How to Get a Cheap or Free Cell Phone

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If you're short on cash, you can still get a cell phone – the federal government is throwing you a Lifeline. Read on for details...

While it may have dipped, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says the unemployment rate for August was still above 8 percent, with 12.5 million workers unemployed. Money is tight for a lot of people right now.

Some financial experts will tell you to cut out anything that isn’t a roof over your head or food on your table. And while I agree to some extent – food comes before designer jeans – I think life is a bit more complicated than that. We need other things to survive. Like a cell phone.

Job seekers need a phone number for employers to contact them. Elderly and disabled persons need a phone to keep in touch with family and doctors. Single parents need one in case their child has an emergency. A phone isn’t a luxury item when you’re using it for practical purposes.

But what can you do if you can’t afford a phone? Step one is to see if you qualify for discounted service through the federal government’s Lifeline program.

Check out the following 2009 TV news story from Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson – more details on the other side…

How it works

Managed by the Federal Communications Commission, the Lifeline program offers discounted wireless service for low-income individuals, the elderly, and the disabled who meet certain criteria. Funding for the program comes from the “Universal Service Fee” (also called the “Universal Connectivity Fee”) tacked onto every wireless subscriber’s bill.

The program has two main options.

The first: You can get a free or discounted basic phone with 250 free minutes each month through a regional provider. Check out the full program details and available options here:

Under these plans, you can also add more minutes or text messages for a fee. For example, Assurance Wireless has an unlimited talk, text, and Web plan for $30 a month. ReachOut Mobile offers an unlimited talk and text plan for $26.50 a month.

Your second option: Sign up for a special Lifeline program plan through a major national wireless provider like:

  • T-Mobile‘s InReach plan comes with unlimited talk, text, and Web for $40 a month with no annual contract for qualified Lifeline program customers. Customers must purchase a cell phone or use their own. Prices vary from $49.99 to $299.99.
  • Verizon Wireless’ plan includes 400 anytime minutes and 1,000 mobile-to-mobile minutes (for calling other Verizon Wireless customers) for $33.99.
  • AT&T told us they offer 300 anytime minutes and 1,000 night and weekend minutes for $15.74 a month under the Lifeline program. Users must have a GSM handset, but discounts are available.
  • Sprint‘s Lifeline program includes 200 anytime minutes and unlimited night and weekend minutes for $16.49 per month. However, customers must sign a new two-year contract and may be charged a service deposit based on their credit history.

Generally, you can sign up with any provider if you qualify for the Lifeline program, but you may face some restrictions. For example, an AT&T representative told us that AT&T doesn’t offer Lifeline program coverage in every state and only offers the program for their existing customers. So call the provider to make sure you can get service (ironic, huh?) before filling out an application.


The FCC says to qualify for the program, your income level must be at or below 135 percent of the federal Poverty Guidelines, or you must participate in certain assistance programs.

The federal Poverty Guidelines are based on family size and set by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The limits for 2012 are:

  • 1-person household – $11,170
  • 2-person household –  $15,130
  • 3-person household – $19,090
  • 4-person household – $23,050
  • 5-person household – $27,010
  • 6-person household – $30,970
  • 7-person household – $34,930
  • 8-person household – $38,890

The FCC says you’re also eligible for the Lifeline program if you’re enrolled in any of these programs:

If you’re not sure if you qualify, use the Lifeline Eligibility Pre-Screening Tool offered by the Universal Service Administrative Company.

How to sign up

To sign up, you’ll need proof of your eligibility. For example, if you’re enrolled in the SNAP program, you’ll need a copy of your benefit awards letter. Once you have that documentation, you’ll have to apply through the service provider, either online or through the mail. Here are the application links:

After applying, the provider will contact you to finish setting up your service.

Are you using the Lifeline program? Sound off on our Facebook page and tell us what you love (or hate) about your wireless service.

Stacy Johnson

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Read Next: Ask Stacy: What’s the Best Way to Borrow?

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