How to Get a Cheap or Free Cell Phone

Photo (cc) by compujeramey

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.

Qualifications

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.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

Read Next
Why Half of Retirees Now Owe Taxes on Social Security
Why Half of Retirees Now Owe Taxes on Social Security

Growing numbers of seniors are paying taxes on their Social Security benefits, but you might be able to avoid this fate.

How to Fix 6 Common Retirement Mistakes
How to Fix 6 Common Retirement Mistakes

Here’s how to strengthen your nest egg before or even during your golden years so these missteps don’t ruin your retirement.

Never Put These 8 Things in a Microwave Oven
Never Put These 8 Things in a Microwave Oven

A microwave can be a busy cook’s best friend. But heating certain things in a microwave can cause disaster.

The 9 Best Home Insurers for Customer Satisfaction
The 9 Best Home Insurers for Customer Satisfaction

These are the only homeowners insurance companies to earn above-average scores for customer satisfaction.

5 Keys to Making Your Car Last for 200,000 Miles
5 Keys to Making Your Car Last for 200,000 Miles

Pushing your car to 200,000 miles — and beyond — can save you piles of cash. Here’s how to get there.

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Most Popular
11 Things Retirees Should Always Buy at Costco
11 Things Retirees Should Always Buy at Costco

This leader in bulk shopping is a great place to find discounts in the fixed-income years.

Over 50? The CDC Says You Need These 4 Vaccines
Over 50? The CDC Says You Need These 4 Vaccines

Fall is the time to schedule vaccines that can keep you healthy — and even save your life.

9 Things You’ll Never See at Costco Again
9 Things You’ll Never See at Costco Again

The warehouse store offers an enormous selection, but these products aren’t coming back.

11 Senior Discounts for Anyone Age 55 or Older
11 Senior Discounts for Anyone Age 55 or Older

There is no need to wait until you’re 65 to take advantage of so-called “senior” discounts.

8 Things You Can Get for Free at Pharmacies
8 Things You Can Get for Free at Pharmacies

In this age of higher-priced drugs and complex health care systems, a trip to the pharmacy can spark worry. Freebies sure do help.

These Are the 4 Best Medicare Advantage Plans for 2020
These Are the 4 Best Medicare Advantage Plans for 2020

Medicare Advantage customers themselves rate these plans highest.

The 10 Most Commonly Stolen Vehicles in America
The 10 Most Commonly Stolen Vehicles in America

A new model parks atop the list of vehicles that thieves love to pilfer.

7 Ways to Boost Your Credit Score Fast
7 Ways to Boost Your Credit Score Fast

Your financial security might soon depend upon the strength of your credit score.

9 Deep Discounts Available on Amazon This Friday
9 Deep Discounts Available on Amazon This Friday

These items are all steeply discounted — but the deals won’t last long.

19 High-Paying Jobs You Can Get With a 2-Year Degree
19 High-Paying Jobs You Can Get With a 2-Year Degree

These jobs pay more than the typical job in the U.S. — and no bachelor’s degree is required.

10 Reasons Why You Should Actually Retire at 62
10 Reasons Why You Should Actually Retire at 62

If you can, here are several good reasons to retire earlier than we’re told to.

5 Ways to Get Amazon Prime for Free
5 Ways to Get Amazon Prime for Free

Hesitant to drop $119 a year on an Amazon Prime membership? Here’s how to get it for free.

3 Ways to Get Microsoft Office for Free
3 Ways to Get Microsoft Office for Free

With a little ingenuity, you can cut Office costs to zero.

14 Things That Are ‘Free’ With Medicare
14 Things That Are ‘Free’ With Medicare

These services could save you money and help prevent costly health problems.

15 Products You Need — Even If You Didn’t Know It
15 Products You Need — Even If You Didn’t Know It

Discover some must-have products on Amazon that you didn’t even know you were missing.

Do This in the Car If You Want to Avoid COVID-19
Do This in the Car If You Want to Avoid COVID-19

It takes just seconds to take this simple preventive measure.

26 States That Do Not Tax Social Security Income
26 States That Do Not Tax Social Security Income

These states won’t tax any of your Social Security income — and in some cases, other types of retirement income.

5 Things That Make Life More Meaningful for Retirees
5 Things That Make Life More Meaningful for Retirees

Retirees agree: These are the things that give them purpose and fulfillment in their golden years.

10 Things You Should Never Do With Bleach
10 Things You Should Never Do With Bleach

Does the pandemic have you reaching for bleach more than ever before? Learn the ins and outs of using this powerful disinfectant.

View More Articles

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Add a Comment

Our Policy: We welcome relevant and respectful comments in order to foster healthy and informative discussions. All other comments may be removed. Comments with links are automatically held for moderation.