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One of the best ways to save on mobile service costs is through programs offering free government cellphones and wireless service. Here’s the key knowledge you need on the federal Lifeline assistance program, how to apply for it, where to find mobile service providers that participate in Lifeline (or offer cheap plans) and how to save on cellphones.
What is Lifeline?
The U.S. government understood early on how important it was for all citizens to have access to mobile phone service, which led to the creation of the Lifeline program in 1985. It provides discounted or free mobile phone service to those who qualify based on federal and state-level eligibility criteria.
Lifeline will provide a monthly discount of up to $9.25 on phone service for its eligible subscribers. Qualification is income-based and participants in the program are permitted a discount on either a land-based phone line or wireless phone service, but not both at once.
One of the primary eligibility criteria for participating in Lifeline is you have an income that is at or below 135% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines. Alternatively, participation in certain other federal assistance programs can also grant eligibility for Lifeline. For example, those participating in Medicaid or SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) may be eligible. Consumers can find out if they are eligible by reading the FCC’s Lifeline information.
COVID-19 update on Lifeline services
The COVID-19 pandemic prompted the FCC to make three changes to Lifeline on March 17, 2020.
1. The recertification and reverification requirements of the program were waived for 60 days. That waiver was later extended to August 31, 2020.
2. Lifeline administrators are also prohibited from involuntary de-enrollment under the same waiver.
3. On April 29, 2020, the FCC waived the requirement for consumers to provide three consecutive months of income documentation when applying for Lifeline based on their income.
How to apply for Lifeline
Enrollment in Lifeline is available to any individual who meets the eligibility requirements as set out by federal and state guidelines. Household income is one criteria used. Eligibility can also be gained if the individual or anyone in the household is already a participant in a number of public assistance programs such as:
- SNAP, formerly known as food stamps
- Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
- Federal Public Housing Assistance (FPHA)
- Veterans Pension and Survivors Benefit
- Tribal programs (and live on federally-recognized Tribal lands)
Proof of income or proof of participation in the other public assistance programs may be required. The program only provides one landline or wireless phone account per household. Where there are separate households sharing the same address, each household is eligible. This includes the residents of nursing homes or homeless shelters. Consumers can also have eligibility with a temporary address.
Applying for Lifeline can be accomplished in one of three ways:
1. Apply online at the Lifeline National Verifier website. Note: California, Oregon and Texas do not yet participate in the National Verifier database and consumers in those states cannot apply online.
Lifeline Support Center
P.O. Box 7081
London, KY 40742
3. Contact the phone or internet provider you’d like to use and ask them if they participate in the Lifeline program. If your provider doesn’t offer Lifeline you can use this USAC tool to find providers near you that do participate. Participating providers can help you apply for the Lifeline program.
After you apply, Lifeline will let you know the outcome. When applying online you may receive an automatic approval. In some cases the program may ask for additional information before approving or denying your application.
Providers that participate in Lifeline
There are literally hundreds of nationwide wireless providers who participate in Lifeline. They include major national carriers such as Verizon as well as many smaller regional or discount carriers. You can search for providers near you on the USAC website that operates the National Verifier database created by the FCC.
Be aware: the USAC search results may not be comprehensive. It is possible a company offers the Lifeline program even if it doesn’t show up on this search list. If you are interested in a specific provider, contact them directly and ask if they offer Lifeline assistance.
Cheap alternatives to free government cellphones
Not everyone will qualify for the Lifeline program, but fortunately there are a number of low-cost prepaid carriers offering cellphone service and cellular devices at extremely cheap prices. Here are just a few:
Ting – Offers 100 minutes, 100 text messages and 100 megabytes of data for just $15/mo.
Gen Mobile – Offers 300 minutes and 1GB data for just $10/mo. Other plans available with varying amounts of talk, text and data starting at just $5/mo.
Republic Wireless – Unlimited minutes and text messages, plus 1GB of data for $20/mo. Only available for Android devices.
Twigby – Offers a variety of plans starting with 300 minutes of talk and unlimited texts for just $6.75/mo. Those who need some data can get a plan with 3GB of data plus unlimited talk and text for just $15/mo.
Note that cheap plans don’t mean poor service. All these providers use the networks of the four major providers (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon).
Here are some other ways to save on the cellphones themselves:
Before you go shopping for a cellphone know exactly what you want and what you’re willing to pay. Then stick to that budget.
Go with a device that acts like a smartphone, but without all the bells and whistles and associated expensive data plans. You can easily save $20-$30 (or more) by avoiding data packages.
Don’t fall in love with the newest phones. New models are almost always priced higher in the early days of their release.
Buy through discounted online channels rather than at the mobile provider’s store.
Trade-in or sell an old phone. Wireless carriers will typically provide a discount on a new phone when you trade in an old one. Or sell your phone directly through eBay or some similar service to potentially get more than you would from a trade-in program.
The best way to save on a new cellphone? Skip it entirely and stick with the device you already have.
For even more details on free and cheap cellphones, stay connected to our Resource Center.
By Steven Walters
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