Get a Free Government Cell Phone: What You Need To Know
If you're short on cash and looking for an extreme discount (or even a complete freebie) on a cell phone, you could be in luck. The United States Federal Government has a little-known program called Lifeline Assistance. It provides low-cost (and sometimes free) internet and cell phone service to qualifying individuals.
Unfortunately, Lifeline Assistance no longer gives out free devices itself. However, many of the carriers it partners with do still offer free phones and SIM card kits. Even if you don't find a totally free option, most companies who participate in the Lifeline Assistance program are also part of the Affordable Connectivity Program, which offers cell phones or tablets for as low as $11.
Here's everything you need to know about qualifying for a free government cell phone.
How To Qualify For A Free Cell Phone
Qualification is actually pretty simple. However, you must be in a tough financial spot in order to make use of the Lifeline Assistance program. If you have an income at (or below) 135% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines, you automatically qualify. If you're above that mark, you also qualify by being enrolled in any of these programs:
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
- Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
- Federal Public Housing Assistance (FPHA)
- Tribal-specific programs: Bureau of Indian Affairs General Assistance, Tribal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (Tribal TANF), Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations
- Assistance for Needy Families (TTANF), Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), Head Start
- Veterans and Survivors Pension Benefit
How To Apply For a Free Government Phone
Applying for Lifeline Assistance is as easy as going to this website. They will start by asking what state or territory you live in, and the application process continues from there. If you qualify, you'll get to choose from a variety of budget carriers, devices, and service plans.
Be warned, the process isn't instant. You need to qualify for Lifeline before you can proceed with picking a phone and service plan. You may even need to send in certain documents to prove your eligibility. You have 45 days to finish the application, after starting it. If you do qualify, you have another 90 days to choose a phone and sign up for service.
What Free Cell Phones Are Available?
If you were hoping for the latest and greatest Apple or Samsung devices, you're going to be disappointed. As you can reasonably expect from a free government cell phone program, the devices on offer are far from "top of the line". However, they aren't just cheaply made flip phones from the 90s, either.
Most Lifeline partners do offer some version of a smartphone. It's likely to have lower-end internal specifications and run an older version of Android (or Android-like operating system). Still, a potentially free smartphone when you're struggling financially is still a good deal.
Some examples of smartphones you can get for free are the Alcatel Dawn, Kyocera Hydro Reach, Coolpad Haylo, or the ZTE Prestige 2.
What Carriers Are Available?
Most of the major national carriers don't fully participate in the Lifeline program (or only participate in select states). However, there are still a variety of smaller, cheaper cell phone service providers who take part.
Here is a non-exhaustive list of the companies you can use:
- Assurance Wireless
- Cintex Wireless
- Copper Valley Telecom
- Easy Wireless
- enTouch Wireless
- Feelsafe Wireless
- Infiniti Mobile
- Life Wireless
- NewPhone Wireless
- Q Link
- Safelink Wireless
- SafetyNet Wireless
- StandUp Wireless
- Tag Mobile
- Tempo Wireless
- Terracom Wireless
- True Wireless
Some of these carriers have data plans for as low as $5 or $6 a month, with talk and text options starting at $5 a month. With the Lifeline benefit, those costs will be mostly covered.
What Plans Look Like
As you'd expect from a free phone program and a deeply discounted service plan, there's not a lot on offer when it comes to plans. Most of the cheapest plans only offer 500 MB or 1 GB of data (at the most), and 250 to 500 nationwide calling minutes. The good news is that most plans offer unlimited texting.
You can pay a bit more for additional data or minutes. If you do, however, you're likely exceeding the Lifeline Assistance program's financial benefit. That means you'll have to pay the difference out of your own pocket.
Additional Perks and Information
One nice perk of Lifeline is that you can use it to help pay for cell phone service that you already have, if you qualify. Rather than change your cell phone and plan entirely, you can keep your current plan and simply use the Lifeline program to subsidize the bill. However, if you qualify for Lifeline, there's a good chance you're already looking for a cheaper cell phone solution anyway.
There are a few limitations to the Lifeline free cell phone program too. You can only have one per household, even if multiple family members would technically qualify. You can also only get Lifeline from a single service provider. All Lifeline services are not able to be transferred over to another person, even if they qualify - they have to apply for themselves.