If you’ve wanted a cell phone but couldn’t afford one, the federal government may be able to help. Thanks to the Lifeline Assistance program, everyone who needs a telephone for emergencies can get one. Back in the day, that meant a landline, but since 1996, the subsidy has been available to wireless providers. This is no scam or bait to get you on the hook for extra charges. Lifeline Assistance is paid for by the federal Universal Service Fund, a fee applied to all telephone bills.
Companies like SafeLink Wireless and Assurance Wireless apply the Universal Service Fund subsidy to an allotment of free airtime minutes and provide the wireless handset at the company’s expense. Instead of receiving a subsidized monthly telephone bill for Lifeline service, SafeLink converts the total amount of discounted service into minutes each month for one year. Typically the cell phones you get offer in-demand features: voicemail, text, three-way calling, call waiting, caller ID and access to 911.
These free phones are only available to those who qualify based on household income and/or people on Medicaid, food stamps (SNAP) or certain other public assistance programs. Every state has its own additional requirements, which you can find on the company’s websites. (Usually you just search by zip code). While there are two major providers, neither covers every state, so you will have to check first to see the coverage area.
Eligible households can get a free cell phone that includes 250 free voice minutes and 250 free texts each month from Assurance Wireless. There’s no annual contract and the phone also includes call waiting, caller ID, voicemail and access to 911 service. For $5 each month you can opt for 250 additional minutes and 250 texts monthly. Assurance Wireless is part of Virgin Mobile USA and uses the Sprint network. To request an application, call 888-898-4888 (Monday to Sunday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.) or visit Assurance Wireless.
The other company offering free phones and minutes is SafeLink Wireless. It is in 39 states and the District of Columbia and provides 250 minutes a month for local and national calls and up to 1,000 texts monthly. SafeLink is a subsidiary of TracFone. Contact the company at 800-723-3546 (Monday to Saturday 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. EST and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. EST) or visit SafeLink Wireless.
Other small providers, usually covering specific states or regions, can be found by doing an online search for “Lifeline Cell Phone Providers.” Some plans may offer a free phone and minutes, while others simply offer a subsidy of about $10 per month off your phone bill.