The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) offers the Lifeline program as a way to help low-income consumers afford cell phones and other communication services.
Although most programs are not entirely free, Lifeline subscribers can obtain a significant discount on phone service from participating providers.
In addition, Lifeline offers internet access and bundled voice/broadband packages.
Discounted phone service can be applied to landline (wireline) service or wireless service. However, the benefit is limited to one line per qualifying household.
Continue reading to learn more about how to qualify for Lifeline services, how to maintain your benefit and what state programs can help you stay connected.
Learn About the FCC’s Government Phone Assistance Program
The FCC’s Lifeline program is the primary way to obtain assistance in paying for cell phone, internet or landline service. Currently, low-income program subscribers receive a bill with a $9.25 discount per month for a wireline or wireless service.
Subscribers can also choose from broadband or broadband-voice service bundles but must choose just one option for their entire household. This discount program is available in every state, territory and commonwealth.
In addition, there is a Tribal assistance program for those living on Tribal lands. Service is provided through participating phone service providers, including AT&T and T-Mobile. Providers will vary by location and not all phone companies participate in Lifeline.
If you also need assistance in obtaining a cell phone, Virgin Mobile’s Assurance Wireless service is one such provider. Virgin’s program can offer the following benefits is you are a qualifying Lifeline subscriber:
- A free Android smartphone
- Unlimited texts each month
- Nationwide coverage
- A minimum of 350 free voice minutes each month
- 2GB free data each month
- Free voicemail, caller ID and call waiting
- Keep your current phone number
Find Out About Requirements for Cell Phone Assistance
The easiest way to find out if you qualify for Lifeline services is to visit the Eligibility Pre-Screening page offered online. It provides details on each of the following categories of eligibility.
What are the income requirements?
If your household income is 135 percent of the federal poverty line or less then you could qualify for free or discounted phone service. The federal government posts up-to-date poverty guidelines each year that are set according to the number household members and where you live.
Note that the poverty guidelines are higher for Alaska and Hawaii than for the lower 48 states and the District of Columbia. To qualify based on income, you must provide proof of income as described in the “How to Apply” section below.
How to Participate in SNAP, Medicaid or Other Programs
If anyone who makes up your household is already enrolled in one or more federal assistance programs, you can usually receive Lifeline benefits. These programs include:
- Food stamps.
- Section 8 or public housing.
- Veterans Pension and Survivors Benefit.
Can you qualify if you have a tribal affiliation?
Residents of federally recognized Tribal lands can qualify for Lifeline if they or anyone in their household participates in the federal assistance programs listed above.
In addition, you may apply for Lifeline if you participate in any of these programs:
- Bureau of Indian Affairs General Assistance
- Head Start (if your household meets the income qualifying standard)
- Tribal TANF
- Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations
Tribal participants may also qualify for Lifeline Link Up benefits, which provide discounts on landline installation services or wireless activation charges.
How to Apply for a Lifeline Government Phone Discount
Once you have determined Lifeline eligibility, follow these steps to apply for assistance.
- Find a company that partners with Lifeline in your state.
- Ask the company for a Lifeline application. You will need to provide your legal name, date of birth, address, Social Security number (SSN) or Tribal Identification number.
- Provide a proof of identity document, such as an unexpired driver’s license, Social Security card, Medicaid card or tax return.
- Submit any other information requested by the service provider.
Note that you may be required to apply through your state agency instead of through the phone company.
All Lifeline applicants must provide proof of gross annual income by showing one of the following items:
- The prior year’s tax return
- Current pay stub or employer income statement form
- Social Security statement
- Unemployment or Workers’ Comp statement
- Federal or Tribal notice letter of participation in General Assistance
- Child support award, divorce decree or other official document stating income information
Note: If you choose to use a document that does not include an entire year, then you must show at least three consecutive months of one year to prove income.
How to Keep Your Affordable Cell Phone Service
Although receiving Lifeline benefits is a great way to obtain affordable phone service, you must do certain things to keep your coverage. If you move, you must notify your Lifeline service provider within 30 days.
If your financial situation improves and you no longer qualify for Lifeline, you must contact your provider immediately to disenroll from the program. In addition, you must recertify eligibility every year to remain enrolled in the program.
If you qualified for free Lifeline benefits, you must use your service 60 days in order to maintain your benefit. If you received a free cell phone through Assurance Wireless, you must use your phone at least once every 30 days to keep your service. Texts and calls can count toward this limit.
Find Out About Other Support for Affordable Communication
Although Lifeline is the primary form of federal phone assistance, many states offer a telephone assistance plan (TAP) for qualifying residents. For example, Minnesota’s TAP program provides low-income state residents with a landline for $7 per month. The program also loans equipment at no charge to state residents who have hearing loss, speech or mobility impairments.
To find out which TAP programs are offered in your state, contact your nearest Department of Human Services office or the Public Utilities Commission. If you receive other benefits, such as SSI or Section 8 Housing Assistance, your caseworker can provide information about your state’s phone assistance programs.