Free Phones and Phone Service for Low-Income Families

Most of us can't imagine functioning without a cell phone. We take it for granted that we can stay in touch with family members and co-workers and access emergency services with the tap of a finger. But for low-income families, cell phones and cell service are often out of reach due to their high cost.

There's a government program called Lifeline Assistance that partners with several of the major wireless companies to provide qualifying families with free phones and free service.

Currently, you can get a free government cell phone in close to 40 states; the program is being introduced in new states at a rapid pace. If you currently reside in a state where free cell phones are not currently available, you can still qualify for a free landline.

Who Qualifies

In general, families who already receive government assistance, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), are eligible. You also may qualify if you earn less than 135 percent of the federal poverty guidelines for your state. Families whose children receive free or reduced lunch through the federal government may also be eligible.

The first step in determining your eligibility for free government cell phones is to determine if there is a wireless service provider in your state that is taking part in the Lifeline Assistance program. Three of the large national carriers have service in close to 36 states and a number of regional companies that provide Lifeline Assistance service to one or more states.

If you qualify for a free cell phone, you will not be charged connection fees, have to sign an annual contract, make a deposit, or pay monthly service fees—but you must comply with the annual certification requirement for ongoing service.

Here are the details about the four major companies that partner with Lifeline to provide free phones, accrue free monthly minutes, and/or establish a landline at a reduced rate. 

Safelink Wireless

cell phone on table next to newspaper

Klaus Vedfelt/DigitalVision/Getty Images

Safelink Wireless is America’s largest and oldest free government cell phone carrier, providing cell service to over 4 million customers in 31 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. The company offers a free cell phone and up to 350 free local and domestic long distance minutes (for the first three months get 500 free minutes) and unlimited text messages every month to eligible applicants.

Currently, Safelink Wireless offers free cell phones in Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Connecticut, DC, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

Assurance Wireless

Assurance Wireless is the second largest provider of free cell service in the country, overseen by Virgin Mobile. Assurance provides participants with a free cell phone (usually an Android, depending on availability), up to 500 monthly minutes, and unlimited texting.

Signing up for Assurance Wireless is pretty painless. If you’re on a program like Medicaid or SNAP and can provide proof, you'll be approved quickly.

If you’re not on those programs, you’ll need to show that your income is low enough, according to your state’s poverty level guidelines.

Assurance currently operates in Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Reachout Wireless

Reachout Wireless is the third largest free government cell phone carrier, serving Arkansas, California, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, Ohio, Rhode Island, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Reachout Wireless’ cell phone plans are comparable to the plans offered by Assurance Wireless and Safelink. Reachout also offers a free cell phone and either 125 free cell phone minutes that roll over every month or 250 free cell phone minutes per month that do not roll over. Reachout users also enjoy the following features: 3-way calling, call forwarding, caller ID, call waiting, international long distance (added charge), select text messaging, and voicemail.

Budget Wireless

Budget Wireless offers a number of flexible plans which are ideal for customers with different financial situations. Their basic free plan includes 250 minutes of voice time plus 250 text messages per month. If you are willing to pay money, you can receive additional minutes and text messages for increments of $5.

Additionally, Budget Mobile offers a number of prepaid plans which are also available in increments of $5. These plans do not offer as many minutes and text messages for the same amount of money, but the prepaid plans may be convenient for some customers. There are no contracts or fees for any of the company’s plans, and there is nationwide coverage, even though the program is not available in every state. Voicemail, call waiting, and caller ID are all included as well.

Budget currently serves Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

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