Why Does the Government Give Away Free Cell Phones?
This information is current as of June 20, 2022.
You’ve either heard about these free government cell phones or are finding out they exist. It may be surprising to learn that something that isn’t cheap may be available for free. Why does the government give free cell phones?
The U.S. government created programs like Lifeline to help connect low-income Americans with phone service. They partnered with many phone companies and offered to pay them directly for any customers who qualify for Lifeline.
These companies are guaranteed to be reimbursed by the government, which is why many offer a free phone for new Lifeline customers.
Please keep reading to learn more about where this free phone program came from, who can take advantage of it, and how it works.
The Purpose of Free Government Cell Phones
Since 1985, federal programs like Lifeline have been around to help connect Americans in all kinds of economic situations. The purpose of these free government cell phones is to make phone service affordable, encourage equality in communication, and generally aid from the government to the people.
The average cell phone plan in the U.S. costs around $100 per month. Add in the cost of an actual cell phone, and you could be spending anywhere from a few hundred to a thousand dollars. Now take into account that more than 37 million Americans live in poverty, which means they make only a little over $1,000 per month.
We also can’t forget the havoc that COVID-19 wrecked on homes across the U.S. – just AT&T and Verizon said that over 600,000 of their customers stopped paying their phone bills during this time.
With such low salaries and such high phone bills, these numbers don’t make sense for many Americans. Luckily, the U.S. government knows how essential cell phones are, so they created federally subsidized programs like Lifeline. It can help cover a large portion of or even the entire monthly phone bill for eligible customers.
If you don’t have a cell phone, you can’t do things like contact employers, call for help during an emergency, or stay in touch with family members. Since this situation mainly impacts low-income families and individuals, the government knew something had to happen to help level the playing field.
Giving out free government phones allows everyone an equal chance to access the daily resources and individuals we need to work, connect, and live.
Lifeline works hand in hand with many other assistance programs. If you participate in SNAP, you are automatically qualified for Lifeline. The U.S. government knows that one set of criteria should make you eligible for more than one resource, so they make it easy to access phone assistance alongside others, like food and housing assistance.
The History of Free Government Cell Phones
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is the umbrella program supervising all free-phone programs. The FCC regulates communication in the U.S. and internationally through satellites, wire, T.V., cable, and radio.
In 1984, the FCC established the Lifeline program, the same program we use today (give or take a few changes). Initially, the FCC worked with state and local governments to provide low-income homes with landlines.
In 1987, the FCC created Link-Up America. While Lifeline paid a portion of the monthly phone service, Link-Up America paid for their landline service’s installation and connection fees.
By 1996, the Universal Service Fund began and required all phone companies to contribute. This fund helps cover programs like Lifeline and how companies offer free phones to Lifeline customers.
By 2005, Lifeline benefits were available for cell phones in addition to landlines. That year, some providers started offering free government cell phones with Lifeline service.
In 2012, there were many reforms to stop fraudulent Lifeline use. These reforms seemed to work, as Lifeline saved over $200 million by the end of the year. At this time, Lifeline permitted one plan per household.
A few years ago, Obama expanded these services, causing some free government phones to earn the nickname “Obama phones.” You may still hear this expression today, but it refers to any free government phone you get as a Lifeline customer from a regular phone provider.
Now, almost forty years after its initial creation, Lifeline continues to help thousands of Americans get free cell phones and cell phone service every month. The current Lifeline benefit is $9.25 per month or up to $34.25 per month for those living on Tribal lands.
Who Can Get a Free Government Cell Phone?
Lifeline participants can include older adults (65+), young adults, Native Americans, or disabled adults. The thing all participants have in common is their limited budget.
We already mentioned that free government cell phones are for low-income Americans, but what counts as “low-income?” There are two ways to show you are low-income to receive your free government phone: through your income or by participating in another government program.
You can use the National Verifier application system to see if you qualify.
Qualifying Through Income
Your household should make 135% or less of the federal poverty guidelines yearly to qualify for Lifeline. A household includes everyone who lives in the same residence and shares bills, including your children, spouse, and any dependents you have.
You can calculate this maximum amount by multiplying the federal guidelines for your household by 1.35.
For example, the federal poverty guideline for one person in 2022 is $13,590.
13,590 X 1.35 = 18,346.50
So, you must make $18,346.50 or less per year to qualify for Lifeline if you live alone.
To prove your income when applying for Lifeline, you’ll need to show a tax return, three consecutive pay stubs, or similar documentation.
Qualifying Through Other Government Programs
Because almost all government programs have specific income requirements for participants, you may automatically qualify for Lifeline if you already participate in another government assistance program.
Acceptable programs include:
- The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP)
- Federal Public Housing Assistance (FPHA)
- Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
- Veterans and Survivors Pension Benefit
There are also acceptable Tribal assistance programs:
- Bureau of Indian Affairs General Assistance
- Head Start (you must also meet the income requirements)
- Tribal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (Tribal TANF)
- Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations
You’ll need to show a benefits letter or other official document when you apply for Lifeline to prove that you participate in one of these programs.
How Can I Get a Free Government Cell Phone?
If you think you qualify for Lifeline, you can get your free government cell phone in three easy steps.
First, you’ll need to apply for Lifeline through the official website or a phone company. If you apply through the official website, you’ll choose your phone company in the second step. Finally, you’ll set up your Lifeline services with your preferred company.
1. Apply for Lifeline
Residents in all states except California, Oregon, or Texas can apply for Lifeline online, via mail, or through a phone/internet company. If you live in one of those three states, you’ll need to visit your state’s Lifeline website for information on how to apply.
Applying online is the fastest and easiest method. You’ll need to log in or create a new account on the official website. Then, follow the prompts to apply. Be sure to have the following information handy:
- Full name
- Date of birth
- Last four digits of your Social Security Number or Tribal Identification Number
- Home address
Lifeline Support Center
P.O. Box 7081
London, KY 40742
If you need help with your application due to a disability, call the Lifeline Support Center at 800-234-9473.
2. Find a Free Phone Provider
Alternatively, you can apply for Lifeline directly through a phone company. It’s up to you whether you want to choose your company before or after applying. Be sure to find a phone company that offers a free cell phone for Lifetime subscribers – not all of them do.
Some of the popular providers that work with Lifeline and give away free phones include:
- StandUp Wireless
- AirTalk Wireless
- Assurance Wireless
- EnTouch Wireless
- Safety Net Wireless
- SafeLink Wireless
- American Assistance
If you prefer to apply for Lifeline directly through the company, most have a link to do so on their official website. You could also call the company’s customer service line to see if you can apply over the phone. However, you will need to submit your supporting documentation via mail or online.
3. Sign Up!
Now that you’ve chosen your company, it’s time to sign up and enjoy! Once Lifeline phone benefits are connected to your phone company of choice, Lifeline will pay them automatically each month.
Remember that Lifeline will only cover up to $9.25 of your bill, so double-check the prices offered by competing companies. You will be responsible for the difference if your bill is more than the Lifeline credit.
Many companies also require you to sign a contract with them for a set amount of time to receive your free phone – be sure to read all the fine print.
Types of Free Government Cell Phones
Depending on the company you select, your type of Lifeline phone can vary. Most are smartphones with all the bells and whistles you need.
We’ve seen the following phone brands offered for free from different providers:
- And more!
Do the Free Phones Come With Service?
In almost all cases, you can only get your free phone if you contract service through the same company. Most companies will want you to sign a contract or stay with them for at least a few months if they give you a free phone.
The free phone and service are parts of the Lifeline program, so once you’re accepted, you will have access to both. After all, what good is a new phone if you can’t call anyone with it?
Companies that work with Lifeline will offer simple phone plans for talk and text and additional data if you need it. Many can also bundle your phone with internet service. Don’t forget to get your internet covered through the ACP program.
Speak with companies in your area to see which offer is best for you.
Are Government Phones Tracked?
Tricky question. However, all phones have a chance of being tracked. If someone puts spyware or a secret tracking app on your phone, they could illegally monitor your calls, texts, and activity.
Larger-scale, legal monitoring is also happening daily through the apps we download. Most of the time, we permit these apps to track our use without even knowing it. These are the “Terms and Conditions” you usually accept without reading when downloading a new app.
We devoted a whole post to “Are Government Phones Monitored?” We recommend giving it a quick read if you want to learn how to keep your phone and information as private as possible.
Free government cell phones are available to those who qualify for the Lifetime assistance program. Most low-income Americans making 135% of the federal poverty guidelines or less are eligible for this service. You also qualify if you already participate in another government assistance program like SNAP or SSI.
Lifeline helps Americans connect with friends, family, businesses, and employers. Please take advantage of Lifeline today and apply directly through our homepage to receive your free phone!
Save Money on Your Wireless Phone Service
If you qualify for SNAP, you may also be eligible for Lifeline or the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). Both Lifeline and ACP are government-run programs designed to help low-income consumers receive free or heavily discounted communication services.
Click here to find out more and apply for this valuable benefit.