, is available in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

What's Included with Your Free Smartphone?

There are no bills, no credit checks, and no fees ever to participate in this free program. Most Lifeline carriers offer the following:

  • Free monthly minutes
  • Free nationwide calling
  • Free monthly data (some providers)
  • Ability to connect to Wi-Fi
  • Free voicemail
  • Caller ID & three-way calling
  • 911 & 411 calls

Each provider offers a slightly different package, with some carriers giving you multiple options and others allowing you to pay extra to upgrade. For example, SafeLink gives you 350 minutes, unlimited text messages, and 500 MB of data each month; however, you can purchase more minutes and data if you choose. Other carriers, like enTouch, provide minutes and text messages but no data (except in California where you get 500 MB of data).

Can You Bring Your Own Phone to Lifeline?

In some cases, yes, you can use your own device. Once you choose a carrier you should check their website to see what their requirements are for bringing your own phone. If not, most Lifeline carriers now provide customers with a basic smartphone.

Cheap Cell Phone Plans

What can you do if you're on a tight budget, yet you don't qualify for the Lifeline free cell phone program? Or maybe you do qualify but you need more data than the free phone service provides. Fortunately, you still have plenty of options for affordable mobile service. The best way to save money is by going with a cheap cell phone plan through a MVNO - or Mobile Virtual Network Operator.

MVNOs like Twigby, Mint Mobile, and TPO Mobile offer custom plans that allow you to only pay for what you actually need. Plans start as low as $9 per month, and you can bring your own device as long as it's compatible with the network.

Benefits of MVNOs include:

  • No contracts
  • Buy only the minutes, texts, and data you need
  • Keep your own device
  • Keep your phone number
  • Great coverage on one or more of the four big networks

If you're ready to consider this cost-saving move, compare cell phone plans to help you make your choice.

Recap

It's worth noting that if you do qualify for Lifeline, you are permitted one phone line per household.

Whether you take advantage of a free cell phone through the government or you use a MVNO to get a cheap cell phone plan, there's no reason to sweat it out every month over your mobile service bill. There's something for everyone when it comes to affordable phone service.

Pro Tip: Toll-free isn't actually free with SafeLink Wireless. While you won't pay for calls such as those to 800 numbers, toll-free calls will count against your minutes' allotment.

How to Get Free Government Cell Phone Service FAQs

QAre Lifeline Phones Really Free?

A

Yes. The program is funded through the Universal Service Fund, which pays carriers to help provide affordable communications to low-income individuals. As long as you qualify, you won't pay for your phone, your service, or any activation fees or surcharges. You will not receive bills or be held financially responsible for your allotted usage.

QHow Do I Switch to Another Lifeline Provider?

A

According to the Universal Service Administrative Company, which administers the Lifeline program, you may change free cell phone providers once every 60 days. You may be permitted to switch sooner than 60 days if you move or if your provider stops participating in the Lifeline program.

To change carriers, contact the company you wish to switch over to. You will need the following information in order to make the change:

  • Name
  • Birthdate
  • The last four digits of your Social Security number
  • Address
  • Phone number

You will need to give written or verbal consent for the switch, and you may be required to provide proof of identity.

QDo I Have to Sign a Contract for My Free Phone Service?

A

No. There are no contracts and you can drop out of the program at any time you choose, or if you no longer qualify. Your account will be reviewed for re-qualification once per year; however, this is a very simple process.

QCan I Use My Free Cell Phone Forever?

A

You can use your Lifeline phone for as long as you qualify under the assistance program and/or income requirements. As mentioned above, you will have to re-certify each year that you are still eligible for the program, but as long as you still meet those requirements you will continue to receive your free service.

QWho Pays for the Free Lifeline Cell Phones?

A

In 1997 Congress established the Universal Service Fund. This fund is financed through small surcharges on utility bills that most Americans pay, such as landline bills, cell phone bills, cable bills, etc. The Lifeline program is administered using the money collected through these fees.

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